But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities…
"Rags" is a word that applies to worn and torn bits of cloth; when used otherwise to designate apparel, contempt is implied. The word employed by Isaiah has no such import. It is the same word that describes part of what Abraham's steward presented to Rebekah — "jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment." Are we to imagine that rags have any similarity to the gold and silver jewels, or are likely to be among the gifts offered in the name of a wealthy sheik to a gentle lady whose favour is sought as the bride of the son of promise? Besides, when a Hebrew meant "rags" he had a word for it A proverb tells how drowsiness shall clothe one with rags; and here the word is very different from Isaiah's. Hence it is well that the revisers put "garment" instead of "rags" in the prophet's phrase, which may thereby become less striking and splenetic, but is certainly truer to the prophet's thought. It is not for translators to inject their own feelings into their author's words. Equally erroneous is the adjective "filthy," or even "polluted," as the revisers have it. It is, of course, admissible, and may be elegant to construe a governed noun as an adjective, as is the case here; but the adjective should be a congruous one at least Isaiah's governed word has no reference whatever to filth. Had the expression been Zechariah s, where he speaks, with more force than courtesy, of Joshua's "dungy robes ' no fault could be found with filthy as a rendering; for there is no question that either Joshua's robes are represented as literally smeared with filth, or else the prophet held them in as great disgust as if it had been so, just as Paul scorned even his privileges as "dung" compared with the blessings he enjoyed in Christ. If Isaiah had expressed the like scorn, it would have been fair so to put it; but as the translators had to add the contempt, it is plain they imported into their original what was not there. The word chosen by Isaiah denotes something over and above. Proof is something beyond one's bare word; and an ornament is something over and above what is plain. Our word, then, means proof, evidence, or witness, and also display or ornament. Besides, being plural, it has special emphasis. The literal rendering, then, is "a garment of testimonies, or of infallible proof;" or "a garment of ornaments, or of great display." To suggest adjectives for the governed nouns, the translation comes to be "an evidential article of clothing," or "a showy dress." The first of the these interpretations was adopted by Aquila, a very old and apparently well-skilled translator, who improved upon the Septuagint. He gives "marturion" as the Greek equivalent; and on this has a note in which he observes, "This is testimoniorum," which means "of testimonies," and then goes on to refer to the Deuteronomic enactment concerning the scandal raised by a husband accusing his wife on the score of impurity before marriage. In such a case, a cloth smeared with blood, as it came from the injured woman's person, was a sufficient proof of pre-nuptial purity as well as of the consummation of matrimony. Looked at in this light. Isaiah's phrase has great capacity of suggestiveness. Our good deeds attest our "inward and hidden intercourse with the Lord, and prove that with Him only in all purity we have had to do, But there is a stain even on our purest thoughts and deeds. Our second interpretation, however, yields" the better sense. It takes into account,, the previous clause; and, in the light of it, both clauses are thus paraphrased: We are all like an unclean woman, and all our righteous acts like her showy attire." The meaning is simple and clear. Outward show takes the place of inward reality. Perhaps their loathing of the strumpet's airs begot contempt in the translators' hearts for anything that is describable in those terms. Their rendering reminds us of Zephaniah's indignant description of degenerate prophets: "Her prophets are debauched wretches — cloaks!" This corresponds with the old Scottish definition of a formal clergy — "toom tabards," that is, empty gowns, all cloak and nothing inside. The life is taken out of Zephaniah's fierce protest when it is smoothed down to "light and deceitful persons," as in the ordinary version. When David invites Israel's daughters to weep for Saul, he reminds them of the fashions of Saul's period, "with delights," referring to the modiste's art with a fine appreciation of a woman's weakness for finery; and the word is akin to Isaiah's "clothing of dazzling display." Here is "devotion's every grace, except the heart." The prophet seeks more heart and clean.
(H. Rose Rae.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.