Today we encounter Jesus’ cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Although it’s a small detail within a larger narrative, it can be a huge obstacle when it comes to our faith.
Why should I hope in Jesus, someone might say, when he lost hope and despaired? And why should I take Christianity seriously when God abandoned Jesus? If God abandoned Jesus, who was perfect, how do I know he won’t abandon me?
Did Jesus despair? Did God abandon him?
The beginning to overcoming this obstacle is to recognize that Jesus’ words are a quote from the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Now, rabbis would often call to mind the entirety of a psalm by quoting the first line. So what’s in Psalm 22 that Jesus was recalling?
The Psalm contains details that sound very similar to what Jesus was experiencing in his passion:
- “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint” (v.14).
- “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death” (v.15).
- “Dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (v.16).
- “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots” (v.18).
Following this description of persecution, the psalm shifts to an expression of hope for deliverance from the persecution:
But thou, O Lord, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to may aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen! . . . For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (vv.19-21, 24).
According to the Psalmist, this vindication results in satisfaction and praise of the Lord among the afflicted (v.26). But in the end, the praise extends beyond the afflicted to all peoples of the earth:
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. . . Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it (vv. 27, 30).
Psalm 22, therefore, ends with good news: salvation from enemies and worship of the Lord by the whole world.
This is what Jesus calls to mind with his cry on the cross. He purposefully invokes Psalm 22 as an act of prayer to express hope that God will bring an end to the persecution that he’s enduring. The quote is also a claim to prophetic fulfillment: that through his death on the cross and the vindication to follow, all the ends of the earth would begin to turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations would worship before him.
Jesus doesn’t despair and God doesn’t abandon him. Jesus’s death on the cross, which he freely accepts (John 10:18), is a means to an end: the manifestation of God’s power over his enemies and the drawing of the peoples of the earth into relationship with God.
Here are two ways that we can further support this interpretation.
First, Psalm 22 is not the only psalm with prophetic overtones that Jesus cites while on the cross. He also cites Psalm 31:5 when he cries in Luke 23:46, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” Like Psalm 22, Psalm 31 expresses an affliction that is similar to what Jesus is experiencing:
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. Yea, I hear the whispering of many—terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life (vv.11-12).
Despite the affliction, the psalmist expresses trust and hope for deliverance: “But I trust in thee, O Lord, I say, ‘Thou art my God.’ My times are in thy hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors!” (vv.14-15). And later the psalmist blesses the Lord for hearing his prayer: “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me . . . thou didst hear my supplications, when I cried to thee for help” (vv.21-22).
By citing this psalm, Jesus sees his suffering as fulfilling the affliction that the Psalmist describes. He also knows that God will follow through on his promise of deliverance.
Given this citation of Psalm 31:5, we can conclude that Jesus cites Psalm 22 to the same end: he’s living out the affliction that the Psalmist describes and he knows that God will deliver him. Thus, the cry is not one of despair due to God abandoning him, but an expression of hope for deliverance.
A second way that we can confirm our interpretation is to see the cry within the narrative context. Three times in the Markan narrative before the cry, Jesus announces his crucifixion and resurrection (Mark 8:31; 9:32; 10:33-34).
Moreover, just before the crucifixion, when Jesus is on trial before the high priest (Mark 14:62), Jesus explicitly declares the exaltation of the Son of Man: “[Y]ou will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Father Thomas Joseph White, from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington D.C., explains the implications of this narrative context:
This means that the expectation of both the crucifixion as a mode of dying and a subsequent exaltation by God through resurrection must be seen as central theological motifs that structure the Markan narrative . . . The Gospel [Mark] taken on its own, then, as a theological interpretation of the life of Christ, should be seen as positing an expectant (if agonizing) prayer present within the cry of Christ on the cross. The Jesus of Mark knew he was suffering for us, and had in view his own exaltation by the Father.
Did Jesus feel the lack of consolation from God that sin entails? Did the cry have anything to do with his agony? These are good questions that we must save for another time. But for now we can be sure that Jesus’s cry was not an expression of despair. It was actually the opposite: an expression of hope in God’s deliverance through the resurrection and an expression of desire for the salvation of the world.