Precept Upon Precept

A Common (and Serious) Problem in Bible Study

Many of us grew up twirling and falling down as we sang the children’s rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie.” I was an older child when someone explained to me that this cheerful tune had potentially morbid roots dating back to the bubonic plague. Such is childhood.

Singing the phrase without understanding its meaning — could it be that we’ve done something similar with Isaiah’s familiar words?

The word of the Lord will be to them
     precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line. (Isaiah 28:13)

When some of us learned about studying or teaching the Bible, one phrase seemed to be repeated as often as any other: precept upon precept, line upon line. In my experience, few verses are quoted and extolled as these when we’re encouraging our people to take the Bible seriously. Not only have we told our people that it is one good method among many, but some of us have said it’s the only right way to study the Bible. I’ve literally sung this phrase as a chorus in church.

But I sang those lines with a confused conscience. Having come across those words in Isaiah, I wondered if they could possibly mean what we thought they meant. Too embarrassed and fearful to express my concern, I told myself that I was no Bible expert and I could rest secure in my lack of knowledge. Surely, my sense that Isaiah was using those phrases — “line upon line” and “precept upon precept” — to mock God’s people couldn’t be correct! So, I set aside that precept and moved on to the next.

Bible Study God Mocks

After sharing my thoughts about the text with my husband and some friends at church, digging through some commentaries and lexicons, I found my suspicions confirmed. This really is a passage of mocking and judgment. “Line upon line” and “precept upon precept” is the way of folly and gibberish, according to God. Which just so happens to be the opposite of what I had understood it to mean the many times I’d heard it quoted out of context.

Let’s look at the whole passage together:

To whom will he teach knowledge,
     and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
     those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
     line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.

For by people of strange lips
     and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
     to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
     give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
     yet they would not hear.
And the word of the Lord will be to them
precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
     line upon line, line upon line,
     here a little, there a little,
that they may go, and fall backward,
     and be broken, and snared, and taken. (Isaiah 28:9–13)

Isaiah 28 pronounces judgment on God’s people. They are drunk and proud. And although there is much for them to learn from God, they are like foolish, immature children, learning in such a way that they never really learn. When they hear the teaching, it’s like a foreign language. This “precept upon precept” learning, this “here a little, there a little” knowledge is working against them, and they will be broken by it just as they stumble over the stone of offense and the rock of stumbling (Isaiah 8:14; 1 Peter 2:6–8).

So, what is this “line upon line” method of learning that has ensnared God’s people? How do we avoid it? Is Isaiah saying that we shouldn’t look closely at every line? Is he saying that slow and careful study is a bad idea? No, quite the opposite. But he is saying that there is a kind of learning that is fastidious, catchy, repeatable, and deadly. There is a way to learn that is like children playing the game “Ring Around the Rosie.”

This kind of Bible study is a catechism that specializes in missing the point.

Learning God’s Way

Yet there is hope. A picture emerges of a way of learning that is truly profitable and wise. It sits in contrast to the simplistic and mindless children’s recitations, the myopic piling on of precepts that lacks the point of the big picture, the learning that goes in one ear and out the other — “line upon line” and “precept upon precept.”

In these hopeful verses, we are introduced to a man who is taught by the Lord. He is truly paying attention (Isaiah 28:23). This is how we want to learn! Not merely learning line by line, but with our ears open to hear and understand.

Observe this description of a learner who is instructed by God:

Give ear, and hear my voice;
     give attention, and hear my speech.
Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
     Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
When he has leveled its surface,
     does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
     and barley in its proper place,
     and emmer as the border?
For he is rightly instructed;
     his God teaches him. (Isaiah 28:23–26)

The one who is taught by God does not simply plow and plow and plow. He does not make row upon row upon row. She does not simply go line by line by line, precept on precept on precept. No, we plow so that we can sow. We sow the right crops in the right place. We harvest and reap — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). We walk in the good works God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). But only if we are rightly instructed by the Lord. Only if our ears are actually hearing and we are really paying attention.

Plow and Sow

To clarify, I do not only (or even mainly) have Kay Arthur’s studies in mind. They are actually a great model of the kind of Bible reading God commends. The name, however, is unfortunate. When I hear faithful teachers use the phrases “line by line” and “precept upon precept,” they are often using it synonymously with exegetical teaching — so in that sense, we should support the sentiment. But we use the phrase wrongly because we aren’t paying close enough attention to God’s actual words in Isaiah.

When you take up your Bible to read or teach, remind yourself that true and faithful learning from God is not merely “line upon line” or “precept upon precept” — those phrases describe the hollow learning of a people under judgment. True learning is plowing the rows, sowing the seeds, and bringing in the harvest as one whose ears have been opened to truly hear the instruction of the Lord.