Rereading Isaiah 40:6

Although the Bible is the most beloved and the most read book in the world, it is probably also the most misunderstood.  One of the reasons for this condition is that many people read the Bible but never take time to study it in detail.

People who love the Bible read those holy words for knowledge, edification, and spiritual nourishment.  They may read the words of the Old Testament over and over again and find joy and peace for their souls and answers for the problems of life, and yet they may miss the precise meaning of what the original author intended to communicate to the people to whom those words were written.

The average readers of the Old Testament may be familiar with its content and words.  They may read one verse or one chapter and meditate on what was read and discover what the Bible says about God, about the human predicament, and how to discover comfort in the midst of suffering, and yet, without fully grasping the message the writer was addressing to his audience.

Take for instance this reading from the King James Version: “The voice said, ‘Cry.’ And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’  All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6).

In order to discover whether people understood the message of this verse, I took an informal poll and asked several people to read this verse twice and then define the word “goodliness.”  Most people who read the passage believed that word “goodliness” had something to do with the goodness of people.  This is how the Holman Christian Standard Bible understands the verse: “A voice was saying, ‘Cry out!’  ‘What should I cry out?’  ‘All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.’”  However, in the context of Isaiah 40, the word “goodlines” is used in the sense of elegance, comeliness, or beauty.

One commentator understood the word to be an attempt to make a contrast between people (all flesh) and grass.  He said that the prophet’s intent was to emphasize that all people are weak and feeble like the grass that is soon withered.  To him, this comparison refers to all people, in all places, and at all times.

This passage in Isaiah is quoted in 1 Peter 1:24: “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass.”  Several modern translations are influenced by the text of 1 Peter and follow the example of the King James Version:

The New International Version translates “A voice says, ‘Cry out.’  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’  ‘All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.’”

The Revised Standard Version translates: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’  All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.”

The New Jerusalem Bible translates: “A voice said, ‘Cry aloud!’ and I said, ‘What shall I cry?’  ‘All humanity is grass and all its beauty like the wild flowers.’”

All the translations above are influenced by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that came into existence in the second century before the Christian era.  The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word hesed as doxa and so does 1 Peter (1 Peter 1:24).  The word doxa means “glory.”

Explaining how the word doxa is used in Isaiah 40:6, Albert Barnes wrote in his commentary: “Applied to grass, or to herbs, it denotes the flower, the beauty, the comeliness.  Applied to man, it means that which makes him comely and vigorous–health, energy, beauty, talent, wisdom.  His vigor is soon gone; his beauty fades; his wisdom ceases; and he falls, like the flower, to the dust.  The idea is, that the plans of man must be temporary; that all that appears great in him must be like the flower of the field; but that Yahweh endures, and his plans reach from age to age, and will certainly be accomplished.  This important truth was to be proclaimed, that the people might be induced not to trust in man, but put their confidence in the arm of God.”

The word that appears in the Hebrew of Isaiah is hesed.  The word hesed is related to the covenant God established with Israel at Sinai.  The word hesed refers to the commitment that binds two parties to a relationship.

In his book, The Word Hesed in the Hebrew Bible (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), Gordon Clark says that hesed is an “action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties” (p. 267).  Since faithfulness to a relationship is a character of God, God also expects his people to be as committed to the relationship as he is.

When the word is applied to God, it refers to his faithfulness to the relationship.  Thus, the word is best translated “faithfulness,” “unfailing love,” “loyalty.”  When the word is applied to human beings, it refers to the loyalty and commitment that people should bring to that relationship.  In this case, a good translation of hesed should be “commitment,” “loyalty.”  A strong relationship is built on commitment.  Israel should be as loyal and committed to the covenant as God was.

The New Revised Standard Bible has a much better translation of this verse: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’  All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field” (Isaiah 40:6)

The Today’s New International Version also reflects the intent of the writer: “A voice says: ‘Cry out.’  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’  ‘All people are like grass, and all human faithfulness is like the flower of the field.’”

God promised to be faithful to the relationship and he was.  The people of Israel promised to be faithful to the covenant, but they were not.  Thus, what the prophet is trying to communicate is that the people’s commitment is like the flower of the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow.  This is the same idea expressed by the prophet Hosea: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?  What shall I do with you, O Judah?  Your love (hesed) is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (Hosea 6:4).

In Isaiah 40:6 the prophet is saying that the commitment of Israel to the covenant was like the flower of the field: it did not last very long.  He is also saying that God’s word, his promises to Israel, endure forever because he is faithful to his commitment to the relationship.

We must reread Isaiah 40:6 from a different perspective and learn anew that God does not want “goodliness.”  God wants the commitment of his people.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament

This entry was posted in Hebrew Bible, Hesed, Isaiah and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Rereading Isaiah 40:6

  1. Wayne Leman says:

    >I appreciate this post and have linked to it from the latest post on my blog. Shalom!

    Like

  2. >Wayne,Thank you for for linking this post to your blog.Have a blessed Christmas.

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  3. >Hi Dr Mariottini, I appreciate that you must be a very busy man, so please feel free to not answer my question if time does not allow you. I have a request involving a re-reading of Ecclesiastes, in particualr, the word translated as ‘meaningless’ (I think it’s hebel). My question is two-fold, (1) why do so many translations render it ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity’ or something similar when it is usually translated to mean ‘fleeting’ (e.g. Proverbs 31:30), and (2) If we did render it ‘fleeting’ in the book of Ecclesiastes how would it change the overall interpretation of that book? (ref. Job 7:7+16; Ps. 144:4; James 4:14).Thank you very much.

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