The reference to the “circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22 is the source of much speculation. Some see this phrase as evidence that God revealed to ancient Israel something of the physical layout of the universe long before anyone had discovered that the earth was round. Later, as scientific discoveries were made, the Bible was shown to be incredibly correct, recording truth that only God could have known. According to this view, the Scripture is demonstrated to have a divine origin by revealing “scientific secrets” before they were commonly known.
The Bible speaks of the rising and setting of the sun (as do we), but it is simply the language of appearance and not intended to communicate scientific accuracy (see Psalm 113:3.) The Bible also speaks of the “four corners of the earth,” yet no one thinks that the Bible is teaching that the earth is square (see Isaiah 11:12). Proverbs 30:4 speaks of the “ends of the earth,” an expression we still use today to refer to the remotest extremes. The problem with the “scientific secrets” approach is that it reads scientific precision into certain passages that seem to fit our modern scientific concepts while ascribing phenomenological language (language of appearance) or metaphor to those passages that do not. To be consistent, it would seem that all such passages should either be interpreted literally or metaphorically. If they are all interpreted literally, then there would be far more scientific inaccuracies than accuracies or “scientific secrets.” If they are all interpreted metaphorically or phenomenologically, then each of the passages would still make sense in its original context. Isaiah 40:22, with its reference to the “circle of the earth,” is just one example.
The first point to understand regarding the “circle” is that the word (Hebrew root chug) does not mean “sphere” but rather refers to a circle or sometimes a dome. A circle is flat like a disc or a dinner plate. Those who hold to the “scientific secrets” approach often think “sphere” when they hear “circle.” In the Old Testament, the word is used once as a verb in Job 26:10: “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness” (ESV). If one looks at the earth from space, there is indeed a circular boundary between light and darkness. However, the NIV captures more of the original intent and avoids the use of the word circle altogether: “He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.” If one is looking out at the sea, the horizon does appear to be circular.
The same Hebrew word is used three times in the Bible as a noun. In Job 22:14, God is described as walking in the “circuit of heaven” (KJV). Most modern translations translate it as “the vault of heaven.” If taken literally, this verse would be scientifically inaccurate because there is no vault over the earth. The universe goes out billions of miles in all directions, but, in staring up at the sky on a starry night, we do see the sky as a circular dome overhead with definite boundaries. In Proverbs 8:27, “Wisdom” says, “When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep” (ESV). The NIV translation communicates the meaning of “drawing a circle on the face of the deep”: “I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep.” There is no “circle” drawn on the sea, but there is a horizon that has a circular appearance as one looks out on the sea.
Isaiah 40:22 says, “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” Even if “circle of the earth” is taken literally in this verse, it does not say that the earth is a sphere. Actually, it does not even say that the earth is a circle. The “circle of the earth” seems to refer to the heavens that appear to be a circular dome overhead. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry would indicate that the “circle of the earth” is the same as the “canopy” being stretched out. The heavens are pictured as a tent for the multitudes of earth to live in.
In Isaiah 44:13 a variant of the word is translated in the ESV as “compass”: “The [human] carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house.” Here, the compass is an instrument used for drawing a circle, and such instruments are still in use today.
The word circle was an apt way to describe the horizon and the heavens overhead. The horizon goes out in all directions, and the sky overhead seems to meet it, forming a circular dome. This is purely the language of appearance. The Bible is not leaving scientific clues to its divine origin. Isaiah 40:22 is part of a passage that is communicating a truth far more important:
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
No sooner are they planted,
no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground,
than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff” (Isaiah 40:21–24).
The point of the “circle of the earth” passage is that God is far above all the petty affairs of petty people. He is not troubled by them, and He can bring them to an end at any time. He can also protect and strengthen His people:
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:28–31).
The Lord sits above the circle of the earth! Rather than being a source of secret scientific knowledge or a point of contention between young earth and old earth creationists, the verse is supposed to be a comfort to God’s people as they contemplate the greatness and the creative power of God, as Isaiah 40:1 says, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The comfort is found in the content of Isaiah 40 and the subsequent chapters.