For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a littleHarold Camping, Kay Arthur, Pentecostals, and people with all kinds of different beliefs all point to this text as providing the basis for Biblical interpretation. They seem to understand it to be teaching that the Bible is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that needs to be interpreted by putting different verses together. During Harold Camping's recent apology he seemed to be saying that his methodology was not wrong but that he may have gotten a "precept" wrong and needed to redo the math.
The quotation above is from the KJV but you'll find that the ESV and some others provide a similar translation. As far as I can tell this translation finds its origins in the Geneva Bible. There is actually quite a bit of dispute as to how this passage should be translated. The dispute began before the English language existed. The Latin Vulgate reads differently and so does the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The Septuagint says:
Expect thou affliction upon affliction, hope upon hope: yet a little, yet a little,I think there are good reasons for accepting the Septuagint as the authoritative edition of the Old Testament but that's a different topic. Some have argued that the Hebrew in the passage can be harmonized with the Septuagint. Doing so would lead to a nice Law/Gospel interpretation. You can read a survey of the different ways this verse has been translated/interpreted here. The Hebrew transliterated says:
kiy tsav latsav tsav latsav kav lakav kav lakav ze'eyr sham ze'eyr sham.Some have argued because of the disputed meaning of the words and the way the Hebrew sounds when read aloud that this is sort of the English equivalent of "Blah! Blah! Blah!" or perhaps the way Charlie Brown's school teacher sounds. Others have argued that these words mean "stench" and "vomit."
I do not have the skills required to determine the best translation of the text. But with all the uncertainty as to the meaning of these words, it doesn't seem to be a very good place to go to find an interpretive key to the rest of the Scriptures.
Because I lack the linguistic skills, for the rest of this blog post I will assume that the translation is basically correct. But even then, the verse when read in context does not teach what those who are using it as the key to Biblical interpretation think it is teaching. Here's verses 7-13 from the KJV:
But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean. 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. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little: For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. 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. 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.The end result of receiving "precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" is that "they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken." This is clearly not a positive thing. I found one Pentecost site that tried to find their doctrine of being slain in the Spirit in this text but any reasonable reading of the text makes it clear that falling backward, being broken, and taken is not a good thing.
Through Isaiah, God is judging Judah, particularly Judah's priests and prophets. God accuses the priests and prophets of trusting in the nations instead of Himself. He also says they are drunkards and proclaiming false prophecies because of their drunkenness. They are drunk both on alcohol and power.
"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. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:"The prophets and priests are mocking Isaiah. The prophets and priests think that Isaiah is treating them like babies. The prophets and priests believe that they have moved beyond such childish things as the simple Law and Gospel that Isaiah is bringing to them. They believe that they have no need for Isaiah's simple message.
Because Judah would not listen to God's simple Gospel of rest from their labors and instead searched for secret teachings in the Word of God and believed that the whole point was to treat the Bible like a giant jigsaw puzzle, God said that he would send a people who spoke a foreign language to bring His Word to them. In the immediate context the people of a foreign tongue was the Assyrian invaders which would result in Judah falling into even greater confusion. God would send the Assyrian army to actually bring them what they accused God's Word of being--"precept upon precept; line upon line; here a little, and there a little."
The greater fulfillment of this prophecy is found in the New Testament. The Pharisees interpreted God's Law to basically be "precept upon precept, line upon line." They taught that the Law was doable and came up with a long list of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. When Jesus came along and showed them that they were not keeping the Law and that the Law was designed to drive them to Himself, they had Him crucified. They rejected the message of rest and peace brought by Jesus--a far greater prophet than Isaiah. After the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Jews continued to reject the rest and peace that only Jesus provides and instead clung to the precepts and lines. Because the Jews had rejected the Gospel of Christ-crucified, God put this message in the mouths of Gentiles--a foreign people with a foreign tongue. As Judaism has continued to develop since the destruction of the temple, it has become more and more fixated upon the precepts and lines. You can listen to lectures given by Jews on iTunes who have very little confidence that many of the events in the Old Testament actually happened but continue to observe the Old Testament dietary laws rather strictly. They have councils that meet and debate to determine which foods are kosher. It's as if God has punished their failure to believe that true rest can only be found in Christ by causing them to adopt a ridiculous list of rules that looks utterly insane to anyone who isn't in the middle of it.
The Christian church should know better, but since its inception the Christian church has had those who in one way or another want to treat the Bible as a long list of precepts that must be followed and assembled in a giant jigsaw puzzle. The Judaizers demanded that Christians still observe certain portions of the ceremonial law--at least the real important ones. We still find these types in the Messianic Jewish movements. But we find them in the pietist movements as well. We find Judaizers in the heirs of the Puritans. Are you excited about missions? If you're not you might not really be a Christian. If you have a tattoo or celebrate Christmas or receive a blood transfusion or drink alcohol or worship on Sunday or use the NIV or eat bacon you might not really be a Christian. Harold Camping said that if you didn't agree with him on the date of the return of Christ you weren't really a Christian. It would be impossible to list all the rules that people have inferred from the Scriptures by trying to read between the lines.
There have also always been gnostics of one sort or another who try to read between the lines to find the true spiritual meaning. In more liberal circles you find those who deny historical events such as the resurrection but try to find a "deeper" spiritual meaning hidden beneath what the text actually says. It's strange that the "deeper" meaning often seems much more shallow. Jesus living on in our hearts just doesn't seem very deep. Both conservative and liberal gnostics share a general belief that the ancients were basically idiots and poor interpreters of Scripture. Conservatives don't have have a problem with the fact that nobody really questioned the bodily presence of Christ in the sacrament of the altar or denied baptismal regeneration for about 1000 years. We're so much better interpreters of the Scriptures after all. God can't possibly work through matter or be in more than one place at once. They deny those places where God has promised to work faith and instead look for life principles and moral lessons.
If we are not to interpret the Scriptures "precept upon precept, line upon line" then how should we interpret the Scriptures? Jesus already gave us the answer. Jesus said all the Bible is about Him. The Apostles understood this. That's why Matthew takes Hosea 11:1 and interprets it as a prophecy about Jesus. The Apostles found Jesus everywhere in the Old Testament and so did the early church fathers. During the middle ages, many lost their way and began to find little more than life principles and laws. Luther sought to correct this drift into error. But today Protestantism is doing the same thing that Rome was doing. If you took a class on Biblical interpretation and interpreted the Scriptures in the same way the Apostles or the early church fathers did, you probably wouldn't pass the class.
The law is there to show us our own inability to keep all the precepts and to drive us to Christ. We can only find rest in Christ. If we deny the rest that is found in Christ, we will be driven mad and will precept upon precept, line upon line and be damned in our own self-righteousness.