Have you ever heard the first few words of a beloved song, and instantly know not only the rest of the words but the meaning of the song as well? The fourth set of Jesus’ last words are the Israelite version of a popular song; one that travels from the depths of nothingness to glorifying God.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?Matthew 27:46
Taken at face value, these words are uncomfortable to hear and seem downright scandalous to be coming from the mouth of Jesus. If Jesus is the Son of God, the Second Person in the Trinity, how can He be forsaken or abandoned by God the Father? It doesn’t seem possible! Why would Jesus waste His precious last breaths speaking something that can seem blasphemous?
Yet Jesus is not spouting some random words, but is quoting the songs that were popular to the Israelites of Jesus’ time: the Psalms, or more specifically He quotes the beginning of Psalm 22. It is The Prayer of an Innocent Man, attributed to David, and contains four sections. The first 12 verses are very sad, yet they mirror what happens at the crucifixion. “All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer…” (6) describe the actions of the crowds at the crucifixion in all four Gospels. “You relied on the Lord — let him deliver you…” (9) is recorded in Matthew, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him.” (Matt 27:43)
The second section of Psalm 22, verses 13 through 22, contains a description of one who is dying, “Like water my life drains away..” (15) as well as descriptions of those watching. It’s not just the people the Pharisees have convinced to deride Jesus, but also the Roman soldiers when it references “…they divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.”(19) These two sections are very sad to read; and joy seems to be as far away as another planet.
Sections three and four of the Psalm are all about praising God. They are such an about-face, that one reading it may wonder if the last two sections belong with the first two. “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.” (25) If the Jews watching heard Jesus and started thinking about the Psalm, did they remember this line? Or, as it conveys in the Gospels, are the words misunderstood, thinking that Jesus is calling out for Elijah because this Psalm would have been too descriptive of what was happening? Was this an invitation, to those who knew the Scriptures inside and out, to be challenged one last time by Jesus, but not in condemnation, but rather as an invitation, to repent and praise God?
The fourth section of the Psalm seems rather prophetic with phrases like, “All who sleep in the earth will bow low before God…” (30) This seems to convey that the ancestors are dwelling before God in eternity. Perhaps it’s the very last verse that sums up what Jesus is accomplishing by dying on the cross. “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn the deliverance you have brought.” This is the whole mission of the Apostles and all who have followed in their footsteps. By our words and deeds we proclaim the love Jesus has for us, including to die and rise from the dead, so that there is no place where His love cannot find us and to know we won’t be trapped in death forever, but rather can be in the presence of God.
What starts as a depressing topic is turned around to be a source and call for joy. I wonder if any of those at the foot of the cross realized what Jesus was saying — either at the moment or after the resurrection — and came to believe in Jesus? However, Jesus’ words are not meant for just those who lived at that time, but are meant for us to ponder as well. Do we turn away from sin, seeking God and praising Him for all that He has done for us? Or are we like those around Jesus who mistakenly hear something else so that we don’t have to think about the damage our words and actions can cause?