A Clear Exposition of Psalm 12 as a Whole

1 Help, Lord; for the godly man ceaseth;
For the faithful fail from among the children of men.
2 They speak vanity every one with his neighbour:
With flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.

3 The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips,
And the tongue that speaketh proud things:
4 Who have said, “With our tongue will we prevail;
Our lips are our own: who is lord over us?”

5 “For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy,
Now will I arise,” saith the Lord;
“I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.”
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.
8 The wicked walk on every side,
When the vilest men are exalted. (Psalm 12, KJV)

Why do an exegesis of this Psalm?

The King James Version Only camp loves to quote verses 6-7 of this chapter as a proof text for their position. Despite the fact that countless commentaries and even the marginal notes of the translational ancestors of the KJV like the Geneva Bible contradict them, KJVO believers insist that the “them” in verse 7 is “the words of the LORD” in verse 6 and that this indicates the need for, as one pundit puts it, “a 100% pure version of the Bible.”

This passage has been cited this way so many times in various forums, that it led me to do an expositional study of the passage. My hope and prayer is that by understanding these verses in their proper (and immediate) context, our brothers and sisters will be encouraged by the content of the psalm rather than continuing to apply a poor hermeneutic to it.

The Structure of the Psalm

The psalm is composed of four distinct sections or stanzas.

1. The call for assistance (1-2)
2. Accusation against the wicked (3-4)
3. YHWH’s response (5-6)
4. Response to YHWH (7-8)

The Call for Assistance (1–2)

Clearly, the psalm is meant to reflect a period of oppression or attack. The author, traditionally King David, is really struggling. He declares that he is on the verge of collapse. (Ceaseth is Hebrew גמר. See perfect in Psalm 138:8.) This is a personal feeling but it is also felt in the entire faith community. Both “the godly man” and “the faithful” (plural) are under duress.

The particular issue in view appears to be lies and false witness against the people of God. Vanity (שוא) implies emptiness. The imagery also seems to indicate manipulation of others through flattery (חלק) and deceit.

The Accusation Against the Wicked (3-4)

The prideful attitude of these accusers becomes clear. The psalmist quotes their bravado and empty words of self-confidence before YHWH. They proclaim that they will overcome and bow to no authority but themselves (v 4).

YHWH’s Response (5-6)

This blasphemy of self-worship frames YHWH’s response. The psalmist picks up the motif of the poor and oppressed crying out. This motif looks back as far as Abel’s innocent blood (Genesis 4), mingling it with imagery that appears in the opening of Exodus and is repeated in Judges.

YHWH hears the cries of those these self-worshipers are destroying, and he says, “I will arise.” This concept is picked up by the prophets Isaiah (14:22) and Amos (7:9).

Because the psalmist attributes this statement to YHWH himself, we have every reason to believe this declaration is meant to be taken as a declaration of YHWH’s will, and as mentioned before, it conforms with his character as demonstrated in both Genesis and Exodus.

God himself is speaking, and His words are actions. This is a statement of great importance. It is a response to prayer, and a declaration of action from YHWH himself.

It is immediately on the heels of this declaration that the psalmist declares, “The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.”

Response to YHWH (7-8)

Notice that there is an immediate shift in the object of the Psalmist’s words. He now speaks directly back to YHWH. Verse 6 is not a direct address to YHWH, but rather an affirmation of the words spoken by YHWH. In liturgical use, verse 6 may have been a refrain that was meant for the assembled believers to recite. (It is important to remember that the psalms were meant for public recitation by the faith community, not personal reading.)

But verse 7 addresses YHWH directly. It is a response to YHWH’s declaration in verse 5. The psalmist responds to YHWH in thanks that he will preserve and keep. But what will he preserve and keep? It is the “godly man” and “the faithful” in verse 1. The psalm is not a declaration of the Word. It is a call for help, a prayer for intervention. And YHWH answered the Psalmist’s prayer.

And if it weren’t completely clear, the statement is immediately followed by a clarifying statement in verse 8 addressing the justice to be dispensed against the wicked. These wicked people surround the “them” of verse 7. This again looks back to verse 1.

Conclusions

A clear, simple reading of this psalm as a liturgical song of prayer and divine response indicates that this passage is misread when one applies the affirmation of verse 7 to the statement of verse 6. Verse 6 is a communal affirmation while verse 7 is the answer of prayer.

This passage makes no guarantee of a “100%” preservation of the Scriptures as “the words of the Lord” which requires a single translation of the texts.

It does, however, encourage those who are facing opposition, persecution and false witness that YHWH does not abandon his people and he will “arise”.

17 Responses to “A Clear Exposition of Psalm 12 as a Whole”

  1. Using an English-only method of expounding Psalm 12, it can be identified that the psalm is directly thematic to a contrast between the godly and the wicked, and the war of the wicked against the righteous by means of evil words.

    This means that it would be improper to limit the meaning of the psalm to the preservation of God’s words, when the medium of godly words is in the hands (i.e. the protection of) God’s people.

    I believe that this psalm is prophetic, and speaks of the post-French Revolution world. This would mean that the host of ideological words being spoken against the truth, such as modernistic, atheistic, rationalistic philosophy, which is totally me-centric, is being identified.

    Further, since the Historicist understanding of Bible prophecy points to the Pope as a chief speaker (the little horn with the blaspheming mouth in Daniel 7, a lamb which speaks as a dragon in Revelation 13), it would then create a strong link between religious words being spoken against the truth.

    This would mean all the words which are spoken against the authenticity of the Bible, all the doubt cast against inspiration, as well as the entire premises underlying modern versions about the continual studies into the original languages and collation of manuscript copies, where they enforce the idea that no finality, no certainty and no end to seeking is possible.

    Despite the multiplicity of modern versions of the Bible, the myriad of variant readings and the expediential number of variations in translation into English, the Lord’s promise in this psalm is that He would proffer pure words. These words have come from the furnace of history, and are tried and found pure.

    The greatest element, however, is that the Spirit prophesies of intervention in history against those things which are attacking the standard of purity and perfection of the King James Bible. It has JEHOVAH saying, “now will I arise”, meaning that there is coming a time where He will confirm the truth of this matter in His undeniably remarkable way.

    • Which is, of course, all conjectural interpretation based entirely on circumstantial evidence.

    • Albert says:

      The problem with an “English-only” method of expounding the Psalm is that the Psalm was not written in English but in Hebrew. The Hebrew of the verse allows the pronoun to be first person plural (us) or first person masculine singular (him) but not third person plural (them). The KJV translators not only acknowledged this fact but clearly believed in referred to God’s people as they included the following margin note referring to their translation of “them”:

      Heb. him, i.e., every one of them

      thus seeing the referent as an idealized representative of God’s people.

    • I understand that, Albert. My purpose in doing the exposition this way was to demonstrate how even using the KJVO view of the English text, the Psalm does not say what they pretend it means.

    • Albert says:

      Erik,

      Just so there is no confusion, my comment was in response to BP’s comment – not your essay. The point was the KJV translators also thought the pronoun applied to the people and not the words (and hence the margin note).

  2. Albert says:

    The whole KJV Only interpretation falls apart when you look at the Hebrew text. The Hebrew could be third person plural (us) or first person singular in the emphasized form (HIM with the “energetic nun”). The original 1611 KJV gave a footnote that the Hebrew said “him” so they were aware of this and probably translated in “them” for stylistic reasons to match the analogous previous clause (“thou shalt keep them”). In any case, grammatically it cannot refer to words.

    There is a good video on Youtube given as a response to a KJV Onlyist of the Riplinger/Ruckman school that explains this very well:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCFfBmwHse8

  3. Clint Vernoy says:

    Hello Erik,
    Enjoying the reading, You wouldn’t mind if some of your material gets translated into Spanish as Latin Americans debate a ‘New Translation claiming to be perfect’

  4. Chuck Wiese says:

    This is one of the reasons I prefer the commentaries of the early church fathers to modern commentaries including the KJV-onlyists. Jesus said the Bible was all about Jesus and the early church fathers took that seriously. They didn’t distinguish between Messianic and non-Messianic Psalms. They saw them all as ultimately about Jesus even though they also had other applications as well. But the KJV-onlyist just finds the KJV everywhere.

  5. MC1171611 says:

    What is completely missing from BOTH sides of this argument is an understanding that the masculine gender INCLUDES a feminine antecedent in a case where both a masculine and feminine antecedent are present. English speakers do not think this way, as the English language does not convey gender the same way that many other languages do, like Greek, Hebrew, Italian, French, and Spanish.

    KJB-Only types mess this up when they approach Bibles in other languages; take the “Reina-Valera-Gomez” nonsense, where the pronoun in verse 7 is changed to “las” from “los.” Ignorant gringoes inevitably influenced this change, since to their minds, verse 7 can ONLY be referring to verse 6, and thus the pronoun MUST be feminine (“las palabras”).

    Those on the other side of the fence, the “Any Version Goes” types, also misunderstand the issue, and use their misunderstanding to help undermine the biblical doctrine of preservation. The reality is that a masculine pronoun, “them,” in English, in gender-based languages like Hebrew, INCLUDES the feminine antecedent. Thus, verse 7 is speaking of God preserving both His words (feminine) AND Israel, pictured by the “poor” (masculine). Because the pronoun is masculine, it is referring to verse 5, BUT because verse 6 is between the masculine antecedent and the pronoun, the pronoun in question must also include the feminine antecedent.

    So, you’re both wrong. Verse 7 promises the preservation of BOTH the words of God, and the poor, which are a picture of Israel.

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  11. Interesting “English only approach”. I am AKJB believer, but I’m not against everybody that isn’t.

    If you want to take an English only approach, I think Psalms 12:7 would refer to the word of God. In verses 1 the Psalmist said that the godly man is ceasing and that the faithful men are failing. How could these people be “preserved from this generation forever” if they are ceasing and failing. They do not all get preserved and kept.

    Verses 2-5 talks about the words of wicked men that “puffeth at” the needy.

    Verse 6 starts a new thought that ties in with God setting the needy in safety. The solution to the godly man ceasing, failing, and being oppressed is the words of God. God’s words are pure and the studying and reading of those pure words are what preserves the godly man.

    Now would verse 7 refer back to the people in verse 1 and 5 or verse 6? Well according to verse 1 not all the people were kept and preserved, so I do not think verse 7 is about them. There wouldn’t be any godly men “from this generation forever” if there was no word of God “from this generation forever” (Matt. 4:4, Eph. 6:17, John 14:23).

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    –bro. Eli “Hoss” Caldwell

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