When Jesus cried for help Unpacking the meaning of Jesus's last words April 1st, 2019 Mark Giacobbe
When Jesus cried for help
When Jesus cried for help Unpacking the meaning of Jesus's last words April 1st, 2019 Mark Giacobbe
Bible Engager’s Blog

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus's cry of dereliction from the cross recorded in Mark 15:33-34 haunts us each Lenten season. Traditionally, the church sets aside this season to ponder the deep mystery of God sundered from God, the eternal Son cast out from the Father's presence as he bears the weight of our sin. But this cry from the cross is not simply a spontaneous shout of anguish from a forlorn soul. Rather, as the footnotes in our Bibles tell us, Jesus is quoting Scripture—to be precise, Psalm 22. Why did Jesus quote Psalm 22 from the cross? And why did Mark record it?

How Jesus used Scripture

We might think that Jesus, steeped as he was in the Scriptures and traditions of Israel, simply and unconsciously expressed his emotions in scriptural terms. “Jesus bled Scripture,” as some notable church leaders have said. While this is no doubt true, there is likely more going on. Jesus did everything with intentionality, even in the throes of death. And the Gospel writers—in this case, Mark—who collected and recorded his sayings did the same, painstakingly selecting and choosing from the myriad of things that Jesus said and did throughout his lifetime to present their portraits of Christ (see John 20:30; Luke 1:1-4).

The reason Jesus and the New Testament writers quote verses from the Old Testament is that the Old Testament helps to clarify what is in the New. We would miss something if we read in isolation Old Testament verses or passages explicitly quoted in the New Testament. Instead, the aim is usually to direct the audience to the entire context of those Old Testament passages, which help them frame, interpret, and apply what is going on in the New Testament.

What this means is that we modern readers can gain a deeper understanding of certain passages of Scripture if we read them in their Old and New Testament contexts. To be sure, some of these connections will be clearer than others. But don’t give up! As we grow in our ability to see how intricately connected the Old and New Testaments are, we’ll become better readers of both. Taking time to make these connections doesn’t only help us to better understand Scripture, but can also lead us to greater depths of worship as we gain fresh insights into God’s heart and the wisdom of his great redemptive plan. Let's look at how this might apply to Psalm 22:1 quoted in Mark’s Crucifixion narrative (15:33-34).

How Jesus experienced the cross

First, we read the entire Psalm. (If you’re able, read through Psalm 22 on your Bible or Bible app now). When we do, what probably strikes us at first is how vividly sad it is, notwithstanding a note of hope in the concluding verses. We are treated to an up-close and personal look at an individual who is suffering terribly at the hands of cruel men. Scholars call this type of psalm an “individual lament,” a song that expresses the pain of a pious soul surrounded by enemies.

Lament psalms tend to have a specific structure to them, which we can discern as we follow along in Psalm 22.

Laments begin with an address to God, usually quite short: “My God, my God.” Next comes a complaint, usually longer, in which the psalmist starkly pours out his troubles to God:

Why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
(vv. 1-2)

Following the complaint is usually an expression of trust in God, which we can see in verses 3–5:

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

In this psalm, complaint and trust switch back and forth for a while, all throughout verses 6-18. Read these verses, letting the imagery sink in. As you do so, you will probably notice many connections to the passion of Jesus.

For example, Psalm 22:7-8 says, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” We can easily imagine Jesus, in his humanity, feeling the shame of mockery on the cross. Or, in verse 14, when the psalmist says, “my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast,” we can vividly feel Jesus’s anguish and pain. It seems that Psalm 22 gives us access to the thoughts and emotions of Jesus, as he hangs on the cross, which even the Gospels don’t provide! And this draws us to adore Christ, because we understand in a new way how greatly he suffered on our behalf.

What Jesus hoped for

However, things don’t stop there. After the complaint and expression of trust, Lament psalms turn a corner, offering a plea for deliverance, and words of assurance and praise. In Psalm 22, the corner is turned in verse 19: “But you, O LORD, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!” And then, in verse 21, “You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!” (a poetic way of describing a dangerous obstacle or enemy). From here on out, we encounter a very different tone. The psalm shifts starkly from tragedy to triumph; from pain to power. In fact, there’s something startling about the end of this psalm. Notice how verse 15 seems to describe the psalmist’s impending death: “You lay me in the dust of death.” He is “at death’s door,” as we would say. But then, by verse 22, something has shifted dramatically: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” In other words, it seems that someone who was dead is now alive!

This note of triumph and praise continues through the rest of the psalm. Not only does the former sufferer now praise God in the midst of the congregation (vv. 22, 25), but his victory becomes the means of great blessing for others: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied” (v. 26), and even “the ends of the earth”—gentile nations who do not know God—will “remember and turn to the Lord” (v. 27). This is a triumph with worldwide repercussions!

What can all this mean? Although Psalm 22 is traditionally ascribed to David, David never experienced anything quite like this. He had his enemies and was in many a tight spot, but Psalm 22 describes someone who is not only facing death but is swallowed up by it. Utterly helpless; hands and feet pierced; ruthless animals all about; laid down in death—the end is certain.

Yet God intervenes. The psalm turns on a dime from death to life. What’s more, the sufferer’s victory somehow affects the whole world. No victory of David was ever like this! The psalm in its original context points to realities that go beyond the Old Testament and which are only fulfilled in Jesus and the New Testament.

Understanding God’s plan

Some theologians have compared this to the relationship between a seed and a flowering tree. A seed is both much smaller and very different from the tree that grows from it. Yet the two are intimately, organically related, since the tree came from the seed. In the same way, the Old Testament text is like a seed, and the New Testament like a tree. The two are organically related, yet what comes later is so much grander and more beautiful than what came before.

Now that we’ve read all of Psalm 22 in its context, tracing a line from Old to New, we can see why Jesus used its first words to express his agony, and why Mark recorded them. Jesus is not merely quoting Psalm 22:1. Instead, he is invoking the entire psalm to help us understand how Jesus trusted God even in the agony of his death. Although we knew before that Jesus suffered on the cross, from Psalm 22 we learn just how great was his shame, anguish, and sorrow—and his hope that God would deliver him from death. Although we know from the New Testament that the message of the Gospel must go to all the nations (see Matt 28:18-20), from Psalm 22 we see that this is not something out-of-the-blue, but something that was part of God’s plan all along. And so, by reading Psalm 22 through a New Testament lens, we understand in a new and deeper way both the greatness of God’s redemptive plan and the greatness of Christ’s love for us. 

But we can’t stop there. It’s not enough just to understand Scripture better. We must also turn our insights into fuel for worship. This Lenten season, as always, let’s let our study of Scripture lead us to renewed wonder, love, and praise.

Read more posts about: Understanding ScriptureBiblical Context

Mark Giacobbe
Mark Giacobbe

Mark Giacobbe lives in Philadelphia, where he is Associate Pastor of Community Life at Citylight Church and a Lecturer in New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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