A reflection by Danny Schweers on Isaiah, Chapter 35.
It is easy to get lost, but not on the Holy Highway. God is there to guide us. We need not fear, even those of us who are fools.
The prophet Isaiah tells us of the Way of Holiness, a holy highway where wayfarers cannot get lost even if they are fools. Or does he? Some translations say something very different.
Because Christmas will soon be here, in church we often hear readings from Isaiah this time of year, the Season of Advent. This Sunday we will hear Isaiah’s vision of the Holy Highway. I especially like Verse 8 of Chapter 35, the way it ends: “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”
That is what I wanted to write about, the hope even fools like me have, that we can travel the Holy Highway and not get lost. I instead took a detour or two.
When I want to get clearer on what a particular passage says in the Bible, I will read it in various translations. In this case, instead of getting clearer, I was disturbed to find that some translations are very different from the one that inspired me.
The New International Version of the Bible, for example, says of the Way of Holiness, “The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.” The New Living Translation says “And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there.” There are many similar translations that exclude fools from the Holy Highway.
That lets me out! I am often foolish.
So which translations are correct?
Many translations favor the interpretation I find inspiring. King James: “the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein.” The Message: “It is impossible to get lost on this road. Not even fools can get lost on it.” English Standard Version: “It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.”
Perhaps none of these translations are correct in that they do not preserve the ambiguity of the original. The original must be ambiguous to produce such opposing translations.
One explanation for the opposing interpretations is that translators seek clarity, are averse to ambiguity, and will choose one interpretation over the other rather than let their interpretation be ambiguous.
Poetry translated from a foreign language produces wildly varying versions. Often none of them are poetic. What made them worth reading in the original is lost.
I like the tack W.S. Merwin takes in translating. He often reads all the translations of a poem he can find and then writes his own translation, trying to instill poetry back into words.
If I were to do that with Isaiah 35:8, here is what I might write, preserving the ambiguity: “A road shall be there called the Holy Highway. The unjustified shall not travel on it; it shall be for those who seek God. No one traveling there shall go astray. Can a fool find it?”
Let me bring these detours to a close by quoting from the Concise Commentary of Matthew Henry.
“The way of holiness is the way of God’s commandment; it is the good old way. And the way to heaven is a plain way. Those knowing but little, and unlearned, shall be kept from missing the road. … But of what avail is it to admire the excellence of God’s word, unless we can call its precious promises our own? Do we love God, not only as our Creator, but because he gave his only Son to die for us? And are we walking in the ways of holiness? Let us try ourselves by such plain questions, rather than spend time on things that may be curious and amusing, but are unprofitable.”
Instead of debating differing translations — spending time on things that are curious and unprofitable — let us instead be inspired.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad and so shall we. The desert shall rejoice and blossom and so shall we. Let us rejoice with singing! Glory surrounds us! Majesty! The eyes of the blind shall be opened. The tongues of the speechless shall sing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Danny N. Schweers chairs SsAM’s Communication Committee. He is an active photographer and writer. Click here to visit his website and make a comment.
Photo above is of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Click here to see it used in Danny’s 12th Photo Prayer of 2020.