Our Lord’s Solemn Enquiry
“Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani? That is to say, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
IF any one of us, lovers of the Lord Jesus Christ, had been anywhere near the Cross when He uttered those words, I am sure our hearts would have burst with anguish–and one thing is certain–we would have heard the tones of that dying cry as long as we ever lived. There is no doubt that at certain times they would come to us again, ringing shrill and clear through the thick darkness. We would remember just how they were uttered and where the emphasis was placed. And I have no doubt we would turn that text over, and over, and over in our minds. But there is one thing, I think, we would never have done if we had heard it–therefore, I am not going to do it–we would never preach from it. It would have been too painful a recollection for us to ever have used it as a text. No, we would have said, “It is enough to hear it.” Fully understand it, who can? And to expound it, since some measure of understanding might be necessary to the exposition–that surely were a futile attempt! We would have laid that by. We would have put those words away as too sacred, too solemn, except for silent reflection and quiet, reverent adoration. I felt when I read these words again, as I have often read them, that they seemed to say to me, “You cannot preach from us,” and, on the other hand, felt as Moses did when he took off his shoes in the Presence of the burning bush, because the place where he stood was holy ground. Beloved, there is another reason why we should not venture to preach from this text, namely, that it is probably an expression out of the lowest depths of our Savior’s sufferings. With Him into the seas of grief we can descend some part of the way, but when He comes where all God’s waves and billows go over Him, we cannot go there! We may, indeed, drink of His cup and be baptized with His Baptism, but never to the full extent and, therefore, where our fellowship with Christ cannot conduct us to the full, though it may in a measure–we shall not venture–not beyond where our fellowship with Him would lead us aright, lest we blunder by speculation and “darken counsel by words without knowledge.”
Moreover, it comes forcibly upon my mind that though every word here is emphatic, we would be pretty sure to put the emphasis somewhere or other, too little. I do not suppose we would be likely to put it anywhere too much. It has been well said that every word in this memorable cry deserves to have an emphasis laid upon it. If you read it, “My God, My God, why have You gone, My Father God? Howcould You forsakenMe? I know why You have smitten Me. I can understand why You chasten Me, but why have You forsaken Me? Will Youallow Me no ray of love from the brightness of Your eyes–no sense of Your Presence whatever?” This was the wormwood and the gall of all the Savior’s bitter cup. Then God forsook Him in His direst need. Or if you take it thus, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me, Your Well-Beloved, Your eternal WellBeloved, Your innocent, Your harmless, Your afflicted Son–why have You forsaken Me?” Then, indeed, it is a marvel of marvels not that God should forsake His saints, or appear to do so, or that He should utterly forsake sinners, but that He should forsake His only Son! Then, again, we might with great propriety throw the whole force of the verse upon the particle of interrogation, “Why.” “My God, My God, whyhave You forsaken Me? What is Your reason? WhatYour motive? What compels You to this, You Lord of Love? The sun is eclipsed, but why is the Son of Your love eclipsed? You have taken away the lives of men for sin, but why do You take away Your love, which is My life, from Me who has no sin? Why, oh why, do You act thus?”
Now, as I have said, every word requires more emphasis than I can throw into it, and some part of the text would be quite sure to be left and not dealt with as it should be. Therefore, we will not think of preaching upon it, but instead, thereof, we will sit down and commune with it.
You must know that the words of our text are not only the language of Christ, but they are the language of David. You who are acquainted with the Psalms know that the 22 nd Psalm begins with just these words, so that David said whatJesus said–and I gather from this that many a child of God has had to say precisely what the Lord Jesus, the First-Born of the family, uttered upon the Cross. Now as God’s children are brought into the same circumstances as Christ, and Christ is considered the Exemplar, my objective tonight will be simply this–not to expound the words, but to say to Believers who come into a similar plight–Do as Jesus did! If you come into His condition, lift up your hearts to God, that you may act as He did in that condition! So we shall make the Savior now not a study for our learning, but an example for reproduction! The first one of these points in which, I think, we should imitate Him is this–
- UNDER DESERTION OF SOUL, THE LORD JESUS STILL TURNS TO GOD.
At that time when He uttered these words, God had left Him to His enemies. No angel appeared to interpose and destroy the power of Roman or Jew. He seemed utterly given up. The people might mock Him and they might put Him to what pain they pleased. At the same time, a sense of God’s love to Him as Man was taken from Him. The comfortable Presence of God, which had all His life long sustained Him, began to withdraw from Him in the garden and appeared to be quite gone when He was just in the article of death upon the Cross! And meanwhile the waves of God’s wrath on account of sin began to break over His spirit and He was in the condition of a soul deserted by God. Now sometimes Believers come into the same condition, not to the same extent, but in a measure. Yesterday they were full of joy, for the love of God was shed abroad in their hearts, but today that sense of love is gone. They droop. They feel heavy. Now the temptation will be at such times for them to sit down and look into their own hearts. And if they do, they will grow more wretched every moment, until they will come well near to despair, for there is no comfort to be found within, when there is no light from above! Our signs and tokens within are like sundials. We can tell what time it is by the sundial when the sun shines, but if it does not, what is the use of the sundial? And so, marks of evidence may help us when God’s love is shed abroad in the soul, but when that is done, marks of evidence stand us in very little stead. Now observe our Lord. He is deserted of God, but instead of looking in, and saying, “My Soul, why are You this? Why are You that? Why are You cast down? Why do You mourn?” He looks straight away from that dried-up well that is within, to those eternal waters that never can be stayed, and which are always full of refreshment. He cries, “My God.” He knows which way to look, and I say to every Christian here, it is a temptation of the devil, when you are desponding and when you are not enjoying your religion as you did, to begin peering and searching about in the dunghill of your own corruptions and stirring over all that you are feeling, and all you ought to feel, and all you do not feel, and all that. Instead of that look from within, look above! Look to your God, again, for the light will come from Him!
And you will notice that our Lord did not at this time look to any of His friends. In the beginning of His sufferingsHe appeared to seek consolation from His disciples, but He found them sleeping for sorrow. Therefore, on this occasion He did not look to them in any measure. He had lost the Light of God’s Countenance, but He does not look down in the darkness and say, “John, dear faithful John, are you there? Have you not a word for Him whose bosom was a pillow for your head? Mother Mary, are you there? Can you not say one soft word to your dying Son to let Him know there is still a heart that does not forget Him?” No, Beloved, our Lord did not look to the creature. Man as He was, and we must regard Him as such in uttering this cry, yet He does not look to friend or brother, helper or human arm. But though God is angry, as it were, yet He cries, “My God.” Oh, it is the only cry that befits a Believer’s lips! Even if God seems to forsake you, keep on crying to Him! Do not begin to look in a pet and a jealous humor to creatures, but look to your God! Depend upon it, He will come to you sooner or later. He cannot fail you. He must help you. Like a child, if its mother strikes it, still, if it is in pain, it cries for its mother–it knows her love, it knows its deep need of her–and that she, alone, can supply its need. Oh, Beloved, do the same! Is there one in this house who has lately lost his comforts and Satan has said, “Don’t pray”? Beloved, pray more than ever you did! If the devil says, “God is angry–what is the use of praying to Him?” He might have said the same to Christ–“Why do You pray to One who forsakes You?” But Christ did pray, “My God” still, though He says, “Why do You forsake Me?” Perhaps Satan tells you not to read the Bible again. It has not comforted you of late–the promises have not come to your soul. Dear Brother, Sister, read and read more–read twice as much as you ever did! Do not think that, because there is no light coming to you, the wisest way is to get away from the light! No, stay where the light is! And perhaps Satan even says to you, “Don’t attend the House of God, again. Don’t go to the Communion Table. Why, surely you won’t wish to commune with God when He hides His face from you!” I say the words of wisdom, for I speak according to the example of Christ–come still to your God in private and in public worship, and come still, dear Brothers and Sisters, to the Table of fellowship with Jesus, saying, “Though He slays me, yet will I trust in Him, for I have none else to trust. And though He hides His face from me, yet will I cry after Him, and my cry shall not be, "My friends,” but, “My God!” And my eyes shall not look to my soul, my friends, or my feelings, but I will look to my God and to Him, alone! That is the first lesson, not an easy one to learn, mark you–easier to hear , but “the Spirit helps our infirmities.” The second lesson is this–observethat–
II. THOUGH UNDER A SENSE OF DESERTION, OUR MASTER DOES NOT RELAX HIS HOLD OF HIS GOD.
Observe it, “ My ”–it is the other hand He grasps Him with.Both united in the cry, “My God.” He believes that God is still His God! He uses the possessive particle twice, “ My God,My God.”
Now it is easy to believe that God is ours when He smiles upon us and when we have the sweet fellowship of His love in our hearts–but the point for faith to attend to is to hold to God when He gives hard words, when His Providence frowns upon you–and when even His Spirit seems to be withdrawn from you! Oh, let go of everything, but do not let go of your God! If the ship is tossed and ready to sink, and the tempest rages exceedingly, cast out the ingots, let the gold go! Throw out the wheat, as Paul’s companions did! Let even necessities go, but oh, always hold to your God! Give not up your God! Still say, notwithstanding all, “In the teeth of all my feelings, doubts and suspicions, I hold Him yet. He is my God–by His Grace I will not let Him go.”
You know that in the text our Lord calls God in the original, His “Strong One”–“Eli, Eli”–“My Strong One, My Mighty One.” So let the Christian, when God turns away the brightness of His Presence, still believe that all his strength lies in God and that, moreover, God’s power is on his side! Though it seems to crush him, yet faith says, “It is a power that will not crush me! If he smites me, what will I do? I will lay hold upon His arm and He will put strength in me! I will deal with God as Jacob did with the angel. If He wrestles with me, I will borrow strength from Him and I will wrestle with Him until I get the blessing from Him.” Beloved, we must neither let go of God, nor let go of our sense of His power to save us! We must hold to our possession of Him and hold to the belief that He is worth possessing, that He is God, All-Sufficient, and that He is still our God.
Now I would like to put this personally to any tried child of God here. Are you going to let go of your God because you have lost His smile? Then I ask you, Did you base your faith upon His smile? For if you did, you mistook the true ground of faith! The ground of a Believer’s confidence is not God’s smile, but God’s promises! It is not His temporary sunshine of His love, but His deep eternal love, itself, as it reveals itself in the Covenant and in the promises. Now the present smile of God may leave you, but God’s promises do not–and if you believe upon God’s promises, they are just as true when God frowns as when He smiles! If you are resting upon the Covenant, that Covenant is as true in the dark as in the light. It stands as good when your soul is without a single gleam of consolation as when your heart is flooded with sacred bliss. Oh, come, then, to this–the promises are as good as ever! Christ is the same as ever! His blood is as great a plea as ever and the oath of God is as Immutable as ever! We must get away from all building upon our apprehensions of God’s love. It is the love, itself, we must build on–not on our enjoyment of His Presence, but on His faithfulness and on His truth. Therefore, be not cast down, but still call Him, “My God.”
Moreover, I may put it to you, if, because God frowns, you give Him up, what else do you mean to do? Why, is it not better to trust in an angry God than not to trust in God at all? Suppose you leave off the walk of faith, what will you do? The carnal man never knew what faith was and, therefore, gets on pretty fairly in his own blind, dead way. But you have been quickened and made alive–enlightened! And if you give up your faith, what is to become of you? Oh, hold to Him then–
“For if your eye of faith is dim,
Still hold on to Jesus, sink or swim!
Still at His footstool bow the knee
And Israel’s God your strength shall be.”
Don’t give Him up!
Moreover, if your faith gives up her God because He frowns, what sort of a faith was it? Can you not believe in a frowning God? What? Have you a friend who did, the other day, but give you a rough word, and you said, “At one time I could die for that man!” But because he gives you one rough word, are you going to give him up? Is this your kindness to your friends? Is this your confidence in your God? But how Job played the man! Did he turn against his God when He Lord.“ And do you not remember how he put it best of all when he said, "Though He slays me, yet will I trust in Him”? Yes, if your faith is only a fair weather faith. If you can only walk with God when He sandals you in silver, and smoothes the path beneath your feet, what faith is this? Where did you get it? The faith that can foot it with the Lord through Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace of fire and that can go walking with Him through the valley of the shadow of death–this is the faith to be had and sought after! May God grant it to us, for that was the faith that was in the heart of Christ when forsaken of God. He yet says, “My God.”
We have learned two lessons. Now that we have learned them–(we have gone over them, but have we learned them?)–may we practice them and turn to God in ill times, and not relinquish our hold. The third lesson is this–
III. ALTHOUGH OUR LORD UTTERED THIS DEEP AND BITTER CRY OF PAIN, YET LEARN FROM HIS SILENCE.
He never uttered a single syllable of murmuring, or brought any accusation against His God. “ My God, why haveYou forsaken Me?” There! Look at those words. Can you see any blots in them? I cannot. They are crystallized sorrow, but there is no defilement of sin. It was just (I was about to say) what an angel could have said, if he could have suffered. It is what the Son of God did say when He was suffering–He who was purer than angels! Listen to Job, and we must not condemn Job, for we could not have been half as good as he, I daresay, but he does let his spirit utter itself, sometimes, in bitterness. He curses the day of his birth and so on. But the Lord Jesus does not do that. There is not a syllable about “cursed be the day in which I was born in Bethlehem, and in which I came among such a rebellious race as this”–no, not a word, not a word! And even the best of men, when in sorrow, have at least wished that things were not just so. David, when he had lost Absalom, wished that he had died instead of Absalom. But Christ does not appear to want things altered. He does not say, “Lord, this is a mistake. Would God I had died by the hands of Herod when He sought My life, or had perished when they tried to throw Me down the hill of Capernaum!” No! Nothing of the kind. There is grief, but there is no complaining. There is sorrow, but there is no rebellion. Now this is the point, Beloved, I want to bring to you. If you should extremely suffer and it should ever come to that terrible pinch that even God’s Love and the enjoyment of it appears to be gone, put your finger to your lips and keep it there! “I was dumb with silence. I opened not My mouth because You did it.” Believe that He is still a good God! Know that assuredly He is working for your good, even now, and let not a syllable escape you by way of murmuring, or if it does, repent of it and recall it! You have a right to speak to God, but not to murmur against Him, and if you would be like your Lord, you would say just this, “Why have you forsaken me?” But you will say no more and there you will leave it. And if there comes no answer to your question, you will be content to be without an answer!
Now again, I say, this is a lesson I can teach, but I do not know if I can practice it–and I do not know that you can. Only, again, “the Spirit helps our infirmities,” and He will enable us when we come to, “lama Sabachthani,” to come so far, but not to go farther–to stop there with our Lord! The fourth lesson which, I think, we should learn is this–
IV. OUR LORD, WHEN HE DOES CRY, CRIES WITH THE INQUIRING VOICE OF A LOVING CHILD.
“My God, why, ah, why have You forsaken Me?” He asks a question not in curiosity, but in love. Loving, sorrowfulcomplaints He brings. “ Why, My God? Why? Why?” Now this is a lesson to us, because we ought to endeavor to find outwhy it is that God hides Himself from us. No Christian ought to be content to live without full assurance of faith. No Believer ought to be satisfied to live a moment without knowing to a certainty that Christ is His! And if he does not know it, and assurance is gone, what ought he to do? Why, he should never be content until he has gone to God with the question, “Why have I not this assurance? Why have I not Your Presence? Why is it that I cannot live once as I did in the light of Your Countenance?” And, Beloved, the answer to this question in our case will sometimes be, “I have forsaken you, My child, because you have forsaken Me. You have grown cold of heart by slow degrees. Gray hairs have come upon you, and you did not know. And I have made you know it to make you see your backsliding and sorrowfully repent of it.” Sometimes the answer will be, “My child, I have forsaken you because you have set up an idol in your heart. You love your child too much, your gold too much, your trade too much. And I will not come into your soul unless I am your Lord, your Love, your Bridegroom and your All.” Oh, we shall be glad to know these answers, because the moment we know them our heart will say–
“The dearest idol I have known,
Whatever that idol be,
Help me to tear it from its throne,
And worship only Thee.”
Sometimes the Lord’s answer will be, “My child, I have gone from you for a little to try you, to see if you love Me.” A true lover will love on under frowns. It is only the superficial professor that needs sweetmeats every day, and only loves his God for what he gets out of Him! But the genuine Believer loves Him when He smites him, when He bruises him with the bruises of a cruel one! Why then, we will say, “O God, if this is why You forsake us, we will love You still, and prove to You that Your Grace has made our souls to hunger and thirst for You.” Depend upon it, the best way to get away from trouble, or to get great help under it, is to run close in to God! In one of Quarles’s poems, he has the picture of a man striking another with a great flail. Now the further off the other is, the heavier it strikes him. So the man whom God is smiting runs close in and he cannot be hurt at all! O my God, my God, when away from You, affliction stuns me, but I will close with You, and then even my affliction I will take to be a cause of glory, and glory in tribulations, also, so that Your blast shall not sorely wound my spirit!
Well, I leave this point with the very same remark I made before. To cry to God with the enquiry of a child is the fourth lesson of the text. Oh, learn it well! Practice it when you are in much trouble. If you are in such a condition at this time, practice it now, and in the pew say, “Show me why You contend with me. Search me and try me, and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Now the fifth observation is one to be treasured up–
- THAT OUR LORD, THOUGH HE WAS FORSAKEN OF GOD, STILL PURSUED HIS FATHER’S WORK–the work He came to do. “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But, mark you, He does not leave the Cross! He does not unloose the nails as He might have done with His will. He did not leap down amidst the assembled mockers and scorn them in return, and chase them far away! He kept on bleeding, suffering, even until He could say, “It is finished,” and He did not give up the ghost till it was finished.
Now, Beloved, I find it, and I daresay you do, a very easy and pleasant thing to go on serving God when I have got a full sense of His love and Christ shining in my face–when every text brings joy to my heart and when I see souls converted–and know that God is going with the Word to bless it. That is very easy! But to keep on serving God when you get nothing for it but blows–when there is no success and when your own heart is in deep darkness of spirit–I know the temptation! Perhaps you are under it. Because you have not the joy you once had. You say, “I must give up preaching. I must give up that Sunday school. If I have not the light of God’s Countenance, how can I do it? I must give it up.” Beloved, you must do no such thing! Suppose there were a loyal subject in a nation and he had done something or other which grieved the king, and the king, on a certain day, turned his face from him? Do you think that loyal subject would go away and neglect his duty because the king frowned? No, I think he would say to himself, “I do not know why the king seems to deal harshly with me. He is a good king and I know he is good. If he does not see any good in me, I will work for him more than ever! I will prove to him that my loyalty does not depend upon his smiles. I am his loyal subject, and will still stand to him.” What would you say to your child if you had to chasten him for doing wrong and if he were to go away and say, “I shall not attend to the errand that Father has sent me upon, and I shall do no more in the house that Father has commanded me to do because Father has beaten me this morning”? Ah, what a disobedient child! If the scourging had its fit effect upon him, he would say, “I will wrong you no more, Father, lest you smite me again.” So let it be with us!
Besides, should not our gratitude compel us to go on working for God? Has not He saved us from Hell? Then we may say, with the old heathen, “Strike, so long as You forgive!” Yes, if God forgives, He may strike if He will! Suppose a judge should forgive a malefactor condemned to die, but he should say to him, “Though you are not to be executed as you deserve, yet, for all that, you must be put in prison for some years”? He would say, “Ah, my Lord, I will take this lesser chastisement, so long as my life is saved.” And oh, if our God has saved us from going down to the Pit by putting His own Son to death on our behalf, we will love Him for that if we never have anything more! If, between here and Heaven, we should have to say, like the elder brother, “You never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends,” we will love Him, still! And if He never does anything to us between here and Glory but lay us on a sick bed, and torture us there, yet we will still praise and bless Him, for He has saved us from going down to the Pit! Therefore we will love Him as long as we live! Oh, if you think of God as you ought to, you will not be at ups and downs with Him, but you will serve Him with all your heart, soul and might, whether you are enjoying the light of His Countenance or not! Now to close. Our Lord is an Example for us in one other matter. He is to us our type of what shall happen to us, for whereas He said, “Why have You forsaken Me?”–
VI. HE HAS RECEIVED A GLORIOUS ANSWER!
And so shall every man that, in the same spirit in the hour of darkness, asks the same question! Our Lord died. No answer had He to the question, but the question went on ringing through earth, and Heaven, and Hell! Three days He slept in the grave and after a while He went into Heaven, and my imagination, I think, may be allowed if I say that as He entered there the echo of His words, “Why have You forsaken Me?” just died away, and then the Father gave Him the practical answer to the question–for there, all along the golden streets, stood white-robed bands, all of them singing their Redeemer’s praise! All of them chanting the name of Jehovah and the Lamb–and this was a part of the answer to His question! God had forsaken Christ that these chosen spirits might live through Him! They were the reward for the travail of His soul! They were the answer to His question! And ever since then, between Heaven and earth, there has been constant commerce. If your eyes were opened that you could see, you would perceive in the sky not falling stars, shooting downwards, but stars rising upward from England, many every hour from America, from all countries where the Gospel is believed and from heathen lands where the Truth of God is preached and God is acknowledged, for you would see every now and then down on earth a dying bed, but upwards through the skies, mounting among the stars, another spirit shot upward to complete the constellations of the glorified! And as these bright ones, all redeemed by His sufferings, enter Heaven, they bring to Christ fresh answers to that question, “Why have You forsaken Me?” And if stooping from His Throne in Glory, the Prince of Life takes view of the sons of men who are lingering here, even in this present assembly, He will see tonight a vast number of us met together around this Table–I hope the most, if not all of us, are redeemed by His blood and rejoicing in His salvation! And the Father points down tonight to this Tabernacle, and to thousands of similar scenes where Believers cluster around the Table of fellowship with their Lord, and He seems to say to the Savior, “There is My answer to Your question, ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’”
Now, Beloved, we shall have an answer to our question something like that. When we get to Heaven, perhaps not until then, God will tell us why He forsook us. When I tossed upon my bed three months ago in weary pain that robbed me of my night’s rest and my day’s rest, too, I asked why it was I was there, but I have realized since the reason, for God helped me afterwards so to preach that many souls were gathered in. Often you will find that God deserts you that He may be with you after a nobler sort–hides the light, that afterwards the light of seven suns at once may break in upon your spirit–and there you shall learn that it was for His Glory that He left you, for His Glory that He tried your faith! Only mind you stand to that! Still cry to Him, and still call Him God, and never complain, but ask Him why, and still pursue His work under all difficulties–and so being like Christ on earth, you shall be like Christ above, as to the answer!
I cannot sit down without saying just this word. God will never forsake His people forever. But as many of you as are not His people, if you have not believed in Him, He will forsake you forever, and forever, and forever! And if you ask, “Why have You forsaken me?” you will get your answer in the echo of your words, “You have forsaken Me.” “How shallyou escape if you neglect so great a salvation?” “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”–
“But if your ears refuse
The language of His Grace,
And hearts grow hard like stubborn Jews,
That unbelieving race.
The Lord in vengeance
Shall lift His hand and swear,
‘You that despised My promised rest
Shall have no portion there.’”
God grant it may never be so with you, for Christ’s sake. Amen