When I was in seminary, I took a New Testament survey course. Like most classes, very little of the actual lecture time sticks with me to this day. There was, however, one lecture that was seared into my long term memory, and I am reminded of the lessons of that day each year we observe the Holy Week leading up to Easter Sunday.
In the course of teaching through the Gospel of Mark, my professor took a moment to explain a passage from a point of view brand new to me.
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:33-34
For most of my life, I have looked at that cry as the ultimate example of the humanity of Christ. For the first time in eternity, the Son was experiencing separation from the Father, and, in his humanity, cried out from the feeling or emotion of abandonment. I have taken much comfort in knowing that Jesus understands how it feels to feel abandoned, even when we know Truth says we are never left nor forsaken.
I also know that this is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, and this passage in Mark has served as an example that, in our darkest times, we should lean on Scripture as a guide for how to express ourselves when we may not have our own words to use.
But my professor brought up a cultural context point that revolutionized how I read this passage, and how I viewed Christ on the cross.
At this time, people didn’t have easy access to the Scriptures. This was an oral society. Most were illiterate, and the Scripture they did know was memorized in large sections. Rabbis would begin teaching by quoting the first part of a passage to jog their listeners’ memories, and the people could most likely fall right in, quoting the passage along with the rabbi.
My professor proposed to us that, yes, Jesus is crying out in agony over His separation from the Father. He is experiencing loneliness and feelings of abandonment unlike anything He had experienced ever before.
But, like every other aspect of His time on this earth, this cry was not about Himself. It’s about more than that. More than abandonment. More than fulfilling prophecy. While He is separated from the Father, hanging on a cross, naked, exposed, in agonizing pain, physically dying, Jesus is thinking of the feelings and thoughts of those around Him.
And He begins to teach.
I had never really studied Psalm 22 before this day of New Testament class, but I went right then and read it in its entirety. It is not a Psalm of abandonment, defeat or doubt like I had assumed it would be. On this Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper, the evening of the arrest and trial of Christ, consider those few words of Christ as his last word as Rabbi. He starts the Psalm, knowing those standing at his feet will be able to quote the remainder in their hearts and minds. He is starting them on the road to Truth. He is reminding them that this is not the end.
At His lowest point, He is encouraging others.
Ponder these passages of Psalm 22 and marvel at the self-sacrificial love of our Lord:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. 3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
Jesus acknowledge His humanity; He cried out in his emotions of abandonment and loneliness, but He quickly reminds Himself that, just like God has always done with His people, He will also deliver His Son in due time. Like this, we also can acknowledge our feelings and emotions while still speaking truth to our hearts.
5 To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame. 6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” 9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. 10 On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.
This section of the Psalm accurately describes Jesus’ life and current situation. He reminds His followers that He has consistently fulfilled prophecy, and is continuing to do so, even in this time of mocking rejection. It’s as if Jesus is pleading with them, “Don’t forget! This has been the plan from the beginning!”
12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death. 16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— 17 I can count all my bones– they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. 19 But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! 22 I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
Again, this Psalm confirms that the life of Christ was prophesied centuries before. As He hangs on the cross, naked, thirsty, attacked, exhausted, Jesus clings to the Truth that His Father will save Him, is the only One that can save Him, from His current condition.We, too, can remember that God is our ultimate Savior, and He will save us from the worst of temporal situations, in His time and in His way.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! 24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. 25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. 26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. 28 For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; 31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.
This Psalm ends not in hopeless defeat, but in fulfilled prophecy and promises of future fulfillment as well. It ends not in defeat, but in glorious victory! In verse 25, it is prophesied that the Christ would fulfill His vows, He would submit to the will of the Father. His dying on the cross fulfilled that prophecy. If the end of verse 25 is fulfilled, how much more can we claim the promise of verse 26 that “the afflicted shall eat and be satisfied”? Because Jesus fulfills His vows, the rest of the Psalm can be fulfilled as well: all the kings of the earth will bow before Him, all the coming generations will hear of His great name. All the nations of the earth will be blessed because He was faithful to His vow. What good news!
What a Gospel!
So ponder these things in your heart this weekend. Ponder the perfect humanity of Jesus, even in His weakest moment. Ponder His need to speak the Truth of Scripture to Himself in His moment of weakness to find strength and resolve.
But above all else, ponder His great love and selflessness, that He preached a word of encouragement and victory to those who looked up Him, and to those of us who still look upon Him and believe.