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George Smeaton on the Cry of Desertion

Category Book Excerpts
Date April 24, 2024

The following excerpt is from George Smeaton’s Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (pp. 157–160).

The third exclamation of the conscious sin-bearer was the cry, “My God, My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46.) It was like all His sayings, according to truth; and it becomes us carefully to investigate its import and significance. Though it does not fall within my present object to refer to the several sayings on the cross in their order, it is noteworthy, that when Christ had given utterance to certain sayings that had reference to others, when He had uttered the comforting promise to the penitent thief, and had prayed for His persecutors, and had commended His mother to the care of the beloved disciple, He next turned to God alone, as if He had now done with man. The remaining space was to be specially occupied with God alone, as if His work with men was now done.

No sooner were His mind and attention turned away from His relation to men around Him, than a striking phenomenon presented itself. Darkness all of a sudden enveloped the face of nature, and eternal death seemed to seize hold of Him. Whatever view may be given of that darkness, it doubtless stood connected with the chief figure in this whole scene, and with the mental state through which the substitute of sinners was now to pass; and it must plainly be held to be symbolical as well as miraculous. We have not, it is true, any authoritative explanation of its meaning in the Scripture. But as the inner darkness of Christ’s soul and that darkness on the face of the earth were simultaneous, no explanation has so much probability as that which regards the menacing gloom, as meant to intimate that our sin had separated between God and the surety, and that our iniquities had hid the Father’s face from Him (Isa. 59:2). That is every way a better explanation than the more current one, that it was meant to convey an impression of the divine displeasure for the indignity offered and the crime committed by the Jewish nation against the Christ. But however we interpret the meaning of this mysterious darkness, it certainly seems to have had one effect. Under the awe which it produced, there seems to have been diffused among the bystanders a death-stillness, which for the time freed the sufferer from the scoffs and mockery of the mad multitude, and left Him alone, and comparatively undistracted, with God. The silence was broken at last, after an interval, by these words of awful import, “My God, My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?” What the Lord Jesus thus uttered was His actual experience; and as it was from the faithful witness, it was according to truth. He who was the light of the world was under the hiding of His Father’s face.

The inquiry into the causes of this peculiar mood of mind, substantially the same as in the two former exclamations, need not occupy our minds so long. The question is much more narrowed in this case; nor is there so much difference of opinion among divines and expositors. The words to which our Lord gave utterance are plainly a quotation from the 22rd Psalm, which is unquestionably Messianic, whether it had any immediate reference to the Psalmist or not. As to the interpretation, much depends on the question whether we take the word forsake in its full significance, or whether we tone down its meaning to the mere notion of “delay to help.” Some even of those who admit that the death of Christ was a propitiatory sacrifice, object to the interpretation that our Lord must be understood as uttering this language as an expression of real desertion, and in a moment of real desertion. And according to them, the words will only mean, “Why leavest Thou Me?” or, “Why delayest Thou to free Me from My suffering?” The word why is thus an expression of complaint, but involving a petition. In favour of this interpretation, it is argued that God is said “to forsake” one, or to be far from one, when He does not send help, and to “be near” when He delivers. Thus, according to this interpretation, there will be no particular emphasis on the word forsake. The whole import of the exclamation becomes flat and meaningless, according to this exposition. And the supporters of it, while they do not deny the atoning sacrifice of Christ, hold merely by one side of the truth, namely, that the Father surely loved the Son with unabated love, and could not withdraw His favour from His Son; nay, that the Son deserved it all the more when He was bringing His obedience through the deepest humiliation to its highest elevation. All that is true, and not to be questioned in any quarter.

But all this is one-sided, and argues much confusion of idea. It loses sight of the distinction, to which we have already alluded, between the personal and official capacity of our Lord; and it argues as if the supporters of the penal infliction of the divine wrath on Jesus as the sin-bearer also maintained the removal or withdrawal of the divine favour from Him in a personal point of view. That desertion undoubtedly involved the privation of the sweet sense of divine love and of the beatific vision of God, but no loss of the divine favour, and no withdrawal of the grace resulting from the personal union. It was not accompanied with a dissolution of the principle of joy, though it was accompanied with a suspension of the present experience of joy. It was for a time, not for ever. It was not attended with despair or doubt, but with the full confidence of faith, as is expressed in the words, “My God.” To sum up all in a few words: it was borne in our name, and not for Himself, in the capacity of the sin-bearer or surety, and not in that of the beloved Son. It was voluntary, and not enforced; by the imputation of our sin, and not for anything of His own. It was not because He had no power to remove it, but out of love to us. And in that desertion He encountered all the elements of eternal death, as far as they could fall on such a sufferer. It involved the removal not merely of the tokens of divine love, but the privation of God, or that loss of God, which is the very essence of the second death, awaiting the finally lost. Though this departure of God is accompanied, in the case of the sinner, with despair and with the worm of an evil conscience, it could be executed in a somewhat different way on our sinless Lord. But it must needs be executed, if He was to occupy the place of a real substitute and surety for sinful men.

The Lord asks why, with a force and significance which bring us to the margin of the inscrutable. It may be wiser to stand and adore than to grope our way into the meaning of this why. The language certainly does not mean that the cause of the desertion was unknown to Him as the conscious sin-bearer, who was passing through the flaming fire of the divine wrath for our salvation. But the inquiry, so put, seems to utter a desire that He may not be uninformed, but fully acquainted with the absolute necessity of all these pangs and agonies of desertion. He seems desirous to be assured subjectively, or convinced within His inmost soul, that all this must needs be so. He wishes to rest or anchor His mind in that conviction of its indispensable necessity; and He reminds His Father that it was all endured by a substitute for others, and for the glory of the Father.

The vicarious position of Christ during all these exclamations cannot, therefore, be doubtful to any one who has duly understood them. He bore (1) the soul-trouble, that His people might not bear it; (2) He drank the cup of the garden, that they might not drink it; (3) He was forsaken on the cross, that they might never know that desertion. He felt what sin is, and what it is to be severed from God, that we might never taste it; and He proclaimed with a loud voice the inconceivable agonies of that desertion, that He might convey to those who heard Him, or who should afterwards peruse His sufferings to the end of time, a due impression of the infinite weight of sin, and of the penal desertion it entails. As to the mental condition of the Son of God during this penal loss of God, and retribution for the sin which He made His own, it may be safely affirmed that He then experienced the essence of eternal death, or that sense of abandonment which will form the bitterest ingredient in the cup of the finally impenitent. This was the meaning of the sentence, “Thou shalt surely die.”

Had the second Adam been a mere man, there could have been no such vicarious work, because He would have been bound to full obedience on His own account, and that obedience could not have extended to others. But the second man, being the Son of God, rendered a vicarious obedience, and encountered a vicarious suffering, not necessary for Himself, and of infinite value. And, because of His divine person, the brief period of His agony was a fully adequate and perfect satisfaction for the sins of His people, from the infinite dignity and infinite merit of the sufferer.

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