Where did it originate and what does the noun “pricks” refer to? Is it a biblical phrase or is it a 19th century term?
In Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language, the noun prick is defined as “a slender pointed instrument or substance, which is hard enough to pierce the skin, such as a goad or a spur.” You may be acquainted with a prickly pear, which is a cactus with very sharp spines, or pricks. In New Testament times goads, which were thin metal rods with pointed ends were used to goad or prick the animals that were being driven or herded, to help them keep up the pace. The cowboy’s spurs are used for the same purpose.
The noun prick is used one time in the Old Testament—
But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwelt. (Num 33:55).
Here, the noun pricks is used as a synonym to the word thorns. The word pricks is translated from the Hebrew, sek, meaning thorn. The word. thorn, in the same passage, is translated from the Hebrew, gots, also meaning thorn, or thornbush.
In the New Testament the term is used only twice. In both cases, Paul is quoting the Savior, whom he saw in a vision while on the road to Damascus intent on persecuting the saints—
And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5).
And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks (Acts 26:14).
President Spencer W. Kimball had this to say:
“I often wondered just what this meant. I found one authority who offered this:
‘ . . Those who kick at the goad, that stifle and smother the convictions of conscience, that rebel against God’s truths laws, that quarrel with His providences, that persecute and oppose His ministers, because they reprove them . . . and fly in the face of their reprovers, they kick against the pricks, and will have a great deal to answer for.’ (Commentaries by Henry M. Scott.)
“A goad is defined as a spear or a sharp pointed stick used to sting or prig. The burro who kicks the sharp instrument with which he is being prodded is kicking at the pricks. His retaliation does little damage to the sharp stick or to him who wields it but brings distress to the foot that kicks it.
“I well remember in my youth a neighbor who moved about some days on crutches. He was evasive when asked the cause of his misfortune, but an ear witness told me, as he chuckled: ‘John stubbed his toe on a chair in the night and in his quick, fierce anger, he kicked the chair and broke his toe.’ The rocking chair rocked on and on, and perhaps smiled at the stupidity of man.” (Conference Report, April 1955, p. 94.)
He also said:
“In this figure of speech is captured the essence of rebellion against God; we can only hurt ourselves. If one is pricked by a goad and angered by the pain, he may foolishly strike out at the source of irritation, only to suffer even more.” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 305.)
As a child, I lived in an area where there were many prickly pears, and I have kicked them wearing tennis shoes. Some of the spines penetrated the shoes and stuck in my toes. Those spines are endowed with little barbs along the shafts that make them almost impossible to pull out, and so they work their way through the flesh, coming out on the other side. I have since retained a graphic image of the Savior’s statement, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.