Eli! Eli! Lama Sabachthani?
When Jesus called out from the Cross, some standing there thought He was calling for Elijah. They misunderstood – He was actually quoting what King David had written a thousand years beforehand. Matthew and Mark both explain that the Lord was actually citing the opening lines of Psalm 22. The fact that Christ cried out these words just prior to His death lodges Psalm 22 in our consciousness as the cry of the crucified King; a song of intense suffering. But it’s worth another look at the psalm itself to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening that day.
Psalm 22 begins with that infamous shout to God. It’s a wail of despair from the bottom of the pit of suffering. But we soon find out that suffering isn’t the only theme at work here. David quickly moves to matters of God’s reputation. Even in David’s time, the One True God had a reputation for looking out for His own:
In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed (Ps 22:4-5 NIV)
For a few verses David returns to his own situation, sketching out that his own reputation was actually in bad shape. He is sneered at and sarcastic taunts are thrown his way. David again finds comfort in God’s reputation, secure in the memory that God had been with him all along. He couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t sensed the Lord’s presence. This knowledge puts his current sense of abandonment in perspective. God had been faithful to his ancestors; and God had never deserted him in the past. From God’s reputation David draws courage and strength, and the psalm builds to a rousing victory cry. Gone is the loneliness, gone is the despair. The Lord God has a reputation for faithfulness towards His children, and with each new victory that reputation increases. From verse 22 onwards David writes only of how faithful and wonderful the Lord is, and how generations to come will hear of His powerful works of salvation.
A great number of the Psalms have an air of lament – they cry out to God when life is painful. But in claiming this particular lament on the Cross, Jesus might well have wanted us to see beyond His agony to the promise of salvation. Even to see beyond our own suffering to the assurance of His future blessing. Those there on Calvary who knew their Scriptures would have thought to themselves: “But that psalm doesn’t wallow in defeat; that psalm ends in victory! That psalm is about God’s reputation for saving those who cry out to Him!”
Jesus was not exempt from His suffering, and neither are we. Had there been any other way to bring about the plan, He had prayed in Gethsemane for it to be so. But even on the Cross, He remembered the Father’s reputation to deliver His children through the fiercest trials. There is victory at hand, no matter how dark the day.