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God’s Word for You

Psalm 22:16 They have pierced

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, April 3, 2023

16 Dogs have surrounded me.
  A band of evil men has encircled me,
  they have pierced my hands and my feet.

This passage takes us once again from David’s troubles in the tenth century BC to the cross with a clear and vivid connection. The Lord’s moment of crucifixion is depicted, the actual driving in of the nails into his hands and feet. The risen Christ showed these hands and feet to prove his identity to the disciples (Luke 24:40).

The scene was evidently this: As with the two criminals, Jesus was taken by the soldiers and forced to lie down. He may have been shoved to the ground and briefly given what may have seemed like a rest (he had been on his feet for many hours, even while being whipped and beaten). But the moment of rest on the ground was no rest at all. Cruelly, it was only to get him in place for the crucifixion. His hands were stretched out onto the wood of the cross. Something like a 4x4 (twice the thickness of a modern construction plank) served. He may have been tied to the wood to hold him in place; some ancient artwork supports this idea. But we certainly know that he was then nailed with long spikes driven through his hands. The spikes served to immobilize his hands and arms as well as inflicting terrible pain. First one hand and then the other were driven through in this way. After this, his feet would have been nailed, either with one nail through both feet or separate nails (the text does not say).

After this, the band of evil men would have hefted the cross upright. One ancient Church father depicts the machinery of crucifixion in a poetic manner that may help us to understand this: “For you are stones of the Father’s temple, prepared for the building set up by God our Father, lifted to the heights by the machine of Jesus Christ (that is, the cross) using the Holy Spirit for a rope. Your faith is the windlass, and love is the road that leads up to God.” However we understand these details, the cross would have been lifted to the vertical and then set into a fitted hole in the ground with wedges pounded in to keep it stable.

There is a translation question in this verse that most readers of modern translations will be aware of. Do the Hebrew letters כארו form a verb, or a noun? All ancient versions, whether written by Jews or Christians, accept this as a verb and not a noun, with the one exception of the usual Hebrew edition used by students and translators today called the Masoretic Text. There is a question about what the verb is. It might be “pierce,” “dig,” “bind,” “fasten” or the participle “they are piercing.” The later Masoretic edition (the one we use for translating today) repoints this word as a noun: “like a lion.” The odd thing about this is that, while the letters could spell such a term, the verse demands an action word here (what do they do to his hands and feet?) and not a random noun that has no place at all in the sentence. Our WELS commentator on this verse, Dr. John Brug, said: “This reading (“like a lion”), which eliminates any possibility of a reference to crucifixion, was finalized long after Christ fulfilled this prophecy. It is possible that polemics between Christians and Jews had an influence on the Masoretes’ (Jewish scribes’) pointing of this word” (Psalms Vol. I, p. 281). Martin Luther also believed that the text had been altered to deny messianic implications.

Making the word into a noun as it appears in the Masoretic text and following the existing accentuation means that the phrase would have to be translated either “My hands and feet (are) like a lion,” or “Like a lion my hands and feet.” In the context of the Psalm, of the man’s bones being out of joint and his strength at an end and so on, to say that his hands and feet are powerful like a lion’s is out of the question. But to make sense of the other possibility (which is mentioned by most footnotes) is ridiculous. The whole question forces a genuine translator to consider that David lost all sense of grammar for a moment to say something as meaningless as, “I’m going up to giraffe the parking village.”

Or, to put it another way, it is as if the Masoretes have joined in with the chief priests and scribes of Jesus’ day, spewing out nonsense and false accusations at the Savior as he suffers on the cross. The devil wants us to get bogged down in the text with his little joke so that we miss the point. Well, enough of that. Go away, Satan. The text means this:

  A band of evil men has encircled me,
  they have pierced, crucified, my hands and my feet!

This they did out of jealousy, spite, and any number of other sins. But he allowed it to happen out of love. Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they are doing. Do not let us become distracted by their idiotic words while our Savior bleeds for us. Lead us to fix our eyes on him and close our ears to them. In him we have forgiveness and everlasting life.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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