Was Jesus Forsaken By God? It Depends

Was Jesus Forsaken By God? It Depends April 4, 2023

This final post in this Easter series concludes with some of Jesus’ last words from the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” People often assume Jesus’ words have a plain or obvious meaning. Unfortunately, their meaning is anything but obvious.

If you want to catch up, here are previous posts:

Does the Father Reject the Son?

Jesus’ cry directly quotes Psalm 22. Numerous theologians share the view of J. I. Packer, who writes,

Jesus endured the true taste of hell for us on Calvary’s cross. The essence of hell is God- forsakenness. The experience of hell was testified to when Jesus said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knew perfectly well why he was forsaken, but he asks this question to quote Psalm 22:1. He did this to reveal to his hearers that he was tasting hell for them and let them know that Scripture was being fulfilled.[1]

What does the psalmist mean by “forsaken”? Does Packer properly interpret the psalm in relation to Christ? Inexplicably, interpreters rarely (if ever) claim that God completely rejects the psalmist, even though he’s the original author of these words.

The context of Jesus’ crucifixion is important for determining the writer’s reason for reporting these words. Notably, the influence of Psalm 22 in Mark is pervasive. Besides thematic connections, Mark has several verbal links to Psalm 22.

The Context of Psalm 22

What does “forsaken” (‘zb) entail in Psalm 22? Let’s look at the surrounding context.

The psalmist says God is “so far from helping me,” does “not answer” him, and so “I find no rest” (22:1-2). His repetition of the word far gives structure to the psalm (22:1, 11, 19). Other texts also link distance and forsakenness (e.g., Ps 38:21).

At this point, we should make a simple observation. God’s being “far” away is not the same as being rejected or spurned by God. The former is not as strong an assertion as the latter.


Interpreters too often overlook the second half of the psalm. Psalm 22:22-31 contradicts popular views of verse 1. The psalmist expresses an expectation that God will save him. He fully expects to proclaim God’s righteousness amid the congregation (22:22, 31). In 22:19-21, his prayer suggests he does not think that “forsaking” is an absolute rejection (as implied by the notion that God forsook Christ in the way he condemns sinners).

Furthermore, the psalmist is confident he’ll praise God for his coming deliverance (22:22-23). This is proof that the writer does not think God forsakes him in the sense of utter rejection or condemnation. Verse 24 reinforces the point since God “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted, and he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

More can be said, but we’ll move to the next point for now.

The Meaning of Forsaken in Psalm 22

The context of the psalm raises doubts about the conventional reading of Psalm 22:1. Forsaken (‘zb) does not mean “rejected” as if God spurned the psalmist in the same way theologians say God must condemn sinners.[2] Instead, God’s forsaking the psalmist merely conveys God’s seeming absence from a situation. God’s apparent absence leads to the psalmist’s suffering, whereas his presence could bring salvation. God was “far” when he could have chosen to be near and present.

In different languages, words have varied connotations. Readers today can easily suppose that forsaken entails rejection. After all, the consequence of being forsaken includes suffering; yet that assumption misses a consistent, underlying aspect of the term. The psalmist complains of God’s inaction.[3]

In summary, how should we understand Psalm 22:1?

In essence, the writer says, “God, why have you not intervened but have instead left me to suffer in this way?” Bauckham captures the meaning of Psalm 22:1, “To be forsaken by God means that he has allowed this to happen and does nothing to help.”[4]

What Did Jesus Mean?

For the sake of brevity, I’ll cut out a lot of other parts of my argument (which are contained in The Cross in Context) and skip to one of my conclusions.

Christ is the righteous sufferer whom God will vindicate. Rikki Watts says,

“Psalm 22 likewise assumes Yahweh’s able protection of his own. Consequently, while not detracting from Jesus’ suffering, it is hard to understand why Mark would work so hard at evoking Ps. 22 if he did not also expect his informed readers to know exactly what was coming next: a startling reversal and deliverance.”[5]

Jesus’ cry must be understood in light of the entire psalm. Psalm 22 ultimately points to the hope that God will rescue David. Similarly, Jesus’ call points to his hope of vindication. Christ knows the Father is “my God.” In one statement, he recalls the psalm’s expectation that God will be faithful. He knows what the psalmist knows: “Beyond the forsakenness, God intervened to deliver.”[6]

Jesus’ use of Psalm 22:1 indicates the opposite of what many popular readings suppose. God doesn’t condemn Jesus; instead, God will condemn his enemies. Christ’s words foretell God’s verdict on humanity.

Contemporary readers should be reminded of the famous movie line from Terminator, where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character says, “I’ll be back.” In essence, this is the intended effect of Christ’s words. While his followers grieve, Jesus assures them of victory.

———————————————-

This post adapts select paragraphs from The Cross in Context, especially pp. 161-165.

 


[1] J. I. Packer, “The Necessity of Atonement,” in Atonement, ed. Gabriel N. E. Fluhrer (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2010), 15 (emphasis mine).

[2] This point is sufficiently clear by the first appearance of the ‘zb in the Bible. Gen 2:24 says, “Therefore a man shall leave [‘zb] his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

[3] Other texts use ‘zb to convey passivity, ceasing to act, or leaving alone. The result could be positive, negative, or neutral. Cf. Lev 19:10; 23:22; Judg 2:21; Ruth 2:16; 1 Chron 16:37; 2 Chron 32:31; Neh 5:10; Mal 4:1.

[4] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, loc. 3191-92, Kindle.

[5] Rikki Watts, “Mark,” loc. 8994-96, Kindle.

[6] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, loc. 3223-24, Kindle.

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