The opening words of the twenty-second psalm, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Psa. 22:1) are both poignant and powerful, introducing the suffering of the Savior but with a faith constant in the goodness of God and His deliverance. These words capture the sadness and heartbreak associated with the crucifixion—an extension, in a sense, of Jesus’ prayer in the garden, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). Here we find, perfectly poised, the Savior’s very human desire for deliverance from His suffering and simultaneously His complete acceptance of God’s will. However, due to an improper focus, this phrase, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, spoken by Christ on the cross (Matt. 27:46), tends to be misinterpreted and thus people lose the real impact of the words.
The common treatment of this phrase interprets this as evidence that when Christ was on the cross, bearing the sins of the whole world, God the Father had to turn away from the blackness of iniquity as Jesus accepted their burden. It first must be noted that this interpretation does not stem from anything within Psalm 22, nor from anything offered when it was quoted in the New Testament. Instead, it is a conclusion drawn from two things: an understanding and appreciation for God’s repulsion at the sight of sin and the idea of the Messiah being “forsaken.” Thus, they maintain that God had indeed turned His back on Jesus and left Him while He was on the cross. This misinterpretation is understandable given these fundamental thoughts; however, a deeper consideration shows that this does not reflect the actual meaning.
The definition of both the Hebrew and Greek words translated “forsaken” do not emphasize putting distance between individuals so much as the situation one leaves the other in. Therefore, God did not turn away from Christ because of the ugliness of sin; He allowed Jesus to die because of the ugliness of sin. This may seem like a slight distinction, but it is still important. It is not that God had to step out of the room and go away. Instead, it is sadder still. His love for humanity required Him to leave Christ in the hands of those who crucified Him. As such, He withdrew His protection but not Himself. There is also another consideration. The common interpretation assumes Jesus’ taking on the sin of the world in a rather literal way, which is not possible, as if that created a break in the fellowship Jesus had with God as He hung on the cross. However, it is precisely this fellowship with His Father, maintained until the very end, that made Him the perfect sacrifice for sin (Heb. 7:26-27). But now we should consider the question itself as it stands rather than treating it as a complaint. Why did the Father allow Jesus to die such a cruel death since He did not deserve it? The psalm provides the answer. After a powerful description of the crucifixion from Jesus’ point of view, David records what followed in the resurrection beginning in verse twenty-two, and it centered on how God had NOT “hidden His face from Him” (Psa. 22:24). The Father left His Son to die on the cross but only so that there might be many more children (Psa. 22:22-23). Indeed, this is the focus of the rest of the psalm! Jesus, while on the cross, quoted from this psalm to ask the question that the world should have been asking: Why was God letting the Messiah die? But He was doing more than that. He was encouraging them to read the rest of the psalm and to learn that the answer was simple: that is how much He loves them (John 3:16).