I'm doing a personal Bible study on the KJV Only doctrine. KJVO advocates point to Psalm 12:6-7 as evidence for the inerrancy of the KJV (or the source manuscripts used by them).

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. (Psalms 12:6–7 KJV)

But other scholars say that Hebrew pronouns and antecedents have to match in number and gender, so the 'them' of verse 7 (masculine gender) must match with the poor and needy of verse 5 (also masculine) and not 'words' of verse 6 which are feminine gender. Moreover, even if the Psalmist did refer to the Scriptures being preserved, the Scriptures must refer to the ones David had (because he says the things being preserved are from 'this/his generation onwards"), and not to the KJV or the Masoretic text or the NT manuscripts since none of them existed in the Psalmist's day. I pointed this out to someone, but they said that Hebrew grammar can be interpreted two ways. My question is twofold:

  • Can the referent of the pronoun "them" be interpreted in at least two different ways? It doesn't make sense to me, if it could, surely we'd never know what ANYTHING means. I thought we had to have rules in grammar in order for things to make sense.
  • Secondly, what does the term 'preserved' in Psalm 12:7 refer to?
  • In verse5[6] the afflicted and the needy are in the masculine plural, but that verse ends with the referent to "them" in the masculine singular ("he longs"). It appears that the same referent of collective (first half of verse) and singular (second half of verse) are evident in verse 7[8] as well. – Joseph Mar 26 '16 at 16:30
  • ISTM that regardless of the referent there is no mention of the KJV so how does this act as a proof text for that particular version? On the other hand, Paul told Timothy that "all scripture" is inspired so doesn't that authorize the Masoretic, Tim's LXX, the KVJ, the Good News Bible, the Scrolls of Enoch, the Didache, the Gospel of Thomas and what not? – user10231 Mar 26 '16 at 18:29
  • Hello WoundedEgo ... the Maroretic text hadn't been written in Paul's day, the gospel of Thomas isn't in the Canon of Scripture. Plenary verbal inspiration refers to the ORIGINAL autographs, not the translations cited by you, or any translations. – Marisa Mar 26 '16 at 19:54
  • @WoundedEgo If I understand correctly (not advocating!), the idea is that the preservation mentioned here precludes textual variants that aren't part of a continuous tradition. While there's a certain (cultural, chronological) arrogance to thinking that the KJV is the preserved text, it's also true that the TR (> KJV) inherits a continuous textual tradition in a way that critical texts incorporating variants from the papyri, DSS, etc. do not. – Susan Mar 26 '16 at 19:57
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    @Marisa "refers" per who? The thing I usually see is people appealing to "all scripture is inspired" to confirm "the Bible" but again, since it doesn't limit itself to autographs, then who gets to say of what Paul was speaking? Was the "canonical NT" complete by then? AND, if it refers to the autographs and we don't have the autographs then 2 Tim has no authority and the autographs have authority bestowed by an unauthorized text. The whole thing is completely circular. AND for most of history "The Bible" was a Latin text because the Greek texts were so corrupt. So unbroken transmission? Nah. – user10231 Mar 26 '16 at 20:21
up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Idea in Brief

The received Masoretic Text and its translation into English by the New American Standard Bible appear to be the best rendering of this verse in Hebrew and English, respectively.

Psalm 12:7 (NASB)
7 You, O Lord, will keep them;
You will preserve him from this generation forever.

The logical antecedent of them are the “afflicted” and “needy” (from the first part of verse 5), and the logical antecedent of “him” is the same “him” (from the second part of verse 5). The dichotomy of Hebrew verse is that the second half of the verse (marked off by the strongest disjunctive accent within the verse) modifies the first half of the verse.

Discussion

The earliest witness in Hebrew comes from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The following text (Plate 890, Fragment 4) comes from the caves of Naḥal Ḥever, and indicates that the third person masculine appears in the first part of the verse. Please click on the image in order to enlarge and view the online source.

enter image description here

The general consensus among scholars is that these fragments date somewhere between the third and first centuries BCE. In this respect, this fragment would be the best presumptive witness to the “original” version of this verse in Hebrew.

Of interest, there is a distance of 1.25 cm between the word in the white box (תשמרם) and the word that follows (תצרנו), which is partial. This distance between the first half of the verse and the second half of the verse coincides with the dichotomy of each verse in the Masoretic Text. That is, the Masoretic Text, which would appear more than 1,000 years later, contains a system of cantillation, which is musical but is based on the logical divisions and dichotomies of the verses of Scripture. In other words, this fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls contains the same separation (dichotomy) as the Masoretic Text. Please see the image below.

enter image description here

The blue arrows mark the last word of the first half of the verse, which coincides with the large spacing in the Dead Sea Scroll fragment found in the caves of Naḥal Ḥever. The red arrows mark the first word of the second half of the verse.

enter image description here

In other words, the Jews appear to have practiced a system of dichotomy which will appear over 1,000 years later in the codification of cantillation by the Masoretes. This dichotomy in this fragment is an exact coincidence with the received Tiberian Masoretic Text of today. These alignments of dichotomy and words therefore provide the best presumptive witness to the “original” version of this verse in Hebrew.

Summary

There are four instances in this chapter where the first half of the verse (Part A) contains plural elements in literal or logical senses, which are then modified by the second half of the verse (Part B), which contain the parallel, but in the singular sense.

    Verse 3 - Part A: all flattering lips (plural)
              Part B: the tongue (singular)
    Verse 5 - Part A: afflicted, needy (plural)
              Part B: him (singular)
    Verse 6 - Part A: words (plural)
              Part B: silver (singular)
    Verse 7 - Part A: them (plural)
              Part B: him (singular)

In Hebrew verse, the point at which dichotomy occurs is the point in which whatever follows modifies whatever had preceded. As was noted in the fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls discussed above, that dichotomy was set off by a literal 1.25 cm of spacing. Thus the received Tiberian Masoretic Text matches the witness of the fragment found in the caves of Naḥal Ḥever in both words and verse dichotomies. That is, this Dead Sea Scroll fragment would be the best presumptive witness to the “original” version of this verse in Hebrew. Under this approach, the plain and normal reading of the received Tiberian Masoretic Text and its translation into English by the New American Standard Bible would appear to be the best rendering of this verse in Hebrew and English, respectively.

  • 1
    Thank you so much Joseph. I really appreciate the time and effort you've taken to help clear this up. I realise more and more just how little I understand, but I certainly want to understand things. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction. – Marisa Mar 27 '16 at 10:39

Ambiguity is present in all languages. Just as the referent of "them" in verse 7 is ambiguous in English, the Hebrew also allows several interpretations, although I think that the "scholars" mentioned in the question probably have the conclusion right.

Below is the text of the KJV with the transliterated Hebrew (BHS). The bold words are those in question. The three-letter roots in parentheses are the Hebrew roots behind the English words.

ʾimᵃrôt yhwh ʾᵃmārôt ṭᵉhōrôt
The words of the LORD are pure words

kesep ṣārûp baʿᵃlı̂l lāʾāreṣ
as silver refined in a furnace of earth

mᵉzuqqāq šibʿātāyim
purified seven times

*ʾattā-yhwh tišmᵉrēm
Thou shalt keep (šmr) them, O LORD

tiṣṣᵉrennûb min-haddôr zû lᵉʿôlām
thou shalt preserve (nṣr) them from this generation for ever

The OP asks whether them refers to words or something else.

Plausibility of disagreement
It is true that ʾămārôt ("words") in verse 6 is feminine, and the pronominal suffix -ēm in verse 7[8]1 is masculine. By "the rules", a pronoun should agree with its antecedent in number and gender, just as in most languages that mark nouns for gender. However, the exceptions in Hebrew are many. Most commonly an exception occurs when:

  • a masculine pronoun is used for a grammatically feminine word, and/or
  • the pronoun is in the form of a sufformative.2

Both conditions apply here. Thus, it is not out of the question that the suffix -ēm couldrefer to ʾămārôt in the previous verse.

Another option
On the other hand, the BHS apparatus (cf. NRSV, below) suggests an emendation toward the Septuagint (Greek), which uses a first person plural sufffixes on both verbs in this verse ("keep us... preserve us").

You, O LORD, will protect (šmr) us;
    you will guard (nṣr) us from this generation forever

This relieves the somewhat awkward switch from plural to singular ("protect them....guard him"; the KJV has "pretended" that both are plural) and is morphologically conceivable.3

How to decide?
The decision about the referent in the personal pronoun may be best pondered by reference to your second question about the word "preserved" in very 7[8]. Here we have two verbs in parallel with very similar meaning: šmr (KJV "keep") and nṣr (KJV "preserve"). One could ask whether words or people are the most likely objects of šmr and nṣr.

The first stich could go either way: words can be "kept" (e.g. Prov. 4:21), but Yahweh most often keeps people (Psalm. 16:1, 17:8, etc.). The second stich is more informative: the terminology nṣr + m- ("preserve from X ") is common, particularly in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 140:1[2], 140:4[5], 12:7[8], 64:1[2], 32:7, 34:3[14]). In every case as far as I can find, the one "preserved" is a person.

Conclusion
Although the lack of grammatical concord posed by the masculine endings in verse 7[8] is not insurmountable, the context makes it most likely that a person/people are in view as the objects of the two verbs. Whether to reach back to verse 5[6] for a referent ("they....him") or to adopt a fairly minor and plausible emendation ("us...us") is less certain to me. Either way, this does not support the KJV-only interpretation mentioned in the question.


1. Numbering is English[Hebrew].

2. Bruce K. Waltke and Michael P. O’Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990), 108, 302.

3. rēm < rēnû by an enclitic mem (<hand-waving>) and assimilation of the nun (after some vocalization change); rennû < rēnû without any consonantal changes.

  • Thank you Susan. I'll chew over the answer you posted. There are a few new terms for me to come to grips with. The NRSV rendition of the Septuagint is intriguing, especially since I understand that Jesus and the apostles quoted mainly from the Septuagint, and Jesus referred to that as Scripture. – Marisa Mar 26 '16 at 20:17
  • Hi Marisa, apologies about the terminology; please let me know if there's anything I can clarify. Just to be clear, the NRSV isn't "rendering the Septuagint" so much as they are accepting an emendation of the Hebrew text which the Septuagint supports. That is, they suppose the Septuagint was translated from a Hebrew text that is more like the original than the Masoretic text is when it comes to those suffixes. – Susan Mar 26 '16 at 20:24
  • Thanks for clarifying the Septuagint issue. The terms I'm not familiar with are 'smr', 'nsr' '+ m- ("preserve from X) and 'BHS apparatus'. I understand you may not have time (or perhaps its not the remit of this Site) to answer those questions. Google might know! Thanks again. – Marisa Mar 27 '16 at 11:12
  • Hi Marisa, I added a bit that hopefully will help. When you see three consonants like that, it's usually a Hebrew root. So šmr is the basic form of the Hebrew word being translated "keep", and nṣr for "preserve". The letter m- is a (transliterated) Hebrew preposition meaning "from". "BHS" is the standard edition of the Hebrew Bible, and its "apparatus" includes suggestions for understanding the text. Hope that helps! Feel free to stop by Biblical Hermeneutics Chat if you have additional questions not directly related to this Q&A. – Susan Mar 27 '16 at 17:56
  • Thanks again Susan, I really appreciate your time and effort; and thanks for the link to the chat room Methinks I'll be passing this way again. :-) – Marisa Mar 27 '16 at 18:54

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