Psalm 22:16

The Anti-Missionary’s Charge:

The Hebrew Bible correctly translates Psalm 22:16 and says, “They surrounded my hands and feet like a lion.” The word ka’ari clearly means “like a lion” as evident from its use in Isaiah 38:13 and other writings in the King James Version (KJV). David, while being pursued by his enemies, often referred to them as “lions” (see Psalms 7 and 17). Yet, when read out of context and wanting to allude to Jesus, the KJV mistranslates the verse to say, “They pierced my hands and feet.” The passage intentionally makes you think of Jesus.

HaDavar’s Response:

This is a situation where we need not be diverted from the force of the psalm by defendable translations. We can go into all the ins-and-outs of whether the word in question is the noun ari plus the preposition, meaning “like a lion” or whether it is derived from the root cur with a medial aleph meaning “pierced.”[1]

However, we need not do so for the simple reason that the point of the text is not changed no matter what translation decision is adopted. Both translation options are acceptable. There is no problem accepting the translation “like a lion.” This is not “tampering” with the text. This charge is really a non-issue. It is another example of quibbling.

Here is a quote from a good, Bible-believing, conservative, Christian commentary who recognizes the textual issue. This commentator is recognizing and accepting both positions as reasonable.

“The words ‘they have pierced my hands and my feet’ figuratively describe such a tearing as if by animals. Of course in the New Testament, these words in reference to Jesus Christ have greater significance (cf. Luke 24:39-40).”[2]

We do recognize that a Christian translation is going to lean toward “pierced” (New International Version, New American Standard Bible, Revised Standard Version, American Standard Version, and KJV). A Jewish translation is going to lean toward “like a lion” (Jewish Publication Society). The LXX uses a word that means “to dig a trench.” That is graphic, is it not? We all have our theological bias. However, the integrity of the text is not compromised if we are dealing with a translation decision that is possible, defendable, and fits the context. Both renderings do exactly that. However, this word is simply one small detail in the overall message of the psalm itself.

A plea to the reader would be to consider the entire message of the entire psalm rather than fixate on one word that fits either way. Do not make a mountain out of a molehill. Could this be a play on words that is deliberately designed to get the reader to think of mauling and piercing at the same time? That is a distinct possibility, as well. Jesus referred to the psalm during his crucifixion experience (Matt. 27:46, Mk. 15:34). This is what draws our attention to the entire psalm. Actually, Psalm 22:16 is never quoted in the New Testament. The Jewish writers of the gospels saw numerous exact parallels in the psalm to the crucifixion of Jesus. Likewise, the rabbinic writing Yalkut sees Messianic connections in verses 8 and 16.

One of those details is the mauling of the hands and the feet. It does not matter one bit which way we take the word (as a noun or a verb). The fact of the matter is that the hands and feet are injured. The rendering “like a lion” is good because of the animal imagery found throughout the psalm. If a lion bites the hands or feet of a victim, the large canine teeth of the lion would pierce the victim’s hands or feet just like a large Roman nail. The fact that the psalm is considered Messianic is well established in rabbinic material.

Dr. Michael Brown summarizes that material in his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, volume three, pages 118, 121-122:

“Rashi explains verse 26[27] with reference to, ‘the time of our redemption in the days of our Messiah,’ then interprets verses 27-29[28-30] with reference to the Gentile nations turning to the Lord, the end of the age, and the final judgment.


“Pesikta Rabbati, the famous eighth-century midrash, put some of the words of this psalm on the lips of the suffering Messiah (called Ephraim, but associated with the son of David), citing Psalm 22:8, 13, 14, and 16 in the context of Messiah’s sufferings. In fact, the midrash explicitly states that ‘it was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying My strength is dried up like a potsherd (Ps. 22:16).’ Did you catch that? According to this respected Rabbinic homily, David described the Messiah’s sufferings in Psalm 22!


“Let us look at the key texts more fully:


“During the seven year period preceding the coming of the son of David, iron beams will be brought low and loaded upon his neck until the Messiah’s body is bent low. Then he will cry and weep, and his voice will rise to the very height of heaven, and he will say to God: Master of the universe, how much can my strength endure? How much can my spirit endure? How much my breath before it ceases? How much can my limbs suffer? Am I not flesh and blood?


It was because of the ordeal of the son of David that David wept, saying My strength is dried up like a potsherd (Ps. 22:16). During the ordeal of the son of David, the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to him: Ephraim, My true Messiah, long ago, ever since the six days of creation, thou didst take this ordeal upon thyself. At this moment, thy pain is like my pain.


“At these words, the Messiah will reply: ‘Now I am reconciled. The servant is content to be like his Master'” (Pesikta Rabbati 36:2).[3]


It is taught, moreover, that in the month of Nisan the Patriarchs will arise and say to the Messiah: Ephraim, our true Messiah, even though we’re thy forbears, thou art greater than we because thou didst suffer for the iniquities of our children, and terrible ordeals befell thee… For the sake of Israel thou didst become a laughingstock and a derision among the nations of the earth; and didst sit in darkness, in thick darkness, and thine eyes saw no light, and thy skin cleaved to thy bones, and thy body was as dry as a piece of wood; and thine eyes grew dim from fasting, and thy strength was dried up like a potsherd-all these afflictions on account of the iniquities of our children. Pesikta Rabbati 37:1[4]


Ephraim is a darling son to Me…My heart yearneth for him, in mercy I will have mercy upon him, saith the Lord (Jer. 31:20). Why does the verse speak twice of mercy: In mercy I will have mercy upon him? One mercy refers to the time when he will be shut up in prison, a time when the nations of the world will gnash their teeth at him everyday, wink their eyes at one another in derision of him, nod their heads at him in contempt, open wide their lips to guffaw, as is said All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head (Ps.22:8); My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my throat; and thou layest me in the dust of death (Ps. 22:16). Moreover, they will roar over him like lions, as is said They open wide their mouth against me, as a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is become like wax; It’s melted in mine inmost parts (Ps. 22:14-15). Pesikta Rabbati 37:1[5]


“As for Psalm 22:16[17], almost all of the standard medieval Hebrew manuscripts (known as Masoretic) read ka’ari, followed by the words “my hands and my feet.” According to Rashi, the meaning is “as though they are crushed in a lion’s mouth,” while the commentary of Metsudat David states, “They crush my hands and my feet as the lion which crushed the bones of the prey in its mouth.” Thus, the imagery is clear: These lions are not licking the psalmist’s feet! They are tearing and ripping at them.[6] Given the metaphorical language of the surrounding verses (cf. cc. 12-21[13-22]), this vivid image of mauling lions graphically conveys the great physical agony of the sufferer. Would this in any way contradict the picture of a crucified victim, his bones out of joint, mockers surrounding him and jeering at him, his garments stripped off of him and divided among his enemies, his feet and hands torn with nails, and his body hung on pieces of wood?[7]


“Actually, the Septuagint, the oldest existing Jewish translation of the Tanakh, was the first to translate the Hebrew as “they pierced my hands and feet” (using the verb oruxan in Greek), followed by the Syriac Peshitta version two or three centuries later (rendering with baz’u). Not only so, but the oldest Hebrew copy of the Psalms we possess (from the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating to the century before Yeshua) reads the verb in this verse as ka’aru (not ka’ari, “like a lion”),[8] a reading also found in about a dozen medieval Masoretic manuscripts-recognized as the authoritative texts in traditional Jewish thought-where instead of ka’ari (found in almost all other Masoretic manuscripts) the texts say either ka’aru or karu.[9] (Hebrew scholars believe this comes from a root meaning “to dig out” or “to bore through.”) So, the oldest Jewish translation (The Septuagint) translates “they pierced”; the oldest Jewish manuscript (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) reads ka’aru, not ka’ari; and several Masoretic manuscripts read ka’aru or karu rather than ka’ari. This is not a Christian fabrication.”[10]

The anti-missionaries try to make the case that Christian translations of Psalm 22:16 contain subtle, intentional, fabrications that are deliberate attempts to get the reader to think of Jesus. However, we believe that when the evidence is examined there are no subtle, intentional fabrications present. We freely admit that the text of Psalm 22:16, as well as the entire Psalm for that matter, definitely makes the reader think of Jesus. Why? Because He, the Messiah of Israel, perfectly fulfilled all that was predicted about His crucifixion. There is no tampering with the text here, only marvelous Divine revelation.

  1. ^ Harris, R. Laird, Archer Gleason L., Waltke, Bruce M, Eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press) 1980
  2. ^ Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1983, 1985), Logos Research Systems Electronic Edition
  3. ^ From the standard translation of William G. Braude, Pesikta Rabbiti: Homiletical Discourses for Festal Days and Special Sabbaths, 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale, 1968), pp. 680-81
  4. ^ Ibid., pp. 685-86
  5. ^ Ibid., 686-87. All of these citations can be found in the useful Internet article on Psalm 22 found on
  6. ^ It should be noted that the reading ka’ari, “like a lion”, is not without problems, since there is no verb in this clause. In other words, the Hebrew literally reads, “like a lion my hands and feet,” necessitating the addition of the words “they are at” in most contemporary Jewish translations. Thus, the NJPSV translates, “Like lions [they maul] my hands and feet” (with reference to Rashi and Isaiah 38:13 in the footnote). Cf. Rozenberg and Zlotowitz, The Book of Psalms, 122, 127. Stone translates, “Like [the prey of] a lion are my hands and my feet.”
  7. ^ This observation undermines the claim of Rabbi Singer that “when the original words of the Psalmist are read, any allusion to a crucifixion disappears” (
  8. ^ Cf. Martin Abegg Jr., Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, eds. and trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible: The Oldest Known Bible (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1999), 519: “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 has ‘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 (abbreviated 5/6HevPs), which reads, “They have pierced my hands and my feet!”
  9. ^ In contrast with this, only one Masoretic manuscript reads ka’aryeh (“like a lion”, ‘aryeh is a variant spelling for ‘ari, “lion”). Delitzsch (Psalms, 1039) points out this same form, and he notes that “perceiving this [difficulty of the translation ‘like a lion’ in the context], the Masora on Isa xxxviii. 13 observes, that k’ari in the two passages in which it occurs (Ps. Xxii. 17, Isa. Xxxviii. 13), occurs in two different meanings, just as the Midrash then also understands k’ri in the Psalm as a verb used of marking with conjuring, magic characters.”
  10. ^ The exact evidence as documented in the standard edition of Kennicot and de Rossi lists seven Masoretic manuscripts reading k’rw, while three other manuscripts have the reading krw in the margins. It has also been pointed out by some scholars that the Hebrew word used for “lion” in Psalm 22:13[14] is the more common ‘aryeh, making it more doubtful that a different form of the word, namely, ‘ari, would be used just two verses later. Yet this is what the normative reading in the Masoretic manuscripts would call for.