The Father Turns His Face Away

In our examination of scriptural lyrics, I want to turn our attention to specific examples of lyrics sung by God’s people and consider their scriptural basis (or lack thereof). Our first example is Stuart Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love.” 

In particular, I want to look at one of the lines from the first verse: “The Father turns His face away.” This specific idea, of God turning His face away, does not appear in Scripture as applied explicitly to Jesus. Instead, it is an extrapolated idea, based on a certain reading of Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27.46).

It is commonly stated that the purpose of Jesus’ cry was to show that a separation existed between Father and Son as Jesus bore our sins in His body and became sin for us (2 Cor 5.21; 1 Pet 2.24). That is, because of the sin that was put on Jesus, God could not look upon Him (Ps 34.15–16; Isa 59.2).

But is this what is going on? I don’t think so. Here are four reasons:

  1. This “saying of Jesus on the cross” is different from the others. Among other things, this one is explicitly recorded in Aramaic by Matthew and Mark, then given to us translated into Greek. Also, it is strange that He says “My God” here, but “Father, forgive them” and “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Thus, there’s something peculiar about this utterance, something that might prompt us to think this isn’t Jesus’ personal appeal to God, but something serving a larger purpose, namely…
  2. Jesus quotes the first verse of Psalm 22. In so doing, Jesus prompts the hearers (and us) to consider not only how that psalm begins (a fairly accurate description of what Jesus underwent), but also how it ends—in praise for God’s deliverance. In fact, verse 22 is later quoted in Hebrews 2.12. In fact, verse 24 says, “For he has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, Neither has he hidden his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard.” So we’re saying that the Father turned His face away (a means of hiding one’s face), when David said prophetically that He didn’t?
  3. Both Psalm 34 and Isaiah 59, in context, have prophetic application to Jesus, but not because the Father turned His face away. Rather, Psalm 34.20 is the prophecy about not a bone being broken (cf. Jn 19.36). Whose bones? The righteous person whose cry Yahweh hears. This is directly counter to the idea of the Father being separated from Jesus. In Isaiah 59, Jesus makes a prophetic appearance later on as the Redeemer who would come out of Zion (Isa 59.20).
  4. Coming back to the sayings on the cross, it seems strange that God would have turned His face (the point of which being that He doesn’t hear the cry of the wicked), but yet Jesus still appeals to the Father to forgive and still commits His spirit to the Father.

So what do we do with this as Christians seeking to sing scriptural hymns? Personally, I think this hymn needs to go into the category of hymns we just don’t sing. I understand that there are ways to twist around the idea of the Father turning His face away to talk about leaving Jesus on the cross, but I’m not sure that it is wise for us to go there with that idea. There’s also the 1 Corinthians 8 issue I mentioned yesterday, not just with visitors, but with members of the Lord’s church who are perfectly fine with the full rationale of Jesus being separated from the Father and the Father not being able to look on Jesus. That’s dangerous ground for us to tread on. I have sung this when it has been led, but I don’t anticipate leading this one where I worship anytime soon.

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