And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV).
And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).
While Matthew records Jesus’ words in Hebrew, Mark records them in Aramaic (the language in which they were probably uttered); but the words are almost identical, and the meaning is the same.
These troubling words have long been interpreted as showing at that point in time Jesus symbolically bore the sins of the whole world and God – who cannot look at evil (Habakkuk 1:13) – turned away from his Son who was left in near-despairing isolation. Because sin cuts off from God, the argument is made, and Jesus at that moment represented all sinners – so God totally cut himself off from his perfect Son because of our sins.
But is that what those terrible words really signify? Did God really turn away from his only Son who had lived a life of perfect obedience – obedience all the way to death itself (Philippians 2:8)? Although that may possibly be the case, we do not have a scripture saying that. And how do we mesh that concept with the fact that it was because God loved sinners so much that he sent his Son to die for them (John 3:16)? Or the fact that God looks on and deals personally with every sinner he calls, and that we have it on scriptural authority that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ”? (Romans 8:38-39).
But there is another – and far more positive – way to understand those troubling words of Jesus. Jewish rabbis have long utilized the principle of referring to a scriptural passage by means of a few of its words, knowing that their hearers would mentally supply the rest of the passage. This method of teaching and reference (called “remez,” meaning “a hint”) was certainly used in Jesus’ time and we see him employing it frequently – for example, in Matthew 21:15 when the children of Jerusalem shouted praises in his honor and the priests and teachers of the law became indignant. Jesus responded by quoting only a few words from Psalm 8:2: “From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise.” But the religious leaders would have fully realized that the rest of that Psalm states the enemies of God would be silenced by children’s praises.
We see Jesus using this technique so often that when we turn to his words spoken on the cross "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we can see immediately that this is undoubtedly what Jesus was doing. The words are the opening words of Psalm 22 – the great messianic psalm that foretells even the smallest details of the Messiah’s death. Every biblically literate Jew present at the crucifixion would have been reminded of the prophecies made in that psalm – the insults of the mocking crowd (vss. 6-8), his dying thirst (vs. 15), the “dogs”/gentiles (vs. 16) who pierced his hands and feet (vs. 16), the casting of lots for his garments (vs. 18) – simply by the “hint” of Jesus quoting its opening verse.
We should remember, too, that these words were the only ones we are told Jesus spoke “with a loud voice” (the fact is recorded by both Matthew and Luke) on the Cross. These were the words – few though they were – that Jesus spoke in his agony to all present – and all present would have likely recognized the intent of that small remez that referenced the whole of the psalm from which it was taken. Seen this way, we realize that Jesus’ words were his last great teaching. They were the final proof he offered that he was, indeed, the One who was prophesied.
Understanding those words in this way is not to argue that sin cuts off from God, but to suggest that we should not presume that this is why Jesus uttered the words he did. We should perhaps temper that concept with a fuller understanding of God’s love – that God does indeed always love us as his children despite our sins – which means that God still loved his Son also at that awful time of his shouldering of our sins.
In fact, the very psalm that Jesus quoted contains, near its end, not words of his rejection as he suffered, but words that Jesus knew he could trust completely: “He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22:24).