In my seminary theological classes, we were taught that God had to turn his back on Jesus when the sin of the world was laid upon Him. This verse, and one from Habakkuk which states that God cannot bear to look upon evil were used to prove this. But is this indeed the case? Did the Father actually forsake the Son?
First of all, when we talk about God turning his back, we have to speak metaphorically. God is present everywhere. God is also Spirit. There is then no actual back to turn, so this is the best human description of what many feel happened on the cross, that God the Father abandoned his Son on the cross.
Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 here, which Christians see as a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. This psalm is a dialog of a man who is suffering, trying to find faith in God in horrid circumstances. We cannot find such a circumstance in David’s life that fits what is described here. But this psalm does fit the circumstances of the crucifixion of Jesus, something which the writers of the gospels note. Psalm 22:7-8 state that His enemies were taunting Him on the cross, saying “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him. Let Him deliver Him who delights in Him.” John mentions the casting lots for his garments which is recorded in Psalm 22:18. Psalm 22:16 also mentions the piercing Christ’s hands and feet. Psalm 22 which was written some 1000 years before the time of Jesus is along with Isaiah 53 one of the chief prophecies of the suffering of Jesus.
So how should we interpret Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 22:1? Besides the traditional interpretation already mentioned, another possibility has been suggested. By quoting the first verse, he is in sense trying to make the witnesses to the crucifixion aware that what was happening was a fulfillment of this Psalm. A good Jew would have been familiar with this psalm. If they were to notice what they were doing to Him, they might come to their senses and accept Jesus. However, this was misunderstood as being a cry for the help of Elijah. This could be understandable in the sense that someone suffering crucifixion would find speaking difficult due to dry mouth and respiratory distress. Jesus would not have been physically able to quote the entire psalm or give an interpretation. What He did say should have been sufficient. Perhaps the thief on the cross who heard Jesus say this was clued in and this was the source of his repentance. I feel that this interpretation is better than the traditional one.
We will get further help in answering the question of whether God turned His back upon Jesus on the cross from the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve sinned, who turned their back upon whom? The text clearly says that Adam and Eve sewed aprons of fig leaves and then proceeded to hide themselves. From whom? –the presence of God. They turned their back upon God as a result of their sin. The sinner cannot bear to look upon the holiness of God. Just look at Isaiah 6. Isaiah felt like he was going to die when he beheld the Lord high and lifted up. Moses could not see the full glory of God. God put him in the cleft of the rock and only let Moses catch a glimpse of Him after He had passed. Samson’s father thought he was going to die when he saw the Lord. What about Daniel and St. John? As we can see, it is the sinner who cannot bear to look upon God.
Going back to Genesis, how did God respond to sin? Did he hide himself from Adam and Eve? No, he came looking for them. Instead of turning His back upon them, He came seeking. This is the beginning of the story of redemption, a story which would result in the Son of God coming in human flesh to seek and save the lost. If God was the God so interpreted as being unable to bear evil, Adam and Eve would have been abandoned. Instead, God came down from heaven to seek them and save them. There would be confrontation of their sin, of course, and severe punishment. But God spoke words of comfort to them in Genesis 3:15 to let them know there would be a reconciliation someday. And this someday was the day Jesus hung on the cross in their place. Satan had bruised Jesus’ heel, but in that day, Satan received a death wound to the head.
So when dealing with the idea of feeling forsaken on the cross, there is another way to look at it. If Jesus became sin for us, then the imputation of sin could in a metaphorical sense resulted in Jesus turning His back on the Father, being unable to look upon him anymore because of His sin. But Jesus was also righteous and holy, without any personal sin. This would have led to the back and forth dialog within Jesus as if one side was saying “I am suffering the death of the sinner” and the other side saying “I have not commuted any sin or act of deceit, so why is this happening to me?” Jesus had always been faithful to the Father and hoped in Him, even from His mother’s womb. We have to remember that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. This is indeed a great mystery as is how the Sinless One could be reckoned as the one who had committed every sin that the human race had ever and will ever commit.
The proof that the Father did not turn his back on Jesus is contained in Psalm 22:24 which says “Neither has He turned His face from Him. The psalm does not end in the death but the resurrection of Jesus who would rise from the dead and declare to them what the Lord has done in the great congregation. I don’t know how expositors have missed that this very psalm which Jesus quotes explicitly states that God did not turn his face on Jesus. He did not forsake Jesus in His day of trouble but delivered Him from the grave. Not only did He deliver His Son, but all sinners who would believe on Jesus.
What implications does this interpretation have? As Paul says, “Much in every way”. It shows the character of God as it truly is. We should clearly hear the echo of John 3:16. It does not say that God so hated sin that He gave. It is true that God indeed hates sin for what it has done to His creation, especially to man who God created in his image. The holiness of God indeed demands satisfaction. This satisfaction is paid in Jesus His Son in our behalf. John 3:16 says that God sent his Son out of love to save the world. This includes the taunters at the cross, if they would but repent and believe on whom the Father has sent. John 3:17 states that God did not “send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him”. The greatest tragedy is that like most of the spectators of the crucifixion, they refuse to hear and come to him that they might live
We who could not bear to look upon a holy God and live, can now enter His presence through the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Jesus was the only sinless man, the only one who had the right to enter into the presence of God who is pure light without a speck of darkness. We who would have burnt to a cinder had not God hid Himself in the utter darkness of the Holy of Holies, metaphorically separated from the sinners has now clothed us in the righteousness of His Son. We who could not have and did not desire to come into the presence of God can come boldly to His throne and fine grace and help in time of need.
Seeing that this is who God is, a seeker and savior to the lost, we must heed His voice while it is still called “today”. Judgment is coming to the unbeliever. Jesus is the only way that our sin can be covered and our hearts changed that we can enter into the eternal rest and presence of the Lord. We must come by faith that in spite of who we are and what we have done, that God has His arms outstretched, bidding us to come home, home to a place we have never been before. If we see God as the God of judgment and wrath, we will find judgment and wrath. This is why we must believe the word he has spoken and fly to Him. Come today and find the perfect fitting to the God sized hole in your heart. You shall always be a restless wanderer until you find your rest in Him. Stop turning your back on god’s mercy, and instead turn to Him and live.
Note: when revising this sermon, I did find a blog by Les Puryear in Bible and Theology who expresses a similar concern whether God turned His back on Jesus. He takes a different approach than I have which is very good. You would find it a good supplement to what I have written here.