The King James translation of the bible has profoundly influenced both the language and culture of the English speaking world. It was the catalyst for the standardization of English spelling and grammar and has been extremely influential in the construction of western thought, law, and ethics. For much of its history, it was seen as the only legitimate translation of Scriptures by large segments of the English speaking world. The English speaking world has deeply loved the King James translation of Scriptures in a way that has been unmatched by any other version.
Unsurprisingly, the King James version has also greatly influenced, both directly and indirectly, the translations found in most English bibles that have been published since its introduction in 1611. Translators of newer versions have often been hesitant to make significant changes to the wording of our most beloved verses because they recognize that these phrases have been engrained into the memories of men and women who hold them very dear to the heart. While this hesitancy to make significant changes to the wording used in the KJV has helped to keep the vocabulary consistent across many different English translations, it occasionally has caused some minor misunderstandings when the meaning of words has changed but the vocabulary has remained the same. Let’s examine one such misunderstanding found in Is. 53:4. The KJV version of this verse reads “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” The words translated as “griefs” and “sorrows” are “חלי” and “מכאבות”; however, these Hebrew words are typically understood to mean “severe illness or injury” and “physical pain” but “grief” and “sorrow” in English more accurately convey the idea of emotional pain. For comparison, let’s take a look at how these Hebrew words are used in other places in Scripture.
Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” (2Ki 1:2 NIV).
Comments: While some versions do follow the tradition of the KJV and translate this as “sick/illness,” the context of this passage clearly indicates that the concern was about an injury sustained when the king fell. No translation uses the word “grief” in this passage.
Three days later, while all of them were still in pain (Gen 34:25 NIV)
Comments: The men of Shechem had all just been circumcised and were still experiencing the physical pain caused by circumcision. No translation uses the word “sorrow” in this passage.
While the Hebrew words “חלי” and “מכאבות” can be used to communicate the idea of emotional pain and suffering, they do so nearly identically to the way that equivalent words in English do. In English, words like “wound,” “injury,” “illness,” “hurt,” and “pain” are typically used to speak about physical suffering but they can also be used to convey the idea of “grief” and “sorrow” when additional contextual clues are included i.e. “He is a wounded soul,” “his heart hurts,” “she was injured by his words,” “he felt ill because of what he had done,” etc… And like English, without these contextual qualifications these words always bring to mind the idea of physical pain. For example, without qualification the phrase “she experienced great pain because of her injury” communicates only the idea of physical pain and injury.
With this insight, let us look again at portrait of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. This passage describes one who has been struck, crushed, bruised, whipped, wounded, led to the slaughter, and killed. Over and over again the language used in this passage communicates the idea of physical pain and suffering. While Christ also experienced emotional pain and suffering that far exceeded his physical torment, these were not “our sorrows” or “our griefs;” his emotional pain and suffering on the cross is something none of us truly understand because it was different from anything we have ever experienced. What this verse is describing is the punishment that we deserved but that Christ bore on our behalf. The words “grief” and “sorrow” used in many versions of this passage fail to capture this meaning or the extent of the pain and suffering that Christ bore on our behalf.
Frequently, as in this case, these kinds of misunderstandings were not the fault of the KJV translators but are the result of modern English speakers who have misunderstood the KJV translation. The cause of these misunderstandings are frequently the result of assuming that we have understood the meaning of words that are still commonly used in contemporary English today when our understanding differs significantly from the understanding of English speakers from the 17th century.
With this insight, let’s take a look at how “grief” and “sorrow” were understood by English speakers in the 17th Century. While both words included the meaning we associate with them today, they both also had a broader semantic range of meaning that has significantly narrowed over time. It is the meaning that has been lost which most closely mirrors the definition of the Hebrew words used in original text of this passage. The University of Michigan has an online middle English dictionary that can be consulted when researching how English words were used in older English literature. Consulting this dictionary we see that there are aspects to the meaning of “grief” and sorrow” that no longer part of the definition of these words today.
grief – Sickness, disease, bodily defect or injury; (b) pain, suffering, torment, bodily affliction; ~ of hed, headache; (c) wound, hurt place.
sorrow – Physical pain, soreness, agony; torture; also, the fact or state of being in pain; also, a pain; a spasm of pain, pang; nimen ~, to feel pain; (b) physical sickness, disease; also, mental illness [quot. a1398]; also, a sickness, disease; also fig.; (c) lovesickness; a pang of lovesickness; also, the state of being lovesick; (d) Jesus’ suffering on the cross, the passion of Jesus; (e) the torment of Hell, infernal pain; also, an infernal pain; also, the suffering of purgatory; ~ stede, the place of torment, Hell.
With this background, let’s look at this phase as it is translated in the in the KJV and ESV translations.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4 KJV)
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa 53:4 ESV)
While the translators of the KJV and the ESV have translated this verse almost identically, the KJV translators had accurately communicated the meaning of the Hebrew text to their intended audience i.e. English speakers of the 17th Century but, by following the KJV tradition, the ESV translators have miscommunicated the meaning of this text to their intended audience. Yes, God in his love and mercy for us does care about our deepest emotional pain but that is not the concern that Isaiah was attempting to communicate in this passage. In this passage Isaiah was telling us about how Christ would bare the punishment that we all deserved.