My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? . . . Dogs have surrounded Me; a band of evil men has encircled Me, they have pierced My hands and My feet. I can count all My bones; people stare and gloat over Me. They divide My garments among them and cast lots for My clothing (Ps. 22:1,16-18).
Psalm 22 begins as an anguished prayer (vv.1-21) and ends as a hymn of praise (vv.22-31). Written by David, possibly in connection with the rebellion led by his son Absalom, it is beautifully poetic, rich in word pictures, and balanced in experience. Beginning in agony, it ends with a wonderful expression of God’s goodness to those who fear Him.
The point of contention arises when Christians relate elements of David’s suffering in Psalm 22 to the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. New Testament writers connect this psalm with Jesus’ crucifixion at least 12 times (Mt. 27:35,39,43,46; Mk. 15:24,29,34; Lk. 23:34; Jn. 19:23-24,28,34,37; Heb. 2:12). They see the gambling for Jesus’ clothing, the shaking of heads in ridicule, the expression of His thirst, and His cry of abandonment as foreshadowed in Psalm 22.
These New Testament references to Psalm 22 anger those who reject the idea that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy in any way. They use this passage as a prime example of how dishonest followers of Jesus attempt to paint Jesus back into the Old Testament Scriptures. As evidence, they highlight the words “they have pierced My hands and My feet” (Ps. 22:16) and they point out that the Hebrew word Christians have translated “pierced” in verse 16 really means “like a lion.” Because Christian translators rendered the same word “like a lion” in Isaiah 38:13, critics charge translators with deceit.
The fact is that Christian translators are not alone in translating Psalm 22:16 as they do. Some Hebrew manuscripts and the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament produced by Alexandrian Jews in 250 BC) support the reading “they have pierced my hands and my feet.” The Jewish scholar Aquila, who produced a Greek version of the Old Testament about AD 120 to correct the mistakes in the Septuagint, rendered Psalm 22:16, “they disfigured my hands and my feet” (Bible Encyclopedia And Dictionary, A. R. Fausset, Zondervan, p.525).
Therefore, while the Masoretic text, compiled by 10th-century Jewish scholars, reads, “like a lion,” it is not at all certain that this is the correct reading. The Hebrew word for “like a lion” and the one for “pierced” or “disfigured” differ only in the length of the last line in the last letter. The scribes who made handwritten copies of the Hebrew manuscripts were very careful, but apparently some of them copied the last line of this word differently than others did.
Maybe the translators were wrong. Maybe not. We don’t know. No one does. But to charge them with deliberate mistranslation is to say far more than what is known.
Christians believe that the suffering of David at the hands of his enemies foreshadowed the suffering of Jesus. But we can’t be sure exactly what happened to David. Did men at some point gamble for his clothing? (Ps. 22:18; Mt. 27:35). Did bystanders shake their heads in ridicule? (Ps. 22:7; Mk. 15:29). Did David experience intolerable thirst? (Ps. 22:15; Jn. 19:28). Possibly, but probably not. No known interpreters, Jewish or Christian, make that claim. All see the psalm as poetic, with much hyperbole and figurative language. But the details correspond strikingly with those of the crucifixion. It is therefore possible that David in his suffering was lifted by the Spirit beyond his own experience to mysteriously taste and describe in a limited way the suffering of the King he served.
It remains for honest seekers to decide whether the Gospel writers contrived this whole scenario or reported the facts as they remembered them.