On Good Friday, Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). The words are from Psalm 22:1.
When you hear those words, what do you think of?
That Jesus has become sin, so God turns his back on him?
Or perhaps that he’s experiencing hell in our stead?
Whatever comes to mind, I’m willing to wager it’s not based upon the psalm itself.
My God, My God, Why Have You Exiled Me?
When we look at those words in the context of the whole psalm, as well as in the original Hebrew, here’s their thrust: this is the cry of one undergoing exile from God.
We might paraphrase the lament this way: “My God, my God, why have you exiled me?”
Three times, for instance, the psalmist complains of God being far away:
1) “Why are you so far from saving me…?” (22:1—the same verse!)
2) “Be not far from me, for trouble is near…” (22:11)
3) “But you, O LORD, do not be far off!” (22:19)
Just as Israel was exiled to Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon—far away from the holy land, far away from the face of Yahweh—so the Messiah is exiled from God.
The Messiah is recapitulating—doing over again in himself—what Israel did. This happens throughout the ministry of Jesus. The Messiah lived in Egypt as a child as Israel lived there. He was tempted 40 days in the wilderness as the nation was for 40 years. He fed hungry people in the desert as Moses did for Israel. So on the cross he endures exile as they did. He is a refugee “far away” from God.
Just as Israel had the Babylonian exile, the cross is the Roman exile of the Messiah.
Do Not Forsake the Hebrew
Jesus quotes the opening line of the psalm in Aramaic, but the original is in Hebrew. In that language is another key to understanding the verse.
The verb translated “forsake” is azab (עזב). It’s a word freighted with exile connotations.
1) In Deuteronomy, God says that if his people forsake (azab) him by worshiping false gods, his anger will be kindled against them and he will forsake (azab) them and hide his face from them (31:16-17). In fact, the only other place in the OT where this exact Hebrew verbal form (azabtani) is used, is when God says he will send curses (including exile) upon Israel because "you have forsaken me," (28:20).
2) In Jeremiah, God says that he has forsaken (azab) his house, abandoned his inheritance, given his beloved into the hands of his enemies. Israel will go into exile in Babylon (12:7).
3) In 2 Chronicles, when Israel forsook (azab) the Torah, God sent the prophet Shemaiah to warn, “You have forsaken (azab) me, so I also have forsaken (azab) you to Shishak [the king of Egypt],” (12:1, 5).
In other words, when the Israelites heard azab, they heard overtones of exile.
The Righteous Lament of an Innocent Man
The Messiah is exiled from God on the cross as Israel was. Forsaken as Israel was forsaken. Cast away from Yahweh as Israel was. Why?
We usually say Jesus was forsaken because he became our sin. While it is true that Christ did become our sin (2 Cor 5:21), Psalm 22 says nothing about the sin of the one who is praying. Like other psalms, it is the righteous complaint of one who protests to God because he is innocent, not guilty.
And that’s the point! Psalm 22 is the plea of an innocent, righteous man who's treated like a guilty, unrighteous man. He is exiled even though his hands are clean. He is forsaken even though he trusts in God. He is cast away even though he clings to Yahweh.
Psalm 22 is the lament of an innocent man who undergoes what the guilty deserve. The focus is not so much on him becoming sin as it is on him being sinless but punished as if he is sinful.
Here is a man, fully alive, fully righteous, fully human, treated in a subhuman way. This prayer may be the most innocent, fully human expression Jesus ever uttered.
Easter for the World
He is treated this way, however, so that when God hears his prayer, brings him back from exile, and draws him from the dust, the effect will be cosmic: “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD,” (22:27).
His return from exile—in resurrection—will mean resurrection for all. “Even the one who could not keep himself alive,” shall bow before God, shall eat and worship (22:29). What Jesus experiences, all will experience in him.
Jesus’s exile will mean Easter for the world.
Joshua Ryan Butler sums up much of this in his excellent book, The Pursuing God:
“In Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion, he is bearing Israel’s exile and death, living out this next major era of his people’s story. Jesus is an Israelite, and as her Messiah he carries her story within himself in order to redeem it. As Jesus is cast outside the city, he is recapitulating Israel’s banishment from the land. As he is crucified under the pagan powers, he takes upon himself her national destruction. Though personally innocent, he takes upon himself the exile and death of his people,” (p. 93).
Because Jesus prayed, “Do not forsake me,” we know that God will not forsake us. The Messiah has brought us home from exile. He has made us fully alive in him. Never in Christ will we be far off from God, for in him God is not only with us, but he is one of us.