Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Does Psalm 12:7-6 promise the coming King James Bible?

A "King James Version Only" (KJVO) advocate recently wrote the following to me,
God promises to preserve His word for every generation and has not done so with Greek or Hebrew. That is clear since the Originals are gone. English was the 7th language that the Bible was translated into. The KJB was the 7th English Bible, if you minus the Catholic translations that come from the corrupt manuscripts. God's word was purified seven times. The fact is, God's word is here today and He said it would be PURE. If it is not the KJB, can you show me a Bible that is pure and without error?
Thus, we have one of the most interesting contentions of the KJVO position: the Bible promises God's preservation of the biblical text in the KJV only (not in the Greek or Hebrew manuscripts).  Among the key proof texts for this premise would be Psalm 12:6-7.  In the 1769 revision of the KJV, the one most of us are familiar with, it reads:
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.
Now, if you are unacquainted with this argument, your first question may be how anyone applies this text to the King James Bible.  To answer that question, I've prepared the following syllogism in an attempt to explain the logic.
God promised that His words would be purified seven times and that He would preserve them, and
the KJV translators relied on six prior English translations.
Therefore, the KJV fulfills Psalm 12:6-7. 
Based on this understanding, the argument appears to be valid.  The verse indeed says "Thou shalt keep them" and "thou shalt preserve them," which could speak of God's commitment to His words.  As such, author and KJVO advocate Dr. Laurence M. Vance, after giving a short history of English translation, writes:
And thus we have our answer. The seven English versions that make the English Bibles up to and including the Authorized Version fit the description in Psalm 12:6 of the words of the Lord being "purified seven times" are Tyndale's, Matthew's, Coverdale's, the Great Bible (printed by Whitechurch), the Geneva Bible, the Bishops' Bible, and the King James Bible. 
The Wycliffe, Taverner, and Douay-Rheims Bibles, whatever merits any of them may have, are not part of the purified line God "authorized," of which the King James Authorized Version is God's last one -- purified seven times.
Yet, Dr. Vance notes inconsistencies in his own camp in this interpretation.  More theories exist as to just how the KJV is the seventh and thus purified Bible.  Thus, Dr. Vance writes that it is both correct and incorrect to say that "Bible believers have manipulated the history of the English Bible to prove a bogus theory."  As he correctly notes, some of these Bibles in the so-called authorized line are only revisions, not fresh translations.  Moreover, because the first and fourteenth rules the KJV translators followed called for adherence to prior translations, the 1611 KJV was essentially a revision of revisions.

(My guess that Dr. Vance would want to correct that eager defender of KJVO who said, "The KJB was the 7th English Bible, minus the Catholic translations that come from the corrupt manuscripts."  All the Bibles in "the purified line God 'authorized,'" use or are influenced by those same texts.  The Latin influences on the King James translators is undeniable.)

Unfortunately, inconsistencies abound.  Whatever validity the argument appears to have, it is simply not sound logically.  As we will see, this passage neither prophesies that God will purify the Scripture seven times during a future English translation process nor that He would even preserve His Words.  Thus, the premise about Psalm 12:6-7 is not valid, and as such, KJVO advocates cannot use it to prove the purity or authority of the King James Version.

Before going on to evidence this, however, we must first note that the psalmist has a high view of Scripture in this passage.  We see the contrast between the vain words of men and the pure words of God.  A strong piece of imagery for Israel - silver tried seven times by fire - indicates how trustworthy people are to see God's Word.

Such a contrast lays the groundwork for the other contrast David notes here: those who hatre God's ways versus the promise that God will accomplish what He wants to for His people.  Despite arrogant boasting from those who flatter themselves and deny God's lordship over them (vv. 3-4), David argues that God will preserve those who call out to Him (vv. 5, 7).  The oppressed can believe stand on this because of the firm foundation God's word provides (vv. 6-7).

Is this understanding based on Scripture?  Let's look at the Bibles that are part of God's "purified line,"  to see how they handled vv. 6-7:
  • Tyndale: N/A (Tyndale was martyred before completing the OT.)
  • Matthew's (1537):  "The wordes of the Lord are pure wordes euen as the siluer, which from earth is tryed and purified .vij. tymes in the fyre.  Kepe them therfore (O Lorde) and preserue vs from this generacion for euer."  John Rogers translates this as a pleading on the psalmists part: God's words are pure, so Lord, keep them by preserving us.
  • Coverdale (1535): "The wordes of the LORDE are pure wordes: eue as ye syluer, which from earth is tried and purified vij. tymes in the fyre.  Kepe the therfore (o LORDE) and preserue vs fro this generacion for euer."  Here, we see that Miles Coverdale influenced the Roger's rendering in the Matthew's Bible.
  • The Great Bible (1539): "The wordes of the Lorde are pure wordes euē as the syluer, whych from earth is tryed and purifyed seuē tymes in the fyre.  Thou shalt kepe them (O Lorde) thou shalt preserue  hym from thys generacyō for euer"  Coverdale kept the pleading in the Great Bible, but referred to the godly in the third person singular rather than the first person plural.
  • Geneva (1560): "The wordes of the Lorde are pure wordes, as the siluer, tried in a fornace of earth, fined seuen folde.  Thou wilt keepe them, O Lord: thou wilt preserue him from this generation for euer."  The translators decided to keep Coverdale's understanding of the text as found in the Great Bible.
  • Bishops (1568): "The wordes of God be wordes pure, as the siluer tryed in a furnace of earth: and purified seuen times.  [Wherfore] thou wylt kepe the godly, O God: thou wylt preserue euery one of them from this generation for euer."  The bishops make the idea that the latter third-person pronoun refers back to the godly by their replacing of the earlier pronoun with "the godly."  The essence of the plea is shifted to a more confident statement by their insertion of "wherefore."
  • King James (1611): "The wordes of the Lord are pure wordes: as siluer tried in a fornace of earth purified seuen times. Thou shalt keepe them, (O Lord,) thou shalt preserue them, from this generation for euer."  See below for commentary.
Notice that every one of "God's 'authorized'" versions that predates the KJV understands this passage to speak of the preservation of the godly.  While the Bishops' Bible departs from the rest, even it does so to keep the idea that people, not God's words, need God's sustaining hand for eternity.  The question now falls as to what the 1611 edition of the King James Bible means.

If the translators are keeping with their predecessors, one or both of the third-person pronouns refers to the godly.  If the translators mean both to refer to the words of the Lord, as KJVO advocates claim, then theirs is the first English translation in this line to do so.  While the latter is possible, the former is true.

Note the Hebrew construction. Like in English, Hebrew nouns and pronouns have singular and plural constructions.  The first pronoun in verse 7, 'atah, is emphatic second-person singular, referring to God ("Thou, O LORD, thou shalt...").   The second and third pronouns are attached to the verb and are second-person singular and third-person plural, respectively, just as the KJV has it ("thou shalt keep them").  The fourth and fifth pronouns are again attached to the verb and are both singular ("thou shalt preserve him," not "them").

What is going on here?  Did the KJV translators miss this fact, or did God give them new revelation here for this text?  No and no - they translated it the way they did to keep with the previous translations rather than break from them.  In seeing the pronoun shift from the plural to the singular, the translators knew it would be awkward if they translated it as such, because that is what Coverdale had done previously in the Great Bible.  Then again, they did not want to take the liberties the bishops had in their text, even though they ultimately agreed with its understanding.

Thus, they made the decision to keep it as close to the original as possible while keeping the reading simple in English.  To help, they also inserted a marginal reading explaining this.  There, in the 1611 King James Bible, is a footnote with the following: "Heb. him, i. euery one of them."  (Yes, the modern versions are not the only ones with footnotes - the 1611 KJV had them too.)  The translators affirm the understanding as found in the Bishop's Bible, though they preferred a simpler reading.

Therefore, we understand this to be a wonderful psalm that uplifts the downtrodden in the Lord.  What hope is there when verse 8 describes this dark world?  It is in the God promises to place anyone crying out to Him in safety (v. 5), to keep the godly, and to preserve every one of us from this generation for ever (v. 7).  Can we trust Him?  Yes!  His words are tried and pure (v. 6), unlike the vain tongues of unbelieving men (vv. 1-4).

What the psalm does not do is promise that there is coming a better, more purified version of the Bible.  There is no call for Christians to search out a congruence of the number seven to find God's Word.   Let us be honest: this approach to the Bible reflects the methodology of Gnostics, taking a passage and finding secret and deeper truths, thus adding to Scripture.  Reading into this passage that a mystical alignment of translations and languages will give rise to a perfect Bible also robs it of the meaning God gave through it.  This is the real adding to and removing from Scripture to beware - changing the meaning of the text - and I hope that condemnation is not true of any Christian reading this.