Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

232. "Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? (Matt. 27:46-49; Mark 15:34-36)*

The end drew near. Jesus had hung on the cross for precisely the length of time that David's pestilence had smitten the people (2 Sam. 24:15 Hebrew text). It was now the hour when they began to slay Passover lambs in the temple court, the very time of day when the angel Gabriel had revealed to Daniel that "Messiah shall be cut off, and shall have nothing;" and Jesus broke into a loud cry: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

The words are easily misunderstood. On the strength of one word here, and for no other reason, it has commonly been assumed that in some mysterious way the Father utterly and completely withdrew His Presence from His Beloved Son, so that now for the only time in his life Jesus was altogether bereft of divine help and succour. Here, it is argued, was the climactic experience of Jesus bearing the curse of Sin. This was dereliction entire and complete. He was altogether "without God in the world."

Such an interpretation of the words and experience of Jesus at Golgotha has commended itself to many, but it faces a not inconsiderable array of difficulties. Some of these are the following:

  1. The very psalm used by Jesus is itself emphatic that there was no dereliction: "For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard." (Ps. 22:24). So, whatever verse 1 may mean, these words are explicit that in his hour of greatest need Jesus was able to rely on his Father's sustaining help.
  2. Other Messianic psalms are equally clear: "Unto thee will I cry, O Lord my rock; be not silent to me: lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit. . . Blessed be the Lord, because he hath heard the voice of my supplications" (Ps. 28:1,6). "I cry unto the Lord with my voice, and he hearefh me out of his holy hill" (Ps. 3:4 RV). "As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God? Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art fhou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him who is the health of my countenance, and my God" (Ps. 42:10,11).
  3. Psalm 18 (Study 231) requires that, far from Jesus being abandoned by his Father during the hour of his greatest trial, the Divine Presence was more manifest to him (though not to others) than at any time throughout his life. And the knotty question has to be faced- If Psalm 18 does not mean what it appears to say, then what does it mean?
  4. Is it conceivable that the promise valid for the first Joshua-Jesus, (and for all disciples) was not valid for the second?: "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee" (Josh. 1:5; Heb. 13:5).
  5. Jesus seems to have very deliberately altered the key word "forsaken" which comes in Psalm 22:1. In place of the azavtani of the Old Testament text, Jesus substituted sabachtani which really means "(hast thou) entangled me." The meaning is certainly similar but it is just as certainly different. Jesus seems deliberately to have switched to a less common Hebrew word in order to make pointed allusion to Genesis 22:13, where the sacrifice accepted in place of Isaac was "a ram caught in a thicket"—this is the noun form of the verb 'sabach' (s.w. Ps. 74:5; Is. 9:18; 10:34; Job. 8:17; Nah. 1:10; Jer. 4:7). The cry of Jesus which followed very soon after the one under consideration was: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
In face of this evidence any suggestion that on the cross Jesus was abandoned by his Father must surely be treated with reserve. It would perhaps be fairer to say that Jesus, compassed with infirmity, knew moments of a psychological experience of dereliction which was not true in fact but which may nevertheless have been real enough in his own mind: "I said in my alarm, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications" (Ps. 31:22; verse 5 was quoted by Jesus on the cross); "Hear me speedily, O Lord: my spirit faileth; hide not thy face from me, lest I be like unto them that go down into the pit" (Ps. 143:7) – the explanation of this low-spirited the prayer is in verse 4: "My spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate;" so also Psalm 142:3: "When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path."

Jesus' change of the wording of Psalm 22:1 to "sabachtani" raises another problem. If the meaning of this Hebrew verb is not "forsaken," why is the translation given by Matthew and Mark: "Why hast thou forsaken me?"?

The explanation of this difficulty would appear to be that the writers of the gospels deliberately chose to quote the Septuagint Version of Psalm 22:1 (and not a translation of the modification actually spoken by Jesus) because they wished to emphasize in the minds of their readers that Jesus really did use Psalm 22 —all of it! (Study 234). Evidently some who heard the Lord's loud cry resented it, and were for expressing their feelings by strong action against him —stone-throwing, maybe. But others discouraged them, saying: "Let be! Behold, he calleth for Elias." Such a remark could not possibly come from a Roman soldier. What would he know of Elias? But neither is it conceivable that a Jew would confuse a prayer to "Eli, Eli," with an appeal to"Eliyahu". (But there is the unexplained problem: Why "Eloi, Lioi" in Mark's record?).

There is, however, a phrase in Psalm 22:8 which sounds very like Eliyahu, and might easily lie confused with it: "He trusted on the Lord (that) he would deliver him." To a Jew not over familiar with the now disused sacred tongue, this might well sound like: "He trusted Elijah that he would deliver him." And the rough joke would follow readily enough: "Let alone; let us see whether Elias will come to take him down"-a crude allusion to the prophet's restoration of the widow's son (1 Kgs. 17:22).

233. Earthquake (Matt. 27:51-53; Mark 15:38)*

When the Lord died, there was a mighty earthquake, and "behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom."

According to Edersheim’s Rabbinic sources, the veil was 40 cubits by 20 cubits and one handbreadth thick. This can only mean that it was actually 20 by 20 (compare the veil in the tabernacle 10 by 10) and hung double, a hand breadth apart, over a rail so that the cherubim pattern on it showed true on both sides. It was woven, says Edersheim, from 24 threads twisted together, and was so large and heavy that when washed before hanging it needed 300 priests to handle it.

According to the non-canonical Gospel to the Hebrews the earthquake fractured the lintel of the temple door. This detail, if dependable, is entirely consonant with Matthew's account of the rending of the veil from top to bottom. The Gemara mentions that at a Passover forty years before the temple was destroyed the great gates of the temple were mysteriously flung open. But this, it says, happened at midnight (in the crucifixion darkness?).

The rent veil

How could the evangelists know that the veil was rent from top to bottom? If this information was not imparted by divine inspiration, the only alternative explanation is that someone sow it happen. The burning of incense in the Sanctuary took place daily at the time of the evening sacrifice, that is, about the ninth hour. Thus there is explicit confirmation of the timing of this remarkable occurence, and also explanation why, later on, "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7), The sure knowledge supplied by priestly witnesses, that the veil was rent "from the top to the bottom" would strengthen conviction that this was an act of God. The seamless robe of Jesus, symbol of his high-priesthood, was not rent. The veil "that is to say, his flesh (i.e. his human nature"; Heb.lO:20) was rent, and with it the inwrought cherubim, the symbols there of the glory of God in Israel. As a result, the sanctified believer is now able to see right into the Holy of Holies, the divine Presence (cp. Rev.4).

At the baptism of Jesus, the heavens were rent (s.w. Mk. 1:10). But now, at another rending of the heavens, the mountains quaked at God's presence (Is. 64:1). The explanation of this has already been indicated in the exposition of Psalm 18 (Study 231):

"In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears, Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth" (Ps. 18:6,7).

God did well to be angry that day!

Graves opened

This earthquake opened the graves, rolling away the stones that were sealed, and splitting rock caves wide open. These graves would be unmolested and even untouched through the next three days, for no Jew would risk defilement at the Passover. Then on the first day of the week, when Jesus rose from the dead these "saints which slept" also rose and came into Jerusalem. Saints are normally spoken of as "sleeping", but Jesus never. He "died".

This remarkable divine phenomenon has puzzled many - to such an extent that, against all the evidence, suggestions have been made that this passage is an interpolation in the gospel text. This is an unworthy expedient. The manuscript evidence in support of these verses is just as good as for any other passage in the gospels.

Who were they?

Who were these "saints", and why were they raised? It is a reasonable surmise that they were disciples of Jesus who had died during his ministry. Disciples of John and devout characters like the aged Anna and Simeon may also have been among them. If these people were to be evidence of a resurrection it was needful that they be recognized by some to whom they appeared. For one to appear in Jerusalem and say that he was (say) Isaiah or Ezra risen from the dead would be to invite denunciation as an impostor, since no recognition test would be possible.

It has been suggested that the raising of others along with Jesus had about it an element of inevitabilty. Such is the character of God and such His omnipotence that He is incapable of doing things by halves. In the world of Nature, to produce perhaps one more oak tree He supplies thousands of acorns; a cod lays millions of eggs; myriads of uninhabited worlds are dotted about the ocean of space. The overflow of divine energy is so prodigal that all parts of God's universe teem with multitude and multiplicity. So, also, one may believe, when divine energy went forth to raise the Son of God from the dead, the overflow of the Holy Spirit's activity was seen in the raising of others whose faith had brought them specially near to the Lord's Christ.

The meaning of it.

There is a yet deeper significance: the disciples were being taught to see in this phenomenon a foretaste of that enigmatic Old Testament resurrection Scripture:

"Thy dead men shall live, my dead body, they shall arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is as the dew of lights (the dawn?), and the earth shall cast forth the dead" (Is. 26:19). Jesus himself had said: "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (Jn. 5:25). The Lord's cry "with a loud voice" just before he died was the signal (Mt. 27:50). Those sleeping saints in the vicinity of Jerusalem heard his voice and lived.

But reflection on this singular occurrence reveals a yet more important significance behind it. Here was factual demonstration that the merits of the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus are timeless in their effects. Not only is he powerful for the saving of disciples of the Lord many centuries later, but also retrospectively the grace of God in Christ will operate to bring from the dead those who died believing in the Lamb of God long before that great Passover when His redemption was wrought for men.

Paul says the same: "Christ Jesus whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness, because of the passing over of sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God" (Rom. 3:25RV). "And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant..." (Heb. 9:15).

In other words, through all previous ages faithful men knew the forgiveness of their sins through the (as yet) future offering of the promised Redeemer. The sacrifices they brought to the altar of the Lord were merely an expression of that faith.

Thus Daniel and David, Joshua and Moses, Abraham and Noah, Adam and Eve will find themselves blessed with the Lord's redemption through the great victory won by the Seed of the Woman, the Firstborn of God's New Creation. And this marvellous truth was vividly and practically demonstrated when saints in Christ rose with Christ, saying: "This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice, and be glad in it."

The holy city

These risen believers came into Jerusalem after the Lord's own resurrection and by appearing to fellow-disciples added further conviction concerning Christ himself. The phrase translated "after his resurrection" can be read in either of two ways; (a) after God's raising of him; (b) after his (Christ's) raising of them. The latter reading might imply that Jesus himself raised these disciples (as he did Lazarus) before his appearances to Peter and on the Emmaus road; cp. 1 Th. 4:15.

They came into "the holy city," thus suggesting a fulfilment of Isaiah 52:1: "Awake, awake; put on strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean." But believing Gentiles also were, through Christ, given a place in "the holy city" (see comment on Mt. 27:7 in Study 219).

It is worthy of consideration whether there is also a fore-shadowing here of the resurrection in the Last Day when saints will rise at the call of the Lord and come into Jerusalem (not to mount Sinai) to join their fellow-believers who are alive. And at that time Jerusalem will be a "holy city" —made so by the presence of Christ the King (cp. Mt.25:31,32)-a city no longer the "burdensome stone" and vortex of trouble which it will certainly be yet again before Messiah's return.

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