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Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me as Quote NOT Statement: Psalm 22:1 in the New Testament

CrossMatthew 27:46  reads, “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Many have taken this text as preaching “the Divine Rejection of Christ on the Cross”—that Jesus “took our sins upon him” on the cross, (perhaps like slipping on a heavy sin-laden backpack which he intends to carry to the precipice of Mount Doom… or into the path of divine wrath) God’s wrath was poured out against that sin, burning it up, but also forcing the father to turn his back on Jesus, rejecting him for that time that he bore the sin.

You see, we westerners have always had this nagging question itching at the back of our minds. While having full faith in the testimony of Scripture that Jesus died for our sins as an atoning sacrifice, the exact means by which this satisfies Holy justice, the exact means by which our sins get forgiven by his death has always bothered us a bit, whether we want to admit it or not.

We come as western dialogical thinkers trying to make sense of eastern analogical texts and concepts and often force them to satisfy our sense of justice rather than God’s. Is the right answer to an ancient near eastern puzzle (Why does atonement work?) found in western forensic readings of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 while on the cross? I think not.

The question, after all, is NOT “Why did God forsake Christ while he was on the cross,” but, rather, “Why did Jesus quote Psalm 22:1 while on the cross?”

We are wrong to treat these words as if they were Jesus’ own rather than as a quote. To quote is NOT the same thing as to say.

Here are few tips for discerning Jesus’ intentions in quoting Psalm 22:1.

  1. Read the quoted passage in full. Jews often made pinpoint quotes from the OT in order to reference larger discussions. A digestion of Psalm 22:1-31 should prove enlightening.
  2. Discover the author’s intention in using the quote, reference, or allusion in its new context. Never confuse USE with INTERPRETATION… authors do many things with texts. So, why does Jesus quote it, and why does Matthew and Mark record it?
  3. Discern the form of the quote. Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 from the Aramaic, but I’ll leave this for another discussion another day.
  4. Discern the life of the quoted text in the Jewish community.
    1. Psalm 22 is a messianic psalm of the righteous sufferer… a lament.
    2. Laments are forms of worship & prayer. They are prayers of faith containing cries of dependence on a God who can be trusted even in the most dire circumstances.
    3. Laments have typical patterns in which is found:
      • An anguished cry to YHWH
      • A description of the anguishing situation (often very figurative)
      • A request for deliverance / vindication
      • A confession of faith and trust in YHWH
      • A confession of sin, or an affirmation of innocence in the matter
      • A vow in exchange for deliverance / rehearsal of YHWH’s covenant
      • A conclusion…praise…repeated petition.
    4. Psalm 22 is a close match, containing:
      • An opening cry of anguish—My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
      • It then gives an expression of praise for YHWH’s history of trustworthiness (Our fathers trusted in you and you saved them.)
      • Then the psalmist describes his plight in highly figurative terms (I’m a worm mocked by passersby.)
      • The psalmist returns to shouts of confidence in YHWH. (You’ve been with me from the womb.)
      • The Psalmist makes further entreaties in light of his further depicted plight (Bulls surround me.)
      • He prays for deliverance (Don’t be far from me.)
      • He makes vows to become, if spared, an instrument for YHWH’s glory.
  5. Learn as much as you can about Jewish hermeneutical (interpretative) and homiletical (practical use of Scripture in presentation) practices during the New Testament era.
    1. Jewish interpreters were dedicated to historical, grammatical and literary context prior to 70 AD… and so should we. If we assume our understanding of Jesus’ quote and use it as a lens for reading Psalm 22 we run a serious risk of missing the meaning and of destroying the evidence that might set us straight.
  6. Consider the world view of the authors of both the OT and NT texts.
    1. This would take a lot more space than I have to unpack even for this instance… someday I’ll do it. (I can dream can’t I?)
  7. Consider the hindsight that Jesus’ arrival affords for drawing out meaning already woven into OT texts.
    1. This is not the same thing as a Christological hermeneutic in which one assumes their understanding of Jesus apart from the Old Testament and then uses that a priori “knowledge” to interpret OT passages contrary to their historical grammatical literary meaning.

So let’s summarize. Jesus like many Jews of his day appears to make a pinpoint quote (snabbing a part but intending the whole context) from a lament from “A Righteous Sufferer” who wails in the beginning seeking deliverance from the torments he is facing… detailing them poetically… only to turn to consider God’s past works of deliverance and to express celebratory confidence that God will also deliver him. He vows to dedicate himself on the other side of his deliverance to spreading the good word about God’s mercy and grace to him so as to make YHWH famous the world over. He actually counters his initial anguish saying in Psalm 22:24  “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.”

So much for God’s rejection of Jesus on the cross.

Laments are forms of worship & prayers of faith containing cries of dependence on a God who can be trusted even in the direst circumstances…. BUT we have made Psalm 22 out to be a forensic depiction of Jesus’ abandonment in the face of becoming a sin offering in keeping with our particular western sense of why a sin offering worked.

3 thoughts on “Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me as Quote NOT Statement: Psalm 22:1 in the New Testament

  1. Bernie Smith says:

    I have long taught that Jesus’ quotation of the beginning of Psalm 22 was not the cry of defeat I have often been taught, but a cry of VICTORY as one considers the context of Jesus and the Psalm. Rather than crying out in anguish, is it possible that Jesus was “preaching” to those within earshot that this was not the end of His ministry, but the beginning of something much greater?
    No wonder Matthew thought he needed to share it as Good News!

    1. I’m glad to hear it… most get this wrong. hereortogo… great url tag… love it.

  2. Ed Lambright says:

    It’s about time. I’ve always believed and taught that He was quoting Ps 22 and it was an indicator of His victory as if to say “look what is going on around me, can’t you see it happening, can’t you see the prophecies being fulfilled.” Besides it would not make sense to believe God would turn His back on His son- what chance would we stand.

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