‘Now from the sixth hour [dawn being zero hour, this was noon] there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour [3 p m]. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” … And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit’ (Matthew 26:45-46, 50).
That is how Matthew recorded the final minutes of our Lord’s earthly life. Luke supplied for us the words of that brief final prayer: ‘Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last’ (Luke 23:46).
Consider two details of these final words of our Lord. Firstly, he was not quoting Psalm 22:1 – he would have done that in Hebrew. He was asking a genuine question in his domestic Aramaic. And secondly, that question was not addressed to ‘Father’ as were his final request and his earlier agonised prayer in Gethsemane when ‘he said, “Abba, Father … Remove this cup from me”’ (Mark 14:36), using there the endearing word that would have been among the first ever on his infant lips – Abba, Papa, Daddy.
Martin Luther’s wife, Catherine, once heard him say, after he’d been sitting in silent thought for a long time: ‘God forsaken of God! Who can comprehend it?’ Small wonder that there had been a total eclipse! Those of us who have experienced one of those will recall the eerie silence that engulfed everything as, for instance, the birds ceased to sing. Our blessed Lord had just endured hell on earth – the only human ever to have undergone this reality during earth time. It had been a spiritual death.
When light re-emerged, no answer is recorded from heaven. Having looked back and asked the question: Why did you forsake me? – the Greek translation of his Aramaic query is in the aorist or point tense: Why did you abandon me just then? – he turned his focus to the future and, eyeballing physical death, he prayed: ‘Father, into your hands I am committing my spirit’, then bowing his head breathed his last.
At the Lord’s Supper it is appropriate to consider these questions. Also to recall that at times in our life-in-Christ we have to journey through puzzling questions that at that moment seem unanswerable. Fifteen times in his nine lamentations (that fill all of sixteen chapters of his book) Job asked God the question why?
And Paul admitted that, in his service for the Master, he was on occasions ‘perplexed, but not driven to despair’ (2 Corinthians 4:9). The Greek word he used means ‘can’t find a way out or through’. By the way, the word despair is an extended form of perplexed – compare: helpless but not hopeless. He also admitted to his friends in Corinth that ‘a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger [angelos = angel] of Satan [an evil spirit] to harass me’, concerning which ‘three times I pleaded with the Lord … that it should leave me’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). I imagine that those three occasions were spread over quite a period of time as he longed for even one peaceful pioneer mission that didn’t end in stoning or imprisonment! After the third asking God replied: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).