What is being preserved in Psalm 12?
One of the under-pinnings of the KJVO movement is the reliance on Psalm 12 to point to the fact that God promised to “preserve His word.” In the past I never really spent much time examining this passage since it had never been a point of NIV controversy. However, I was recently made aware that some modern Bible translations had changed the word “them” to “the needy” and such an alteration is most assuredly the word of the Devil.
After a short examination of the passage it was clear why the change was made. It was also clear that even the KJV translators knew that the thing being preserved wasn’t the “words of God.” Below is an explanation of how and why this passage was changed. I will also shock the world early by letting the reader know that I actually prefer the KJV reading of the passage, even though their interpretation of the passage is very much incorrect. (“Them” is not referring to God’s words.)
The two versions of Psalm 12
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. (Psalm 12:6-7 KJV)
And the words of the Lord are flawless,
like silver purified in a crucible,
like gold refined seven times.
7 You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
and will protect us forever from the wicked (Psalm 12:6-7 NIV)
Before looking into the Hebrew grammar, it’s important to point out that just having the two verses in 6 and 7 isolated is a bad way to try to interpret the passage. The two verses are on two different subjects. However the Psalm as a whole is about the preservation and care of those who are being beaten down by the evil of the world. Thus, the context can tell us a lot about how to use the pro-noun “them” when it’s difficult to figure out what the antecedent is.
Now, when we examine the Hebrew underlying the text we have to do a little detective work to figure out who “them” is referring to. I will demonstrate that “them” is actually the correct translation but the NIV changed the text on purpose to bring clarity to the reader…. not because they were doing Satan’s work.
אִמְרוֹת יְהוָה, אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת:
.כֶּסֶף צָרוּף, בַּעֲלִיל לָאָרֶץ; מְזֻקָּק, שִׁבְעָתָיִם
(Psalm 12:6-7) .אַתָּה-יְהוָה תִּשְׁמְרֵם; תִּצְּרֶנּוּ, מִן-הַדּוֹר זוּ לְעוֹלָם
A quick note on pro-nouns and grammar
The piece of grammar important here is the bold line above. But before we explain Hebrew grammar let’s go over English grammar.
The word “them” in English is a pro-noun. A pro-noun is a word that is used to indirectly refer to a noun. The dictionary describes a pro-noun as “a word that can function by itself as a noun phrase and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g., I, you ) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse.” (Dictionary.com) The object that the pro-noun is referring to is called the antecedent. It virtually always appears before the pro-noun, as indicated by it’s title. Sometimes it’s in the same sentence and sometimes 2, 3, or even 4 sentences back.
Sometimes the antecedent can be hard to determine. For example, I could present an ambiguous reference like the following:
Both Mark and Jason like to play basketball. He usually play’s outdoor basketball in the summer.
In this situation there are two boys so who is the he? This is similar to the situation we find in Psalm 12. We have a case of multiple possible antecedents and a pro-noun that does not give any idea of what it’s referring to (at least no in English). The two possible antecedents in this passage selection is either “words of the Lord” or one not shown that is actually in verse 5, “the poor.”
What is “them” referring to?
At this point one might ask: why was verse 5 not included in the passage above? The reason is to highlight how deceptive the KJVO movement is. When verse 6-7 are isolated the from the surrounding verses it appears that “them” is referring to “the words of the Lord.” However, that is not what “them” is referring to. The context that 6-7 appear in is one where the preservation of the poor and is being highlighted.
“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the Lord.
“I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Psalm 12:5)
מִשֹּׁד עֲנִיִּים, מֵאֶנְקַת אֶבְיוֹנִים
(Psalm 12:5) .עַתָּה אָקוּם, יֹאמַר יְהוָה; אָשִׁית בְּיֵשַׁע, יָפִיחַ לוֹ
One can see from context that “them” is probably referring to the poor or needy. However, the Hebrew grammar clears it up easily. The English language fails miserably in it’s ability to link pro-nouns. Hebrew does a much better job. In English we infer the pro-noun. In Hebrew the pronoun is part of the verbal structure. For example, in the English sentence I can say: I threw it. “It” is the pro-noun and the word is separate from the verb “threw”. But in Hebrew it would look like “Ithrewit”.
In almost all foreign languages they use words that have genders. For example, in German “the chair” is “der Stuhl”. Der defines the definite article (the) as being masculine. In English we have gender neutral definite articles words. This is important because in Hebrew we see that the conjugation of the word indicating “them” (תִּשְׁמְרֵם) is a masculine plural verb.
Hebrew Pro-nouns and how we know “them” is not “the words of the Lord”
In Hebrew, the verb often contains the pro-noun as a suffix. The word (תִּשְׁמְרֵם) has a masculine plural (הֵם) suffix attached to the root verb (שָׁמַר). The prefix on the word is the way Hebrew is expressing the tense, gender, and form of who is doing the action. Thus the breakdown of this word would be a bit like the following: (תִּ) = you will [2ms/imperfect] (שְׁמְרֵ) = keep/guard/watch/protect (ם) = them[3mp]
Thus, we can easily see which antecedent is being referred to by the pro-noun “them.” It would have to agree in gender and in number. Since “words” and “needy” are both plural that means we only have gender to tell them apart. It turns out that the gender of “them” is masculine as is the word for “needy.” .
In order to figure out who “them” is referring to we just have to take out possible antecedents and see which ones are masculine and plural. “The words” of the Lord (אִמְרוֹת יְהוָה) is a feminine plural object and therefore cannot be the object of reference. However, The needy/poor” (עֲנִיִּים) is masculine plural. Therefore, it stands to reason that the only logical conclusion is that “them” refers to the poor and needy.
On the KJVToday website, a slight paragraph at the bottom is given to address this gender issue. I use this website because it’s one of the only respectable websites that promotes the KJV and actually tried to address the original languages.
With respect to gender agreement, the grammatical gender mismatch between the masculine pronominal suffixes (“them (תשׁמרם)”/”him (תצרנו)”) and the feminine “words (אמרות)” can be explained by “words” taking the masculine semantic orientation of “words”, which is often used in its masculine form of “אמר (emer)”. As used in Psalm 12:6 in the constructstate, “אמרות יהוה (words of the LORD)”, these “words” belong to a masculine figure and therefore the “words” themselves take a semantically masculine orientation.
The premise of the KJV argument is that since אִמְרוֹת has a maculine root word then it is, in fact, a masculine construction. However, that is not how Hebrew grammar works. The gender of the word reflects it’s conjugated form, not the gender of the root. The same is true of the number (plural or singular).
We know that it’s the final form that matters because the two words have to agree in number as well as gender. Hebrew roots do not (usually) contain any form of pluralization unless it’s a dual form. In other words, if “them” is linked to the masculine root word of “words” (אמר) then it would have to be shown in a singular form and not a plural form. Using this logic, one could virtually never match both gender and number of a pro-noun with it’s antecedent. The antecedent must match the pro-noun in the conjugated form, not the root form.
Lastly, ALL lexicons and event the Strong’s concordance lists אִמְרוֹת as a feminine plural noun. No resource exists that I know of that treats this as a masculine noun just because it appears as a masculine noun in it’s root form.
Rendering from the Septuagint
As we have covered on DOTB many times, one of the ways we can understand difficult translations is to look at how past translators dealt with the passage. First let’s look at the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, made 200 years before the birth of Jesus.
The Greek word used by the Septuagint for “them” is “ἡμᾶς”. This is interesting because it matches neither the KJV or the NIV. This is the right gender and right number but it’s in the 1st person. That means they translated it as “us” and not “them”. Therefore, this is not helpful as the translators either had a different Hebrew manuscript or they did not understand how to translate the word correctly.
It’s also possible that they changed it from “them” to “us” because the word “us” appears next in the same sentence. In the original text it actually says,
Thou, O Lord, shalt keep them, and shalt preserve us, from this generation, and for ever
Either way, the two pronouns do not agree. This can be confusing. The Septuagint translators probably opted for “us” as the correct pro-noun and changed the first iteration in the sentence. One thing is for sure though, they knew the underlying text was not talking about the preservation of God’s words. The KJV 1611 translators did the opposite in this passage but still had the same conclusion about what the pro-nouns were not about.
Rendering note from the KJV 1611
The KJV marginal notes add a little clarity to this issue but not much. In the margin they wrote a note about the second “them”which is indicated by the “†” symbol. The note is in regards to clarifying how they translated the word “them” the second time it appears.
Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
The note says “†Heb. him. i. every one of them” which would lead one to believe that either they did not believe the source manuscript was correct. The Hebrew pronominal suffix on “preserve them” (תִּצְּרֶנּוּ) was actually a “נּוּ“,which can either be 3rd person, masculine, singular, or a 1st person, common, plural. The two pro-nouns then that we have to pick from are either “them” or “us”. Some translators in history have chosen “us” as the ancient Septuagint did. The KJV translators chose “them” but noted that the manuscript actually said “him”, which would be 1st person, common, singular and would have appeared in the text as this form -> “ו“. So the KJV manuscripts appear to be different than the Septuagint. ו is very close to נּוּ which would lead one to believe that this particular word has been adjusted in manuscripts over the years. Multiple manuscripts with multiple forms must have existed in various parts of history which is nothing new to a student of biblical manuscripts. This could explain why the KJV translators indicated that the underlying pro-noun meant “him” but they were going to use”them” as a correction.
Given that both context and the Hebrew grammar tells us that “them” is the poor and needy, one has to conclude that this passage is not any kind of promise that God will preserve His word. In fact, the verb (שָׁמַר) is not even best translated as preserve.
So which is the correct translation? It’s still the KJV. The KJV left the passage untouched and allows the reader to make up their mind as to who “them” is. However, the NIV translators know the English leaves out the gender and found it necessary to make the connection for the reader so that they would not be confused and they got the connection right. Therefor, even though the KJV translated the passage more directly and more faithfully, they lose the valuable connection that is necessary to understand the passage.
The final verdict is that the NIV has every right and even a responsibility to it’s readers to make the ambiguous more clear. Not because readers are dumb but because we lack the English grammar to discern the correct antecedent of the pro-noun.