Another Example of Language Change in the Last 400 Years: Punctuation

Three minutes ago I discovered another passage I had been misreading for years because I always thought of it in 400-year-old KJV language:

As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider. (Isaiah 52:14-15 KJV)

It was the dashes in the ESV that alerted me to my error (the poetic hanging indents helped, too):

As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
so shall he sprinkle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.
(Isaiah 52:14-15 ESV)

The dashes told me that the sentence flow goes like this: Just as MANY people were astonished at him, so shall he sprinkle MANY nations. I always–without knowing it–got lost in all the intervening verbiage in the KJV. The “So” in “so shall he sprinkle” seemed out of place to me. The ESV’s punctuation helped me understand the conjunction and keep the thread.

Punctuation means something, but in all my years I’ve never seen an explanation of the KJV punctuation (aside from the idea that it broke up phrases for easier public reading), and I can’t find a reliable explanation online or in my Logos library. And as a long-time KJV reader, I’ve never been able to pick up a recognizable pattern in its use of colons and semi-colons. It has always seemed somewhat haphazard to me.

If there is a punctuation pattern (and I actually suspect there is), why force modern English speakers/writers to learn that new system? And don’t forget that the total absence of quotation marks in the KJV also makes for unnecessary reading difficulty. I fully and wholeheartedly agree with Bill Combs of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Another Example of Language Change in the Last 400 Years: Punctuation”

  1. For what it’s worth, the 1611 reads, “14 As many were astonied at thee (his * visage was so marred more then any man, and his forme more then the sonnes of men:) 15 So shall hee sprinckle many nations, the kings shall shut their mouthes at him: for that * which had not beene told them, shall they see, and that which they had not heard, shall they consider.” Maybe you just need a real KJV ;).

  2. Parallax, thank you for checking on this. Believe it or not, I thought I checked for this possibility, but the KJVO site claiming to have the “real” KJV led me astray! It didn’t have the 1611.

    It looks as though one of the subsequent revisions actually made things worse as far as meaning and punctuation go in this verse!

    Good work—thanks!

Leave a Reply