WHY PSALM 12:6,7 IS NOT A
PROMISE OF THE
INFALLIBLE PRESERVATION OF SCRIPTURE
By Doug Kutilek
Accurate theology in any given area of Bible truth is dependent on correct interpretation of each individual passage that relates to that area of truth. If individual verses are misunderstood, distorted, or misrepresented, then the larger structure of theology built out of these faulty building blocks will be likewise distorted and faulty. A doctrinal position built on wrong premises will necessarily have wrong conclusions. Producing a perfectly cut diamond depends on the perfect cutting of each individual facet. It cannot be otherwise.
A much-discussed point of theology in recent years has been the matter of the preservation of the Word of God. All conservative, Bible-believing scholars, teachers, and pastors agree to the Bible doctrine of divine inspiration, verbal inerrancy, and infallibility of the Scriptures in the original writings. Moses and David and Paul wrote perfectly the words of God when moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). That they had the perfect Scriptures in ancient times is fine, but the question is, do we have them today? Or, has God preserved the Word He gave in time past? The main proof text employed to teach an infallibly preserved Bible is Psalm 12:6, 7, which in the KJV 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.”
It is commonly asserted that this is proof positive that God promised to infallibly preserve His written Word. Not only is this seized as proof of the certain preservation of the Scriptures in the original languages, but it is often applied to perfect preservation of the Scriptures in the English language, particularly and exclusively the King James Version in English. [Note: The actual origin of using Psalm 12:6-7 to apply exclusively to the KJV and its Textus Receptus Greek is Seventh-day Adventist author Benjamin G. Wilkinson, whose 1930 book was plagiarized by Jasper James Ray in his 1955 book, God Wrote Only One Bible. See the article, “The Unlearned Men” by Doug Kutilek, and “The Great Which Bible? Fraud” by Kutilek & Hudson, both on this website.].
We shall examine in detail these verses as regards grammar, context, and the views of biblical authorities both ancient and modern to determine their correct interpretation and application.
Grammar: The Pronoun “Them” of Verse 7
Pronouns indicate the presence, expressed or implied, of an antecedent noun. Verse 7 declares that God will keep them and preserve them. What is the antecedent subject of them? Based on the English, there appear to be two possibilities. The first and nearest possible antecedent is the plural noun words repeated twice in verse 6. This appears to fit nicely -- the double occurrence of words being paralleled by the double occurrence of them, and the plural number in both cases. A pronoun is expected to agree with its antecedent in number. Words is, furthermore, the nearest possible antecedent to them, which also seems to support this view.
The other, more remote possible antecedents of the doubled them are poor and needy of verse 5. True, them is plural, while poor and needy are singular; but, being collective nouns in English, they can take plural pronouns. The greater remoteness of poor and needy from them is not decisive, though it is a factor to take into consideration. The English, then, is somewhat ambiguous. The grammar of the English translation allows two possible antecedents for them -- either the words of verse 6, or the poor and needy of verse 5. It cannot be decided on the basis of English grammar.
We are not limited to the English translation but have access to the Hebrew original. It is altogether proper that this should be so. Robert Dick Wilson’s judicious remarks are pertinent here: “Many of the ambiguities of the Scriptures arise from this almost insurmountable difficulty in making a correct translation from the original text....This is the fundamental reason why all appeals in matters of biblical doctrine should be made to the original languages of Scripture. This is the true and sufficient reason why all discussion among scholars as to the meaning of disputed passages should be based on the ipsissima verba” (Studies in Daniel, Vol. 1, pp. 84-85).
When we turn to the Hebrew text of Psalm 12, the ambiguity of the English disappears. Hebrew, like many non-English languages, has a feature that English lacks -- that of grammatical gender. In English, object words are classified according to natural gender: men, boys, and the male offspring of animals are classified as masculine and masculine pronouns he, him, etc., are used of them; women, girls, and the female offspring of animals, plus sometimes countries, boats, and until recently, hurricanes, are considered feminine, and feminine pronouns she, her, etc., are used of them. Just about everything else from forks, knives, and spoons to roofing nails and sheet rock is classified as neuter.
In English, we have only natural gender; many, if not most, other languages have, in addition to natural gender, grammatical gender. Some languages have two grammatical genders -- masculine and feminine (e.g., the Semitic languages); others add a third -- neuter (this is the situation in Greek, Latin, German, and others). Things naturally masculine and things naturally feminine are so treated, but very many things are grammatically treated as masculine, feminine, or neuter without any connection to natural gender at all. For example, the German word for spoon is masculine; for fork, feminine; and for knife, neuter.
In languages that have grammatical gender, it is usual and customary for pronouns to agree with their antecedents in gender and number. Hebrew here is like the rest. And also like the rest, there are occasional exceptions to the principle of agreement in the Hebrew Bible (see Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, 135 o), but the Book of Psalms is exceptionally regular on the matter of gender agreement.
In the Hebrew of Psalm 12, the pronouns translated them in verse 7 are both masculine -- the first them being plural in number, the second being singular (him, literally), particularizing every individual in the group (with slightly different vowel points in Hebrew, the second pronoun could be understood as the first person plural common, viz., us). So, the antecedent noun can be expected to be masculine in gender and plural in number.
The word rendered words twice in verse 6 is a feminine plural noun in both cases; the words poor and needy in verse 5 are both masculine and plural in Hebrew. While the English translation is ambiguous and allows two different antecedents, the Hebrew is clear and plain -- the antecedent of them is the poor and needy ones of verse 5, not the words of verse 6. Gender agreement of pronoun and antecedent demonstrates this.
Grammar: The Verbs “Keep” and “Preserve” of Verse 7
A further consideration is the use of the verbs translated keep and preserve. Their usage in Psalms sheds additional light on the subject and confirms the conclusions derived from the considerations of gender. The verb translated keep is shamar. Note the following occurrences of shamar in Psalms, when God is the subject of the verb, as in 12:7 (the italicized word is the English rendering of shamar):
12:7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD
16:1 Preserve me, O God
17:8 Keep me as the apple of the eye
25:20 O keep my soul, and deliver me
41:2 The LORD will preserve him
86:2 Preserve my soul
89:28 My mercy will I keep
97:10 He preserveth the souls of his saints
116:6 The LORD preserveth the simple
121:3 he that keepeth thee
121:4 he that keepeth Israel
121:5 The LORD is thy keeper
121:7 The LORD shall preserve thee
121:7 he shall preserve thy soul
121:8 The LORD shall preserve thy going out
127:1 except the LORD keep the city
130:3 If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities
140:4 Keep me, O LORD
141:9 Keep me from the snares
145:20 The LORD preserveth all them that love him
146:9 The LORD preserveth the strangers
In every case except two, the object kept by God is always people individually or as a group (127:1) and that in their daily lives (121:8). The exceptions are 89:28 where God keeps mercy, i.e., maintains His loyal love to David, and 130:3 where God marks or keeps a record of sins and calls the sinner into account for them. In no case when God is the subject of shamar is the thing kept words (in Psalms, shamar is often used with people as the subject keeping God’s Word, i.e., observing its statutes and obeying its commands; this is not ever the case when God is the subject).
The verb translated preserve in verse 7 is in Hebrew natsar. Consider the following cases from Psalms when God is the subject:
12:7 thou shalt preserve them
32:7 thou shalt preserve me
64:1 preserve my life
140:1 preserve me from the violent man
140:4 preserve me
141:3 keep the door of my lips
As with shamar, when God is the subject of the verb, the doer of the action of the verb, the object kept or preserved is always people, never words (and as with shamar, when people is the subject, the object kept is often God’s Word, i.e., it is observed and obeyed). In no case is either word used in the sense of preserving God’s Word from corruption or distortion. So then, the usage of the Hebrew verbs shamar and natsar, rendered keep and preserve respectively in Psalm 12:7, support and confirm the conclusion arrived at on the basis of gender agreement of pronoun antecedent as demonstrated above.
The best guide to Bible interpretation is careful examination of the context of the passage or verse under consideration. In the Book of Psalms, each psalm is a unit in and of itself, with no necessary connection with the psalm preceding or following, except in a few cases. This simplifies our task with this particular psalm. The basic thrust of the message of Psalm 12 is clear; the psalmist bemoans the decimation of the upright and the growing strength of the wicked. The strong get stronger, the weak get weaker. Dishonesty and deception abound. The psalmist can only appeal to God’s justice. Man cannot set the score right; God must do so. But God’s promises are sure. His words are trustworthy. The Lord knows them that serve Him and will indeed come to their aid.
To find a promise in verse 7 of the promise of God’s written word is to introduce a subject totally foreign to the context. Had verse 7 referred to God’s preserving His Word from corrupting influences and evil men, we should have expected the preceding verses of the psalm to speak of the attack of men upon the Scriptures -- a Jehoiakim with a penknife or the like -- but such is obviously not the case. It is persecuted men, not written words, that occupy the psalmist’s attention and thought. To employ verse 7 as a proof text for any doctrine of Scripture preservation does extreme violence to a context which is unmistakably clear.
The text itself yields three lines of evidence -- the grammar of the pronouns, the usage of the verbs and the context, all of which unite together in testimony that God in Psalm 12 has promised to preserve His persecuted saints, not the written Word of God as some suppose. This three-fold cord cannot be broken easily or, may I say, at all.
Authorities -- Ancient and Modern
We consider now the interpretation of Psalm 12:6, 7 as found in ancient and modern translations and authors. Examining them last is deliberate. We prefer to do our own thinking and arrive at our own conclusions as far as our mental skills and capacities allow before considering the views and interpretations of others. We are not so enamored with ourselves to think that wisdom will die with us (Job 12:2), but two things are evident. Every believer has the divinely bestowed privilege and, we hasten to add, solemn obligation under God to examine and study and interpret the Scriptures for himself. Each is, of course, responsible for how he interprets the Bible. We rejoice that this privilege is ours and aim to make the most of it. And we recognize that, with adequate preparation and sufficient effort, we can arrive at the same truth others have labored to discover. First-hand convictions are always the best kind.
Authorities can be classified under four headings, according to the position they hold:
1) those who hold that the object preserved is people, saints of God, etc.;
2) those who allow either people or words as the thing kept;
3) those who limit the reference to the words only; and, of course,
4)those who take no position or say nothing.
We will deal with these in reverse order and trace the authorities in generally chronological order as far as possible. It is to be noted that most merely state their position without supporting it with evidence. Bold assertion is never a substitute for facts.
Those who say nothing can, of course, be dismissed out of hand. Of sources consulted, these include the commentaries on Psalms of Thomas Scott (1833), Aglen in Ellicott’s Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Joseph Parker in The People’s Bible, H. A. Ironside, W. L. Watkinson in The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary, and W. Randolf Thompson in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary (1968).
A small percentage of commentaries and translators favor the view that directs the promise of preservation to the words. The earliest of these is rabbinic commentator Aben (or Ibn) Ezra (d. 1167). He gives no reasons (and is expressly refuted by Gill on grammatical grounds: see below); John Wesley (1765) maintained a similar view, again without justifying his position. J. M. Neale and F. R. Littledale are the most emphatic in insisting on this position: “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 so doing, shalt preserve him -- him, the needy, him, the poor -- Thou shalt keep thy work” (p. 181).
Much bold assertion, but not evidence! That Neale and Littledale sunder apart the synonymously parallel clauses of verse 7a, applying the “you will keep them” to the words and “you will preserve him” to the believer, shows a lack of understanding of the basic feature of Hebrew poetry -- parallelism of thought. Hebrew poetic structure demands that both clauses “you will keep them” and “you will preserve him” be applied to the same object. Note also that they acknowledge that the usual interpretation is that the reference is to preservation of God’s people.
Later supporters of the “words” position include Henry Martyn in his Persian Bible translation (a word of thanks to missionary Ken Liles for this information) and G. C. Morgan (1947). Interestingly enough, the only man to give reasons for the “words” view is D. Kidner, who allows either view as possible. He writes, “If the Hebrew text is correct (i.e., reading “them” instead of “us” as the LXX), it may refer to the promises (6), i.e., ‘keep them.’” He goes on to note the reference in Gesenuis’ Grammar, mentioned earlier, in an attempt to weaken the gender argument. Those who allow either view include Matthew Poole (d. 1679), Joseph Benson (1854), apparently, A. A. Anderson in the New Century Bible (1972) and Kidner (1973), as noted above.
The vast majority of translations and commentaries to which I had access agreed with the conclusions reached independently above, viz., that the promise of preservation applies to the persecuted people of God. Most gave no reasons, but some gave sound arguments from grammar. The pre-Christian Greek translation of the Old Testament, commonly called the Septuagint (LXX), reads, “you, O Lord, will guard us, and you will keep us,” etc., understanding the pronouns as first person plural “us” in both cases instead of “them” and “him” as in the Masoretic Hebrew text. Whatever the cause of this difference, the LXX clearly supports the “people” position.
The Targum to Psalms, the interpretive Jewish translation of the Hebrew into Aramaic which dates from the early Christian centuries, reads, “you, O Lord, will keep the righteous ones, you will protect them from this evil generation forever.” The antecedent of “them” is spelled out plainly.
The Peshitta Syriac, a second-century Christian translation of the Old Testament, reads, “because of the robbery of the poor ones (masculine plural)...” (Vs. 5), “the word (masculine singular) of the Lord is a pure word....” (Vs. 6), “you, O Lord, will keep them (masculine plural); save me and rescue me from this generation forever” (Vs. 7). Gender and number agreement and the personal pronoun me confine the reference to people, not words.
Jerome’s fourth-century Vulgate translation of the Old Testament into Latin reads “us” in both cases like the LXX, instead of “them” and “him”; it clearly applies the promise to saints, not Scriptures.
Augustine, using a Latin text that read “us” twice in verse 7 rather than “them,” of course, understood the promise to apply to people. Rabbinic scholar Rashi (d. 1105) writes, “you will keep them -- this is said concerning the poor and afflicted who are persecuted by this generation.”
The greatest medieval Hebrew grammarian and lexicographer, David Kimchi (d. ca. 1240), explains the passage, noting the change in Hebrew from masculine plural them to masculine singular him: “‘you, O Lord, will keep them’ -- you will keep the poor ones, and he said ‘you will preserve him’ -- which is singular, concerning every poor one, and the poor in every place wherever he may be.”
Calvin shows awareness of other interpretation but expressly rejects it on grounds of context: “Some give this explanation to the passage, thou wilt keep them, namely, thy words; but this does not seem 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.”
The Geneva Bible (1560), produced by Puritan exiles from the cruel reign of Mary, translated verse 7, “Thou wilt keep them, O Lord: thou wilt preserve him from this generation forever,” and in a marginal note on them added, “That is, thine, though he were but one man.” Among Puritan writers who understood the promise to apply to people are David Dickson (1655), John Mayer (1663), and Matthew Henry (d. 1714). The learned Hebraist and Baptist pastor John Gill (d. 1771) takes a position and then gives reasons, which is far better: “Verse 7: ‘Thou shalt keep them, O Lord,’ etc. Not the words before mentioned, as Aben Ezra explains it, for the affix is masculine, not feminine:...but the sense is, that God will keep the poor and needy, and such as he sets in safety, as Kimchi rightly observes.”
Among 19th century authors who concur are Adam Clarke, Symon Patrick, George Horne, E. W. Hengstenburg, J. A. Alexander, Albert Barnes, C. B. Moll in Lange’s, C. H. Spurgeon, Joseph Excell in Biblical Illustrator, G. Rawlinson in Pulpit Commentary, F. C. Cook, George Murphy, J. J. Stuart Perowne, and Franz Delitzsch. The last one of these is among the few to give reasons, but his arguments are grammatical and accurate. “The [pronominal] suffix in verse 8a [7a in English] refers to the miserable and poor; the suffix [him] in verse 8b [7b] refers back to the man who yearns for deliverance mentioned in the divine utterance, verse 6 .”
Among 20th century authorities that accept as valid the reference to the poor and needy are Cheyne, Briggs (apparently), Maclaren, W. E. Barnes, Kirkpatrick, F. B. Meyer, Arno Gabelein, Cohen, W. G. Scroggie, W. O. E. Oesterly, H. C. Leupold, Dahood, the Open Bible (marginal note), and the New International Version, which adopts the reading of the LXX (which fact is not noted in the margin).
Counting scholarly noses does not constitute proof. However, it is evident that the vast majority of interpreters accept the position maintained by the writer -- that God has promised here to preserve and guard His saints. Included among these commentators are some of the best Hebraists and expositors of all time, Rashi, Kimchi, Calvin, Gill, Hengstengerg, Alexander, Perowne, and Delitzsch. Though most do not give reasons for their view, those who do so present valid arguments from grammar and context.
Based on clear evidence from grammar and context and confirmed by the best Bible expositors, it can only be concluded that Psalm 12:6, 7 has nothing at all to do with the preservation of God’s Word. It says nothing for or against it. It does not speak to the issue at all. It is, therefore, wholly irrelevant to the discussion and must not be appealed to as a proof text regarding Bible preservation. We can understand how some through ignorance have misapplied this text, but with the above evidence in hand, to continue to apply these verses to any doctrine of Bible preservation is to handle the Word of God deceitfully and dishonestly, something unworthy of any child of God. Let the Scriptures speak, and let us follow them wherever they lead us.