Psalm 12 And The King James Controversy (Part 2)


(Due to the length of this post, I have made it available via PDF for those who would prefer to read it in multiple sittings. The PDF can be found here.)


In the previous post, we examined the three arguments that are often used by KJV-Only advocates to provide an affirmative answer to the question, "Does Psalm 12:6-7 support the view that God has divinely preserved Scripture in such a way as to create a perfect and flawless English translation in the King James Version?" As we examined each of these arguments, we found that they each have major weaknesses and, as a result, come up short. In this post, we are going to examine some arguments for what we have labeled the "contrary" position. That is, we are going to examine some arguments that have been put forward for the position that Psalm 12:6-7 does not provide support for the KJV-Only doctrine of preservation outlined above and in the previous post. Specifically, the contents of this post are an outgrowth of my own exegetical study of this passage.

Background Questions

It is helpful if, before we dive into the exegesis of the passage, we stop and take note of some aspects of the text as a whole. Specifically, I want us to notice aspects of the structure, genre, and style of the psalm in front of us. These three aspects will help us see the "big picture" that is being painted by the psalmist. A single verse (or two), in and of itself, does not determine the overall meaning of a passage. Rather, it is the overall context of the passage that helps us understand the meaning of individual verses.

First, I want us to notice the structure of the Psalm. An outline of Psalm 12 would look something like this:

I. A Plea For Help (v.1a)

II. Explaining The Problem (v.1b-2) 

    A.) The Absence of the Godly/Righteous (v.1b)

    B.) The Prevalence of the Deceitful (v.2)

III. Seeking A Resolution (v.3-4)

    A.) Silence Flattering Lips (v.3)

    B.) Silence Those Who Declare Themselves Lord (v.4)

IV. The Lord Arises (v.5)

V. The Reliability of God's Promise (v.6-8)

    A.) God's Words Are Pure (v.6)

    B.) God Will Preserve (v.7-8)

We will explore a couple of questions about this passage. Before we dive into an exegesis of this passage, however, the astute person will have noticed that Psalm 12 is a textbook example of a biblical lament. A biblical lament typically has elements such as an invocation, a complaint, a petition, and a statement of trust, all of which are present in this psalm. Tremper Longman III notes that, "The lament is the psalmist's cry when in great distress he has nowhere to turn but to God."1  As such, in a lament the psalmist is petitioning God to intervene in a specific situation or injustice that the psalmist either witnesses or experiences. Since the psalmist's complaint is about the absence of the godly and the prevalence of those who use deceitful words, the natural reading of this passage is that the declaration of trust (v. 5-8) should be read in light of the complaint (v.1-2) and the proposed resolution (v. 3-4). That is, verses 5-8 are addressing the issues that are raised in verses 1-2, not a specific text that was translated millennia after this psalm was written. The author of this psalm, like almost all authors of biblical laments, is looking for God to intervene in the specific situation that he is facing at the moment. Thus, the nature of this psalm as a lament provides the first reason to hold that the author of this psalm did not intend to imply the divine inspiration of a text that would be translated in 1611. To apply this psalm to the KJV is to remove it from its original literary context.

The superscription of this psalm attributes it to David. I see no reason, at this point, to doubt this tradition. There are several situations in the life of David that would fit this psalm, and I don't see, on an initial survey of this passage, a reason to challenge this attribution.

There is a theme in this psalm of "The words of man vs the words of God." In neither case do they appear to refer to written words. That is, the dichotomy does not appear to be "The [written] words of men vs the [written] word of God." Instead, it appears to be something along the lines of "The [deceitful] words of man vs the [truthful] words of God." Thus, in utilizing this dichotomy, the author of this psalm highlights the truthfulness of God and the deceitfulness of humankind. 

With this background information in mind, let us look at Psalm 12. The exegesis below follows the outline above. To best understand the different perspectives at play in the KJV-Only debate in regards to this passage, please compare the KJV with your preferred modern translation (ESV, RSV, NASB, etc). Comparing these should help us see where some of the controversy lies.

A Plea For Help/Explaining The Problem (v. 1-2)

The psalm opens, as do most laments, with a plea for help. The psalmist here calls on the LORD for help. The author of this psalm here lays out his claim that the godly are no more. This should not be understood as an absolute claim, for presumably, the psalmist sees himself as godly as he calls out to the LORD. From the perspective of the psalmist, however, the godly are fading.

The Hebrew word here translated as "godly" comes from the Hebrew word "chasid," a root that means "kind" or "pious."2 The Hebrew word "pasas" (ceaseth/vanishes) seems to indicate that such persons were disappearing rather than becoming corrupt. Whether this disappearance is the direct result of the action of the wicked (ie, the result of the wicked in this passage taking the lives of the godly or something similar) is best left for another debate. At this point, we can see that the psalmist is describing how, based on what he observes around him, that the godly, pious person is vanishing. This is reinforced by the synonymous parallelism that we see in the second part of verse 1. 

The author of this psalm also makes it clear that the wickedness that he sees around him, at least in part, involves deceit and vanity in speech. In the second line of verse 2, we run into our first major difference between the wording of the KJV and many modern versions. The KJV reads, "They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak", while the NIV reads, "Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception." The major difference does not come in the first half of this verse, but in the second half.

In the second half of verse 2, both translations agree that the evildoers of this psalm speak with flattering lips. The idea of spoken words is consistent throughout this psalm. Here, the psalmist states that the evildoers to which he is referring are speaking with flattering lips. Along the same vein, the Hebrew root-word "אֵמֶר" and its feminine counterpart "אִמְרָה", from which the word 'words' in verse 6 come from, also typically indicate speech, promise, or instruction.3 In some cases, these words are contained in a context that cannot refer to written words.4 Thus, it is not a safe assumption that the spoken words of men are being contrasted here, in this psalm, with the written words of God.

It would also be strange to think that the spoken words of the unrighteous are here being contrasted with an English Bible that came out much later. We will address this in greater depth later. For now, the specific contrast being made here, combined with the fact that "emer" and "emerah" doesn't usually refer to a written text, seems to push against the King James Only position. It is far more likely that the words of men here are being contrasted with the promise that God has made to his people in v.5 and that v.6-7 represent a trust in the promise that God has made. More on this later, though.

Seeking A Resolution (v. 3-4)

In verses 3 and 4, we see another example of a typical element in biblical lament: the desire for a resolution to the issue raised at the beginning of the psalm. The author of this psalm, in verses 3 and 4, seeks a resolution for the problem that is raised in verses 1-2. Specifically, the author of this psalm requests that God would cut off the flattering lips and those who would put themselves in the place of God.

What, specifically, is the author of this psalm requesting? He is requesting that those in view would be "יַכְרֵ֣ת" This Hebrew word here is used in several other places in the Old Testament in the context of judgment. It is a strong word that has connotations of complete judgment, often even to the point where even the memory of a person ceases to exist. At least, the psalmist is asking God to remove the individuals in question from the community of Israel. At most, the psalmist is asking God to judge them so harshly that they will be completely destroyed and even their memory will be forgotten. The context could support either perspective. However, the one thing that appears to be undeniable is that the psalmist is asking for God to bring judgment on those persons in question.

The psalmist describes the wicked persons in this psalm as having "flattering lips." The Hebrew word that is used here (חֲלָק֔וֹת) is used elsewhere in Isaiah 30:10 to refer to pleasant words. What appears to be in line here is not a lying that is unflattering, but rather, lying that flatters.5 The fact is that even a lie that sounds good is still wrong, and the psalmist here is standing against this kind of lying.

In addition, the psalmist makes it clear that the people in question would not submit their lips to God. The people in question believe they will "prevail" (Heb. נַ֭גְבִּיר) by what they are saying. The Hebrew here comes from a root word (גָּבַר) which means "to be strong or mighty." The idea here is that the persons in view believe they will become stronger or enriched by their words.6 Thus, they plan to continue to tell their lies for profit. They believe that their words are their own, and that they are not subject to God in this part of their lives. When God speaks in the next verse, they will be shown to have been mistaken.

The Lord Arises

Psalm 12:5 describes how the Lord arises because of the mistreatment of the poor and needy. The psalmist relays a promise from God that he will arise because of the "מִשֹּׁ֥ד" that is being done to the poor and afflicted. This word is used elsewhere to describe violence and destruction. The indication is that the damage done to the poor and afflicted is not minor.

Verse 5 seems to indicate that God is arising to defend the poor and afflict in response to the heartfelt cries that they have made and because of the way that they have suffered. God has tired of watching the poor and afflicted suffer at the hands of those who are dishonest. God may tolerate evil for a season, but he will not do so indefinitely.

God makes a promise to place the afflicted in safety. Stephen J. Lennox notes that, "His promised protection uses the same root verb as the cry for help in 12:1."7 The works of the wicked and their results will not have the final word. God will remedy the situation.

The Reliability of God's Promise

In verses 6-8, the psalmist expresses confidence in God. These also happen to be the verses where the greatest amount of controversy reside. Therefore, we will explore them carefully. It seems best if we ask one question at a time to establish exactly what is being said here.

If we compare the KJV to a couple of other translations, it may help us to see the differences between the translations.

Psalm 12:6-8 Psalm 12:6-8 Psalm 12:6-8
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. 6 The words of the Lord are pure words; Like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, filtered seven times. 7 You, Lord, will keep them; You will protect him from this generation forever. 8 The wicked strut about on every side When [f]vileness is exalted among the sons of mankind. 6 The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. 7 You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever. 8 On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted among humankind.

When we look at the differences among translations here, it becomes clear that there are two major questions that arise:

1. Granted that the KJV and NASB state that the word of the Lord are pure, while the ESV states that the promises of the Lord are pure, what exactly is the referent of the words/promise in this passage? That is, what is this phrase actually referring to?

2. The KJV and the NASB state that God will "preserve them," while the ESV states that God will "protect us." What exactly is the point of these statements?

Let's look at each of these in turn.

First, we must raise the question as to the referent of each phrase in verse 6. Is this referring to a specific book, or is it referring to the promises just made in this psalm? There are at least a couple of reasons to think the latter is the referent. First, the Hebrew word that is used here is often used to refer to spoken speech rather than a written document. If the author of this psalm had wanted to be more restrictive and show that he was referring to a specific book, then there was a different word available to him.8 The absence of the Hebrew word סֵפֶר would be difficult to justify if the author of this psalm had intended to refer to a specific book or written work. However, the Hebrew word אִֽמֲר֣וֹת would better be explained here if the referent of this word are the promises made by God in verse 5. This would also explain why the Hebrew סֵפֶר was not used here, since that would have completely missed the point that was being made. The referent here, then, appears to be the promises of verse 5, not a 17th-century English translation of Scripture.

Since we have good reason to believe that the referent in verse 6 is to the promises in verse 5, we can now move on to the confidence expressed in verse 7. The ESV argues that God will "protect us," while the KJV and NASB argue that God will "preserve them." What exactly does the psalmist mean here? In this verse, the author of this psalm uses the Hebrew תִּצְּרֶ֓נּוּ to describe God's action. The root word here is נָצַר, which carries the connotation of watching over something or someone. The question that next arises is this: What is being watched over/preserved? There are three major contenders. First, God could be watching over his people who have been mentioned already in this psalm. The implication would be, in essence, that God promises to preserve his people. Second, it could refer to the promise that God has made to arise and protect the righteous. This would, in essence, imply that God would keep his promise to preserve his people. Finally, the third major idea that is proposed here is the Ruckmanite position. This position holds that this is a specific reference that God would preserve specific written words which would, in essence, be made properly known through the KJV.

The first view to look at is the last one. The idea that this passage refers to written words has already been dealt with. Given the evidence presented, there is little reason to think a written work is in play here. This, combined with the way the psalmist would have to abandon his line of reasoning in order for this psalm to have this meaning is sufficient for us to conclude that this psalm is not promising the preservation of a written text. If such a doctrine is to be found within Scripture itself, then it must be found elsewhere.

The second view to be considered is the message that is essentially conveyed by the ESV. The ESV here argues that what is being watched over here is "us," presumably the righteous that are mentioned throughout the psalm. However, this does not seem to be the direct antecedent. While a case can be made for this, despite this difficulty, it seems that there is a better alternative.

The third and final view is that what is being watched over here is the promise that God would arise to help the poor and needy. Understood in this light, this passage would essentially be understood as a confidence that God would follow through on this promise. It would provide surety for those poor and needy who are suffering as a result of the actions of the wicked. This is the most consistent view in light of the rest of the psalm, the immediate literary context, and the specific way in which this psalm is worded.


In conclusion, this psalm, when taken as a whole, should be understood in light of God's promise to a specific people at a specific time to arise and protect the poor and needy from the oppression of the wicked. The idea that this psalm promises the preservation of a specific text or a specific set of written words that would ultimately manifest themselves in a 17th-century English translation is foreign to the nature, literary context, grammar/specific wording, and spirit of this psalm.

At the end of day, this is a majestic psalm that points to a faithful God who always keeps his promise and cares for the poor and needy.


1 Tremper Longman III, "How To Read The Psalms". Intervarsity Press. 1988. p. 26

2 Strong's #2623 

As an example, Genesis 49:21 uses the word "emer" to denote the words from Naphtali. However, in this context, we can be confident that the word does not refer to written words, since Naphtali did not pen any of the Scriptures, and there is no plausible theory that could account for his penning any part of the Scriptures.  

5 The specific lies that are being told were no doubt understood by the psalmist, but may not be fully understood by us. However, because of the words used here, we may be able to get a rough idea of what is happening if we draw a comparison to something that we see in our own day. When we think of modern-day preachers of the prosperity gospel, we should end up in the right direction in understanding what kind of lies the psalmist is talking about. When the prosperity gospel preacher tells a person that, if they sow a certain amount as a seed, God will bless them with a new house/car/debts paid off/etc, then the prosperity gospel preacher is speaking with flattering lips for personal gain. This is likely not an exact match of what is going on here, but we can use this example to see how lying to make people feel good for personal gain is what the psalmist is standing against.

6 Which, again, is why the analogy of the modern-day prosperity preacher works here.

8 The Hebrew word סֵפֶר refers to a written document, and would have been what we should expect to see if the author of this psalm had desired to refer to a specific written work. Instead, the author of this psalm choses to use a word that tends to designate spoken words. This is not to say that the Hebrew word אִֽמֲר֣וֹת could never be used to refer to a written work, but that it is not what we would expect if the author was trying to single out a specific written text.


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