Today is Father’s Day. And it’s a Sunday. Anyone who attends church on a regular basis knows that this means it’s time for your pastor to stand up and talk about how God is the greatest, most loving Father of all!!! Yay!!! But all this talk about the amazing, unconditional love of God reminds me of a belief common to most Christians that I have had a very hard time understanding. I have a big problem with the belief that while Jesus was on the cross, he was forsaken by his Father. They say that when Jesus was crucified, he became sin, and since God is so holy that He cannot even be close to sin, of course He turned His face away. It’s supposed to represent both how completely good God is and how much Jesus loved us to go through this ordeal to the point where even God forsook him.
But, as I mentioned, I have a huge problem with that. First of all, literally the entire purpose of the Bible is to demonstrate that God always and unfailingly loves us and that nothing we do could make Him abandon us. He sacrificed His only son for us, so why would He turn around and abandon aforementioned son. If He’s so deathly allergic to sin, why did He not just destroy humanity after the Fall and be done with this sin business once and for all. Why does the Bible consistently say (and show) that God does not abandon us? And why in the name of everything that’s holy should we expect God to be with us in our darkest moments, the moments that we feel like everything that is dark and there is no light in our minds, when he was so quick to abandon His son on the cross, the son in whom He was “well-pleased,” the son who said “not my will but Yours be done.” We can never ever claim the kind of goodness that Jesus presented, and if Jesus wasn’t good enough for God, how can we ever be?
Sure, you can make an argument for the idea that we don’t become sin when we mess up because we are redeemed by Christ, and when Jesus became sin, he made it impossible for us to ever truly become sin, so therefore we will never be abandoned, but the question that arises from that idea is are we redeemed before we’ve even repented? And if we are not, aren’t we also “become sin” before we repent? Or if we’ve rejected God and refused to turn back to Him or even believe in His existence, then what? Are we just totally screwed at that point? God just says “well okay if that’s the choice you want to make” and abandons us? I don’t think so.
If you find yourself agreeing with me (or at least find your interest even slightly piqued), please join me on my (long) journey to make sense out of this apparent contradiction. (If not, I suggest you skip this post and possibly a few others.) Our first step should be to talk about the language used here. Let me quickly note before I begin that there is some debate over whether or not Jesus spoke Mishnaic Hebrew or Aramaic, but in regards to these specific words, I’ve found that the distinction is fairly irrelevant because both languages actually end up translating the words into the same English words. Eli obviously is addressing God directly. Lama means “why” or “for what purpose.” Okay, that was easy enough. The last word is a little harder. See, while sabachthani (related to the Aramaic shebaq, as we'll talk about later) is used in both Matthew and Mark, that’s not the same word used in the Psalm. David uses the Hebrew word azavthani (the root of which is azab) in Psalm 22.
Both of these words are translated “forsaken” in the two examples that I’m using, but there is more nuance to the difference between these words. To understand the meaning of azab a bit better, let’s look at the context of other uses of the word. In Genesis 28, when God is speaking to Jacob, He promises that He will not leave – azab – Jacob until He has fulfilled His promise. In Deuteronomy, God instructs the Israelites not to leave – azab – the Levites alone because they have no inheritance. The word azab primarily means “forsaken,” although it is used occasionally to mean something along the lines of “left behind for a specific purpose.” However, as with any apparent Biblical ambiguity, we can use the context of the word to determine which meaning the word has.
The meaning of shebaq, on the other hand, is a bit easier to determine. As mentioned above, the words sabachthani is simply the Greek translation for the Aramaic word shebaq; actually, sabachthani is only used in those two instances in Matthew and Mark. Since there are no other verses which use sabachthani, we have to look at the Aramaic version shebaq to accurately determine the meaning of the word.
Shebaq is used in 5 instances in the Old Testament: Ezra 6:7, Daniel 2:44, Daniel 4:15, Daniel 4:23, and Daniel 4:26. In all of these verses, shebaq is always referring to leaving something behind – not forsaking it, but leaving it behind for its own purpose.
According to Strong’s concordance, shebaq means “to allow to remain, to leave, to let alone.” To shebaq something is not to abandon it.
However, while these differences must be noted, the fact still remained that Jesus used the Aramaic (or Hebrew) version of the English word “leave.” There are so many nuances to the word that could completely change the meaning of what he was trying to say, so why didn’t he just use a more specific word to remove all doubt or ambiguity?
Before I move to directly answering that question, I have a question for you. When I say “The Lord is my shepherd,” what do you think of? Probably Psalm 23, and not just the beginning of it, but the entire Psalm as a whole. I’ll even bet that after you read “The Lord is my shepherd,” your mind automatically thought “I shall not want.” If I say “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” your brain may have supplied the rest of the sentence. Same with other famous beginnings: “It was the best of times…” “It was a bright cold day in April…” and so on. Some writings are so well-known that all you need to do is quote the first line, and everyone knows what you’re talking about. Your audience will fill in the blanks, prompted only by your reference.
Back in the day, the Hebrew texts were as well-known as our own classic literature. One needed only to quote the first line of a section of the Scriptures, and the audience would know what the rest of that text said. In using language that directly quoted the first line of Psalm 22, Jesus was drawing attention to the entire Psalm, just like how if I say “The Lord is my shepherd,” you immediately think of the entire Psalm 23. Look at the crucifixion record and compare it with the Psalm, it is almost the same account. In places, they use the same words. Let me provide a short example for you.
All who see me mock me; they wag their heads (verse 7)
[Those who mock said] He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him (v. 8)
They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots (v. 18)
And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads (verse 39)
[Those who mock said] He trusts in God; let God deliver him now (v. 43)
Then they crucified him, and divided his garments, casting lots (v. 35)
And as if that weren’t enough, verse 15 of Psalm 22 says “my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth,” referring to Jesus’ “I thirst,” and in verse 16, the speaker says “they pierced my hands and my feet,” exactly what happened during the crucifixion. This is what Jesus was referencing; not that one single passage as a stand-alone commentary on his situation, but the message of the Psalm as a whole.
And hey, while you’re at it, let’s keep reading, so we can get the complete picture of what Jesus was trying to tell his audience. In verse 24, the psalmist states “He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him.” Nor has He hidden His face from him. And if we continue on to verses 25-31 (the ending section of the Psalm), we can see that the conclusion of the Psalm is quite a bit more optimistic than the first line might make us think. “They shall praise the LORD who seek him…. All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD … for the kingdom is the LORD’s…. They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.”
This is not a Psalm of defeat, of abandonment, of Jesus being alone and forsaken by the One who loved him. This is a victory cry! Jesus was despised, scorned, tortured, and killed, but not ever abandoned by God for even one second. Because, as numerous examples from the Bible tell us, God is not in the habit of abandoning those He loves. Read Deuteronomy 31:8, Joshua 1:9, basically the entire book of Psalms, John 16:32, Hebrews 13:5, and you can look up even more examples if you’d like. But in every instance, you will find that God constantly remains with those that He loves.
It’s not, perhaps, a type of love that we can fully understand. We’re only human, our minds can only comprehend a finite amount of love. For us, there’s always a point at which love comes to an end, abandoning the person who is loved. But our amazing, infinite Creator does not and will not ever run out of love. His love does not include abandonment. His love is perfect, unfailing, and forever. More on this coming soon.