My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
My grandfather lay dying. My family knew his end had come — he had been expiring rapidly over the past few days. He wasn’t eating or drinking much, his breathing became raspier. He lay in hospice with his beloved family gathered around him singing hymns.
He had lost the ability to talk, and we assumed he had lost the ability to see and hear as well. But we sang, prayed, and read Scripture nonetheless. My grandfather was a believer, and told us before the loss of his faculties that he was ready to go home.
It was a few hours before he would pass when we began to sing a favorite of his.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee. . . .
As we continued to sing about hiding in Jesus — about clinging to his cross, embracing his bloody sacrifice alone for our forgiveness — this old saint began to do what defied expectation: he began to mouth along. Bereft of speech, he tried to sing to Christ; robbed of much cognition, he joined the chorus; with failing body and mind, his soul made one final breakthrough.
These words took on new significance in those closing moments:
wash me, Savior, or I die
let me hide myself in thee.
I can still remember his lips moving, almost instinctively, as he was nearly across the threshold to that other world. It was his dying prayer: Wash me, Savior. Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling. Christ, let me hide myself in you.
What is the song you could sing though half-gone?
We have each hummed favorite songs while we lay on our beds. Yet, our favorite songs should be ones that we could joyfully hum on our deathbeds.
Sitting next to my grandfather that afternoon, watching his soul leave his body, I can assure you that much of what is played on the radio or makes the top 100 charts will not comfort your soul wading into that river. In that moment you will want sturdy lyrics, unafraid-to-look-death-in-the-face kind of lyrics, lyrics about Jesus. You will (or should) want to sing a song that you can begin here on earth and finish in his immediate presence on the other side.
Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s demands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
You exhale for the last time on earth, and continue singing face-to-face:
thou must save, and thou alone.
This was something of my grandfather’s experience.
Jesus had song lyrics on his tongue too as he died. In the last words Mark gives us, Jesus quotes from the twenty-second psalm.
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33–34)
Granted, Jesus is quoting a song that he’s currently fulfilling. He is the one surrounded and mocked by heartless men, pierced of hands and feet, having his clothes gambled for (Psalm 22:16–18). But he is also singing a song that boasts great trust in the Father, such as,
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! (Psalm 22:22–23)
The first song lyric is grim — as grim and as dark as the Father’s wrath falling upon Christ for our sin. But it goes on to sing great lyrics of hope and trust in God, a song Christ wishes to sing both to testify before men and to have on his lips as he enters his Father’s presence — a lyric ending in celebration, for all time, that “he has done it” (Psalm 22:31).