Did God Promise To Preserve ‘His Words’ In Psalm 12:5-7?

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 work 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 now by letting the readers 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.
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.
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 actually referring to two different subjects. However, the Psalm as a whole is cohesive. It’s 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 which is 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 (antecedent). Sometimes it’s in the same sentence but other times it’s 2, 3, or even 4 sentences back.

Sometimes the antecedent can be hard to determine. For example, this 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 not in English). The two possible antecedents in this passage is either “words of the Lord” or one not shown because it is actually in verse 5, “the poor/needy.”

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 verses 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. Even in English it’s not a stretch. However, if there was any doubt, the Hebrew grammar clears it up. 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 an 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”. It would be one conjugated word.

Additionally, 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 words. The chair is neither male or female. It’s just a chair. This is an important distinction because in Hebrew we see that the conjugation of the word to which “them” is attached (תִּשְׁמְרֵם) is a masculine plural verb which means that it’s antecedent must also be a masculine plural noun.

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 (a pronominal 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.” .

“The words/sayings” 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. I personally do not advocate for the KJV but the KJVO movement has seized on this passage as sort of a rallying cry to claim that God promised to “preserve His word”.

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 masculine root (אמר) 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. The writer could have easily used the 3rd person, feminine, plural pronominal suffix. Pronominal suffixes have little to do with the gender and number of the root word that they are attached to. The masculine, plural and feminine, plural pronominal suffixes are show below. Either one could have been fixed to the word “אמר“.

Hebrew 3rd person pronominal suffix

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.

The author from KJVtoday also recognizes that in verse 7 another pronominal suffix exists that does not match the pronominal suffix previously discussed. The reason why this is noted by the author is because a faulty English reading has lead he or her to believe that the aforementioned antecedent is being referenced twice. The problem is that “keep them” and “preserve them” are both thought to be referring to the words of the Lord. However, the pronominal suffixes do not agree. As previously mentioned, “thou shalt keep them” has a 3rd person, masculine, plural suffix. However, “thou shalt preserve them” has a 3rd person, masculine, singular (him). The main problem here is that the author must have used a bad reference because תִּצְּרֶנּוּ has a 1st person, common, plural suffix (נּוּ/us).

Thou shalt keep them, O Lord,
thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever. (Psalm 12:6-7 KJV)

אִמְרוֹת יְהוָה,    אֲמָרוֹת טְהֹרוֹת:
.כֶּסֶף צָרוּף, בַּעֲלִיל לָאָרֶץ;    מְזֻקָּק, שִׁבְעָתָיִם

(Psalm 12:6-7) .אַתָּה-יְהוָה תִּשְׁמְרֵם;    תִּצְּרֶנּוּ, מִן-הַדּוֹר זוּ לְעוֹלָם

Thus, the pronominal suffixes differ, as noted by KJVtoday. However, the author got the wrong suffix. This is likely because the conjugation is done incorrectly by one or more KJV resources works. Either way, “them” and “us” are still very different pronouns. Some have listed this difference as a scribal error and translated the pronoun as “them” anyways. This was what the KJV did. Some, like the NASB translated it as “him”. The use of “him” is because some read |תִּצְּרֶ|נּוּ as a geminated Nun. In other words, when two nuns are encountered the sound is hardened and they are drawn as a nun with a dagesh dot in the middle of the letter, rather than two nuns back to back (נּ = ננ). However, the root word does not contain a nun and nothing about the conjugation would require other letters to convert to a nun. The ending נּוּ is best read as “us”, not “him”.

If the Lord is preserving “us” then there is no conflict of pronouns because it’s rather common for a psalm or proverb to transition from a 3rd person to a 1st person pronoun, and vice versa. The Psalmist is including himself in the collective that is being preserved by the Lord. If the pronoun is read “him” as the NASB suggests then there is definitly a conflict of pronouns because there is no antecedent for this pronoun other than the previously used antecedent, “the needy”.

Lastly, I must address the fact that the author of KJVtoday suggests that since אֵמֶר is a masculine root then it can be the antecedent for תִּשְׁמְרֵם. However, the root word is not actually אֵמֶר. The root is אִמְרָה which is a feminine noun. The reason why this is known is because the plural form of אֵמֶר is אֲמָרִ֣ים which is masculine. The plural form of אִמְרָה is אִמְרוֹת which is feminine. אִמְרוֹת was the conjugated word used in the passage, therefore, the root must have been אִמְרָה.

Rendering from the Septuagint

As we have covered many times on DOTB, 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 about 200 years before the birth of Jesus.

Thou, O Lord, shalt keep us, and shalt preserve us, from this generation, and for ever. (Psalm 11:8 LXX English)

The Greek word used by the Septuagint for “them” is “ἡμᾶς”. This is interesting because it matches neither the KJV nor 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

As discussed in the previous section, there is no need to change “preserve us” to a 3rd person reference such as “him” or “them”.

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

KJV 1611 Psalm_12.7_Margin note
KJV 1611 Psalm 12:7 Margin note

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 be translated 2 ways; either 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 the context and the Hebrew grammar tells us that “them” is referring to 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 even though preserve is an option. The translation should be “keep” or “protect”, not “preserve”.

So which is the correct translation? The best translation for this passage is actually from the ESV.

You, O LORD, will keep them;
you will guard us from this generation forever. (Psalm 12:7 ESV)

The NIV translators know that the English leaves out the gender when using 3rd person pronouns and found it necessary to make the connection for the reader. That is why the NIV reads:

 You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
and will protect us forever from the wicked (Psalm 12:6-7 NIV)

The NIV makes it clear that “them” is referring to the needy, not the words of the Lord. It also translated שָׁמַר as “keep” which is more true the actual meaning of the word. They also got “us” correct in the second half of the verse.

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. I also like the ESV version which is more literal which is useful for some Bible studies.

Featured image courtesy of wellcomeimages

5 thoughts on “Did God Promise To Preserve ‘His Words’ In Psalm 12:5-7?”

  1. Even though the context of these particular passages, are not in reference to His Word being preserved.
    The Context of Matthew 5:17-18 is that God will preserve His Law
    in my opinion the most useful scriptural references to God preserving His Word are found in both Matthew 24:35
    and Luke 21:33

    Although grammatically incorrect It would be consistent with the full council of God if Psalm 12:5-7 were taken out of context and applied to referencing the preservation of His word.

  2. Even though the context of these particular passages, are not in reference to His Word being preserved.
    Matthew 5:17-18 God will preserve His Law
    in my opinion the most useful scriptural references to God preserving His Word are found in both Matthew 24:35
    and Luke 21:33


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.