IT HAS SURPRISED ME how often Bible translators have to guess what the Bible is trying to say.
They guess because of
- unknown words
- missing words
- words that look like they dripped off someone else’s papyrus reed.
I’m hip-deep in Isaiah’s 66 chapters right now. I can tell you there’s a fair amount of guessing going on among scholars wrestling with this wildly lyrical scroll.
I know the King James Bible is the go-to Bible for folks like my dear departed Uncle Charles, whom I loved and respected.
But he was wrong.
About King James being the most accurate.
It was a fine Bible in the 1600s, though Pilgrims hated it and preferred the older and more familiar Geneva Bible.
King James translators, like everyone else, had to occasionally guess about Isaiah. More so than today’s translators because today’s translators have a copy of Isaiah from the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. That copy is 1,000 years older than the copy the James Boys had.
The literal Bible
I was working in Isaiah 38 this week, and I had to take a stab at Isaiah 38:16.
This is part of a song King Hezekiah wrote after an illness, when Isaiah told him he wouldn’t get well. Hezekiah cried and prayed. And Isaiah said okay, you can have another 15 years.
Ecstatic, Hezekiah told folks to break out the strings because he was going to sing a song.
This vexing verse 16 is part of that song. And the only way I know how to make sense of this verse is to supplement it with ideas from the rest of the song.
Here’s a literal translation of the sparse, original Hebrew words. After each word comes the first definition of it in the NIV Exhaustive Concordance Dictionary. Some of these Hebrew words have many meanings.
- ’ᵃdōnāy: The Lord
- ʽal: On, upon, over, against, toward
- ḥāyâ: to live
- rûaḥ: breath, spirit
- hay: life
- hēn: they
- hēn: they
- ḥālam: to grow
- ḥāyâ: to live
So, here you go, the string of words that doesn’t make sense:
“The Lord on life, breath, life, they they grow and live.”
How Bible versions explain it
King James Bible
O Lord, by these things men live,
and in all these things is the life of my spirit:
so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live.
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
This is perhaps the Bible version that most Protestant scholars prefer.
O Lord, by these things people live,
and in all these is the life of my spirit.
Oh, restore me to health and make me live!
Jewish Study Bible
My Lord, for all that and despite it
My life-breath is revived
You have restored me to health and revived me.
Contemporary English Version
Your words and your deeds
bring life to everyone,
Please make me healthy
and strong again.
New International Version
Lord, by such things people live;
and my spirit finds life in them too.
You restored me to health
and let me live.
New Living Translation
Lord, your discipline is good,
for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
and allow me to live!
Casual English Bible
Lord, life is yours to give.
You breathed life into my spirit.
And you made me healthy again.
Which one is the Word of God?
It’s an uncomfortable question but a fair one:
Why call it the Word of God when we aren’t always sure what the words are?
I’m not sure.
But some Christians don’t call it the Word of God. They call it the Bible.
That’s the way they talk—and don’t talk.
“Word of God” isn’t a phrase I use very often because it’s morphing—it means different things to different people in different contexts.
And it means nothing to the secular folks I target with my writing.
I do, however, consider the phrase. But when I think of it, I don’t connect it with words on leather scrolls as much as I do with someone wearing leather sandals.
Jesus’ life inspired the New Testament
Jesus taught us more about God than all the ink on the original documents of the Bible ever could. That’s because
- he knew who he was talking about
- he lived what he taught
- and people saw it and adopted it into their lives.
That’s how Christianity started. Not with the Inspired Word, but with the Word that inspired. Jesus became the inspiration for the New Testament. And he added a new perspective to the Jewish Bible, Christianity’s Old Testament.
“The Word came to life as a human who lived among us. He was the Father’s only Son and he astonished us… God’s only Son—who is near and dear to God’s heart—teaches us about him” (John 1:14-16, Casual English Bible).
We have to guess about many passages in the Bible. Not some, I say. Many.
We don’t have to guess about what God wants of us.
The life and teachings of God’s Word in the Flesh introduced us to God and somehow, mysteriously, connected us to him. We sense him.
I think that’s because we have access to God’s Word in the Spirit:
“The Spiritual Guide my Father will send you in my place—the Holy Spirit—will help you remember everything I taught you” (John 14:26).
So when we translate or paraphrase the Bible, if we get a few educated guesses wrong here and there and in a scattering of everywhere, maybe there’s some accommodation for our humanity.
Perhaps our accommodation and our perfect editor is the Living Word of God who came in the Flesh and stayed in the Spirit.
Now for the prophecy
Some readers are happy.
Some are not.
Others are just glad to be done.