Psalm 22, a Psalm written by King David, is dramatic and unusual in a number of ways. To many it appears to describe the crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) in great detail, even speaking of the piercing of his hands and feet. Because crucifixion was not heard of when King David wrote this Psalm, and was not invented until centuries later, this makes the prophecy found in Psalm 22 particularly remarkable. Others, however, have claimed that this Psalm speaks of the sufferings of David when he was pursued by King Saul. Who then is right?Psalm 22:1-22 (1-21 in other translations)
- For the Leader; upon Aijweleth ha-Shahar. A Psalm of David.
- My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me, and art far from my help at the words of my cry
- O my God, I call by day, but Thou answerest not; and by night, and there is no surcease for me.
- Yet Thou art holy. O Thou that art enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
- In Thee did our fathers trust; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them.
- Unto Thee they cried, and escaped; in Thee did they trust, and were not ashamed.
- But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
- All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head:
- “Let him commit himself unto the Lord! Let Him rescue him; let Him deliver him, seeing He delighteth in him.”
- For Thou art He that took me out of the womb; Thou madest me trust when I was upon my mother’s breasts.
- Upon Thee I have been cast from my birth; Thou art my God from my mother’s womb.
- Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help
- Many bulls have encompassed me; strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
- They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
- I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; it is melted in mine inmost parts
- My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my throat; and Thou layest me in the dust of death.
- For dogs have encompassed me; a company of evil-doers have inclosed me; like a lion, they are at my hands and my feet.
- I may count all my bones; they look and gloat over me.
- They part my garments among them, and for my vesture do they cast lots.
- But Thou O Lord, be not far off; O Thou my strength, hasten to help me.
- Deliver my soul from the sword; mine only one from the power of the dog.
- Save me from the lion’s mouth; yea, from the horns of the wild-oxen do Thou answer me.
The Description of the Suffering One in Psalm 22
Since Psalm 22 was written by David, one might, quite naturally, believe that the Psalm refers to him. However:
- The experiences described in Psalm 22 far exceed anything that ever happened to David. An example of this is found in verses 15-19. The things that are mentioned here never happened to David.
Some say that David was using hyperbole to describe the times when Saul pursued Him. However, the sufferings are exactly what one would expect to occur when facing death at the hands of one’s enemies (verses 17 & 21). These are not exaggerations.
The one suffering is being mocked not for a crime, but for trusting in G-d (verses 7-9). David is never described in Scripture as being restrained and mocked for trusting in G-d. Also, Scripture neither describes David as counting all of his bones (verse 18), nor does it describe David’s bones being out of joint (verse 15).This Psalm says a great deal about the suffering One, including:
- He feels abandoned by G-d. (verse 2)
- He has trusted in G-d. (verse 9)
- The Lord has been his G-d since birth. (verses 10-11)
- There is a group of people who are mocking Him for His trust in G-d. (verses 8-9)
- He id hoping in the Lord, the G-d of His fathers, to delivery Him, because there is no one to help Him (verses 5-6, 12, 20-22).
- He is despised of the people (verse 7). (See “What Rabbis Have Said About Isaiah 53 for the same description of Messiah in Isaiah 53:3).
- His suffering is extreme, humiliating, and to the point of death (verses 15-18).
- His adversaries are described in vivid and terrifying ways, including:
a. “Many bulls, strong bulls of Bashan” (verse 13)
b. Roaring lions (verse 14, 22)
c. Dogs (verse 17)
d. Wild oxen (verse 22)
- The sufferings described in this Psalm specifically occur during crucifixion, including bones being out of joint, the heart being like wax and “melted,” strength being dried up, and the tongue cleaving to one’s throat (verses 15-16).
The Key Issue
As noted above, the Psalm describes numerous things that occur during crucifixion. In addition, it describes additional things that specifically occurred at Yeshua’s crucifixion. For example, in verse 19, it says that those present would divide his clothes among themselves by casting lots for them. Verse 2 includes words quoted by Yeshua at His crucifixion.
However, the most dramatic description of crucifixion occurs in verse 17. In some translations the last part reads:
They pierced my hands and my feet.
Other translations, including that of the Jewish Publication Society, translate the verse as follows:
Like a lion they are at my hands and my feet.
The key issue is: Which translation is correct? If it says, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” then here is a complete and vivid description of Yeshua’s crucifixion–hundreds of years before crucifixion was even invented! To answer this question, one must look at four issues:
- How do the vast majority of Jewish manuscripts translate this verse?
- Which translation is more in keeping with the context (better fits the surrounding verses)?
- Which translation better fits the grammatical structure of the passage?
- Does the Hebrew word kah’aru exist in ancient literature?
How do the Vast Majority of Ancient Jewish Manuscripts Translate this Verse?
Those who claim that it says, “like a lion they are at my hands and my feet” cite the main Masoretic texts (the Cairo Genizah and Leningradensis) to support their contention. However, many other Jewish translations translate this portion differently, including:
- Some manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition read, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.” These are two later manuscripts of Kennicott and de Rossi of Ginsburg. This information is included in the apparatus of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, bottom of page 1104.
- The older edition by Rudolf Kittel lists even more Hebrew manuscripts that say, “they have pierced (karu),” or ‘they have pierced (ka’arey).”
- The Midrash on Psalm 22 says “they have made my hands and my feet ugly (or hateful).”
- The Aquila Jewish Greek, translation 1 reads, “they have disfigured my hands and my feet,” while translation 2 reads, “They have bound my hands and my feet.”
- The Targum (from the first century) reads, “they bite like the lion at my hands and my feet.”
- The Symmachus text reads, “like those who seek to bind my hands and my feet.”
- The Syriac text reads, “they have pierced my hands and my feet.”
- The Old Latin (pre-Vulgate) reads, “they have dug my hands and my feet.”
- The Septuagint (190 B.C.E. translation into Greek by 70 Jewish Rabbis) reads “they have bore through my hands and my feet.” It is important to note that the Septuagint was translated long before Jesus came, so these Jewish scholars had no bias.
Every version, except the main Masoretic texts (the Cairo Genizah and Leningradensis), tells us something has happened to the hands and feet of the one suffering. They are either pierced, made to look ugly, bored through, bound, or bitten as by a lion. Of all the versions, only the two mentioned above say something else—something that has nothing to do with the hands and feet specifically. Only these say that the enemies are merely at his hands and feet, while not doing anything to his hands and feet (such as biting, piercing, boring through, or binding).
Which Translation Is More in Keeping with the Context (Better Fits the Surrounding Verses)?
The surrounding verses all have references to the body parts of the sufferer: For example,
- The bones are out of joint (verse 15)
- His heart is melted like wax (verse 15)
- His tongue clings to his jaws (verse 16)
- He can count his bones (verse 18)
All these parts are being acted against. It makes perfect sense that in this song the body parts of verse 17 (the hands and feet) would also be acted against. That is exactly what the vast majority of the different manuscripts say.
The two exceptions literally read, “Like a lion, my hands and my feet.” Not only is this not a complete sentence, but the anatomical parallelism found throughout the passage is broken, because nothing happens to the hands and feet, even though something happens to every other body part mentioned. The majority of the manuscripts appear to correctly preserve this symmetry.
In addition, four metaphors are used to describe the sufferer’s enemies. They are described as lions, dogs, bulls, and wild oxen (verses 13, 14, 17, and 22). All of these animals kill their victims by piercing them. The lion and dog bite with spike-like teeth, while the bull and oxen gore with their spiked horns. In fact, in verse 22, the speaker appears to be asking for deliverance from such piercing when He cries out:
Save me from the lion’s mouth; yea, from the horns of the wild-oxen do Thou answer me.
In addition, the context seems to suggest that the sufferer has already been pierced, as people are not typically delivered from something that has not befallen them.
The Hebrew phrase, according to the two main Masoretic texts, is:
Ka’aree ya-dah v’rag-lai.
This literally reads, “Like a lion, my hands and my feet.”
The problem with this translation is that it is not a complete sentence. There is no verb, no infinitive, and no participle! That makes the phrase ambiguous. For example, technically it could mean “My hands and feet are like a lion.” However, this would make no sense. Here, the sufferer is in a weakened condition. He is not in any condition to attack like a lion. The passage makes it clear that he is a passive victim—not an aggressive lion.
Technically, it could also mean, “a lion is like my hands and my feet.” However, this also makes no sense in the context of this passage. The sufferer’s hands and feet are not swift, strong, and ready to pounce like a lion.
Which Translation Better Fits the Grammatical Structure of the Passage?
The grammatical structure of the phrase in the two Masoretic texts occurs seven times in the Hebrew Bible, including six times in the Psalms (Psalm 22:10; Psalm 22:16; Psalm 23:5; Psalm 31:9 Psalm 62:7 and Psalm 68:24) and in Job 33:3. In every case, except in Psalm 22:16, the subject is clearly distinguishable from the object. (For example, in Psalm 23:5, “oil” is the subject, and “my head” and “my cup” are the objects.) But in Psalm 22:16 under the main Masoretic rendering, one must guess as to the subject and object with no reason to believe one is correct and another incorrect.
If the phrase is read, “they have pierced,” it contains a verb, kah-ru. In addition, the confusion over the subject/object difficulty disappears. The verb in the perfect tense (past event with continuing effects—“they have pierced”) fits the phrase well grammatically—unlike the alternative, “like a lion.”
Certain translations render the verse, “A mob of the wicked has encircled me like lions; on my hands and my feet I can count all my bones.” However, this rendering does not fit the pattern of the song. The pattern of the verses is three sets of three words, with every set conveying a different idea. (This pattern is easily discernible in verses 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, etc.) However, if the phrase is translated, “They pierced my hands and my feet,” the pattern of the verses is preserved.
Does the Hebrew Word kah’aru, Meaning “They Have Pierced” Exist in Ancient Literature?
Some claim that the Hebrew word kah’aru does not exist and that Christians made it up. However, according to Keil and Delitzsch, in their Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 5, page 318, in other manuscripts, the variant reading kah’aru is found in the Hebrew text itself. Keil and Delitzsch point out that the addition of an aleph is also found in Zechariah 14:10 and Daniel 7:16 in the words rah’amah and kah’amieyah, respectively. (See Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Volume 5, page 319). Thus, the additional aleph does not mean that the word kah’aru is a Christian invention.
Another important source, Introduction to the Masoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 24:9, in the margins of the Massorah Magna, states that the reading in Psalm 22:16 is kah’aru. The author states that the word has two different meanings when comparing Psalm 22:16 and Isaiah 38:13. He also investigated the charge of scholarly fraud leveled against a printer of the early rabbinic Bible, Jacob ben Chayim, and concluded that there was in fact an ancient reading where Psalm 22:16 was kah’aru, meaning “they have pierced.”
Finally, the reading of kah’aru as a verb in the perfect third person plural is preserved by the Midrash on Psalms where it is rendered, “they made hateful.” (See Introduction to the Masoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible, pages 969-972.)
Psalm 22 graphically depicts the sufferings of the Messiah in great detail, including his crucifixion. Verse 17 specifically indicates that his hands and feet would be pierced. The rendering “they have pierced”, or something similar, makes perfect grammatical sense, fits the context, and fits the poetic pattern of the passage. In addition, contrary to the claims of the critics, kah’aru does exist in ancient manuscripts.
However, the rendering by the two Masoretic texts is inaccurate. “Like a lion, my hands and my feet” is not a sentence, it does not fit either the context or structure of the passage, and it appears nonsensical. In addition, it is contrary to the vast majority of ancient Jewish translations.
However, the fact that Messiah was to be pierced does not hinge merely on Psalm 22:17. Zechariah 12:10 states very clearly that Messiah would be pierced, or “thrust through.” No Jewish translation disputes that Zechariah 12:10 speaks of such a piercing. This passage states that Israel will ultimately turn to this pierced one and will then be redeemed from all her uncleanness (Zechariah 12:10-13:1).
* The material in this study is taken from Messianic Apologetics: What They Didn’t Teach You in Hebrew School, by Ron Tavalin.