In the well-known poem, Cowper’s Grave, written by renown poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the thirteenth stanza elaborates on the scene of the cross and Jesus’ cry: “Deserted! God could separate from His own essence rather; And Adam's sins have swept between the righteous Son and Father: Yea, once, Immanuel's orphaned cry His universe hath shaken—It went up single, echoless, ‘My God, I am forsaken!’” Martin Luther actually set out to study this profound cry of Jesus. He studied for a long time, in solitude, without food, and in deep meditation. At last he rose from his chair and was heard to exclaim in amazement, “God forsaken of God; who can understand that?” Beloved, our familiarity with these words has robbed them of their stark tragedy. Truly, “God forsaken of God” is a concept so tragic and mysterious, how can we understand it?
The first three sayings from the Lord on the cross were addressed to men. With this cry, however, Jesus addresses Himself to God. For the first three hours of daylight the Lord’s body had been exposed to the burning rays of the pitiless eastern sun, as well as the merciless onslaught of demons and men. Infinitely worse that that, during the three hours of darkness, His soul, by being made sin, experienced the relentless crashing of the waves and billows of God’s wrath. But infinitely worse than that, for the first time throughout the ages, He experienced abandonment by God. At the close of the sixth hour of darkness, He broke the silence with the shuddering cry of desolation: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)
These words spoken by the Savior constitute the most desperate cry ever uttered in the annals of human history. In this cry we sense a darkness that is inscrutable, a depth that is unfathomable, and a desolation that is incomprehensible. The cry reveals an awful sense of loneliness, a loneliness that never existed as that at Calvary. The hostile crowd was there, crying for His death. The hosts of darkness were there, unmerciful and violent. He has been abandoned by his friends, and was now surrounded by His enemies. There was no help coming from heaven, no voice angelic or divine that responded to the penetrating word, “Why?” Meditation on this forlorn cry made Martin Luther exclaim, “God forsaken of God? Who can understand it?”
The life of the Savior had always been lonely. There was the babe in the manger, the boy in the temple, the praying man in the desert, the agonized in Gethsemane, the defenseless prisoner in the trials. These had all been scenes of solitude. Loneliness was not a new experience for Him, but nothing previous to this was to be compared to the loneliness and desolation of experiencing God’s wrath for mankind while on the cross at Calvary.
My God, My God
First, let us look at Jesus’ specific words as we examine this cry of Jesus. He says, “My God, My God.” This is significant because usually, in Jesus’ prayers, He invariably addresses the Lord God as His Father, but here He addresses His Father as “God.” Previously, for example, while in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Secondly, Jesus uses a personal pronoun in this statement: “My” God. Although Jesus is Himself God and part of the Trinity, here He also calls God His own God. However, the unity of the Trinity is never broken at this time when he cries out. But the eternal, almighty, righteous, holy, demanding, uncompromising, just, and inflexible God poured out His wrath upon His only Son who was the Sin-bearer and was paying the awesome price of redemption. God being “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” as He saw and felt the dreadful pain that his beloved Son was bearing, forsook Him temporarily until the full price was paid.
Secondly, let us look at the word Jesus asks: “Why?” Never before had this word, the cry of a baffled heart, crossed the Lord’s lips, and it never did again. The dreadful experience that drew this word from His parched lips was unique and unparalleled. In Psalm 22:3, we can see the answer to this wretchedly asked question: “But thou art holy, O Thou who inhabitest the prayers of Israel.” What was it that caused God to forsake His Son? It was holiness turning away from sin. The Lord was forsaken so that we might be forgiven!
Next, let us look at Jesus’ use of “Hast” or “Didst” in His cry. The exact time of this dreadful cry is not absolutely clear from the accounts of Jesus’ death. It is possible that it was uttered at the close of the hours of darkness. Some commentators say that the word “hast” could be appropriately rendered “didst.” If this is so, we see the battle-scarred, victorious Christ casting a long shuddering look into the abyss of woe, and saying about the past pain bearing He has suffered, “Why didst Thou forsake Me?”
Immediately following this verb, the word “Thou” Jesus uses is also significant in His cry, because it is a singling out of His Father, this personal “you” in His cry. While being forsaken was no new experience for the Lord, being forsaken by His loving Father definitely was. Jesus experienced this forsakenness often among His earthly people. His brothers neither believed in Him nor followed Him, His fellow citizens in Nazareth tried to kill him, the nation to which He came did not receive Him, and many of His followers turned away from Him and walked no more with Him. Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, and many forsook Him and fled. In this cry of anguish, He is saying, “I can understand my family, my fellow-citizens, my nation forsaking me; for darkness has no fellowship with light. I can understand my disciples forsaking me, because of the weakness of the flesh, but this is my agonizing problem. Why didst Thou forsake me?” Up until this moment, when He had been forsaken by men He had been able to turn to His Father. But now He was absolutely alone. Who can plumb the depths of such bitter anguish?
Next, let us look at the word and the meaning of “forsaken” used in Jesus’ question. Our human and contemporary meaning of this word means to abandon, desert, or disown. A parent can forsake a child, or a friend can forsake a friend. While such forsaking can bring deep sorrow, who can assess the meaning of this word when applied to Christ? Here we have “God being forsaken by God” with whom He had enjoyed eternal fellowship. Jesus’ cry was one of anguish, a bitter pain and suffering through His forsakenness with His eternal Father. So wretched was this abandoned state that the earth becomes dark with fear and trembles violently at the power of this desertion of the Father to the Son. Sin’s dreadful load put upon the sinless Christ breaks the communion of Father and Son - for the first time, an eternity of communion is broken. Wave after wave of the white-hot fury of God’s wrath against sin has broken over his spotless soul.
Lastly, let us examine Jesus’ use of the pronoun “me” in His sorrowful cry. With this use of a personal pronoun, again we see that this signifies his own personal grief, wrung from Him in his personal cry. In fact, in this one two-letter word lays the mystery of the cross. There would be no mystery in God forsaking us because we are all wretched and helpless sinners that cannot bring ourselves to the Lord righteous of our own accord. But why would God forsake His Son who knew no sin, did no sin, and in whom had no sin, and the Son in whom he testified that He had poured all His delight? The only beautiful and glorious answer to this question is that Jesus was taking our place! He was being forsaken there on the cross so that we, believers in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, might be forgiven of our sins and promised an eternal home.