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In Isaiah 30:21, the prophet writes:

Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." Then you will desecrate your idols overlaid with silver and your images covered with gold; you will throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say to them, "Away with you!"

Isaiah 30:20-22 (NIV empahsis mine)

How should this verse be understood? On the one hand I could see it being read as, "Whichever way you turn, you'll have a voice confirming that this was the correct choice." On the other hand, I could also read it as, "If you start to deviate from the path, you will have a voice that corrects you and guides you back to the path." Does either of these glosses capture what is being said here to Israel? Is this a picture of confirmation or correction or something else?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The phraseology of turning to the right hand or the left is largely negative. The Mosaic law required that one not do so (Dt 5:32; 17:11, 20; 28:14; Josh 1:7, 23:6; Pro 4:27), and those who did not are commended (2 Kg 22:2; parallel 2 Ch 34:2).

Sometimes it is simply neutral in scripture, as in one has a fixed goal (e.g. Gen 24:49; 2 Sam 2:19), but in the context of what is supposed to be done, the phrasing is in reference about what not to do.

Based on that alone, there is virtually zero chance that it means "Whichever way you turn, you'll have a voice confirming that this was the correct choice."

The context of Isaiah itself prophecies a period of God's blessing (v.18), a time when those in Jerusalem "will weep no more" (v.19). Though the Lord gives them troubles now (v.20), there will come a time when they might turn the wrong way (i.e. to the right or left), but instead they will be corrected to the right path (v.21), one that leads to rejecting idolatry (v.22).

I take vv.20-22 (and vv.25-26) to be a reference to the time of conversion of Israel into the blessed state of vv.19-20, and 23-24.

So "If you start to deviate from the path, you will have a voice that corrects you and guides you back to the path," is much closer to catching the meaning. I am not sure that they will even "start to deviate" at this time; I take it as more a referent to "temptation" (a thought). The "you turn right/left" (תַאֲמִ֖ינוּ וְכִ֥י תַשְׂמְאִֽילוּ) are both in the imperfect state in the Hebrew, so it is not a completed action. That does not preclude them having already "started," but it seems contextually to me that the point is they will no more go the wrong way once they have attained this state of blessing (along the lines of the promise of Jer 31:33 and Ezek 36:26-27).

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The verse must be read in context. He is talking of them seeing the truth that the teachers around them have hidden from them. The teachers had led them into idolatry or at least allowed them this path, but now the voice of God through Isaiah is there to show them that idolatry should not be accepted and turned away from.

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In view of the alternatives as to whether the voice is permissive or corrective, I think those who favor corrective are far more likely to be on target. What strikes me here is that the voice is "behind you." On the one hand, this could be construed in contrast with seeing the Teacher in the immediately preceding verse. The image is perhaps of a parent guiding a child from behind. On the other hand, the voice coming from behind, could be construed as an invitation to turn around and see the teacher, in other words a call to repentance. While the "turning around" is not explicitly mentioned, it does fit the context of the right or left. Moreover, the defiling and scattering of the idols are clearly a "turning from" past behavior.

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