For my weekly quiet time today, I’ll be blogging about Psalm 22 and its interpreters.
For Christians, I’m probably a week late, for Psalm 22 is a Psalm that’s read on Good Friday, as elements of Psalm 22 are considered to be a prophecy of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 on the cross in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, and John 19:24 applies Psalm 22:18 to the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ robe. For Jews who observe Purim (which was March 19-20 this year), however, I’m more than a month late, for, on Purim, Jews relate Psalm 22 to the story of Esther and God’s deliverance of the Jewish people from their enemies who sought to annihilate them.
In this post, I’ll address three issues:
1. Did the Psalmist in Psalm 22 consider himself a sinner—which would be problematic for Christians who treat Psalm 22 as a prophecy about Jesus Christ, whom they regard as sinless? Christians were the very ones who wrestled with this issue, for they used the Septuagint. In the Masoretic Text for Psalm 22:1, the Psalmist says that God is far from his salvation, the words of his groaning. The word for “my groaning” in the Hebrew text is sha-agti. The Septuagint, however, sees that as shagati, “my transgression”, and so the translator for the Septuagint thinks that the Psalmist in v 1 means that the account of his transgressions is far from his salvation. (I draw here from Brenton’s translation.) The implication is probably that the Psalmist’s guilt from his transgressions is hindering God from saving him.
Augustine’s solution to this problem was that v 1 is the speech of the old man whom Jesus Christ bore on the cross. In this view (if I’m understanding it correctly), Jesus was identifying with sinners on the cross, and so he speaks as if he were a sinner, when he actually was not. The fourth century Antiochian exegete, Theodore of Mopsuestia, had a different point of view, however. Theodore did not think that Psalm 22 was a prophecy about Jesus Christ, but rather that it concerned David’s afflictions during the rebellion of Absalom, which were God’s punishment of David for his sin with Bathsheba. Theodore maintains that Jesus quoted the Psalm to express his piety and his feelings about his passion, but that the Psalm itself was not a prophecy of Jesus’ crucifixion. Theodore’s position was condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople, and by Pope Nigilius in the sixth century C.E. The church did not restrict Psalm 22’s application to Christ’s, but it rejected Theodore’s position that it was not a prophecy about Jesus.
2. In Jewish-Christian debates, v 16 is an important verse. The Masoretic has “like a lion (ka-ari) my hands and my feet”, whereas the Septuagint has “they pierced my hands and feet”. And even this point is a generalization, for there are Masoretic manuscripts that have ka’aru or karu (which are verbs) rather than ka-ari (“like a lion”); the Dead Sea Scrolls also have the verb ka-aru.
I’ve heard evangelical Christians wax eloquent about how v 16 is obviously a prophecy about Jesus Christ. Their spiel goes like this: “There was no crucifixion in the time that this Psalm was written, so how could the Psalmist talk about a man’s hands and feet being pierced? He must have been divinely inspired, which was how he saw the future! V 16 is proof that the Psalm was prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus! The Bible is obviously God’s word because it made a prediction that came to pass, and Jesus is obviously the Messiah because he was predicted centuries before in the Old Testament. ” And there are Jewish apologists who lean hard on v 16 having ka-ari, “like a lion”, rather than a verb for piercing. Because “like a lion my hands and my feet” makes little sense, some Jewish interpreters supply other words into the verse to produce something coherent. The medieval Jewish exegete Rashi, for example, interprets v 16 to mean that the Psalmist’s hands and feet are like a lion’s prey. Then there are Jewish interpretations that don’t regard ka-ari as “like a lion”. The medieval Midrash on the Psalms includes the view that the word is related to ka-ar—which means repulsive—indicating that v 16 is saying that the Psalmist’s hands and feet are repulsive. Another view in Midrash on the Psalms read ka-ari in light of the Greek word chara—which means “blessing”—the meaning here being that the Psalmist’s enemies were favored at his hands and his feet. A Jewish professor of mine emended the text to karu, “to tie up”.
But there are times when a Christian interpreter may prefer “like a lion” in v 16, whereas a Jewish interpreter rejects that interpretation. E.W. Bullinger, for example, reads v 16 in light of Isaiah 38:13, which is the only other place that the Hebrew Bible has ka-ari. (Numbers 24:9 and Ezekiel 22:25 also have it, but, there, the vowel under the k is different from what Isaiah 38:13 and Psalm 22:16 have.) Isaiah 38:13 says “like a lion thus he will break all my bones”, and Bullinger thinks that we should supply ye-shaver (“he will break) for Psalm 22:16. But Michael Brown quotes Franz Delitzsch’s commentary on the Psalms, which states that a Masoretic note indicates that the Masoretes thought that we should not assume that Isaiah 38:13 and Psalm 22:16 mean the same thing (“like a lion”) by ka-ari. Delitzsch refers to a midrash that interprets k’ry “in the Psalm as a verb used of marking with conjuring, magic characters.” The Midrash must regard ka-ari as related to applying pressure to the hands and the feet, but not as a thorough piercing through them. Rather, in this view, it’s inscribing magic characters on them.
I’m probably coming across as someone who views the Jewish interpretations as a stretch, as if the obvious meaning of Psalm 22:16 is “they pierced my hands and feet.” But my impression is that we really don’t know what ka-aru (the verb in several Masoretic manuscrips and the Dead Sea Scrolls) means, for the root only appears in Psalm 22:16. So where did the Septuagint get “they pierced”? Maybe ka-aru indeed means “they pierced”, but, alternatively, the Septuagint could have drawn from Hebrew manuscripts that had the word k-r-h (“dig”), or k-w-r (“pierce, bore”). (Peter Craigie mentions these possibilities in his commentary on Psalms 1-50.)
The Intervarsity Press Bible Background Commentary is instructive in its comments on this verse. It doesn’t seem to care for “pierced” because “The Hebrew verb, traditionally translated as ‘pierced,’ occurs only here and can only be translated that way if it is emended.” It doesn’t care for “like a lion” because some scholars have interpreted that to mean that the Psalmist’s hands and feet are tied to a pole “as a captured lion would be”, when there is no evidence that lions were transported in that manner. This commentary looks to Syrian and Akkadian cognates that mean “shrink or shrivel” and refers to Akkadian medical texts that describe the hands and feet as shrunken. And perhaps that interpretation is right, for vv 15-17 do seem to describe the Psalmist as diseased, in some manner.
3. What I like about Psalm 22 is that it’s about the Psalmist drawing on the accounts of God’s deliverance in the past for his comfort, and also hoping to become a testimony to God’s deliverance for his descendants. It’s interesting (and cozy) to envision people talking about God’s work in the life of their great-great grandfather, who passed on his heritage of faith to his children.