Abraham Kuyper

ELI, ELI, LAMMA SABACHTHANI!

PSALM 22

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from hearing my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the LORD; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

To say that our Lord and Savior, when dying on the cross in his dreadful fear and anguish, was thinking about Psalm 22 is basically to undercut Scripture. To think that he was consciously quoting its opening words when he cried “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” is to diminish the person of our Mediator.

Or to come at it from the opposite direction, to suppose that God in his omniscience, because he already knew ahead of time what Jesus would say on the cross, had David write what he did, would be to impose external human standards on God! It would reduce the work of the Holy Spirit to a polished mechanical composition.

No, to retain Scripture as the divine work of the Holy Spirit, Christ as the eternal and faithful witness, and God as true God, all such artificial and superficial guesswork has to be swept aside. These words have to be understood in all of their exalted, godly character.

Christ understood the nature of his suffering from the outset. Not because someone explained this to him, but because of the nature of suffering itself! Death is not something capricious, but its terrible perverseness is determined with exact precision by contrast with the very essence of life. What can also be determined are various levels of suffering in death. You can talk about experiencing it more deeply, less deeply, very deeply, or even sinking to the very bottom of its depths! What can be ascertained with great exactness and precision is how people experience death in proportion to the tenderness of their individual emotions, the strength of their respective awareness of life, and the degree of their own holiness. This is all determined not by some precise external measurement, but by the very nature of life, the character of destruction, the hellish depth of death’s perversity, and the complete sensitivity and holiness of Jesus’ totally sinless humanity.

Christ did not have to guess what was coming! He knew! He knew in the most exact and unique way possible. There was no uncertainty involved here whatsoever.

This is the Christ who was the inspiration of his church ever since the days of Paradise. This is the Christ who felt oppressed in all the oppressiveness that his people experienced. This is the Christ who from of old comforted his faithful as “the face of an angel.”

This is the Christ, says the apostle Peter, who governed prophecy. In prophecy and through the Holy Spirit, he revealed himself, announced his own life, and predicted his own future. He even disclosed himself in the shadows so that the church of the old covenant could already be enlivened by the everlasting beauty of the Mediator and be justified by faith.

The Scriptures of the old covenant didn’t merely announce him. He himself is the substance and content of the old covenant’s Scriptures. He animated them. He brought them. He gave them to his church as a gift of his grace.

He gave her these Scriptures not as an external jewel, but as the avenue by which he came to her. He revealed himself to her in these Scriptures before he came to her in person, sending her images of his likeness, if we may put it that way. Abraham and Moses, David and Solomon, Job and Isaiah, and whoever else you might name are instruments whom he created to convey features of his likeness. It prepared the way for recognizing him when he came. And now, in retrospect, they describe for us all the fine points and tender features of his full work as our Mediator.

When the words “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” crossed David’s lips, they amounted to the anticipated experience of Christ’s frightful pain in his soul that was coming on Golgotha. This occurred by virtue of the definite qualities of human nature and their assured response to the depths of death that would inevitably come to expression then. What a terrible event that would be when the dreadfully frightening lament of “Eli sabachthani” would arise from Jesus’ constricted throat as he made his last gasps.

Just as today we are sometimes given the privilege of bearing the scars of our Lord’s suffering after Golgotha, so also a few of the elect under the old covenant were accorded the privilege of bearing the scars of the Lord’s suffering before Golgotha. The Man of Sorrows is depicted beforehand in Jehovah’s Suffering Servant. The entire body of believers already then was asked to bear to some extent a faint reflection of those scars of the cross. But only one man of God was assigned the honor of being set aside to bear them fully. That man was David.

Two things are noteworthy in the case of David. The first is that he had definitely been thrown into “the deepest pit that held no water.” The second is that when he poured out his frightened lament about his own suffering, the Holy Spirit chose him as the instrument for revealing the Messiah’s suffering. The tone of his complaining was immeasurably deepened when by inspiration his lips expressed total abandonment. The full reality of that abandonment then had to be conveyed by the lips of Jesus directly, not now through the work of inspiration.

This is how the experience of Golgotha lived ahead of time came to be expressed in the lament found in Psalm 22. The cry of hellish anguish arising from Christ’s soul on Golgotha neither merely echoed it nor added anything to it. It was torn from his weakening soul at that moment and of necessity had to cross his lips. It conveyed how frightful his death was and the immeasurable depth of his emotions.

He, the eternal Word and the Son of God, was also human. He was flesh and blood. He was like us in every way, sin excepted. In the most intimate and tender way imaginable, he had united our human nature with his divine nature. Nothing whatever of his Godhead was diminished. How could it have been? And yet in his tender mercy, he arranged it that the human nature remained completely intact, which is completely unexplainable for us. This would make it possible for us to testify: “Yes, he truly does bear our flesh. He became one of us!”

And once he did, he entered into what is ours. Into our deep sorrows! Into our sinful and perverse lives! Into the shambles that make up our world! Into the catastrophe that we call human life! Walking on the appalling, subversive, and turbulent terrain beneath which hell’s volcano lies concealed! From that hell, the thick smoke of death filled with the wrath of God rises. Heavy as lead, it settles across all of human life, which is cursed and doomed to destruction.

While everyone else avoided that and attempted to hide from it, he had to enter into it. While by God’s marvelous grace they still had protections from it and could temporarily avoid its terrible, deadly destruction, the same was not true for him. He had to willingly go out looking for it. He had to concentrate on it completely. He couldn’t rest until he had tasted the deepest and most bitter aspects of that death.

We’re not talking here about death as we view it. We’re talking about the death that lies even beneath that, death that culminates with falling into that deep, eternal pit with its hellish oppressiveness. That’s where the wrath of God against all that is not holy clings to death.
We’re talking about that death that is completely contrary to living. And God is Life. Death, therefore, is God’s enemy. God pushes back against it. Sin is death. All sin is death. Because God is Life, he can do nothing else but pour out his everlasting anger against sin and death.
Even although you can never resolve or explain this matter, this much is sure. Either your Savior has tasted death or he has not. If he has not, where then is your hope, O you children of the kingdom? If he in fact has, then please tell me, you who call yourself one of the redeemed, which death has your Savior suffered for you? Merely the death of entering the grave? Or was it death in its deepest dimensions, with its hellish anguish, and where the wrath of God was fully poured out?

Then woe to you if you are not one of God’s redeemed, for then you will have to bear this on your own! But that’s impossible, isn’t it? For then he’s not your Savior!
But he bore it all for you! He experienced this essential death: death in its eternal depth, with all its hellish anguish, in the clutches of God’s wrath!

Is it possible to actually experience that kind of death, and not just give the appearance of doing so, without feeling completely cut off from life for even one small moment?

So don’t argue about a thing like this and desecrate something so sacred! Just believe it. Adore God for it. Thank him for such unrepeatable and matchless mercy!

This stands fast: the hellish anguish of the depths of death and God-forsakenness is either yours or his to bear.

This is when he said: “I did it for you, O my redeemed follower!”

This is when he was forsaken, and when God’s angels heard it from his own lips: “Lamma sabachthani!”

For what reason?

So that you would never have to be forsaken by God but someday would dwell with him forever.
And this is by sheer mercy!

Abraham Kuyper, Ever in Thy Sight: 31 Devotions on the Psalms

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