Some people try to explain this with reference to some natural phenomenon, such as a solar eclipse. But such an eclipse could never have lasted for three hours. There was something deeply supernatural about this darkness – an impression confirmed by the detail recorded in Luke about the veil of the temple being rent in the midst (Luke 23:45).
At any rate, the darkness surely reflected what was happening in the experience of Jesus on the cross at that time. This is no doubt indicated by the cry from the cross at that moment: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
The quotation from Psalm 22, verse 1, was taken by some as a cry to Elijah, a simple misunderstanding on their part of the Hebrew form of the Psalm.
Someone has described this fourth saying from the cross as ‘the most appalling sound that ever pierced the atmosphere of this earth’. It is clear that the Lord’s profound sense of forsakenness by his Father was at the heart of his work on the cross.
A cry of anguish
This word from the cross was clearly a cry of anguish uttered by the Lord Jesus and directed towards his Heavenly Father. In his earthly ministry Jesus knew what it was to be forsaken.
His own family at first rejected him (John 7:5). The people of his home town rejected him (Matthew 13:57). Those who followed him at first, many of them, went back and walked no more with him (John 6:66-67).
Peter denied him (Matthew 26:75), and he and the other disciples forsook him and fled (Mark 14:50). One of the twelve betrayed him (Acts 1:16).
But in all such experiences he always knew the sustaining presence of his Heavenly Father. He did shrink from the cross and what it entailed. This was clear in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. But he submitted to the Father’s will (John 16:32; Luke 22:42).
Now he was suffering, physically and mentally. Now he was being ‘made sin’ for his people (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was being made a curse for them (Galatians 3:13). He was bearing the wrath of God in his body and soul and did not seem to have the comfort of the Father’s presence. It was a cry of anguish.
Yet Jesus came into the world for just this experience. It was his mission. As Paul writes to the Philippians: ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’ (Philippians 2:8).
If any of the sinful sons of Adam was to be saved this was necessary – the agony and forsakenness of the cross.
He was there as a substitute for sinners. He was the sacrificial lamb without blemish, making an atonement to end all sacrifices. Without the shedding of blood there would be no remission (forgiveness) of sin (Hebrews 9:22). This had been foreshadowed in the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:28). But now he felt forsaken by the Father. What was involved in this experience?
In his divine nature, of course, the Father could never forsake him. None of the persons of the Trinity can forsake any other person in the Trinity. However, in his human nature Jesus could and did experience a sense of forsakenness by the Father. He was treading the winepress alone (Isaiah 63:3).
William Hendriksen illustrated this by reference to a sick child. The child is taken to hospital, but is too young to understand why he has to go to an Intensive Care Unit. His parents cannot always be with him.
Naturally there are moments when the child greatly misses the presence of his father or mother. He feels distressed – forsaken at the vital moments. Of course the love of the parents is the same, and they are there, but not exactly at his side.
So it was with Christ. He has a sense of being forsaken. He cries out to his Father, but there is no answer. The love of the Father is still there, but Christ, as far as his human nature is concerned, does not see it. This is the thrust of the verse of Psalm 22 that comes upon his lips.
The Father has left him to a painful vicarious death. As Paul writes to the Romans: ‘God did not spare his son’ (8:32).
A punishment for sin
In these moments Jesus did not only offer his body as the price of redemption – he also offered his soul.
Calvin puts this beautifully: ‘This was his chief conflict, harder than any other agony, that in his anguish he was not given relief by his Father’s aid or favour, but made to feel somehow estranged … there was nothing more dreadful than to feel God as Judge, whose wrath is worse than all deaths’.
This is the fact. He was undergoing God’s judgement in the place of his people. We take this to be the meaning of the phrase in the Creed that ‘he descended into hell’.
It was not that his spirit actually went to hell, but that he vicariously endured the wrath of God appropriate for those who would otherwise experience the flames of hell.
In other words, he had to endure the deepest punishment for sin.
There are many lessons that may be drawn from this saying from the cross. But as we view the cross, and hear this cry of agony and anguish uttered by the Lord at the height of his sufferings, the truth must come home with power to our souls – either our sins are punished in Jesus for us, or we have to bear the punishment ourselves.
And all who will not have Christ – who refuse or ignore his claims upon them – will be exposed to the full punishment due justly for their sins.
For they have no sin-bearer; they have not come under the shelter of his atonement.
But for the believer, here is the truth: he was forsaken for me!
Sir James Young Simpson tells the story of a friend from Paris who told him of an English groom there, a careless old man who ‘during a severe illness had been made to feel that he was a sinner’.
He dared not die as he was. The clergyman for whom he sent grew tired of visiting him, having often told him the way of salvation. One Sabbath afternoon, however, the groom’s daughter waited in the vestry after church, saying: ‘You must come once more, sir; I cannot see my father again without you’.
‘I can tell him nothing new’, said the clergyman, ‘but I may take the sermon I have been preaching and read it to him’.
The dying man lay as before, in anguish, thinking of his sins and whither they must carry him. ‘My friend, I have come to read you the sermon that I have just preached. First, let me tell you the text: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
‘Now I will read … “Stop!” said the dying man, “I have it! I have it! read no more. He was wounded for MY transgressions. That is enough!” Soon afterwards he died rejoicing in Jesus.’