April 18 – God’s Sovereign Departure

“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”

Matthew 27:46


God always must turn His back on sin, even if that meant for a short time severing fellowship with His Son.

The Reformer Martin Luther is said to have gained no insight at all when he secluded himself and tried to understand Jesus’ temporary alienation from the Father at Calvary. But in the secrets of divine sovereignty, the God–man was separated from God at Calvary as the Father’s wrath was poured out on the innocent Son, who had become sin for all those who believe in Him.

Forsaken means that a person is abandoned, cast off, deserted; he feels alone and desolate. Jesus must have had all those feelings and more. His cry from the cross could be restated this way: “My God, My God, with whom I have had eternal, unbroken fellowship, why have You deserted Me?” Against that backdrop of uninterrupted intimacy, Jesus’ being forsaken by God becomes an even more crushing experience for Him. Sin did what nothing else had done or could do—it caused Christ’s separation from His Heavenly Father.

Jesus’ separation does not in any sense mean He stopped being God or the Son. It does mean that for a while Jesus ceased to know intimate fellowship with the Father, similar to how a child might for a time cease to have fellowship with his human father.

God had to turn His back on Jesus while the Son was on the cross because God could not look upon sin (Hab. 1:13), even in His own Son. Christ, in going to the cross, took upon Himself “our transgressions … our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5) and became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) and “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Our fallen minds, like Luther’s, are unable to grasp all the significance of today’s verse. But as our Lord experienced anguish over the separation sin caused, we ought to grieve over how our sins break off the fellowship God wants to have with us.


Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that God would give you the discernment to see the seriousness of sin and the motivation to repent of and shun any besetting sin in your life.

For Further Study: Read John 3:18–20, 36. What do these verses say about the basic seriousness of sin? ✧ What is the only remedy for sin’s evil effects?[1]

Sovereign Departure

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” And immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.” (27:46–49)

A second miracle occurred at about the ninth hour, or three o’clock in the afternoon, through an inexplicable event that might be called sovereign departure, as somehow God was separated from God.

At that time Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” As Matthew explains, the Hebrew Eli (Mark uses the Aramaic form, “Eloi,” 15:34) means, My God, and lama sabachthani means, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?

Because Jesus was quoting the well-known Psalm 22, there could have been little doubt in the minds of those who were standing there as to what Jesus was saying. They had been taunting Him with His claim to be God’s Son (v. 43), and an appeal for divine help would have been expected. Their saying, “This man is calling for Elijah,” was not conjecture about what He said but was simply an extension of their cruel, cynical mockery.

In this unique and strange miracle, Jesus was crying out in anguish because of the separation He now experienced from His heavenly Father for the first and only time in all of eternity. It is the only time of which we have record that Jesus did not address God as Father. Because the Son had taken sin upon Himself, the Father turned His back. That mystery is so great and imponderable that it is not surprising that Martin Luther is said to have gone into seclusion for a long time trying to understand it and came away as confused as when he began. In some way and by some means, in the secrets of divine sovereignty and omnipotence, the God-Man was separated from God for a brief time at Calvary, as the furious wrath of the Father was poured out on the sinless Son, who in matchless grace became sin for those who believe in Him.

Habakkuk declared of God, “Thine eyes are too pure to approve evil, and Thou canst not look on wickedness with favor” (Hab. 1:13). God turned His back when Jesus was on the cross because He could not look upon sin, even-or perhaps especially-in His own Son. Just as Jesus loudly lamented, God the Father had indeed forsaken Him.

Jesus did not die as a martyr to a righteous cause or simply as an innocent man wrongly accused and condemned. Nor, as some suggest, did He die as a heroic gesture against man’s inhumanity to man. The Father could have looked favorably on such selfless deaths as those. But because Jesus died as a substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world, the righteous heavenly Father had to judge Him fully according to that sin.

The Father forsook the Son because the Son took upon Himself “our transgressions, … our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus “was delivered up because of our transgression” (Rom. 4:25) and “died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). He “who knew no sin [became] sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21) and became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24), “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18), and became “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

Jesus Christ not only bore man’s sin but actually became sin on mares behalf, in order that those who believe in Him might be saved from the penalty of their sin. Jesus came to teach men perfectly about God and to be a perfect example of God’s holiness and righteousness. But, as He Himself declared, the supreme reason for His coming to earth was not to teach or to be an example but “to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

When Christ was forsaken by the Father, their separation was not one of nature, essence, or substance. Christ did not in any sense or degree cease to exist as God or as a member of the Trinity. He did not cease to be the Son, any more than a child who sins severely against his human father ceases to be his child. But Jesus did for a while cease to know the intimacy of fellowship with His heavenly Father, just as a disobedient child ceases for a while to have intimate, normal, loving fellowship with his human father.

By the incarnation itself there already had been a partial separation. Because Jesus had been separated from His divine glory and from face-to-face communication with the Father, refusing to hold on to those divine privileges for His own sake (Phil 2:6), He prayed to the Father in the presence of His disciples, “Glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). At the cross His separation from the Father became immeasurably more profound than the humbling incarnation during the thirty-three years of His earthly life.

As already mentioned, the mystery of that separation is far too deep even for the most mature believer to fathom. But God has revealed the basic truth of it for us to accept and to understand to the limit of our ability under the illumination of His Spirit. And nowhere in Scripture can we behold the reality of Jesus’ sacrificial death and the anguish of His separation from His Father more clearly and penetratingly than in His suffering on the cross because of sin. In the midst of being willingly engulfed in our sins and the sins of all men of all time, He writhed in anguish not from the lacerations on His back or the thorns that still pierced His head or the nails that held Him to the cross but from the incomparably painful loss of fellowship with His heavenly Father that His becoming sin for us had brought.

Soon after He cried out to God about being forsaken, “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, said, ‘I am thirsty’ ” (John 19:28). As John then makes clear (v. 29), it was at that time that immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink.

The one who ran to help Jesus was probably one of the Roman military guards, and by taking a sponge and filling it with sour wine, he hoped temporarily to slake Jesus’ thirst. The sour wine was a cheap wine highly diluted with water that was a common drink for laborers and soldiers. Because it had a high water and low alcohol content, it was especially helpful in quenching thirst. John gives the added detail that the reed was a hyssop branch (John 19:29), which would not have been longer than eighteen inches. In order for such a short branch to reach Jesus’ lips, the horizontal beam of the cross would have had to be rather low to the ground.

Offering the drink to Jesus was perhaps an act of mercy, but it was minimal in its effect and served only to prolong the torture before death brought relief. But the rest of those standing near the cross used that gesture of kindness as another opportunity to carry their mockery of the Lord still further, saying, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.”

It seems incredible that even the pitch darkness of midday did not alarm the wicked crowd. They were so bent on scorning Jesus that even such a momentous phenomenon as the blocking out of the sun did not deter them. Being aware of the many Old Testament associations of unnatural darkness with judgment, it would seem they would at least briefly have considered the possibility that divine judgment was occurring at that very moment. But the single thought now on their minds was to make Jesus’ death painful and humiliating. They had no comprehension of the amazing alienation of the Son from the Father.[2]

27:46 At about 3:00 p.m., He cried out with a loud voice, saying, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The answer is found in Psalm 22:3, “… You are holy, enthroned in the praises of Israel.” Because God is holy, He cannot overlook sin. On the contrary, He must punish it. The Lord Jesus had no sin of His own, but He took the guilt of our sins upon Himself. When God, as Judge, looked down and saw our sins upon the sinless Substitute, He withdrew from the Son of His love. It was this separation that wrung from the heart of Jesus what Mrs. Browning so beautifully called “Immanuel’s orphaned 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!”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

27:47, 48 When Jesus cried, “Eli, Eli …,” some of those who stood by said He was calling for Elijah. Whether they actually confused the names or were simply mocking is not clear. One used a long reed to lift a sponge soaked with sour wine to His lips. Judging from Psalm 69:21, this was not intended as an act of mercy but as an added form of suffering.

27:49 The general attitude was to wait and see if Elijah would fulfill the role Jewish tradition assigned to him—coming to the aid of the righteous. But it was not time for Elijah to come (Mal. 4:5); it was time for Jesus to die.[3]

46 The “cry of desolation” raises two important questions.

  1. In what language did Jesus utter it? Almost all recognize that the words echo Psalm 22:1 (for a list of exceptions, see Moo, Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives, 264–65). But among the variant readings of a confused textual history (see Notes), Matthew keeps “Eli, Eli” (NIV, “Eloi, Eloi”), representing a Hebrew original, and Mark “Eloi, Eloi,” representing an Aramaic original. The remaining words, “lama sabachthani,” are Aramaic. Many suggest that Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 in Hebrew, reverting to the ancient language of Scripture in his hour of utmost agony. Only this, it is argued, accounts for the confusion with “Elijah” in v. 47 and provides a plausible explanation for the rendering “my power” (hē dynamis mou, presupposing Semitic ḥêlî) in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter. In this view Mark, or an early copyist of Mark, has turned Jesus’ words into Aramaic, recognizing that Jesus more commonly spoke Aramaic than Hebrew.

However, though Jesus was probably at least trilingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek—with perhaps some Latin), the overwhelming textual evidence for the rest of the cry supports an Aramaic original. Even Matthew’s Hebraic-sounding Eli may in fact support an Aramaic original, because the Targum (written in Aramaic) to Psalm 22:1 has ʾēlî. Apparently some Aramaic speakers preserved the Hebrew name for God in the same way some English speakers sometimes refer to him as Yahweh. The evidence of the Gospel of Peter is not decisive because “my power” may not rest on a Semitic original but may be an independent periphrasis for God, akin to Matthew 26:64. Moreover, on the lips of a dying man crying out in agony, Eloi could as easily be mistaken for Elijah as Eli (cf. Broadus; Lagrange; Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 63–66; Moo, Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives, 264–75). Jesus’ cry was most probably in Aramaic; and at least some of the variants stem from the difficulty of transliterating a Semitic language into Greek, and others from the influence of the OT.

  1. What does this psalm quotation signify? A large number of commentators have interpreted the cry against the background of the whole of Psalm 22, which begins with this sense of desolation but ends with the triumphant vindication of the righteous sufferer. The chief difficulty is that though OT texts are frequently cited with their full contexts in mind, they are never cited in such a way that the OT context effectively annuls what the text itself affirms (Bonnard). If the context of Psalm 22 is carried along with the actual reference to Psalm 22:1, the reader of the gospel is to understand that the vindication comes with the resurrection in Matthew 28, not that Jesus’ cry reflects full confidence instead of black despair.

Equally futile is the suggestion of Schweizer and others that these words constitute a more or less standard cry of a pious man dying with the words of a psalm on his lips. But why this psalm when others would be more suitable? Evidence for such a use of Psalm 22 is sparse and late. It is better to take the words at face value: Jesus is conscious of being abandoned by his Father. For one who knew the intimacy of Matthew 11:27, such abandonment must have been agony; and for the same reason, it is inadequate to hypothesize that Jesus felt abandoned but was not truly abandoned (contra Bonnard; Green; McNeile; Senior, Passion Narrative, 298), because “it seems difficult to understand how Jesus, who had lived in the closest possible fellowship with the Father, could have been unaware whether he had, in fact, been abandoned” (Moo, Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives, 274).

If we ask in what ontological sense the Father and the Son are here divided, the answer must be that we do not know because we are not told. If we ask for what purpose they are divided, the ultimate answer must be tied in with Gethsemane, the Last Supper, passion passages such as 1:21; 20:28 (see also 26:26–29, 39–44), and the theological interpretation articulated by Paul (e.g., Ro 3:21–26). In this cry of dereliction, the horror of the world’s sin and the cost of our salvation are revealed, a fact that should be clear from surrounding details: (1) The verb “to save,” used in the preceding verses, has forced us to remember that Jesus came to save his people from their sins (1:21). (2) The darkness covering the land must signal something like the loss of the light of the Father’s presence. (3) The result of Jesus’ death is the tearing of the temple curtain (v. 51), signaling full and free access into the presence of the holy God, which is possible only because sin has been paid for and the judgment of God averted. (4) This verse, cited from Psalm 22, must be read in the light of 27:43, also drawn from Psalm 22 (as we have seen). The mockers cry, “He trusts in God”—meaning, of course, with their sarcastic attempts at irony, precisely the opposite. Jesus’ ostentatious trusting of his Father must be dismissed as a failure or a joke, for look where it has gotten him! But once again, Matthew perceives a deeper irony: Jesus does trust in God, in precisely the same way, though doubtless at a deeper level, than David trusted in God, yet cried out in abandonment. Trusting God and being abandoned are not mutually exclusive—not in David’s experience, and not in Jesus’ experience. Jerome H. Neyrey (Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1998], 152–61) shows that this cry is, in this sense, a true prayer, a mark of piety, cried precisely because Jesus is in the same profound way abandoned, which was God’s purpose all along, as Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane attest. God’s answer to this cry of desolation, then, is in the utter vindication of vv. 51–54.

In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Yea, once, Immanuel’s orphaned cry his universe hath shaken—

It went up single, echoless, “My God, I am forsaken!”

It went up from the Holy’s lips amid his lost creation,

That, of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation!

Browning wrote these lines, of course, as part of her homage to William Cowper. For all his brilliance, Cowper suffered several rounds of suicidal depression. Browning powerfully asserts that Jesus cried, “My God, I am forsaken!” so that for all eternity William Cowper would not have to. Jesus cried, “My God, I am forsaken!” so that for all eternity Don Carson would not have to—“That, of the lost, no son should use those words of desolation!”

47 According to 2 Kings 2:1–12, Elijah did not die but was taken alive to heaven in a whirlwind. Some Jewish tradition, perhaps as old as the first century, held that he would come and rescue the righteous in their distress (cf. TDNT, 2:930–31; Str-B, 4:769–71).

48–49 See comments at v. 34. The allusion is again to Psalm 69:21. What is not clear is whether the offer of a drink is meant as a gesture of mercy or as mockery. The gospel parallels are somewhat ambiguous. The best explanation is that of mockery. Oxos (lit., “vinegar,” GK 3954) probably refers to “wine vinegar” (NIV), sour wine diluted with vinegar drunk by foot soldiers; but this does not make the offer a compassionate act, since its purpose may have been to prolong life and agony, while with false piety the onlookers say they will wait for Elijah to rescue him (v. 49). But if the Father has abandoned Jesus, will Elijah save him? The offer of a drink not only fulfills Scripture but makes the cry of desolation (v. 46) all the bleaker.

It is not clear whether Luke 23:36, where mockery is clearly intended, properly parallels Matthew 27:34 or 27:48–49. John’s gospel (19:28–29) is interested only in the Scripture’s fulfillment, not whether mockery is intended.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 27:45–46). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1309). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 646–648). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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