Friday, March 18, 2016

Psalm 12:6-7 Commentaries and the Preservation of Words

Psalm 12:6-7 reads:

The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
The exegetical evidence that Psalm 12:6-7 refers to the preservation of the words of Scripture is very strong.  This text receives a chapter in Thou Shalt Keep Them:  A Biblical Theology of the Perfect Preservation of Scripture. Exegetical questions are also discussed in the blog posts here and here.  This post briefly examines a historical question--does the view that Psalm 12:6-7 (Psalm 12:7-8 in Hebrew, since v. 1 is considered to be the title in the Masoretic Text) refers to the preservation of words, rather than to the preservation of the poor and needy of v. 5 (not that God does not care for them also) exist in the history of interpretation?  The following citations from both conservative and liberal commentators, from both those in Christendom and Jewish grammarians, demonstrates that the view that Psalm 12:6-7 promises the preservation of the words of Scripture is by no means a new view.  While the position that words are being spoken of in Psalm 12:7 is the view advocated in some of these commentaries, in others the view that Psalm 12:7 refers to words and some support for this view is provided, while the commentator himself takes a different position for a variety of reasons.

Samuel Terrien, A. D. 2003:
Thanks to the double chiasmus that encircles the core verse, the structure clearly offers its design:
  1. The Duplicity of the Sons of Adam (vv. 2–3)
  2. The False Words (vv. 4–5)
III. The Divine Promise (v. 6)
  1. The Pure Words (vv. 7–8)
  2. The Aberration of the Sons of Adam (v. 9)
An inclusio poetica appears in vv. 2 and 9; Strophe III constitutes the summit of the psalm. Here as elsewhere for the genre of Complaint, Strophes I and II are echoed in Strophes IV and V, as the false words of the human brood are contrasted with the true and pure words of the Lord. Both sets are articulated around the core verse, which is a prophetic oracle introducing the proclamation of confidence. . . . The psalmist . . . knows that the Lord will keep his word (v. 8)

Hans-Joachim Kraus, A. D. 1993:
In תשׁמרם [“thou shalt keep them”] the suffix [“them”] refers to אמרות [“words”] in v. 6.

Charles Briggs, c. A. D. 1907:
אַתָּה [Thou] emph.—תִּשְׁמְרֵם] [“shalt keep them”] . . . J, Aq., Θ [that is, the Latin Version of Jerome, the Greek Version of Aquila, and the Greek Version of Theodotian] agree with H [the Hebrew Masoretic text] and refer [the suffix] of the first [verb] [that is, “them”] to the divine words.

John Wesley, A. D. 1765:
7. Thou shalt keep them—Thy words or promises: these thou wilt observe and keep, both now, and from this generation for ever.

Matthew Poole, c. A. D. 1670:
Thou shalt keep them [Psalm 12:7] . . . Thy words or promises last mentioned, ver. 6. These thou wilt observe and keep (as these two verbs commonly signify) both now, and from this generation for ever.

John Calvin, A. D. 1557:
Some give this exposition of the passage [in Psalm 12:7], Thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words[.]

Michael Ayguan, A. D. 1446:
Keep them: that is, not as the passage is generally taken, (Ay. [Michael Ayguan]) Keep or guard Thy people, but Thou shalt keep, or make good, Thy words . . .Thou shalt keep Thy word[.]

Abraham ibn Ezra, c. A. D. 1148:
Ver. 7. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, &c.] . . . Aben Ezra explains it . . . [of] the words before mentioned . . . God has wonderfully kept and preserved the sacred writings; and he keeps every word of promise which he has made; and the doctrines of the Gospel will always continue from one generation to another[.]
Thus, it is clear that the position that Psalm 12:6-7 refers to the preservation of the Words of Scripture has been held by significant numbers of people in the history of interpretation--Jewish grammarians, Roman Catholics, Reformed Protestants, Arminian Protestants, theological liberals, and theological conservatives have all recognized this position.

(For sources for these citations, please see the original article here.)


Kent Brandenburg said...

No one. No one. No one. Has yet answered the key argument and that is the purposeful gender discordance that is part of Hebrew grammar and syntax. Gender discord almost entirely buttresses "the poor and needy" position and yet once they see gender discord is the purposeful pattern in these very types of passages dealing with scripture, they have nothing to say. Nothing. No one has anything to say. Which says to me that they don't care. They don't care one bit about the truth.

Kent Brandenburg said...

On the other hand, they have no problem calling you "crazy." This is an example of their argument -- "you're crazy." Perhaps next I'll here, "you're of Beelzebub."

Jonathan Speer said...

Ironically, they argue like Trump.

Steven Avery said...

Thanks for this. Back in 2008 I did a little study on many of the references, as well as some of the contra positions. Which Brandon Staggs has kept online (even though the forum is deactivated.)

Psalm 12:7 - the Promise of Preservation

The first 10-12 pages are a little slow, and the simple point that many commentators give a split interpretation is emphasized in a number of posts.

Steven Avery
Dutchess County, NY

KJB1611 said...

Here are the specific words of Ibn Ezra from his commentary on Psalms:

“THOU WILT KEEP THEM. The mem [Heb. “them”] of tishmerem (Thou wilt keep them) most probably refers to The words of the Lord (v. 7 [Heb.])."

Andy Efting said...

I have no doubt that some esteemed commentators have identified the ‘them’ in “thou shalt keep them” as a reference to God’s words rather than the poor and needy; however, John Calvin is not one of them. His entire quote reads as follows:

“Some give this exposition of the passage, Thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words; but this does not seem to me to be suitable. David, I have no doubt, returns to speak of the poor, of whom he had spoken in the preceding part of the psalm.”

I also noticed you left off the marginal comment of the King James translators on this passage as well. :)


weecalvin1509 said...

Hi Kent,

The full quote from John Calvin regarding the application of Psalm 12:7 to the word of God is as follows:

Some give this exposition of the passage, Thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words; but this does not seem to me to be suitable. David, I have no doubt, returns to speak of the poor, of whom he had spoken in the preceding part of the psalm. With respect to his changing the number, (for, he says first, Thou wilt keep them, and, next, Thou wilt preserve him it is a thing quite common in Hebrew, and the sense is not thereby rendered ambiguous. These two sentences, therefore, Thou wilt keep them, and Thou wilt preserve him, signify the same thing, unless, perhaps, we may say that, in the second, under the person of one man, the Psalmist intends to point out the small number of good men.

Whether he is right or not in his interpretation is, of course, another matter.


KJB1611 said...

Dear Colin,

You are correct that Calvin himself does not take the view that I am demonstrating has historical support in this blog post. In the original version of my article ( I had the following sentence:

While this is the position taken in some of these commentaries, in others the view that Psalm 12:7 refers to words and some support for this view is provided, while the commentator himself takes a different position for a variety of reasons.

I actually did not realize until right now that this sentence was not in the text of this post. Not all the commentators that I cited take the view. My point was that it exists in historical theology and is not new, not that it is agreed upon by all even the large majority of commentators.


The margin of the King James states: "Heb. him, every one of them." Every one of the words would be preserved.

Thanks for the comments.

Kent Brandenburg said...


I will note that no one has still answered the crux of the issue, that is, what does "them" refer to? The gender discordance is foundational, as Bro Ross's quote of Ibn Ezra says. Proximity says words, gender says words. Thou shalt keep words. This isn't the proof text of perfect preservation, but the ignorance of what I'm talking about says that people don't care about the scriptural presupposition. They are dedicated to textual criticism, not the doctrine of scripture. By faith we understand....

Andy Efting said...

Re: Calvin - It certainly looks like you are citing him as an example of someone who takes your position but misrepresenting him by not including the full quote. It makes me wonder about some of these others, too. It's not clear to me, for example, that Terrien takes your position, based solely on what you have quoted.

Re: KJV -- the margin indicates that the "them" in their translation refers to a person, a "him" and not the words. I don't see how you can read what they wrote and get that it supports your position.

Kent -- we care we just don't agree with you.

Jon Gleason said...

It's obviously both. Obviously the Lord preserves the needy forever, and obviously He does so by His words, so obviously He preserves them forever so that they will not return void.

Maybe the Hebrew is not absolutely clear in distinguishing this because it is intended for us to understand the link between the preservation of the oppressed of His people and the preservation of His Word. Maybe we aren't supposed to try to parse this out, but to see it as a whole. When I look at the Psalm in its entirety, that's what I see.

The wicked work and speak words against the faithful. God works and speaks words, and God's words will prevail and be preserved as the means to preserve His people. The right answer is that both God's words and God's people will be preserved, and that, I am persuaded, is the message of Psalm 12:7.

Kent Brandenburg said...


Thomas cited John Calvin, circa 16th century, as saying,

"Some give this exposition of the passage [in Psalm 12:7], Thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words[.]"

Calvin thinks enough of it to write, to publish, that some give it that exposition. He is validating its historicity. You are saying Thomas is lying and saying that John Calvin took the same position. Did John Calvin write it? If John Calvin didn't write it, it would be a lie. If John Calvin wrote it, but Thomas said someone else did, it would be a lie. That John Calvin wrote it isn't a lie. Since what you read isn't a lie, you are only speculating that it is a lie.

I see, by the way the KJV translators wrote it, as saying "words," or else why would they write "every one of them." They are explaining that "him" means "every one of them" as an explanation for "them." It reads like they are explaining the Hebrew grammar of it. They translated it "them," which in English sounds like it is referring to "words."

You can say you "disagree," Andy, but usually when someone "disagrees" he offers at least an explanation. You don't say "gender discordance," as a basis for your position, and then find out that gender discordance is purposeful grammatically in those passages, and go quiet. You have some 'splainin' to do at least. I hear no 'splainin' from anyone. I hear silence, which means that they know that their "best" and crucial argument has been burned to a crisp. Not saying anything means, "I don't care what the grammar is and I don't care what the passage actually says." That has been my experience with anyone on any issue where this kind of thing happens.

Kent Brandenburg said...


By the way, I think that Calvin didn't understand gender discordance. I don't believe he was closed off by history, but if someone else showed him the Hebrew examples, he would have folded underneath that. That at least must be taken into consideration.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Andy,

This post is somewhat abridged from my original article on the subject on my website. To avoid giving anyone a cause to stumble, I have added a sentence to the blog post, a sentence which is very similar to what I already had stated in the original article. I've added:

While the position that words are being spoken of in Psalm 12:7 is the view advocated in some of these commentaries, in others the view that Psalm 12:7 refers to words and some support for this view is provided, while the commentator himself takes a different position for a variety of reasons.

I trust that this takes care of your objection and that no ground for in accusation of dishonesty is any longer available. My point with the Calvin quote was simply that he was aware of the view that the verse refers to the preservation of words. This view has existed for many centuries. That is all that the post is concluding, and it is doing so legitimately.

KJB1611 said...

Dear Andy,

One more thing. The only point of the marginal note in the KJV is that Hebrew masculine singular pronoun is employed. The marginal note by no means proves that the KJV translators thought that the reference was to the poor and needy. If you want to make this argument, please tell me what masculine singular English pronoun they were supposed to use instead of "him" to make the point that a masculine singular Hebrew pronoun is found in the verse. Thanks.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Bro Gleason,

I like your position better than the just ignore it position. However, I don't think there is purposeful ambiguity here. I believe there is purposeful gender discordance. I believe you are correct that it is the preservation of both, the poor and needy and His Words, but the grammar actually isn't ambiguous. I might write on this, just so that people can silently disagree and not say anything, because they have to keep poor and needy in play for the preservation of textual criticism. I know they are not you.

Andy Efting said...

Thomas -- thanks for that clarification. I think your addition is helpful to alleviate any misunderstanding.

Regarding the KJV translators -- why would they bother to specify the Heb if it was not to clarify that they viewed the reference of "them" to be a person rather than a thing? It just goes to show that what seems obvious to one person isn't always to another.

Kent -- Grammatical arguments regarding gender tend to be rather weak for deciding a wide variety of issues, not just this one. Seems like there are always exceptions and in the end I don't feel like they are very helpful. In the end context is king and my point in commenting was not to argue for my position or against yours.


KJB1611 said...

Dear Andy,

Thanks for the comment about the clarification.

Unlike the NIV, the King James Bible is a very literal translation. Since a Hebrew masculine singular is translated as a plural in English, the King James marginal note informs the reader about this translation decision. Many modern versions would do this without batting an eye, but the KJV does not do so. That is why the marginal notice there.

I would still like to know what English masculine singular pronoun the King James was supposed to use besides "he."

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Andy,

The "poor and needy" supporters have so much buttressed their point on the pronoun and yet you say "no" to that. I see this as a recent development without explaining really why. The article by Douglas Kutilek has been a common go-to one for Psalm 12 -- -- and yet he has never rescinded that point. He overrules proximity with gender. You are saying gender doesn't matter. If that's the case, you revert back to proximity. Look to the closest antecedent. I would be looking for why Kutilek's point doesn't stand, and that side leaves crickets. The silence says a lot and silence continues.

Jon Gleason said...

Kent, I prefer to see it as "purposeful synergy" of the two messages rather than a "purposeful ambiguity" between them. The purpose, and the absolute necessity, of Scripture preservation on this earth is its efficacy in the life of believers.

The two are inextricably linked. By the preservation of His Word He preserves His people. By/through the preservation of His churches He has preserved His Word. This passage links the two truths together.

Of course the gender discordance is purposeful! This is inspired Scripture and every word, tense, etc. is purposeful. Obviously we're agreed on that. We just might differ on how we understand the purpose here.

The word order tells us the preservation of the words is in view. The entire context of the Psalm tells us that the preservation of the godly is in view. The God who sovereignly ordained the development of Hebrew grammar brought this use of gender discordance into being intentionally. The quirks of Hebrew and Greek are not accidents, they are there to serve His purposes. And He used it here to permit us to see the preservation in this verse as applying to both. Or at least that's how I see it.

It seems to me that those who wish to undermine the doctrine of preservation of Scripture have created a false dichotomy here by splitting between these two great truths and we should not let them pull us into that error.

Larry said...

I confess that I have never quite understood the angst over this passage. It seems as if it could hardly be clearer. In this psalm, the only things in danger of perishing are the godly man, the faithful. Therefore, the only promise of preservation that makes sense in the context is a promise regarding the only things in danger, namely the faithful, the godly man. The promise is the that godly man, the faithful, will not perish from the earth. The guarantee of that is the word of the Lord promising safety in v. 5 is trustworthy (v. 6).

There gender issues may be best explained by a chiasm. In v. 1 is the singular (godly), the plural (faithful) that is perishing. In v. 7 it is the plural that is kept (the faithful), and the singular that is preserved (the godly).

If we read the whole psalm in its context, we would scarcely think that the word is in danger of perishing and therefore in need of keeping. Furthermore, the view that the words are being kept creates a structural problem in that two things are perishing but only one (or none) of those things is being preserved. In a proper contextual interpretation, two things are perishing (v. 1) and two things are preserved (v. 7).

To try to make this a promise of preservation of the word is to make the psalm about something the psalm isn't about. The psalmist is not questioning whether the word will perish, but whether the godly will. The answer is no.

Appealing to "purposeful gender discord" would seem to require some statement of intent or purpose. Perhaps we can say that gender discord is common, but purposeful goes beyond that, and I don't think that that be sustained apart from a statement of purpose. But even that is secondary to the context.

In interpretation, context is king. In this context, there are two things in danger of perishing (and neither is the word) and there are two things that are being kept. The number is explained by a chiasm of sing/plur then plur/sing. That actually is a common poetic structure.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Larry,

I believe context and grammar point to "words." Grammatical clues lead one to see the chiasm of the psalm as asymmetric, like this.

A. Psalm 12:1
B. Psalm 12:2-4
C. Psalm 12:5
B. Psalm 12:6-7
A. Psalm 12:8

Psalm 12:2-4 speak of the words of the ungodly and Psalm 12:6-7 speak of the Words of God. Both Psalm 12:1 and 12:8 recognize the need of divine help. Psalm 12:5 is the promise of God. And here's a big tip on this asymmetric structure. V. 1 and v. 8 end with the same exact word in the Hebrew text, the Hebrew word for "man," adam.

That last sentence is key here related to the structure and the grammar, a verbal 'tip,' so to speak.

I would want people to admit, at least, that the gender of the pronoun doesn't prove anything, but I still get silence on that, which seems lawyerly at least, as if winning the case is what is most important. In no way does gender rule out an antecedent, and when it comes to the Word of God in particular, this occurs multiple times as purposeful discordance.

I don't think the idea is that the God's Words have any threat of perishing, but that they are more trustworthy and long lasting, eternal, than man's words. He can say what he wants, but his words pass away, like heaven and earth, by the way. When a man feels threatened, because of the words of man, he can trust in the Words of God. Look how many references there are to words in the Psalm. You can see this.

There is a "rule of proximity" with pronouns and their antecedents. It is not hard pressed. You'll find exceptions, but it is a rule found in many grammars in many various languages.

Steven Avery said...

> Kent:
> I see, by the way the KJV translators wrote it, as saying "words," or else why would they write "every one of them." They are explaining that "him" means "every one of them" as an explanation for "them." It reads like they are explaining the Hebrew grammar of it. They translated it "them," which in English sounds like it is referring to "words."


As I wrote back in 2010:

"The KJB superb note is simply the technical grammatical form, and this works fine for pointing to words and/or people.

Isaiah 53:9 is a similar example. The fact that the Hebrew grammatical form there is a plural does not rule the interpretation."


The additional point of Kent is well taken. They specifically did not translate "preserve him" because in English that masculine would have been people.

Steven Avery