“And about the middle of the afternoon Jesus shouted out in a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? –which means, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” (Matt. 27:46).
I can’t think of too many biblical passages that are more important and more misinterpreted than the oft-described “cry of dereliction.” So much has been written from so many angles that I’ll spare readers another opinion (for today). The modest purpose of this post is simply to gather some of the key biblical data one should take into account when trying to create theologies from a painful scream.
Matt. 27:46 is one of Christ’s seven sayings from Cross. Traditionally, they are ordered as:
- Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing
- Today you will be with me in paradise
- Behold your son: behold your mother
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
- I thirst
- It is finished
- Father, into your hands I commend my spirit
Matt. 27:46 (“My God, my God…”) is a recitation of Ps. 22:1, the first verse of a Messianic Psalm. To understand how Christ is interpreting his experience it is necessary to read the full Psalm. Psalm 22 provides the context for how Christ is using the verse.
Ps. 22:1 begins a poetic cry that goes on to include the torments of the crucified one, including “I am a worm and not a man” (vs. 6). Here, in an act of co-suffering solidarity, Christ unites himself to all those who’ve despaired of rescue and internalized their abandonment when the presence of Abba cannot be seen, heard or felt in our spiritual senses.
Is the cry ontologically true? That is, is Christ saying he is literally a God-forsaken worm? Is the cry an accusation of the Father in reality–that Abba really has abandoned, turned from or worse–turned on–his own son? No. We know this cannot be what he meant because in Ps 22:25, we read the Messianic testimony of his God’s faithfulness:
“He has not spurned nor despised the affliction of the lowly, and has not hidden his face from him; when he cried out to Him, He heard.”
Notice: the Messiah of Psalm 22 (with whom Christ identifies on the Cross) describes Ps. 22:1 as a “cry for help,” notmerely despair or dereliction. He proclaims that God has not despised his afflicted one–God has not turned his facefrom him. He tells us that Abba heard his prayer and answered.
Another of Christ’s sayings is drawn from a Messianic Psalm. The “cry of trust”—“Father, in your hand I commend my spirit” comes from Psalm 31:5. That Psalm also reflects on the “cry of help” that God hears:
In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help
Thus, both Psalm 22 and Psalm 31 describe the “cry of help,” not in terms of despair for actual God-forsakenness. Both Psalms treat the “Eli, Eli…” as a desperate cry for help that God hears and answers.
This is exactly how the book of Hebrews sees it–perhaps reflecting on both Christ’s prayers in Gethsemane and on Golgotha as one piece:
“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7).
In every case, the cries of Christ are not declarations that he believes God has actually left him, but cries for help to a God who he knows is there but cannot hear, see or sense him. I’ll repeat that: Christ did not sense his Abba but he knows his Abba. And what he knows is that his Abba never leaves him. How do we know this? We’ll give Jesus the last word: listen to the faith behind his cry. Listen to what he declares on the night he was arrested:
“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” (Jn. 16:32).