Skip to main content Skip to footer

Understanding Each Psalm

Academic Newsletter - March 2024

It's cute when a child misunderstands language and, in response to an older sibling's height of "three feet," proudly proclaims: "I have two feet!!"

But it's not cute when the prophets criticize the Israelites with scathing words that they have ignored and distorted God's words.

At Scriptura, we do not argue from theology or later history but from how the contemporary audience would have understood each Psalm.

The Psalms have some difficult texts whose interpretation can be divisive.

Our theological leanings contribute to our ability to do the work well. But they can also be a temptation to impose our theology on the rest of the world. That would not be of service to Bible translation or the global church.

Here's an example from Psalm 22:16 (English). Note the bolded words:

For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet (ESV)

Yes, wild dogs surround me — a gang of evil men crowd around me; like a lion they pin my hands and feet. (NET)

The manuscripts disagree on one particular letter, resulting in two alternative readings: "they have pierced" or "like a lion" — two very different ideas!

Christians have been accused of distorting the text to provide a prophetic allusion to Jesus with the phrase "they have pierced."

The real difficulty is making sense of either reading! What is happening with the hands and feet, whether there's piercing or a lion?!?

How would the contemporary audience have understood this Psalm? What is their theology?

In Psalm 22 (see our Overview video), the psalmist (David) is envisioning his death amid mockers and revilers. Successive images of bulls (v. 12), lions (v. 13), and dogs (v. 16) represent adversaries threatening, attacking, and then scavenging a dead body. However, in verses 20-21, their sequence will be reversed as a sort of "undoing" of the vision of death and humiliation. Here, in verse 16, the theme is death.

Our question is: what is the contemporary evidence for death and public humiliation? Does it have anything to do with lions, piercing, or hands and feet?

When we ask these questions, we come upon the defeat of Saul and Jonathan, whom David loved so much. After their deaths, their bodies were "fastened" to the city wall of Beth Shan for public display, general humiliation, and triumph (1 Sam. 31:8-12).

How does one fasten a dead body to a city wall? If for humiliation, it seems plausible that the hands and feet would be involved somehow, with piercing a possible description of the fastening.

If David is imagining his own dead body receiving the same treatment as Saul and his sons, then we indeed have contemporary evidence for a particular interpretation (piercing, rather than a lion).

In the end, based on the manuscripts, we argued (read the argumentation) and concluded the exegetical issue in favor of "piercing" (see our Exegetical Issues video).

Then, we wrestled to make sense of that reading. That wrestling led to the parallel with Saul and Jonathan.





Exegetical Issues


Scriptura's goal is to keep digging until we can provide a consistent & coherent contemporary interpretation. One we can fully explain based on what we know to have been true at the time of the psalm itself.

If we're faithful there, we will lay a foundation for also understanding New Testament usage (a planned future layer). But first, we must be faithful to the text as originally written and understood because that will best serve Bible translators. 

As mature scholars, we're called never to ignore or distort the text.

We seek to provide the strongest scholarship in order to serve the global church. For the church to worship in spirit and in truth, it needs every part of the body. Our role is informing through scholarship.

Today, we’re reminded of the historical role of public humiliation of a dead body. It prepared for the most glorious day to come.


With blessings on all!

About the author

Elizabeth Robar

CEO and Founder
Scriptura and the Layer by Layer™ projects

How we use cookies

Learn more about how we use cookies to improve your experience.