The Last Words from the Cross: Day Four

Day One: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Day Two: “Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Day Three: “Woman, behold thy son! Behold, thy Mother!” (John 19:26-27)
Day Four: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
Day Five: “I Thirst.” (John 19:28)
Day Six: “It Is Finished,” (John 19:30)
Day Seven: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 26:46)

On the brink of death, Christ quotes scripture. Specifically, he quotes the first line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Both Matthew and Mark depict Jesus quoting this line (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34), and it is something that almost everybody remembers.

Christians usually read this phrase, correctly, as a deeply human moment in which Christ questions the divine plan he is part of. Intellectually, he knew that God had not forsaken him. He understood both the plan and his part in it, and he knew that humanity’s salvation depended upon him completing his appointed task.

But intellectual knowledge is not a cure for doubt and fear. These are primal, visceral emotions. Our ancestors experienced them long before they evolved the cognitive power to think about things rationally. In moments of great pain, the part of our brain that generates doubt, anxiety, and fear takes over and does the thinking for us. And crucifixion was designed to inflict the greatest pain imaginable on its victims. Any human would be brought to despair after a few hours on a cross, and Christ, while fully divine, was also fully human. This, in fact, was the point.

But Christ’s despair is not as complete as it first appears. He was not quite asking why God had forsaken him. He was quoting a well-known poem in which the poet asks why God has forsaken him. The distinction is crucial because of what comes next in the same poem.

First, though, we need to understand that the Christian tradition has always considered Psalm 22 a Messianic psalm. From the New Testament on, Christians have seen these verses as predicting the suffering of Christ on the cross. Both Matthew and Mark quote verse 7, “They hurl insults, shaking their heads” (Mark 15:29, Matt 27:39). And all four gospel writers quote verse 18: “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment” (Matt 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:43, John 19:24).

By quoting the psalm himself, Christ appears to accept the equivalency. But this means that he also accepts the rest of the psalm, which moves from the initial despair to a celebration of the victory and glory of God. The final eight verses read like this:

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.

My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.

The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.

All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.

For the kingdom is the LORD’s: and he is the governor among the nations.

All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.

A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the LORD for a generation.

They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this. (Psalm 22:24-31)

This is a poem with a shifting perspective. The speaker starts out in one place (afraid and feeling abandoned) and, through the course of the poem, moves to a very different place (love and reverence for God). When Jesus quotes the beginning of the poem, the end is already embedded in his quotation. Poetry works that way.

If someone stands up at a funeral and says, “I come to bury Frank and not to praise him,” they are alluding to Mark Antony’s great speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar—which begins “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” But it ends up praising Caesar quite a lot. When everybody knows the reference, quoting any portion, in some sense, invokes the whole.

So, when Jesus quotes the first line of a well-known poem in his moment of great suffering, doubt, and fear, he is certainly asking the Psalmist’s question, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” But he is doing it in a way that already telegraphs the answer to the question, which is, “They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.”

Comments

  1. This is beautiful. I feel like an idiot for never seeing this utterance in this way. You have transformed how I read it.

  2. Thank you Michael. Context adds so much, how much the better when it comes from a poem of praise and hope. I had never considered a subtext of shifting perspective. This insight has made my life better, my hope richer, to find hope out of ashes.

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