The Prophetic Nature of Psalm 22

Psalm 22 is one of the most prophetic and Messianic pieces of scripture in the Old Testament.  Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 while on the cross crying out, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me.”  (Matthew 27:46)  Psalm 22:7 states, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.”   Matthew 27:39 states, “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads.”  Psalm 22:8 states that people were saying, “He trusts in the Lord, let Him deliver him, let Him rescue him, for He delights in him.” While the religious leaders at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion stated, “He trusts in God, let God deliver Him now, if He desires Him, For He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matt 27:43)  Additionally the Psalm describes the activity of the oppressors as, “they divide my garments among them by casting lots.” The Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross reportedly, “divided His garments among them by casting lots.”  (Matthew 27:35)  Perhaps the most Messianic/prophetic picture that this Psalm creates is in verse 16, which states, “They pierced my hands and my feet.”  Thus, the foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Christ is painfully obvious.  Or is it?  Many translations will have a footnote which states something like, “The Hebrew here reads, ‘like a Lion, my hands and my feet.’”  Perhaps you, like me, are wondering why is there such a divergence between “pierced” and “like a Lion.”  It is the purpose of this article to delve into this subject.

The Hebrew word in question is “rak”.  The first letter of the word “k” called a Kaf, can be what is called, an inseparable preposition.  It is called inseparable because it actually attaches itself to the beginning of the word.  The Kaf as a preposition means, “like, or as.”  The rest of the word, “ra” is the Hebrew word for Lion.  On the surface, the translation seems fairly simple, “like a lion” or is it?  The problem arises with the remainder of the verse (ylgdw ydy oor my hands and my feet, for explanation of the verse see footnote (1)) which is “my hands and my feet.”  So, the literal translation of this phrase is “like a lion, my hands and my feet.”  This doesn’t seem to make any sense in any language.  The problem is compounded by a lack of a verb.  Also, the phrase doesn’t seem to make sense even in the Masoretic Hebrew. Perhaps we should pause here, and discuss the use of the masoretic text.

The Masorites were a group of Jewish scribes that lived in Israel between the years of 700AD to the early 1200’s.  They set out to revive the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.  They desired to preserve the oral traditions of the Hebrew and they developed a system of vowels, called pointing, that preserved the oral transmission of the text into a written document.  At this time in history, the Jews were undergoing some pretty harsh persecution from the Christians.  One pope had actually outlawed Judaism within regions that were Catholic.  Hence, the Masorites were trying to translate a text that would preserve their traditions and their people.  Hence, there are several places that the New Testament quotes as applying to Jesus and the Masoretic text renders a completely different reading.(2)  This can be done in Hebrew as most words revolve around a three letter root, and when the vowels, which the Masorites added, are changed, it can change the meaning of the text.  This may very well be the case with the verse currently in discussion.  For the most part, the masoretic text is a wonderful translation, but there are some sections that seem to change the meaning, perhaps away from a pro-Jesus slant.  However, they did preserve a text that is widely accepted as the standard for Old Testament translation.  Additionally, the Masorites left us some clues to syntax within the text.

There is a device that is found in each verse of Hebrew that is called an “Athnah”.  An Athnah is a very small upside down “v” which is placed on the accented syllable of the word that divides the verse in half.  Generally, the first part of the verse gives us a clue or a “lead in” into what the second part of the verse should mean.  Well, in this case, the first part of verse 16 states, “For dogs have surrounded me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed me.”  Then, if our lion translation is correct, we would add, “like a lion, my hands and my feet.”  Additionally, following the word my feet, is another exegetical device called a Sof Pasaq.  This looks like two little diamonds stacked on top of each other, and it is designed to mark the end of the sentence. So, based upon these two disjunctive accents, (3) we have what the Masorites wanted us to have; mainly, For dogs have surrounded me, the congregation of the wicked has enclosed me, like a lion my hands and my feet.”   This makes absolutely no sense in Hebrew or any other language for that matter.  Thus, something must be missing from the Masoretic Hebrew of this verse.  Our investigation of this verse must go deeper.

There is a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. (4)  After the division between Jews and Christians became evident, the Christians adopted the Septuagint as their Old Testament scriptures.  In fact, Eastern Orthodox Christianity retains the Septuagint for the Old Covenant even today while most others have adopted the Masoretic text.  Because the Septuagint was translated around 250-150 BC, the rabbis who translated it were using Hebrew manuscripts that don’t exist today.(5)  However, the Greek of the Septuagint remains with us.  Hence, if we can look at the Greek, it may give a glimpse into some older Hebrew that doesn’t exist anymore.  The Septuagint, for the word in question, uses the Greek word “wruxan” which literally means, “to dig.” (6) This word is obviously a verb.  The ending “xan” is in the aorist active third person format, which is roughly, a past tense.  Additionally, a third person pronoun is automatically listed in the English translation as it is implied in the Greek but not explicitly stated.  Hence, the Greek gives us the translation, “they dug through or pierced my hands and my feet.”

Another ancient translation of the Old Testament is the Latin Vulgate.  The Vulgate was translated by St. Jerome around 382-384AD.  Jerome was a man ahead of his time.  Every translator in Christendom, at his time, was translating from the Septuagint Greek into Latin.  Jerome, however, moved to Bethlehem, built a monastery, and learned Hebrew from the Jews.  Then he translated the Hebrew into Latin, even to the objection of Augustine.  This is relevant for us because the Hebrew that Jerome used doesn’t exist, but, the Latin of the vulgate remains.  Thus, like the Greek of the Septuagint, we can look at the Latin and it will give us a possible glimpse into some older Hebrew.  Jerome will break the case upon for us by using the Latin word “Foderunt” which is roughly translated “to dig.”  The sense here is to dig through or to tunnel through thus creating a hole.  To carry this idea into English, the word “pierce” is used.  So, how does “to dig” break the case open?  Well, first, it agrees with the Septuagint.  Thus, it provides a second witness for the translation as “they pierced my hands and feet.”  However, there is another ancient manuscript that needs to be examined.

The Aramaic Peshitta is yet another translation of the Old Testament that predates the Hebrew of the Masoretic text.  The oldest Aramaic manuscript that is available dates to the fifth century AD.  Again, it is four hundred years older than the Masoretic text.  Aramiac and Hebrew are very similar in the language and style.  They share the same alphabet and the letters are pronounced, pretty much, the same. Because of its date and its closeness to the language of the Hebrew, an examination of the verse in question would be in order.  The Aramaic has, for this word, “wewb” which means “ to dig.”  Thus, the Aramaic, the Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate all agree that the translation is “to pierce.”

As previously stated, critical scholars scoffed at the historical reliability of the Old Testament because the Masorites translated so far after the events that they were describing.  The critical scholars made some valid points.  First, how could oral translations continue for thousands of years without anything getting lost?  A great point! God, however, provided an answer.  In the late 1950’s a Bedouin shepherd boy was playing around a cave around the Dead Sea near Qumran.  He picked up a rock and through it into a cave and heard the sound of something breaking.  He went inside to see what it was and unearthed the greatest archeological/biblical find in history.  What he heard break was a ceramic jar.  These jars housed every single Old Testament book (with the exception of Esther) and they were a thousand years older than the Masoretic text.  Hence, scholars now set out to see if the Masorites really did preserve the text.  What did they find?  First, Dead Sea scroll Hebrew doesn’t have vowels so it was different in that regard to the Masoretic text.  Secondly, they found that these scrolls were an almost identical match in the consonantal forms.  Thus, demonstrating that the consonantal transmission of the text withstood the test of time.  To many, including this writer, this is evidence that a power greater than humans is behind the preservation of these documents.  In regards to the word/verse in question, I have not the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls available and am not sure of any Hebrew text of it that are available.  However, translations of it are available.  There is a footnote in the translation that I do have and I will quote it here regarding the verse we are examining.  It reads,”Psalm 22 is a favorite among Christians since it is often linked in the New Testament with the suffering and death of Jesus.  A well-known and controversial reading is found in verse 16, where the Masoretic Text reads, “like a lion are my hands and feet,” whereas the Septuagint has “they have pierced my hands and feet.”  Among the scrolls the reading in question is found only in the Psalms scroll found at Nahal Hever which reads, “They have pierced my hands and my feet!” (7)  In order to be fair, we don’t have the Hebrew available for our own examination, but we will trust that these translators are writing free from theological bias.

In order for us to preserve our theory that the Masorites tweaked the vowels of this passage, we must be able to produce a word that is similar to “to dig or to pierce.”  If this is possible, then we can safely assume that the older Hebrew presented in the Dead Sea Scrolls preserves the original reading of the text which makes it all the more prophetically Messianic.  Such a theory does exist.  The two words that we are looking at are “yrak” vs “wrak.”    All that has to happen to change “to dig” into “like a Lion” is the erasing of half of the last letter.  Notice in the second word listed above that it ends in a “w” and the first word ends with a “y”  The word that ends with a “y” is “like  lion” and the word that ends with the “w” is the verb “to dig.”  As you can see, it would be very simple to erase half of the “w” to make a “y” and then add a few vowel points and “voila” we have changed the meaning of the text. (8)

In conclusion, four ancient manuscripts that pre-date the Masoretic text support the translation, “they pierced my hands and feet.”  The Vulgate, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aramaic Peshitta, and the Greek Septuagint all have verbs that similarly read, “to dig.”  Thus, it must be concluded that the Masoretic text must have something missing in its translation that has caused some ambiguity in the verse.  However, the profoundly Messianic/prophetic picture of this Psalm survives.  It survives in a survey of ancient Old Testament Manuscripts. (9)


  1.  The phrase “ylgdw ydy” I am unable to put the vowel points in because I have not that font on my computer, but the verse is simple enough to explain.  The phrase “ydy” is pronounced “Yadi”.  The word “Yad” is the Hebrew word for hand and the “ee” on the end is an ending that is added to a word to make it “my” You will notice the same ending on the second word.  Notice the “w” called a vav, in front of the second word.  This is called the conjunctive vav and it is the most frequently used Hebrew word of the old testament, over 50,000 times, and it means, and, also, or even.  Thus the phrase is translated “my hands and my feet.”
  2. See Acts 15:17, where James quotes from the Septuagint and states, “mankind” will seek the Lord.  Look it up in your bible and you will see that the Masoretic text will have something different.  It will have “Edom”  Both of these words are based on the same three letter root in Hebrew “mda” James is reading it as “Adam” which can be translated mankind, a very pro Christian standpoint.  While the Masorites, who added the vowels read this as “Edom” by placing different vowels and leaving the same three root consonants.  Thus it changes the meaning to a very pro-Israel statement from a pro Christian one.
  3. Disjunctive Accents: information on these has come from Dr. Russell Fuller’s. “Invitation to Biblical Hebrew” it is a wonderful course complete with DVD lectures, text and workbook.
  4. The Septuagint, as the legend goes, was translated around 250-150 BC in Alexandria by 70 Rabbis; hence , the name Septuagint.  It was developed to assist Jews outside of Israel in learning the law, writings, and prophets in Greek rather than Hebrew.   For more on this see, FF.Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Intra-Varsity Press.  There is also some internal evidence that the translation occured around 114 BC.  At the end of the book of Ester there is a foot note added there which gives us a potential date and time when the “book” or letter was writtem.  It states, “In the fourth year of the reighn of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, Dositheus, who said he was a priest and a Levite, and Ptolemy his son brought in the letter of Purim, which they declared existed, and that Lysimachus, the son of Ptolemy, who was in Jerusalem had translated it.”  This is taken from the Eastern Orthodox Study Bible and their commentary dates this footnote as 10:3k and dates it at 114 BC.
  5. The oldest manuscript, before the advent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was published around the ninth century AD.  Which, from a historical reliability standpoint, is not very good.  The closer a document is to the date of the stuff that it describes, the more “historically reliable” the document is said to be.  Thus, for years, critical scholars doubted the reliability of the Old Testament, until the Dead Sea Scrolls.
  7. Abegg, Marin, Flint, Peter, Ulrich, Eugene, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible, the Oldest Known Bible Translated for the First Time into English., Harper Press, San Francisco, CA, 1999, page 519.
  8. Much of this section was gleaned from:  “Avram Yehoshua at:
  9. Martin Luther was a revolutionary.  One of his many desires, was to produce a German bible in the language of the common folk.  In his day, only the priest who knew Latin, could read the scriptures.  Luther set out to translate it into the language of the commoner.  In the verse in question, Luther translates the verb, “durchgraben” which, I am told by my German speaking friends, literally means “to dig or to tunnel.”  Here we see Luther is preserving the same idea that was put forth by Jerome in the Vulgate.