Of the seven words of Jesus from the cross, none is so inscrutable as the cry of dereliction, recorded by Matthew and Mark in haunting Aramaic: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) Leave aside the theological mystery of the incarnate Son abandoned by his Father. Even on the surface, the moment is enigmatic.
The crowd at the foot of the cross says Jesus calls for Elijah. The Jews apparently don’t realize Jesus is quoting a psalm. How could they make such a mistake? Perhaps they’re mocking Jesus, as they have been since he was nailed to the cross. He calls himself king of Israel, but there he is, suffocating on a Roman cross; he calls himself the Son of God, but when he needs deliverance, his God is nowhere to be found. When Jesus calls out the words of Psalm 22, they recognize it, but turn it to scorn: See if Elijah comes.
Perhaps their misreading reveals how dull Jesus’s executioners have become. Jesus began to teach in parables when his audience closed their eyes and ears; they refused to hear and see, so Jesus intensified their blindness and deafness by speaking in dark sayings (Matt. 13:10–17). Their willful resistance comes to a climax at the cross. After all, Jesus’s crucifixion proves he is the son of David. The Romans give him wine mixed with gall, something David also experienced (Psa. 69:21). Roman soldiers divvy up Jesus’s clothing, as evildoers cast lots for David’s (Psa. 22:18). Priests, scribes, and elders target Jesus with the mockery of Psalm 22:8, unwittingly taking up the role of the dogs, lions, and wild oxen in the psalm. Even when Jesus uses the very words of Psalm 22, they still don’t realize they’re in the middle of the drama plotted by David’s psalm, like actors who stumble into a performance of Hamlet. They don’t comprehend that Jesus is right where Israel’s king is supposed to be, right where David was.
But the supposition that Jesus cries for Elijah is significant in its own right. Elijah was a major figure of Jewish prophecy. In Christian Bibles, the Old Testament ends with a promise of Elijah’s coming “before the great and terrible day of Yahweh” (Mal 4:5). Earlier in Matthew, when the disciples ask about Elijah, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who comes to “restore all things” (17:11). First-century Jews expected Elijah’s advent to wind up the prophetic clock and trigger the arrival of the kingdom. Jesus’s call for Elijah was a call for the new creation. The mockery of the Jewish leaders has an eschatological edge: “Let’s see if Elijah comes. Let’s see if Jesus’s sufferings are the birth pangs of the kingdom.”
Funny thing is, the great and terrible day of the Lord does arrive, on Golgotha, in the darkness on a Friday afternoon. Everything Israel hoped for starts happening as soon as Jesus’s cry fades to silence.
Jews have been waiting for Yahweh to pour out his Spirit (cf. Isa 32:9–20). After Jesus speaks, he “yielded up (‘aphiemi) his spirit,” not merely dying, but sending out the Spirit who anointed him. Since Adam was exiled from Eden, mankind has sought access to the Lord’s presence. When Jesus dies, God tears the veil of the temple from top to bottom, removing the barrier of the temple (Matt. 27:51). Israel hoped the world would be shaken until only unshakeable things were left standing (Hag. 2:6). When Jesus dies, an earthquake shocks the land. Earthquakes accompany Yahweh’s charge onto the field of battle (Judg. 5:4; 2 Sam. 22:8; Psa. 68:8). At Jesus’s death, the divine warrior wins a decisive battle, rattling the world as he triumphs over death by death.
Israel waits for resurrection. Standing in a valley of dry bones, Ezekiel called on the wind to blow and give breath to the dead (Ezek. 37). When Jesus dies, the tombs of the saints are opened (Matt. 27:51–53). Already at his death, Jesus breaks open Sheol and shines the light of life into the darkness of the tomb. Seeing all this, the Roman centurion and his soldiers confess Jesus as the Son of God (Matt. 27:54), fulfilling Israel’s hope that Gentiles would throng to Zion. The centurion and his soldiers are the first fruits of the Abrahamic expectation that “all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Psa. 22:27).
Jesus cries to his God, and the Jewish leaders say he cries for Elijah, the prophet of the end of days. As usual, the mockery of Jesus’s mockers hides the truth, because Jesus’s death is the beginning of the end. On this great and terrible Friday, heaven, earth, and the underworld are changed forever. The heavenly veil of the temple is torn, earth shakes, tombs split open and the dead rise. In the darkness of uncreation and death, Jesus cries like thunder, and the world is shaken down so it can be built again. Easter begins to dawn already in the gloom of Good Friday.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.