Raise it or rase it? Psalm 137:7 KJV

In some circles it seems to be popular to claim that KJV is much more suitable for public reading than most modern Bible versions. Indeed there are many places where modern versions are not at all suitable for this, because they can be understood properly only in written form and not when read aloud. But it is not only modern versions which have this kind of defect.

I came across a seriously misleading place of this kind in KJV when I recently heard Psalm 137 read out from this version. As I listened to verse 7, I heard

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem, who said, Raise it, raise it …

Hold on, I thought, that can’t be right! I know the verse as more like

Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down …” (TNIV)

So why is KJV saying the exact opposite of TNIV? Is there some obscure textual issue here? Well, I began to wonder when I heard the end of the verse in KJV, “even to the foundations thereof” (TNIV “to its foundations”). How can something be raised to its foundations? I was quite distracted from the rest of the reading, and the preacher’s exposition of it, until I realised that perhaps the word in KJV was not “raise” but “rase” – as indeed was confirmed when I found a printed KJV.

So here is an example of KJV doing exactly what should never be done in a text intended for public reading: using a rare homophone of a common word in a context in which the common word makes some sense. In such circumstances listeners are certain to understand the common word rather than the rare one, or at the very best to become confused as I did.

I suppose some might wonder whether “raise” and “rase” were homophones, pronounced the same, at the time that KJV was translated. It is my understanding that the great vowel shift which made these words into homophones was essentially complete by 1600, and so the KJV translators should have realised the ambiguity of their wording. They can’t even claim the defence that they were copying the wording from older translations predating the great vowel shift: Coverdale has “Down with it, down with it”. Nor can KJV be defended on the ground that “rase” relatively less rare in KJV: this is the only place this verb is used in KJV, but “raise” is used well over 100 times.

So I think we all have to accept that KJV just like many modern translations has places which are quite unsuitable for public reading. I don’t suppose any translation is perfect in this respect. But things are likely to be much better with translations which have been read through carefully by stylists sensitive to this particular issue. I wonder which translations have been checked in this way.

20 thoughts on “Raise it or rase it? Psalm 137:7 KJV

  1. Glennsp says:

    When the word is given its proper context with the rest of the sentence there is no ambiguity at all.
    It is only a problem if the word is taken out of its context.

  2. anonymous says:

    Actually, the OED’s spelling is “raze” too.

    So are you troubled when the maid “dusts”, because airplanes do the opposite when they “dust” crops?

    Does it bother you the opposite of “resign” (give up) is “resign” (sign up again)?

    Does it bother you that we “clip” things together unless we “clip” them by cutting them apart?

    Does it bother you that a person “bolts” away while we “bolt” the foundations of our houses?

    Does it bother you that our faith “holds us up” by supporting us while a non-believer “holds us up” by hindering us?

    Does it bother you that we pay a restaurant “bill” with a “bill” (currency note)?

    Does it bother you that when shadows “adumbrate”, we “adumbrate” a solution?

    Does it bother you that we normally follow “customs” unless we have something “custom” made?

    Does it bother you that “overlook” important items unless we take care to “overlook” them?

    Does it bother you that in baseball a player gets a “strike” unless he “strikes” the ball?

    Does it bother you that you do not know whether I am “winding up” for a rant or “winding up” this post?

    By the way, there is also a double meaning in the Hebrew, although the double meaning is not same as raise/raze.

  3. Gary Zimmerli says:


    “Does it bother you that in baseball a player gets a “strike” unless he “strikes” the ball?”

    But if he strikes the ball and it goes foul, then it’s a strike. Unless he already has two strikes, then it’s just a foul ball. But if a player on the opposing team catches the foul ball before it strikes the ground, then it’s an out.

    Hey, what was this discussion about?

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    Thanks for the comments. I am aware that the modern spelling is “raze”, but I was using the spelling in KJV (probably the 1769 version of it) which is “rase”.

    I wonder if the “s” was pronounced as “z” in both “raise” and “rase” when KJV was first produced, or whether there could have been a pronunciation distinction here; perhaps the sound became “z” in “rase” first, which would explain why the spelling of “rase” was changed but that of “raise” was not. Oddly enough, the prefixed form “erase” has retained the “s” spelling at least in British English; we have “razor” but “eraser”.

    Anonymous, the examples you give are of variant senses of the same word with the same spelling, not homophones which are different words with different spellings but the same pronunciation. You could probably find some similar examples relating to homophones. If you do, I will attempt to respond.

  5. Glennsp says:

    Peter you chose to ignore the fact that, homophone or not, when the word is given in its sentence context the meaning is clear.
    On that basis there is no ‘seriously misleading place of this kind in KJV’.
    Reading it out loud makes no difference if you wait for the sentence to finish.
    It would almost appear that you wanted to create the problem just so you could write about it.
    So how can the TNIV be avoiding a problem that doesn’t actually exist?

  6. anonymous says:

    You could probably find some similar examples relating to homophones. If you do, I will attempt to respond.

    Are we seeding democracy in Iraq or are we ceding democracy in Iraq?

    Why are flowers petalous in Spring and petalless in Fall?

    Is a teenage driver reckless or, having never driven before, wreckless?

    If I give an oral report will you experience aural phenomena?

    Which is better, to burst in — an irrpution — or to burst out — an eruption?

  7. Ben Martin says:

    The fact that in American English “erase” is pronounced with an s sound and not a z sound is suspicious – is that a shift, or a preservation? (Merriam-Webster claims the British pronunciation of “erase” has the same consanant sound as “raze” – is that true? I had no idea.)

    On the other hand, Merriam-Webster claims “rase” is pronounced the same as “raze” though there is no indication of how long that has been the case.

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    In British English “erase” is indeed pronounced with a “z” sound. I have heard the “s” pronunciation, perhaps only from Americans.

    Anonymous, thanks for your list of homophones, which certainly demonstrates your inventiveness. But there is not really significant ambiguity in most of these examples. While I have never used either “petalous” or “petalless”, they would not be homophones as I would pronounce the latter with a distinct double “l”. I would also distinguish “irruption” and “eruption” in pronunciation, certainly if there was any possibility of confusion in the context. If I heard “(w)reckless teenager” I would of course understand the common “reckless” rather than the word “wreckless” which I suspect you have invented; I can’t imagine a reference to a “wreckless teenager” which was not a deliberate word play; so this one proves my point. As for “oral” and “aural”, this is a well known homophone pair which commonly causes confusion. This leaves only “seeding democracy” and “ceding democracy” as a point of confusion, and one which just might have contributed to the disaster of US policy in Iraq!

  9. Glennsp says:

    Why can’t you just admit you got it wrong Peter.
    By plucking one word out of part of a sentence it would be very easy to ‘drum up’ supposed areas of potential confusion because of the lack of the full context.
    This is no different to taking a sentence or verse out of context in the Bible. All you have done is reduced it to an even smaller segment.

  10. Peter Kirk says:

    Glenn, this is a real example where a real person, myself, misunderstood the KJV as read aloud. It really did take me some time to realise that the word I had heard was “rase” and not “raise”. I certainly didn’t understand it immediately I heard the end of the verse.

    I really don’t see why you have to comment three times saying exactly the same thing. I ignored you the first time because I didn’t want to get into the kind of contradiction match which you think is an argument. (Remember the Monty Python sketch?) And I still don’t intend to get into one. So I shall ignore any more comments from you unless they bring any points or information.

  11. Glennsp says:

    So you will continue to ignore the part about taking a word out of its full context – i.e. a complete sentence.
    Convenient, but understandable considering.

  12. Peter Kirk says:

    Glenn, I answered your point about taking a word out of its sentence context when I clarified that I misunderstood the sentence at first even when I heard the full sentence.

  13. Glennsp says:

    Peter, how have you managed to live this long 🙂 and not be familiar with the phrase ‘razed to the ground’.
    It is very common as a phrase here in the UK. I am not sure about from Primary School age, but definitely from Senior School onwards it would not have counted as ‘rare’ in any way at all.

  14. Peter Kirk says:

    Glenn, if the KJV wording had been “Rase it to the ground”, I would probably have caught on quicker. But the KJV wording was “Rase it, rase it, even to the foundations thereof”, which is not immediately recognisable as the same idiom.

    “Raze to the ground” is the kind of idiom which only works well if you don’t change the actual wording. A pail may be the same thing as a bucket, but “kick the pail” is not a synonym of “kick the bucket”.

    As I said, I did catch the meaning in the end, but I had to stop and think about it, which distracted me from the next verse and from the preachers’ comments on the psalm. Is a translation which distracts listeners from a preacher’s message a good one?

    And why are you suddenly defending KJV? Usually you defend ESV. I have no quarrel with the ESV rendering of this verse. Or are you just attacking me on this point because of my views on other issues?

  15. Glennsp says:

    Peter you said;
    “And why are you suddenly defending KJV? Usually you defend ESV. I have no quarrel with the ESV rendering of this verse. Or are you just attacking me on this point because of my views on other issues?”

    I am not defending the KJV per se, I am genuinely surprised that you were so easily thrown by a sentence whose meaning was/is so readily apparent IMO.
    Also I am not attacking you, I am making comment on the fact that I do not consider the use of ‘raze’ to be ‘rare’ as you were saying in your post.
    Personally I would not recommend the KJV for preaching today, but that is my personal opinion.
    As to attacking you for the sake of it, I am not that small minded or petty. (whatever you may think)
    Are you always this paranoid? (that is not meant as an insult, it is a serious question)

  16. Wayne Leman says:

    OK, I can’t really close down a topic on a blog in the same way that I can on an email discussion list, but I request that the discussion about Peter’s understanding of “rase” end.

    Everyone understands words a little differently. We don’t all understand the same words. It’s a fact of life. Let’s live with each other’s differences and not make negative comments about anyone for not having the same understanding as others.

    Even education can’t level everything out in life, since people attend different schools, use different curricula, and are part of something significantly different program(me)s in different countries.

    There is, I believe, a lesson for Bible translators in all of this. It is that Bible translation needs to be targeted for an audience that we have chosen for a translation.

    Not all audiences are the same. There is beauty in the different flowers God has made. There is beauty in the different forms of language and dialects which exist. And there is beauty in the many different Bible translations which we in the English-speaking world are so privileged to have.

    Let’s work harder at accepting and even enjoying our differences on this blog.

    In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, female nor male, slave nor free, high church nor low church, Brit nor American, Liverpool nor Manchester, Aussie nor Canadian, cessationist nor charismatic, egalitarian nor complementarian, Arminian nor Calvinist, et al. 🙂

  17. japhy says:

    Another translation that gets on my nerves is in Proverbs 4:12: When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened; and when thou runnest, thou shalt not stumble.

    When I hear that, I hear “thy steps shall not be straightened”. Ack.

  18. Peter Kirk says:

    Indeed, Japhy. And of course the strait gate of Matthew 7:13 – explained by the parallel in verse 14 but confusing until then, especially if you know as I do that ancient cities often had crooked gates and so a straight one makes good sense in the context. I guess “strait” and “straight” may not have sounded the same when KJV was translated; I’m not quite sure when the “gh” sound disappeared from standard English.

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