Day 125: The Rabbi on the Cross (Psalm 22)

Through the Bible in a Year: Psalms 1-2, 15,22-24, 47, 68

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? (Psalm 22:1)

Like a lot of people, I have grown up with the understanding that when Jesus took on the sin of the world and became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), God turned His face away from Jesus. I listened to Carman’s The Champion along with everyone else who was doing youth ministry in the 90’s, and I remember the line, “God the Father turned His head; His tears announcing Christ was dead…”

So when I read Psalm 22:1, knowing that this is what Jesus was quoting when He cried from the cross “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani” (Matthew 27:46), I just always assumed that this was when God turned away from Jesus, because He is too holy to look on sin.

I won’t try to re-cover the same ground Tara-Leigh did in today’s podcast (but if you haven’t listened to it, stop right now and listen to it). But I do want to consider one more possible answer for why Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the Cross.

When Jesus met His first disciples, they called Him Rabbi before they called Him anything else (see John 1:38-50). And rabbis taught by asking questions. There’s a lengthy article on this from the Jewish Learning Institute. It will take some time to read the whole thing, but it is so worth it. In the article, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that asking questions is at the very heart of Jewish faith. He writes,

The heroes of faith asked questions of God, and the greater the prophet, the harder the question. Abraham asked, ‘Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?’ Moses asked, ‘O Lord, why have You brought trouble upon this people?’ Jeremiah said, ‘You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before You, yet I would speak with You about Your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?’ The Book of Job, the most searching of all explorations of human suffering, is a book of questions asked by man, to which God replies with four chapters of questions of His own.

So, rabbis asked questions, and they expected their students to ask questions back to them as well. Rabbi Sacks continues:

One of the classic genres of rabbinical literature is called She’elot uteshuvot, ‘questions and replies.’ Questioning is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. Religious faith has often been seen as naïve, blind, accepting. That is not the Jewish way.

Couple this with ancient Judaism’s version of Bible drill. In Torah school, a rabbi would often quote a phrase from scripture. He would then expect his students to quote back to him the passage before the quote and the passage after. Since there were no verse numbers or chapter headings in the Torah, this was how the rabbi could know if his talmudim had mastered the text.

So back to Jesus on the cross. Even while He was being crucified, He did not cease to act as a rabbi with His students. I believe that Jesus looked down at the foot of the cross and saw His disciple John standing there. And in classic rabbinic tradition, the Teacher said,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?

And if the disciple was paying attention, He would have recalled the remainder of the Psalm.

He might have remembered verse 24, and known for certain that the answer to Jesus’ question from the Cross is, “He hasn’t. God has not forsaken you:”

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.

I think Jesus was prompting His disciple to recall God’s Word. When John was at His most broken, watching His Savior bleed out for the sins of the world, perhaps Jesus was reminding the beloved disciple of the rest of Psalm 22.

That the cross was not the end: Those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever!” (v. 26).

That the salvation Jesus was working was for all people: All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you (v. 27).

Did John learn his rabbi’s final lesson? I think maybe he did. Of all the gospel writers, John alone records that Jesus’ final word from the cross is “It is finished” (John 19:30).

If Jesus quoted the first words of Psalm 22 to test his disciple John, then perhaps John was recalling the last words of Psalm 22:

HE HAS DONE IT.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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