NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
It must be appreciated that Jesus was not crying out in disrespect of His heavenly Father or because He had done anything wrong, but that He was standing in God’s courtroom in place of the sinners for whom He was dying. Nor was this cry one of impatience or out of despair, for He was entirely resigned to the will of God, and content to drink the last drop in the bitter cup. But to those Jews listening, they knew it was said in their tradition involving Esther, who, as she stood in the inner court of the King of Persia’s house,1 Rabbi Levi said: “The Divine Presence left her. She said, My God, My God, why have You forsaken me.’”2
But as to the reason why our Lord chose this Psalm for this particular occasion can easily be seen in the fact that it had always been considered a Psalm about Him. As scholars tell us: “In Judaism, when a Bible verse is cited its entire context is implied, if appropriate. Thus Yeshua refers all of Psalm 22 to Himself.”3 So here was the Messiah calling out for those who may have doubted Him, inspiring them to read this whole Psalm and see how applicable it was to His situation. But Matthew tells us that some standing near the cross did not understand completely why He was quoting it.
Verse 47: When some of the people standing nearby heard this, they said, “He is calling for Elijah.”4
In all the darkness and confusion, and with many standing around the crosses no doubt trying to figure out why it had gotten so dark at noontime, especially since there had been no signs of a thunderstorm or heavy clouds, it should not surprise us that the people may have misunderstood what our Lord cried out on the cross. Or, as some scholars have suggested, they were reminded of the words spoken by the prophet Malachi: “Look, I will send Elijah the prophet to you. He will come before that great and terrible time of judgment from the Lord.”5
Throughout the writings of the Jews, we find on numerous occasions where it is mentioned that Elijah came and spoke to them, giving instructions and admonishment. For instance, we read where during a trial of a Rabbi suspected of stealing: “Elijah came disguised as one of the dignitaries of Rome and said to that man: As miracles were worked for him in all the other matters, a miracle will also happen in this one, and you will only be exposed as being bad-natured.”6
In another place, we read where some Jews decided to send a gift to the emperor. So they chose a man named Nahum of Gamzu who was known to perform miracles. On the way, the bag containing precious stones and pearls were stolen by the staff at the inn where he was staying. So they filled the bag with dirt. Since Nahum was blind, he did not know what had happened until the bag was opened in front of the Emperor. Before he could try and explain, it says: “Elijah appeared in the guise of one of them and remarked, Perhaps this is some of the earth of their father Abraham, for when he [the emperor] threw this earth [against the enemy] it turned into swords and when [he threw] stubble it changed into arrows.”7
So we can see why perhaps they were speaking about Elijah as one who could come and miraculously get Jesus out of this predicament. But mostly, they were asking sarcastically, “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save Him.” This was important because Elijah was someone the Jews looked upon to be the forerunner of the Messiah. Therefore, to suggest that should he come and save Jesus they would then believe He was the Messiah, was ludicrous. Yet, even though they did have an acceptable notion of Elijah appearing to persons frequently, and talking, and conversing with them,8 they considered these persons being of great note, known for their piety and learning. But they really did not believe Elijah would come and appear to Jesus of Nazareth, as they pretend because they held no such high opinion of Him.
Such sarcasm continued among the Jews for centuries, as we see in the polemic writings of a Jewish Rabbi in the Middle Ages, who imagined that when God said, “Let us make man in our image,”9 He was speaking to His Son. However, the Son rebelled and did not wish to help His Father, so that’s why the text then goes on to say: “So God the Father created man in His own image.”10 The writer continues his diatribe by indicating that God then said to His Son, “If the time should come when you need my assistance, I will not help you just as you have not helped Me.” This sounds more like material constructed out of fairy tales instead of scholarly theological research.
But we must also examine what was unspoken in this cry of the Master in His agony. As we have noted, the words He uttered here are from the opening lines of Psalm 22. This is accepted by both Jews and Christians as a Messianic Psalm. And just as interesting, is what the Psalmist says about the torture the Messiah would go through. For me, I see this as our Lord’s way of getting the disciples to look at this Psalm once they were alone, to see what it meant. In the text, they would find further confirmation that He was dying as the Messiah, the Lamb of God. The last verse of this Psalm says it all: “Our descendants will serve Him. Those who are not yet born will be told about Him. Each generation will tell their children about the good things the Lord has done.”11
Verses 48-49: Quickly, one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled the sponge with sour wine and tied the sponge to a stick. Then he used the stick to give the sponge to Jesus to get a drink from it. But the others said, “Don’t bother Him. We want to see if Elijah will come to save Him.”
What happens now gets the attention of the whole city of Jerusalem. Matthew was alert enough to give us the time frame involved. Since he notes that it was about 3 pm when our Lord cried out and that it had been dark for some three hours, this suggests that our Lord was led to Calvary and nailed to the cross sometime in the morning, probably around 10 am. With this comes the word given to Isaiah, “I dress the heavens in black to mourn and make their covering sackcloth.”12 And also, what the prophet Amos heard, “The Lord God also said, ‘At that time I will make the sun set at noon and make the land dark on a clear day.‘”13
Some have suggested, that there could have been a full solar eclipse. However, we know from Jewish custom that the Passover was only celebrated at the time of a full moon, which would have made that impossible. This time period of 3 pm is described by the Jews as follows: “The Daily Whole Offering of the afternoon generally was slaughtered at half after the eighth hour [after dawn, about 2:30 pm] and offered up at half after the ninth hour [about 3:30 pm].”14 So, since their new day would begin at 6 pm, this point in time was considered to be at the end of the day.
1 Esther 5:2
2 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megillah, folio 15b
3 David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. Kindle Edition
4 The word for “My God” ( Eli in Hebrew or Eloi in Aramaic) sounded to the people like the name of Elijah the prophet of God circa 850 BC.
5 Malachi 4:5
6 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folio 17b
7 Ibid., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 21a
8 George Gill’s Exposition of the Bible Commentary, Matthew 17:3
9 Genesis 1:26
10 Ibid. 1:27
11 Psalm 22:30-31
12 Isaiah 50:3
13 Amos 8:9
14 Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Pesachim, Chap. 5:1 [A], Neusner Edition