What did Jesus mean when he said that? That passage can be kind of confusing, if not troubling, and it’s quite a deep pit for speculators to fall into. Did God really forsake Jesus as he hung on the cross? And if so, why?
First of all, let’s take a look at the context of this passage. Most people realize this is quoted by Jesus toward the end of his crucifixion. Here’s the passage:
45 Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”[k]
47 Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, “This Man is calling for Elijah!” 48 Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink.
49 The rest said, “Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him.”
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. – Matt 27:45-50
It would probably seem unthinkable to us that God would actually “forsake” Jesus, here in his darkest hour. But is that what happened? There are definitely some today who think that could have been the case.
There are some passages that are used to help back up this notion.
21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Cor 5:21
Here, we’re told that God, in effect, “made Christ be sin” so that we could become righteous. Christ, in other words, became the payment for our sins. This next verse says something similar:
24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, – 1 Peter 2:24
Isaiah 53 is a prophecy concerning Christ’s death on the cross, and several times, phrases such as “he bore the sin of many” and “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” are used in relation to him.
Some people take these passages to mean that Christ literally had the guilt of our sins placed upon him. So, not only did he bear the physical pain of crucifixion, but he bore the spiritual pain of sin’s guilt. When taken with Habakuk 1:13, which says that God can’t look upon evil, then it would seem possible that God could indeed have “turned his back” on his son during the crucifixion.
Personally, I’m not sure that I take such a literal view. First of all, if you clicked on that link to Habakuk, then you could read the passage for yourself. To me, I don’t take the statement that “God can’t look on sin” literally. For one thing, the verse goes on to ask God why he looks on the iniquities of the wicked. Obviously, God sees all. Furthermore, in Acts 10, Cornelius is told that his prayers and alms have come up as an offering before God, and this was before he had even been saved. So we know God is completely aware of the thoughts and intents of each one of us, whether we’re saved or not.
I also tend to take the other passages that mention Christ bearing our sins as merely stating that he was the payment for them, not that he had to actually bear them. I could be wrong about that. There are many things I don’t understand about God or the way our spiritual natures work. Still, I tend to think these passages are worded somewhat figuratively.
Finally, (and I’ve kind of saved the best for last) when Jesus said “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” he was actually quoting a psalm.
Psalm 22 was written for Jesus’s crucifixion. I highly recommend reading it; I find it very moving. But when Christ was crucified, he quoted the first verse of this psalm. Other parts of it refer to some of the specific things that were done at the crucifixion. Notice this passage:
7 All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 “He trusted[b] in the LORD, let Him rescue Him;
Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” – Ps 22:7-8
Doesn’t that remind you of the mocking Jesus received as he hung on the cross? There is also this passage:
14 I am poured out like water,
And all My bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It has melted within Me.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And My tongue clings to My jaws;
You have brought Me to the dust of death. 16 For dogs have surrounded Me;
The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me.
They pierced[c] My hands and My feet;
17 I can count all My bones.
They look and stare at Me.
18 They divide My garments among them,
And for My clothing they cast lots. – Ps 22:14-18
The first part describes (rather poetically) some of the physical effects of crucifixion, and as the second part mentions, they did divide his garments and cast lots for them. Christ’s hands and feet were nailed to the cross, though none of his bones were broken.Finally, the part of the Psalm that most leads me to think that God was with him throughout the entire ordeal is in this section:
19 But You, O LORD, do not be far from Me;
O My Strength, hasten to help Me!
20 Deliver Me from the sword,
My precious life from the power of the dog.
21 Save Me from the lion’s mouth
And from the horns of the wild oxen!
You have answered Me.
22 I will declare Your name to My brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise Him!
All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,
And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from Him;
But when He cried to Him, He heard. – Ps 22:19-24 (emphasis added)
This entire psalm is extremely beautiful, and I think this last section paints an incredible picture of hope. It sounds as though God was with him through it all – that he didn’t leave his son, who had done no wrong, to suffer on the cross alone. It seems to me that when Christ was crucified, he quoted this psalm as a comfort for him and for us. We can go back and read something David wrote long before Christ was even born that tells of the awful suffering he bore, but also of the wonderful salvation that was the result.
It’s just another great example of how well the Bible fits together into one powerful message. Let’s make sure we do all we can to spread it.
Hopefully this brief look at this passage has been useful to you. While I was compiling some of this information, I also ran across an apologetics site, www.carm.org, that had some information as well. Here’s the link, if you’re interested in looking at it.