Question: "Why does the psalmist ask, "Why have you forsaken me" (Psalm 22:1)?"
Answer: Psalm 22 is classified as a “prayer for help” composed by King David. As with many other such prayers in the Psalms (see Psalm 2:1; 10:1; 13:1–2; 52:1; 74:1), it begins with an anguished cry and hopeless complaint, posed as an appeal to God for help: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1–2).
David cries out to God for help but feels forsaken and in deep agony because God does not answer him. The double use of questions is a poetic tool that expresses the psalmist’s utter hopelessness and despair. David cannot comprehend why God has abandoned him. He is suffering both physically (Psalm 22:14–15) and socially (verses 6–8). Most disturbing to him is his apparent abandonment by God. David’s lifelong relationship with God appears to be broken.
Yet even in his desolation, David prays, “My God, my God,” acknowledging his faith in God and dependence on Him, despite the Lord’s perceived distance and silence. Later, David declares outright his trust in the Lord: “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the one Israel praises. In you our ancestors put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. To you they cried out and were saved; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (Psalm 22:3–5; see also verses 9–10). David knows that God never forsakes His people (verses 22–24).
Over the centuries, scholars have noted the psalm’s intense tone, raising the possibility that it applied not just to one instance of suffering in David’s life but was meant to encompass all the abuses he suffered under King Saul. While Psalm 22 was undoubtedly a personal petition for help by David, it also served as a congregational prayer during corporate worship of the whole community.
The question, “Why have you forsaken me?” was meant to arouse interest in listeners, who would have wanted to know how the petition was answered. The psalm’s language was designed to give individuals a model for praying in times of extreme suffering and need. Like so many other psalms, it movingly expresses the common emotional experience of people who feel alone and afflicted.
Hundreds of years in the future, Jesus hung on the cross, enduring His most intense moments of torment. He desperately needed His Father’s presence. In a loud voice, the Lord cried out the words that Jews had prayed for centuries, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)” (Matthew 27:46). After experiencing the most horrific torture and left to die by evil men, Christ recited Psalm 22:1. Joining with the multitude of humans in their affliction, Jesus became one with them in their suffering and cried out to God for help.
Our fully God, fully human Savior identifies with us in every way, even in our weakest moments—even when we feel like God has abandoned us. Through Christ’s total identification with us, He gives us permission by His own example to pour out our hearts to God. Jesus shows us that trusting God means lifting up the very worst of life to God in prayer: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).
Likewise, when Jesus cited the opening words of Psalm 22, he employed a tradition of the time that identified the entire passage, like quoting a chapter heading or book title. Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was analogous to a preacher today saying, “Remember the words of Psalm 22.” As Jesus took on Himself the sins of all humankind, He acknowledged feeling abandoned by the Father, yet, like David, He still trusted in God. He knew that He was fulfilling God’s purpose by laying down His life: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus believed that God would not forsake Him in that endeavor.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With these words, Jesus also beckoned His followers to make the connection and recognize Psalm 22’s prophetic implications. David had seen down through history to vividly portray the Messiah’s crucifixion (see verses 7, 14–18). Thus, in calling attention to the psalm, Jesus showed once again that He Himself was the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture.