“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.”
אִֽמֲרֹ֣ות יְהוָה֮ אֲמָרֹ֪ות טְהֹ֫רֹ֥ות כֶּ֣סֶף צָ֭רוּף בַּעֲלִ֣יל לָאָ֑רֶץ מְ֝זֻקָּ֗ק שִׁבְעָתָֽיִם
“words” אִֽמֲרֹ֣ות: plural, feminine, noun
“keep them” תִּשְׁמְרֵ֑ם: qal impf 2ms, 3mp pronominal suffix — ם
“preserve them”תִּצְּרֶ֓נּוּ :qal impf 2ms, 3ms pronominal suffix (him), with the nun energieum — נּוּ
In a recent podcast Dr. Mark Ward referred to Psalm 12:6-7 in a surprising manner. I do not know Dr. Ward personally, my first knowledge of him was his refusal to debate Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Jr. after publicly offering to debate anyone. After watching his podcast, to help clear up some misunderstandings on his part relating to Hebrew grammar, the following post is submitted. To paraphrase, “he knows of no one that argues that the preservation spoken of in verse 7 refers to the word,” supporting that perspective by noting the antecedent “words” in verse 6 is feminine gender, and “them” is masculine, which is of course correct. He may have other objections, but as the podcast stands, his objections were anecdotal with one grammatical reference to gender distinctions. Gesenius on this gender combination writes, “Through a weakening in the distinction of gender, which is noticeable elsewhere…and which probably passed from the colloquial language into that of literature, masculine suffixes (especially in the plural) are not infrequently used to refer to feminine substantives.” Grammar, 440. Diehl objects to the credibility of this assessment arguing that “many of these cases may be set down to corruption of the traditional text, while the sudden (and sometimes repeated) change in gender in suffixes is mainly due to the influence exercised on the copyists by the Mishnic and popular Aramaic dialects, neither of which recognizes such [gender] distinctions.” To this charge, Gesenius counters, “Such influence, however, is insufficient to explain the large number of instances of this weakening, occurring even in the earlier documents.” Grammar, 440.
One would have to reasonably assume that Dr. Ward overlooked this one of many irregularities in the Hebrew language. In that he did not offer any other objections, except an anecdotal assessment, this material should be sufficient to say that “words” can properly be the antecedent of “keep them” even with the “weakening in the distinction of gender” in accordance with the practices of Hebrew grammar. If, however, Dr. Ward’s, polemic against “keep them” referring to “words” is in fact more robust, the following material is offered as aid to a fuller and more comprehensive comment on the passage.
Beginning with the 1537 Matthews Bible microfilm, located at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, at Psalm 12:7, John Rodgers, aware of the scholarly discussion swirling around this passage, includes a marginal note at “them” stating, “that is often times, that is, such and such and such men, after Kimshi but after Ibn Ezra words.” In Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra’s, Commentary on the First Book of Psalms: Chapter 1-41, trans. & ann. by H. Norman Strickman (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2009), 103: “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.]). With Rashi (1038-1105), Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) and David Kimshi (c. 1160-1235) are recognized to be the greatest Hebrew exegetes of the High Middle Ages. The significance of Rogers’ marginal note is that two renowned Hebrew scholars referred to by the Reformation writers differed on the interpretation of “them” in Psalm 12:7. Rogers was obviously conscious of this difference and informed the reader of the variation of interpretation.
The weakness of the gender/grammatical distinction argument begins to dissolve when faced with the grammars of Kimshi and Ibn Ezra. Since the 11th and 12th c. the rendering of this passage has been divided between the people and the words for the first “them.” We have then answered Dr. Ward’s objections, both the grammatical objection and the anecdotal objection. By doing so, we have also established a grammatical grounding for “them” referring to the antecedent “words” and for the support of 11th and 12th c commentator Ibn Ezra agreement that the antecedent of “them” is the “words.”
Perhaps these citations remain unconvincing or the research unfamiliar to Dr. Ward, requiring additional clarity. The next time Dr. Ward has the opportunity to speak on this passage, we want to provide a much help as necessary for him to give an informed presentation.
Take for instance the Medieval scholar Michael Ayguan (1340-1416), on Psalm 12:7 commented, “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. Thou shalt keep Thy word, — “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall nourish thee; “Thy word, — “I will inform thee, and teach thee in the way wherein thou shalt go;” Thy word, — “Fear not, little flock; it is My Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom; and so, preserving him from this generation, shalt hereafter give him a portion with the happier generation, the assembly of the First-born which are written in heaven.” Neale, Commentary on the Psalms, 181. Moving from the 11th and 12th c into the 14th c. Ayguan, again, familiar with the controversy, argues that the antecedent of “them” are the “words.”
At this juncture, and risking the accusation of name dropping, I am indebted to Dr. Richard A. Muller, P. J. Zondervan Chair of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI, now retired, for his comments regarding my initial essay on this passage submitted to him for a Ph.D. course toward my Th.M. On my original paper, Dr. Muller noted, “Here we do have the use of one option determined by the Hebrew – i.e., the v. 6 antecedent—but the choice of the antecedent is what limits the exegesis, and in fact excludes the broader interpretation of the ‘them’ as a reference to Israel and God’s people generally that is far more frequently (I think) the path of interpretation.”
Moving from the 14th c. to the 20th c. one of the most accomplished Church historians, especially on Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, states that the Hebrew antecedent,” “words” excludes “them” as a reference to God’s people.
So in addition to the grammar, personal testimony of a renowned 11th c Hebrew scholar, we have added the 14th c testimony of Ayguan, and the recent erudite observation of Church historian Dr. Richard Muller.
Because at the core of this brief review was a polemic against the use of Psalm 12:7 as a passage that teaches providential preservation, a sometimes-volatile subject, for the sake of bridge-building additional information may be necessary to shore up any apologetic cracks that the debate may have created. Admitted, not everyone has access to Gesenius’ Grammar, University microfilm, books referring to 14th c scholars or Calvin Seminary’s Ph.D. courses, but everyone has heard of Martin Luther.
It is interesting what Luther has to say in his commentary on this passage. Still arguing for a divided rendering, Luther’s 1519 commentary on this passage contains not only his interpretation but also that of Jerome’s despite the Latin rendering, “keep us,” preserve us.” Luther’s commentary includes three possible interpretations of this passage: the words, the saints, and the ungodly. Beginning with the interpretation supported by Jerome’s Latin text (342-420), Luther’s translation agrees with the Hebrew, “them”: “And he prays God that his words (eloquia) may be guarded, after the manner of protection, that the ungodly might not pollute them. And instead of “thou shalt preserve us,” it is in the Hebrew “thou shall preserve them”; and it refers to the words of God, as Hieronymus (Jerome) translates it.” Noting that “them” is masculine, he includes the alternative reading in reference to the saints, “But it may also be referred to the saints, as it is in the masculine gender servabis eos.”
Even Luther, with Jerome, at this passage allows antecedent “words” to govern the pronoun “them.” I am inserting the following notation in support of Jerome’s 4th c. rendering: See Charles A. Briggs and Emilie Grace Briggs, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Psalms, International Critical Commentary (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1906–1907), 99: 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.
But Luther did also argue for “people” based on the gender, which is true, but please note that none of these scholars, like Dr. Ward, have forcefully argued that the antecedent of “them” cannot be the “words.” “Words” are just as valid as “people” in the exegetical tradition, and it is this nuanced understanding that Dr. Ward has missed and this post hopes to illuminate. A common familiarity with Luther, but unfamiliarity with Luther’s comment on this passage may be sensed as stretching Luther’s interpretation of Psalm 12:7 further than he would. To ameliorate such fears, the following hymn penned by Luther on Psalm 12 :7 is offered. Note the first line of the second stanza.
Title: The Word of God, and the Church
The Silver seven times tried is pure
From all adulteration;
So, through God’s Word, shall men endure
Each trial and temptation:
Its worth gleams brighter through the cross,
And, purified from human dross,
It shines through every nation.
Thy truth thou wilt preserve, O Lord,
From this vile generation,
Make us to lean upon thy Word,
With calm anticipation.
The wicked walk on every side
When, ‘mid thy flock, the vile abide
In power and exaltation.
James Franklin Lambert, Luther’s Hymns (Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1917), 52.
Luther’s hymn assures the reader that he accepted as valid the “words” to be the antecedent to “keep them.”
Moving into the 17th c Matthew Poole’s 1685 commentary on this Psalm is quite helpful. Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979). Poole’s 1685 commentary reflects the language of the King James Bible which united the historically divided rendering of the verbs between the words and people. Poole acknowledges the two renderings but responds with an unambiguous, united interpretation of the pronouns. Rather than the verse referring to words and people, Poole unites the two commenting that both verbs either apply to the people, or both verbs apply to the words. Poole concludes that the keeping of the words or the promises of God is primary, the basis upon which David’s life and posterity would be preserved. He writes: “Thou shalt keep them, either, 1. The poor and needy, Psalm 12:5, from the crafts and malice of this crooked and perverse generation of men, and for ever. Or, 2. Thy words or promises last mentioned, Psalm 12:6. These thou wilt observe and keep (as these two verbs commonly signify) both now, and from this generation for ever, i.e. Thou wilt not only keep thy promise to me in preserving me, and advancing me to the throne, but also to my posterity from generation to generation.” It is interesting to note that the united rendering in v. 7 referring to the antecedent words in 12:6 is, at the time of his commentary what “these two verbs commonly signify.” It is the v. 6 antecedent that governs both v. 7 pronouns while continuing with the larger theme of the care of Israel. The words or promises will be kept not only for David but for the generations of Israel forever. We see then a further refinement within the English translation tradition in the King James Bible at Psalm 12:7 accepted by Poole, in keeping with the historic effort to maintain a unified rendering and confirmed to be so by the ecclesiastical community of saints.
Poole’s unified rendering is also taken up in John Wesley’s 18th c. Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament where he comments, “Thou shalt keep them—Thy words or promises: these thou wilt observe and keep, both now, and from this generation for ever.” For Wesley, the single rendering of both pronouns in v 7 refer to the words. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 1642
It is understandable how Dr. Ward overemphasized the significance of irregularities in the Hebrew language that limited his understanding of Psalm 12:7. It is also understandable that without a concentrated study of this passage an elementary assessment and application would be made. For everyone reading this post, Dr. Ward’s bold claim that Psalm 12:7 does not teach the preservation of God’s words is completely without merit. Considering the wide scope of the churchly exegetical tradition that speaks to the preservation of words and against Dr. Ward’s assessment of this passage, one can only assume, considering Dr. Ward’s earned Ph.D., that he was just caught up in the moment, overstated the issue, and will, as every conscientious scholar, make the necessary course corrections for the sake of his ecclesiastical listeners. Blessings!
[For an expanded comment on Psalm 12:6-7 and nine other passages teaching Scripture’s providential preservation see Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr., An Exegetical Grounding For A Standard Sacred Text: Toward the Formulation of a Systematic Theology of Providential Preservation (Manassas, VA: Amazon, 2021)]