Just before Jesus died, He cried out in Aramaic, quoting Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” What do the events around His death mean for us?
Shadow blended with shadow, and blackness with an eerie stillness. For three hours the skies had been strangely dark. There was a gloom, a foreboding, and a sense of loss in this darkness.
Yet infused within this same pall of shadow was a peculiar expectation that held the onlookers. Central to their focus was the Rabbi. He hung there, bloody and beaten, between two violent criminals.
Then He cried out. The words came, but not in the easy tones of everyday conversation. These words came with passionate urgency.
Jesus’ cry: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”
Suddenly, Jesus cried out, “‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’” (Matthew 27:46). Matthew and Mark both record versions of these Aramaic words, quoted from Psalm 22:1, along with their clear meaning:
“‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’”
The words seemed to hang in the air, full of pain, of loss and of isolation. Suddenly, Jesus cried out again, then died.
The eerie stillness was broken just as suddenly. The ground shook violently, even as a roaring issued from deep within the earth. At that same moment, the veil of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (verse 51; Mark 15:37-38). Foreboding yielded to fear throughout the city.
Why did an earthquake strike at the very moment He breathed His last? Why was the curtain in the temple torn in two just then? And why did the Father temporarily forsake His sinless Son in the last minutes of a brutal, agonizing death?This is the manner in which Jesus died nearly 2,000 years ago. Why? Why did an earthquake strike at the very moment He breathed His last? Why was the curtain in the temple torn in two just then? And why did the Father temporarily forsake His sinless Son in the last minutes of a brutal, agonizing death?
The answers to these three questions all point to the same purpose of our God and Father.
Earthquakes in Scripture
In our modern, scientific world, we understand that earthquakes are natural occurrences. We do not yet fully understand the geological mechanisms that produce earthquakes, but during the past century, we have learned much. Most of us recognize earthquakes as dangerous, but think of them only as part of the natural world.
We have forgotten that earthquakes can have a deeper significance. In Scripture, earthquakes often appear as one manifestation of the presence of God.
After Israel had left Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, the people came to Mount Sinai in the third month (Exodus 19:1-2). Through Moses, God instructed the people about how they needed to prepare themselves for a ceremony in which they would accept God’s covenant.
That ceremony occurred after God made His presence known through “thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet” (verse 16). The mountain was also “completely in smoke” and “the whole mountain quaked greatly” (verse 18). The same verse tells us the reason for all these signs: “because the LORD descended upon it.”
The giving of the law at Mount Sinai is not the only place in Scripture where earthquakes are associated with God’s presence. During the period of the Judges, Deborah and Barak sang of God marching into battle on behalf of Israel: “When You marched from the field of Edom, the earth trembled” (Judges 5:4). David also sang of God’s presence, using the same imagery: when God “marched through the wilderness, … the earth shook” (Psalm 68:7-8).
The connection between earthquakes and God’s presence was so strong that Elijah was surprised that he did not find God in an earthquake. We read that after Queen Jezebel had threatened to kill Elijah, he traveled to Mount Horeb, another name for Mount Sinai. To his surprise, he did not find God in an earthquake, but in a low whisper (1 Kings 19:8, 12).
Centuries later, discouraged Jewish exiles, who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylonian captivity, quit working to rebuild the temple. The prophet Haggai reassured the people, using the imagery of God’s presence in great earthquakes.
“‘My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!’ For thus says the LORD of Hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land’” (Haggai 2:5-6). The book of Hebrews also quotes Haggai (Hebrews 12:26).
“Truly this was the Son of God!”
An earthquake by itself does not necessarily indicate God’s presence. However, the earthquake at the very moment of Christ’s death does. That shaking of the earth points to the identity of the One who died.
The unconverted soldiers on duty certainly realized the significance of the death they had just witnessed: “So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).
Veil of the temple torn in two
To understand the significance of the tearing of the veil, or curtain, of the temple, we must first understand something about the arrangement of the temple (and before it, the tabernacle).
The tabernacle, which became the model for the temple built during the reign of Solomon, was divided into two chambers. To get to the tabernacle, a person would have to enter a courtyard, enclosed by a curtain wall.
The tabernacle itself was 60 cubits (90 feet) long and 20 cubits (30 feet) wide. When the priest entered the tabernacle, he was standing in the holy place, a chamber 30 feet wide and 60 feet in depth. At the far end was the curtain, or veil, that separated the holy place from the Most Holy Place. No one could enter the smaller chamber, also called the Holy of Holies, except the high priest, and he entered just once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9:6-7).
This Holy of Holies housed the golden altar of incense as well as the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrews 9:4). The top of the ark, with two golden cherubim, was called the mercy seat. This seat was the earthly representation of the heavenly throne of God. It was here that God occasionally manifested His presence in a brilliant cloud of glory.
The temple of Solomon and the temple Herod built years later each followed this twofold division, although there were other smaller chambers built into the surrounding walls. The temple complex included a series of walls separating sections.
There was a court for gentiles, who could proceed no further into the temple complex, no matter how godly or devout they might be. There was also a court for women, who were denied the degree of access allowed to men. The men of Israel could not enter the area reserved for priests, and priests were not allowed entry into the holy place except to perform their duties, which were determined by casting lots.
Finally, the veil separated the holy place from the Most Holy Place, which symbolized the presence of God.
The fact is, humans have been cut off from God since Adam and Eve chose to sin and were thrust out of the Garden of Eden!
“Why have You forsaken Me?” meaning
So what was God’s purpose in the earthquake that struck Jerusalem when Jesus breathed His last? Why was the veil of the temple torn when Jesus died? And why did Jesus in agony quote the cry of King David in Psalm 22:1: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Why did the Father briefly forsake His perfect, sinless Son at such a difficult moment?
All of this is for us. We know that God the Father will not tolerate sin, which carries with it the death penalty (Romans 6:23). Without the sacrificial blood of Christ, we would have no hope, but we have hope because Christ died on our behalf.
There is more, though. Sin not only brings death upon us, it also separates us from God, just as sin resulted in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from God’s presence in the Garden. The Father will not tolerate sin in His presence. Isaiah tells us that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
Because the Father had “laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6), He left Jesus hanging alone in that brief but horrible moment just before death.Because the Father had “laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6), He left Jesus hanging alone in that brief but horrible moment just before death. Jesus died for our sins, but He also suffered the agony of separation from His Father on our behalf.
After spending eternity in complete and perfect unity with the Father, the shock of being separated from Him by the sin which He took on Himself could well have led Jesus to feel forsaken as He died on the stake (Matthew 27:46). And indeed Jesus was separated from God by the sins of mankind. Exclaiming the phrase recorded in Psalm 22:1 was a fulfillment of that prophetic verse.
Our sins caused our Savior to suffer the trauma of feeling forsaken.
But the anguish of feeling forsaken was soon eclipsed by the loving welcome and glory our risen Savior received. Through His sacrifice, Jesus made it possible for us also to enter the presence of God. Thus Jesus is called Immanuel, meaning, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14).
“Come boldly to the throne of grace”
When Jesus died nearly 2,000 years ago, the earthquake was no coincidence. Fear seized the inhabitants of Jerusalem, all of whom witnessed the great power of God. Neither was the torn veil an accident. The priests, who hours before had conspired against Jesus, found themselves confronted with the disturbing sight of a torn veil.
For those disciples who witnessed the death of their Teacher and Master, His agonized cry, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” hung heavy on their hearts. Not yet understanding the significance of what they had seen and heard, they grieved their own loss, as well as their separation from Jesus. In the weeks and months and years ahead, the disciples did understand, and now we can too.
As Christians, we have received a beautiful gift. We need not approach God through an intermediary human priesthood. Instead, we can directly seek the Father through Christ.
It is with confidence that we can “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).