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‘My God, My God … Thank You For Not Forsaking Me’? Psalm 22 and Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction

May 2, 2012

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?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2012 1:17 am

    The ‘full psalm’ idea is interesting, I hadn’t heard/thought about that before.

  2. May 2, 2012 4:56 am

    Interestingly, Schleiermacher denies that Christ is really abandoned by God on the cross. In the first edition of the Glaubenslehre he offers various reasons for this, but some time during the 1820’s he hits upon the ‘full psalm’ explanation and makes use of it in the 1830/31 Glaubenslehre, the Life of Jesus lectures, and some sermons. He finds this interpretation in a work by the Swiss theologian Johann Jakob Hess, and seems almost relieved to offer corroboration for his view from such a pious source.

    The thing that gets me about the ‘full psalm’ view of the cry is that, even granting that the fuller context of Jesus’ cry is hidden behind some rhetorical shorthand of saying only the first line, one still needs to account for that first line! The psalmist may have come to some resolution by v.24 (so did Jesus when he commended His Spirit to the Father!), but that doesn’t change the fact that, initially at least, he reports abandonment! This means, on the one hand, that even if one wants to affirm a real godforsakenness in Christ crucified, the ‘full psalm’ explanation can remain a live option; on the other hand, it means that those who advocate for the ‘full psalm’ interpretation may still need to muster a stronger argument against the plain sense of the first lines of the psalm, which are not simply nullified by an eventual resolution.

    Another source that you might be interested in reading on the cry of dereliction is: Thomas E. Schmidt, “Cry of Dereliction or Cry of Judgment? Mark 15:34 in Context,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 4 (1994) 145-53.

  3. May 2, 2012 9:01 am

    Thanks for that, Evan. I think you’re right about our need, however one may come down on this question, to reconcile both the beginning and the end of the psalm. Is there some legitimacy to Psalm 22:1, before the resolution that comes later? That is, does the psalmist’s cry of forsakenness have greater than merely rhetorical weight (i.e. he says it only in order to demonstrate how it isn’t true).

    My concern isn’t so much to exclude 22:24f. from the cross, but to counter the implication that 22:1 ought (functionally) to be excluded.

  4. May 2, 2012 3:26 pm

    I’d put 2 & 3 together (in fact, I have (here & here). You ask some good questions and I’d like to attempt some answers as I’m able.

    (A) To start, I don’t think that this is simply a matter of pars pro toto (a part taken for the whole) as if the mere reference to a single verse automatically indicates that the entire psalm is in view. C. H. Dodd took a position somewhat like this in his According to the Scriptures: The Substructure of New Testament Theology (London: Nisbet, 1952) where he suggested that there were blocks of OT material that the NT writers worked with and that very often when they quoted a part they wanted the reader to consider the whole. I do think that’s going on here, but that’s not all that’s going on.

    At the narrative level there’s a lot more to it. I’d commend Rikki Watt’s treatment of the subject in The Psalms in the New Testament (ed. Steve Moyise and Maarten J. J. Menken; London: T&T Clark, 2004 cf. his contribution to Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008) to your attention. He can articulate the case much better than I can. One thing I’ll point out is the alleged misunderstanding of the crowd as thinking that Jesus called for Elijah. Watts points out how “Elijah was widely held to be the agent of Israel’s deliverance (whether eschatological or of individuals in times of distress),” and continues, “It is precisely because they too hear in Jesus’ cry the expectation of deliverance that the crowd waits to see if Elijah will come. Their basic instinct is correct even though the delayed deliverance is far more amazing than they might have thought and is effected not by Elijah, but God himself” (Commentary on the NT use of the OT, 236-37).

    Having said that, I’m not convinced that we’d need a corroborating example of this kind of exegetical maneuver in order to validate it here; if that’s the case then we leave no room for uniqueness, either on the part of Jesus as the speaker, or Mark as the narrator. I’m also at a loss to think of a single example of Mark explaining an exegetical technique to his readers. Sure, he translates certain phrases and offers brief explanatory notes on certain cultural customs, but that’s a bit different from what you’re asking about, isn’t it?

    (B) I think turning to the broader canonical witness only helps to strengthen the reading that Jesus was not truly forsaken. First, as you note in your post, Jesus knew this would take place, as we see repeatedly affirmed in Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). But what’s more is that he knew resurrection awaited him! Consider also Jesus’ words at his trial. He remains silent until he is asked if he’s the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed (Mark 14:61) and then he confidently responds, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Jesus knew exactly what awaited him, and it wasn’t being actually abandoned by his Father. Abandoned to death as McCall says in the book? Sure. Death was part and parcel of the plan; there’d be no resurrection or vindication without it!

    But now when we turn to the other Gospels we are given a record of Jesus’ last words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) and “It is finished” (John 19:30), as you note. Mark tells us that “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37) without saying what was said in that loud cry but the phrase “breathed his last” is also used by Luke following his record of Jesus’ last words. So to see a connection or Luke providing more information is certainly fathomable. I guess where you see Luke leaving something out (the cry of dereliction), I see him filling something in (Jesus’ dying words). If Luke (or John) truly does fill in the blank of Jesus’ “loud cry” then that only strengthens the interpretation that the latter portion of Psalm 22 was in view. And we can add to all of this Jesus’ words to the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), which seem to be words of confidence, and also Jesus’ statement in John 14 that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples. Again, this doesn’t sound like a man who wasn’t assured of his deliverance.

    (C) Terms like “plain sense” and “face value” are subjective. When I hear a verse cited I’m drawn to the context from which it is cited instinctively. Why? Because I spend time in the Bible and I’m familiar with the stories. Jesus’ onlookers would certainly have been familiar with the Psalter since this was Israel’s song book. Keep in mind also, as I said in my review, Jesus does not make a statement; he asks a question, a question that is a quotation from a messianic psalm that ends in deliverance. Jesus doesn’t say, “My God, My God, you have forsaken me.” Had that been the case then we wouldn’t have much room for interpretive disagreement, would we? No, he asks, “Why have you forsaken me?” which indicates that he felt forsaken (a point that I agree with; and McCall does as well), and evokes Psalm 22. It just so happens that Psalm 22 has been utilized throughout the entire narrative, which suggests to me that Mark is doing much more than saying Jesus was forsaken. I’d also note that even if we stuck to Mark’s account alone, these are not Jesus’ last words. We have to account for that “loud cry” in Mark 15:37. If Luke or John fills it in, and I think there’s good reason to believe that they do, then that changes the picture, doesn’t it? So I don’t think that suggesting that Jesus wasn’t actually forsaken reverses anything or makes us think the opposite of what is said. To take that position I’d have to assume the truth of the actual God-forsakenness and that’s putting the cart before the horse.

    (D) I agree, on any reading we have deep theological matters to consider when addressing the cry of dereliction. I believe that the overwhelming popularity of the penal substitutionary model of atonement has led to the commonplace interpretation that Jesus was actually forsaken, well that and the idea that if one Person of the Trinity suffers then they all must (and how can the Father suffer if not for the genuine loss of and separation from his Son?). The connected ideas that Jesus actually became sin and that sin can’t be in the presence of God and that God must have exhausted his wrath on the Son who became sin, all lend themselves to the modern interpretation that Jesus was really and truly forsaken. But one of the things I greatly appreciated about McCall’s book was that he shows that there’s no inner turmoil in the Trinity. Forget all the ontological implications for a moment and just consider that it is the Trinity and not the Son alone working for us and our salvation. He repeatedly points out, and rightly I believe, that it’s not as if the Father alone is wrathful while the Son alone loves, as if the two are against each other somehow. Throughout the entire process, from incarnation to ministry to passion to death to resurrection, it is the Trinity working together with one will and purpose.

    The reference to Genesis 22 is interesting if for no other reason than the fact that it ends in deliverance. Abraham’s willingness to give his son over to death was the very means by which he was able to keep his son from death. And keep in mind that according to both Jewish and Christian tradition, Isaac was a willing participant in all of this. Clement of Rome said, “With confidence, Isaac, knowing the future, went willingly to be sacrificed” (1 Clem. 31.3). That pretty much sums up how I understand Jesus’ attitude toward his death.

    In any event, I’ve said as much as I can in a comment, and I thank you for pressing the issue further and making me think through these things with a bit more rigor.

    Oh, and one last thing: I don’t think that Psalm 22:1 out to functionally be excluded at all. I think it’s of the utmost importance here. It’s what sets the stage in both the Psalm and in Mark’s passion narrative, for deliverance. Without it the deliverance/vindication loses its force. So it serves a great function, and expresses real feelings, without necessarily expressing reality (i.e., both the psalmist and the Son and can forsaken without actually being forsaken).

    Thanks again.

    • Mark permalink
      April 8, 2018 5:49 am

      Psalm 22 goes on to describe a crucifixion and the events surrounding it. To say that Christ was somehow divided in His use of it, as a statement of fulfillment of prophecy from the cross, but also as to Him being forsaken, is, in my opinion, wrong because that would show a conflict within His spirit. Jesus knew full well what as about to happen and how He would react. His use of Psalm 22 was fulfilled in His work on the cross and nothing else.

  5. May 2, 2012 3:34 pm

    That last sentence should have said “can FEEL forsaken without actually being forsaken.”

  6. May 2, 2012 4:32 pm

    Someone at our church emailed this question (was Jesus separated from God on the cross?) and they gave it to me. My burden, then, was to answer it with as little use of theological jargon as possible, in which case I tend appeal to paradox. Here is what I wrote back – rereading it, I’m not sure where I land in terms of the possibilities you laid out; it seems to appeal a bit to all three. I’m probably just too sloppy. Anyway, here it is:

    Totally great question and one I’ve asked quite a bit myself. To answer, I have to start with the mission of Jesus, which can only be understood in light of our (sinful humanity’s) separation from God. It was the will of the Father that the Son should come to us in our estrangement from him and take on its full consequences all the way to the cross and grave so that through him we could be reconciled to God. When we understand his mission in that way, we come up against a perplexing but beautiful paradox when we look at the cross: at the cross Jesus experiences our separation from God on our behalf, taking from us to himself God’s judgment on our sin; and yet precisely in doing that he fulfills the will of the Father, bringing him infinite joy so that the Father has never loved and approved of his Son more than in that moment.

    On the cross, Jesus cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Yes, he is forsaken by God. But his forsakenness is vicarious, that is, it is on behalf of his people, which is exactly why the Father sent him. His cry of forsakenness from the cross is his taking to himself the words of David in Psalm 22, who himself as the king of Israel chosen by God constantly experienced the paradox of being intimately loved by God and yet also given over to abandonment so that he could pray this prayer. Psalm 22 goes on, however, to say that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v. 24). This shows that in our experience of forsakenness, we are not in fact forsaken – God is right there with us – and this is just as true of Jesus. God ultimately vindicates Christ’s act of going to cross by raising him from the dead, proving without any doubt that at every step of Jesus’s life, all they way up to his taking of our God-forsakenness on the cross, God says “this is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5).

    So that is the deep and wonderful paradox: Jesus experiences God’s rejection for us on the cross, and yet God is well pleased by his loving self-sacrifice. The Father and Son are torn apart on the cross, and exactly in that tearing their union is revealed to be unbreakable so that to see the self-sacrificial love of the incarnate Son is to see the Father (John 14:9).

  7. May 2, 2012 8:04 pm

    I agree with Nick that the entire Psalm has to be in view here. I also agree with Darren, however, that the deliverance theme in the Psalm cannot be exploited to overshadow the real forsakenness the son undergoes in his crucifixion. There are numerous cases in Israel’s history where real forsakenness is experienced, and these experiences were all the more bewildering and paradoxical given that Israel was God’s chosen people (e.g., they were actually kicked out of the land of promise – read Lamentations to see how ridiculously disorienting this was to the Jewish psyche). This strangeness is amplified all the more, it seems, in the instance of Jesus, who never disobeyed Yahweh a day in his life. So the weirdness, in the cases of both Israel and Jesus = the forsakenness of the chosen. Really, it’s something that one would not expect to happen, particularly given the allegedly unconditional nature of election – and if Jesus wasn’t compelled to ask “Why?” the way that Israel did on her way into exile, then I’m not quite sure his suffering would have been quite on the same level as theirs. The end of Psalm 22 notwithstanding, I have no doubt that Jesus really was in a state of bewilderment. The exile of the chosen is not something that is supposed to make sense.

    Now, regarding McCall’s book (which I have not read, but I know what Tom thinks from personal interactions), I think he’s right to challenge the sort of crass Moltmannian take on the cry of dereliction – which I think is his main target (along with, perhaps, naive evangelical views) – but I wonder if his positive rendering of the suffering of the son is sort of dictated by the question the Moltmannians have pressed, namely, “Are the Father and the Son metaphysically rent asunder in the event of the cross?” That’s a weird way to phrase the question, if you ask me, because it sets us up to narrate the event in overly speculative and philosophical ways (as if trinitarianism is a matter of explaining how we can retain a certain model of God in the face of the weird texts). The fact is, the Bible says that the Son was forsaken on the cross, which obviously means that God is the sort of God whose ‘being’ can accommodate such an event. God is not torn apart in the passion of the Son because, as Barth says, such humiliation is not ‘strange’ or ‘improper’ for him, on the grounds the actual is obviously the possible. God is always himself – even at the cross – which means that talk of a ‘rupture’ will always be wrong. But by the same token, this should free us up not to worry that they’ll be some kind of ‘dividing by zero’ catastrophe if we admit that Jesus Christ underwent genuine abandonment at the hands of the Father (if you’re a social trinitarian, sure – that would be bizarre – so don’t be a social trinitarian). Our God can do this sort of thing – he can get the boot out of the land of promise so we don’t have to.

  8. May 6, 2012 12:01 pm

    Adam: Thanks for that response — you’ve framed things in a good and pedagogically helpful way, I think. I’m not wild about “paradox” language here, though I know it can be helpful to parishoners. I don’t see any paradox in the “both-and” interpretation of Jesus as the Judge who is judged in our place. With the courtroom image, the Judge has the authority to pass a sentence and then endure it in place of the guilty. That’s an astonishing thing, and a picture of grace, but it’s not a paradox. (I know that’s not exactly where you are identifying the paradox.)

    Justin: Yep yep. The “death of God” in the crucifixion of Jesus is an issue close at hand. Many interpreters simply do not wish the permit the affirmation that ‘God the Son died,’ and so will look for (if you’ll allow me to be crass) routes of escape. My preference is rather to ask, What does it mean for God to ‘die’? Certainly this means the undoing of death, and not of God. In the same way, What does it mean for God the Son to be forsaken by the Father? Certainly not anything that would compromise the integrity of the divine life. A theological account of the death of Jesus and the cry of dereliction has resources to account for this — yet without short-changing the deep significance of the Son’s forsakenness, any more than it would short-change the significance of the Son’s death.

  9. May 6, 2012 12:17 pm

    Nick: Thanks for the great push-back. There are certainly deeper exegetical issues (to which you gesture) than I am able to do justice to just now. Let me make just a few points of response:

    (B) & (C) My worry with the canonical reading you are suggesting is that, rather than using one gospel (here Luke and John) merely to fill in details and give us a bigger picture of Jesus’ life and death than that portrayed in another (Matthew and Mark), instead we are using the other gospels to run roughshod over Mark’s own narrative and theology and to smooth over theological difficulties that are meant to be difficult. Take the “loud cry” with which Jesus expires, for example: commentators on Mark often point to its apparent primal, gutteral nature (cf. Eugene Boring, Mark, p. 431). Jesus is groaning, shouting, perhaps screaming — not out of a lack of control, but as an expression of his submission to death. To cut-and-paste Luke’s “Into your hands …” or John’s “It is finished” in place of this cry is a harmonization that does not do justice to Mark’s narrative.

    The chief worry about gospel harmonizations is that they suggest a modern preoccupation with a ‘real history’ of Jesus that is more authentic than the narrative of any one gospel by itself. At that point we are doing historical-critical reconstruction rather than theological, canonical exegesis. As an exercise: If you had only Mark (and the Psalter) to read, what would you make of these final moments? My point is that, while the witnesses of the other gospels can fill out the picture, they should not be permitted to overwrite it. (That is a fine line to negotiate, without a doubt.)

    I’d be interested in a further treatment of the use of Psalm 22 throughout Mark’s gospel, which you suggest. I suppose I should head to the literature.

    (D) You’ve suggested a number of aspects of the penal substitutionary line of interpretation that are, I would say, highly speculative on their part. There are other ways to describe the Son’s forsakenness viz. the Trinity, and the way in which his death reckons with the sin problem. One need not inevitably come to these typical notions of wrath, sin in the presence of God, intra-Trinitarian suffering, et al. Of course it’s up to those arguing for forsakenness to render a better account of all that, and from the sound of your description I’m probably more likely to throw in my lot with McCall rather than Moltmann.

    “Forsakenness,” then, can be real yet not indicate an ontological rift in the being of God — which is my intention in the Barthian (1a). As you say, the atonement is a work of the Trinity and not the Son alone (no ‘God against God,’ pitting divine wrath against divine mercy). Regardless of how we might want to interject Psalm 22 into Jesus’ cry, we can’t presume to know what it means for the Father to “forsake” the Son on the cross, ontologically speaking. (If pressed, I would further unpack that through the doctrine of appropriations.)

  10. May 8, 2012 3:50 pm

    Thanks a heep for this post Darren. I once broached this subject with James White when I called into a radio show. He quickly disabused me of the idea that their was any schism in God. But his alternative explanation (quoting Psalm) left me cold and empty. So Jesus was really suffering up there: “Hmmm, this would be a good place for me to insert the 1st verse of a psalm to let people know that this hurts”. Almost all of the reading I’ve done on this follows this line of thinking, and I said, it sounds like so much drama. Jesus was doing a passion play.
    Israel experienced “dark nights of the soul”, where he was driven from the promised land. Many assume that means separation from God. Did not God go with Israel into exile unseen? Israel the suffering servant was being redeemed by The Suffering Servant. We all experience “dark nights of the soul”: my God, my God why have You forsaken Me? But we know that God has not really forsaken us, or at least we mature into that understanding. He is at least as close to us when things are black, as when things are hunky dory. We are already reconciled with God, there is no reason for Him separate from us in any other sense than He may be hiding just out of sight. On the other hand, prophecy for eons said “cursed is the one who hangs on a tree.” The One Who knew no sin Who became sin for us had reason to be eternally judged by God. That eternity may have lasted an infinitesimal moment in “time”. “And when the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Do you see what I mean about a passion play? God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit set up this elaborate scene to depict that God was really ticked off at the guy on the cross. Centurion got it, he knew this wasn’t play acting. Neither he nor I believe that Father was really p—-d at Son, but we understand that Son was being judged for the sins of Israel, for the sin of Man.
    Jesus does not ask, My God, My God, Have you forsaken me? But, “Why have you forsaken me?” To take a play off an old joke “have you stopped beating your wife?” This one would be “Why are you beating your wife?” The suspect is not given room to say “I’m not beating my wife”. Neither does the Father take room at that moment in “time” to say “I have not forsaken you Son”. This is not one of those moments where The Voice comes out of the thick clouds and says “This is My Beloved Son with Whom I Am well pleased”. With tears, we know it is true. With great tears of grief and anguish Father more than watched the Son die, He was a willing participant; He could at any moment have ordered a legion of angels to rescue His Son, yet He did not. “Whom the Lord Loves, He chastens.” Do you not see that this is an infinity away from that? Father’s love for the Son is infinite in this moment too, but this is no chastening. This is punishment: [almost?] infinite punishment in a moment in “time”. Can [almost?] infinite wrath (not hate, hate for sin, not hate for Son) and infinite Love co-exist in God toward one Subject (the Christ) at the same time? I believe it can.
    But somewhere somehow, this verse 1 quote is real. Jesus’ God did in fact forsake Him. Probably not ontological. Like said of Barth, at whatever level it was, it was not a contradiction of Who God Is. Certainly at least, it was emotional: Jesus experienced no sense of that which He had for Eternity, past, present and future – the presence of His Father. Well actually, and this is important, even as one born a man, He like us did not always experience a palpable presence of the Father. Being in all ways tempted as are we, He had to by faith (believing the witness of Scripture) assume the Spirit’s presence most of the time, and pray to an always attentive Father in faith. So, this “abandonment” would have to have gone even deeper than that. I believe it was not just a feeling of abandonment by absence of feeling, but a positive feeling of abandonment: like thick darkness, but this time the thick darkness of Hebrews 12:21, of Judgement, of Scapegoat outside the camp, of eternal bannishment. This ended of course and the Psalm resolved with “Into thy Hands I commend My Spirit” and “It is finished”
    Thank You again Darren for the opportunity to share this. Sorry for the long comment. This is Extremely important to me. My God loves me and my brothers so very much that He went to inconceivable measures to bring us to Him. It is plausible that as Jesus prayed in the Garden, Father was with Him in noncorporeal way sweating His own great drops in grief and horror. He knew even better than Emmanuel Jesus what was to come. I believe Father not only watched in horror as His Son suffered, but at least knew that His punishment was as real as if Father had driven the spikes home Himself. Father in infinite sorrow lashed at the Son everytime Son had to pull at the spikes with searing pain to lift His body to breath. This immortalizes the Son’s infinite Love of the Father, that He would willingly do this. This carves in stone forever Father and Son’s infinite love for us that they would conspire to do this. And that the Father would go through with this, laying out full punishment for our sin on His Son, immortalizes His infinite trust in His Son to Love the Father and do the will of His Father, as well as immortalizing the Love of the Father for the Son, to not rescue the Son, so that the Son could finish His mission.

  11. P D permalink
    June 3, 2012 11:41 pm

    How would a Hebrew direct his hearers to a Psalm? He would recite the first line. Today we say Psalm 22. Jesus had to say, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

    Secondly, Mark and Matthew transliterate the Hebrew/Aramaic recitation of Jesus in Greek. Why? So the reader would know that Jesus was quoting Psalm 22!

    Thirdly, one can’t read the Psalm without immediately realizing that Psalm 22 forecast the actual events of Jesus’ crucifixion.

    Fourthly, Jesus also quoted from the last line of the Psalm. The last phrase of Psalm 22 is chi asa’ and can be translated as “for it is finished.”

    Jesus was preaching his last sermon from the cross. He was the subject. Psalm 22 was the text.

    Now look at John 16:31-22. Jesus specifically states that even though his disciples will be scattered during his crucifixion, he would not be alone. Why? His Father would be with him. See also John 8.

    No, my friends, Jesus was not forsaken by God. He always did what pleased his Father. He even stated beforehand that he would not be alone or forsaken even though his disciples would abandon him.

    The author of Psalm 22 knew that he was not forsaken by God. So did Jesus.

  12. P D permalink
    June 3, 2012 11:57 pm

    It troubles me when theology trumps the Bible. We use our own ideas to read into Scripture what isn’t there and build great theological systems on nothing.

    There is not one verse in the Bible that states that Jesus was punished by God the Father or bore His wrath in our place. Notwithstanding Grudem, God did not pour out wave upon wave of his wrath on Jesus, at least scripturally. The Bible simply doesn’t state this.

    Jesus didn’t die to satisfy God’s honor (Anselm) or wrath (Calvin). He died to satisfy God’s love (John 3:16) and righteousness (Romans 3:26). The God who is love wants to forgive sin but he can’t do it “righteously” if sin isn’t covered. So Jesus died as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (Eph. 5:1)!

    Now, can we let the Scriptures address the issue of whether or not Jesus was forsaken by God? Can we let Jesus himself address this issue and what he thought would happen to him on the cross?

    John 8:28-29 – So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (NIV).

    John 16:31-32 – “You believe at last!” Jesus answered. “But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (NIV).

    Can we at least agree that Jesus believed that his Father would be with him when he went through the ordeal of the crucifixion? If we can, then the recitation of Jesus on the cross of Psalm 22:1 was done by Jesus to point those present to the fulfillment of Psalm 22 in their present. Truly, it is finished. Now woman, behold your son!

  13. Cody Brobst permalink
    July 12, 2012 4:51 pm

    I’m giving a sermon on Jesus being forsaken by God on the cross this Sunday (whether or not that’s literal). Reading through the blog along with the posts was extremely helpful for my exegesis. Thank you gentlemen.

  14. January 28, 2015 2:27 pm

    Amen PD! Well said!
    One interpretation that may be getting overlooked is that Jesus was doing 2 things with this statement.
    1) Proclaiming the fulfillment of Psalm 22.
    2) He could have been expressing his desire for God to end his suffering and take him out of here, which is exactly what happened next. He had suffered a long time that day and was ready to end it.

    If you read the scripture with this interpretation in mind (along with the other points made by PD above), it all seems to make sense.

  15. Anna permalink
    August 22, 2015 9:08 am

    Amen PD! It can be sometimes unnerving how human reason can cloud and above all mystify more than they should be, spiritual matters. I know a bit about splitting hairs for the sake of an argument, law school does a great job teaching you that and it comes with the territory, when you’re French. YET, there must come a time where one must either resort to common sense or wrt spiritual matters, be humble in his understanding, reasoning and interpretation of things, and simply let the Holy spirit teaches him what it is to be understood. Theologians might not like it but I bet, most of them would not have given the time of the day to a bunch of illiterate fishermen preaching about God.

  16. November 17, 2015 12:41 pm

    “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.”

    Any chance we have primary source evidence for this? I would like it to be true, but I must, as always, “test all things.”


    • John permalink
      July 12, 2018 5:45 pm

      I am coming very, very late to this discussion, Erich Fromm makes reference to this practice in his book, You shall be as Gods, Holt Reinhardt and Winston, (1966, New York). See, pages 231 through pages 236. He states at page 233:

      “How can we explain that most Christian theologians accepted the idea that Jesus died with words of despair instead of recognizing that he died reciting the Twenty-Second Psalm? The reason seems to lie simply in the fact that Christian scholars did not think of this small and rather unimportant Jewish custom of citing a book or chapter by its first sentence.”

      Fromm was steeped in Jewish tradition even if he was not a traditional Jewish believer. He described himself in the following way: “Hence, I wish to make my position clear at the outset. If I could define my position approximately, I would call it that of a nontheistic mysticism.” See, page 19. However, the fact that he was not a traditional believer should not detract from his opinion. If correct on this point he should be believed, and he does appear to know Jewish traditions far better than Christian scholars.

      Additionally, Fromm’s position makes a lot of sense to me. Occam’s razor tells me that the simplest solution to a problem is most often correct and we should accept as true those solutions that have the fewest assumptions or complications. The simplest solution to why Christ recited the words of the first verse of Psalm 22 is that He wanted his disciples to take note of that psalm, recognize that it was prophetic, and that He was fulfilling that prophecy.

      I too want to say “Amen” to the posts of PD made on June 3, 2012. Christ was no simple carpenter. As a teacher, He a was not afraid of laying His meaning between the lines. At times He taught in parables and that was so that some who saw would not perceive and some who heard would not understand. Mark 4: 9-12. Christ’s recitation of Psalm 22: 1 falls into this category of teaching.

      Yes, Christ was in agony. But, this was not a moment of despair in which He was deserted by the Father He loved. See, PD’s comments above. Christ was mere moments from completing His atonement for all mankind. His disciples needed to be reminded of that as in the aftermath of His death they would be scattered and would face their own despair.

      Rather, as Christ said in Mark 4: 9, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This was triumph, not defeat. As it says at the end in Psalm 22: 31, “They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.”

  17. April 25, 2016 3:23 pm

    I think I come a bit late to this article but I have a hard time not taking Jesus’ words literal here. Who am I to add a NOT to Jesus’ saying, if you know what I’m saying? Some claim John 16:32 does not allow for a literal interpretation of these words but I believe they are reconcilable somehow 🙂

    • April 28, 2016 1:25 pm

      I agree Tom.
      Every orthodox Christian (small o), understands that we believe in the Trinity without understanding the Trinity. Every anti-Trinitarian argues that Trinitarianism defies plain logic. We defer to Scripture and God’s Self-Revelation in The Word – Jesus Christ.
      God’s revelation of Himself in the Son trumps our simple and fallen human logic.
      Yet every theologian defers to simple logic against God’s Self-Revelation to argue, “no, Jesus could not have meant what He said, He was just role-playing. He was quoting that Psalm to show that prophecy was fulfilled. Oh, except for that part about God forsaking him. That wasn’t prophecy. That was prophecy about Jesus role-playing prophecy…”
      It is circular reasoning and special pleading to satisfy human logic, and perhaps fear that if God isn’t as I imagine him – forever locked in this one role – the all powerful – I am not safe.

      I will err on the side of taking Him at His Word.

    • April 15, 2017 4:05 pm

      Hi friends, a third Tom (Belt) here to go with Tom McCall and Tom Torneyns.

      I confess I’m the source of the suggestion to TomT that based on John 16.32 Jesus’ view of his own cross did not include the notion that Father would actually abandon/forsake him. We could get into Conciliar Christology (Chalcedon) and the unorthodoxy of modern Kenoticism, but I’ll just suggest to TomT that I did not suggest Jesus’ Cry not be taken ‘literally’ (if by literal we mean as Jesus intended it given his context). I take the Cry to be a handle for the entirety of Ps 22 (a scapegoat psalm) and to “literally” mean that contrary to the pain and suffering of the moment, including Israel’s abandonment of Jesus, God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd in abandoning the innocent. Jesus’ cry literally means, “I’m not guilty – as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God – as you all suppose – just like Ps 22 describes.”

      So to TomT, yes – I do read the Cry literally (that is, as Jesus literally intended it given his circumstance and context). To Duane, while the orthodox (small or big ‘o’) agree none of us comprehends the Trinity, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things we cannot say of the Trinity; that the plenitude of God’s essential, loving, triune experience of himself is something that can negated or diminished even temporarily would be one of the things orthodox can’t say – in spite of not ‘comprehending’ the Trinity in its fullness. That plenitude in its actuality is how God is the Triune God he is – at all.

      So yes, let’s take Jesus at his word – ‘both’ of them: the ‘Cry’ (cf Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel) and ‘John 16’ in which Jesus makes it clear that he “will not be alone” (he will not be reduced to the abandonment of scapegoating violence) in the ordeal to come. Why? “Because my Father will be with me.”

      Thanks for this post Darren – referred to it a while back (


  18. April 16, 2017 6:22 am

    Tom Belt, in your latest comment you wrote: ‘Jesus’ cry literally means, “I’m not guilty – as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God – as you all suppose – just like Ps 22 describes.”’ This is certainly food for thought. 🙂

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