When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lemá sabachtháni?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
(Mark 15:33-34, HCSB)
In the Bible, an untimely darkness represented several different things. From the human side, darkness was associated with the work of wickedness (Job 12:25; 24:13-17; Ps 82:5; Isa 5:20). It was also a sign of death, distress, and terror (1 Sam 2:9; 2 Sam 22:29; Job 10:21; 12:22; Ezk 32:8; Nah 1:8). From God’s side, darkness was a sign of God’s judgment (Exod 10:21-23; Isa 13:9-13; Jer 4:27-28; 13:16; 15:19), when He would be pouring out His wrath upon sin. Darkness was also a sign of the great Day of the Lord, when Yahweh Himself would show up both to judge sin and bring salvation (Joel 2:10; 3:14-15; Amos 5:18, 20; 8:9-10; Mark 13:24). Rather than His absence, darkness was actually a sign of God’s dynamic presence (1 Kgs 8:12; 2 Chr 6:1; 2 Sam 22:10; Ps 18:9-11). Instead of a sign of God’s departure, it is the sign of His appearing, bringing a new day with a new beginning (Gen 1:2; Job 38:17; Ps 74:12-20).When the Lord appeared to His people at Mount Sinai the people witnessed striking physical phenomena including thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, an earthquake, and a “thick cloud” with darkness (Exod 19:18-19; 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:23). Jewish biblical scholar Nahum Sarna states that these are “powerful poetic images that register the consciousness of the intensified Presence of God at a particular moment in time.” These “convey in human terms something of the ultimately inexpressible, ineffable impact of the awesome and mysterious manifestation of the Divine Presence.” (Exploring Exodus, 133-34).
Then how might we explain Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” These words have puzzled theologians for centuries, but no one can fully explain what happened to Jesus at this moment. Some teach that at that moment God’s holy wrath separated Jesus from God as sin broke the fellowship between a holy God and the sinner (Isa 59:2). At that moment, “God made Him who had no sin to become sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13). As a proof text, Habakkuk 1:13 has been mistranslated, misquoted, and misapplied to this setting, “Your eyes are too pure to look upon evil, and you cannot look at wickedness,” as if God turned His face away from His Son at that moment. The word Habakkuk used for “look upon” actually means “to gaze with favor” or “look with approval.” If God indeed cannot even look at evil, then God would never look at us. The main problem with this line of interpretation is that 2 Cor 5:21 must not be interpreted apart from verse 19, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Col 2:9). God was there all the time.
A hint at what is happening may come from the wording of Jesus’ prayer at this moment. He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” If indeed this was His prayer to His heavenly Father at that moment, He probably would have used the terms of intimacy He used in His prayer at Gethsemane, “Abba! Father!” (14:36). Instead, Jesus directly quoted from Psalm 22. At the ninth hour, the Jewish hour of prayer (cf. Acts 3:1), Jesus prayed the prayer of the psalmist, a righteous sufferer who trusted fully in God’s protection. In fact, many of the expressions of suffering that the psalmist probably meant metaphorically literally happened to Jesus – mocking (22:7-9), withered strength (22:15-16), pierced hands and feet (22:16), and divided garments (22:18).
Long before chapter and verse markings were used to reference a passage of scripture, teachers would quote the first line or notable phrase so everyone would know the intended passage. Jesus did this earlier by referring to Moses and “the bush” passage (Mark 12:26; cf. Rom 11:2, referring to 1 Kings 19). In quoting the first verse Jesus was referring to the entire psalm, not only the sentiment of the first verse. Psalm 22 moves from an expression of pain to an expression of confidence in God’s deliverance, “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard“ (22:24). The psalm ends with a statement of how the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord and the nations worship Him (v. 27). Moments after Jesus breathed His last, a Roman centurion, one from “the nations,” did that very thing. (See David Garland, Mark, NIV Application Commentary, 598-602)
God was not absent at the cross. To the contrary, this was “The Day of the Lord,” when God was very present.