Just before Jesus died, the gospels of Matthew and Mark report that he exclaimed: ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’, which they translate for us as meaning, ‘My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?’ (or forsaken me). Why did he say these words?
Jesus was likely referencing the first line of Psalm 22 in Hebrew, which reads, in English:
‘O God, my God, please listen to me! Why have I been abandoned by You?’ —Psalm 22:1
Therefore, Jesus was not expressing shock over being ‘abandoned’ at all, but making a cultural reference to a popular song (or hymn). If you read Psalm 22, you’ll see that it’s not only a Messianic prophecy, but it even describes the manner of Jesus’ execution. (Psalm 22:8, 16, 18) So it couldn’t be more fitting!
Remember, the Psalms are holy songs, and the Jews knew all of them very well, singing them on regular occasions (as the Apostles did at the Last Supper). Just like today, when someone quotes a line from a song, when Jesus said ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani’, many people standing around likely got the reference and recalled the words of Psalm 22. Although it seems that some misheard the first couple of words, and mistakenly thought that he was calling for Elijah!
We sometimes quote songs today. For example, if I said to you, ‘Like a candle in the wind’, you would get the reference to the Elton John song talking about the fragility of life – no one would think that I’m talking about candles or the wind. You would know that; you would get the reference. Likewise with Jesus, everyone was supposed to get the reference to the song in Psalm 22.
Unfortunately, us modern Christians just aren’t very familiar with the Psalms, so the reference usually goes over our heads.
Psalm 22 ends by showing that King David, who wrote the psalm, was not really abandoned by Jehovah/Yahweh after all, and ‘with my whole soul, I’m living for Him, And my seed will serve Him alone.’ (Psalm 22:29-30) So when Jesus was referencing it, it may have been to show that, despite it looking like he was abandoned to death, Jesus would actually soon come back to life and serve his Father.
Why different from Luke and John?
This cultural reference may explain why the parallel accounts in Luke and John say different things:
Luke 23:46 reports Jesus saying: ‘Father, I leave my breath in Your hands.’
John 19:30 reports Jesus saying: ‘It is finished!’
It seems that Luke and John both got the reference and reported what Jesus meant by referencing the song, rather than quoting his exact words and providing a long and complicated explanation of it. Remember, Luke was written to a man who was probably a Greek, someone who wouldn’t have got a Jewish cultural reference. Further, John was written decades later to provide additional information about Jesus’ life, so reporting the gist of what Jesus meant was sufficient.
This is quite typical of the way the ancients told stories; today, we want exact quotes, but this is not the way things were done among verbal cultures. The details are secondary to the overall message. You can often just report what was meant, you don’t always have to report the exact words.
So Jesus’ exact last words were probably a reference to Psalm 22. Now, we have translated Psalm 22 from the oldest available manuscripts, which are about 600 years older than the ones used by most Bibles. Please take a look.
Our Bible uses older manuscripts than most Bibles do. Check us out!