Precept upon Precept or a Precious Cornerstone?

TODAY’S READING: ISAIAH 25-28

Isaiah 28:10, 13 says, “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little…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.”

This is a favorite scripture of many pastors and Bible teachers. They say this is how we are to learn the Bible. We get a little bit at a time by continuous study. And idea here, and idea there. Once piece of wisdom builds on another piece wisdom. This is how you build the foundation of your understanding of the Bible.

However, to my knowledge, those two verses of scripture are never quoted anywhere in the New Testament.

Isaiah 28:16 says, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.”

This too is a favorite scripture for many Christians. We know it speaks of Jesus as the foundation stone, the precious cornerstone of the house of God because the New Testament quotes it often.  It is cited by Paul in Romans 9:33. It is quoted by Peter in 1 Peter 2:6. Jesus alludes to it in Matthew 21:42. And, Luke records Peter quoting it in Acts 4:11.

Do you think there might be a reason one of these passages is never quoted in the New Testament while the other is quoted or alluded to four times?

Do you know that one of these verses is linked to salvation and never being put to shame while the other refers to falling backward and being broken, snared, and taken?

Do you know that these two passages of scripture in Isaiah 28 are actually used in contrast to one another?

Do you know that one of these passages is spoken by those drunk with wine and scoffers while the other is spoken by the Lord?

Do you know that the Hebrew words for precept, line, and little in Isaiah 28:10, 13 have negative connotations?

You could not know any of this without the context of the entire chapter of Isaiah 28.

This is a perfect example of people taking something that sounds good – precept upon precept – and ripping it out context while taking the literal meaning for something that should be practiced by Christians.

Ironically, these people are doing exactly what Isaiah 28:10, 13 are meant to show Christians should not do when read in their proper context.

Isaiah 28 starts off talking about “the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and the fading flower of its glorious beauty.” The is crown will be trodden underfoot and this flower will be done away with. This is put in contrast with verse 5, which says, “In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people.” “That day” refers to the crucifixion of Jesus. For the remnant, Jesus is a crown of glory instead of the proud crown that the drunkards of Ephraim wear. And, Jesus is also a diadem of beauty for the remnant instead of a fading flower like the drunkards of Ephraim have.

Verses 7 and 8 tell us that the drunkards of Ephraim “reel with wine” and “stagger with strong drink.” Even the priests and prophets reel and stagger. In fact, they “reel in vision” and “stumble in giving judgment.” In other words, the are drunk on their own pride and understanding. Therefore, they cannot see and understand clearly.

Verse 9 then asks who these priests and prophets are able to teach. Why does it ask that? Because their understanding “is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” (verse 10)

Verse 11 and 12 then says that by a people of strange lips and a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to the drunkards of Ephraim, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose.” The people of strange lips and foreign tongues refers to the Gentiles that the Lord will use to speak to the nation of Israel. God will use them to tell the drunkards of Ephraim wearing their proud crowns who live by precept upon precept, line upon line, and here a little, there a little exactly how they are to get rest.

But the drunkards of Ephraim, the proud, the nation of Israel will not listen. “Yet they would not hear. And the word 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.”

See, precept upon precept, etc. is what the word of the Lord becomes when we are proud and refuse to hear what God is saying. When that happens, we go and fall backward. We are broken, snared, and taken.

Knowing the Hebrew words for precept, line, and little in Isaiah 28:10, 13 makes this even more clear.

The Hebrew word for precept is tsav. It means can mean an injunction, commandment, or precept. But, it means a human command, something that is nothing, worthless, vanity, and destruction. Tsav means an idol. It means mocking mimicry and unintelligible speech. Formally, tsav means “blah-blah.”

Tsav is used just nine times in the Old Testament. Eight are found in Isaiah 28. The only other use is Hosea 5:11 where it is translated filth. One meaning of the number nine is judgment.

Therefore, for the drunkards of Ephraim, the word of the Lord is blah-blah upon blah-blah, blah-blah upon blah-blah.

Does that sound like a good thing? Does that sound like the way we are to learn scripture?

The Hebrew word for line is kav, which means a cord for measuring. In order for a cord to properly measure, it has to have a fixed length. It has to be unchanging. In, Isaiah 28:10, 13 kav, line, is used as a syllable imitating prophetic speech, perhaps even senseless speech. These two verses are the only times the word kav, line, is used in the Old Testament. But, I think we are to understand it as taking something literally (hence the meaning a measuring cord with fixed length) but losing the meaning of it.

Therefore, for the drunkards of Ephraim, the word of the Lord is literal upon literal, literal upon literal or senselessness upon senselessness, senselessness upon senselessness.

Again, does that sound like a good thing? Does that sound like the way we are to learn scripture?

The Hebrew word for little is zehayr (I may not have spelled that correctly). It means a little amount of something, i.e. a small amount of instruction, so ignorant and unlearned. It is only used five times in the Old Testament, four in the verses we are looking at and once in Job.

Therefore, for the drunkards of Ephraim, the word of the Lord is so little here and there, it such a small amount of instruction, that is ignorance here and ignorance there.

Again, does that sound like a good thing? Does that sound like the way we are to learn scripture?

Perhaps, many pastors and Bible teachers really need to look at this text before they keep telling people this is the proper way to study the Bible. Because studying the Bible this way will cause one to go and fall backward, to be broken, snared, and taken.

In fact, it is the exact opposite way of how we would want people to study the Bible.

But, Isaiah 28:14 says, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers.” See, the people live precept upon precept, the drunkards of Ephraim with their proud crowns, are actually called scoffers. Isaiah tells them to listen up.

Why are they to listen up?

Verse 15 says, “Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death and Sheol, w 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.”

How have they made a covenant with death?

By taking the word of the Lord as precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a littler. They have treated the word of the Lord as blah-blah, something to be mocked, quoting it literally but not living it, and unintelligible speech.

Then verse 16 says, “Therefore thus says the Lord 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.”‘”

God is telling the drunkards of Ephraim that instead of their covenant with death brought about by their understanding of the word of the Lord as precept upon precept (blah-blah), line upon line (taking it literally with no understanding), and here a little, there a little (ignorance here and there), they need to come to the stone, the tested stone, the precious cornerstone, and the sure foundation. For if you believe in him, then you will not be in haste, you will not be shamed, and you have salvation.

In a different way Jesus told this to the Jews. In John 5:39-40, Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”

Did you notice that Isaiah said those that go precept upon precept, etc. have made “a covenant with death?”

Where else do we see the scriptures referred to as death?

Second Corinthians 3:4-8 says, “Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory.”

(The rest of 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 is worth reading in regards to Isaiah 28 as well.)

Look at what Paul is saying and consider Isaiah 28. His confidence is in Christ, the precious cornerstone. Christ is his crown of glory. Paul knows that there is nothing sufficient in him, unlike the drunkards of Ephraim who have a proud crown of their own. The drunkards of Ephraim have their own glory.

Paul is a minister of the new covenant, Jesus Christ, the precious cornerstone. His ministry is of the Spirit. Paul’s ministry is in contrast to others who have a ministry of the letter. Those who have a ministry of the letter, taking everything literally and producing ignorance, have a ministry of death. Hence, the drunkards of Ephraim have, those who have the ministry of the dead letter, have made a covenant with death through their ministry of death.

Paul even says that those who have a ministry of the letter – precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little – have a ministry whose glory is fading. Remember Isaiah 28 says that the drunkards of Ephraim have a fading flower, a glory that is passing away. However, Paul has a ministry of continuing glory because it is a ministry of the Spirit, of Christ, of the precious cornerstone.

So, let us forsake our treating the word of the Lord as precept upon precept (blah-blah upon blah-blah), line upon line (a dead letter literal interpretation with no understanding), and hear a little, there a little (ignorance everywhere).

Instead, let us come to the precious cornerstone, Jesus Christ. His Spirit gives us life. He gives true understanding. It is through Jesus, and him crucified, that the veil is removed so that we can truly know God and his salvation.

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