Many of us have turned to the laments in Scripture when our hearts have been heavy with sorrow or fear. We may have prayed David’s desperate words, asking God for help and rescue. The Psalms give voice to the difficult emotions we feel in this fallen world.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away. (Psalm 31:10).
Help me, O LORD my God! Save me according to your steadfast love! (Psalm 109:26)
Prayers like these encourage us with the truth of who God is and what he has done. As important and relevant as these laments are, there is one lament in Scripture that stands above the rest. It’s the most important of all. It’s Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.” (Matthew 26:36–45)
Jesus knew his hour was almost near; Judas was on his way with soldiers to arrest him. So he went to a familiar place to be with his Father. There Jesus, steeped in Scripture all his life, having sung and prayed the laments in worship at the synagogue, prayed his own lament.
The promised Son of David followed the structure and pattern of the laments and cried out to his Father in heaven. Like the laments of the king who foreshadowed the King of kings once wrote, Jesus prayed to God in raw honesty, revealing the depths of his sorrow and fear. He then cried out to God, boldly asking him to remove the cup of wrath from him.
Only the Beginning of the Agony
Gethsemane was the beginning of the agony Jesus would endure for his people. The sorrow and anguish he felt there was only a foretaste of what was to come. When the disciples abandoned him and fell asleep, it was a glimpse of the abandonment he would experience at the cross when his Father turned his back on him.
As John Calvin notes:
And whence came his sorrow and anguish, and fear, but because he felt that death had something in it more sad and more dreadful than the separation of the soul and body? And certainly he underwent death, not merely that he might depart from earth to heaven, but rather that, by taking upon himself the curse to which we were liable, he might deliver us from it. He had no horror at death, therefore, simply as a passage out of the world, but because he had before his eyes the dreadful tribunal of God, and the Judge himself armed with inconceivable vengeance; and because our sins, the load of which was laid upon him, pressed him down with their enormous weight. (Calvin’s Complete Commentaries, Kindle version: locations 388121–388130).
Jesus prayed for strength to overcome the same weak flesh and temptation to which the disciples yielded. As he continued in his lament, he was strengthened by an angel (Luke 22:43).
Some Sorrow Leads to Joy
God answered his prayer, not to remove the cup, but to enable him to continue forward with the plan they made before time began. Jesus then prayed the prayer he once taught the disciples, “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). He ended his prayer like those laments in the Psalms, with a response of trust, resting in the perfect will of his Father.
Like all of Jesus’s works, his lament is for us. He suffered anguish and faced temptation at Gethsemane and overcame it. He knew the joy that lay on the other side of the cross and endured it for our sake (Hebrews 12:2). Because he suffered and sacrificed for us, we have been redeemed and adopted by the Father. Through Jesus, we can pray our own laments and “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
This prayer in the garden is the most important lament in all of Scripture. It fulfills all other laments because Jesus is the answer to all the cries of our heart. It is a lament that ought to shape our own laments, for in every prayer we pray, we come to the throne of grace unhindered because our Savior prayed that dark night in Gethsemane.
For Holy Week 2016, we are publishing a series of fresh meditations, one each for Palm Sunday and Easter and two each on the other six days. Also, our new devotional book, Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy, provides morning and evening readings for Holy Week and is available for download, free of charge.