[Note: This post was first published for Good Friday April 2010]
This is one of the few direct quotes we have of Jesus in the language which he spoke. Throughout the Gospels the words of Jesus are recorded in Greek (and translated into English for us), but here, this last statement of Jesus was so shocking, so bone chillingly rattling that when the early Christians told the Gospel story before it was written down, when they came to this statement of Jesus they would say, “then Jesus cried out, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ Those are the actual words he used! Do you believe it?” Then they would translate, “it means….”
What does it mean?
Charles Foster comments that “Christianity is an Eastern religion that has had the misfortune to be particularly popular in the West (where its chances of being understood were lowest)” [Sacred Journey p.14].
How often do we sigh when we read this quote of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” while not really understanding the significance of those Aramaic words? So sad, we say, that God forsook Jesus except that, we are quick to comfort ourselves, God had not really forsaken Jesus at all, and so everything is okay.
Then we quickly move on with the story.
But those words stunned the original hearers of the Gospel. They paused because they understood that Jesus was saying more then we think he was saying. So let us pause here also.
Frederick Buechner writes:
“By the time he had been hanging there for a while, he had no tears left to weep with and no more sweat, his tongue so dry he could hardly wrap it around the words which are among the few he ever spoke that people remembered in the language he spoke them in probably because having once heard them, they could never forget them no matter how hard they tried, and probably they tried hard often: ‘My God, my God, why have you –’ and then the Aramaic verb from an Arabic root meaning to run out on, leave in the lurch, to be the Hell and gone. My God, my God, where the Hell are you, meaning If thou art our Father who art in Heaven, be thou also our Father who art in Hell because Hell is where the action is, where I am and the cross is. It is where the pitiless storm is. It is where men labor and are heavy laden under the burden of their own lives without you.” [Telling the Truth, p.38-39]
“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” My God, my God, in this Hell, on this Hellish Friday, why have you left me in the lurch? My God, my God, where in this Hell are you?
Shocking isn’t it, these brutally honest words of Jesus. But there is yet more going on than even this, and so we continue to dig, to exegete, we continue to allow the full impact of our Lord’s words take shape, meaning and depth, and to give a hearing to the fullness of the theological implications. “My God, my God” writes David in Psalm 22, “why have you forsaken me?” Most Bible scholars will tell you that when the New Testament writers quoted the Old they did so with the whole context of that passage in mind, they did not simply “proof-text” as we have become accustomed to doing both when we quote the scriptures and when we read them.
So if we can trust that our Lord, while hanging on the cross, had one last message to breath out before he would breath his last, that he would do so as concisely as possible given his current state, then we may trust that Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 was not arbitrary proof-texting, but rather offered soil ripe for the exegete to shovel.
Whatever the condition David faced which compelled him to write those words we can be sure that David was appealing to a God he knew and had full confidence would rescue and vindicate him. Where did this confidence come from? It came from Egypt – the ultimate background of all Jewish thought of ancient times. If God was righteous in keeping his promise to Abraham [Genesis 15] by delivering the Israelites from Egypt, then surely God would be righteous today to keep his promise and deliver me also, a child of Abraham.
So David cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” then he places his own plea into the context of ancient Israel when they cried out from Egypt, “… In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” [Psalm 22:4]
So now the final words of Christ the cross go deeper. They go further. David may have put specific words to the Israelites cries, but it is the cry itself that Jesus is identifying with.
“During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out” (David put words to their cry, “My God, my God, where in this Hell are you?”) “and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.” [Exodus 2:23]
The question became, would God be righteous? Would he be faithful? Can we be assured that God will follow through in his covenant promises? Will he vindicated, will he rescue, and will he save?
With a subtle tone of victory barely contained and a grin to one side of his face, the author continues, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham.” [Exodus 2:24] And now we find Jesus, right here in Egypt! Crying out with all humanity in slavery and bondage, heavy laden and carrying a great burden, Jesus in the Exodus story reenacting that whole scenario on a Roman wooden cross, the representative of the human race, identifying with humanity through the Exodus of the cross.
And it was an Exodus…
“Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus…”
And what did they have to discuss? “They spoke about his –” and the next word, usually translated departure, is in Greek literally, “exodus”. They spoke about his Exodus! [Luke 9:30-31] And so the question we asked with Israel we now ask with Jesus, “will God vindicate, will God rescue, and will God save?” In other words, will God be righteous by being faithful to his covenant he made with Abraham?
Will we find a refrain in this Exodus story where someone writes, “God heard their groaning and remembered his covenant with Abraham”? Yes, joyfully “… He was… vindicated by the Spirit…” [1 Timothy 3:16]!
So where was God on this Hellish Friday?
The same place he was when Israel cried out, when David cried out and when all men everywhere cry out – for in the cross Jesus was identifying with all of us. By our sins, all men are separated from God. But by the cross, Christ draws all men to himself, he said this very plainly: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” [John 12:32]
So while Jesus clung to that wooden Roman cross where was God? “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” [2 Corinthians 5:19]. While Christ was experiencing Hell, God was right there, working, drawing, reconciling!
That is what God does in this Hell in this world. That is what he did on the cross then, and this is what he continues to do today.
And that is why we call today “Good Friday”.