On Monday, I wrote about Jesus’ identification with us when we feel abandoned or forgotten by God. After all, Jesus experienced the same thing at Calvary:
At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:33-38, NIV)
For most of my life, that was the complete story as I understood. That was how I understood it – Jesus felt abandoned; the Father turned His back on Jesus because Jesus was bearing the sins of the world, and the Father couldn’t bear to look on Him. And so Jesus cried out in agony and in utter despair, separated from His Father and more alone than He had ever been.
But then, two summers ago, I heard Dr. Leonard Sweet preach a sermon on the story of the cross that he called “The Greatest Song Ever Sung” about this very passage. It shifted the ground of my understanding of this passage like a theological earthquake, and re-cast my view of Jesus on the cross. It transformed my view from one of Jesus suffering abandonment to instead, one of Jesus victoriously enduring the cross and overcoming – overcoming not just when He rose from the dead on Sunday morning, but triumphing in the very moment when all seemed lost, the moment he gave up His spirit and died.
I will do my best to do Dr. Sweet’s teaching justice in a summary – admittedly, longer than a normal blog, but hopefully, one that will fill you with hope and challenge you to walk in joy in the midst of great trials and even suffering.
Dr. Sweet pointed out that there is a deeper context to Jesus’ words on the cross. In crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was quoting the first sentence of Psalm 22:1 – a Jewish worship hymn that Jesus would have known by heart. So far, no shock – the Psalms were the Jewish hymnal in Jesus’ day.
But then Dr. Sweet went out to point out some important historical context: that no male Jew would have spoken a Psalm. An observant Jew, as Jesus was, would have SUNG the Psalm. And He would never have stopped with the first line. In fact, most Bible scholar agree that Jesus sang Psalm 22 while suffering on the cross. The only real debate is how much of the Psalm He sang.
Does that thought drastically change your image of part of the crucifixion? It did mine.
Imagine the scene. Jesus hanging on the cross, suffering, bleeding…dying. Instead of calling out in anguish over feeling abandoned, though, He begins to sing a song of worship to His Father.
Dr. Sweet calls it the greatest worship song ever sung in the history of the world, but points out that we have missed it because we don’t understand the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.
Here is the Psalm as it is written. If you read it carefully, you can see a Psalm of worship, not despair and desolation – a song of hope and triumph. And you can see some of the familiar scenes around the cross in it:
(v. 1) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
(v. 2) My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
(v. 3) Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
(v. 4) In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
(v. 5) To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
(Aren’t vv. 3-5 a great declaration of God’s goodness?
(v. 6) But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
(Look at the rejection David writes about in these next few verses. They directly prophesy the way Jesus was treated by people when He was on the cross. And David wrote these words hundreds of years before Jesus.)
(v. 7) All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
(v. 8) “He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
(v. 9) Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
(v. 10) From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
(As you read these lines about his mother, can you see Jesus pausing and looking at his mother, and then entrusting her to the apostle John’s care?)
(v. 11) Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
(v. 12) Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
(v. 13) Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
(In reading vv. 11-13, you can picture the people surrounding the cross, hurling accusations and taunts at Jesus.)
(v. 14) I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
(Remember that once Jesus had died, a soldier pierced his side and blood mingled with water flowed out? And the reference to bones being out of joint – often, when a cross was dropped into hole in the ground to stand upright, the victims experienced dislocated shoulders among other things. Roman soldiers were not gentle in carrying out executions.)
(v. 15) My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
(Is it possible that the apostle John recorded Jesus’ singing of this part of the psalm with the simple words, “I thirst”?)
(v. 16) Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
(A couple of notes here. First, wild dogs would often circle the sites of crucifixions. They would wait for the bodies to begin to decompose. Then the bones would fall to the ground, where the dogs could consume them. In this case, you can see it as a dual reference – the wild dogs, and those people who stood around, waiting to see Jesus die. The reference to the hands and feet being pierced is obvious.)
(v. 17) All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
(v. 18) They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.
(Again, these images are self-explanatory when you consider the scene at the cross. And now, the Psalm turns to intercession – a cry for help:)
(v. 19) But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
(v. 20) Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
(v. 21) Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.
(Jesus quotes this part of the Psalm, asking for deliverance from those who are taunting and threatening him, and declaring that His Father is His strength. Now notice the praise that begins to flow in the next few verses, and the declarations of God’s goodness:)
(v. 22) I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
(v. 23) You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
(v. 24) For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
(As Jesus would have sung this part of the Psalm, notice that He was declaring that His Father had NOT forsaken Him, had NOT hidden His face from Jesus, but instead, has listened to His cry for help! And now, some final declarations of God’s goodness and of victory follow:)
(v. 25) From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
(v. 26) The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
(v. 27) All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
(v. 28) for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
(v. 29) All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
(v. 30) Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
(v. 31) They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
Look at that last phrase – “He had done it.” This is one of the strongest arguments for the case that Jesus sang this Psalm and worshiped His Father while He was on the cross. Literally, “He has done it” can be translated…”It is finished.” Those are the very words John records in his gospel as Jesus’ last words.
So what’s the point of all this?
It is that Jesus wasn’t in despair on the cross in the darkest, loneliest hours of His life. When He could have chosen to surrender to feeling abandoned and forgotten, as appears apparent on the surface, when we understand His culture and what was really happening, we discover that in His pain and suffering, He actually worshiped and pressed in to His Father. And when death came, it did not come conquering Jesus. Instead, He triumphantly declared that His Father ruled the nations, that future generations would experience salvation, and that the work of reconciliation was completed!
The lesson for you and me? In our deepest pain, our greatest suffering our times of loneliness, doubt, fear, feelings of abandonment, we face a choice. We can surrender to despair and stay in the midst of it. Or, we can learn from Jesus. We can choose to sing and to worship our Father for His goodness, refusing to take offense at what life brings us, and trusting that our Father will bring victory and joy out of what was intended by our enemy for our destruction!
What will you choose today?
(Thanks again to Dr. Leonard Sweet for preaching that sermon at Mahaffey Camp two summers ago and helping me to see the crucifixion and Jesus’ actions on that day in an entirely different light.)
If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus: A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store. A paperback version will soon be available.