What did Jesus mean when he quoted this line from Psalm 22 on the cross? It’s such a powerful moment, loaded with significance, and there have been many suggested explanations
The most obvious answer is the simplest: He meant exactly what he said.
He tasted death.
But what is the taste of death? Isn’t it the experience of loss and bereavement, of pain, fear and loneliness? Crucifixion was a slow and awful process of creeping strangulation which would surely have extenuated all these emotions.
And isn’t this exactly what Jesus had feared in Gethsemane? “Take this cup from me. My soul is exceeding sorrowful to die.” And, in effect, the Father answered, “No.”
And now the hour was upon him.
The words of the Psalm also suggest something more: the experience of separation from the Father.
We have an odd term in the English language. It’s the word “God-forsaken.” I presume that it derives from this very verse. We speak of a “God-forsaken place” when we mean that it is lonely, blighted, bereft of life and companionship.
Jesus was God-forsaken.
For Jesus was experiencing not only his own demise, but the acute grief of the loss of a loved one. The withdrawal of the Father must have been like taking a hand away from supporting a glove. He must have felt as if the whole central purpose and prop of his life had been suddenly taken away. As if one’s spine were suddenly removed, or the central pillar of one’s house removed. Jesus had said “I and the Father are one… I only do the things I see the Father doing.” And now that was no longer true. The glove was dropping uselessly to the floor, the house collapsing, the spineless body sunk, unable to support itself.
Why is this happening?
The answer comes in the second part of the verse just quoted. “He tasted death… for everyone.”
There is a way of talking about the life and death of Jesus that somehow takes away the reality of his humanity. As if Jesus were performing a necessary and unpleasant task at arm’s length, remaining emotionally detached.
This verse reminds us how untrue that is. The great theologian Athanasius once said that “That which was not assumed was not healed.” In order that he might conquer death for everyone he has first to taste it for everyone.
All of it.
The verse expresses a total involvement, a complete engagement with the human processes of grief, loss, fear, pain, doubt and loneliness.
With one important difference. There was one thing different for Jesus in comparison to our own experience of these things. His experience was far sharper. Since we don’t experience his closeness to the Father, we can’t really come close to understanding the pain of distance.
And so in that respect, this verse is unique to Jesus. And think of those other emotions: are they not transformed by companionship? Somehow, everything is different if you sense purpose and plan in it; and everything is easy if you walk through it with someone you love. But if that purpose, that affection, were taken away… it would be hard to think of anything that would be worthwhile or possible.
When David, acknowledging his own sinfulness, cried, “Don’t take your Holy Spirit from me!” he was articulating the same truth.
When Jesus enters into the furthest extremities of our mortality, he experienced just what it’s like to live without God. It’s a place of fear, doubt and grief. It’s the darkness of depression, the loneliness of suicide, the appalling despair of those without hope.
But Psalm 22 doesn’t finish at verse 1. It goes on to a climbing crescendo of faith and confidence in the living God and finishes thus:
“All who go down to the dust will kneel before him –
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!”
And that last line was also on Jesus’ lips on the cross. “It is finished.” The Psalmist was looking forward to the Messiah’s accomplishment, but Jesus was acknowledging his own.
It is finished.
Jesus tasted death for everyone, so that our doubt and despair might be filled and transformed into confident trust. Even our pain is brought into his pain and transformed into meaning, as “by his stripes we were healed.”
Father, in my dark times
I turn to you,
acknowledging that Jesus has been down this track already,
so that my own sense of loss and worry
is informed and challenged by
And so over every defeat and doubt I can now declare: “You are finished.”
Pic: “Teardrop mask” by Frieda Oxenham