“Then, about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a great voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani!’ That is, ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!’ Certain ones of those who were there, hearing it, said, ‘He is calling to Elijah!’”
“And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a great voice: ‘Eloi, Eloi, Lema sabachthani!’ which translates as: ‘My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me!’ And certain ones who were present heard it and said, ‘Behold! He is calling to Elijah!’”
Over the years, many people have written volumes on the sayings of Christ from the cross and I am no exception to that. Many of these are worthwhile, but of the sayings of Jesus from the cross, I think that this one here is the most convoluted by some commentators. People have written that God closed his eyes and turned his back upon his son. I have seen people write that God literally abandoned his Son as if the Father and the Spirit could be separated. I have even read it suggested that somehow the divine nature of God the Son withdrew from the human nature of the Son, leaving him with a sense of loss. It should be stated that all of these approaches are not only inconsistent with the text, but they also enter into heresy, suggesting either that the Trinity can be separated or that the Divine and Human natures of the Son are divisible. Such views also demonstrate a shallow understanding of the Biblical text from which Jesus is quoting.
So, let us start there, with Psalm 22. One thing we must remember is that chapter and verse divisions did not exist as such in Jesus’ day…the Vulgate (4th Century AD) would add chapters and the Geneva Bible (16th Century AD) would add verses to accommodate study notes. Thus, people knew verses by the section of scripture that the passage happened to be a part of and they did not do what Christians so often do today and pull a verse entirely out of its context and apply it however they wish (sadly, how many Biblical errors and heresies could be avoided if people were more careful about Biblical context!).
The point is, that when Jesus speaks these words (in our Bibles, Psalm 22:1), he speaks it in the context of the whole Psalm (note that this section of the Psalms contains what we call “superscripts” that identify the author and a bit about the psalm — so the psalm itself, as a whole must be taken into account. An analogy to that is how preachers (particularly from previous generations) often cite a few lines of a well-known hymn to make their point. Certainly, it is not just those lines but the hymn as a whole to which the pastor is alluding. The same can be here with the psalm.
So, what is Psalm 22 about? Much could be said on that matter, but for the sake of brevity, it is a psalm of David where he reflects on the grace of God which delivers him out of the hands of his enemies. Indeed, the psalm begins in despair (“Why have you forsaken me!”) but as we work through the psalm, we see David singing of the deliverance of God, his kingship, and how he is worthy to be praised and served. Sadly, we all too often get caught up in the first few lines, which reflects the human experience of being overwhelmed by one’s enemies, and neglect the celebration of God’s deliverance at the end.
In addition to understanding the context, we must also recognize the prophetic nature of this psalm as we have mentioned several times above. Before armies had begun practicing crucifixion, we find David describing elements of this crucifixion event as he versifies his own suffering. This psalm speaks of the mocking of Jesus, the gentiles surrounding him, his bones being out of joint, his strength being dried up, and of the thirst that accompanies this kind of death. It also speaks of the pierced hands of our Lord and the division of Jesus’ garments. Indeed, once again, it is a reminder of God’s sovereignty over history.
And so, Jesus cries out in a loud voice the opening words of this Psalm. Why? It is not a sign of defeat, but it is a sign of victory. God has anointed him to serve this task and soon the victory and the glory that accompanies that, will take place. God has not abandoned his Son and the Son is not perceiving that he has been utterly abandoned. He is feeling the wrath of his Father, indeed, but he also understands the deliverance that is to come. As the Psalmist writes:
All of the ends of the earth will remember and return to Yahweh; all of the tribes of the nations shall worship before your face. For unto Yahweh are the kingdoms, and rulership of the nations.
Does this not sound a lot like:
Therefore, God has exalted him and has graciously given him the name that is above all names, in order that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heavenly places, earthly places, and places under the earth, and that every tongue would admit that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
Friends, avoid those who would sacrifice orthodoxy to elicit an emotional response to these events. Speaking along those lines, did you notice how Jesus uttered these words? “With a great shout!” I have heard too many sermons in my lifetime which have described in gory detail the death of a crucified man on the cross. Part of that is typically asphyxiation due to the fact that the muscles cannot lift up the diaphragm to breath properly when so mounted on the cross. Yet, as a pastor, I have been with people who are suffering from pneumonia and the asphyxiation that comes along with it and to describe their words as coming with a “great voice” is anything but what I would describe. Jesus indeed died, but he died because his work was done and it was time, an act of power that could only be done by one who is fully God (we do not number our days). The other two criminals on the cross may have died in ordinary ways (with legs broken), but Jesus chose the time and place of his death in accordance with his work and his Father’s will.
As to the two sets of spellings, Matthew is recording Jesus’ words in Hebrew and Mark in Aramaic. Which language did Jesus speak from the cross? That is speculation. Given the culture and that Mark’s Gospel seems to be older than Matthew’s, it is probably that Jesus spoke Aramaic from the cross and Matthew chose to record it in Hebrew as his original audience were a body of Jewish people. And so, we speculate at that part of the harmony, but one need not conclude a mistake on one of the Evangelist’s part, simply that they chose to use language that would best communicate the event to their audience.