Welcome back to the Ask Pastor John podcast, with longtime author and pastor John Piper. Pastor John, as we near the end of this January, we arrive at Psalm 22. For those of you reading along with us in the Navigators Bible Reading Plan, Psalm 22 has been in front of us now for a few days. It’s a haunting psalm, haunting from the very opening line: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Very heavy. And it’s especially haunting because this line becomes one of the cries of Jesus from the cross. Psalm 22 is all about Christ, and it’s on his lips in the crucifixion accounts in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. But to hear him recite Psalm 22:1 leads us to ask this: Was Jesus confused by the cross?
That’s what a listener named Bridgette wants to find out today. Here’s her email: “Pastor John, I love the Lord deeply, and my faith continues to grow, but I’ve always struggled with Matthew 27:45–46, where Jesus recites Psalm 22:1. Why would Jesus question the Father like this in asking, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ when he certainly knew the answer? It was for this very reason Jesus came to die — to be forsaken on our behalf! Could you give insight into this, so that this hurdle in my faith can be removed?”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those terrifying words occur in two Gospels (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34) as Jesus is hanging on the cross near death. It says, “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice.” Amazing. How did he have any strength to do a loud voice? “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” — the Aramaic form. “That is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46).
Script of the Passion
Now, one very important fact to remember is that these words are the exact first words of Psalm 22. And that’s important because Jesus seems to have known that the whole psalm, in some way or other, was about him. Because at least three other parts of this psalm are quoted in the story of his death. You have Psalm 22:1–2; this is what the psalm says: “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then Psalm 22:7 says, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” And those exact words, “they wag their heads,” are quoted in Matthew 27:39 — “Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads” — to show that this psalm is being played out in the death of Jesus.
Then Psalm 22:16 says, “They have pierced my hands and feet.” And then Psalm 22:18 says, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So, the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are part of this psalm that contains, as it were, a script for Jesus’s last hours.
Now, why did he say it? She wants to know, “Why the why?” Why did he say it? And here’s a three-part answer.
1. He was bearing our judgment.
First, there was a real forsakenness. That’s why. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” means he really did. He really did. He’s bearing our sin. He bore our judgment. The judgment was to have God the Father pour out his wrath on us, and instead, he pours it out on him. And that necessarily involves a kind of abandonment. That’s what wrath means. He gave him up to suffer the weight of all the sins of all his people. And the judgment, the judgment for those sins — we cannot fathom. I don’t think we can begin to fathom all that this would mean between the Father and the Son.
To be forsaken by God is the cry of the damned, and he was damned for us. So, he used these words because there was a real forsakenness. That’s the first reason.
2. He was expressing desolation.
Second, the why, it seems to me, is not a question looking for an answer, but a way of expressing the horrors of abandonment. I have a couple of reasons for thinking this.
“To be forsaken by God is the cry of the damned, and he was damned for us.”
Jesus knew ahead of time what he was doing and what would happen to him and why he was doing it. His Father had sent him for this very moment, and he had agreed to come, knowing all that would happen. Listen to these words (this is John 18:4): “Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to [the arresting mob], ‘Whom do you seek?’” He gave himself up. So, he knew. He knew it was coming. He knew everything.
Another reason is that the moment was one of agony, not theological curiosity. The moment was one of agony.
And a third thought — on the fact that he’s not asking a question so much as expressing a horror — is that the words are a reflex of immersion in Psalm 22, it seems. They’re a direct quotation, but when you’re hanging on the cross, you don’t say, “Oh, I think I want to quote some Scripture here.” It either is in you, as the very essence of your messianic calling, or it’s not. And if it’s in you, then you give vent at the worst moment of your life with the appointment of your Father scripted in Psalm 22. That seems to be right at the heart of what’s going on.
Let me read Psalm 22:22–24. It goes like this:
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
In other words, this psalm ends with a note of triumph. So, Jesus isn’t curious or wondering, “How’s this going to turn out?” He had embedded in his soul the horrors of the moment of abandonment, and he had embedded in his soul the joy that was set before him. “I’ve got a promise, and God will not despise me. In the end, he will take me back.”
So, at some level, he knows it’s not a final cry or an ultimate cry. He endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). And the why is not a request for a theological answer; it’s a real cry of spiritual desolation with words that were second nature, because his whole life was scripted by God.
3. He was fulfilling Scripture.
I think the last reason we should say, therefore, is that this psalm was his life. Crying out reflexively in agony with the words of this psalm shows that, as horrible as it is, it was all going according to plan. All of it was the fulfillment of Scripture — even the worst of it was the fulfillment of Scripture. And that moment was probably the worst moment in the history of the world. And it was Scripture fulfilled.
So, he said these words, first, because there was a real forsakenness for our sake. Second, he was expressing desolation, not asking for an answer. And third, he was amazingly fulfilling Scripture in the horror of it all and witnessing to the perfection of the plan of salvation.