What is the correct translation of Psalm 22:16?
Question: "What is the correct translation of Psalm 22:16? Should Psalm 22:16 say 'pierced' or 'lion'?"
Answer: Psalm 22:16 reads, “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.” The phrase “pierced my hands and feet” along with the context, is likely the clearest prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some propose, however, that Psalm 22:16 should read, “like a lion, they are at my hands and feet.” So, does Psalm 22:16 truly prophesy the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross?
What causes such confusion is that the two Hebrew words for “pierced” and “lion” are remarkably similar. All that separates the two Hebrew words is the length of an upright vowel stroke. A majority of Hebrew manuscripts, from the Masoretic text, of Psalm 22 have the “lion” reading, while a minority of manuscripts contain the “pierced” reading. However, which reading is in the majority is not always the deciding factor in determining which reading is correct. For example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which predate most other Hebrew texts by over a thousand years, note that the term is unmistakably “pierced.” In addition, the oldest Syriac, Vulgate, Ethiopic, and Arabic versions also go with “pierced.” The same is true in the Septuagint, the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which was completed approximately 200 years before the birth of Christ.
So, even though the Hebrew manuscripts that say “lion” outnumber the manuscripts that say “pierced,” the older Hebrew manuscripts, and manuscripts in other languages that predate most of the Hebrew manuscripts, strongly argue for “pierced” being the correct reading. Those who argue for “lion” typically claim that “pierced” is a corruption, inserted by Christians, in an attempt to create a prophecy about Jesus. However, the fact that there are many manuscripts that predate Christianity that have the “pierced” reading disproves this concept. In fact, it is more likely that the “lion” reading in the Masoretic Hebrew text is the corruption, as the Masoretic manuscripts predominantly date to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, after Christianity was established, giving the Jews a reason to conceal what the Hebrew Scriptures predict regarding Jesus Christ.
The prophets foretold the manner in which Jesus was to die. They knew that in some way His blood would be shed because “life is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11). Because we are sinners and are subject to death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23), in God’s divine plan, Jesus was to give His life (or blood), in order that we might live (Matthew 20:28; Matthew 26:28; Romans 3:21–26). In light of this, Isaiah said, “He was pierced for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). Zechariah prophesied, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10; compare John 19:37).
Although nowhere in the New Testament is Psalm 22:16 quoted, most scholars agree that this passage provides us a preview of Christ’s death on the cross. It is clear that only those who deny the inspiration of the New Testament writers fail to see that this passage points to the manner of Christ’s death. Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was quoted by Christ as He hung on that cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Verses 7–8 graphically portray His actual suffering (Luke 23:35; Matthew 27:39, 43). Verse 18 shows the Roman soldiers gambling for His clothes (compare Matthew 27:35). It is in this context that we read, “They have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16).
Two things about all this solidify for us that “pierced” is the correct translation: 1) within its context, this word makes sense of the whole passage and agrees with the rest of Scripture, and 2) the mere fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls support this rendering and none other, especially that of “lion,” leaves no doubt that our modern versions have it right.
There is no question that Psalm 22:16 is an implicit foretelling of the crucifixion of Jesus. Our modern Bible versions have correctly translated this passage as: “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.”
Recommended Resource: God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ by Stephen Wellum
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Questions about Psalms
What is the correct translation of Psalm 22:16?