Preachers will often cut out valuable parts of their sermon to stay focused on the main idea of the passage and keep it within a reasonable length. Recently, while preaching a sermon on Isaiah 3:1-4:1, I had to cut some explanation regarding a troubling verse. I thought it might be helpful to post it here.
This is Isaiah 3:17 from the English Standard Version:
… therefore the LORD will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts.
There is no consensus among English translations of this verse. Most indicate that it refers not to the women’s private parts, but their shaven heads. (Click here for a comparison of English translations.) I am no Hebrew expert, so I’ll limit my comments to the immediate context of the passage.
Understanding the Context
God’s people had become proud, so God was going to humble them by taking away the sources of their pride. He would take away the leaders’ power and position, leaving them weak and lowly (Isaiah 3:1-15). He would also take away the women’s beauty and allure, leaving them humble and ashamed.
The LORD said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet … (Isaiah 3:16)
The daughters of Zion were arrogant and flirtatious when they should have been humble and chaste. Verses 18-24 list the wardrobe and accessories he would take away from them—the possessions they used to develop their haughty, wanton demeanor.
This brings us back to verse 17. Does he promise to expose their shaven heads or their private parts? Though it is less palatable, here are two reasons it might mean their private parts.
First, the meaning of the word translated to the English “secret parts” more naturally refers to private parts than the scalp. You can read more about it here.
This also fits one of the themes we see in the Bible regarding God’s judgment. He tends to judge people by allowing them to fully experience the sin they toy with. Consider Romans 1:18-32:
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves … (verse 24)
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. (verse 26)
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. (verse 28)
So this judgment might have been like a parent making his child smoke an entire pack of cigarettes, a way of asking, “Is this really what you want – to reject my good ways of modesty and chastity for the world’s ways of wantonness and promiscuity?” As C. S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.”
But I cannot say for sure if this verse means that God would shame them by exposing their naked scalps or their naked private parts. Either one is severe. Either one would lead to shame, especially in that ancient culture. Both make sense in context. And both leave us shaken at the ferocity of God’s punishment. They send us running into the arms of Christ who took our punishment and shame upon himself, naked on the cross.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.