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Thank you for asking a very good question. The immediate reason that the people said this when they heard Jesus' speak these words from the cross was because He spoke the phrase in Aramaic (a Hebrew-like language that was His native tongue). He said, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" In saying these words, He was quoting from Psalm 22:1—a psalm in the Old Testament which prophetically spoke of what He was suffering on the cross. The people who heard Him cry out these words misunderstood and thought that He was crying out for Elijah (because the words "My God" are a translation of the word "Eli" in Aramaic). So, the short answer to your question is that they misunderstood the sound of His words.
But why were they so quick to misunderstand this? This is because behind their misunderstanding was a legitimate expectation—drawn from the Scripture—that the prophet Elijah would one day come again to earth. They drew this expectation from the promise of In Malachi 4:5-6; where it says,
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet
Elijah, you'll remember, did not die on this earth as men ordinarily die. These Jewish people would have recalled that he was taken up by God into the heavens as it says in 2 Kings 2:11—in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire. That fact, along with the passage from Malachi, would have left the Jewish people with the expectation that Elijah would one day be sent again to the world of men, and would "restore all things" as the forerunner of the Messiah. Even to this day, many Jewish families, during the Seder meal atPassover, set aside a cup filled with wine—awaiting Elijah's coming as the "invisible guest" at the table.
And in a sense, they were very right in their expectation. It's just that the promise had already been kept. Elijah already came to them, and they didn't know him. You may remember the story of when Jesus was transfigured before His disciples Peter, James and John. Do you remember how, during that remarkable event, Elijah appeared, along with Moses, and spoke to the Lord (Matthew 17:3-4)? The three disciples were confused by that event. When He walked down the mountain with them, they asked, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" And Jesus answered, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wised" (Matthew 17:10-12; see also Matthew 11:14). As He taught them about this matter, they came to understand that Jesus was speaking of John the Baptist, who had already ministered on this earth as Jesus' forerunner "in the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17). John himself affirmed that he was not literally "Elijah" (John 1:21); but he, nevertheless, was the one promised in the Scriptures in Isaiah 40:3 (see Matthew 3:3)—coming as the forerunner of the Messiah in an Elijah-like manner.
Jesus had said, Elijah had already come to them, and they did to him whatever they wished (see Matthew 14:1-12). "Likewise", He added, "the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands" (Matthew 17:12). The people who heard Jesus cry out on the cross thought that He was crying out for Elijah to come. They expected that Elijah was coming; and they were right to draw that expectation from Scripture. But they didn't understand that he had already come and served as the forerunner of the Messiah—who was being sacrificed by the Father for them, before their very eyes.
Sincerely in Christ's love,
(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436