About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)
(Matthew 27:46, New International Version)
From noon to three, the whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the depths, crying loudly, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
(Matthew 27:46, The Message)
It really doesn’t matter how you translate or paraphrase Jesus’ final coherent words according to the Gospel of Matthew—it still sounds agonizing. It is the cry of a man at his end. It is the cry of a man who crossed the line from hopeful to hopeless. It is a line that a lot of us play hopscotch with as we go about our situations in life. We feel full of hope one minute, then a bit of bad news or an unfortunate incident sends us reeling into hopelessness. Does it matter that Jesus can say: “been there, done that”? I believe it does, but before I explain why let me explain why I think Jesus went from being hopeful to hopeless and wasn’t simply quoting the first line of Psalm 22.
Jesus was full of hope because he knew he was part of something big. Scholars will debate until they are blue in the face just how much Jesus knew and when he knew exactly what he knew. I think it is suffice to say he knew he was part of something big. He may have even known that the something big had to do with an apparent sacrifice—perhaps even a Father sacrificing a Son. But Jesus was familiar with Scripture and he would have known the story of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 21-22) like the back of his hand. In that story the apparent sacrifice went all the way to a knife at the throat before God intervened and provided an alternative to Abraham sacrificing his son, Isaac. Therefore, even when things looked difficult: friends sleeping when they should have been praying, the beatings, friends fleeing and denying, and even to the crucifixion Jesus could have been hopeful based on what happened with Abraham and Isaac.
However, Jesus gets to the point when he realizes the last second has passed—there will be no stay of execution and there will be no ram caught in the thicket. Jesus is going to die. No doubt that Jesus may have recalled Psalm 22 as he crossed into hopelessness, he probably was very familiar with it, but I think the words also carried meaning. He felt hopeless. Where was God? Jesus had been faithful all the way to the cross and now he was dying—why had God forsaken him!?
My son was severely injured in Iraq when the Humvee he was driving hit an IED. As I sat with him through weeks of being in a coma and many, many months of recovery I always found comfort in talking with parents who had a child in a similar situation. They understood the pain, anger and grief—we had that in common.
Jesus has promised to always be present to us; his presence is real and close even though at times it seems quite distance. When I am slipping back and forth between hopeful and hopeless I am often able to find great peace in Jesus being present with me because he knows exactly what I’m going through. The touch of his hand through a flower, the whisper of his voice in the wind and the steadying strength to take another step all gives me hope when I feel I have been forsaken.
Dr. Terry Clees is a pastor of a church in Adrian, MI where he has served the community the past eight years. His hobbies include weightlifting, coaching wrestling and writing. He earned his doctorate degree at George Fox Evangelical Seminary where he studied spiritual formation.