Part 2 of 9
My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
BY HERB MONTGOMERY
And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Mark 15.34
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema
sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Matthew 27.46
No saying of Jesus in any of the Gospels has produced more controversy than this one.
Rather than debating whether Jesus truly felt forsaken or not, I believe we need to ask ourselves why Mark (and Matthew) would include this while later gospels would not.
Mark wants us to embrace Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, the son of man of the Jewish restorative hope . Remember that in Mark’s gospel, the title “son of God” did not mean “second member of the Godhead.” Rather, this was the return of a king to Israel. King David was Israel’s original “son of God.” To call Jesus by this title was to make the connection between Jesus and kingship! This is the one that would liberate Israel from her oppressors and put all injustice, oppression, and violence to right. (Rome also referred to some of the Caesars as the “son of God.” Some of the early followers of Jesus in Acts would subversively call Jesus the “son of God” in this context as an act of noncooperation with Rome, but this would come later.)
Early in the telling of the Jesus story, one of the chief objections to the claim that Jesus was the king, the son of God, the Messiah, was that Jesus was actually crucified by the oppressors, the Romans.
Within Judaism in the first century, for would-be messiahs to end up on Roman crosses meant that their claims to messiahship were false. They had failed! We see from the early letters attributed to Paul that being put on a Roman cross in first-century Judaism was also equated with Deuteronomy’s mention of being “put on a tree.”  (However, this would have been a contemporary application, as Deuteronomy was referring to a very different practice than crucifixion.) This would have been the argument: Jesus could not have been the Messiah. He could not have been another “David,” another “son of God,”  a new “king.” Rome had defeated him, executing him in the fashion in which Rome executed all political threats, and Jesus had died in a fashion that, according to the Hebrew scriptures, clearly reveals this would-be messiah to also be “cursed of God.” Jesus was a false messiah and his crucifixion proves this in these two accounts.
Mark addresses this objection head-on (and Matthew follows him in doing so).
How does Mark do this? He reaches back to an experience in which David, the King of Israel himself, also appeared to be forsaken, but discovered this was very much not the case.
The use of Jesus’ crucifixion as proof that Jesus could not have been the Messiah, the return of Israel’s king, must have been a very common objection. The psalm in which David expressed his own wrestling with what seemed to be his apparent forsaking by God was used over and over by first-century followers of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 27, verses 39 & 43, he clearly alludes to David’s God-forsaken psalm:
Matthew 27.39—Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads
Matthew 27.43—[“]He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”
Psalms 22.7-8—All who see me mock at me; they hurl insults at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”
John too, in chapter 19, verse 24 of his Gospel, quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken Psalm:
John 19.24—So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Psalms 22.18—They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote from this section of David’s God-forsaken psalm, in part:
Matthew 27.35—And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;
Mark 15.24—And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
Luke 23.34—And they cast lots to divide his clothing.
Even the author of Hebrews quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken psalm, placing David’s words in the mouth of Jesus:
Hebrews 2.11-12—For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
Psalms 22.22—I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
Lastly, in his Gospel, John correlates David’s God-forsaken psalm with Jesus’ dying words:
John 19.30—When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is accomplished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Psalms 22.31—And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has accomplished it.
All of this shows that it was very common among the early followers of Jesus to use David’s God-forsaken psalm (Psalm 22) to defend the claim that, like David, Jesus was the “son of God,”  Israel’s King, the long-awaited Messiah, the return of the anointed one5, the Christ.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Mark would make use of this psalm, too, in his Gospel. It’s rather ingenious, actually. At first, David appears to be forsaken, but by the end of the psalm he discovers that this was a false conclusion and that it only appeared to be so. David sang that God had not forsaken him, that God had not abandoned him:
Psalms 22.1—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
Psalms 22.22-24—I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you . . . For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has NOT hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (Emphasis added.)
If David, King of Israel, could have gone through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, it looked as if he was forsaken and yet in reality he was not, then also Jesus, King of Israel, could go through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, others might judge that he had been God-forsaken, and yet he not be.
Notice in Mark’s Gospel the way Mark aligns King David’s experience with King Jesus’ experience:
They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.
Mark 15.22-24 (Emphasis added.)
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
Psalms 22.16-18 (Emphasis added.)
It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two insurgents with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also hurled insults on him.
Mark 15.25-32 (Emphasis added.)
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. “He trusts in the LORD,” they say, “let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
Psalms 22.7 (Emphasis added.)
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Mark 15.33-34 (Emphasis added.)
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Psalms 22.1 (Emphasis added.)
Remember that the point is to link Jesus’ experience to David’s. If David could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king, then Jesus too could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but really wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king!
This is why I believe that Psalm 22 was relied upon so heavily by the early Jesus-following community. It was their way of addressing the objection, produced by Jesus’ crucifixion, to their claim that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the return of their king. This is how they could proclaim that although Jesus had been crucified, he was still Lord.
Today, historical and textual critiques argue about whether these words were actually said by Jesus or were supplied apologetically by Mark. Either way, it matters little. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these words are actually original to the historical Jesus. If Jesus had quoted from Psalm 22 on the cross, we must assume that he too would have known the entire psalm, and either used it as a source of comfort, reassuring himself that it only looked as if he was God-forsaken but that he genuinely was not, or he could have been quoting this psalm to answer the derision of those who mocked him, saying that his crucifixion did not disprove his claim to be their King, as David had gone through a similar experience of appearing to be forsaken but not being so. What seems obvious to me is that Jesus could not have genuinely felt forsaken by God while quoting this psalm, because he would have known how it ends:
Psalm 22:24—For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Mark ends his crucifixion narrative with the proclamation of a Roman centurion:
Mark 15:37-39—With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Emphasis added.)
Mark, who from the beginning of his Gospel had centered the Jesus movement in Galilee as opposed to Jerusalem, described the religious leaders in Jerusalem mocking the claim that Jesus was their “king” while this Roman centurion, a gentile, “gets it.” Remember, to a first- century Jew (and also to a Roman, for that matter), the title “son of God” was not a religious title, but a political one. It meant that this one was the king.
Did Jesus actually say these words? There is no way to prove it conclusively.
Did Jesus actually feel forsaken? Whether these words were original to Jesus or were Mark’s narrative device, it is very unlikely either way, given the entirety of Psalm 22, that Jesus said these words as an expression of truly feeling that he was forsaken.
Did the God of the Jesus narrative actually forsake Jesus in this story while Jesus was on the cross? Absolutely not! The narrative element of the resurrection will show that the God of the Jesus story was standing in solidarity with Jesus every step along the way, over and against those who were executing Jesus (we’ll address this in Part 9).
What does this mean for us?
As a theist, have you ever felt forsaken by your God when the established authority stood against you, claiming God was on their side? Don’t trust appearances. Just as the early followers of Jesus were not to trust the way things appeared on the night Jesus was executed, we are not to trust the way things may look for us when we stand up against the religious, economic, or political domination systems of our day. It may appear that you are presently on a cross, presently forsaken by your God, but your God has not abandoned you. Don’t lose the hope and assurance imparted by the resurrection.
- Go back and contemplate the times in your life when you felt as if your God had forsaken you. Allow the Jesus story to rewrite that narrative in your heart. Allow yourself to see yourself as not forsaken, but only appearing to be so. Don’t trust in how things appeared at the time. Choose to believe your God had not abandoned you, but was with you all along the way.
- Journal the paradigm shifts you experience as you go through this exercise.
- Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you wrote down.
We need not fear standing up to injustice, oppression, and violence in our time. We need not fear standing up against the religious, economic, political, or social domination systems of our day. As Jesus’ followers, we stand in the light streaming from the tomb! That light tells us that the domination system of Jesus’ day could not stop him, even on the cross. Jesus is still out there, still recruiting, still calling those who will stand up and follow his lead as he shows us a way to a new world, whispering . . . “follow me.”
Until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world.
I love each of you.
I’ll see you next week.