Precept Upon Precept A Common (and Serious) Problem in Bible Study

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

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 8:141 Peter 2:6–8).


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.

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