This Sunday’s sermon passage seems, in some English translations, to teach that Israel’s sin was forgiven by means of the Exile to Babylon. The NASB, ESV, and NIV use terms such as “guilt” and “atone” at Isaiah 27:9. Thankfully, the Holman Christian Standard Bible provides a more accurate rendering of the original Hebrew text, with “iniquity” instead of “guilt,” and “purge” instead of “atone.” The Hebrew words in question have a range of meaning. The translators of the HCSB (and of the New Living Translation as well) did an excellent job of sensing the nuances of these words in this context.
Adding to the confusion, some English translations use the English past tense in verse 8. Given the historical context, it is best to translate the verbs in this section with English future tenses. From the perspective of Isaiah’s day, the Exile to Babylon was a future event. This sort of variation among English translations occurs, especially in poetry, because Hebrew verbs are quite flexible in the way they deal with time.
Significant help for understanding Isaiah 27:8-9 comes from the preceding verse. The point of verse 7 is that God will not strike Israel the way he strikes Israel’s enemies. Verses 8 and 9 then fill in the details: God will use the Exile, not to annihilate Israel, but rather to remove her practice of idolatry.
With these factors in mind, here are the two verses, Isaiah 27:8-9, first in a wooden translation of the original language, then in a smoothed-out English paraphrase.
8 In shooing her away, in sending her away, you will be contending with her.
He will drive her away with his fierce wind, on the day of the east wind.
9a That being so, in this the iniquity of Jacob will be purged;
and in this the full fruit of the removal of his sin:
9b in his making all the stones of the altar like stones of chalk crushed to pieces.
The Asherah poles and incense altars will not be standing up.
8 By sending Israel into exile, you, O Lord, will be calling her to take responsibility.
The Lord will drive Israel away with a stormy blast from Assyria and Babylon.
9a Through exile, Israel’s wickedness will be taken away.
Here is what the full removal of Israel’s sin will look like:
9b The Lord will make all the stones of Israel’s pagan altars to be like crushed chalk.
No shrines to foreign gods or images of Asherah will be left standing.
In New Testament language, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10). I hope to fill this out a bit more on Sunday morning. See you then!
Footnote: The phrase translated above “in shooing her away” (v. 8), is built on a word that appears only once in the Hebrew Bible. Its meaning is not clear to us today, and there is an alternative sometimes suggested by scholars: “by exact measure.”
Update (Dec 14, 2014): Isaiah 6:7 is an important cross-reference to Isaiah 27:9. Taken together, these two verses provide a comprehensive picture of how God deals with his people’s sin. The combination of four Hebrew how-to-deal-with-sin words that appears in Isaiah 27:9 also appears in 6:7. The four words, as found in the wooden English translation above (v. 9a), are “iniquity,” “purge,” “remove,” and “sin.” If I plug those English words into 6:7b (consistently using the same English word to represent the same Hebrew word in both passages), then 6:7b reads: “…your iniquity is removed, and your sin is purged.” Note carefully with me that these four words are being used in two very different contexts. In Isaiah 6, sin is removed via a coal from the altar (think, OT sacrificial system). In Isaiah 27:9, sin is removed via exile (think, suffering). Isaiah 6:7 is an example of what New Testament theologians call justification, and 27:9 what they call sanctification. As I stated above, I don’t think “atone” is a good translation at 27:9. However, given the different context at 6:7, the ESV, NIV and HCSB’s “atoned for” is a fitting translation of the final word of that verse. Thanks be to God for the fact that he addresses both the legal guilt of our sin and the practical fact that we sin! In so doing, he is making us fit for the perfect kingdom described in Isaiah 27.