Saturday, March 28, 2009

Psalm 12: an exposition

Psalm 12 is “ground zero” in the KJV-only debate, or more specifically Psalm 12:6-7 is. One will see these verses front and center in any debate about whether we have the pure and unadulterated words of God in the KJV (and only in the KJV):
“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.”
- Ps. 12:6-7
These 2 verses always appear without context in KJV-only material, and without that context it is obvious that the “them” being preserved in verse 7 is nothing less than the “words of the LORD” in verse 6. From that conclusion it becomes foundational that God preserved his very words somewhere, and it is not surprising that KJV-only advocates assert that that place is nowhere other than the KJV. But is it that simple? It seldom is, as a look at the verse in context will show.

I have reproduced all 8 verses of the KJV version of Psalm 12 below. However, it is sans verse divisions*, which will give far better insight into the whole psalm. If you can handle the English – it's tough but manageable – go ahead and read it though a few times. I'll wait on the other side:
“Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men. They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak. The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us? 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. 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. The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.”
-- Psalm 12 (KJV)
The most important questions we can ask about the whole psalm are who wrote it, to whom is it written, for what purpose was it written, and what's going on. We shall try to answer these questions in the verse-by-verse exposition below.
v1 Help, LORD**; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.
The first line sets out the purpose of David's psalm, this prayer song to God. Good, faithful men are becoming scarce. The rest of the psalm should be interpreted with this theme in mind.
v2 They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.
So who are “they”? Obviously they are not the godly and faithful of verse 1; rather those who speak with a double heart are the ones who are causing the problem from verse 1. These two groups will be in contrast throughout the the whole psalm.
v3 The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things:
v4 Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?
Into this dynamic a third actor is introduced, God, who opposes the proud. He clearly sides with the righteous but “failing” group, threatening to figuratively cut off lips that are speaking pridefully i.e. to shut the proud up.
v5 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.
God here declares his intention to do something about the problem, that men have moved beyond pride to oppressing the poor and needy, which is poetic shorthand for the powerless righteous. It modifies our theme a bit: good men are not just disappearing, they are disappearing because they are being oppressed by the more powerful wicked. Evil is winning, and God assures David that he will do something about it.
v6 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Here David speaks about the words of God. They are “pure words,” as pure is silver with the impurities completely removed. In other words, David is declaring his faith that God's words are as “good as gold.” If God says he's going to do something, then by gum he's going to do it.
v7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
David declares to God his faith that God will preserve “them.” Now, here is the issue with KJV-only literature. To what does “them” refer, the “words” in v6 or the “poor” and “needy” of the prior verse? We will seek to answer that question below.
v8 The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.
David notes that when evil men are raised up, evil abounds. However, this is no longer the problem for David that it might have been, since God has promised to intervene and David has accepted that promise at face value.

So back to the KJV issue, we have two choices for the interpretation of verses 6-7. Either they stand alone as they are found in KJV-only literature as a promise of God to preserve his words forever, like this:

v6: God's word can be trusted, and
v7: God will preserve his words for us

or they are logically integrated into the rest of the psalm, like this:

v5: Because God says he will set the poor and needy in safety, and
v6: Because God's word can be trusted, therefore
v7: We can trust that God will preserve the poor and needy.

If the first interpretation is correct, then v6 and v7 form a complete unit, unrelated to the rest of the psalm. They stand as in island dedicated to the integrity of scripture rising above the waves of unjust societal oppression. Or if we are to argue that somehow v6 and v7 belong with the rest of the psalm, we end up arguing that God answered David's prayer for help from oppression by promising to produce a perfect bible in the 17th Century for English-speakers. I'm sure that would make David feel better, but it does leave his immediate problem rather unresolved***. God seems to have just dropped two verses about scripture into David's petition for relief.

If this second interpretation is the correct one, then Psalm 12 has absolutely nothing to say about modern Bible versions and especially the KJV.

I believe the second to make a far better case, based not only on the verse 5-6-7 logical pattern but because in this reading v7 provides the solution for the the problem outlined in v1. Only in the second case is the psalm a single problem/solution literary unit with all verses belonging in that context. The "them" is ambiguous, to be sure, but I see absolutely no reason to interpret it in such a way as to remove vv6&7 from the rest of the psalm.

But if the second is the correct interpretation, then one who uses these verses to support a KJV-only position is doing violence to the very word of God he is ripping churches apart to defend. Which is not as ironic as it might seem at first glance.

* I probably haven't mentioned recently how much I hate verse divisions. The original scriptural writings did not contain them, of course - they are a product of the 12th Century - which is why when I reproduce scripture here I usually take them out. Yes, they are fine if one needs to find a specific verse or to cut a passage into manageable chunks as I have done above. Too often, however, they produce a cookie-cutter bible, a Confucian-like handbook of clever little slogans, universalized and divorced from context, that are more misleading than helpful.

** we're skipping “To the chief Musician upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David,” which is not part of the psalm proper, but tells the author and the note upon which it is to begin. Sheminith is, according to Easton's Bible Dictionary, “a musical term, supposed to denote the lowest note sung by men’s voices."

*** the result a lack of respect for context usually produces.

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