O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion

So while I watch college football (go Irish!) I’m looking over tomorrow’s GD reading, which begins in Isaiah 40. Scholars widely consider the setting of chapter 40 to be in the Divine Council. In part this is because God commands not just Isaiah in the singular, but a group of persons in the plural to comfort His people. (Even without knowing Hebrew you can figure this out from the y- forms in “comfort ye” and “your God,” since y- form second person pronouns in the Jacobean English of the KJV are always plural.) So the Lord directs the Divine Council as a whole, of which the prophet Isaiah is an invited member, to comfort His people.

We then see several voices from the Council speak out. Verse 3 begins “A voice cries…” directing the construction of a highway for the return of the Lord. In v. 6 there is a dialogue between two voices who are participants in the Council. The first says to the second “Cry out,” and the second responds to the first, “What shall I cry?” and the first then conveys the message that all flesh is as grass.

The next voice in this series is the one I want to focus on, and that is in verse 9. Someone is supposed to climb a high mountain and say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Who is the herald of verse 9?

When I was on my mission, I had the MTC Messiah tapes, and I listened to those tapes a lot and eventually I memorized the libretto scriptures, one of which is Isaiah 40:9. In the oratorio, it is “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” but when I went to look that up in the KJV I was perplexed to find that the text read “O Zion, that bringeth good tidings” and the reading I was familiar with was an alternate reading given in the margin. What is going on here?

Grammatically, either reading is possible. The one who bringeth good tidings is a participle from a verb meaning to bring good tidings, and is used as a noun for a herald. (This verb, via Greek euangelion, becomes the concept for the Gospel or “good news/tidings” in the New Testament.) This participle is feminine in form, and the series of imperatives in this verse are all feminine. The majority KJV reading takes the feminine herald as in apposition with the (personified) Zion//Jerusalem (both feminine nouns). It may seem strange to command Zion (itself a mountain) to climb a mountain, but hey, this is poetry so all kinds of weird stuff is possible. On this reading, Zion//Jerusalem is itself the one to bring the good tidings.

The alternate reading is to take the herald as someone separate from Zion//Jerusalem, who announces the good tidings to Zion//Jerusalem (as objects of the verb).

My sense is that the KJV main reading is something of a majority view, even though the marginal reading certainly has its supporters. One of the main reasons for rejecting the marginal reading is that it requires a woman as the herald, but no such woman has been introduced in the text; who could she possibly be? (But some who prefer the marginal reading take the feminine gender of the participle in a collective sense, perhaps referring to a school of prophets or something, and not referring to a literal woman.)

Arguments in favor of the alternate reading include the analogous passages Isaiah 41:7 and 52:7, where the message is given to the cities by heralds (and the cities are not the heralds themselves), and the fact that Zion in this prophecy always represents the passive recipient of salvation.

Barnes Notes on the Bible collects the following arguments for and against the herald being a woman:

It is a participle in the feminine gender; and is appropriately applicable to some one that bears good tidings to Zion, and not to Zion as appointed to bear glad tidings. Lowth supposes that it is applicable to some female whose office it was to announce glad tidings, and says that it was the common practice for females to engage in the office of proclaiming good news. On an occasion of a public victory or rejoicing, it was customary, says he, for females to assemble together, and to celebrate it with songs, and dances, and rejoicings; and he appeals to the instance of Miriam and the chorus of women Exodus 15:20-21, and to the instance where, after the victory of David over Goliath, ‘all the women came out of the cities of Israel singing and dancing to meet Saul’ 1 Samuel 18:7. But there are objections to this interpretation; first, if this was the sense, the word would have been in the plural number, since there is no instance in which a female is employed alone in this service; and, secondly, it was not, according to this, the office of the female to announce good tidings, or to communicate a joyful message, but to celebrate some occasion of triumph or victory.

It is interesting to me that the most probative argument against this herald being a woman is that for a lone woman to serve in this capacity seems to be unprecedented.

Yet, this older material is not positioning this text correctly as being within the context of the Divine Council. We have already seen individual voices from that Council tasked to convey various messages earlier in this chapter. The implication of this is that, if the alternate reading were correct, that would mean that at least one of the members of the Divine Council was a female (Deity? Angel? Prophet?).

With that possibility in mind, reread the full passage again, this time in the rendering of the Complete Jewish Bible, in which the Lord is directing a female herald of the Divine Council (the “you” in the rendering below) to bring good tidings to Zion//Jerusalem:

You who bring good news to Tziyon,
get yourself up on a high mountain;
you who bring good news to Yerushalayim,
cry out at the top of your voice!
Don’t be afraid to shout out loud!
Say to the cities of Y’hudah,
“Here is your God!”


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    The following are additional translations that are in accord with the KJV marginal reading:

    American Standard Version
    Amplified Bible
    International Standard Version
    Living Bible
    World English Bible
    Wycliffe Bible

  2. “[R]eread the full passage again, this time in the rendering of the Complete Jewish Bible, in which the Lord is directing a female herald of the Divine Council.”

    I did, and wow! Very striking.

    (Oh, and too bad ND couldn’t pull off the upset.)

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’ve argued elsewhere that women have been given a unique role across dispensations to use poetry and song to declare new doctrine; this Isaiah reading might fit that pattern.

    Click to access V45N03_178d.pdf

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Julie, your article provides terrific background to this possibility!

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I wonder whether there might be just a tiny bit of sexist (from a modern perspective) culture here that also points to a female herald. Look again at the line “Don’t be afraid to shout out loud!” If the herald were a man, would such an instruction be perceived as necessary? It’s almost as if God is saying “Look, I know culturally as a woman you’re not usually in the position of being really loud and forceful. But this is great news, and I really want you to let ‘er rip!”

  6. Cool stuff. Kevin. Hooray for close reading and the questions it raises!

  7. JeannineL says:

    And it’s an Alto solo. I guess Handel was right on there.

  8. I recently received a copy of Yahweh’s Council by Ellen White (Mohr Siebeck). I’m going back to look and see if there’s something similar in there. Thanks for this Kevin. I always appreciate your insights.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Good point about the alto solo!

  10. “The implication of this is that, if the alternate reading were correct, that would mean that at least one of the members of the Divine Council was a female (Deity? Angel? Prophet?)”

    Yes, at least one. Thanks for this thought-provoking and enlightening post.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I conveyed the gist of this post in my SS class today, and I think folks enjoyed it.

  12. Great post, Kevin! I am always excited by these types of possibilities.

  13. Rachel's not my real name says:

    Kevin, can the church please hire you as a consultant for the next gd manuals?!?! Pleeeease! I get nothing like this in my class. They’re so afraid to not teach “from the manual” in my ward they may as well release the teacher and play the audio from the lesson online.

    Thank you, BCC, for such thoughtful and insightful posts, your rankings series (though admittedly funny) notwithstanding.

  14. This is a great examination, which I’ll shamelessly steal pieces of next week (we’re a bit behind). Especially some of the expansion in the comments. My Gospel Doctrine teacher will go nuts. :)

  15. Thought-provoking post, thanks! It leads me to ask, though, for those of you who are discussing the Divine Council and the gender of heralds during your SS classes, how much do you ever adhere to the GD manual? I’m still trying to get my class situated with basic historical context, but it usually involves major deviation from the stated lesson objectives and I’m starting to question the value spiritually.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Mary Ann, when I was first called to teaching callings decades ago, I was strictly charged that the “lesson manuals” are in reality the scriptures themselves, and that our focus in the classroom needed to be there. The manuals produced by the Church were just helps towards that end. So that is the way I was originally socialized as a teacher in the Church and I’ve never changed from that.

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