In Isaiah 28, the prophet Isaiah begins to deliver a series of “woes” or messages warning the people of Israel (or Ephraim) and Judah of coming judgment. In one of these woes, the phrase precept upon precept repeatedly appears. The term precept means “a guiding rule, command, or principle.” In Isaiah 28:13 God speaks words of judgment: “And the word of the LORD will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” (ESV).
To fully understand what the prophet meant by “precept upon precept,” a bit of historical background is required:
Isaiah endeavored to get Israel’s rulers to stop depending on political strategies and international treaties for peace and return to trusting in the Lord. Not only were Israel’s rulers proud, unteachable, and self-reliant, but these leaders, who were supposed to be examples to the people, were staggering around drunk, disorderly, and delusional (Isaiah 28:7–8). Isaiah realized it was time for the people to turn to God and repent.
In their inebriated hallucinations, the people showed no interest in hearing from God. They asked, “Who does the LORD think we are?” and “Why does he speak to us like this?” and they expressed their resentment: “Are we little children, just recently weaned? He tells us everything over and over—one line at a time, one line at a time, a little here, and a little there!” (Isaiah 28:9–10, NLT).
Isaiah 28:10 in the English Standard Version says, “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” In the New International Version, their complaint reads, “Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there.” These repeated phrases were spoken by the drunken rebels to mock Isaiah’s preaching—his “simplistic” message sounded like baby talk to them.
Devoid of God’s living, breathing presence and the message of salvation, the intoxicated priests and prophets viewed the Word of the Lord as meaningless jabber, little more than a set of rules and regulations—precept upon precept, a rule for this, a rule for that; do this, do that. They considered themselves above such basic principles and scorned Isaiah for treating them as if they were little children.
The leaders of Isaiah’s day were seeing without perceiving and hearing without understanding (Matthew 13:14–15). Their hearts had become calloused, their ears dull, and their eyes closed (Isaiah 6:9–10). Putting their complaint into modern terms, it would not be an exaggeration to say that, in saying, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,” they were saying that the Word of the Lord was little more than “yada yada” or “blah-blah-blah” to them.
The disrespect shown to Isaiah and the Word of God was met with God’s pronouncement of judgment. In Isaiah 28:11–13, God calls out Israel’s drunken prophets and priests for mocking Isaiah and rejecting His Word. First, God says, “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people” (verse 11). In other words, since they claimed that Isaiah’s preaching was nothing more than babble, God would ensure their future lessons were delivered in a foreign tongue—specifically, the Assyrian tongue, as the Assyrians would soon conquer Israel and take them into captivity (Hosea 8:8; 13:16).
Then, Isaiah attempted to make the rebels see themselves as if in a mirror, throwing their own words back at them: “And the word of the LORD will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:13a). As part of God’s judgment, His message would continue to be given in small portions. They would continue to be treated like children because they were still children in their understanding. They were those who were “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). And they would continue in their spiritual drunkenness, unable to understand. The result would be devastating: “That they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” (Isaiah 28:13b).
The people’s only hope was to turn to God, the rock of their salvation: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone. It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken” (Isaiah 28:16, NLT). This “precious cornerstone” was an undisputed reference to the Messiah (cf. Psalm 118:22; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:6; Matthew 21:42; Acts 4:11).