My God, why have you forsaken me? (part 1)

You’ve prayed and prayed for God to rescue you from your situation; you’ve begged and bargained. You’ve waited for what seems like an eternity. And nothing happens. Heaven seems silent and indifferent. All the trouble and turmoil, all the abuse continues.

You want to cry out as the psalmist does, a man surrounded by enemies who taunt and mock him:

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. (Ps 22:1-2, NRSV)

This is also, of course, Jesus’ well-known cry of dereliction from the cross. It is generally thought that when the Son of Man — or as the Common English Bible renders it, the truly “Human One” who embodied what humanity was meant to be — bore our sin on the cross, there was a moment in which God the Father in his holiness turned away, leaving God the Son alone in his torment. The unity of Father and Son was temporarily ruptured, and Jesus cried out in anguish.

Yes. But…

Jesus didn’t just scream out a randomly chosen set of words to express the pain of abandonment. He quoted a psalm.

Does that make a difference?

I think it does.

Imagine, if you will, being so familiar with the Psalms that they become the lenses through which you see the world, your life, your relationship to God. They are central to your worship tradition. You can recite them by heart. You are so steeped in their language and vision that they come to mind unbidden in moments of both praise and lament.

Many of us, I think, approach the Psalms as a collection of prayers to be used selectively depending on our mood. We take the parts that match our emotional state and leave the rest for later. Feeling upbeat? Pray a psalm of praise. Feeling discouraged or beaten down? Pray a psalm of lament. Doing so helps connect our experience to a whole history of God’s people that is much grander than our individual stories. And somehow, that bit of transcendence helps us gain a little perspective.

But it’s not as simple as that. Many psalms are not just praise or lament, hope or hopelessness — they are a mixture of both. Psalm 22 is like that. If we keep reading past those initial two verses, we come to this:

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
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. (vss. 3-5)

And the psalmist ends with a grand vision that goes well beyond his own personal deliverance:

Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it. (vss. 30-31)

Deliverance is anticipated, but has not yet come. Words of terror are interspersed with words of trust.

It’s not enough to simply pray or identify with the first two verses, even if those words best describe our own feelings of having been ignored by God. The psalm as a whole has a trajectory, an underlying story that runs from despair to victory. As a community, we are invited to immerse ourselves in that story, a story in which God is still the sovereign deliverer.

So again: what does it mean that Jesus cried out the first line of Psalm 22 from the cross? What does it mean that in his moment of deepest anguish, he quoted Scripture, as naturally as you or I might curse?

We’ll explore the further in the next post.