Mark 15:34: Why Have You Forsaken Me?

This is the hardest of all the hard sayings. It is the last articulate utterance of the crucified Jesus reported by Mark and Matthew; soon afterward, they say, with a loud cry (the content of which is not specified) he breathed his last.

P. W. Schmiedel adduced this utterance as one of the few "absolutely credible" texts which might be used as "foundation pillars for a truly scientific life of Jesus," on the ground that it could not be a product of the worship of Jesus in the church. No one would have invented it; it was an uncompromising datum of tradition which an Evangelist had to either reproduce as it stood or else pass over without mention.

It would be wise not to make the utterance a basis for reconstructing the inner feelings which Jesus experienced on the cross. The question "Why?" was asked, but remained unanswered. There are some theologians and psychologists, nevertheless, who have undertaken to supply the answer which the record does not give. Their example is not to be followed. This at least must be said: if it is a hard saying for the reader of the Gospels, it was hardest of all for our Lord himself. The assurances on which men and women of God in Old Testament times rested in faith were not for him. "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all," said a psalmist (Ps 34:19 RSV), but for Jesus no deliverance appeared.

It seems certain that the words are quoted from the beginning of Psalm 22. Arguments to the contrary are not convincing. The words are not quoted from the Hebrew text, but from an Aramaic paraphrase. (For the Aramaic form Eloi, "my God," in Mark, the Hebrew form Eli appears in Matthew. Any attempt to determine the precise pronunciation would have to reckon with the fact that some bystanders thought that Jesus was calling for Elijah to come and help him.) Psalm 22, while it begins with a cry of utter desolation, is really an expression of faith and thanksgiving; the help from God, so long awaited and even despaired of, comes at last. So it has sometimes been thought that, while Jesus is recorded as uttering only the opening cry of desolation, in fact he recited the whole psalm (although inaudibly) as an expression of faith.

This cannot be proved, but there is one New Testament writer who seems to have thought so--the author of the letter to the Hebrews. This writer more than once quotes other passages from Psalm 22 apart from the opening cry and ascribes them to Jesus. In particular, he says that Jesus "offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Heb 5:7-9).

In these words the writer to the Hebrews expounds, in terms of sufferings which Jesus endured, the acknowledgment of Psalm 22:24: God "has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help." But when he says that Jesus' prayer "to the one who could save him from death" was answered, he does not mean that Jesus was delivered from dying; he means that, having died, he was "brought back from the dead" to live henceforth by "the power of an indestructible life" (Heb 13:20; 7:16).

The same writer presents Jesus in his death as being a willing and acceptable sacrifice to God. That martyrs in Israel should offer their lives to expiate the sins of others was not unprecedented. Instead of having his heart filled with bitter resentment against those who were treating him so abominably, Jesus in dying offered his life to God as an atonement for their sins, and for the sins of the world. Had he not said on one occasion that "the Son of Man [came] . . . to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45)? But now he did so the more effectively by entering really into the desolation of that God-forsakenness which is the lot of sinners--by being "made . . . to be sin for us," as Paul puts it (2 Cor 5:21). "In His death everything was made His that sin had made ours--everything in sin except its sinfulness."

Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered," as the writer to the Hebrews says, in the sense that by his suffering he learned the cost of his wholehearted obedience to his Father. His acceptance of the cross crowned his obedience, and he was never more pleasing to the Father than in this act of total devotion; yet that does not diminish the reality of his experience of being God-forsaken. But this reality has made him the more effective as the deliverer and supporter of his people. He is no visitant from another world, avoiding too much involvement with this world of ours; he has totally involved himself in the human lot. There is no depth of dereliction known to human beings which he has not plumbed; by this means he has been "made perfect"--that is to say, completely qualified to be his people's sympathizing helper in their most extreme need. If they feel like crying to God, "Why hast thou forsaken me?" they can reflect that that is what he cried. When they call out of the depths to God, he who called out of the depths on Good Friday knows what it feels like. But there is this difference: he is with them now to strengthen them--no one was there to strengthen him.

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James Denney, The Death of Christ, 6th ed. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1907), p. 160.