In the 27th chapter of the gospel of Matthew we find Jesus’ last recorded words spoken shortly before He died. The translation of these words, as rendered in our Common Version and most of the newer versions is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (v. 46).
Were we to read these words without any previous knowledge of Bible teaching, we would be horrified. Could a loving, gracious, protecting Father forsake His Son at such a time? Could He possibly forsake one whose life of consecration had been flawless, whose obedience had been perfect, whose submission had been so exemplary and complete?
Theologians generally agree that God did forsake Jesus at this moment. We quote from an author in a current magazine:
“There was feeling in Jesus’ cry, a longing and more intense, unprecedented feeling than life could ever show us. Behind the dark feelings stood an awesome and distressing fact: Jesus was forsaken!…He went into His death as a God-forsaken man. This puzzles us, yes; but it is nevertheless fact.” Why? we ask. Why would God forsake Jesus at so critical a moment? Again theologians have an answer. How could He do otherwise, when, and we quote again, “all the scum and filth of human life had settled upon his soul”! “He was bearing our iniquities, all of them; they burdened Him down and blocked His way to God. The dereliction expressed in this outcry of Jesus was a real awareness on his part of the experience of lostness. As a voluntary victim, as our substitutionary sacrifice. Jesus’ death consisted in suffering the penalty of our sins; He received, in our place, sin’s wages. God forsook him ….His dereliction was real –because our sins were upon him.” Other theologians go so far as to say that Jesus at that moment relinquished His “divinity” so as to be able to identify with our lowly humanity, so that the atonement could be effective. And He had to be left unsupported at such a moment or the redeeming power of His death would have been ruined. In fact, some add that the “keen edge” of His passion was necessary to “make His sufferings meritorious to us.” If Jesus’ agony had not been so great, and if God had not forsaken Him at that moment, we might be still under the condemnation of death for our sins!”
Is not such teaching an outrage against a righteous, loving and holy God? How terrible the very idea of it! How utterly foreign it is to the teaching of the Bible. The Bible does not even tell us that Jesus’ death was necessary to deliver us from the punishment our sins deserve, much less to say that the more He suffered, the more meritorious that death would be! Such horrors surely do not belong to the high ideals of Christianity.
But even if we remove the ideas that theology has attached, we still have the words of Jesus as they appear in Matthew 27:46: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” What are we to believe? Did God forsake His Son at that moment?
Among the most cherished promises of Scripture are those of God’s constant care and protection for His own. He is gracious, merciful, kind, a “very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). “The Lord is good, A stronghold in the day of trouble; And He knows those who trust in Him.” (Nah. 1:7). Surely Jesus was as deserving of God’s “very present help” as any who ever lived, and He qualified fully among those “that trust in him,” for His confidence was complete.
The Psalmist spoke of God as his rock, his deliverer, his shield, his high tower, “and the One in whom I take refuge” (Ps. 144:2). He cried to the Lord in his troubles, and that the Lord heard, he was confident (Ps. 66:19). Surely Christ would have been as deserving as the Psalmist. The Psalmist testified further: “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take care of me …. I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27: l0, 13). Again he declared, “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken …. And those who know Your name will put their trust in You; For You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You.” (Ps. 37:25; 9:10). Could this be David’s experience –and yet Jesus be forsaken?
It was God’s promise to Joshua: “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). It was Moses’ confidence for the people of Israel: “For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him?” (Deut. 4:7). It was a confidence which the prophet Samuel expressed to his people: “Do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart; … for the Lord will not forsake his people for His great name’s sake” (l Sam. 12:20, 22). The prophet Jeremiah (51:5) uttered the same thought: “For Israel is not forsaken, nor Judah by his God, the Lord of hosts.” If Israel was deserving of such care, why not Christ? Isaiah extended the promise in these words: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none …. I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them …. I will bring the blind by a way that they did not know; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked places straight. These things will I do for them, and not forsake them” (41:17: 42:16).
The author of Hebrews repeats the sublime promise: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6). Was this promise to “us” and not to Christ?
We are told still further that God forsakes only those who forsake Him. As the prophet Zechariah proclaimed to his people, “says God: ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, He also has forsaken you” (2 Chron. 24:20).
The Psalmist cried, “In You, O Lord, I put my trust: let me never be put to shame …. Do not cast me off in the time of old age; Do not forsake me when my strength fails. For my enemies speak against me; And those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together, Saying, “God has forsaken him; Pursue and take him, for there is none to deliver him” (Ps. 71:1, 9-11). His enemies claimed that God had forsaken him, but David avowed that such was not the case.
Where is the consistency in God’s love, if He shows greater care and concern for others of His human children than for His own beloved Son? How could God promise His people, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you,” and then forsake Jesus in His last moments of mortal life? Is this consistent with His promises that never fail? Is this what Jesus was to expect from His Father?
Not according to Jesus. His message to His disciples, the evening of the Passover Supper, rings with confidence and trust (see John, chapters 13, 14, 15 and 16). “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I say to you …. Let not your heart be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in Me …. I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also …. You have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If you loved me, you would rejoice, because I said, ‘I am going to the Father’ for my Father is greater than I …. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in his love ….Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” Jesus knew that they, the disciples, would forsake Him. But did He expect the Father to forsake Him also? He did not. Must we conclude that when the hour of trial arrived, God disappointed Jesus and did forsake Him? It is unthinkable.
This same confidence had been Jesus’ all through His ministry. “The Father has not left me alone; for I always do those things that please Him” (John 8:29). And in His last prayer, recorded in John 17, Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour is come; glorify your Son, that your Son also may glorify you …. I have glorified you on the earth: I have finished the work which you gave me to do …. O righteous Father, the world has not known you: but I have known you, and these have known that you have sent me” (17:1, 4, 25). Jesus knew His Father and all His attributes, and knew that He was not left alone. Even knowing what lay ahead, He could say, “O righteous Father you loved me.” How could He say it if His Father would forsake Him? And after He had prayed in the garden, and had uttered those immortal words of resignation, “Not my will, but yours, be done,” we read that “an angel appeared to him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:42-43). His Father had not forsaken Him at this time.
If Jesus had been forsaken at the last moment, would not many a sufferer who followed in His footsteps have quailed at the prospect of martyrdom? What of men like Stephen, Paul, Peter, and many others who had to suffer–how could they have been sure God would be with them if He had forsaken Jesus in His suffering?
The reading of Psalm 22:1 is commonly used as proof for the doleful complaint with which Jesus is thought to have ended His last hour on the cross. However, a careful examination of the words used gives other possible meanings.
Several Bible commentators express difficulty in translating the words used in Psalm 22:1 and in Matthew 27:46 with any degree of accuracy: several others decline to comment. Adam Clarke suggests that the words may be “referred [more] to the wicked Jews than to our Lord and are, an exclamation, indicative of the obstinate wickedness of His crucifiers: who steeled their hearts against every operation of the power of God.”
Thus it might be translated: “My God! My God! to what sort of persons hast Thou left Me?”He then gives another possibility: “Through the whole of the Sacred Writings, God is represented as doing those things which, in the course of His providence, He only permits to be done. Therefore the words, ‘To whom hast Thou left or given Me up?’ are only a form of expression for ‘How astonishing is the wickedness of those persons into whose hands I am fallen!'”
The Lamsa Bible translates this text giving another thought: “My God, my God, for this I was spared”–which also removes totally the thought of God forsaking Jesus. And in a footnote, it suggests also: “This was my destiny.”
In a book by J. Ralston Skinner, in which the author seems intent only on explaining certain peculiarities of the Hebrew language, particular attention is given to what he calls “the false rendering of the words of the Saviour as given in Matthew, chap. 27, v. 46.” The author first quotes the Hebrew words, and then comments: “The Scripture of these words says… ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’…Now the words will not bear this interpretation, and it is a false rendering. The true meaning is just the opposite of the one given, and is: My God, my God, how thou dost glorify me!’ But even more, for while lama is why, or how, as a verbal it connects the idea of to dazzle, or… ‘how dazzlingly.”’ He further states that Ps. 22:1 also is falsely rendered.
From the Hebrew Lexicon (Gesenius’) we find the word translated “forsaken” in Psalm 22:1 has for its first definition: “To loosen bands and to let a beast go free from its bonds…Thus in the difficult passage, Ex. 23:5, ‘If thou see the ass of thy enemy lying down under its burden, beware that thou leave him not, but that thou loose his bonds.'” The lexicographer further explains: “There is a play of the words in the double use of the verb which stands first in common signification of forsaking, than in the primary one of loosing. It is applied to a servant set free.” This being true, why could we not replace the word “forsaken” in Psalm 22:1 and in Jesus’ quotation of that passage, with the words “set free”?
If we select the meaning that harmonizes the words of Jesus with the thoughts of God expressed elsewhere in the Word, are we not being fair to the Scriptures? We know that the Word of God teaches that He never forsakes the righteous; hence do we not do injustice to the Word when we choose a meaning that suggests that God forsook Jesus? How much better the thought that He was “set free.” Historians inform us that it was customary for men who were crucified to linger several days before death ended their sufferings. Pilate, we are told, marveled when informers told him that Jesus was so soon dead. He could not believe it and so sent a trusty centurion to confirm the report. But it was the mercy of God. Jesus was delivered from prolonged suffering, and was it not fitting for Him, as He felt the end approaching, to utter an exclamation of praise for relief?
Thus we might phrase Jesus’ last words, “My God! my God! how greatly thou hast helped me! how wonderful has been my release!” Instead of thinking God had forsaken Him, Jesus breathes His last with words of thankfulness to His righteous Father who had relieved Him of suffering and would so soon raise Him from death’s slumber to the glory of an endless life.
Gesenius’ Hebrew Lexicon gives another definition of the original word translated “forsake” in our Common Version: “to commit to anyone, to leave in one’s care”, as in Psalm 10:14, ‘the poor commits himself to you.'” Isn’t this exactly what Jesus was doing at this time, committing Himself to the care of His heavenly Father? Far from being forsaken, He was, in this helpless moment, trusting Himself to the keeping of God.
Did God forsake Jesus? Never! And neither will He forsake any other faithful servant.
His promise is sure.