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Standard vs Non-Standard: Isaiah 59:19b (Part 3)

March 15, 2016

I do not think Isaiah 59:19 means what the KJV (and NKJV) says it means. Specifically, I’m going to argue (later) that the Hebrew word נֹסְסָה (nōsesâh) does not mean “lift up a standard.”

Let’s say I’m wrong, however. Still, let’s be clear about what the word standard means.

Standard meanings of standard

In contemporary English standard almost always means “a level or measure of quality.” For example, a person A stays at the Hilton, but pays more than person B who goes to Motel 6. We’d say this is because A has a higher standard.

Likewise person C has a burger at T.G.I. Fridays, but person D has a Quarter Pounder at McDonald’s. This too may be because C has a higher standard in hamburgers.

We also use it as an adjective with a meaning “normal, routine, or ordinary.” It may be a readily available model of something as opposed to something custom-built. In terms of connotation, it may indicate an accepted norm, for example, we don’t say “I ain’t got” in standard English. Or it may imply something is mediocre or unimaginative. We might see a movie that is derivative and full of clichés, not very memorable and say it “it was your standard superhero flick.”

Today either one or the other is what people mean by standard at least 99% of the time. But the KJV never means this. Never. Ever. Zero percent of the use of standard has this meaning. It is completely unknown. It is impossible. Never happens.


Roman Standard (from Wikipedia)

Standard in the KJV

It is only and entirely a reference to a physical object: a symbol or a banner on a pole, generally carried by an army in the context of a military campaign. Today, this is a very specialized meaning of the word standard. We’d only use it as a historical reference, perhaps in a discussion of the Roman Empire. We do use similar objects, but far more often call it a banner or a flag. We can also use ensign, but this too is quite rare.

For the related noun nes, the KJV translates this “standard” seven times, “ensign” six times, and “banner” twice.

From time to time you’ll see someone who simply doesn’t know any better interpret Isaiah 59:19b or a similar verse along the lines of the common meaning “measure of quality.” This is completely understandable, but just as completely wrong. It is all the more likely given the verb “lift up.” We talk about higher standards and lower standards, the need to raise our standards. It is far too easy to imagine that “he shall lift up a standard” means God will cause people to raise the standards by which they live. It doesn’t mean this. It CANNOT mean this.

This is an interesting situation in terms of translation theory. The word standard is a perfectly good English word, and its use to refer to this type of banner is perfectly appropriate. But overall, within the entirety of the document, the range of the word standard is entirely different from contemporary English usage. This is one of the things that makes a translation read with an “accent,” like the translated foreign matter that it is, and not truly in the English idiom.

There are other examples, words we find in translation ONLY in an older, context-restricted sense.

One is talent. In contemporary English we almost always use it to mean a “natural ability.” In the Bible, especially the KJV it NEVER has this meaning. A talent was a weight measure of a precious metal, or by extension the monetary value of that weight of gold or silver or such. “Talent”

Of course it is hard to read Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) and not think in terms of talents like a beautiful singing voice or ability to draw a likeness or a genius for organization. Our modern usage almost certainly derives from an application of that parable, but still it is important to remember that when Jesus tells of servants receiving talents, in the story he is funding them with various sums of money.

Another such word is member. Today for the most part by member we mean “someone who has joined an organization” or “an adherent to a club or society.” In the KJV this meaning is completely absent. It never occurs. And even in more contemporary translations, when we read member, this generally he the meaning “body part.”

Consider  1 Cor. 12:26 (here in the ESV):

…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

None of these instances has our common meaning “one who has joined an organization.” They all mean “body parts.” This is what the Greek word melos means, always part of a body. It never had our sense of “an adherent to a society.”  So we could reword it:

…that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same care for one another. If one part of the body suffers, all suffer together; if one part is honored, all rejoice together.

I note that the ESV does use member in our modern sense in a few places: Gen. 15:3, Lev. 25:47, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, and Rom. 11:1, but these are not translating any particular word or words that mean “member” in our modern sense, and never for the word melos.





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