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”.