Bible Study

Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 NIV)

"The question from the cross calls you to see your suffering not as a solitary struggle but as a reflection of an opportunity to draw nearer to your Savior, and to trust Him for the outcome." by Major Valerie Carr

In light of the Easter season, we turn our Bible study towards the cross for this month’s installment. We are looking at the questions Jesus asked in the Gospels, and this month’s question was posed on the hill of Golgotha. As John Dear put it: “The last question uttered by Jesus before his death is the hardest question of all, the question of Job, the question of Dachau, the question of Rwanda, the question of death row, the question of the world’s starving masses.” This month we are taking a look at the words “Why have you forsaken me?” to find their meaning in our own suffering and struggle.

Matthew and Mark record the final words of Jesus in their telling of the gospel story. The question is transliterated from its original utterance in English Bibles: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Both writers tell us that at noon a darkness fell over the land as Jesus hung on the cross. At around 3:00 pm, Jesus cries out this question, which is sometimes called the “cry of dereliction.” The crowd overhearing thought He was calling to Elijah (Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:35). Some in the crowd offered Him wine vinegar, while others taunted His apparent agony and helplessness (Matthew 27:48–49; Mark 15:36). Mark tells us, “Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37).  

These are Jesus’ last words before His death. His final moment before giving up His earthly body was a question uttered in agony and pain. The words are marked by suffering, struggle and a sense of separation from His Father. The word “forsaken” in this passage conveys feelings of separation and abandonment as Jesus hangs defenseless on the cross. This question uttered in His final moments reflects the horrible pain the Savior endured as part of His redemptive act for all humanity.  

The cry of dereliction doesn’t belong to just Jesus but is also a quote from the Psalms. In Psalm 22, we read its opening line: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (NIV). There are several genres of psalms and this one is what is known as a “psalm of lament.” Psalms of lament are expressions of sadness, feelings of being distraught, and moments of raw emotion at the reality of suffering. They are typically organized into three movements: “First, ‘God, you are not doing your job.’ Second, ‘God, you need to do your job.’ Third, ‘I am confident you will do your job because you have in the past’” (Copenhaver, “Jesus is the Question”).  

This psalm discusses a suffering servant of God that is being attacked by their enemies (Psalm 22:1–10). The psalmist goes on to seek God’s presence in his troubling circumstances, to give him strength to stand, and to rescue him (v 11–21). The last movement of the psalm concludes with a praise of God’s greatness seen by all nations, His mercy for those in need, and His goodness and care for those who suffer (v 22–31). The psalmist ends his lament with a triumphant call for the future: “[The future generations] will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (NIV)”

Rabbis would often quote the first line of a psalm, understanding that their hearers would be familiar enough with the passage to know what the rest of the verses contain. Jesus, in His final moments filled with agony, was arguably calling on the truth of Psalm 22—the truth of a God who is with His people in their darkest moments. Jesus points the people at the foot of the cross, and us today, towards the proclamation, “He has done it!” As The Salvation Army’s sixth doctrine states, “The Lord Jesus Christ has by His suffering and death made an atonement for the whole world so that whosoever will may be saved.” The question from the cross reminds us that we are not abandoned to our struggles and suffering. Jesus’ death was only the beginning of our freedom from sin and death. His question leads us to realize that God’s heart is set on rescue and redemption from that which holds our hearts and minds hostage. 

The question from the cross also gives us hope to know that our Savior understands suffering, and therefore can understand us. In his book, Copenhaver suggests that “the story of Jesus despairing on the cross is the story of a God willing to experience our hopelessness, that we might have hope, and the story of a God willing to share in human defeat, that we might, in turn, share God’s victory.” In those times when suffering and discouragement has convinced you that you are all alone, Jesus reminds us that He is with us. Jesus said “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We are promised struggles, but we are also promised the victory in Him. His life, death and resurrection offers an opportunity to find hope in God’s plan, even when life doesn’t make sense. We are offered a chance to look at our confounding and challenging circumstances, and discover the strength and hope to proclaim “He has done it!” He has stood with me in my trials. He has rescued me from the snare of sin. He has redeemed my eternity! 

We find this same promise later in the New Testament. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 NIV). In our moments where we ask God why He feels so distant, we are encouraged to remember that we are not alone. We look around to see the glimpses of His work in our daily life: a friend who sends a text just when we need it, a free coffee on a rough day at work, or an empathetic ear that doesn’t offer answers but does offer support. We will have trouble in this life, but in it we also have God’s grace to endure and grow.

This Easter, we celebrate a God who was willing to experience unimaginable suffering for our benefit. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels the power of sin to keep you separated from your Creator. His death and resurrection offer you an opportunity to choose grace and hope as the driving forces in your life. The question from the cross calls you to see your suffering not as a solitary struggle but as a reflection of an opportunity to draw nearer to your Savior, and to trust Him for the outcome.

Questions to Ponder

  • In what circumstances in my life am I feeling like the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
  • How might God be using difficult circumstances to draw me to a deeper understanding of His grace and sufficiency in my life?

An Open Invitation

You can receive the free gift of salvation through Jesus Christ by praying something like the following:

Dear God, know I am a sinner. I need your forgiveness and grace. I believe that Christ paid the penalty for my sin, and He died in my place, and He rose from the dead. I invite Jesus Christ to come into my life as Savior. Thank You for saving me from my sin and making me Your child. Help me to grow and learn how to serve You. Amen.

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