ArticleWho Is Who In Psalm 12?
AuthorHelmut Richter
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Who Is Who In Psalm 12?

The last verses of Psalm 12 are translated in different ways, and not all of the translations allow to use these verses as a testimony that God preserves his word in a special way – which is one of the most frequent ways to quote this psalm. We try to identify the various translation possibilities.

The verse in question

Psalm 12, in particularly its verse 8, is often quoted as a Biblical testimony that God preserves his word. In some translations, however, this verse reads differently. This article is an attempt to describe the possible ambiguities and the differences.

Both psalm numbering and verse numbering differ across the translations. In the LXX and the Vulgate (those translations where Ps.9 is about 40 verses long) it is Psalm 11; in the KJV and some other translations (those where the headline until “… David” carries no verse number) all verse numbers are lower by one than in this article.

The original Hebrew (Masoretic Text, MT) reads:

אַתָּה-יְהוָה תִּשְׁמְרֵם;    תִּצְּרֶנּוּ, מִן-הַדּוֹר זוּ לְעוֹלָם

The Authorised Version (King James Version, KJV) translates:

Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

with “them” referring to the words of God mentioned in the preceding verse, whereas the New International Version (NIV) has “us” as the object:

O LORD, you will keep us safe and protect us from such people forever.

and Young's Literal Translation (YLT), in harmony with the MT, has two different objects:

Thou, O Jehovah, dost preserve them, Thou keepest us from this generation to the age.

The importance and the lasting validity of God's word, written, spoken, and incarnate, it emphasised often enough in the Bible that one need not refer to this particular verse for this message. Consequently, attributing vile motives to those that render this verse differently from what we find in our favourite translation is at least inconsiderate – if not false witness. In the sequel, we try to find out what the verse says, irrespective of what we want it to say or what we are used to believe it says.

Where the translations differ

The translations I and others have looked up differ in the answers to the following questions:

  1. Who is the object of the first verb (shamar, “keep” in the KJV)?

    Possible answers:

    • “them”, referring to the poor and needy of verse 6
    • “him”, referring to him set in safety (verse 6)
    • “them”, referring to the words of the LORD
    • “us”
    • “it”, referring to the silver (verse 7)
    • “one”, leaving the reference open
    • no object at all
  2. Who is the object of the second verb (natzar, “preserve” in the KJV)?

    Possible answers: same as for question 1 above

  3. What does “from” mean?

    Possible answers:

    • relation: protect someone from someone or something
    • time: from some point in time onward
  4. Who is “this generation”?

    Possible answers:

    • everybody living at that time
    • the deceitful people mentioned in the verses 3–5

My non-professional understanding of the Hebrew

I am going to explain the table of translations below by giving my comment on the Hebrew text. I am not a Hebrew scholar, so my remarks should be taken with a considerable grain of salt.

  1. The word is “tishmerem” (you will guard them, where “them” is masculine plural). The last masculine plural word were the poor and needy, hence the first alternative “the poor”. It is not fully convincing as the antecedent is so far away and was not the subject of a sentence there, and there is more often in the Bible a masculine plural ending referring to a feminine plural antecedent. The fact that no knowledgable translator of Hebrew comes to this result casts more serious doubts on it. I leave it in the table below without being really convinced.

  2. The word is “titzrennu” (you will keep him/it), referring either to the person set in safety in verse 6 or to the silver in verse 7. The former is more plausible, the latter is the last masculine antecedent. Note that the same sequence of consonants, תצרנו, allows also for the vocalisation “titzrenu” (you will keep us) with Tzere before the Nun and no Dagesh in it. This variant has been taken by many translators. (An older version of this article ignored the significance of the ending with the geminated Nun, thus concluding “us” to be the answer.)

  3. The word is “min” (from) which, just like its English counterpart, can mean both relation and time – in contrast to German where the translator has to decide between “vor” (relation) and “von … an” (time). The cantillation marks of the Masoretes seem to have the greater pause before the “from” which slightly favours solution “time”. On the other hand, the common expression for “from … to …” in the Hebrew Bible is “min … we-ad …”, literally “from … and until …”. Here, however, we have a simple “le-olam” meaning “for ever”. Moreover, the verb “natzar” is indeed used with the preposition “min” elsewhere, e.g. in Ps.32:7 and Ps.64:2. (An older version of this article favoured the solution “time”.)

  4. The expression is “ha-dor zu” (this generation). “zu” is a not too common variant of either “ze” (this, masc.) or “zot” (this, fem.). Today it belongs to disrespectful language, normal would be “ha-dor ha-ze”. The only two other occurences of “zu” in the Bible (Ps.10:2; 17:9) seem to corroborate this. If this argument holds water, the expression could mean “this kind of people” which is solution “the deceitful people”. My Hebrew is too shoddy to decide that.

A table of different renderings

Now the different translations. For the Greek and the Latin, which I cannot read myself, I had much friendly assistance from other Usenet participants. Note that the Vulgate version “iuxta Hebraeos”, i.e. after the Hebrew text, is not the common Latin text used in the Roman Church: Jerome translated the Psalms three times: first as a quick revision of older translations from the LXX (Psalterium Romanum), then as a more thorough translation from the LXX (Psalterium Gallicanum), and a third time from the Hebrew text (iuxta Hebraeos), which did not enter the liturgy.

Under the headline Or. the origin of the version is given: J=Jewish, C=Catholic (or pre-Reformation Christian), P=Protestant.

An answer in italics signifies a conjecture whereas an upright answer signifies that the translation is fairly unambiguous with respect to its target language.

Language Or. Version keep whom? preserve whom? “from”? “generation”?
Hebrew J Masoretic text the poor him set in safety relation the wicked
Greek J Septuagint (LXX) usustime¹)all people
Latin C Vulgata (iuxta Hebraeos) the words of God usrelation the wicked
English P Authorised Version (KJV) the words of God the words of God time all people
English P NIV us us relation the wicked
English P R. Young (YLT) the words of God us time all people
German C Jerusalem Bible, older v. us us relation the wicked
German C Einheitsübersetzung us us relation the wicked
German J M. Buber / F. Rosenzweig the words of God one relation the wicked
German P M. Luther, Rev.1912 the words of God us relation the wicked
German P M. Luther, Rev.1984 the words of God us relation the wicked
German J S.R. Hirsch (commentary) the words of God the silver relation the wicked
German C E. Zenger (commentary) him set in safety him set in safety relation the wicked
French P L. Segond the words of God the words of God relation the wicked

¹) The preposition “apo” (“from”) might mean either time and relation, but the following “kai” (“and”, so that the whole is “from this generation and to the ages”) suggests that time is meant.

The many “the wicked” in the last column come from the many “relation” in the preceding column: It does not make sense to protect someone from an entire generation to which he belongs himself. As some participants in the discussion have pointed out, the question is perhaps meaningless as the beginning of the psalm states that the entire generation is wicked: “the faithful have vanished from among men”.

An interesting point is that most translators harmonise the two objects of the two verbs. In the Hebrew original they are distinct (“them” versus “him/it”, perhaps “us”), in many translations they are harmonised (KJV and Segond: both “them”; LXX, NIV, and others: both “us”). It may be that some translators have decided so because they may have thought of a scribal error: the two endings look nearly the same in Hebrew: vs. .

The psalm in its entirety

When we consider the psalm in its entirety, protecting people makes more sense to me from the context than protecting God's word. After all, it is a psalm on eloquent deceitful people and not first and foremost on the word of God like Ps.119 and several others. The reliable word of God is contrasted to the lies of the crafty people, but not so much in general but in the special instance of God siding with the economically helpless: “They may lie all the time, and you can never rely on their words; but when God says he sides with the poor, you can rely on it”. The change of object, albeit abandoned by most translators, makes also sense: “He keeps his word [that] he will save him”.

After all, when you read the entire psalm, its message is conveyed. Just like any other text from the Bible, it is not meant as a treasure of isolated sentences to quote from. The message that God keeps and preserves his word is contained in this psalm – clearly enough to rely on it, perhaps not clearly enough to draw further conclusions.