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Bible Dictionaries

Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words

Keep, Watch, Guard

A. Verb.

Nâtsar (נָצַר, Strong's #5341), “to watch, to guard, to keep.” Common to both ancient and modern Hebrew, this verb is found also in ancient Ugaritic. It occurs some 60 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Nâtsar is found for the first time in the biblical text in Exod. 34:7, where it has the sense of “keeping with faithfulness.” This meaning is usually found when man is the subject: “keeping” the covenant (Deut. 33:9); “keeping” the law (Ps. 105:45 and 10 times in Ps. 119); “keeping” the rules of parents (Prov. 6:20).

Nâtsar is frequently used to express the idea of “guarding” something, such as a vineyard (Isa. 27:3) or a fortification (Nah. 2:1). “To watch” one’s speech is a frequent concern, so advice is given “to watch” one’s mouth (Prov. 13:3), the tongue (Ps. 34:13), and the lips (Ps. 141:3). Many references are made to God as the one who “preserves” His people from dangers of all kinds (Deut. 32:10; Ps. 31:23). Generally, nâtsar is a close synonym to the much more common verb, shâmar, “to keep, tend.” Sometimes “to keep” has the meaning of “to besiege,” as in Isa. 1:8, “… as a besieged city.”

Shâmar (שָׁמַר, Strong's #8104), “to keep, tend, watch over, retain.” This verb occurs in most Semitic languages (biblical Aramaic attests only a noun formed from this verb). Biblical Hebrew attests it about 470 times and in every period.

Shâmar means “to keep” in the sense of “tending” and taking care of. So God put Adam “into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15—the first occurrence). In 2 Kings 22:14 Harhas is called “keeper of the wardrobe” (the priest’s garments). Satan was directed “to keep,” or “to tend” (so as not to allow it to be destroyed) Job’s life: “Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life” (Job 2:6). In this same sense God is described as the keeper of Israel (Ps. 121:4).

The word also means “to keep” in the sense of “watching over” or giving attention to. David, ironically chiding Abner for not protecting Saul, says: “Art not thou a valiant man? and who is like to thee in Israel? wherefore then hast thou not kept thy lord the king?” (1 Sam. 26:15). In extended application this emphasis comes to mean “to watch, observe”: “And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the Lord, that Eli [was watching] her mouth” (1 Sam. 1:12). Another extended use of the verb related to this emphasis appears in covenantal contexts. In such cases “keep” means “to watch over” in the sense of seeing that one observes the covenant, keeping one to a covenant. God says of Abraham: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment …” (Gen. 18:19). As God had said earlier, “Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations” (Gen. 17:9). When used in close connection with another verb, shâmar can signify carefully or watchfully doing that action: “And he answered and said, Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord hath put in my mouth?” (Num. 23:12). Not only does shâmar signify watching, but it signifies doing it as a watchman in the sense of fulfilling a responsibility: “And the spies saw a man come forth out of the city …” (Judg. 1:24).

In a third group of passages this verb means “to keep” in the sense of saving or “retaining.” When Jacob told his family about his dream, “his brethren envied him; but his father observed the saying” (Gen. 37:11); he “retained” it mentally. Joseph tells Pharaoh to appoint overseers to gather food: “And let them … lay up corn under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities” (Gen. 41:35); let them not give it out but see that it is “retained” in storage.

In three passages shâmar seems to have the same meaning as the Akkadian root, “to revere.” So the psalmist says: “I have hated them that regard [revere] lying vanities: but I trust in the Lord” (Ps. 31:6).

B. Nouns.

Mishmâr (מִשְׁמָר, Strong's #4929), “guard; guardpost.” In the first of its 22 occurrences mishmâr means “guard”: “And he put them in ward [mishmâr] in the house of the captain of the guard, into the prison …” (Gen. 40:3). The word implies “guardpost” in Neh. 7:3. The word also refers to men on “guard” (Neh. 4:23) and to groups of attendants (Neh. 12:24).

Mishmereth (מִשְׁמֶרֶת, Strong's #4931), “those who guard; obligation.” This noun appears 78 times. The word refers to “those who guard” in 2 Kings 11:5: “… A third part of you that enter in on the sabbath shall even be keepers of the watch of the king’s house.” In Gen. 26:5 the word refers to an “obligation”: “Because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

Some other nouns are related to the verb shamar. Shemarim refers to “dregs of wine, lees.” One of the 4 appearances of this word is in Isa. 25:6: “… shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.” The noun shamrah means “guard, watch.” The single appearance of this word is in Ps. 141:3. Shimmurim means a “night vigil.” In Exod. 12:42 this word carries the meaning of “night vigil” in the sense of “night of watching”: “It is a night to be much observed unto the Lord for bringing them out from the land of Egypt: this is that night of the Lord to be observed of all the children of Israel in their generations.” This noun occurs twice in this entry and in no other verse. ’Ashmurah (or ’ashmoret) refers to “watch.” This noun occurs 7 times and in Exod. 14:24 refers to “morning watch”: “… that in the morning watch the Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians.…”

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Bibliography Information
Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Keep, Watch, Guard'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of OT Words. 1940.

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