Line Upon Line

the Word

“For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.”

Isaiah 28:10


Over the past few months this verse, Isaiah 28:10, continues to pop up in on my screen in various forms. First, my husband and I were reading Isaiah 28 together, which peaked my interest. We dug around a little before proceeding with our reading. A few days, later I read a blog quoting these words. Then, I found an entire piece of writing based on this verse. Since, I’ve found online groups and organizations whose mission surrounds these words.

And I find it odd.

First, I feel uncomfortable because every single reference to this verse that I have seen uses it in a positive context. For example, God is so kind to teach us slowly and gently, in little bits and pieces so we can understand. Or, in this same way we must be patient with our children as we teach them about God. Also, the website groups who claimed this verse as their moto, or furthermore, used it in the actual name of their site, patterned their teaching style around this idea that God desires to teach us in this “line by line”, one-block-on-top-of-another method. While YHWH may be patient with our slow learning, while he may teach us small bits at a time, I’m not sure that is what is being conveyed in this text.

As I originally studied this section of Scripture with my husband, we both noted how disappointing it was that the leaders of the community were so despicable. No matter how this particular verse is translated or interpreted, and there are vast differences, it is not shown in a positive light. There is nothing worth emulating in this verse. The exact same language, word for word, is used a few verses later and consequentially, leads the people to exile. Whatever this means, it seems like if it the path leads to brokenness and entrapment we should proceed with caution.


“And the word of YHWH will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little,
that they may go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken.”

Isaiah 28:13


Second, it is a little disheartening to me that so much is drawn from a passage with such unknown meaning. The speaker of the quote itself is unclear. The subject of the quote is a mystery. The Hebrew words themselves are confusing. The tone in which the quote is debatable. With all that in mind, the interpretation of this sentence may not be a foundation on which it wouls be wise to base an entire Biblical teaching method. Or even the manner in which we interact with our children. It seems shaky to me.

I am not saying there is nothing to be gained from searching this portion of Scripture. I think that all Scripture is valuable for teaching, correcting and training in righteousness. I am just going to walk through the things that we saw as we pondered these verses. This is not going to be any kind of scholarly article on the Hebrew vocabulary or the grammatical structure. I am not claiming to be a scholar of Hebrew or the book of Isaiah, by any means. I just hunger for the Word and find in it a satisfying joy like nothing else.

If you want to read the entire chapter, or even the chapters before and after click the link for Isaiah 28.

So this passage starts with Isaiah lamenting over the fact that the priests and the prophets are coming to ruin. He states that their proud crowns and glorious beauty will be dashed to the ground and snatched away. Their drunkenness is playing a significant part in the wayward direction they are leading the people. They cannot see or make any sound judgments. The effect of their visionless leading is starving the people, by replacing the life-sustaining nutrition with something repulsive and poisonous to their bodies.

Here is the verse, in its first context.


““To whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.””

Isaiah 28:9-10


These words are in the form of a quote, spoken by someone, and about someone, but exactly who the speaker and the subject are is unclear. Since Isaiah is already speaking or writing, it doesn’t seem natural to add a quote from himself without making it more obvious. I don’t feel like this verse represents words from Isaiah. It doesn’t appear to be God speaking, either. Usually, prophets make very clear the exact words of YHWH. We are left with the drunk leaders, which I think makes sense. In the verses just beforehand, Isaiah is describing them and their failure to adequately lead the people.

Proceeding with the presumption that the wicked priests and prophets are saying these words, it seems like they are speaking of Isaiah. They could be essentially mocking the true prophet, Isaiah, and ultimately YHWH and his message, saying “who does Isaiah think he’s dealing with, babies? Teaching us this rudimentary, childish nonsense, little simplistic rules here and there. ”

I looked up each of these words to attempt to piece together what was meant by these drunken leaders. I found out something interesting. Its a simple rhyme. Like a child’s babbling. Not only that, since the some of translations are difficult the work out, some scholars think that flow of the odd sounding words add to this sense of a childish babbling song. That would make sense in the context of the following verses as well.


“For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
yet they would not hear.”

Isaiah 28:11-12


Isaiah, now, steps back in to narrate, explaining that YHWH will be heard. It will be through strange, foreign words that he will speak to his people. There is irony here that the people chose to ignore the first message and called it simple, childish babbling, and now YHWH will communicate through a different people who really do speak in an “babbling” tongue.


“And the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little,
that they may go, and fall backward,
and be broken, and snared, and taken.”

Isaiah 28:13


Now we find ourselves back at verse 13 again. This verse ties it all together. Isaiah explains, by the repeated usage of their own mocking words, that the message of YHWH will be like babble to them. It will be nothing more that simplistic, childish rhymes. Because of this they will “go and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.” Some commentators say that these words actually stem from Assyrian and have been translated to give this meaning. Originally, they would have been even more “foreign” sounding to the audience. I’m not entirely sure about that, but I thought it was an interesting point for further study down the road. In any case, because of the leaders’ adherence to the idea that the message from YHWH was “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a there a little”, whatever that truly means, YHWH was allowing them to be taken into exile.

I find it ironic that the idea of taking God’s Word “precept upon precept, line by line, here a little there a little”, which to so many is seen as a positive learning method, really leads to abusing the Scriptures and missing the point entirely. The ones using this quote seem to have a strong desire to learn and teach Scripture, but that is completely contradictory to the context in this the passage. In the passage, viewing YHWH’s Word in this way sent people into exile. That is obviously not how we should view the God’s message.

There are so many parallel passages (like in Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Malachi, 1 Corinthians, Matthew, and many additional places in Isaiah) that have been fascinating to explore. Really the interconnectedness of the Scriptures is endless, but I want to bring you to one more section that I think is deeply encouraging. These verses above may not ever fully be interpreted, there may always be confusion, but this next passage is so encouraging. No matter what confusion anyone has about these previous verses, the message of YHWH is that he is building a refuge of which the Messiah is the foundation of truth and the measure of all justice and righteousness.


“Therefore hear the word of YHWH, you scoffers, who rule this people in Jerusalem! Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement, when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter”; therefore thus says YHWH God,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’
And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plumb line;
and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.””

Isaiah 28:14-17


Isaiah reminds the leaders of the people in Jerusalem of the covenant they made with death. Lies and falsehoods have become their shelter for their refuge. These lies lead them to exile. YHWH then tells the people, through continued use of the building metaphor, that he has laid the foundation of a true shelter. This is the same language as is used to refer to YHWH’s Temple. These words are foreshadowing Yeshua, the Messiah, and the essentialness of his role as the cornerstone in building the sure foundation in Zion.

Not only it is encouraging that the truth of YHWH’s message of Messiah will fully overcome the lies of the covenant of death, but I found a word, “line”, repeated from the first section. In verse 10 the leaders are mocking the words of YHWH saying the teaching is “line by line”. In this first context the word was written into a sing-song rhyme. This same word is used here when YHWH explains the true message. In strong contrast, this is not childish babbling. Here, YHWH uses it in a serious and significantly more complex manner.

The word “line” is used in buidling contexts to represent the incremental lines of stacking bricks in rows, precisely and methodically measuring and building a structure. This word is expanded upon in the next phrase in the use of the related word, “plumb line”. This is the string to which all measurements are referenced. It determines whether or not the structure is straight and squared. This is also the purpose of the cornerstone, the reference stone at the base of the foundation that joins two walls together. An imperfect cornerstone will result in a structure that is not square or level. The Messiah’s complete obedience, his absolute righteousness, serves as the perfect reference for the rest of the structure.

So, in strong contrast to the mocking tone of the leaders’ simplistic song earlier, here YHWH shows that the line, said to be teachings fit for little children, will be the foundation of justice and measure that defines righteousness. This is not a childish rhyme anymore. This isn’t just a basic, simplistic message for immature followers of YHWH. The message he is trying to convey is that there is a standard of justice and righteousness and they are far off of it. The implications are much father reaching than they imagine. YHWH is building a true refuge with the cornerstone being the promised Messiah.

So what does it matter, really? Why even engage in engage a passage like this? Some people read it one way, others interpret it another way and maybe we will never arrive at the true meaning of all of it. Should we even bother?

Yes! It matters for two reasons (at least):

  • We learn here that it is dangerous to take bits and pieces of the Word, out of context. We miss the true and essential message of YHWH in exchange for empty lies.
  • The mere act of searching and pondering the Scriptures is invaluable. This takes time, effort and motivation from the Spirit, but produces a profound delight and hopeful hunger for the sustaining power of the Scriptures.


How can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
    let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O YHWH;
    teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
    all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
    as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
    and fix my eyes on your ways.
 will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word.

Psalm 119:9-16




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