Line upon Line

Once upon a time when we studied the OT in Gospel Doctrine class, we discussed Isaiah 28:9-13. My wife was asked to be the reader; she stood and read the passage, which I have pasted below from Infobases (brackets indicate italicized words):

9 ¶ Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? [them that are] weaned from the milk, [and] drawn from the breasts.

10 For precept [must be] upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, [and] there a little:

11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.

12 To whom he said, This [is] the rest [wherewith] ye may cause the weary to rest; and this [is] the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

13 But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, [and] there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

Without discussing the passage at all, the teacher then went on to discuss the concept of “line upon line, precept upon precept.” As he was talking, my wife, now sitting, stared at the page for awhile, then leaned over and whispered to me that the concept being discussed did not make any sense in the context of the passage.

Our LDS understanding of this passage has been heavily influenced by 2 Nephi 28:30, which reads as follows:

30 For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.

Interestingly, this passage reverses the order of the terms “precept” and “line” to “line” and “precept.” This reversed order is also followed in D&C 98:12 and 128:21. With few exceptions, LDS literature follows this line/precept word order rather than the precept/line order of Isaiah. I also find it interesting that the word “counsel” is used in parallel with “precept,” as shown below:

and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts,

and lend an ear unto my counsel,

(where “hearken” and “lend an ear” are also parallel terms). This gives us some indication of how Nephi understood the term “precept.” The key to our understanding of this concept is in the words “for unto him that receiveth I will give more.” What we understand by these words is that increase in knowledge, understanding and revelation is incremental, that we are taught by degrees instead of all at once. This concept of course meshes well with our belief in ongoing, continuing revelation and in the need for a modern prophet. I am a big fan of this concept. I view it as a very helpful idea in appreciating the progress of revelatory knowledge in this dispensation. (It makes some people nervous to acknowledge that there may be truths that have not yet been revealed, and so some people seek to limit the applicability of this principle to the early years of the Restoration. Personally, I disagree with this notion.)

As much as I appreciate our common LDS understanding of the phrase “line upon line, precept upon precept,” as my wife discovered for herself, that understanding, as valid as it may be on its own terms, is not a contextual reading of Isaiah. I would view our conception of the phrase as deriving from Nephi. In turn, I would view Nephi’s take as a pesher (that is, a commentary applying the words of Isaiah idiosyncratically to his own situation, “likening the words of Isaiah unto himself”) on Isaiah, much like the pesharim among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

So, with that introduction, what are we to make of the passage in its Isaianic context? Unfortunately, this is a difficult passage to interpret. Let us start with the meaning of the Hebrew words translated “precept” and “line.” The word rendered “precept” is tsaw, which appears to be a shortened form of mitswah “commandment.” The word seems to mean “command, ordinance,” as in its only other occurrence in the Old Testament, Hosea 5:11: “because he willingly walked after the commandment [tsah].” This meaning is not certain, however. The word rendered “line” is qaw and means a measuring line, such as a surveyor would use. The reference is not to a line of scriptural text. (The Hebrew sense is somewhat captured by Sidney Rigdon’s comment on this Isaiah passage in his article “Millennium,” The Evening and the Morning Star (July 1834): 170: “Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet. . . .”) Some have understood tsaw as meaning “carpenter’s rule,” to go along with qaw “measuring line” (thus referring to measuring out judgment). Others doubt that the words are meant to be sensical, taking them as nonsense syllables (something like “blah, blah, yadda, yadda, yadda”). (I knew all those years of watching Seinfeld reruns would eventually bear fruit in assisting me with scriptural interpretation!)

It is difficult to appreciate this passage fully without reading it in Hebrew. Read the following transliteration: tsaw latsaw tsaw latsaw qaw laqaw qaw laqaw zeer sham zeer sham. Given the rhyming, repetitive, monosyllabic words, this expression seems to have a sarcastic tone.As we have indicated, some take the words as meaningless babble. Others reach back for context to the drunkenness of the rulers of Ephraim described earlier in the chapter and take these words as a drunken man’s muttering. This seems to be the approach of the NEB, which paraphrases: “It is all harsh cries and raucous shouts, ‘A little more here, a little there!'”

The most common interpretation (as in the RSV, for instance) is also the one that strikes me as making the most sense. In this view, verses 9 and 10 are not spoken by Isaiah, but by the leaders of Ephraim with whom he is contesting. They are peeved at what they view as his condescending attitude toward them, treating them as mere children, as suckling babes (v. 9), and so they mock him. In this view, the repetitive line is either baby talk (“goo goo gah gah”) or, even more likely, a portion of a child’s spelling lesson. This is suggested by the fact that the letter q at the beginning of qaw immediately follows ts (at the beginning of tsaw) in the Hebrew alphabet. The effect in our culture would be similar to using a portion of the Alphabet Song or Mary Had a Little Lamb. Thus, the leaders protest that they are not children but politically astute men who know what they are doing in negotiating with foreign powers, mocking Isaiah’s words to them.

Isaiah replies in verses 11 to 13. The men of strange lips who speak in a foreign tongue in verse 11 are the Assyrians. The Lord has given the leaders of Israel every opportunity to hear his message (verse 12), but they have rejected it. Therefore, this simple lesson, which they failed to heed in Hebrew (verse 13, where Isaiah ironically quotes their own taunting words to him), they will now be taught in Assyrian, to their own destruction.

Therefore, in what I view as the best available contextual reading of this passage of Isaiah, the emphasis is less on the incremental increase in knowledge (although it is certainly true that children learn incrementally) and more on the simplicity and basic nature of the prophet’s warnings. The leaders of Israel viewed themselves as sophisticated men of the world and did not appreciate what they saw as Isaiah’s condescending approach to them, so they mocked him by sarcastically imitating his message to them. Isaiah in turn ironically repeats their sarcastic version of his message, for it is a lesson they will have to learn one way or the other: the easy way in Hebrew from Isaiah, or the hard way in Assyrian from their captors and new masters. The rulers of course failed to heed the words of the prophet, and were taken by the Assyrians, just as Isaiah foretold.


  1. In addition to Ridgon, I wonder what other 19th Century commentators said about this passage.

    Interesting post.

  2. Kevin, without studying this closely myself (and I won’t have time for several days), my initial reaction is that the “most common” interpretation that you present seems quite consistent with Isaiah, particularly of the Assyrian period.

    Thanks for this post!

  3. I’ve found this passage troubling for a long time. Ten plus years ago I remember reading Avraham Giliadi’s take on this which is slightly different than the reading you’re advocating (in Gileadi’s new translation book, he outlines interpretive keys in the intro, and applies them to chapter 28). He reads this babble phrase as a schoolmaster, rote type of learning that does not lead to advanced learning through revelation, something that the Nephi and D&C passages all refer to (that line upon line learning should lead to personal revelation which stands in contrast to the line upon line method of learning).

    None of these readings sits that comfortably with me. Since I can’t offer my own view that I’m very comfortable with, let me ask some textual questions that might help me. First, the KJV writes the last part of v. 9 as a statement instead of a question like most other translations. Is it really that ambiguous in the ancient texts? How does punctuation in Hebrew work in general?

    Another passage that puzzles me and seems related (the understanding/hearing/word motif) is Isaiah 6:9-10, particularly the word ‘lest’ in v. 10. Seems to me the ‘lest’ should be read ironically, similar to the way the babble phrase should be read ironically (at least some sort of explanation needs to given for the babble phrase in 28:10 and 28:13).

    Ultimately I see the reading you’re advocating as an effort to make sense of 28:13, since it’s hard to make sense of it otherwise. I’d be more convinced if there’s more than an ad hoc reason to read vv. 9-10 as Ephraim speaking as opposed to Isaiah….

  4. I’ve heard that the passage has been taken as a commentary on ecstatic diviners. These are meant to be the mumblings of alternate prophets in trances, which are then interpreted. It was meant to show the superiority of Isaiah’s prophecy (so the line of reasoning went).

    Nephi almost always uses Isaiah out of context. He’s almost rabbinic in this way.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Robert, I’ll share some excerpts from Joseph Blenkinsopp’s Anchor Bible commentary on this passage (which I had not read prior to penning this post), at 1:389, which may be helpful to you:

    Lack of quotation marks and the mark for the interrogative in ancient Hebrew script leaves it uncertain whether we are still hearing the prophetic-authorial voice in 9-10. If so, we would have to assume that the speaker/writer is asking, rhetorically, whether such priests as he is addressing could teach anyone anything or whether their equally incapacitated prophetic confreres could expound the message that they have received to anyone except an infant who, after weaning at the age of three or thereabouts, might be taking the first steps in learning the alphabet. This is Ibn Ezra’s aproach: it is like teaching small children one precept (tsav) and one line of text (qav) at a time. It seems incongruous, however, to compare drunkards to weaned children or the gibberish spoken by them to clearly enunciated letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Other suggestions in the commentary tradition may be mentioned: that they were making fun of the prophet’s speech impediment or his gait–on neither of which, however, we are well informed; that tsav and qav encode the idea of commandment and hope through the corresponding verbs tsivvah and qivvah–which seems too eleated and detached from the context; that they refer to the first letter of tse’a…”excrement” and qi’ “vomit”…, which would make sense but only if spoken by the prophet; finally, that the priests and prophets were mocking the speaker’s ecstatic and unintellibgible speech…, which might be characteristic of temple prophets buy not of Isaiah, who is presumed to be the speaker. It is interesing, however, that this text was in fact read as referring to glossalalia in some Qumranic and early Christina circles….

    It seems more likely that this is one of many instances in chs. 1-32 of the rhetorical device of quoting the opposition, in which the quotation is generally followed by a response of a threatening nature. For example: the Judean politicians inquire, sarcastically, about Yahweh’s political plans and when they will be unveiled (5:19); Assyria brags about its many conquests, only to be silenced (10:8-11); Babylon aspires to ascend above the stars of God, only to go down to the underworld (14:13-14); the plitical schemers in Jerusalem ask, “Who sees us? who knows us?” (29:15b); and so on. This reading is supported by the repetition of the sing-song qav laqav, etc. turning their own words against them by presenting these words as spoken in another language (11), such as the (to them) unintelligible Akkadian they are destined to hear in due course from their Assyrian conquerors. Since, however, quoting the opposition is a literary and rhetorical way of making a point, what we are to understand the priests and prophets to be saying isn’t gibberish but a rejection of what they regard as the simplistic solutions offered by the seer and pitched at such a low level (the first steps in literacy; i.e., learning the letters of the alphabet) as to insult their educated intelligence.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    John C., yes, I agree. Grant Hardy in his _Reader’s Edition of the BoM_ in his in-text captions sometimes describes Nephi’s commentary on the Hebrew Bible with the label “Midrashic,” which I think is fitting.

  7. “Discussion” on this from the FAIR board takes much the same tack, Kevin and John.

  8. Regarding Nephi quoting Isaiah, one could argue that Isaiah’s very poetic writing lends itself to adaptive interpretations, interpretations which do not detract from the text or the interpretation. Like any great work of art, esp. the visual arts, differing interpretations or relevance in alternate contexts are often signs of the greatness of the work. Also, wasn’t it in reference specifically to Isaiah that Nephi admonished applying scripture to ourselves?

    But I find the notion strangely comforting—if Nephi misquoted some passages, it bothers me less when I hear GA’s quote scripture in what I think is a mistaken context. To paraphrase Brigham Young, if the spirit’s there, it’s all good….

    I know there’s a good chance neither of you will have time to elaborate on this, but are there any specific examples you have in mind? Do you mainly mean Nephi’s interpretations in 2 Ne 25 of chapters 12-24, or the Isaiah passages in 2 Ne 7-8 (which I think is technically Jacob) or in 1 Ne 21-22, or all of the above, or something else entirely?

  9. Ben, thanks for the link. Looking at the thread I see why you put ‘discussion’ in scare quotes. I’ll paste what I think are the only quotes from that discussion that would add to this one below.

    “BDB and HALOT support this ambiguity or dispute over meaning.”

    “There is general agreement that Chapter 28 can be divied into four subsections(1-6,7-13,14-22, and 23-29). Most see the “saw lasaw saw lasaw, qaw laqaw qaw laqaw” as deliberately nonsensical. If you see the subunit 7-13 as a criticism against priests/prophets it makes sense in context. Can you tell me what BDB and HALOT stand for?”

    “The NET Bible notes that ‘Some take (tsav) as a derivative of (tsavah, ‘command’) and translate the first part of the statement as ‘command after command, command after command.’ Proponents of this position (followed by many English versions) also take (qav) as a noun meaning ‘measuring line,’ understood here in the abstract sense of ‘standard’ or ‘rule.'”

    “Though the versions vary (Targum Jonathon expands the whole thing, for example), the LXX takes these as words with meaning, not as gibberish syllables. It may not be the most accepted understanding, but it is not an illegitimate understanding of the Hebrew. If the versions could do it, so could Nephi, who was much closer to Isaiah’s time period.”

  10. Woops, in editing the above I got my question in the wrong place:

    Ben, or anyone else, can you tell me what BDB and/or HALOT stand for (as used in that FAIR thread)?

  11. BDB– Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon, one of the standard lexicons.

    HALOT– Koehler and Baumgartner’s Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Much more recent than BDB.

    HALOT is generally regarded as the primary English-Hebrew lexicon (and German-Hebrew for the original, as the English is a translation.)

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    BDB stands for Brown, Driver and Briggs, an Oxford based lexicon of Hebrew from early in the 20th century (a revision of the famous Hebraist Gesenius’ lexicon). I use a modern edition of BDB as my Hebrew lexicon.

    HALOT stands for Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

  13. Kevin, thanks a lot for posting the Anchor Bible commentary—I esp. like the examples given from previous chapters which use the rhetorical device of quoting the opposition, it really strengthens that argument in my mind. Couple follow up questions:

    I like thinking of v. 10 as an opposition quote, but is there a good reason to think v. 9 is too? In particular, I think the “them that are weaned from the milk” part of the verse makes more sense as a statement (as opposed to a question) developing the understanding motif. This is, arguably, the interpretation intimated by the Isaiah allusion in Hebrews 5:12-14.

    Also, what about bringing the haste motif (vv. 4 and 16) in? That is, the wine makes Ephraim’s leaders drunk (as opposed to the positive connotation of wine in 25:6 and 27:2) because of their hasty (and superficial?) treatment of God’s “lines and precepts”. This view would complement the reading of tsaw as a slur of mitswah. This would also resolve the tension with the BOM and D&C “line” and “precept” verses—presumably the underlying Hebrew for the BOM and D&C verses would be the unslurred mitswah form (signified by the change of word order, though I think this claim is a stretch).

  14. Richard C. says:

    I taught Isaiah several semesters for CES Institute. I used a classroom set of NIV alongside the KJV. We discovered many more difficulties than the one under discussion. However, that translation of this passage goes as follows and conforms with much though not all that has already been aired here. Note that it retains the poetic form and it suggests. in addition to Gileadi’s rote approach to revealed principles, the later Pharisaic dogmatic adherence to the letter of the laws that blinded them from the spirit of it.

    9 “Who is it he is trying to teach?
    To whom is he explaining his message?
    To children weaned from their milk,
    to those just taken from the breast?

    10 For it is:
    Do and do, do and do,
    rule on rule, rule on rule [a] ;
    a little here, a little there.”

    11 Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
    God will speak to this people,

    12 to whom he said,
    “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
    and, “This is the place of repose”—
    but they would not listen.

    13 So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
    Do and do, do and do,
    rule on rule, rule on rule;
    a little here, a little there—
    so that they will go and fall backward,
    be injured and snared and captured.

    Let me add a couple of other Bible study aids. You all probably already know about these but some may not.

    It has the Bible in 45 languages, 19 in English. 7 in Spanish, 2 in Italian, 3 in German, 2 in French, etc.

    Another contains a host of commentaries and aids in addition to other translations available for download. It allows side-by-side coimparisions of passages/verses.

    Richard C.

  15. Kevin and Ben, thanks for deciphering the abbreviations for me.

    Richard, thanks for posting that translation. I think the NIV “just” in v. 9 makes the reading Kevin and John are advocating much more clear than it is in the RSV (and KJV of course). Interestingly, the NAS also includes the “just”.

    To be clear (since re-reading my posts makes me realize I haven’t been very clear), I’m advocating a different reading of v. 9 where the prophet or God is teaching those that are more mature than babes—those that have been weaned. However, a closer look at Heb 5:14 weakens my argument rather than stengthens it like I thought, since it contrasts someone that is “of full age” (not just someone who is weaned) to those still needing milk. Psalms 131:2 also seems to emphasize the child attributes (relative to an adult, as opposed to the mature attributes relative to an infant) of a weaned child. Bottom line is I’m more and more convinced that Kevin and John’s take makes the most sense….

  16. I stopped by BYU’s library and found, from a Mormon perspective, that Nyman, Ludlow and Skousen take the view that verses 9-10 are spoken by Isaiah (or the author-prophet), but David Rolph Seely takes a view pretty close to what Kevin’s articulated (though his comments are fairly brief and seem to be taken from Otto Kaiser’s book Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974) pp. 243-6—according to the footnotes, I haven’t checked this reference myself). Seely’s commentary is published in the Studies in Scripture series published by Deseret Book.

    I wrote a pretty comprehensive analysis of verse 10 here mostly using content from the above discussion. A little bit is new, but the main reason for writing it there is to catalog and organize the comments into what will hopefuly become a nice web reference for scripture commentary. Feel free to proofread, improve, or comment on the content posted there.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Dave Seely’s an old friend of mine. We studied classics together at the Y, before he went off to study under David Noel Freedman at Michigan. He’s a great scholar, as is his wife, who also teaches at BYU.

  18. So great minds think alike, eh?! I really liked the chapter he wrote on Isaiah 18-33. I’ll have to look for more of what he’s written.

  19. Matt Morrise says:


    I was researching these verses for a Gospel Doctrine lesson and came to the same conclusion (I was heavily influenced by Gileadi). How often a few verses of Isaiah are taken out of context to mean something that was not intended!

    Another interesting translation of this phrase is in the “Message Bible”:

    Is that so? And who do you think you are to teach us?
    Who are you to lord it over us?
    We’re not babies in diapers
    to be talked down to by such as you—
    ‘Da, da, da, da,
    blah, blah, blah, blah.
    That’s a good little girl,
    that’s a good little boy.'”

    I would be interested to see your ideas on another concept from chapter 28, namely the “Covenant with Death”. My feeling is that it is closely related to the Secret Combinations of the Book of Mormon and that it is far more pervasive in modern America than any of us want to admit.

  20. Mark Butler says:

    One thing worth mentioning is this letter of the law vs. spirit of the law thing was a major conflict very early on in Chinese civilization. There were some dynasties that were harshly legalistic, apparently rather more so than anything we ever think of the Pharisees. This provoked two reactions – the conservative (dominant) reaction was Confucianism, which emphasized government and society based upon personal relationship and adaptation to circumstance, and Taoism which was more radical, relying upon a retreat from rationality into beauty and mysticism.

%d bloggers like this: