Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

The Gnashing of Teeth

I’m reading through the Psalms for my daily devotionals, and today I read Psalm 35 [34 LXX]. In this psalm, the speaker asks the LORD to contend for him and deliver him from his adversaries. Interestingly, in v. 16 when speaking of these enemies, he says “like profane mockers at a feast, they gnash at me with their teeth.”

The Greek verb used in Ps. 35:16 [34:16 LXX] for “gnash” is bruxō, and it is also found in Ps. 37:12 [36:12 LXX]; 112:10 [111:10 LXX]; Job 16:9; and Lam. 2:16. Of the occurrences, the ones in Psalms and Job both speak about adversaries of those under God’s protection, while the occurrence in Lamentations speaks about the adversaries of God himself. Of course, in the Psalter, “the righteous afflicted one” can be seen as a type of the Messiah, and this is especially true of Psalm 35. This particular psalm follows on the heels of Psalm 34:19 – “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Psalm 37:12 also suddenly shifts to the singular in its mention of the righteous being afflicted by those who gnash their teeth.In other words, it is possible to read at least Psalm 35:16 and 37:12 as speaking about the LORD’s anointed, and then along with Lamentations 2:16 we have three specific instances where this “gnashing of teeth” is done by those who are enemies of the LORD. Even if one does not take the Psalms references as explicitly Messianic, though, we are still dealing with enemies of God’s people, which in the OT makes them enemies of God himself. The phrase in the OT, then, appears to exclusively refer to God’s (or God’s people’s) enemies.

In the NT, the phrase “gnashing of teeth” occurs exclusively in Matthew. bruxō is the verbal equivalent of the noun (brugmos) used in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus describes what will happen to those who are not part of God’s kingdom (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51). I think this verbal parallel with the OT occurrences tell us a few things:

  1. Hell is a place for the enemies of God. This phrase “gnashing of teeth” indicates rebellion against God in the particular state in which they find themselves. In other words, “gnashing of teeth” isn’t some sort of pain metaphor; it’s an indication of the disposition of the person’s heart in hell. Note that this says something to Rob Bell’s transformational view of punishment in eternity; people in hell are not inclined to turn to God, but in fact continue to rebel against him even in their judgment. They aren’t puppies with their tails between their legs who recognize that they’ve done wrong, but are in continual rebellion.
  2. I think Jesus’ use of the phrase lends greater weight to seeing Psalm 35, 37, and 110 as Messianic. Of course, Psalm 110 is used messianically all over the NT, but this may be further indication that it ought to be read as such. The parallels with Psalms 35 and 37 lend weight to reading them messianically as well.
  3. Finally, I think this tells us something about Jesus’ ministry and message in the Gospels. Jesus knew very clearly what he was saying and to whom he was saying it, and in many (all?) of the occurrences in Matthew he is speaking to Pharisees. This is seen nowhere more clearly than in Matt. 22:13, where he follows up his argument with the Pharisees and Sadducees and their request for a sign with this reference to God’s enemies gnashing their teeth. The implication is that it is they who are God’s enemies for not recognizing him as the Messiah. Another striking use is Matt. 8:12, where Jesus heals a centurion’s (read: GENTILE’S) servant, and then says he will sit at **Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s** (read: ISRAEL’S) table, but many “sons of the kingdom” will be cast into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. What is this besides a declaration that those Israelites who do not have faith in Jesus as the Messiah are no longer part of God’s people and even more bluntly are now enemies of God? No wonder the Jewish leaders wanted him killed.