The Prayer of Jesus on the Cross
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”… These are the words uttered in Psalm 22, part of the collection of prayers preserved by the community of faith in ancient Israel. They are words that express the anguish of suffering of the Psalmist and seeming rejection by both God and people. What can these songs of lament offer us as readers in the 21st century? In our eagerness to celebrate the glory and victory of Easter Sunday, we should not neglect the value, mystery and pain of the songs of lament.
These words of Psalm 22 were also used by Jesus Christ in the passion narrative of both Matthew and Mark. Why did Jesus quote this Psalm 22 at his death? In our eagerness to celebrate the glorious resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, we should not neglect the value, mystery and pain of Good Friday. This event provides us the opportunity to reflect on the question of suffering and the “why” we encounter in our journey through life.
What does Psalm 22 offer us in the 21st century?
Psalm 22 is part of a rich tradition in Old Testament poetry of songs of lament. These were prayers directed to God by the community of faith. They express a problem to God, and appeal to God for the solution. These prayers give us permission to be honest with God in whatever situation that we face. Psalm 22 reminds us that there is no quick and easy answer to this question of “why,” but permission to explore. Yet, the poetry of lament in the bible asks this question of “why” to God within the faith community. The question is directed to God and expects a response from God. This suggests that the question of “why” can only truly be asked as part of the journey of faith.
The first 21 verses of the Psalm verbalise the distress of the Psalmist. The cause of their distress ranges from seeming abandonment and neglect of God (vv1-2) and the ridicule of others (vv 6-18). Each of these sources of lamentation causes the poet to ask: “Why?” It represents real questioning and wrestling with faith and doubt.
Yet Psalm 22 does not end in despair, but moves through the anguish to silence to hope. It concludes with praise. God has heard and answered the cry of distress. The actual situation of the Psalmist may not have changed, but God has not abandoned them. That is enough. Therefore they express their gratitude. The journey from doubt to faith, suffering to joy, turmoil to peace should always end in doxology – worship, praise and thanks to God.
Why did Jesus quote Psalm 22?
The use of this Psalm reminds us that Jesus Christ understood his sacrifice in the context of a story; the life and faith of ancient Israel. It was from their hymnbook came this prayer expressed by Christ on the cross. Christ used these words to verbalise his anguish and pain on the cross. This reminds us that Christ entered fully into the human experience of suffering. In the tradition of the community of faith, he offers up his distress in prayer.
We can also see the appropriateness of Jesus in adopting this psalm to describe his situation as it indirectly prefigures his sufferings. In this way, the Old Testament points to the passion of Christ through the foreshadowing of the sufferer in Psalm 22. Yet the observers of Christ expected an immediate deliverance as they interpreted Jesus’ cry as an appeal for the intervention of Elijah (Matt 27: 46-49; Mk 15: 34-36). Their response was to wait and see if Elijah would indeed deliver him. Instead, he appeared to be abandoned by God. Here at the Cross the Son was separated from the Father.
The separation of the Son from the Father was a turmoil and anguish of immense pain. By adopting the prayer of lament of Psalm 22, Jesus verbalises his pain at this severing of the most intimate and pure relationships. The Cross cost the most valuable of relationships, to secure our place in the communion of the Trinity. We are now reconciled to God through this costly grace.
However, like Psalm 22, the lament is not the end of the story but part of the journey. The lament (vv 1-21) moves through the silence (between vv 21 and 22) to praise (vv22-31). The passion of Christ moves through the darkness of Good Friday to the silence of the tomb on Easter Saturday to the joy of Resurrection Sunday. So as we reflect on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, we share in the journey of faith as we move from being dead to our sins to a newfound life and salvation. We model our dialogue with God on the prayer of Christ who verbalised even the most tragic suffering to God. We continue to voice our doubts, fears and hope within the community of faith, confident that God hears and answers us when we call. As God has been faithful in the past, so will he be faithful in the future.
“Why?” did Jesus suffer? He did it for us.
Dr Jacqueline Grey is the Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Alphacrucis College, specialising in Old Testament studies. She has appeared on various national TV and radio programs in Australia, including the ABC TV's Q&A program.