The dying words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew have captured the imagination and curiosity of Christians for centuries. ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ which translates to ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
reflect a critical moment in the Passion narrative that demands deeper investigation.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: In Hebrew, these words reflect Jesus feeling abandoned by God at his darkest hour, yet still expressing faith in God’s plan. The words connect Jesus to Psalm 22, which foretold the Messiah’s suffering and death.
In this comprehensive article, we will explore the Hebrew meaning and context behind this pivotal phrase, analyzing its Old Testament connections, interpretive translations, and theological significance for Christ’s crucifixion and the Atonement.
The Hebrew Phrase and Psalm 22 Connection
The Hebrew text and translation
The phrase “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” that Jesus spoke on the cross is Aramaic, which was the common language of Judea in Jesus’ day. The original meaning of the phrase is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This comes from the beginning verse of Psalm 22 in Hebrew.
In Hebrew, the phrase is “Eli, Eli, lama azavtani?” Here is a breakdown of what each word means:
- Eli – My God
- Lama – Why
- Azavtani – Have you forsaken me
So the Hebrew phrase carries the same meaning as the Aramaic phrase that Jesus spoke. It is a cry expressing abandonment and despair.
Links to Psalm 22 prophecy
Psalm 22 has strong prophetic links to Jesus’ crucifixion. It foretells the piercing of hands and feet, casting lots for clothing, and mockery from onlookers. By quoting the first verse, Jesus was pointing people to examine the entire Psalm and its significance.
Some key prophetic verses from Psalm 22 include:
- “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” (Psalm 22:6) – Foretelling Jesus’ rejection
- “All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.” (Psalm 22:17) – The humiliation of crucifixion
- “They have pierced my hands and my feet.” (Psalm 22:16) – The pain of crucifixion
- “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” (Psalm 22:18) – Soldiers dividing Jesus’ clothing (John 19:23-24)
By quoting Psalm 22:1, Jesus was encouraging listeners to examine the entire Psalm and its significance to the Messiah, including both his suffering and glorification.
Jesus’ use of biblical language
Jesus commonly quoted Hebrew scriptures, especially in reference to himself. He used existing biblical language to assert his identity and mission. The phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” would have been quickly recognized by Hebrew speakers as a reference to Psalm 22.
Some reasons Jesus may have quoted this particular verse as he died on the cross:
- To acknowledge his feeling of abandonment by God as he bore the sins of the world
- To affirm his messianic identity through fulfilling biblical prophecy
- To direct people’s attention to Psalm 22 and its prophetic significance
- To express solidarity with the human experience of lamenting and feeling forsaken
Jesus frequently drew on the Hebrew scriptures to reveal his purpose and identity. His cry from the cross was another important use of biblical language to convey divine truth. The God-forsakenness expressed in Psalm 22 ultimately gives way to triumph, foreshadowing Jesus’ resurrection victory.
Theological Meanings and Interpretations
Expression of anguish and feeling forsaken
When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross, He was expressing the anguish and abandonment He felt in that moment. As He bore the sins of the world, Jesus was separated from God the Father, who cannot be united with sin. This brought intense suffering to Jesus.
His cry reflects the excruciating pain and sorrow He experienced at being cut off from His Father, with whom He shared perfect intimacy and unbroken communion from all eternity. Jesus felt forsaken and alone as He endured God’s wrath on behalf of humanity’s sin.
Affirmation of faith and obedience to God’s plan
Despite His feelings of abandonment, Jesus’ cry affirms His faith in God and commitment to follow God’s will. By crying out “My God, my God,” Jesus shows He still trusts the Father even though He feels forsaken.
He is fulfilling Isaiah 53’s prophecy that the suffering servant would be “smitten by God, and afflicted.” Though difficult, Jesus submits to God’s plan for Him to be crucified, knowing it will bring salvation.
His cry is one of anguish but also acknowledging God’s sovereignty and perfect wisdom in allowing His momentary separation from Jesus for the greater good.
Emphasis on Jesus’ humanity and suffering
By quoting Psalm 22, Jesus emphasizes His humanity and extreme suffering in His crucifixion. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus was fully divine but also fully human. His agony on the cross highlights His humanity, as He endured excruciating pain both physically and emotionally.
No mere human could withstand His level of suffering. But Jesus was the God-man, able to suffer completely as a man while also offering His divine life as an infinite sacrifice for sin. His cry reveals the depths of torment He experienced in His humanity.
Bridge between divinity and humanity
Jesus’ cry also connects His divine and human natures. As the eternal Son of God, He enjoyed unbroken fellowship with the Father. But in taking on humanity, He gave up that privileges for a time. His anguished cry indicates His human feeling of abandonment from God.
Yet as the divine Son, He addresses God directly in full confidence that the Father hears Him. Through His suffering, Jesus bridges the gap between God and man. His sacrifice makes reconciliation between God and humanity possible.
Though feeling forsaken in His humanity, Jesus never lost His divine connection to the Father.
Historical Context and Significance
Roman crucifixion practices
Roman crucifixion was a brutal form of execution used for slaves, rebels, and criminals. The condemned would be flogged first, then forced to carry their crossbeam to the site of execution where they would be nailed to the beam and hoisted onto a post.
It was an extremely painful, humiliating public death that could last for days (Bible Odyssey).
Reactions of crowd and disciples
As Jesus hung on the cross, the crowd mocked him, telling him to save himself if he was the Son of God. Even one of the criminals being crucified with him joined in the mocking. Jesus’ disciples had mostly fled, with only a few women watching from a distance (Matthew 27:39-56).
They would have been devastated, their hopes that Jesus was the Messiah apparently dashed.
Fulfillment of Messianic prophecies
Jesus crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is a direct quote of Psalm 22:1. This Psalm contains several prophecies of the Messiah’s crucifixion, including the dividing of his garments and casting lots for them (Psalm 22:18), being surrounded by enemies (Psalm 22:16), and the very words that Jesus cried out.
Jesus was showing that he was the suffering Messiah spoken of in this Psalm and other Old Testament passages like Isaiah 53 (Desiring God).
Centrality in Atonement theology
In crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” some theologians argue Jesus was feeling abandoned as he took God’s wrath for sinners upon himself. This gives deep meaning concerning the spiritual transaction taking place as our sin was placed on Christ and fellowship with God was severed so that it could be restored for all who believe (The Gospel Coalition).
The darkness and agony of those three hours remain central in theology concerning the meaning behind Good Friday and the atoning work accomplished.
In just a few potent words of Hebrew, Jesus expressed the agonizing separation from God that was necessary for the Atonement and salvation of humanity. By echoing Psalm 22, he connected his suffering directly to prophecies of the Messiah.
Though seemingly a cry of despair, Jesus’ words affirmed his unshakeable faith in God’s divine plan. This pivotal utterance remains a poignant centerpiece in the Passion narrative and Christianity as a whole.