Of all of Jesus’ prayers, Matthew 27:46 may be the most bracing. Every syllable of these few words scream a sense of separation, brokenness, and unrelenting doubt. Reading only those words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” conjure up a whole range of the worst emotions: fear, anxiousness, defeat, regret. The Son of God seemingly doubts His Father. The Father apparently casts off the Son. My whole life in and around church, I have heard sermon after sermon and lesson after lesson explain that in this moment, as Jesus became sin for us, His Father could not look upon Him and had to turn away. Certainly theologically, this answer rings of truth. In those moments of darkness around the cross, mocking voices at His feet, evil appearing to have its way, Jesus may very well have felt a spiritual distance from His Father because of our sins that He so selflessly bore.
But if we stop there, I believe we fall woefully short of the depth these words beckon us to mine down into the rich soil of the Word of God. Jesus wasn’t some confused, dying, mistreated innocent man lamenting the terror and agony of separation from God. He wasn’t some frightened martyr unsure of His place and purpose on that cross. Remember, He pleaded in the garden only hours before for God to remove this heavy burden from His shoulders. He had told His disciples on multiple occasions the foreboding future that awaited Him in Jerusalem—arrest, the cross, death (three times in Matthew alone: 16:21-28, 17:22-23, 20:17-19). He knew what He was doing. Remember also, as a young boy, He confounded the most religious in the temple at 12, proceeding to make a career of upsetting the status quo of the religious elite with His divine take on His Father, the Old Testament, and their hollow religious legalism (Luke 2:41-51). In the wilderness temptations, the only words to leave His lips were quotes from the book of Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:1-11). After His resurrection, He preached a seven-mile sermon to two disciples telling them all the Old Testament Scriptures predicted about His own suffering and death (Luke 24:13-35). Jesus knew the Old Testament. As the divine Son of God, Jesus wrote the Old Testament. As the man incarnated by God, He most assuredly would have had the Old Testament memorized, a common practice for the religious leaders of His day. Indeed, you would think if anyone ever memorized the Old Testament, it would be its Author, right?
As the words of Psalm 22:1 left Jesus’ lips, it’s perfectly safe to assume He knew He was quoting the Psalm, perhaps even quoting the whole Psalm from the cross. The chapter starts in distress and moves to an amazingly accurate prophetic account of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. But what should catch our attention, arrest our eyes, and stop us dead in our tracks isn’t the lament of the first verses or the predictive accuracy of the middle verses. The cresting pinnacle of the final verses should reach into our very soul and grip us more powerfully than any other part. Read these words and make note of their joyous rhythm and rising anticipation:
23 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!
24 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.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
That’s not the song of defeat. Those words do not sound the hollow echo of the Son cast away from His Father. That’s not the frightened plea of surrender. Nor is that the lament of a broken, doubting martyr. That’s a victory cry! Psalm 22 ends on the highest of high notes. Jesus pursued obedience to His Father unflinchingly in the face of the fiercest evil. He set His gaze on the cross, never wavering to the right or left. This moment was not His darkest hour but His victory lap! He had taken the cup He didn’t want to drink and consumed every drop. He had forged a path never before even seen by the eyes of men, the path of perfect obedience to His Father’s will. I don’t believe for a second that this prayer on the cross signaled only the separation of Jesus from His Father. I hold firmly that these words bloomed with His anticipation of an embrace this world has not known before or since of a Father’s pride in His Son’s perfect and complete execution of His will. Jesus was announcing to those with ears to hear, “Satan, I have taken your worst, and defeated you. Father, I have accomplished everything You asked. I am victorious!”
Look back at to the end of Psalm 22:31 one more time slowly: “…that he has done it.” As you do, Imagine Jesus praying these words to His Father. Picture in your mind’s eye the metal spikes that clasped His hands to a wooden beam keeping Him from putting His hands together as He prayed. See before you the same type of spike through His ankles which kept His knees from bowing before His Father. And yet, look upon the One who prayed with a posture of humble submission unrivaled by any in all of history. The song ends on the precipice of victory, a crowning moment of glorious success, a declaration of triumph over the forces of evil seeking to take His life. This victory cry of Psalm 22:31 calls your mind to another of Jesus’ words from the cross, doesn’t it? That’s right. You got it:
“It is finished!”
When Jesus met His greatest challenge, He prayed. When He waged war with the enemy in the darkest of nights, He prayed. When He needed the strength to persevere under the weight we will never know or imagine, He prayed. He models for us, like no other, the central place prayer should take in our lives. What motivation to pray as He prayed indeed!
*This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Pray Like This. Be looking for it toward the summer.