Psalm of the Cross

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Two Gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, record that near His death, Jesus called out in a loud voice with what might seem to be a strange statement:

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

While Matthew records Jesus’ words in Hebrew, Mark records them in Aramaic. But the words are almost identical, and the meaning is the same.

These verses have long been interpreted as Jesus bearing the sins of the whole world and God, who cannot look at evil (Habakkuk 1:13), turning away from His Son, who was left in near despairing isolation. Because sin cuts us off from God, the argument is made, and because Jesus at that moment represented all sinners, God totally cut Himself off from His perfect Son.

But is that what those terrible words really signify? Did God really turn away from His only Son, who had lived a life of perfect obedience all the way to death itself (Philippians 2:8)?

Although we may think that is the case, no scripture says it. And how do we mesh that concept with the fact that it was because God loved sinners so much that He sent His Son to die for them (John 3:16)? Or the fact that God looks on and deals personally with every sinner He calls? Or that we have it on scriptural authority that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ” (Romans 8:38, 39)?


There is a more positive way to understand those words of Jesus.

Jewish rabbis have long utilized the principle of referring to a scriptural passage by means of a few of its words, knowing that their hearers would mentally supply the rest of the passage. This method of teaching (called in Hebrew remez, meaning “a hint”) was certainly used in Jesus’ time. He employed it frequently.

For example, in Matthew 21:15, when the children of Jerusalem shouted praises in His honor and the priests and teachers of the law became indignant, Jesus responded by quoting only a few words from Psalm 8: “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise” (v. 2, NHEB). But the religious leaders would have realized that the rest of this passage states that children’s praises will silence the enemies of God.

Jesus was almost certainly using this technique when He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the opening line of Psalm 22, the great messianic psalm that foretold the smallest details of the Messiah’s death. Every biblically literate Jew present at the Crucifixion would have been reminded of the prophecies made in that psalm: the insults of the mocking crowd (vv. 6-8); the dying thirst of God’s Servant (v. 15); the “dogs”/Gentiles who pierced His hands and feet (v. 16); the casting of lots for His garments (v. 18) — simply by the “hint” of Jesus quoting the psalm’s opening verse.

These words were also the only ones Jesus spoke “with a loud voice” on the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Jesus spoke these words in His agony to all present, and all present would have likely recognized the intent of the small remez that referenced the whole psalm it was taken from.

Seen this way, we realize that Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” were His last great teaching, an abbreviated reference to all of Psalm 22 — the final proof He offered that He was, indeed, the One about whom the psalmist prophesied.

Fuller understanding

Understanding Jesus’ words as a remez of Psalm 22 is not to argue that sin cuts us off from God, but to urge us not to presume that this is why Jesus uttered these words. We should temper that concept with a fuller understanding of God’s love, that God always loves us as His children despite our sins. This means that God still loved His Son at that awful time of His shouldering of our sins. Jesus himself told His disciples shortly before His crucifixion: “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (John 16:32).

In fact, near its end, the very psalm that Jesus quoted contains, not words of His rejection as He suffered, but words that Jesus knew He could trust completely: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (Psalm 22:24).

Applying all of Psalm 22 to Jesus’ crucifixion, we realize that as He hung on the cross, fully human and bearing the full weight of human sin and death, His Father did not reject Him and had not “hidden his face from him.” The Father loved Jesus till His last breath. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was quoted for our benefit as a summary of the prophecies Jesus was fulfilling in laying down His life for us.

R. Herbert
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R. Herbert holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near Eastern languages, biblical studies, and archaeology. He served as an ordained minister and church pastor for a number of years. He writes for several Christian venues and for his websites at and, where you can also find his free e-books. R. Herbert is a pen name.