Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?

“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” [Matthew 27:46].

Being forsaken was only one part of the suffering of our Saviour on our behalf, but unless we understand what it really means we are never going to fully appreciate what Jesus underwent so that we could be saved. The meaning of these words cannot be ventured into lightly. The meaning requires our reverence and prayerful thought, but even then, even with an eternity of prayerful consideration, the depth of the meaning remains fathomless and unreachable to man. The very idea that God could and would forsake His dear Son staggers the natural mind. In this study we are going to confine ourselves to this topic, and hopefully, by God’s grace, make the meaning a little clearer.

“A sentimentality about the Cross won’t save. The torture of scourging, nails in hands and feet and thorns on brow, which men inflicted, could only condemn, not save. To be saved, one must understand and believe that on the cross Christ became the sacrifice for our sins, bearing at the hands of God (‘Yet it pleased the LORD [Jehovah] to bruise him . . . mak[ing] his soul an offering for sin’ – Isaiah 53:10) the infinite penalty His own justice demanded. It is only because Christ paid that full penalty that we could be forgiven and receive eternal life.” (Dave Hunt, The Berean Call, May 1998).

John Wesley, in his New Testament with Explanatory Notes, remarks concerning this verse, “Thus He at once expressed His trust in God, and a most distressing sense of His letting loose the powers of darkness upon Him, withdrawing His comfortable presence, and filling His soul with a terrible sense of the wrath due to the sins which He was bearing.”

Martin Luther studied this verse of Scripture for a long time. He abided in the text going without food, but in deep prayerfulness. When finally he arose from his desk, he exclaimed “God forsaken of God! Who can understand that!”

This cry marked the final part of Christ’s suffering on earth for man’s sin – for a lost world. He was experiencing total separation from His Father because of this sin, yet He had never sinned. He was the sinner’s substitute. As Wesley suggested, the terror Jesus must have felt is beyond words, and maybe no amount of descriptive language would ever make us realise what this separation from God meant to Him. It is sufficient to say that this was the only time in all of eternity that the Father was forced to turn His face away from His only begotten Son. Jesus’ cry does not arise out of the need to understand His Father’s reasons for all of this. Rather it arose out of the incomprehensibility of it all. “Up till this moment, when He was forsaken by men He had been able to turn to His Father, but now even this refuge is denied Him, and He is absolutely ALONE. Who can plumb the depths of this anguish?” [The Incomparable Christ, pg.190 by J. Oswald Sanders.] While it is true that the Father had forsaken His Son in those moments on the cross we must see it as turning His back on the sin He hated, not the Son He loved. If we can get near to understanding this event maybe our salvation will be even more precious to us.

“We may not know,
we cannot tell what pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.”
[Cecil F. Alexander, 1818-1895]

Jesus’ cry was in fact a quotation from Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me? Why art Thou so far from helping me? and from the words of my roaring.” This was David’s cry of anguish when he thought that God had left him. In one sense a person who dies without Christ will experience overwhelming anguish as he passes from this life. The realisation will hit that person with full force – eternally separated from God! Such a person will suffer eternally in Hell because he never took the only Substitute as his Lord and Saviour.

Jesus Christ took the punishment for our sin on the cross. The burden of sin made Jesus feel completely separated from God. Charles H. Spurgeon wrote, “He suffered spiritual agony surpassing all expression, resulting from the departure of His Father’s presence. This was the black midnight of horror; then it was that He descended the abyss of suffering . . . We grieve at a little withdrawal of our Father’s love; but the real turning away of God’s face from His Son, who shall calculate how deep the agony which it caused Him?” [Evening and Morning]. The prophet Isaiah says, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and by His stripes we are healed.” [Isaiah 53:5]. There He hung guilty and condemned though He had done nothing wrong. He was being punished and was paying the penalty for what we have done. We can almost hear the Father crying out, “The wages of sin is death!” [Romans 6:23]. Any good lawyer standing there that day would have declared how unfair the whole punishment was. But there it is, with all its injustice, an innocent man is dying for the crimes of the sinner who is walking away free. How often do we take the time to meditate on what it cost the Saviour to redeem us? All to often, even with deep ingratitude, we take this so great salvation for granted as though we deserve it. We stand in horror today when we hear of people who have been falsely condemned for crimes they have never committed, yet the world’s greatest injustice is hardly given a passing thought. The physical pain must have been horrendous, but even worse was the period of spiritual separation from His Father. Was this the cup that Jesus dreaded? “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not my will, but as Thou wilt.” [Matthew 26:39]. The distress caused by such separation must have been worse than the death He was suffering. To Jesus this separation from the Father was the ultimate agony. Yet Scripture says that it “pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He hath put Him to grief.” [Isaiah 53:10]. Jesus’ cries out, “Why?” What answer can God give to such an agonising question? The answer is found in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” J. Oswald Sanders wrote; “Personal grief wrung from Him this personal cry . . . There would be no mystery in God’s forsaking us, for we would be receiving only ‘the due reward for our deeds’. But why should God forsake His Son who ‘knew no sin’, and ‘did no sin’, ‘in whom was no sin’, the Son in whom He testified that He found perfect delight? There is only one explanation. He was taking my place – and yours. He was being forsaken that we might be forgiven.” [The Incomparable Christ, pg.191.]

Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! What words are these?
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! Grief’s mysteries,
O Christ, forsaken in Thy time of need,
Thy deepest hour of agony we plead.
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! Deep-echoed woe
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! O, who can know,
Or who the depth of anguish can divine,
That broken heart, that thrilling cry of Thine?
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! O bleeding Lamb,
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! Redeemed I am;
Thy wounded soul from light and joy shut in,
Is bearing there the bitter curse of sin.
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! My soul is free,
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani! Love’s victory,
Forsaken Thou, that I might never cry
Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani.
[Albert Midlane.]

Look at Calvary. Do you see the sign above the head of the one hanging there? No, not the one which reads, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews” [Luke 23:38], it’s the other sign I’m interested in. You may just about make it out now since it has been ignored for too long. It reads, “CURSED!” God commanded Moses to prepare that sign thousands of years before the crucifixion. The apostle Paul was one of those who could read the sign and understand its full significance. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree.” [Galatians 3:13].

While we are on the subject it is worth noting that it was not the nails that held Jesus firmly to the wood. It was our sin. When will we comprehend that He took our sin upon Himself so that we could be free? “For He made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” [2 Corinthians 5:21]. There are those who teach that Jesus became a sinner on the cross. The Scriptures do not teach such a blasphemy. Jesus became the sin-bearer. The only one who was pure, holy and sinless that could take what should have been coming our way. And please take note, not only was He taking this sin and injustice but He was willing to give us His righteousness in return. We can certainly say that Jesus received the raw end of the deal.

Satan did not fully grasp what was happening. He did not understand the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice, no wonder the liberal theologians and the religious world do not see the import of that cry on that fateful afternoon. “Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.” [1 Corinthians 2:8]. But for us who believe we do have some understanding of why all this had to be. Jesus was paying the price for our salvation. Jesus is our Ransom. “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and give His life a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20:28]. Paul agreed with this when he wrote to Timothy, “Who gave Himself a ransom for all.” [1 Timothy 2:6]. We have been given the right to become children of God because Jesus was forsaken and died on the cross for our sin. The words of Isaiah ring so true when he said, “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” [Isaiah 53:3-4]. To think that the only begotten Son of God should undergo all of this on our behalf, for Him to be forsaken by His dear Father, defies logic. No wonder Isaiah remarked, “Who hath believed our report?” [53:1].

If you can grasp a little of the extreme horror Jesus must have felt on the cross to cry out, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” then you are beginning to value the cost of your salvation.

The unsaved will continue to work their own way to Heaven with their price in their hands. They think that they know what it will cost to enter the Kingdom of God – their good works and self-righteousness. We need to point them to the Christ of Calvary that hung on the cross and was willing to become separated from God so that they could be saved. Make them see that the price can be seen in His hands, feet and side. Tell them that there is no other way and the price has been paid “with the precious blood of Christ, as lamb without blemish and without spot.” [1 Peter 1:19].

I gave My life for thee,
My precious blood I shed
That thou migh’st ransomed be,
And quickened from the dead.

I gave, I gave My life for thee,
What hast thou giv’n for Me?
My Father’s house of light,
My glory circled throne,
I left for earthly night,
For wand’rings sad and lone.

I left, I left it all for thee,
Hast thou left aught for Me?
I suffered much for thee,
More than thy tongue can tell,
Of bitt’rest agony,
To rescue thee from Hell.

I’ve borne, I’ve borne it all for thee,
What hast thou borne for Me?
And I have brought to thee,
Down from My home above,
Salvation full and free,
My pardon and My love;
I bring, I bring rich gifts to thee,
What hast thou brought to Me?
[Francis R. Havergal. 1836-1879]

“There, friends; I have done my best, but I seem to myself to have been prattling like a little child, talking about something infinitely above me. So I leave the solemn fact, that our Lord Jesus was on the tree forsaken of His God.” [Charles H. Spurgeon. Metropolitan Pulpit March 2, 1890].