Preservation and Psalm 12:6-7

There is a controversy concerning this passage. Before we deal with that controversy, let us consider the context of this passage.

{1} To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. {2} They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. {3} The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: {4} Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us? {5} For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him. {6} The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. {7} Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. {8} The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted. -Psalm 12 (emphasis added).

David is comparing the words of the ungodly with the words of God. He is telling what the words of the ungodly will do to Godly people and how God will deal with them. God says he will protect the needy and stop the ungodly. David then says that God’s words are pure, indicating that what God protects are His pure words. He then says that God will preserve them.

Here is the controversy. Does the “them” that God will preserve apply to His Words or to the poor and needy? Well it can be read either way. Briefly, the pronoun “them” is masculine while the antecedent (the word to which the pronoun refers), “words” is feminine. The next previous antecedent, “the needy” is masculine, so one argument states that the masculine pronoun “them” belongs to the masculine antecedent “the needy,” making David say that God will preserve the poor and needy. This argument, as far as it goes, is on solid ground. Certainly, the pronoun and antecedent should match.

In English, when speaking of a woman, assuming her name is Agnes, the feminine pronoun would always be used with the name Agnes when referring to this woman. One would not say, “The balloon belongs to Agnes and he will hold it.” The correct statement would be, “The balloon belongs to Agnes and she will hold it.” Antecedent and pronoun agree: Agnes is feminine and so is ‘she’. However, In English the gender of most nouns is not nearly as substantial as in Greek or Hebrew. We usually refer to a ship as feminine (“She’s a great ship, is the USS George Washington!”), but that is by no means a hard and fast concept. In many languages most words are associated with gender, so antecedent-pronoun agreement is usually required. In Biblical Hebrew a word is either masculine or feminine; there is no neuter gender in Hebrew.

There is a rub, however. In many cases the Hebrew writer will use a feminine pronoun with a masculine antecedent (or vice versa) to make the point stronger. David is certainly making a strong case here. He may have added emphasis by using the feminine emrah (words) instead of the masculine emer for the antecedent “words.” If this is the case, then David is saying that God will preserve His Words. There are several examples in the Psalms of the mismatch of gender between antecedent and pronoun. Let me quote Dr. Thomas Strouse, of Emmanuel Baptist Theological Seminary:

“Next, [Academic Dean William Combs in an article for the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Journal] argues that the grammar of [Psalm 12] vv. 6-7 is against the word preservation interpretation. Instead, the gender differences between the masculine plural pronominal suffix ‘them’ and its antecedent feminine plural ‘words’ forces one to look for another antecedent which is masculine plural (i.e., ‘poor’ and ‘needy’ in v. 5). “However two important grammatical points overturn his argument. First, the rule of proximity requires ‘words’ to be the natural, contextual antecedent for ‘them.’ Second, it is not uncommon, especially in the Psalter, for feminine plural noun synonyms for the ‘words’ of the Lord to be the antecedent for masculine plural pronouns/pronominal suffixes, which seem to ‘masculinize’ the verbal extension of the patriarchal God of the Old Testament. Several examples of this supposed gender difficulty occur in Psm. 119. In verse 111, the feminine plural ‘testimonies’ is the antecedent for the masculine plural pronoun ‘they.’ Again, in three passages the feminine plural synonyms for ‘words’ have masculine plural pronominal suffixes (vv. 129, 152, 167). These examples include Psm. 119:152 (‘Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou has founded them for ever’)…”

Dr. Strouse shows several incidences in the Psalms where the feminine synonyms for ‘words’ become the antecedents for masculine pronouns. The reason for this is not to show God, who is masculine, in a feminine sense. The passages where this happens are listed in the quote. Note that all of his examples are from Psalm 119, which was written exclusively about the Word of God.

Dr. Strouse also discusses another grammatical tenet called the rule of proximity. This rule states that the nearest antecedent is usually the one associated with a particular pronoun. In Psalm 12:6-7 the nearest antecedent to ‘them’ is the noun, ‘words’. It is natural and contextual. One must look too far afield to find another antecedent for ‘them’ in v. 7. It is not natural or contextual to assign the poor to the pronoun ‘them’.

So there is a case for both arguments. Can we find a tie-breaker? Yes, at least two.

The theme of the entire psalm is words. David speaks of the words of men and the words of God more that he speaks of the poor and the needy. The poor and needy accent the theme of words, but the main theme or emphasis is on words. In the first verses, David speaks about the words of men. In fact, he refers to the words of men nine times (speak, lips, speak, lips, tongue, speaketh, said, tongue and lips) in verses 1-4. In verse five he tells of God’s promised deliverance of the Godly. Of that promise (which is God’s Word), David uses the metaphor of purified silver to show the strength and reliability of that promise, which is the Words of God. There is a parallel here that would be left hanging if the preservation referred to the people and not the words. Let me diagram the structure using introversion and alternation to make the point:

        A. Men's words are flattering, deceitful, and proud
               a. Those words are to be cut off
                       1. The humble oppressed 
God will deliver them B. God's Words are pure, tried, and purified seven times a. Those words are preserved forever 1. Like purified silver
They are preserved

Here is another way to view it:

         Men's words are:
                flattering, double hearted, proud
                who have said, "we shall prevail"
                yet they will be cut off
         God's words are:
                Pure, tried, purified seven times
                thou shalt keep them, O Lord,
                thou shalt preserve them from
                this generation for ever 

This makes good sense when poetry is employed instead of prose. The parallel is between the words of men and the Words of God. The first part of the psalm refers to the words of men, words that cannot be relied upon. The second Part refers to God, Words that are eternally true and potent. I believe this parallelism of the poetical structure of the Psalm leaves it in no doubt that David refers to the Words of God when he says they are to be preserved from generation to generation. Amazingly, the NIV shows this parallelism in its interpretation of the poetical structure. Yet, the NIV goes on to say in verse 7, “O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever“, following Modern Textual Criticism.

The second tie-breaker is the traditional understanding of this psalm. Has it been traditionally understood to mean that the people are preserved forever or that the words are preserved forever?

Torch Bible Commentaries, written by J.H. Eaton states: “…but we may rather follow the main Hebrew tradition: “Thou O Lord shalt keep them (i.e. watch over the words to fulfill them…)”

Eaton claims that the main Hebrew tradition is that God will preserve His words rather than He will preserve the poor and needy. The following authorities agree that this passage refers to the words and not the poor and needy: Rabbin Ezra (Aben Ezra) of the 11th Century, Michael Ayguan (14th Century), Martin Luther, Coverdale Bible (16th Century), Geneva Bible (16th Century), Henry Ainsworth (17th Century), and John Wesley (18th Century). Matthew Poole (17th Century) says it can be taken either way.

Even with these tie-breakers, we must accede that there is not a general consensus in Christian circles as to the exact meaning of this passage. Having said that, then we must decide for ourselves which is true.

I opt for the words. I agree with Michael Ayguan, who said, “Keep them: that is, not as the passage is generally taken, Keep or guard Thy people, but Thou shalt keep, or make good, Thy words: and by doing so, shalt preserve him—him, the needy, him, the poor—from this generation.” If God’s words are preserved forever and from generation to generation, then so are His people preserved.

However, there has always been ambiguity in this passage. I believe the ambiguity is placed here because God will preserve both the people, and His words. In fact that is the theme of Peter Van Kleeck, in The Genius of Ambiguity . He summarizes,

“…the only sure conclusion is that there is no consensus within the English Bible tradition for the interpretation of “them” in Psalm 12:7 and it was precisely this lack of agreement within the tradition which was the genius of the ambiguity of the King James Version’s rendering. … by choosing a Greek-Latin basis the modern versions elect to overlook the Reformation’s Hebrew basis for translation in Psalm 12:6-7; and the churchly tradition in the new versions is censored by not including a translation that is broad enough to include both interpretations–oppressed people and God’s words.”

The Bible, as a whole, states that God’s Word endures forever. Here are some further proof texts that God preserves His word:

Ps 100:5 For the LORD is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his truth endureth to all generations.

Ps 119:89 For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.

Ps 119:152 Concerning thy testimonies, I have known of old that thou hast founded them for ever.

Ps 119:160 Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.

Isa 40:8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Isaiah 55:11 “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”

Matthew 24:35 “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.”

1Pe 1:23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.

1Pe 1:25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

Since God’s Word abides forever, and from generation to generation (Psalm 100:5), then that means (at least to me) that His Word is pure (Psalm 12:6) and will be available to all (every, not missing any-Psalm 100:5) generations. My conclusion is that Psalm 12:6-6 simply states the obvious, in agreement with the whole Bible, that the words of God will be preserved forever. And if His words are preserved, then so are the poor and needy.

The Word of God has been preserved so that we in modern times may be assured of the accuracy of the Scriptures. Because they were transmitted to us as handwritten copes of copies, there have been copyist errors in the transmission. Yet, even with copyist errors, the vast majority being insignificant, the true sense of the Scriptures is still preserved. Thus we can depend on it that the Scriptures we have today are absolutely viable for the person of God that he or she “may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim 3:17).”

I do not claim that any translation is 100% perfect. Nevertheless, there are good, not so good, and poor translations out there. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will be able to discern the difference. That is why I have several translations and recommend that you use a variety of translations. For as the preface to the original 1611 King James Version states, “that varietie [variety] of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diuersitie [diversity] of signification and sense in the margine [margin], where the text is not so cleare [clear], must needes [needs] doe [do] good, yea is necessary, as we are perswaded [persuaded].” In other words, there were times that the translators were unsure of their rendering, so they recommend using a variety of translations to get the sense and significance of the Scriptures. In fact they added translation aids and their opinions to the margins to help with our understanding. The translators of the KJV were persuaded that we need to consult a variety of translations to get the real sense of the Scriptures.

This entry was posted in Information, Topical Studies. Bookmark the permalink.