Christ Never ‘Forsaken’
The Concert of the Trinity:
An Exposition of the So-called Cry of Dereliction
Psalm 22:1 & Matthew 27:46
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
C. D. Alexander
The Atonement is the crowning point of the Divine Revelation. The world itself was made for Calvary – not Calvary for the world. To understand the Atonement, therefore, is to understand God, creation, self, sin, judgment, and eternity.
There are two passages of Holy Scripture which are preeminently given to show the meaning and the significance of that stupendous act of God’s holy wisdom, righteousness, justice, mercy and truth which took place in the midst of the ages “outside the camp” at a place known as Calvary and Golgotha – the place of a skull.
One is in the Old Testament and the other in the New. The former is the 22nd Psalm and the latter is the Seventeenth chapter of John’s gospel.
Psalm 22 — as we should expect from a psalm, the first and last verses of which (as we shall presently see) were specifically and deliberately quoted by Christ on the Cross in the last moments of His sufferings is the prophetic picture of Christ’s intervention between the justice of the Law and the sin of man, with the glorious, sure and eternal outcome of that awful act.
John 17 is an exposition in prayer-form of the inner mystery of the Concert of the Trinity in a death, which was decreed from all eternity, and in the destined result, which must infallibly be achieved.
These two passages also show there is nothing fortuitous or accidental in the purposes of God, but all that is, is foreseen and all is foreseen because foreordained and predestinated and all is predestinated to one great end: that the Holy and Divine Name should be freed from every false and foul imputation ever uttered against it, and that God should, at the last, be surrounded by a New Creation of blessed spirits who worship Him in holy and adoring love.
There is more in the Atonement than the evangelical rescue of the soul from everlasting curse and, judgment. That rescue is in itself a proper and glorious end but is not the end, but a means to the end. The grand purpose is the Unveiling of Deity and the making of the Name, Character and Praise of God glorious and adorable beyond all word and thought.
Paul has an inspired word for it — “To the praise of the glory of his grace whereby He has made us accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). The Apostle John perceives the same in Revelation, chapter 5, verse 13, where all creation unites in ascribing glory “to him who sits upon the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever”.
Or, in the words of the Eternal Son Himself:
“Glorify thy Son that thy Son also may glorify thee…. I have glorified thee on the earth, I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was. (John 17: 1-5)
It is the ultimate theme of all prophecy and all history, as expressed by the inspired David in Psalm 110, the most quoted Psalm in the New Testament:
“The Lord said unto my Lord sit on my right hand till I make’ thy foes thy footstool”.
Modern evangelism seldom perceives what is, the great end and purpose of it all. By making the salvation of the soul an end in itself, it diverts attention from the glories of the Redeemer and hinders genuine prayer, praise, and worship. It also weakens preaching and the exposition of the Word of God, exalts human agency and impoverishes the Church.
This is carried to the extreme in some forms of American evangelism where more is heard of the preacher than of Christ and where a man’s praises are sung more loudly than the praises of Him for whom the Father has reserved all the glory, power, dominion, honour and blessing. This is a grievous thing.
In this light let the Atonement of Christ be considered and let it be set free from the additions and invented interpretations of surface theologians and preachers.
We commend, therefore, to the evangelical world some thoughts on the so-called “Cry of Dereliction” of Psalm 22, verse 1 and Matthew 27, verse 46: “My God, my God, why, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
These thoughts we first endeavoured to express in our young manhood nearly 40 years’ ago under the title’ of this article “The Concert of the Trinity” and the intervening years have only added to the conviction that the true interpretation of these otherwise baffling and enigmatic words lies in the region we now attempt to indicate.
Down the changing years, this interpretation and its consequences have given us firm anchorage in an age of increasing danger when many are the treacherous currents and strong are the winds of false doctrine.
What we are attempting to show is that our Lord’s cry does not mean that He was, in fact, at any time, “forsaken’ by the Father, but rather that His cry was a prophetic utterance, deliberately quoted from the inspired Psalm of David, to identify Himself with the sufferings foretold of Messiah, and the glory which was to follow.
He could not have been ignorant of what He was quoting and, therefore, could not have been overwhelmed by any moment of despair or darkness, which He, as the Word of God, had already foretold of Himself through David centuries before.
CHRIST NEVER “FORSAKEN”
The great misconception which lies at the root of most modern, expositions of the so-called ‘Cry of Dereliction’ affects the fundamental understanding of the Atonement, as to its to nature, purpose, and extent. Seldom indeed is Matthew 27, verse 46, allied with an adequate attempt to expound the 22nd Psalm from which Christ was deliberately quoting when He hung in His last agony upon the Tree. More seldom still, is it known, recognized or explained, that just as He quoted the first verse of Psalm 22 at the termination of the Three Hours of Darkness, so a few moments later, ere He bowed His head and gave up the ghost, He quoted also the last verse of the same Psalm in the triumphant words “It is finished” — words concealed from surface expositors with their ready-made tailoring of Scripture to fit their handy patterns; concealed we say from men of superficial mind, but plain to those who take more pains and examine the Hebrew with its primitive and comprehensive depth.
Mark the italicized word in the English of Psalm 22, verse 31, and know this, that ‘he hath done’ is also ‘It is finished’ and the whole meaning and significance of Psalm 22, and the ‘Cry of Dereliction’ is at once laid bare, and the mysterious grandeur of the Atonement begins to appear as an act in concert, of the Holy Trinity. We reject out of hand the interpretation, which holds that Christ was ever forsaken of the Father as He hung upon the Cross.
On the contrary we assert, and think to be able to prove to the satisfaction of all who truly inquire, that the Triune God was never more clearly in concert than at that moment when the Saviour cried with a loud voice, in the few moments preceding the dismissal of His Spirit from the flesh, My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Those who take these mysterious words in isolation usually add to them, from an imagination somewhat charged with emotion, the spectacle of a Holy God shrinking in horror from the Son as He sinks beneath the accumulated load of the world’s guilt and shame; a horror so great that in righteousness and justice He must abandon to His fate, in loneliness, silence and dereliction, the very One who in that act of death was accomplishing the designs and purposes of the Father who had sent Him into the world.
From that point invention not so holy takes over in many a pulpit. One perfervid orator who attracts huge evangelical audiences has a favourite sermon in which he describes the Son sinking into the horrors of a claustrophobic grave, crying in vain for heaven to have compassion upon Him. This same gentleman, having unburdened himself of a pity which even God Almighty failed to show, then retreats according to his custom to his expensive suite in the city where he happens to be exercising his talents and indulges in a well-earned repose upon the comforts of an expensive modern couch. Even Rome cannot do better than this.
Blasphemous Bible “criticism” goes further and, by the same false interpretation of these words, alleges that the Lord mistakenly thought God would intervene to establish the Kingdom and so prevent the agony of His death. In other words, the “Cry of Dereliction” becomes a “Cry of Disappointment”.
Is it a fact that the Son was required to pass out into the darkness under the appalling sense of the Father’s wrath, abandoned in His latest hour by the One whom He loved and whose commands He had come to fulfill? Is it necessary for the purpose of atonement that Christ shou1d so have been abandoned? The answer is an unqualified NO.
The Trinity was never in more perfect concert, and the Father and the Son never in more perfect identification and communion than in that last dreadful hour.
THE FOUR LAST CRIES
It was ‘about the ninth hour’ wrote Matthew, that Christ so cried. That was when the darkness of three hours was ending. In rapid succession there followed three more prophetic cries from the Cross:
I THIRST (John); IT IS FINISHED (John): and FATHER INTO THY HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT (Luke).
The last cry from the Cross indicates that at the moment of death, Christ was not forsaken by God, but was in holy communion with Him.
The misconceived expression in the so-called Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell” has no reference to the infernal regions, but to the burial scene of Psalm 16:10 – “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell (that is, the grave) neither wilt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption”. In fact his Spirit went straight to Paradise where He had already promised to meet the Penitent Thief that same day (Luke 23:43). If it were necessary for the purpose, of the Atonement that Christ should ever be literally abandoned by the Father, it was surely at the point of death itself – the proper termination of the act of sacrifice. Yet it is at that very moment we find Him in closest communion with the Father as He addresses Him by name and commends His Spirit into His hands. His Spirit reposed upon the Father’s bosom as voluntarily, and with the authority of the Father He ‘laid down His life for the sheep (John 10:18). The Sufferer on the Cross was not alone. The darkness was not for Him but for an evil world of unbelief. The hiding of the sun was not the averting of the face of God from Christ but a solemn warning to an abandoned generation from whom God was about to withdraw the Privileges of a dispensation, which they had not kept and against which they had rebelled.
The sun went down that day over earthly Israel and has not risen since (Acts 2:20).
What then is the meaning of the mysterious words,
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?
These words penetrate to the heart of the mystery of the Godhead.
Perfectly to resolve, all the meaning which lies behind the cry may prove an impossible task until the day when the veil is drawn aside and we no more see through a glass darkly, but God has given a wide area of understanding none the less, and it is this we now venture to explore.
NOT FOR HIMSELF
That Christ was deliberately quoting from Psalm 22 verse 1 there can of course be no dispute. That He also, within seconds of that cry, quoted also the last verse of the same Psalm in the words IT IS FINISHED, is also settled and sure. Therefore it is clear that not for Himself did He utter the cry, but for all creation, that all might know that He was the One of whom the inspired Psalmist wrote. In quoting the opening and closing verses of the Psalm He was calling all creation to witness to the identification of His sufferings with the prophetic words of David, and establishing his claim, even in the hour of death, to be the One whom God had appointed to bruise the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 2:14-15).
It was even more than that. It was a claim that as His were the appointed and prophetic sufferings, so His death was the seal of the New Covenant of Grace (Hebrews 13:20). So surely as He died, so surely must there follow His glorious exaltation from the grave to the Eternal Throne and to the fulfillment of all that the inspired Psalm contained, that the Son should receive His reward.
In this Psalm is the Father’s promise that the Son should rise again to occupy the summit of All-Power, and should live to declare the name of God amongst His elect brethren and lead the praise of the predestined in ‘the midst of the congregation’ (Psalm 22:22; Hebrews 2:12).
In His loud cry in the hour of His latest agony Christ calls heaven and earth to witness that He is the One of whom David in the Spirit wrote, the promised Saviour and Mediator. Having finished what had been given Him to do there must be fulfilled what was promised in the holy bond, namely the redemption from the midst of Adam’s fallen race of His elect, predestinated brethren.
Hence the words of the 22nd Psalm:
“I will declare thy name unto my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee, My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation. I will pay my vows before them that fear him … All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee… A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.” (Cf. Hebrews chapter 2).
It is common for men to quote the opening line of a poem or a psalm when recalling its contents. Here Christ was doing the same, calling attention to the whole of what the psalm contained of the promise of life and of eternal redemption for the covenant seed.
How could He who by His Spirit had originally breathed these words into the soul of David in preparation for His own sufferings and the public identification of Himself with the prophetic word – how could the Author of the psalm quote the first and last verses of it out of context and not comprehend in the one cry the glory as well as the shame?
SUSTAINED BY COVENANT PROMISES
It was with a loud voice He cried to God. This was not the cry of dejection, alarm, and desertion, but of conquest, victory, demand, and reckoning. Psalm 22 sustained Him in His latest hour. He fed upon its promises, and, resting in confidence upon the Father’s bosom, went on to the fulfillment. In as much as the words through David were His own prophetic words, He must have contemplated the facts of the Cross in all their foreordained meaning from the beginning and, therefore any suggestion of a sudden awareness of being “Forsaken” is a manifest absurdity.
Some of our readers are not yet satisfied perhaps. The peculiar poignancy of the cry still requires explanation. Let it be seen therefore that in the psalm, and on the Cross, Christ presents the public spectacle of one abandoned by God. The awful extremity of human sin must be seen in the light of God’s righteous justice. Not the least of the unutterable values of the Atonement is the vindication it offers to the Name of God whose righteousness and truth had from the beginning been impugned by the Adversary.
The Atonement is the fulfillment of the imperishable statutes of that Law without which the Universe must fail and Creation fall into ungovernable confusion. God must bear the burden of the Cross and God alone must bear up the pillars of the moral world. The sacrifice of His own life must be seen to portray the curse pronounced by justice.
More, it must be of such a nature as shall be calculated to fill Creation with praise and adoration of its God and Lord. All this Christ secured. He was lifted up in the manner spoken beforehand by David, and the Universe saw Him as the abandoned One, the derelict, the despised and rejected, the felon and the malefactor.
“All that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head… dogs have encompassed me: the assembly of the wicked have, enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet….” (Psalm 22).
This was the sight which all that passed by saw. Here was the acme of sorrow and shame. This was the awful fulfillment and vindication of justice and truth.
Yet in the hour of darkness Christ was always the tender Beloved of His Father. The love of Abraham for Isaac was never so much in evidence as when he held the knife aloft to plunge it into the bosom of his son; the love of the Father for the Eternal Son was never more plainly in exhibition as when He cried through earth and heaven, “Awake, O Sword, against my shepherd, against the, man that is my fellow saith the LORD.” (Zechariah 13:7) “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life.” (John 10:17)
A FALSE VIEW OF THE ATONEMENT
The love of the Father for the Son is paramount in the Atonement. It is a false and dangerous view of the Atonement that the Son decided to take up the cause of sinful humanity and to hurl Himself into the breach between the Judge and the criminal thus taking upon Himself the blow which the Father aimed at the sinner.
It is a false view because it divides the Trinity. The Son is Himself the Judge. ‘‘The Father judgeth no man hath committed all judgment unto the Son, that all men should honour the Son even as they honour the Father’’ (John 5: 22-23). How then can it be said that the Son intervenes between the Judge and the criminal? It is false and dangerous also, because it is so terribly untrue and derogatory to the honour and glory of the Father. It is a clear teaching of Christ that He did NOT come of Himself into the world; that He did NOT come to do His own will, but rather the will of “Him that sent me.”
Hear the Son as He declares: “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear I judge: and my judgment is just; because I SEEK NOT MINE OWN WILL but the will of the Father which hath sent me”. (John 5:30; 5:19; 17:4).
It is also the clear teaching of oft-quoted John 3:16 that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….”
The Son, therefore gave Himself because the Father first had given Him and here are the terms of the Ever1asting Covenant set up before all Creation, in the Council of Peace betwixt Father, Son and Holy Spirit, acting in eternal concert: that the Father should give the Son; that the Son should consent to be obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross; that the Holy Spirit should be the Seal of the Covenant and the pledge of its fulfillment.
In Creation the Holy Trinity acted in concert. The Father created, but He made all things by and through the Son who is “the power and the wisdom of God”. (1 Cor 1:24; John 1:3; Col 1:15-17 - “by him were all things created…. all things were created by him and for him”).
Likewise, the Holy Spirit is the Creator Spirit by whom God spoke all things into existence by the breath (“spirit”) of His mouth (Genesis 1:1-3) (Psalm 33:6; 104:30).
As in natural Creation, so in Spiritual or the New Creation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit act as one in Incarnation and Redemption. Gabriel declares to Mary, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall he ca1led the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Isaiah 40:9-l1, “Behold your God….” So also Isaiah 9:6.
In the great act of Atonement it was the Son who suffered and died – but NOT ALONE AND NEVER FORSAKEN. “God was IN CHRIST, reconciling the world unto Himself.”
“Christ THROUGH THE ETERNAL SPIRIT offered Himself without spot to God.”
(2 Cor 5:19; Hebrews 9:14).
If, in the act of Atonement, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; if, in the sacrifice of Himself to God, Christ “through the eternal Spirit” so offered Himself to God, where was the “forsaking”?
If the Holy Trinity in concert acted in the Atonement, the Father giving, the Son dying, the Holy Spirit presenting, where was the “dereliction’’?
If Psalm 22 is the prophetic interpretation of the Divine Act of Redemption in all its parts, eternal and temporal, origin, means and end, ordination, suffering and glory, then it must be clear that the Trinity in Unity was involved in Concert in the work of salvation. Christ was not, could not be, literally “forsaken” but rather presented the spectacle of one forsaken, that the anger of God against sin and the processes of divine justice against the rebellion of man should be fully and adequately exhibited and portrayed.
Hence, the unbelieving priests at the Crucifixion saw the Saviour as a man forsaken of God and disappointed of His hope’ – “He trusted in God that He would deliver him! Let him deliver him if he will have him!”
In that last dread hour Christ was in perfect communion with the Father, feeding upon the inspired Word, executing the Father’s Will and purpose, meekly enduring without complaint and in utter humility and self-effacement the agony, terror and shame, and proclaiming in His strong crying of ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” (which the bystanders did not understand any more- than our theologians do today), and “It is finished” that He was the Sufferer of Psalm 22, that this was the sealing of the Holy Covenant of Redemption, that, this was the judgment of the world, the vindication of God, the clearing of the Divine Name, the destruction of the devil and the redemption of the elect.
So says John Calvin in those most memorable words, ‘If Christ died not by the Will of God, then where is our redemption?”
Father of peace and God of Love,
We own Thy power to save;
That power by which our Shepherd rose
Victorious o’er the grave.
Him from the dead thou brought’st again
When by His sacred blood
Confirmed and sealed for evermore,
The eternal Covenant stood.
– Charles D. Alexander, The Concert of the Trinity