1 Corinthians 15:54-55 (NASB) 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Today’s post wants to consider Paul’s Old Testament quotations in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, wherein He is announcing the victory of Jesus Christ over death by His resurrection from the dead. The quotes are interesting for a number of reasons – among those reasons being the fact that Paul is drawing from not one but two Old Testament references. What this post aims to do is two tasks:
1. To explore these quotations in terms of how Paul uses them in supporting his closing remarks in 1 Corinthians 15.
2. To understand both the textual and theological features of the Old Testament texts from whence the quotations derive.
By exploring Paul’s Old Testament quotations and their theological and textual features, we will discover why his closing remarks are so potent in closing out his powerful argument for Christ’s resurrection. In short, what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 is declaring a sort of obituary concerning death, and Christ’s decisive victory by way of His resurrection. So with those sentiments, let’s dig into the text!
Paul’s use of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:34 in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
As we noted earlier, Paul quotes not just one – but two Old Testament texts. The NASB text of Isaiah 25:8 reads-
“He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken.”
This first line (in red) in Isaiah 25:8 is alluded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54, which reads in the NASB:
“But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.‘”
The second Old Testament text quoted by Paul in his closing remarks of 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 is from Hosea 13:14, which again the NASB renders:
“Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death? O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight.”
The red line highlighted in Hosea 13:14 is referenced by Paul in slightly different wording in 1 Corinthians 15:55 –
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
A read through Isaiah 25 and Hosea 13 and Hosea 14 reveal God’s intent to restore the nation of Israel not only to its former glory, but beyond to that of eschatological glory in the age to come. For the Old Testament prophets at least, the age of Israel’s restoration was set to occur at the end of history under the reign of the Messiah (see for example Ezekiel 37-39; Daniel 12; Joel 2; Amos 9; Zechariah 12-14). The concept of the people of Israel being resurrected at the end of history is alluded to and mentioned as occurring during this same future time-frame (see Job 14:14; 19:28; Ezekiel 37; Daniel 12). With these two main thoughts of “restoration” and “resurrection” being tied together in the prophets, connecting them with Messiah’s coming at the end of the age was how the Old Testament viewed the situation.
What made the aftermath of Jesus’ remarkable life and death so life-altering and history-altering was when the apostles began proclaiming that Jesus Christ had raised from the dead. Furthermore, for Paul to take texts like Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14 and apply them as having been initiated in their fulfillment by the resurrection of Jesus meant the “age to come” had broke into “this current age”. The Bible Knowledge Commentary summarizes Paul’s reason for utilizing these texts in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55:
“The apparent victories of Satan, in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:13) and on Golgotha (Mark 15:22–24) were reversed on the cross (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14–15) and vindicated in the resurrection of Christ. From the vantage point of the certain resurrection of the saints, Paul voiced his taunt against death and Satan.”
The Textual And Theological Features Of Paul’s Quotations In 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
Thus far we have summarized what Paul was quoting (Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14) in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 and the point he was making (to show Christ’s decisive victory over death by His resurrection from the dead). Such an argument by Paul reminds one of an obituary of sorts – or what we could call “death’s obituary”. The textual and theological features of these quotations will be briefly considered.
In the New Testament, we discover that whenever an author quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, they are using one of three sources: the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Old Testament (i.e the Septuagint, LXX) or some other version of the Old Testament (examples: Aramaic Targum or unknown version).
To mention the first reference used by Paul – Isaiah 25:8 – the verbs for “swallow” are different, indicating that Paul may had derived his quotation from another Old Testament version. Below we can see a comparison of the Greek Septuagint text of Isaiah 25:8 and the Greek New Testament text of 1 Corinthians 15:54b with translations:
Isaiah 25:8 (Septuagint) κατέπιεν ὁ θάνατος
Death is gobbled up
1 Corinthians 15:54b Κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος.
Death is swallowed up in victory
The theological context is that of Yahweh restoring His people and the earth to such a degree as to wipe out death itself. The curse is reversed in Isaiah 25, effectively disarming and dismantling the curse of Genesis 3. In Jesus’ victory over death, we discover that the beginning phase of God’s restorative efforts has begun! Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians 15 is to show that all who are united to Jesus in saving faith have this restorative process initiated in themselves. Truly what we see here is an “already-not yet” reality.
So with this first text studied, what about the second text: Hosea 13:14? Again, we consider the text of 1 Corinthians 15:55, first in the Greek Text (SBL Text) with the English rendering of it:
1 Corinthians 15:55 “ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ νῖκος; ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ κέντρον;“
1 Corinthians 15:55 “Where for you, Oh Death, is the victory! Where for you, Oh death, is the sting?”
The second person singular pronouns (in red) could just as easily refer to death’s ownership of victory and the sting it administers as to reference to Death as the object of Paul’s taunt. In modern editions of the Greek New Testament, question marks (in green) are shown as English semi-colons (;), thus, Paul is asking more of a rhetorical question here. It is obvious what has happened: Jesus has snatched the victory and sting of death from its jaws! The point of Paul’s quotation is to do a theological equivalency of “na na na na na” to death. Again, the quote is taken from Hosea 13:14, which is difficult to render from its Hebrew original. The Hebrew of Hosea 13:14 is as follows:
Hosea 13:14 (Hebrew text) מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם מִמָּ֖וֶת אֶגְאָלֵ֑ם אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל נֹ֖חַם יִסָּתֵ֥ר מֵעֵינָֽי׃
English translations have difficulty rendering this text due to the fact that it is hard to decide whether the Lord is addressing His people in the form of a series of rhetorical questions (example: will I rescue you from the hand of Sheol? = מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם) or is He addressing them with the promise to redeem (example: I will rescue you from the hand of Sheol. = מִיַּ֤ד שְׁאוֹל֙ אֶפְדֵּ֔ם). We find the major English translations handling Hosea 13:14 as follows:
A. ESV of Hosea 13:14 “I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol; I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion is hidden from my eyes. ”
B. NASB of Hosea 13:14 “Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns? O Sheol, where is your sting? Compassion will be hidden from My sight.”
C. NIV of Hosea 13:14 “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death.
Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?”
D. KJV of Hosea 13:14 “I will ransom them from ithe power of the grave; I will redeem them from death:
O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: Repentance shall be hid from mine eyes.”
As can be seen, the issue of which sentences are to be interrogative sentences and which ones are to be declarative makes rendering this text a challenge for the interpreter. The NET Bible has excellent translators notes on this text, which I will place in the footnotes of this post for anyone wanting to dig even further.1 Even though the translation issues are difficult, they need not be impossible. Sometimes whenever we are attempting to translate the Hebrew, we can compare the Greek translation of the Old Testament (i.e Septuagint), which is rendered below along with an authorized English translation of the Septuagint Text:
Hosea 13:14 (Septuagint Greek text) “ἐκ χειρὸς ᾅδου ῥύσομαι αὐτοὺς καὶ ἐκ θανάτου λυτρώσομαι αὐτούς, ποῦ ἡ δίκη σου, θάνατε; ποῦ τὸ κέντρον σου, ᾅδη; παράκλησις κέκρυπται ἀπὸ ὀφθαλμῶν μου.”
Hosea 13:14 (Lexham English Septuagint) “From the hand of Hades I will rescue, and from death I will ransom them. Where is your penalty, O death?
Where is your sting, O Hades? Comfort is hidden away from my eyes.”
Whenever we take the Septuagint text’s rendering of the first two sentences as declarations, we find God promising to restore His people. The next two sentences are rhetorical taunts against death, as seen in the interrogative pronouns (red) and question marks (green semi-colons). The final sentence then is God declaring to His people that (for the time being in their day), His comfort is hidden due to His wrath. Thankfully, Hosea 14 shows God’s true intention to redeem His people, which matches the first two sentences of Hosea 13:14. So whenever we compare the Greek Septuagint text of Hosea 13:14 to the portion of it quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, what do we discover? Note the comparison of the portions in red:
Hosea 13:14 (Septuagint) “ἐκ χειρὸς ᾅδου ῥύσομαι αὐτοὺς καὶ ἐκ θανάτου λυτρώσομαι αὐτούς, ποῦ ἡ δίκη σου, θάνατε; ποῦ τὸ κέντρον σου, ᾅδη; παράκλησις κέκρυπται ἀπὸ ὀφθαλμῶν μου.”
1 Corinthians 15:55 (SBL Greek New Testament) ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ νῖκος; ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ κέντρον;
Paul’s quotation differs from the Septuagint text by one definite article (τὸ = the) and two nouns (νῖκος = victory and θάνατε = death) , with the words in black (in 1 Corinthians 15:55) being synonyms. It seems Paul is taking the sense of the Septuagint text as capturing what He is conveying about the lopsided victory of Christ over death.
Taunting death is Paul’s way of saying that what Christ achieved is decisive or, to put it another way, “an already done deal”. In the Hebrew text, we have Yahweh stating His intent to destroy death: אֱהִ֨י דְבָרֶיךָ֜ מָ֗וֶת אֱהִ֤י קָֽטָבְךָ֙ שְׁא֔וֹל = “I will make a decree against you, Oh death! I will destroy you, O Sheol!” In the Greek text of the Septuagint, we have God taunting his enemy death in what appears to be His inevitable victory over it. In short, we can use Paul’s quotation and use of Hosea 13:14 in 1 Corinthians 15:55 as an authoritative method of rendering Hosea 13:14. In Paul’s quotations of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14, the point is being made: death has been decisively defeated. The restoration of redeemed humanity and the created order has begun in the resurrection of the Son of God. Whenever we consider the wider contexts of Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14, as well as their respective renderings in the Hebrew and Greek Septuagint, we discover how potent of a conclusion is drawn by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. In short, Paul has spelled out death’s obituary, a victory anticipated by the prophetic Spirit operating through Isaiah and Hosea and fulfilled by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
1. The translation of the first two lines of this verse reflects the interpretation adopted. There are three interpretive options to v. 14: (1) In spite of Israel’s sins, the LORD will redeem them from the threat of death and destruction (e.g., 11:8). However, against this view, the last line of 13:14 probably means that the LORD will not show compassion to Israel. (2) The LORD announces the triumphant victory over death through resurrection (cf. KJV, ASV, NIV). However, although Paul uses the wording of Hosea 13:14 as an illustration of victory over death, the context of Hosea’s message is the imminent judgment in 723–722 B.C. (3) The first two lines of 13:14 are rhetorical questions without explicit interrogative markers, implying negative answers: “I will not rescue them!” (cf. NAB, NASB, NCV, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NLT). The next two lines in 13:14 are words of encouragement to Death and Sheol to destroy Israel. The final line announces that the LORD will not show compassion on Israel; he will not spare her.