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. (Psalm 12:6-7, KJV)
Psalm 12:6-7 offers a wonderful promise that God will preserve his words forever. Yet this promise is missing in most modern translations. For example, the ESV says at Psalm 12:6-7:
6 The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. 7 You, O LORD, will keep them; you will guard us from this generation forever.
The NIV and NLT agree with the ESV in making “us” (the oppressed mentioned in verse 5) the object of protection (preservation). The NASB has “him” which suggests a human antecedent because the masculine pronoun in English typically points to a human (though that is not the case with Hebrew). The question is whether the second pronoun in verse 7 should be a “them” and whether “them” should refer to the “words of the LORD”.
The words “keep (שׁמר)” and “preserve (נצר)” are used in other parts of scripture in reference to both people and words. For “keep (שׁמר)” used in reference to words, see Deuteronomy 17:19, Psalm 119:57 and Proverbs 7:1. For “preserve (נצר)” (also translated “keep”) used in reference to words (or something similar, such as laws), see Psalm 105:45, Psalm 119:33-34 and Proverbs 3:1. Analyzing the usage of the word does not prove either theory over the other.
The theme of the 12th Psalm is about the contrast between the vain words of man and the enduring words of the LORD. The entire Psalm in the KJV is quoted below with portions that relate to “words” or “speech” underlined:
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.
Verse 7 says, “thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.” The pronoun “them” (assuming for the moment that the pronoun should in fact be “them”) most likely refers to “the words of the LORD” in verse 6. One reason for this is that the main focus of this Psalm is about the superiority of God’s “words”. Contrary to what some critics say, the main focus of this Psalm is not about God’s protection of his people per se. Even though the protection of God’s people is an issue, that is not the main theme. The main theme is “words”. This is apparent in that the assaults against God’s people are restricted to conduct related to “words”. If the main theme should be the protection of God’s people, other vices against the godly such as physical violence could be mentioned. Yet that is not the case. There is a deliberate and exclusive focus on verbal conduct. This Psalm is all about the theme of the triumph of God’s eternal words over the vain words of man.
The syntax justifies interpreting “them” in verse 7 as referring to “the words of the LORD”. The “words of the LORD” or its simile, the “silver”, is the nearest noun and can be presumed to be the antecedent. The “poor” or the “needy” are more distant and therefore less likely to be the antecedent.
From a logical analysis, it would seem pointless to declare the preciousness of the “words of the LORD” by comparing it to silver, and not go anywhere with the point. Why abruptly mention the preciousness of the words of the LORD only to go back to making the point that the LORD will preserve people? There is a logical connection between the preciousness of the words of the LORD and God’s intent to preserve that which is precious.
This Psalm is poetry so there is licence to use figurative language. However, where a literal interpretation is possible such an interpretation should be presumed. When read literally, it makes more sense theologically to think that God would preserve his words forever rather than to preserve the oppressed forever. It is accepted by all Christians, hopefully, that God’s words are eternal. Yet, there is no promise or evidence in history that God would preserve the oppressed forever. One would have to assume that these “oppressed” are not just any oppressed but are also believers even to entertain the figurative idea that God would preserve their souls for eternity through salvation. There is much more to speculate by interpreting “them” as referring to the oppressed.
Critics note that if the Hebrew were followed, the pronominal suffix to “preserve”, translated as “them”, in Psalm 12:7 should be in the third person masculine singular. Thus some translations such as the NASB say, “You will preserve him from this generation forever.” While it is true that the Hebrew has a masculine singular pronoun, that is not the full story. The marginal note by the KJV translators says, “Heb. him. i. every one of them” (KJV 1611). The singular is used distributively in reference to a plurality. The translators clearly knew that the pronoun should be grammatically singular. However, this grammatically singular pronoun is nonetheless semantically plural. Such a pronoun exists even in English. The word “everyone” in English is grammatically singular but is semantically plural:
“I love everyone. I love them.”
“Everyone” is a grammatically singular word. We say “Everyone is here,” not “Everyone are here.” However, the pronoun used to refer to the word “everyone” is the plural pronoun “them.” “Everyone” is a grammatically singular word with a plural meaning. Likewise, although the Hebrew pronoun in Psalm 12:7 is grammatically singular, it is semantically plural. The combination of the plural “them” (…keep them…) and the distributive singular “him” (…preserve them…) adds emphasis and certainty that “each and every” word is kept and preserved. The conversion of “him” to “them” in the translation process is discretionary and is acceptable because in English we do not refer to “silver” or “words” with a masculine personal pronoun.
With respect to gender agreement, the grammatical gender mismatch between the masculine pronominal suffixes (“them (תשׁמרם)”/”him (תצרנו)”) and the feminine “words (אמרות)” can be explained by “words” taking the masculine semantic orientation of “words”, which is often used in its masculine form of “אמר (emer)”. As used in Psalm 12:6 in the construct state, “אמרות יהוה (words of the LORD)”, these “words” belong to a masculine figure and therefore the “words” themselves take a semantically masculine orientation. A similar use of a masculine pronoun to refer to a feminine word occurs at Psalm 119:111 where it says, “Thy testimonies (feminine: עדותיך) have I taken as an heritage for ever: for they (masculine: המה) are the rejoicing of my heart.”