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Standard vs Non-Standard: Isaiah 59:19b (Part 2)

March 12, 2016

Isaiah 59:19b in the KJV reads as follows:

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.

Now this translation is problematic as I mention in Part 1, that is, I don’t think it accurately represents the meaning of the Hebrew original. But for the moment, let’s stay with this familiar and popular rendering, because it presents an additional complication.

There is a strange little teaching out there about this verse, something I want to call a “fluffoid.” Let me explain:

In the Spring around here one often sees little balls of fluff floating on the wind. These are bits of “cotton” from cottonwood trees, fluffy filaments which allow the seed to travel on air currents and eventually land who knows where.

Listen to preaching enough and you will encounter a verbal equivalent of cottonwood cotton. I’ve been pondering what to call these bits of insubstantial and dubious but widespread claims. They are something like an “urban legend.” Or like the original meaning of”factoid”:

“a piece of information that becomes accepted as a fact even though it’s not actually true, or an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print.” (a term coined by Norman Mailer in 1973 according to Wikipedia)

Here is the claim:

The KJV translators placed the comma in the wrong place. It really should read:

“When the enemy shall come in, like a flood the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.”

Here is an example of that claim (found by a random Google):

When you look at our opening verse you might say “okay, when the devil comes in like a flood, the Holy Spirit will lift up a standard against him. Glory!” No, that is not what it is saying! For many years, many Christians have thought it like that and preached “when the enemy comes in like a flood, God’s Spirit will protect”; sorry sir! The one who comes like the flood is the Spirit of the Lord, and not the enemy.

The Old Testament was written in the Hebrew language, and had no punctuations, the punctuations we have were inserted by our translators. And in this verse the comma (,) was misplaced. How do we know? First of all, in Scripture, only God comes like a flood, and not the devil; ” Thou (God) carriest them (enemies) away as with a FLOOD…” (Psalm 90:6). Secondly, if you look at it from the Hebrew words used in the verse, you’d know that it is not talking about the enemy’s flood that try to destroy us and the Spirit of the Lord coming to lift a standard against him, but instead it is the flood of the Spirit that sweeps the enemy and his works. (Jack Siame, 2012)

Where this idea started, I don’t know, but it goes back at least to Kenneth Copeland, not exactly a recommendation, though he may have gotten it from somewhere else.

But indeed, let’s “look at it from the Hebrew words used in the verse,” and we see this “fluffoid” is completely false. Here is the Hebrew:

כִּי-יָבוֹא כַנָּהָר צָר, רוּחַ יְהוָה נֹסְסָה בוֹ

As presented by Mechon-Mamre online Hebrew text. Now this version does use Western punctuation, and you’ll note the comma. This is exactly where the KJV translators put it.

Here are three arguments showing the fluffoid is wrong:

(1) The Hebrew word order does not allow it.

What makes the claim even possible is the placement of the phrase “like a flood” in the English of the KJV rendering, right in the middle.

When the enemy shall come in / like a flood / the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.

So theoretically, if we only had the English, I guess we could debate which side “like a flood” is modifying. But not so in Hebrew, where the order is as follows:

When comes in/Like a flood/The enemy/The Spirit/Of the Lord/Shall lift up a standard/Against Him.

You’ll note “like a flood” is located between the verb and the subject. It is unquestionably modifying “When the enemy shall come in.”

(2) The Hebrew poetic structure does not allow it.

This chapter of Isaiah is written in poetic form. Now there are a lot of technical details to how poetry works in Hebrew. But one of the most basic features is parallelism. Briefly stated, a line of poetry divides up into two halves–very clearly–with matching rhythm on each side of the divide. Here is how this line reads in Hebrew:












Nosesah bo

For will come

Like the river




Will raise a banner on it

The parallel rhythm is 123:123. And the word kannahar (“like a river”) is unambiguously an element of the first half, not the second.

(3) The Hebrew punctuation does not allow it.

Yes, I said punctuation. The quote above asserts that Hebrew has no punctuation. Now when originally written by Isaiah (ca 750 BC), he may well not have used punctuation. And we can see in the Isaiah Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca 125 BC), there is essentially no punctuation either.

But when we get to the Massoretic Text of the Old Testament, from which the KJV and other versions are translated, such as the Leningrad Codex (AD 1008), it is full of punctuation. These are not commas and periods and semicolons, of course. They are cantillation marks, guiding the cantor, or Scripture reader, exactly how to pronounce the text. One of the roles they serve is to put in stops and pauses.

Right at the end of the clause: “For will come like a river the enemy” there is a break and a pause, indicated by an intermediate mark, the zaqef qaton, essentially analogous to our comma. Here it is marked by the red arrow below:

isaiah 59 zaqef

There is the “comma” that the KJV translators did not invent, but which the greatest Hebrew scholars of their day, keepers of the sacred tradition both written and oral, placed in the official copy of the Hebrew Bible.

It would be nice if this information would permanently ground the Fluffoid of the Misplaced Comma, but we know it won’t, don’t we?

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