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 man’s 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.
46 The “cry of desolation” raises two important questions.
- 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.
- 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!”
27:45–46. Jesus endured this suffering and abuse for three hours, from 9 a.m. until noon. Then, at noon an even worse torture fell upon Jesus. The Father turned his back on his own Son. The perfect communion of eternity past (cf. Matt. 11:27) was broken. The Father, in essence, had to say, “I do not know you” to the Son (cf. 7:23; 25:12). The king had been betrayed and denied by Judas and all the rest of his friends, by the shepherds of his people, and by the Roman authorities. Now he was left alone by his own Father. At that point he began to bear the hell (separation from God) of punishment for a world of sins.
This three-hour period was so black that creation itself became dark as well. From noon to 3 p.m., normally the brightest and hottest time of day, darkness covered the land. Creation mourned its Creator’s spiritual death (separation from his Father) and turned its back on the One the Father now turned away from because of the sin he became.
God directed Matthew to give the reader the exact words Jesus spoke, in the Aramaic language of his family and his people. Matthew wanted the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross to be clear. That significance was revealed in these Aramaic words, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? For the sake of his Greek readers, Matthew provided the Greek translation, which means (in English), My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? The Messiah was completely alone, bearing the guilt of all sinners. It was an indescribable abandonment.
At about 3 p.m., near the end of the three hours of darkness, Jesus cried out these words—the desperate cry of an abandoned Son to his Father. Still, he remained the sovereign king, as evidenced by the fact that he remained on the cross. The words of Jesus’ cry came from Psalm 22:1, echoing the desperate words of his forefather David. But the note of triumph and vindication at the end of the psalm (Ps. 22:25–31) would not come for Jesus until Sunday morning.
46. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying,
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
The link between the darkness and the cry is very close: the first is a symbol of the agonizing content of the second. This, then, is the fourth word from the cross, the very first one reported by Matthew and Mark. It issued from the mouth of the Savior shortly before he breathed his last.
In the Gospels what happened between twelve o’clock and three o’clock is a blank. All we know is that during these three hours of intense darkness Jesus suffered indescribable agonies. He was being “made sin” for us (2 Cor. 5:21), “a curse” (Gal. 3:13). He was being “wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.” Jehovah was laying on him “the iniquity of us all,” etc. (Isa. 53).
To be sure, this happened throughout the period of his humiliation, from conception to death and burial, but especially in Gethsemane, Gabbatha, and Golgotha.
The question has been asked, “But how could God forsake God?” The answer must be that God the Father deserted his Son’s human nature, and even this in a limited, though very real and agonizing, sense. The meaning cannot be that there was ever a time when God the Father stopped loving his Son. Nor can it mean that the Son ever rejected his Father. Far from it. He kept on calling him “My God, my God.” And for that very reason we may be sure that the Father loved him as much as ever.
How, then, can we ascribe any sensible meaning to this utterance of deep distress? Perhaps an illustration may be of some help, though it should be added immediately that no analogy taken from things that happen to humans on earth can ever begin to do justice to the Son of God’s unique experience. Nevertheless, the illustration may be helpful in some slight degree. Here, let us say, is a child that is very sick. He is still too young to understand why he has to be taken to the hospital, and especially why, while there, he may have to be in the Intensive Care Unit, where his parents cannot always be with him. His parents love him as much as ever. But there may be moments when the child misses the presence of his father or mother so much that he experiences profound anguish. So also the Mediator. His soul reaches out for the One whom he calls “my God,” but his God does not answer him. Is not that exactly the manner in which the cry of agony is interpreted in the context of Ps. 22? Note:
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou answerest not;
And by night, but I find no rest.”
For the Sufferer with a superbly sensitive soul this terrible isolation must have been agonizing indeed. This all the more in view of the fact that only several hours earlier he had said to his disciples, “Note well, there comes an hour—yes, it has arrived—when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me (John 16:32).” And a little later he had added, in his touchingly beautiful Highpriestly Prayer, “And now Father, glorify thou me in thine own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world existed” (John 17:5). And now the Father does not answer, but leaves him in the hands of his adversaries. Reflect again on all the abuse and the suffering Jesus had already endured this very night. Is it any wonder that he now cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” His God and Father would not have abandoned him to his tormentors if it had not been necessary. But it was necessary, in order that he might fully undergo the punishment due to his people’s sins.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 4, pp. 269–272). Chicago: Moody Press.
 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.
 Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 465–466). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Vol. 9, pp. 971–972). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.