Just recently at the church that I attend we have been singing a new song called Forever, you can check out a video of the song here. I really like this song, but there is one line that got me thinking, and it’s at the start of the second verse which is “One final breath he gave, as heaven looked away.”
As we were singing this, this past week I started thinking about that line and instantly remembered a similar line in a Stuart Townend song ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’, where we have the lines “how great the pain of searing loss the Father turns his face away, as wounds which mar the chosen one bring many sons to glory.” As I thought on these two lines I began asking myself if this is a true reflection of what happened at the cross or are these lyrics and teachings there to emphasise the horror and the extent of the saving work of Jesus upon the cross, so with that in mind…. here are my current thoughts on that.
I say current thoughts, because a few years back I preached message entitled ‘He gave up’ in which as part of that message I taught that at the depths of the cross, there was a separation, for a time, between the Father and Son, a moment where because of the weight of sin brought upon Jesus and the judgement for that, that the Father turned away from his Son, but just recently, as I said I have been rethinking this.
Firstly where does this idea come from? Well it comes from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, the fourth of Jesus’ seven sayings on the cross, which we have recorded for us in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, in which we read Jesus crying out at the ninth hour “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
The ESV study bible says of the following regarding this phrase in the two verses above..
In some sense Jesus had to be cut off from the favour of and fellowship with the Father that had been his eternally, because he was bearing the sins of his people and therefore enduring God’s wrath (cf. Isa. 53:6, 10; Hab. 1:13; Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; 1 John 2:2).
Jesus utters the opening words of Psalm 22 and in so doing cries out to God in the immense pain of divine abandonment (see Isa. 59:2; Hab. 1:13), which he suffers as a substitute for sinful mankind.
At this moment, as the above comments show, what we have is Jesus under the weight of the sin of humanity, he is facing the judgement of God for sin. But notice too that there are some scripture references that are mentioned. Primarily we have Psalm 22, from which Jesus is quoting in his immense agony, we’ll look at this in a moment, and also Habakkuk 1:13. These two passages seem to me to the main weights in the view of this separation, abandonment and turning away of the Father, that we see taught in some quarters of the church, so let’s look at those and see if we can shed some light on this anguished cry of Jesus.
Firstly, Habakkuk 1:13
In Habakkuk 1:13 we read…
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.
On the surface, this verse in Habakkuk appears to enforce the teaching that on the cross, as Jesus was carrying the weight of sin upon his shoulders, that the Father did indeed turn his face away, because being of pure eyes he was unable to look upon sin. I say on the surface, because I don’t think that this interpretation does justice to this verse and the complete biblical teaching, and we shall see some examples in a little while that show that in fact this statement isn’t a true reflection of God.
But before we get to those examples let’s first look at what is going on here in Habakkuk. In the book of Habakkuk what we have is a written dialog between the Prophet Habakkuk and God, Habakkuk is seeking to understand why things are as they are and why God is allowing what is happening to happen. Habakkuk is struggling to see why God is sitting back and do nothing while Judah descends into greater moral and spiritual decline. We see Habakkuk’s complaint in the opening verses, where we read..
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralysed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.
You can sense the depth of despair that Habakkuk is facing, and I find this to be a challenge to myself at this time, and more widely to the church at large, how many of us seeing the moral and spiritual decline cry out to the Lord as Habakkuk did?
The surprise here isn’t the complaint, but rather the response from the Lord, who says..
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breath of the earth, to seize dwellings not their own. They are dreaded and fearsome; their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
It is this response from the Lord that Habakkuk struggles with, that the Lord would raise up a nation more debauched and morally bankrupt to punish his people Judah. I think we are no different, we struggle to comprehend why God did do things in a certain way and why he does do things in a certain way still today.
But notice something in Habakkuk’s complaint, he says “Why do you make me see iniquity and why do you look at wrong?” and also notice too in the Lord’s response he is well aware of the Chaldeans, who are they and what they are like – not from hearsay but he has seen all that they do, he has raised them up, not that he has carried out those acts, but has permitted the Chaldeans to do them and through them will accomplish his purposes..
Now in verse 13.. Habakkuk says that God is too pure to look on evil… What is going on here??
Verse 13 forms part of Habakkuk’s response, to the Lord following his declaration, in which Habakkuk says..
Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgement, and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof. You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?
Notice even here in this response, Habakkuk says that God cannot look upon evil, but asks why he doesn’t do anything when wicked men do wicked acts, so is our issue one of the difference between evil and wicked? and if so where is that boundary? Or is it that Habakkuk in verse 13 is making a statement on his view of God, almost saying but this doesn’t make sense God, that you would use the Chaldeans because that isn’t your character or nature..
In short, I don’t believe that we can lift out the first part of verse 13 and make a sweeping statement to the effect that evil horrifies the Lord that it causes him to turn his face away, especially given that the immediate context of Habakkuk shows that the Lord has been looking on at what has been happening. I also don’t think that we can just lift this out either and apply to the Lord’s cry of dereliction on the cross as some do.
Further to this, in holding up the first part of Habakkuk 1:13 as a blanket view on God’s response to evil, I believe that it creates problems when we look at passages such as Job 1, where we see Satan coming into the presence of God.. even at God’s request, are we to then distinguish the person from the acts, so as to say that it’s the act of evil that God can’t look upon but he’s ok with the person? Well I don’t think we can hold that view either, especially given that that isn’t the teaching regarding Jesus cry of dereliction.
Join us next time when we will look at Psalm 22 and it’s connection to Jesus’ fourth saying on the cross.