There are those out there who believe Jesus’ crucifixion was in fact the crushing, final defeat it appeared to be.
"My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?" (Eloi eloi lama sabachtani?)
Evidence, they say, that Jesus realized in the last few minutes of life that his naive belief in a loving Father was no match for the powers and systems of the world. They believe that Jesus was experiencing the abject horror of one who realizes he is about to die in vain.
I say these people couldn’t be more wrong.
It seems they haven’t read Psalm 22.
Jesus was a rabbi. He lived, breathed, ate and drank the Scriptures. He knew that the Scriptures permeated every aspect of his people’s life, so that when he quoted one his listeners intimately understood the context and where it fit in the larger story of God told through the Torah.
With just one phrase Jesus could call up two thousand years of imagery, storylines, beliefs and cultural identity. It’s kind of like when you tell someone “The Force will be with you”, you hold six hours of Star Wars movies and decades of cultural memory in mind all at once.
When Jesus echoes the opening of David’s psalm on the cross, he’s not reciting one line in isolation but is packing 31 verses into those four words and calling forth a thousand years of messianic expectations.
Let’s go through some of these other verses to see what was running through his mind:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?Hmm, it appears that the skeptics may have a point after reading the first paragraph. But hold the phone! Let’s read the next one:
O my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent. (vv. 1-2)
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.That pretty much chuffs the “despair” theory right there. This is a psalm about a man in deep distress yet continuing to trust in God. And a confident, powerful trust at that. Keep reading:
In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted you and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed. (vv. 3-5)
But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.Far from despairing at the people’s sharp turn against him, Jesus thinks of this psalm and remembers that this is exactly how it’s supposed to happen. Which means that, not only is he not defeated, but everything is going according to plan.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him! Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” (vv. 6-8)
Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.Again, both he and David trust in God when everyone else has failed them.
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. (vv. 9-11)
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.John clearly understood what Jesus was getting at when he asked for something to drink.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. (vv. 14-15)
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. (vv. 16-17)This one needs no explanation, except to say that David wrote this roughly a thousand years before crucifixion was invented.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment. (v. 18)Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all picked up on the significance of this verse.
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.This is about as far from a feeling of abandonment as you can get. I love how passionate David’s psalms are, how human! He starts off in deep depression and despair, but then seems to remind himself in the middle of writing that this view is all wrong, that God never abandons his children.
You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (vv. 22-24)
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. (v. 25)I’m also sure Jesus was sharply aware that he was minutes away from successfully completing the ultimate fulfilling of his vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him—may your hearts live forever!No my friends, eloi eloi lama sabachtani is not at all the defeated, despairing cry of a man who realizes his entire life has been a lie.
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. (vv. 26-28)
It’s the exact opposite.
This is a battle yell in mockery and contempt of overwhelming, unmasked evil. This is a declaration that the enemy has unwittingly played right into his hands.
It’s a triumphant cry of victory.
If you’re not convinced yet, read and judge for yourself…here are the final sentences of the last thing Jesus thought about before he died:
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.He has done it.
Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn--for he has done it.
It is accomplished.
Friday is so Good.