by Al Maxey

Issue #150 ------- September 29, 2004
The great poet is always a seer,
seeing less with the eyes of the body
than he does with the eyes of the mind.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

The Passion Psalm
Pondering the Purpose of Psalm 22:1
Spoken by Christ on the Cross

"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' -- that is, 'My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?'" (Mark 15:34; cf. Matthew 27:46 ... the other two gospel writers, Luke and John, do not mention Jesus speaking these words). About mid-afternoon, just before He "breathed his last," our Lord uttered this brief statement filled with emotion! It is phrased in the form of a question unto God the Father, as if to say, "Why have I been forsaken by You? Why have You turned away from Me?" Many scholars regard this utterance to be a reflection of the ultimate agony of the Son: His awareness of His rejection by the Father.

"Mark records the prayer in its fully Aramaic form, perhaps following an early Palestinian tradition that conformed Jesus' cry to the Targum; Matthew re-Hebraizes the address (changing "Eloi" to "Eli"), either to conform to frequent early synagogue practice of using Hebrew prayers (though this Hebraism had come over into Aramaic; cf. also the use of "Eli" in Qumran's hymns), or to explain how listeners thought they heard 'Elijah'" (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 682-683). Although a few skeptics feel these may be words falsely attributed to Jesus as He hung upon the cross, or merely the product of later tradition or legend, that view really isn't worthy of any serious consideration. "Given subsequent Christian Christology, the early church would hardly have invented Jesus' cry of despair in uttering a complaint about alienation from God" (ibid, p. 682).

"And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, 'This man is calling for Elijah'" (Matthew 27:47; cf. Mark 15:35). Rabbinic tradition, and this thinking would most certainly have been present in the first century, taught that the prophet Elijah (who had never died, and who was thus thought to be "hovering about" looking after all the righteous religious leaders) would periodically, in special cases, come to the rescue of notable rabbis in distress. Thus, some speculate these witnesses to the crucifixion may have believed Jesus was appealing to Elijah to come and bring this special deliverance, or was perhaps wondering why Elijah was not coming to His rescue at this critical time. After all, Elijah was present with Him at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3; Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30-31), but had now seemingly "forsaken" Him at the crucifixion. It is an interesting theory, but not likely the intent of our Lord's cry from the cross.

The cry of the Messiah during His passion was a quote from Psalm 22:1, where David wrote, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" That entire psalm is filled with prophetic statements pertaining to the future passion of the Anointed One of God. David speaks of the sneering and mocking of men (vs. 7). He writes, "They pierced my hands and my feet" (vs. 16) ... "They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots" (vs. 18). There are other allusions to the coming Suffering Servant as well, all of which make it fairly clear that this psalm is aptly placed in the Messianic psalms of David. One would think, therefore, that there would be little controversy surrounding the interpretation of this psalm, or of our Lord's use of the opening phrase as He suffered upon the cross. However, that is not the case. "There is no psalm which has raised so much controversy as this" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 8, p. 151).

The New Covenant writings clearly portray this psalm as Messianic, however. Thus, it is my belief that, although there may be areas of application to the life of David, as well as other biblical figures, it nevertheless is clearly prophetic of the passion of Christ. The apostle John, for example, when describing the soldiers' dividing up the garments of Jesus at the cross, declared this to be in fulfillment of one of the statements in Psalm 22 (John 19:24). Hebrews 2:12 also quotes from this psalm when discussing the mission of the Messiah. And, of course, we have the aforementioned references in Matthew and Mark of the use by Jesus of the first verse from this psalm.

The major controversy associated with this whole event involves what Jesus meant when He uttered those words on the cross. Scholars have engaged in heated debate for a great many centuries over this matter, and the conflict of ideas and interpretations continues even to our own present day. Some even declare the true meaning of the passage to be beyond comprehension. The great Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546) sat in his study for a lengthy period of time, taking neither food nor water, contemplating these words of Jesus on the cross which are taken from Psalm 22:1. He finally rose from his chair and exclaimed in utter amazement, "God forsaken of God! Who can understand that?!" A scholar by the name of Russell Bradley Jones declared that "no man on earth" will ever fully be able "to understand the significance of Jesus' terrible cry" (Gold From Golgotha, p. 48). William Barclay, however, probably has the best attitude when approaching this passage. He said, "This must be the most staggering sentence in the gospel record. This is a saying before which we must bow in reverence, yet at the same time we must try to understand."

There are four major interpretive positions which have been advocated over the centuries, and I shall attempt to briefly, and hopefully fairly, present them in this current issue. I must admit that this is a very difficult exegetical problem, with good, honest, devoted disciples on all sides of this issue, thus, I feel this may well be one of those areas where we would all do well to refrain from being overly dogmatic in the promotion of our own preferences. None of us have arrived at perfect perception, thus "the mystery of the ages" will most likely not be made crystal clear to the peoples of earth by anything I pen in this current issue of Reflections. I will merely seek to present the evidence and offer a few observations. Perhaps this will promote further reflection among us all as we focus our thoughts upon the statement of our Lord as He suffered upon the cross on our behalf.

The Mistranslation Interpretation

It is asserted by some scholars that the statement in question -- "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?!" -- is not a correct translation or rendering of the original. It is believed, by those few who hold to this position, that the concept of being "forsaken" or "abandoned" is completely absent. George Lamsa, in his translation from the Aramaic of the Peshitta, renders Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 this way: "My God, my God, for this I was spared!" His version contains a footnote which clarifies the statement to mean, "This was my destiny." Lamsa believes the text "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani" is incorrect, and that it should read: "Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani." In other words, Jesus Christ is not lamenting the fact that He has been abandoned by the Father, but rather declares this to be His intended destiny, and that God has preserved Him through many previous plots during His earthly ministry so as to bring Him safely to this moment of ultimate sacrifice.

The late George Lamsa's translation of this statement by Jesus Christ as being a declaration of His intended destiny, and God's providence in keeping Him alive unto that predetermined end, stands virtually alone among translations. One will hardly find any reputable scholars who agree with his perspective that this was a textual or translational error. Lamsa did indeed spot the age-old problem -- wondering how Christ could truly be abandoned by God at the cross -- but his proposed solution, which involves "correcting" the original text, is largely rejected by biblical scholarship.

The Separation Interpretation

The interpretation with which most readers will most likely be familiar is the one that portrays our Lord's statement as an anguished cry of a dying man, one who feels totally abandoned by God. Indeed, this interpretation suggests Jesus WAS abandoned by God, and the reason for that abandonment was that God is too holy to look upon sin, which Jesus had become on our behalf. Thus, God had forsaken His Son on the cross. Habakkuk 1:13 is often cited as partial justification for this perspective -- "Thine eyes are too pure to look at evil, and Thou canst not look upon iniquity." Thus, it is believed that when Jesus took on the sins of the world, and atoned for them through His sacrifice upon the cross, God was unable, because of His holiness, to "look upon" such an abundance of iniquity. Therefore, He turned away from this scene occurring at Golgotha.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary declares it is best if we "take the words at face value: Jesus is conscious of being abandoned by His Father. For one who knew the intimacy of Matthew 11:27, such abandonment must have been agony" (vol. 8, p. 579). This commentary states it is "inadequate to hypothesize that Jesus felt abandoned but was not truly abandoned" (ibid). In other words, this was not just the perception of a suffering man; this was the actual reality. He had been abandoned by the Father! The purpose was to show the holiness of God and the horridness of sin. "In this cry of dereliction, the horror of the world's sin and the cost of our salvation are revealed" (ibid).

"During those three black hours Jesus was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), was made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), and thus God turned completely away from Him. ... With His dying powers He cries to God and now no longer sees in Him the Father, for a wall of separation has risen between the Father and the Son, namely the world's sin and its curse as they now lie upon the Son. Jesus thirsts for God, but God has removed Himself. ... What is involved in the fact that God forsook or abandoned Jesus during those three awful hours no man can really know. The nearest we can hope to come toward penetrating this mystery is to think of Jesus as being covered with the world's sin and curse and that, when God saw Jesus thus, He turned away from Him. ... All that we are able to say is that only thus, by actually forsaking Jesus, could the full price of our redemption be paid. To be forsaken of God is undoubtedly to taste His wrath. Jesus endured the full penalty for our sins when God turned from Him" (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 1119-1120).

The great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), in his comments on our Lord's passion, remarked, "At this moment physical weakness was united with acute mental torture from the shame and ignominy through which He had to pass; and to make His grief culminate with emphasis, He suffered spiritual agony surpassing all expression, resulting from the departure of His Father's presence. This was the black midnight of His horror; then it was that He descended the abyss of suffering. No man can enter into the full meaning of these words. Some of us think at times that we could cry, 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?' There are seasons when the brightness of our Father's smile is eclipsed by clouds and darkness; but let us remember that God never does really forsake us. It is only a seeming forsaking with us, but in Christ's case it was a real forsaking. We grieve at a little withdrawal of our Father's love; but the real turning away of God's face from His Son, who shall calculate how deep the agony which it caused Him?"

The noted biblical and Greek scholar Warren Wiersbe said, "Psalm 22:3 emphasizes the holiness of God. How could a holy God look with favor on His Son who had become sin?" In a study of our Lord's death found on the web site of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, we read, "It is possible that at some moment on the cross, when Jesus became sin on our behalf, that God the Father, in a sense, turned His back upon the Son. It says in Hab. 1:13 that God is too pure to look upon evil. Therefore, it is possible that when Jesus bore our sins in His body on the cross, that the Father, spiritually, turned away. At that time, the Son may have cried out. One thing is for sure. We have no capacity to appreciate the utterly horrific experience of having the sins of the world put upon the Lord Jesus as He hung, in excruciating pain, from that cross. The physical pain was immense. The spiritual one must have been even greater."

The important aspect of this interpretation is its emphasis upon the substitutionary aspect of our Lord's sacrifice. What will be the penalty for those who face God still in their sins? I think most would agree that their fate will be removal from the presence of God; abandonment to the eternal darkness; cut off from deity! When God turns away, life flees. The question must be asked: Did Jesus truly pay the penalty for sin? If He did, then that penalty was to be cut off from the presence of the Father; He was abandoned to the darkness, wherein lies only death! Notice again the context of Matthew 27:45-50 and Mark 15:33-37 --- Darkness falls over the land ... Jesus laments the abandonment of His God ... He utters a loud cry, and breathes His last. Darkness and Death! Yes, Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe!! Had Jesus NOT truly been forsaken, then can it ever be claimed that He fully paid the price for sin? Our Lord's passion was not a token passion ... it was total. What He experienced is the fate men and women will experience who one day face God still in their sin -- abandonment to the darkness of death! To suggest Jesus was NOT abandoned, is to suggest He did not truly and fully pay the price, and, indeed, implies the wicked will one day pay a higher price for their sin. That is simply not a biblical teaching!

The Quotation Interpretation

Nevertheless, there are indeed some good, honest brethren who sincerely believe our Lord was NOT forsaken as He bore our sin to the cross. Indeed, they declare this could never be. God would never forsake Jesus, and they regard it as virtually blasphemous to suggest otherwise. There are several passages they employ to try and justify this view.

It doesn't take much reflection at all to perceive that these passages do not declare what these theorists profess them to ... or wish them to! Yes, our God is compassionate and just; He is fair and merciful. He will never forsake the godly, but will indeed cut off the wicked. Jesus Christ was the Righteous One of God; He Himself was sinless. However, He came into this world to fulfill a predetermined purpose -- He would take on the sin of the world, bear it in His body to the cross, become a curse on our behalf, and pay the full, fearful penalty for that amassed sin. That penalty was to be cut off from the presence of God; abandoned to the darkness wherein lies death. Had God NOT forsaken Him, the atonement would have been a sham. He had to experience the penalty for sin for His atonement to be legitimate. Had it been less than what the wicked would be forced to pay for their own sin one day, then it could never be legitimately declared a substitutionary atonement. He paid the price we were destined to pay ... and He paid it in full. To suggest God will never forsake the righteous is NOT equivalent to suggesting He will never forsake the unrighteous! Jesus became the latter that you and I might be regarded as the former! "For Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God" (1 Peter 3:18).

Jesus spoke of this abandonment, feeling its full force, in his statement from the cross. But, again, some reject this teaching. They simply refuse to believe God would ever forsake Jesus ... for any reason. Therefore, some explanation must be provided for our Lord's cry, "My God, My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?!" What exactly did Jesus intend here, if in fact He was NOT "forsaken" by His God? The answer suggested is that He was merely quoting from Psalm 22, the purpose of which was to convey to those who heard Him the ultimate victory which was to be His, and which is conveyed in the latter verses of Psalm 22. In other words, Jesus was not speaking of Himself as a victim, but as a victor. Due to His physical condition He was only able to quote the first phrase of that Psalm of David, but He intended for the part to stand for the whole.

In other words, Jesus was not really uttering those words because He felt abandoned by God. Rather He was merely quoting from a specific Psalm to convey to His hearers a far greater truth .... i.e., that He was not abandoned, but rather was being vindicated! "What does this psalm quotation signify? A large number of recent interpreters have interpreted the cry against the background of the whole of Psalm 22, which begins with this sense of desolation but ends with the triumphant vindication of the righteous sufferer" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 578). Thus, according to this view, Jesus wanted the people to understand He was referring to all of Psalm 22, not just to the first verse! This was a very popular psalm, thus the people would have been familiar with the entirety of it. Therefore, as they pondered all of this particular psalm, which our Lord's utterance of the first phrase would have triggered in their hearts and minds, they would soon see that our Lord was not uttering a cry of despair, but of victory!

"The psalm found recurrent use, both in private worship and in the open worship of the community for which it was originally composed. Whenever the psalm was used, however, reference to one part of it would inevitably call forth the memory of the rest of it. (note: We might quote only "The Lord is my shepherd," for example, but the rest of Psalm 23 would immediately come to our minds.) That is to say, the hymn to the Presence would always call to mind the terrible agony of the afflicted aloneness which it dispelled; and the lament of aloneness would always suggest the Presence which was its cure. It is against such a tradition that our Lord's use of the psalm from the cross must be viewed. The similarities between the agonies of the psalmist and the Lord's own are too unmistakably clear to be missed; but so also is the deliverance and the restoration to the Presence. Our Lord was therefore speaking of the terror of His suffering, and also, since the disciples and His mother would certainly have known the full psalm, of the victory which was to follow" (The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4 -- Esther to Psalms, p. 216).

R.C.H. Lenski takes rather vehement exception to this interpretation. "The idea that Christ spoke aloud the entire psalm, perhaps also the following psalms, or that He spoke aloud only the first line and silently went through the rest, are without support and destroy the force of Christ's cry" (The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 1118). I tend to agree, and thus cannot embrace the theory that Jesus did not experience a very real "forsaking" by God as He suffered on the cross. I believe such to be a contradiction of clear Scriptural teaching to the contrary.

The Incorporation Interpretation

As is so often the case, ultimate Truth is most often found somewhere between the extremes. To declare the problem to be one of mistranslation, when there is little or no evidence to substantiate such a claim, is extremism. To declare that Jesus was NOT in any way "forsaken" by God, but that He merely quoted from a particular psalm to convey an entirely different thought, is extremism. And, to be perfectly honest, to declare that our Lord cried out to God in utter despair, apparently unaware as to WHY this forsaking was occurring, is also extremism ... and is also contrary to clear biblical teaching, which makes it evident our Lord knew exactly WHY He had come to this particular moment! The statement from the cross was not the cry of a confused, unenlightened pawn in an undisclosed plan of the Almighty. If indeed this was not an allusion to Psalm 22:1 by Jesus, and was nothing more than the agonized cry of a tormented man -- an agonized cry which Psalm 22:1 is merely said to have foretold -- then we are left with the troubling question as to why Jesus seemed so perplexed as to His circumstance ... in other words, why did He wonder WHY?!!

I believe the solution lies in the incorporation of valid aspects of both the Separation and Quotation Interpretations. It is my view that this is not an "either - or" matter, but a bit of both! Yes, Jesus was "forsaken" as He became sin and hung on the cross, but He was most certainly NOT "in the dark" as to the purpose of that sacrifice! One can truly detect His genuine agony in His cry pertaining to His abandonment, BUT in no way can we propose He was perplexed by the purpose of it! Thus, the "Why" in the phrase requires explanation. I think that explanation is to be found in the fact that Jesus did indeed intentionally allude to Psalm 22. Jesus truly experienced being "forsaken," but the WHY of that experience would be answered in the text and context of the entirety of Psalm 22. The first half of the psalm depicts the pain of a victim; the latter half the praise of a victor! In days, weeks, and years to come, His disciples, who heard His cry from the cross, would reflect upon those words, and they would perceive both halves of the psalm in the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah to which they were witnesses.

"This psalm thus has a special relevance for the Christian, apart from its value for private and public worship, for it calls to mind our Lord's agony, His deliverance and through it ours, and, in a singular way, the obligation which is ours to let the account of it burst forth from us continually to the very ends of the earth" (The Broadman Bible Commentary, vol. 4 -- Esther to Psalms, p. 216).

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Your latest article was, as always, very well-written and proclaimed. I work in the public school system and see first-hand the amount of racism among students and staff. Like Paul, I have to "buffet my mind" daily so as not to fall into the same pattern of viewing students and colleagues through prejudicial glasses. This issue has always been a problem in the Churches of Christ as far back as I can remember. I remember cringing when brethren would refer to the "black" congregation in town. It took me awhile to figure out that the reason there was a "black" congregation is because those brethren weren't made to feel welcomed in the "white" congregation! I have a bumper sticker on my car that reads: God is COLOR blind! May we be likewise!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Racism is indeed alive and well in the church, especially in the South. My husband and I were transplants in Georgia, where we quickly learned that the churches are pretty much 100% segregated. One Sunday evening, the "black" congregation in town asked to use our baptistery, since their building did not have one. The baptism was to occur after services that evening. My husband and I stayed around to watch the baptism and to rejoice with them. However, our fellow white brothers and sisters practically FLED out of the auditorium after church that evening. We were the only two members of our congregation to stay with the congregants of the "black" church, to talk to them and congratulate them. Another time, one of my friends from church confided to me how they were going to have to move because a black family had moved in on her street. We were sickened by all that we saw and heard. We couldn't wait to leave the deep South!

From a Minister in Arkansas:

Brother Maxey, I enjoyed your latest Reflections. Being a gospel minister myself, I think it is very important to teach younger Christians especially that sexual immorality is wrong. I have written a Bible Study Workbook that talks about this subject. I do not hate the sinner, but do despise the sin. You are doing a wonderful job. May God continue to bless you, brother Maxey! We all here at -------- Church of Christ wish you well. Your congregation too.

From a Reader in Georgia:

I am reading John Dewey's book "Liberalism and Social Action," which gives a short history of liberalism in societal context. Whereas Dewey talks at a macro level, I can see very readily its applicability at a micro level -- e.g., within a congregation. He made one cogent point that I thought you might be interested in: "Objections that are brought against liberalism ignore the fact that the only alternatives to dependence upon intelligence are either drift and casual improvisation, or the use of coercive force stimulated by unintelligent emotion and fanatical dogmatism -- the latter being intolerant by its very constitution" (p. 56). In this context, Dewey is using "intelligence" in the sense of developing pragmatic solutions to a given "current" problem. The solution derives from historical experience within a given society. This is a pretty good book if you have any interest in it. It has three chapters and 93 pages.

From a Reader in Missouri:

Al, you do a great job! God bless you. You'd better keep up your life insurance. It won't be long before you will be jailed for your writings on what the Scriptures say about homosexuals. I am ready to go ... anytime.

From a Reader in South Carolina:

I've been reading your Reflections for several months now and I really appreciate the in-depth, thoughtful study you've done on so many topics. I've read most of your articles regarding MDR, adultery, etc. and wondered if you had written anything regarding the topic of dating and pre-marital physical contact. There seem to be very few realistic, well-thought-out guidelines for this area. It seems an impossible task these days to draw and maintain dating boundaries because there is so little support in any segment of our society. So, have you written, or do you know of any other thoughtful studies, on this subject that take into account examples from the Bible and biblical relationships? Any pointers to good references and studies would be very much appreciated. Thanks for your help!

From a Reader in Texas:

Well, I am finally getting my thoughts together for this query in your Special Request. I introduced some of these thoughts in a small congregation for which I preached in western Texas in the mid to late 80's. We were discussing in our mid-week adult class some of the traditions that had become untouchable, and I brought up the fact that the next Sunday we were having a "dinner on the ground" ("fellowship meal" to those not of the rural background). I asked the class what they would think if communion were not served until the meal in the fellowship building. The silence was deafening! Finally, my youngest and most forward-thinking elder spoke up and said, "I would really have a problem with that." I asked, "Why?" He replied, "It is just not the way we do things." I turned to the passages in Matthew and Luke that describe the setting for "the last supper" and pointed out that the setting was mid-meal, and then I asked the class if the reply "... because that is not the way we do things" is a legitimate reason for not having communion in mid-meal ourselves. That was the beginning of the end for me in that particular congregation. Not too many weeks later, while preaching on "Problematic Passages," I touched on Mark 9:38-43 where John bragged of stopping a man from casting out demons in Jesus' name because he "is not one of us" (NIV), and Jesus' rebuke of him for such a sectarian act. This is an extremely hard principle for Christians of different stripes to internalize. The "not one of us" syndrome has been with Christianity for millennia. After entering the full-time ministry, I soon discovered the "politics" of preaching, sadly, was just as much a part of this job as of any secular job. I have never been very good at playing politics, so needless to say I have encountered much resistance in full-time work ... so I have retired. I love to preach, but never again will I be at the mercy of the brethren for my financial support.

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