Translation commentary on Isaiah 29:17

The reversal theme continues in verses 17-21, but now it is Yahweh who will turn things upside down! Although different interpretations of verse 17 are possible, it most likely refers to a complete and positive reversal. Yahweh will humble the leaders who cause harm to society, but he will exalt the poor.

Is it not yet a very little while…? is another rhetorical question. It expects the answer “Yes!” New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh expresses it as a strong statement by beginning with “Surely, in a little while….” This is a good example to follow. Good News Translation introduces it as a popular saying by starting with “As the saying goes, before long….” This is not recommended

Until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field: The mountains north of Israel in Lebanon were famous for the cedar trees that covered their slopes (see 2.13). Good News Translation renders Lebanon as “dense forest,” but this is not recommended. Bible en français courant provides a better model with “the forest of Lebanon.” Fruitful field renders the Hebrew noun karmel. This noun could refer specifically to Mount Carmel, which lies on the southern side of the fertile valley of Jezreel in northern Israel, or it could have its more general sense of “cultivated garden,” “farmland,” or “orchard” (Bible en français courant, New American Bible). The general sense is more likely here. Shall be turned is literally “will turn/become,” so it is an active expression in Hebrew. For languages that need to specify an agent here, translators may identify Yahweh as the subject (see the second example below).

And the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest: The meaning of this line is ambiguous. Since it is parallel with the previous line, it most likely means the fruitful garden will become a forest. If so, it refers to a process that is the exact opposite of that in the first line (so Good News Translation). Some scholars believe the Hebrew word karmel refers to Mount Carmel in this line, so that it is parallel with Lebanon in the first line. This is a possibility; see the third example below. Revised English Bible renders the Hebrew word for forest as “scrub,” so for this whole line it has “and the garden land will be reckoned as common as scrub” (similarly New Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh). This means fruitful farmland will be as common as scrubland, which is a positive thing. This interpretation is not widely accepted, but it is possible (see the third example below).

Most scholars believe the reversals in this verse refer to positive changes for the poor in the context of this section. Turning the forest of Lebanon into a garden is probably a figure for the overthrow of the ruthless tyrants who rule them (verses 20-21). Elsewhere in Isaiah cutting down the mighty trees of Lebanon is a symbol of humiliation and punishment (see 2.13; 10.34). Turning the garden into a forest is probably a figure for the elevation of the poor (verses 18-19). Since the interpretation of this verse is uncertain, translators should be fairly literal, as in Revised Standard Version. Several models that do this are:

• In a very short time will not [the forest of] Lebanon turn into a garden?
And will not the garden turn into a forest?

• Very soon Yahweh will turn Lebanon into a cultivated garden,
and the cultivated garden into a forest.

• Will not [the forest of] Lebanon turn into a fertile region very shortly?
And will not [the fertile region of] Carmel be regarded as common as scrubland?

Quoted with permission from Ogden, Graham S. and Sterk, Jan. A Handbook on Isaiah. (UBS Helps for Translators). New York: UBS, 2011. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .