“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
On the cross, Jesus quotes from the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm of lament. Psalm 22 begins with a strongly stated complaint that God is far away (vv. 1-2), which is followed by the statement of confidence in God (vv. 3-5). The psalmist (identified in the title of the psalm as David) then enumerates the specifics of his lament (vv. 6-18), followed by his petition for deliverance (vv. 19-21). He concludes with a vow to proclaim God’s goodness to the people (vv. 22-26), which will be known to the ends of the earth in generations to come (vv. 27-31).
In crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus is likely invoking the whole psalm, which expresses both profound distress as well as hope for vindication and rescue. Mark at least seems to have more of the psalm in mind than just this one verse. Just prior to Jesus’s quotation of Psalm 22:1 in 15:34, Mark tells us of those who mock the possibility of a divine rescue (Mk 15:16, 20, 29-32, 36 and Ps 22:6-8).
And instead of giving us more details about the crucifixion itself as we might expect, Mark immediately moves to the soldiers gambling for Jesus’s garments (Mark 15:24; see Ps 22:18).
Could Mark in this way be silently asking his readers to think about other parallels between the crucifixion and Psalm 22, such as the extreme thirst of the victim (22:15), how every bone of his body is on display to public view (22:17), and then of the coming rescue (22:21) which results in good news for the whole world (22:27) now and in the future (22:30-31)? Rikk Watts writes, “It is hard to understand why Mark would work so hard at evoking Ps. 22 if he did not also expect his informed readers to know exactly what was coming next: a startling reversal and deliverance.”
All of this, however, is not to minimize the cry Jesus utters. We should not rush past his anguish so we can get to his hope in the Father as quickly as possible. What then is the forsakenness that Jesus experiences on the cross? The Old Testament once again gives us some clues. Israel as a nation was forsaken to punishment (Deut 31:16-17) and to its enemies (Judg 6:13; 1 Sam 12:9-11; 2 Kings 21:14). This is similar to the idea of being delivered to, or handed over to, one’s enemies (Mark 9:31; 10:33; 14:41, 44; 15:1, 10, 15), which has connotations of military conquest (Lev 26:25; Deut 1:27; 21:10; Josh 7:7; 10:8, 30; Judg 1:2, 4; 2 Ki 19:10; Ezek 39:23) or of being sold into slavery or subjugated politically (Judg 3:8; 10:7; 13:1; 1 Sam 12:9). These were all terrible fates. The consequences of turning away from God are severe.
all this the relationship of God and Israel was never completely broken (Deut 31:6-8; Ezra 9:9), which is the whole story of the Old Testament. God never utterly gives up on his purposes or his people. So from an Old Testament perspective we should not take forsakenness too far and expect a completely broken relationship between Jesus and the Father.
Some have isolated Jesus’s cry in Mark 15:34 to propose that Jesus somehow lost faith in God or that the Father had utterly abandoned the Son, somehow splitting the Trinity. That is not consistent with Old Testament usage. When we view Jesus’s cry in the whole context of Mark 15 and in the context of the whole of Psalm 22, we see that to be forsaken by God to suffering is a terrible thing, but that a reversal will come. Thus Jesus was forsaken by the Father to his enemies and to a gruesome death, but not to total separation from the Father who will vindicate his Son.
Each Wednesday until Easter I am posting a Lenten reflection, excerpted and adapted from Mark Through Old Testament Eyes. Used by permission of the publisher.