Translation commentary on Isaiah 56:10

His watchmen are blind: There is no antecedent for the pronoun His, but it most likely refers to Israel, so New Revised Standard Version, New International Version, Revised English Bible, and Bible en français courant say “Israel’s,” and New Jerusalem Bible has “Its.” Good News Translation renders this pronoun as “my people,” since it continues to view the LORD as the speaker. For watchmen see the comments on 21.6. In this context watchmen is a metaphor for the leaders of God’s people. These leaders are blind, which is a metaphor for their inability to see what is happening, perhaps even not wanting to see what is happening, within society (compare 42.18-19). A watchman who is blind cannot possibly fulfill his role to keep the community safe from threats and attacks.

They are all without knowledge charges the leaders with being foolish. It does not mean that they are uneducated. They are stupid, which implies they are irresponsible leaders.

They are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark: These two lines compare Israel’s leaders to dogs that are unable to bark. It was a great insult in Hebrew culture to be called a dog. The Hebrew adjective rendered dumb refers to the inability to speak, so when applied to dogs, it means they cannot bark. A watchdog that cannot bark is useless since it cannot warn about any threat to the things it is guarding. In the same way the leaders were useless. Not only were they blind to threats, they also could not bark (cry out) to give a warning. The Hebrew verb rendered bark is found only here in the Old Testament. This verb comes from a Hebrew root that can also mean “see.” It can be used to refer to a “seer” or prophet, so there is probably a play-on-words here. The leaders are compared to (useless) prophets. The metaphor of dogs may be expressed as a simile if necessary (see the second example below).

Dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber: These two lines use three participles in Hebrew to describe the leaders further. Like lazy dogs, they just lie down sleeping and dreaming instead of doing what they are supposed to do. As watchmen, they should be bringing God’s word of warning to their people. Translators may reorder the actions here for a more logical progression as follows: lie down, sleep, and then dream.

Translation examples for this verse are:

• The [or, Israel’s] watchmen are all blind,
they are all ignorant.
They are all dumb dogs that cannot bark [a warning];
they love to lie down, sleep, and dream.

• The watchmen [of my people] are all blind and stupid;
they are all like dumb dogs that cannot bark.
They prefer to lie down and dream.
They love to sleep.

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 .