“Line Upon Line”

Brant Gardner

Reference: Nephi is basing his comments on Isaiah 28:9–13:

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.

Kevin Barney provides an illuminating commentary on the relationship between Isaiah’s text and Nephi’s:

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.…
As much as I appreciate our common LDS understanding of the phrase “line upon line, precept upon precept,”… 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”). 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 (v. 12), but they have rejected it. Therefore, this simple lesson, which they failed to heed in Hebrew (v. 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.

Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 2