‘My God, My God … Thank You For Not Forsaking Me’? Psalm 22 and Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction
I’m listening to Nick Norelli’s audio review of Tom McCall’s new book Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters. I haven’t had the chance to look at the book itself, but I do want to interact a bit with a common interpretation of Jesus’ cry of dereliction, which Norelli advocates.
In Mark 15:34 (cf. Matthew 27:46), as Jesus hangs stripped, beaten, pierced, and in agony, he utters this cry just before dying:
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?”
The bystanders mistake his words as if Jesus is calling for Elijah. They offer him a sponge with wine vinegar. And then Jesus cries out again “with a loud voice” (understood by many commentators as a loud, guttural death cry) and dies.
The scene, and the implications of Jesus’ last recorded words (in contrast with Luke’s more serene “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” Luke 23:46, and John’s “It is finished,” John 19:30), are difficult. They are difficult when we consider that Jesus went to the cross willingly, in order to fulfill the Father’s plan. They are difficult when we recognize that Jesus knew this would take place, and what was at stake for humankind, and actively chose it. But they are especially difficult considering the dual Christian affirmations that there is only one God, who exists as triune; and that Jesus Christ is God the Son.
The worry, from the perspective of orthodox trinitarianism, is that Jesus’ cry ought not to imply a rift in the Trinity. Because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit enjoy life in and as the one divine essence, not three gods but three persons who mutually indwell one another and exist in and as their mutual relations, we should be wary of a reading of the New Testament narrative that separates the Son from the Father so deeply that it looks as though he is, for all intents and purposes, a different subject than the one true God. And surely, it seems, if the Son is abandoned by His Father on the cross but continues to exist, one can no longer hold that they share in one divine being.
To avoid this, the interpretation that Norelli suggests (and it is a common one) is that when Jesus utters the cry of dereliction his words do not, in fact, mean what they appear on the surface to mean. Jesus (and/or Matthew and Mark, who testify to the event) appears to be deliberately quoting the beginning of Psalm 22. And it was a common rabbinical practice in ancient Judaism, we are told, to allude to an entire Psalm by quoting only the first verse. On this account Jesus is giving us a shorthand version of the whole of Psalm 22 — which moves from this opening line of the psalmist’s feeling of abandonment to a great declaration of God’s faithfulness:
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.
(Psalm 22:24, ESV)
If this interpretation has merit, then Jesus’ disquieting words from the cross have an entirely different meaning. Jesus is not signaling that suffering and death under the judgment of sin has separated him from God the Father — nor even that he feels that way in the moment, even if it isn’t true. Instead, he is pointing hearers (and Matthew and Mark are pointing their readers) to the conclusion of the invoked Psalm, where God is faithful to those who serve Him. Jesus knows that he is not abandoned by God the Father — for such a thing is impossible — and in these words he alludes to the psalmist’s declaration of God’s faithfulness. In his mortal cry, Jesus knows that he is heard by his Father.
I have deep worries about this interpretation of Jesus’ cry of dereliction. Before we get to those, let’s consider the range of interpretive possibilities here:
(1) Jesus is actually abandoned by the Father, who turns His face from the Suffering Servant as a part of His judgment of sin.
(1a) There is, however, no ontological rift in the being of God. God is able to be both Judge and the judged. Or:
(1b) There is a rift in the being of God. In His death and His descent into hell the Son is temporarily cut off from God’s immanent life.
(2) Jesus is not abandoned by the Father, but is invoking the Psalm in its entirety — which testifies to God’s faithfulness to Jesus even at his darkest hour.
(3) Jesus feels abandoned as he endures the judgment for sin, but in fact is not. This is an attempt at a mediating position, and implies certain things about the union of divinity and humanity, especially Jesus’ lack of knowledge of that which God the Father knows (i.e. that the Father has not abandoned him). (In that case, the next question is why Matthew and Mark include it.) This could be explored further, but I think a case could be made for Jesus’ ignorance here. What we have in the cry is then a very human, emotive response — no more an ontological “rift” than the incarnation itself is.
Each of these have some claim to validity. My concerns about (2), attractive as it is to resolving the theological dilemma, are these:
(A) The Historical-Critical. Are there other examples in the New Testament (particularly its use of the psalter) of citing or alluding to an entire psalm or other pericope in this fashion? Does Jesus, as a rabbi, do it anywhere else? If Mark’s gospel is earlier and served as a source for Matthew’s, would Mark have used this device without explaining it to his predominantly Gentile audience? His habit elsewhere is to be explicit, explaining Jewish practices (e.g. Mark 7:1-4, 15:42) and even translating Jewish idioms for his readers (e.g. Mark 5:41, 7:11) — most obviously right here in 15:34, where he quotes Jesus’ cry in Aramaic before translating it for his audience.
It would seem unlikely that Mark, as an apostolic witness, utilized the rabbinical practice but did not explain it — particularly because Jesus’ words are so theologically difficult (even in the absence of a mature doctrine of the Trinity).
(B) The Canonical. What account might we render of the fact that Luke and John choose to narrate the moment of Jesus’ death very differently? Of course they have their own styles and theological agendas; but Luke elsewhere relies on Mark quite a bit. Here, however, he varies considerably. Did he go with other witnesses and drop Mark’s cry of dereliction because it seemed theologically difficult? Did Luke not understand rabbinical pedagogy?
Mark is not one to shy away from such difficulties (as those who have studied his gospel in some depth can attest). Elsewhere he seems to deliberately leave his reader to stew over the implications of something — for example, Jesus’ statement that he does not know the day or hour of his return (13:32), or the pregnant ending of 16:1-8 (if you accept the text-critical theory), wherein the resurrection is left merely implied.
(C) The Rhetorical. The “full Psalm” interpretation of (2) suggests in no uncertain terms that we should read Jesus’ words as having the opposite of their plain-sense meaning. It is not possible to understand Jesus’ final words, then, without the fuller understanding of Israel’s psalter and the practice of citation in nuce. In fact, if we take the cry at face value we will be led into deep error, since Jesus in fact means the opposite.
On the other hand, if we follow options (1) or (3) and take Jesus’ words at face value (citation of Psalm 22 or not), the death of Jesus explodes with meaning. Though he is God and superior to death, though he knows that he is accomplishing the will and plan of the Father to defeat sin and ransom humankind (Mark 10:45), the accomplishing of that plan is a deeply hard thing. It comes at great cost. His anguish in the garden was real, his suffering and death are real, and his sense of isolation and estrangement from the Father of Lights is real and palpable — as it should be.
(D) The Theological. If Jesus means what he says and is abandoned, or at least feels abandoned by God, the cry demands a deep, theological reckoning. Why has the Father turned His back on the Suffering Servant? Is that abandonment part of the suffering endured by the Son? Are we to take it as a statement not about the triune being of God but about sin and the means of its destruction? How do we color the overtones of the Father sacrificing His beloved Son, giving Him up out of love, per Genesis 22?
Theologians — particularly of the past century, including Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar — have made a great deal about Jesus’ death in God-abandonment as a necessary element in the work of atonement. While we may wish to critique or nuance these with a certain perspective on trinitarian ontology, we should at least acknowledge that there is rich potential for theological reflection. Jesus’ dying abandoned by the Father does not cause Christian theology (even “orthodox” Christian theology) to fly apart.
When I hear this interpretation of Jesus’ cry, then, these are the concerns that rise up in me. While potentially valid, the notion that Jesus meant his hearers (and Mark meant his readers) to understand in his words the whole of Psalm 22 seems too easy a fix to a difficult theological problem. Instead, I prefer to stand inside the difficulty and try to make some sense of it — of the mystery that God has endured the full depth of the judgment of human sin, in order to overcome it.
Perhaps this is a case where we can have our cake and eat it too. Perhaps Jesus was abandoned by the Father, or felt abandoned, and at the same time expressed confidence in God’s vindication of him. The allusion to the psalm is not, after all, without its meaning. This is how I think the cry of dereliction ought to be understood — as parallel to Jesus’ prayer in the garden: Although he feels at his end and desires to have the cup of suffering removed, nevertheless Jesus submits to the Father in faith. “If it is possible … yet not my will, but yours be done.”
What are your thoughts on this difficult passage? Is there a fourth interpretive option I haven’t considered, or are you willing to put your money on the table and argue for one of these?