What did Jesus mean when he repeated the words of Psalm 22 about God forsaking someone?

Missions: The heart of God

A world missions declaration from the Cross?

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" -- Matthew 27:46

A haunting question from the lips of Jesus recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34 is one of the classic "Seven Sayings from the Cross."* Believers have puzzled over this particular "saying" more than all the others combined

"How could God forsake God?" they ask. A Jehovah's Witness acquaintance of mine even argues that these words prove his group's belief that Jesus could not have been God incarnate.

Three things distinguish this "saying" from the other six "Sayings from the Cross":

  1. It is the only one of the "sayings" reported by more than one Gospel.
  2. It is the only "saying" framed as a question.
  3. it is the only "saying" that is an Old Testament quotation.

That third distinguishing point may hold the key to understanding why Jesus cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Were these words an agonized cry reflecting intense physical suffering compounded by a sense of abandonment? Or, was Jesus trying to communicate something else?

Bible scholars tell us we should read Bible verses in their larger context. Let's do that with this "Saying From the Cross." Those words come from the Hebrew songbook where they are the opening lines of Psalm 22. Following that opening question, Psalm 22 builds toward a climax which had the Israelites singing:

"All the ends of the earth
   will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
   will bow down before Him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
   and he rules over the nations . . .

   future generations will be told about the Lord,
They will proclaim his righteousness,
   declaring to a people yet unborn:
   He has done it!"
-- Psalm 22:27, 30b-31

Is concern over how this "Saying from the Cross" might impact our belief that God is Triune making us overlook the reason Jesus quoted Psalm 22? Death was staring Him in the face. At that point, He likely could not have sung or quoted an entire Psalm. Is it possible Jesus managed to cry out the first line of Psalm 22 hoping that, in their minds, spectators would go all the way through the entire Psalm (as, indeed, we often do when we hear a phrase from a well-known song)?

Was it Jesus' wish in his dying moments on the Cross to emphasize Psalm 22's declaration about the ends of the earth remembering and turning to the Lord? Is this "saying from the cross" actually a declaration that God's righteousness was going to be proclaimed to people yet unborn? If so, the global harvest going on now with things like JESUS Film showings in villages worldwide are certainly fulfilling those prophetic words.

A good case can be made that in those moments before His death, Jesus pointed to the prophecies at the end of Psalm 22. For the spectators that day on Calvary, as well as for all those who would ready the Gospels in future years, this "Saying From the Cross" could be considered a preview of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) which Jesus would give to His followers after His resurrection and not long before His ascension to Heaven.

*Jesus' "seven sayings (or 'words') from the cross"

    -- Howard Culbertson

This 500-word mini-essay on a world missions Bible passage is one of more than three dozen articles in the "Heart of God" series that was published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.

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