Psalm 22 and Jesus

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Jesus


I notice that in the KJV Mark 15:34, the famous passage portraying Jesus' last words in the passion, he seems to be quoting directly from Psalm 22, which describes the psalmist's circumstances in a manner and in detail too close to the crucifixion to be coincidence. I wonder what is the general level of scholarly comment on this matter, how much is there, and which way?


The whole passage reads: "At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" — which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." (Mark 15:33-35)

The darkness would have lasted from 3 to 6 PM. This has definite apocalyptic overtones, suggesting that the time of God's judgment had arrived. For those people who had been insisting on signs, this should have made them very nervous. Attempts to explain this on the basis of some natural phenomenon miss the point. This was Passover, which is determined by the fullness of the moon. Scholars have maintained that a solar eclipse was impossible while the moon was full. Luke says the sun failed. It is more likely, however, that Mark saw this as another fulfillment of scripture, most notably from Amos 8:9 which states, "In that day," declares the Sovereign Lord, "I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight."

This darkness lasted for three hours, when Jesus suddenly cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" These are the only words Jesus speaks from the cross in Mark. This is the first line of Ps. 22. That Psalm contains words of hope, trust, and confidence. The feeling has been, then, that Jesus was giving a veiled message of hope to his followers, that things were quite all right. Perhaps that is true, but it would be more convincing if there had been followers around to hear it.

As it is, this is not the first reference to Psalm 22 in this sequence. The first came from verse 18 of the Psalm, when the soldiers divided his garments by casting lots. The next reference occurred in verse 7, where there was mention of wagging of heads and mocking speech. That was followed by verse 6, where the words "reviled, scorned by men" shows up. Jesus' cry is the first verse of the Psalm, but rather than pointing to a reading of hope, joy, and confidence, Mark is using the Psalm backwards. In the Psalm, the one speaking is going forward, from a cry of despair to a plea for help, ending with a declaration of praise. In Mark, Jesus' final word is a cry of despair, expressing the agony of abandonment by everyone, including God. This is full alienation in all its agony. This Jesus is not pretending. This, then, is the reality of suffering.

When some of those standing nearby heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah." These bystanders have to be Jewish. Jesus' cry, spoken in Aramaic, could only be misinterpreted in Hebrew. Also, Gentiles would have had no knowledge of Elijah. As it is, the hearers misunderstood, thinking he was calling out to Elijah. The tradition held that Elijah would protect the innocent and come to the aid of the righteous in time of trouble. The irony is that, from Mark's viewpoint, Elijah had already come in the person of John the Baptist. He, of course, had been put to death, so how could he be of help now?

Despite many attempts to soften these words (including those in Matthew and Luke), scholars say that here Jesus was fully human, fully desolate, and fully authentic. Notwithstanding his righteousness, he felt completely abandoned by God. This is not being "mildly uncomfortable" in his body while continuing to be wholly divine; this is full obedience to God's will. And yet, all is not hopeless. If he really believed that God had abandoned him, there would be no reason to call out to Him, to address him as "My God, my God!" Despite his despair, Jesus did not forsake his faith—he channeled it into a cry for God.

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