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When the Enemy Comes in Like a Flood, You’ve been Misquoting Isaiah 59:19: Part 3—Isaiah 59:19 in Context

flooding river 3In two previous posts, we’ve been considering the radically altered translation of Isaiah 59:19 between the King James Version and most other modern English translations.

While the pertinent portion of the KJV reads, “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him,” most other modern English translations read something like, “For He will come like a rushing stream which the wind of the Lord drives.” (NASB)

The trouble starts not with each party having two radically different Hebrew texts in front of them, nor by having a lot of text critical choices to make. The trouble begins with each text assigning a different antecedent to the pronoun in the main verb, “he will come.”

To the KJV translators, the antecedent of “he will come” is “enemy” which follows “like a river” in the Hebrew. This makes “THE enemy” their chosen subject.

Three problems emerge here.

  1. The Hebrew word “enemy” would be spelled incorrectly by the Hebrew Scribes.
  2. The use of the article THE is not attached to the Hebrew term they translate “enemy.”
  3. This forces the translators to give the term נֹ֥סְסָה nosesah an unlikely meaning and an impossible form for that meaning—“she will raise up a standard.” “She” being the Spirit/wind of YHWH.

To most others, the antecedent of “he will come” is found in the ongoing subject of the verses surrounding Isaiah 59:19, “YHWH.”

The main issues with this rendition is that the vowel that appears under the comparative preposition “like” points toward the presence of an article (i.e. THE) before “river” without a corresponding article on the adjective/participle which modifies it. This is uncommon but not unknown in Hebrew.

The real test of validity would seem to be which of these best fits the general context of the prophecy.

Isaiah 59 is a single prophetic sermon in the midst of the section dedicated to God’s double blessing in restoring Israel. Some regard Isaiah 59 as a sermonic response to lament in Isaiah 58 over YHWH’s lack of attention to the ritual observance of Judah. Isaiah 58:3 reads, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’

One might title the Isaiah 59 sermon: “Wickedness is like a Gulf from God, but God’s Redeemer Will Come to the Repentant.”

  1. God declares that His people’s sin stands between them. He could save, but won’t.
  2. A representative voice makes a full confession of the reality of the situation. Israel is in sin and the people are to blame for their present situation. They have no truth among them and make prey out of those who seek righteousness.

III. The absence of a valid intercessor causes God to send His own. This one will be righteous and will bring both salvation and vengeance. He will shine forth the glory of God, and all will fear His name. This redeemer is coming to Zion and to those who turn away from wickedness.

  1. This will be the covenant with God’s people—God’s spirit, and God’s word will not depart from them or their children forever.

A key thing to follow in Isaiah 59 is what (not just who) YHWH is fighting. Isaiah 59 is about sin, not enemy forces. It is about sinners within the Israelite community, not external forces against which YHWH rises up in war, defending His people. This sermon is about the tension between the wicked and repentant of Israel and the coming HE. This is a prophecy of the coming of God to redeem the righteous and to recompense the wicked.

They fear, because HE is coming. He is coming like a flood. What kind of flood? The image is known to them—A flooding body of water, narrowed by a raven, driven on by a powerful wind, a deadly flash flood.

The use of “wind of YHWH” plays on a common practice of using God’s name to reference the best, most extreme form of a thing. Even Barnes, so long ago recognized: “There is no reason why it should be here regarded as denoting ‘the Spirit of God,’—the great agent of enlightening and reforming the world. It may be understood… to denote a strong and violent wind – a wind urging on a mass of waters through a compressed and straitened place, and thus increasing their impetuosity and violence. …The phrase ‘Spirit of God’ (אלהים רוח  rûach ‘ĕlohı̂ym) is used to denote a strong wind.”

John Oswalt writes, “The wrath of God against sin will be like a stream thundering through a narrow canyon, pushed on by a roaring wind; and those who choose to ally themselves with sin, no matter where they are in the world, will have good cause to be terrified.”[1]

Here we find a passage that depicts the utter failure of Israel as YHWH’s covenant people, sharing in the world’s dedication to depravity. The righteous are oppressed by the wicked, who have no tolerance for the Torah of YHWH. YHWH is coming to His people, to that remnant of the faithful, bringing reward and deliverance to them, and punishment to the rest. It’s a day of terror.

Isaiah 59:19 is not a rallying cry against Satan in an act of spiritual warfare; it is, rather, part of the great gospel proclamations of texts like Isaiah 40 & 52 & Malachi 3. YHWH is coming like a supercharged flood into the world to judge & redeem.

The KJV translation of Isaiah 59:19, aside from being a collection of improbable grammatical choices, also comes out of left field contextually. Only something akin to the NASB’s “For He will come like a rushing stream which the wind of the Lord drives,” fits the context of the prophecy.

[1] The Book of Isaiah 40-66 NICOT.

2 thoughts on “When the Enemy Comes in Like a Flood, You’ve been Misquoting Isaiah 59:19: Part 3—Isaiah 59:19 in Context

  1. Jon Ruthven says:

    I’d encourage you to check out the following from Journal of Pentecostal Studies. The “fulfillment” of Pentecost is the New Covenant of the Spirit.


    1. Started reading it. Thanks. It is a bullet for my point, and a Bazooka blast for the theological significance of the text for ACTS.

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