By Clovis G. Chappell
"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)
Clovis G. Chappell: THESE words come to us out of a long gone past. We first hear them from the lips of this ancient psalmist whose name has been forgotten for many centuries. But he was doubtless not the first to utter them. They have been either articulate or inarticulate upon the lips of countless millions of perplexed men and women as the years have come and gone. Who among us has gotten very far into life without having had wrung from us this tearful cry? This is a question that has literally sobbed its way through the centuries. It is in a sense an outcry of the race. It is as old as man. It is as new as the pain of your own broken heart.
But as intensely human as is this question, we are thoroughly startled to find it upon the lips of our Lord. Yet as he hangs on the cross, he takes these words from this ancient psalmist and makes them the vehicle for the expression of his agony. After terrible hours of suffering he flings out this age-old question, "My God, my God, why?" In fact, these words have become his very own.
We tend to forget that anyone ever uttered them except him whose was the tenderest heart that was ever broken and whose were the purest lips that ever spoke. Surely it is our Lord who has given to these words their immortality. Let us think of them, then, not so much as those of a long dead poet, but rather as the exceedingly bitter cry of the dying Son of God. Of course, we cannot hope to comprehend them. We can only pray that our imperfect glimpses may bring to us some spiritual enrichment.
Upon the lips of Jesus these words have two striking peculiarities.
1. Here Jesus addresses the Infinite by a name that he has never used in speaking to him before, nor does he ever use it afterwards. When he flings out this question he addresses the Eternal as "God." "My God, my God," he cries.
Now, the one word that he uses in speaking to God everywhere else is "Father." This, too, is the name by which he most often speaks of God. When we hear him for the first time in the temple as a lad of twelve, he says, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" (Luke 2:49) When he teaches us to pray he tells us to say "Our Father." (Matt. 6:9) When he would enforce upon us the reasonableness of prayer he does so by reminding us of the fact that God is our Father. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matt. 7:11) The first word he utters upon the cross is "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (Luke 23:34) When the ghastly fight is over his last word is, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)
Almost constantly did Jesus call God "Father" in speaking of him. Always and everywhere he did so when speaking to him, except here. Only here does he say "my God."
2. Then this text upon the lips of Jesus is peculiar because it is a question that he addresses to God. This is the only question, so far as the record goes, that Jesus ever asked God during his entire earthly ministry.
We are full of questions. Jesus questioned only once. There were, of course, times of conflict. There were times when he looked at the will of God not without amazement that his Father could so choose for him. But always he accepted that will without question. He never faltered in his faith that the Father's plan for him was the best plan. Near the beginning of his ministry he said in reply to a suggestion from his mother, "Mine hour is not yet come." (John 2:4) By this he meant to say, "Henceforth the finger that points to the hour that I am to act and the task that I am to do will be that of no human hand. It will be that of my Father." At the end of the journey he prayed, "If it be possible, if there is any other way, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt." (Matt. 26:39)
But here Jesus flings out a question.
What does this question on the part of Jesus indicate?
1. It indicates a sense of forsakenness. Jesus, for the moment at least, has lost his vivid realization of the Divine Presence. His Father seems no longer so real as he has been in other days. Remember that Jesus up to this time had lived his life in the most perfect realization of the presence of God. What the greatest of the saints have experienced at the transfiguration moments of their lives, Jesus experienced continuously. To him God was always the supreme reality. To him he was always closer than breathing and nearer than hands and feet.
How confidently he speaks of this intimate association. "He that hath sent me is with me the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him." (John 8:29) When near the end of his journey he said to his disciples with great sadness, "It shall come to pass that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone." (John 16:32) Then he corrected himself, "Yet I am not alone. The Father is with me." But now that Presence that has been his very life seems to have withdrawn from him so that the deepest darkness he has ever known closes over him.
2. This cry also indicates perplexity. God's strange ordering of things left him baffled and bewildered. For mark you, this question is intensely real. Jesus never degenerated into a mere actor. In everything he did there was always perfect sincerity. When he prayed he did not pray simply to set us an example. He prayed because prayer was for him an absolute necessity. He could not keep spiritually fit without it. When he was tempted his temptation was a reality. If this is not the case, then his conflicts can be of no help to us. They only mock us. In the battles that we have to fight we are capable of being wounded. In the battles that we have to fight we may utterly lose our souls. If such is not the case with our Master, then his struggles are worth less than nothing to us. Jesus asked this question because he was sorely perplexed.
3. This question is born of a terrible agony. There was the agony of a dimmed realization of God. There was the agony of bewilderment. There was the agony of physical suffering. The cross was the most horrible torture that the fiendish ingenuity of man ever devised. But the physical agony of our Lord was as nothing in comparison with his spiritual suffering. It was this that broke his heart. It was this that wrung from him this terrible question that sounds so little like the shout of a victor and so much like the wail of one whose dreams, instead of coming true, have only led him into the quagmire of desolation and death. "My God, why?" This question was born of immeasurable heartache.
Now it is easy for us to understand a less vivid realization of God on the part of ourselves. It is easy for us to understand perplexity and agony on the part of ourselves. But how are we to account for these in Jesus Christ our Lord? It is not surprising that we sometimes have this question wrung from our lips, but how can we account for it upon the lips of him who said, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father"? Of course, we cannot hope fully to answer this question. At best we can but dimly grope.
But of this at least we may be sure. The agony, the perplexity, the sense of forsakenness on the part of Jesus was not due to his consciousness of the anger of God. He had no such consciousness. The old idea that God the Father was flinging the thunderbolts of his wrath at his Son is to us unthinkable. God was never more pleased with Jesus than when he hung on the cross. Let us never forget the love of Jesus for men is also the love of God. Jesus on the cross is God on the cross. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself." (2 Cor. 5:19) The perplexity and pain therefore that wrung this cry from Jesus was certainly not born of any anger or displeasure on the part of God the Father.
No more are we to assume that because Jesus uttered this bewildered and agonized question. His faith had been shattered by the torture through which he was passing. While his realization of God is not so vivid as at other times, his faith in God is still firm, triumphant, and strong. Therefore he does not lapse into sullen silence. He believes that there is One who sees and understands all that he suffers. He believes that there is One who is able and willing to make all things clear.
He believes that God still lives. Not only so, but he dares to claim this God as his very own. In spite of his bitter agony he cries, "My God." Then he proceeds to bring his perplexity up before him and fling it down at his feet in the faith that he doeth all things well.
Why then this sense of loss and bewilderment on the part of our Lord? We find at least some light on the question, I think, in this fact, that such bewilderment is inevitable if he is to be fully identified with ourselves. The Word has become flesh. Jesus is one with us. "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren." (Heb. 2:17) Now since he shares our nature, he must also share our perplexities. And we have them, God knows. Strange and bewildering sorrows often overwhelm us and we cry, "Why?" There are times when the pastor has this question flung at him till he is heartsick with the bleak tragedy of it all. There are those present even now who are asking it through lips that are white and drawn with pain.
What answer can we make to these perplexed and distressed souls? What have we to offer baffled men and women who stand face to face with veils through which they cannot see, and grim doors to which they find no key? Well, we have this at least: We can offer a marvelous Saviour who has walked just their road and who is, therefore, able to enter into full sympathy with them. "For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted." (Heb. 2:18) We can assure them that our Christ is not angry with them because they question. He himself said "Why?"
We can assure them further that this Christ of ours, when he was perplexed, brought his perplexity to God and that God did not fail him, but brought him through in triumph. Then we can add with superb confidence this crowning word: This understanding Christ is infinitely able and infinitely eager to do the same for them, even the weakest.
Finally this agony of bewilderment and perplexity on the part of our Lord is the natural outcome of his identification with us in our sin. He is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) There on the cross he is being wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. (Isa. 53:5) There for love's sake he who knew no sin is being made to be sin for us. (2 Cor. 5:21) [Perhaps, because Christ had been made a "curse" (Gal. 3:14), God departed from him.]
Now since he shares with us the burden of our guilt, it is not only natural but inevitable that he should feel that sense of forsakenness that comes from the bearing of such a burden. His agonizing bewilderment is born of his sharing the desolation of the sheep that had gone astray. No wonder then that he cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
But his very suffering wins us. Lifted upon the cross, he draws all men unto himself. (John 12:32) Therefore his cry of agony and seeming defeat becomes a shout of victory. From this skull-shaped hill (Calvary - Golgotha) of grimmest failure he marches to the conquest of the world.