One of the best-known of Jesus’ utterances is the cry of apparent despair that He made from the cross:
“‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46)
As both Matthew and Mark explain, the Aramaic phrase that Jesus spoke was misunderstood by some of the bystanders as an appeal to Elijah, but both writers take care to clarify that what Jesus spoke was actually the familiar opening words of Psalm 22.
Why is this important? Because it throws a whole new light on what Jesus was communicating with these words: from what at first impression seems a cry of utter despair and an accusation against God, it is now seen as a powerful statement of confidence in His Father and the victory that is being achieved. The entirety of Psalm 22 is too long for us to print here, but the following selected verses tell the story:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
The man to whom these words are attributed is David, Israel’s most famous king, to whom God promised a descendant whose kingdom would endure forever and bless all the peoples of the world. So Jesus’ reference to this psalm is a deliberate statement of His identity as the ‘Son of David’ – the Messiah who was anointed to rule over God’s own Kingdom. And lest there be any doubt that this Psalm spoke of Him, the details of the crucifixion scene unfolding around the cross are unmistakably depicted: the jeering onlookers, the pagan Roman ‘dogs’ who pierced His hands and feet and gambled for his clothes. By His utterance of that single well-known phrase; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus not only powerfully expressed His own agony, but He unmistakably placed what He was suffering squarely into the context of God’s plan of restoration for all of fallen humanity, as foretold by David a thousand years earlier.
But what particularly makes this such a “gem among the Psalms” (in the words of Martin Luther) is the way it points far into the future to our own salvation. Through this agonizing sacrifice, God was delivering on His promise to “turn to the Lord … all the families of the nations … the coming generation … a people yet unborn.” In those prophetic words, we modern readers hear Jesus using this Psalm to link us to the victory that was being won on our behalf that fateful afternoon nearly 2000 years ago. And in the confident words on which the Psalm ends: “he has done it” we hear the foreshadowing of Jesus’ own emphatic declaration that God’s plan has been accomplished:
“It is finished” (John 19:30)