The last words of our Lord before his death, in approximate order, are
- “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34
- “This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43
- “Woman, behold thy son.” John 19:26-27
- “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Mark 15:34 Matthew 27:46
- “I thirst.” John 19:28
- “It is finished.” John 19:30
- “Into thine hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46
Growing up in the South, and with a very conservative/literalist background, I was always troubled by his fourth pronouncement:
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)
How could it be that Jesus would be forsaken, as so many well-respected brothers in Christ have proposed? He was the sacrifice, and a sacrifice only has value if it is accepted by God. How could God the Father turns his back on his only begotten son while he bore the burden of all the sin of the world, and yet so love the world (full of sinners) that he sent that son? What does this say about Jesus, and the unity of the Trinity? So many uncomfortable questions… For the most part, I relegated this to the category of “stuff I don’t understand”, and put it on a back burner to evaluate at another time. Thankfully, the Lord presented the opportunity to consider the problem by offering the solution.
We use our family road trips as an opportunity to listen to The Chronicles of Narnia radio theater or similar CDs. We got acquainted with Dr. Brant Pitre during the 2008 Footsteps in Faith conference, and picked up his Jesus of Nazareth: A Biblical Christology for our spring 2008 travels. We (yes, even the kids) thoroughly enjoyed this recording of his masters-level Christology course. During the course of the CDs, Dr. Pitre mentioned the ‘last words’ that had troubled me, and that I’d not revisited for several years, and drew our attention to the relationship between his words and Psalm 22.
Knock, Knock… You did it, didn’t you? “Who’s there…” came to mind, right? When we refer to “the Our Father” or “the Lord’s prayer” today, most of us recognize that we’re referring to the prayer Jesus gave as an example to his disciples when they asked that he teach them how to pray. You don’t have to be Catholic to recognize that “Hail Mary” refers to the prayer we use when we meditate upon Christ with his mother using the words of Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist). “The Lord is my shepherd” instantly brings Psalm 23 to mind for Jews, Christians, Muslims, and every flavor of secularist. This is not a new phenomenon, and similarly, when Jesus called out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, those to whom he was speaking (that is, not the Roman guards) would have recognized that he was referring to Psalm 22.
The 22nd Psalm is an intense expression of an innocent’s suffering. Unlike many of David’s psalms of lament, there is no expression of remorse for sin. This is, as the heading suggests, the prayer of an innocent person, who despite the horror of his circumstances, trusts in the Lord, and has confidence in his ultimate victory. Take a look at the psalm, and consider them in the context of Jesus’s last moments. Isn’t it so much more in keeping with his character that his last words would be comforting and encouraging to his mother and beloved disciples gathered there at the cross with him, than an expression of absolute despair?
|1 To the choirmaster: according to The Hind of the Dawn. A Psalm of David. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?||This is a psalm of David – the rejected king, a man after God’s own heart, crying out in anguish.|
|2 O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer; and by night, but find no rest. 3 Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. 4 In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. 5 To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.||The anguish in the garden, not my will but thine…|
|6 But I am a worm, and no man; scorned by men, and despised by the people. 7 All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; 8 “He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”||“Crucify him!”, the crowning with thorns, “if you are the son of God, come down from there”|
|9 Yet thou art he who took me from the womb; thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts. 10 Upon thee was I cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.||The flight in to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents…|
|11 Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help. 12 Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.||Friends flee, and enemies surround him…|
|14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast; 15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death.||The agony of the crucifixion, I thirst…|
|16 Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet–||Gentiles often referred to as dogs. Lots of controversy about the translation of “pierced”, but the point is there…|
|17 I can count all my bones–they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots.||Emaciated, clothing divided and lots cast for the one-piece linen garment he wore (that the priests wore, and that was woven by their mothers)|
|19 But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid! 20 Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog! 21 Save me from the mouth of the lion, my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!||And yet, despite the appearance of being forsaken, he calls upon God the Father.|
|22 I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: 23 You who fear the LORD, praise him! all you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!||Abandoned by his friends, rejected by his people, and yet, he calls them brethren (Hebrews 2:12). And not just Judah, all the children of Israel, and the God-fearers (gentile converts) too!|
|24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.||The Father did not hide his face!|
|25 From thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.||the great congregation sings his praise, and the covenant is established|
|26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD! May your hearts live for ever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. 29 Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and he who cannot keep himself alive. 30 Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, 31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.||The kingdom of heaven… eternal and everlasting life… ALL the earth… Every knee shall bow, living and dead… for ever and ever, amen.|
A linguistic note
Often, the discussion of language and associated literary criticism complicate the argument. Psalm 22 is no different, and you’ll find arguments with varying degrees of integrity that attempt to attack specific portions of the translation of Psalm 22. In this case, while perhaps interesting and relevant in some context, the linguistic issues are less critical to the spirit of the relationship. The Hebrew, (which corresponds to the Greek translation), matches the text in Psalm 22. The Aramaic matches the spirit. Even if you present a consistent argument that Psalm 22 is not Messianic, David himself is a prefiguration of the Christ. There’s just no way to look at these words and not recognize that Jesus, despite appearances, was triumphant, not forsaken.
Lama הםל (Mark 14:34), or lema in some texts, is the stock Hebrew Old Testament word for “why?”, and is used over 170 times in the Hebrew Bible. The identical word, lama, also means “why?” in modern Hebrew. Sabachthani, ינתקבש is directly from the Mishnaic Hebrew קבש, sabach, meaning “forsake, abandon”. The modern Hebrew for “forsake” – “zab” or “sab” – may suggest an abbreviated form of sabach. See comments by Brint Minge and Douglas Hamp on the Hebrew. Note also that the early church fathers believed and taught that Matthew wrote his gospel first, and in Hebrew, avoiding any difficulties with regional accents, while Mark wrote in Greek what Peter taught, and would have presented Jesus’s words as pronounced by Gallilean Peter.
Aramaic: nashatani vs. Shabakthani
shabaktani – spared or destined
nashatani – forsaken or deserted
If you subscribe to Jesus having spoken Aramaic, and/or the scriptures being originally Aramaic, Jesus would say “”My God, my God, for this I was spared.” Search the web for more information on those who propose Aramaic as the language Jesus spoke.
- From the Mouth of Babes – The Rosary
- Early Church Fathers (www.earlychurchfathers.org)