“You Have Increased Their Joy” (Isaiah 9:3)

A reader asked me to explain Isaiah 9:3 (Hebrew 9:2). The reason for his question is because the versions differ when translating this verse into English. Below are two translations of Isaiah 9:3:

King James Version:

“Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”

The Jewish Publication Society:

“Thou hast multiplied the nation, Thou hast increased their joy; they joy before Thee according to the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.”

I have used bold letters in quoting the text to emphasize the section of verse 3 where the versions differ. As can be seen above, one version (the KJV) is negative, “and not increased the joy,” while the other version (the JPS) is positive, “Thou hast increased their joy.” The question is: why the difference?

The answer to this question and the explanation as to why the two versions differ in their translation of the text is found in the Hebrew Bible and in the notes provided by the Masoretes. Let me begin by identifying the Masoretes.

The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who copied the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. They added the vowels to the consonantal text, marked doubtful passages, and divided the text into sections for liturgical use. One of the greatest contributions of the Masoretes was the marginal notes they added to the manuscripts. These notes provided alternative readings of the texts which they believed represented a more correct reading than those found in the manuscripts.

These notes are called the Ketiv/Qere. The Ketiv, “that which is written,” is the form of the word which appears in the Hebrew Bible. The Qere, “that which is to be read,” is the correction made by the scribes, which in their opinion represents an ancient and better reading.

One of those proposed emendations is found in Isaiah 9:3 and the issue here is a homophone. Homophones are words that when read, they are pronounced alike but have different meaning or are spelled differently. One good example of homophones in English is found in the words “to,” “too,” and “two.”

The homophone in Hebrew is לא and לו. The two words sound alike when they are pronounced in Hebrew, but they have different meanings. The first word לא, lo’, means “not,” and the second word לו, , means “to him,” “his.”

The Hebrew text of Isaiah 9:3 reads as follows:

לֹא הִגְדַּ֣לְתָּ הַשִּׂמְחָ֑ה

The King James translates the text as: Thou hast not increased the joy. This is the Ketiv or what is written in the text. However, the Masoretes said that this is not the best and original reading. Thus, they put a note in the margin of the text and said that instead of reading לא, lo’, the text should read לו, , “Thou hast increased their joy.” This is the Qere, what should be read.

Now, when it came time to translate Isaiah 9:3 into English, of all the modern versions, only the King James Version adopted the Ketiv reading, the reading of the Hebrew text. All the other versions, including the New King James Version followed the Qere, or the reading proposed by the Masoretes.

A closer look at the context of the passage demonstrates that “Thou hast increased their joy” is the better reading. According to the text, the Lord enlarged the nation and increased their joy. In addition, the people rejoice before the Lord in the same way they rejoice at harvest time and when they divide spoils.

It is unfortunate that the King James did not follow the Qere in translating Isaiah 9:3 since the negative translation adopted by the King James contradicts the message the prophet is trying to convey to his audience. The mood of joy and celebration that will be demonstrated by the people affirms that the Qere reading, “Thou hast increased their joy,” is the correct reading of Isaiah 9:3.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to “You Have Increased Their Joy” (Isaiah 9:3)

  1. Nate says:

    >I've always found the Ketiv/Qere distinction for reasons to accept the integrity of most of the text that we have. For the people tasked with preserving the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, they were so dedicated not to subtract from the integrity of the text that they didn't change plainly incongruent spellings and words, they just gave the traditionally "fixes" in additional to the passed-down texts.

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  2. >Nate,You are correct in your evaluation of the work of the Masoretes. They had a high view of the text and were reluctant to make changes to the original text. This is the reason they developed a system of marginal notes. Even when a word was missing, as it is the case in the book of Ruth, they were ruluctant to put the missing word into the text.Thank you for your comment.Claude Mariottini

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  3. Scott Rowley says:

    >Another point not covered here is that the footnotes say the word was not copied correctly. Instead of הגוי לא it is perferred הגילד which changes it from "nation no" to "rejoice" as it is in the Martin Luther Bible.

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  4. Scott Rowley says:

    >correction הגילה

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  5. >Scott,The solution you propose is a scholarly reconstruction of the problem. To my knowledge, it has been adopted by only one English translation, the New American Bible.I think it is wiser to remain with the correction proposed by the Masoretes.Have a blessed Christmas and a happy New Year.Claude Mariottini

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  6. Michael says:

    Thank you professor, you have helped me to deal with this text for my sermon for tomorrow. From a lutheran pastor in Germany: Many Christmas blessings!

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  7. Terry Dean says:

    In my view the author of Isaiah wrote ‘not’ and that is what is meant. The message I get from this passage is that the joy had not grown because people rejoiced for the wrong reasons; they rejoiced as men do when dividing up the spoils. That is, in their self-serving materialistic way; something that God specifically warns about in Proverbs 24; ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him!’
    But the people have now seen a great light; they have seen the error of their ways. The yoke of their oppressor has been broken. In other words they are no longer unconscious slaves to their materialistic nature. They are no longer in the shadow of darkness; they have woken up and seen the truth.
    Isaiah references the defeat of the Midianites in a subsequent verse to make clear his meaning. In my view this is very significant and should not be ignored. This story is summed up by the soldier’s dream in which a loaf of bread rolls into a tent and knocks it over. In other words the Midianites are defeated by their encounter with God’s truth (the loaf of bread). In both Isaiah and Judges it is seeing the truth that is the crucial factor that leads to redemption. The joy does not increase until there is a fundamental change in outlook.

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    • Terry,

      Thank you for your comment and for visiting my blog.

      Unfortunately, your interpretation of Isaiah 9:3 is not correct. You spiritualize the text and you also take the text out of its historical context. The author of Isaiah did not write “not” in the text because all the evidence points to the fact that the scribe made a mistake in copying from the original manuscript.

      If you read the text of Isaiah correctly you will understand the reason there is much joy among the people. I tried to explain the reason for the people’s joy, but it seems I did not do a good job because the way you are interpreting Isaiah 9:3, your interpretation goes completely contrary to what the prophet is trying to communicate to his audience.

      Claude Mariottini

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  8. David Valdez says:

    Thank you Dr. have always been leery of the NKJV translation, out of ignorance apparently, as i am skeptical when translation try to improve upon what God placed upon a Englishman King James heart to do. I have always used the verse “so as a man thinketh, so is he” as the Psalmist said as a litmus test of King James state of mind and heart.

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    • David,

      Thank you for your comment. When the translators of the King James Bible translated the Hebrew into English, they did not have the better manuscripts and all the other Hebrew writings available to them. Today we have a lot of material that help us understand the Hebrew text of the Bible.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

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