Everyone in Christian evangelical circles has had this quote explained to them in the following way: “God is unable to look upon sin and hates it so much that he turned his back on Jesus. And Jesus cried out in that moment of loneliness and isolation: why have you forsaken me?”
Though that makes for good theatrics, it’s not really accurate. Jesus isn’t just saying some random phrase – he’s actually quoting Psalm 22. And throughout the majority of the New Testament, Old Testament passages that are quoted sparingly are meant to be interpreted in light of the of the whole passage, not just the snippet that, say, Paul or Luke might give you. It’s kind of like a song or hymn. Though most pop songs derive their titles from the chorus, hymns or praise and worship anthems use the first line. So, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is actually the first line; so is “I’m Trading my Sorrows” or “As the Deer.” Jesus was actually quoting a song title – Psalm (song) 22 to be exact. He quotes the first line (verse 1), knowing that we’ll know that he meant for us to read the whole text in light of his crucifixion.
But we don’t. We lost that little cultural clue along the way. And our accepted legal model of the atonement is happy to see God turning his head away from his object of wrath: Jesus. So, why don’t I give you the rest of the song?
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!
Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
He has not turned his back on them,
but has listened to their cries for help.
The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.
Our children will also serve him.
Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord.
His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born.
They will hear about everything he has done.
So, what’s going on here? Well, like every Psalm, this one tells a story. Psalm 22 tells of possible abandonment and affliction by enemies. It even describes some of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion (another reason why Jesus chose to quote it). But in the “song,” when things seem the darkest, God rescues the afflicted. And though the Psalmist in verse one believes God is turning his back, verse 24 tells us God has not done so. That’s the point Jesus was making. God (identifying with Jesus) is on a rescue mission to save the world so that everyone will “hear about everything he has done.” If we believe that the fullness of the Trinity was reconcilling the world, they were all there with Jesus at that moment. All three were completely invested in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We’ve asked countless times why Jesus died on the cross. Yet, we fail to read the rest of the “song” after Jesus quotes its title. Psalm 22 explains the cross as a moment when everyone can see the depths to which the Trinity will go to reconcile the world – to heal and deliver it from certain destruction. God doesn’t turn his head. He does the opposite. He dives directly into the human condition by becoming one of us. He’s not too holy to look at sin. He’s too holy to let sin hold humanity captive. And like the Father who hugs his prodigal son whose covered in pig filth, God in Jesus surrounds himself with sin so he can explode sin from the inside out.
Now, that makes more sense, doesn’t it?