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What hasn't been seen?

There appears to be a substantial difference in meaning in Isaiah 64:4 depending on how a few words are translated--and how the sentence (in English) is punctuated:

Case 1 (example from NIV)

Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him

Case 2 (example from KJV)

For since the beginning of the world men have not heard, nor perceived by the ear, neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee, what he hath prepared for him that waiteth for him.

(other versions supporting each of these general meanings could be cited)

One version suggests that no God but the Lord has been seen; the other version suggests that what has not been seen is what the Lord has prepared for the righteous.

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Note that Paul references this idea in 1 Corinthians 2:9 as well:

However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him—

A quick tally of modern translations appears to strongly favor Case 1. Paul's use of the passage appears to suggest Case 2.

Which is the more accurate rendering? Is Isaiah discussing seeing God or seeing what eternal life looks like?

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  • Robert Young's Literal [YLT] has Even from antiquity `men' have not heard, They have not given ear, Eye hath not seen a God save Thee, He doth work for those waiting for Him.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 5 at 11:15
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It is actually part-way between these two extremes. I would translate the passage:

For since the beginning of the world, no ear has hear and no eye has seen any God who acts [the way You do] for the one who waits on Him.

That is, God is NOT famous for being seen, nor for what He has prepared for those that wait on Him, BUT for the way he acts toward those who serve Him such as God's saving and protecting acts.

Ellicott sums this up as follows:

(4) Neither hath the eye seen, O God, beside thee . . .—The best commentators are in favour of rendering, Neither hath the eye seen a God beside Thee, who will work for him that waiteth for Him. The sense is not that God alone knows what He hath prepared, but that no man knows (sight and hearing being used as including all forms of spiritual apprehension) any god who does such great things as He does. St. Paul, in 1Corinthians 2:9, applies the words freely, after his manner, to the eternal blessings which God prepares for His people. Clement of Rome (chap. 34), it may be noted, makes a like application of the words, giving “those who wait for Him” (as in Isaiah), instead of “those who love Him.”

The Cambridge commentary is similar:

4–7. This difficult passage contains (1) an appeal to that which distinguishes Jehovah from all other deities: He is the only God who works for them that wait for Him in the way of righteousness; (2) a confession of the people’s sinful condition due to the persistency of the divine wrath. A contrast between these thoughts is probably intended; the severity of Jehovah’s dealings with Israel seems at variance with His known character. But the text is in some places hopelessly corrupt, and the exact sense is somewhat uncertain. ... Isaiah 64:4 will read nearly as in R.V., And from of old men have not heard, have not perceived by the ear, no eye hath seen a God beside Thee, Who worketh for him that waiteth for Him.

The following versions render this sense best: NIV, NLT, ESV, BSB, NASB, etc.

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