Part I: The Psalm of Abandonment
Michael F. Bird asked a provocative but obvious question: “How did the early [church] preach about Jesus if they did not have a New Testament?” He answers his own question by pointing to the Old Testament, the only Scripture the church possessed in her earliest years. Particularly, Bird points to the Psalms as a rich source for understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus.[i] This insight coincided with my experience reading the Psalms over recent days.
The Psalms have been the source of comfort and strength to Jews and Christians for centuries because they not only reveal truth about God and righteousness, but heartfelt hopes, dreams, struggles, fears and emotions that are part of being human. Today, we place great value on “keeping it real,” The Psalms offer an enormous resource for connecting faith and life with authenticity.
This three-part series of blogs focuses on several Psalms that gave glimpses of Holy Week centuries before Jesus came. May they enrich your study and prayer as we come to the culmination of this Holy Week. Here is Part I.
Jesus’ Fourth Word on the Cross
Mark and Matthew record what the church has traditionally regarded as the fourth of Jesus’ Seven Last Words from the Cross.
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34, cf. Matthew 27:26)
Bystanders at the cross conjectured that Jesus was calling for the great prophet Elijah to rescue him. Christians to this day ponder and debate how to understand what Jesus was experiencing and how we are to interpret it.
We know that Jesus was quoting from one of the Psalms written by King David.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2)
The Backdrop: Psalm 22
Whatever intense attack King David was experiencing, Psalm 22 paints a vivid picture of his inner struggle and outer anguish. Believers from the time of the early church, have seen in David’s words a foreshadowing and amazingly detailed description of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Psalm 22:6-18 contains the most poignant portion of this description:
I am a worm … scorned by others and despised.
All who see me mock me … they shake their heads and say, “Let the LORD deliver him.”
Many bulls encircle me.
I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint, my heart is like wax … my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me.
They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.
The Emotional and Spiritual Pain of Abandonment
These verses paint King David’s suffering with dark colors. No wonder the Holy Spirit brought these words of Scripture to Jesus’ heart as he experienced the ultimate challenge of his life. Though untold thousands died on crosses of Roman making, Jesus’ mission on the cross was one only he could accomplish. As the African spiritual says, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley; he had to walk it by himself. Nobody else could walk it for him; he had to walk it by himself.” His mission was unique, personal, and sacrificial as he bore our sin in his own body on the tree. His suffering was the kind that stresses human emotion to the breaking point and stretches faith to the limit. How can we confront the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death and not imagine that in his humanity — the same humanity which wept in dread hours before in Gethsemane — he would be flooded with the emotions of intense loneliness and abandonment? Spiritual struggle would follow.
Many have experienced such emotional stress during suffering or dark hours in our lives that we have wondered where God is. We may cry out, “Where are you, God, why don’t you answer. Why do I feel so alone?” Jesus, who was tested in every respect as we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15), did too! In times when we feel guilty, sensing God’s presence becomes even more difficult. Bearing our sin must have intensified Jesus’ inner emotional and spiritual struggle in sensing God’s presence.
Yet, those who trust in God, as King David did, share intimately with the Lord about their spiritual and emotional struggles. So too, Jesus poured out his heart to God.
Clinging to God’s Promises
Thankfully, Psalm 22 contains many bright brush strokes as well! The Psalmist expresses trust based on God’s past faithfulness, writing “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame (Psalm 22:4-5).” He found reassurance that God “ … did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him (Psalm 22:24).” He notes that, ultimately, God rules over all and that all from the most prosperous to those who fall in the dust of death will kneel and worship the Lord (Psalm 22:27-31). Psalm 22 is not only a song of abandonment! It is also a hymn of trust!
Scriptures like Habakkuk 1:13 speak of the holiness of God and declare that the Lord’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil, and … cannot look on wrongdoing…” Many scholars and theologians apply this thought to Jesus’ quote from Psalm 22 and conclude that in this moment God had turned his back on Jesus. They reason that in atoning for our sin, Jesus became sin for us. They argue that a holy God could not even look on one who in atoning for our sin had become sin for us. They conclude that in this moment God hid his face from Jesus.
I doubt this view. Over the years I have studied and reflected on Psalm 22 and pondered the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ atoning death. I see another reading which honors the nature of the Psalms and the profound act of atoning grace we find in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Jesus no doubt felt abandonment. He must have been remembering the rest of the Psalm as well — the light hues of promise as well as the dark colors of abandonment. Jesus was clinging to the promises of God, believing they were true even as he bore the weight of our darkness and sin. When his Father seemed far away to natural human perceptions, Jesus trusted that he was not finally abandoned. Even in the darkness that came in the early afternoon hours, Jesus by faith clung to the One who created light. On the way to death he had faith there would be life.
What It Means for Us
In these climatic days of Holy Week, I invite us to:
Give thanks for God’s inexpressible gift. Faith opens the door to understanding.
Recall our salvation was not won painlessly by a Savior who is remote and unrelated to our real lives. Our redemption was bought by a Savior who entered authentically into our very human lives and knows our joys and struggles.
Accept what Jesus teaches us about the nature of faith … which neither denies or denigrates our humanity, but redeems it.
Contemplate the mystery and majesty of the cross and Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for us.
Embrace the salvation and way of the cross, trusting Jesus Christ. We will find God’s grace there!