After three hours of midday darkness, the crowds heard the thunderous words of Jesus, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34). Some standing there misunderstood the Aramaic Eloi as a call for Elijah. Even today, I wonder how well we understand the words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” We often sing how “the Father turned His face away,” with “God estranged from God,” and yet the original psalm has the Messiah Himself singing how God has not “hidden His face” from the afflicted Messiah (Psalm 22:24; cf. Hebrews 2:12). How can this be? What is the meaning of this so-called cry of dereliction?
According to New Testament scholar Peter Bolt, modern theologians often sidestep the difficulty of Jesus’ cry. Perhaps He felt abandoned by God, but was not. Perhaps Jesus despaired at “human unresponsiveness” but remained optimistic about God’s responsiveness. According to Schleiermacher, the father of liberalism, Jesus was calmly and cheerfully looking forward to His departure. And yes, if Jesus has the rest of the psalm in mind, which would not be far-fetched for a quote (cf. John 10:34 and Psalm 82:6), He knows deliverance is coming—but at the beginning of the psalm, God is distant: “Far from My deliverance are the words of My groaning” (Psalm 22:1b).
This idea of distance occurs strategically in Psalm 22, with the word “far” dividing it neatly into three sections—past (vv. 1-10), present (vv. 11-18), and future (vv. 19-31), with time measured from the moment of the cross. Regarding the past, just as the fathers trusted in God and were delivered, so the Messiah has trusted in God from birth. Why then is He not delivered as well? Regarding the present, He is surrounded by bulls and dogs, which apparently depict the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers, respectively. The bulls mock Him, but the dogs have “pierced [His] hands and [His] feet” (v. 16). They even divide His garments and cast lots for His clothing—a clear reference to the cross (v. 18; cf. Mark 15:24). Again, we ask, where is God? Why has He abandoned this One who is trusting in Him? Then, just when we are left crying out with the Messiah, “Be not far off,” in statements that recount the bulls and the dogs, we hear Him announce, “You answered Me!” (vv. 19-21). This English sentence is a single word in Hebrew and it is abrupt. The rest of the psalm flows in exuberantly cheerful praise. Truly, the sun has come out again!
In its context, what does this cry of dereliction mean? Let us first consider its form and then its content.
First, in form, the cry is more of a protest than a question. Similar in form to Acts 9:4, where Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” the cry acknowledges an external fact, but protests that there is no good reason for the fact. Just as Job could find no reason in himself for the pain that he gratuitously experienced, so also here, the Messiah can find no reason in Himself for the distance and unresponsiveness He is experiencing. After all, He has always trusted in God. There is no good reason why He, of all people, should find God distant.
But wait a minute—we know the reason why Jesus suffered. It was sin—our sin—that turned the Father’s face away! In racing too quickly to the theological meaning, we miss the historical point. Jesus Himself tells us to learn this lesson from the cross: “[God] has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has he hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard” (v. 24). Just as Job thought, due to his outward circumstances, that God was angry with him, when God was actually proud of Job, so we too must not conclude by God’s delay in answering the Messiah that God was somehow angry with Him personally or displeased. God did not despise Him nor hide His face from the Messiah in His time of need. On the contrary, God answered Him (v. 21). And when we bear our cross, we too will need to recount this lesson and take it to heart.
All this, of course, still leaves the cry of protest unanswered. Why did God abandon the Messiah? As a protest, it is so human. He asks, Why? Is this not how we often respond in our grief—with a “why” question—albeit more with accusation than with trust? Truly, the Messiah can sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 2:18; 4:15). And this similarity, this solidarity, leads us to our second point regarding its content. My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? is the cry of a human being to His God. The cry of Golgotha is far different than the cry of Gethsemane, when Jesus prayed, “Abba! Father!” (Mark 14:36). Yes, the divine person of the Son is the same in both locations, but we should not imagine any disruption in the Trinity during the sufferings of Jesus on the cross. Please bear with me as I recount a few things with you.
According to the gospel narrative, Jesus definitely experienced the wrath of God on the cross. Peter Bolt detects in the gospel of Mark the following signs of God’s wrath: mockery (Psalms 22:6-8; 89:38-41), darkness (Deuteronomy 28:29; Isaiah 59:10), a cup and a baptism (Psalm 69), and crucifixion itself (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13). Even the opening of Psalm 22 speaks of God being distant and unresponsive to the Messiah’s roaring—a literal translation from the Hebrew (v. 1). Both by day and by night, the cry is unanswered (v. 2). Could this be a reference to both the hours of darkness, a midday night, along with the daylight that followed, when Jesus cried out twice “with a loud voice” (Mark 15:34, 37)? So unusual was this loudness, apparently, that the Roman centurion concluded from “the way [Jesus] breathed His last” that “this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). In crucifixion, breathing is labored. The victim must push up to exhale—hence, breaking the legs would lead to death by suffocation. This fact makes Jesus’ roaring even more remarkable! Jesus loudly and believingly protested the divine distance in the midst of divine judgment.
In pondering this scene, we must not conclude that the Father was somehow angry with His Son personally, as if His eyes were too pure to behold His face. On the contrary, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself through making Him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21). If the Father, because He is God, could not look at the Son bearing sin, then how could the Son Himself, also as God, bear it? Surely, the Father and the Son were both working together to punish our sin on the cross. Please note this union in our redemption. If the Father delivered up His Son to crucifixion, so also the Son delivered up Himself (Romans 8:32; Galatians 2:20; cf. Titus 2:14). If the Father was pleased to crush the Messiah due to our sin, so also the Messiah was pleased to render Himself as a guilt offering, which implies death (Isaiah 53:10). If the Father loved us and sent His Son as a propitiation for our sin, so also the Son loved us and laid down His life for us (1 John 4:10; John 15:12-13). It is an old theological adage that there is no division in the Godhead regarding any of His works done outside of Himself (ad extra). The triune God is wholly united in all His works—the three Persons operate in perfect unity and union (cf. John 10:30). Therefore, we must not imagine any disunity between God the Father and God the Son during the dark horrors of the cross. Both the Father and the Son were punishing our sin in Christ. Yes, the divine Jesus spoke to His Father in the cry of dereliction, but He addressed Him as “My God,” not “My Father.” God was punishing human sin in the man Christ Jesus.
As Christians, it can become tempting for us to imagine that somehow the Father alone needed to be placated in His anger towards us, and the loving Jesus stood in the gap to represent us before the angry God. In his excellent book, The Whole Christ, theologian-pastor Sinclair Ferguson rightly notes that this image of the Father needs to change. Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). As both the Word and Image of God, Jesus perfectly explains the invisible God to us on our level, in human terms (John 1:18). Yes, the Father displays wrath towards our sin, but so does the Messiah, as the psalms rightly warn us (e.g. Psalm 2:12). And yes, the Messiah stepped in the gap for us, but the Father sent Him in love to be our Mediator and propitiation. We should then fear and love both the Father and the Son in power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Them both (cf. John 14:17, 23). We should not imagine any division between the Father and Son during the cross.
Having considered then both the form and the content of the cry of dereliction, let us face its force head on. There is no reason in the Messiah Himself for this divine distance. Later, we learn that His God had not hidden His face nor despised His suffering Servant. The reason for the distance lay elsewhere. Again, why did God abandon the Messiah on the cross? Interestingly, Psalm 22 gives no answer to that question. In Mark, however, as pointed out to me recently by one of our small group members, the text simply says that Jesus’ last breath immediately preceded “the veil of the temple [being] torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). Surely, this timing is significant. The barrier between God and men—might we say the distance?—has been permanently destroyed by none other than God Himself, and the only reason lying close at hand for this permanent change in access involves the death of the Messiah. If by the inspired text we hear “Why?” then by that same text we see why—a “new and living way” has been opened to us “through the veil, that it, His flesh” (Hebrews 10:20). Hallelujah for the cross!
Sources: Peter G. Bolt, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in Mark’s Gospel, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 116-45; Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).