In the New American Standard Bible the words translated sin (חַטָּאת)and disgrace (חֶסֶד) each have two meanings (whether these meanings are based on the same or different Hebrew roots is immaterial since the spellings are the same). The first word means both (a) sin, the primary sense, and (b) sin-offering, the secondary sense. The second word means both (a) lovingkindness, the primary sense, and (b) disgrace, the secondary sense. Given these lexical facts the verse can be translated in four different ways, beginning with (1) the primary meanings, (2) the secondary meanings, and alternating between the primary and secondary meanings for (3) and (4).
1 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is lovingkindness for people.
2 Righteousness exalts a nation, but the sin-offering is a disgrace for people.
3 Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace for people.
4 Righteousness exalts a nation, but the sin-offering is lovingkindness for people.
Of these four possible readings, only 3 and 4 make sense.
The problem with this verse is that the reader of the English Bible does not know that the words have these different meanings and that full interpretation depends upon these variations. A reader familiar with the Hebrew vocabulary and reading from the Hebrew text, however, initially reads the verse as seen in translation (1) using the primary meanings. Then, when this makes no sense he may try translation (2) using the secondary meanings with the same result. Finally, varying the primary and secondary meanings, he uncovers translation (3), the primary followed by the secondary meaning, and (4), the secondary followed by the primary meaning, both of which do make sense. However, since translation (3) leaves the passage as a negative proverb—who cannot but sin and hence only experience varying degrees of disgrace—he retranslates the passage as seen in translation (4) and discovers a startling truth. Although mankind sins, God has provided expiation, a sin-offering, whereby people can restore their relationship to God and experience the exaltation mentioned in the first clause!
The full three-line proverb reads:
Righteousness exalts a nation,
and sin is a disgrace for people,
but the sin-offering is lovingkindness for people.
What a marvelous Old Testament proverb with its “invisible” punch line! The grace of God exhibited in His lovingkindness by providing the sin-offering so that people might be rightly related to Him should and no doubt did issue forth in praise and joy. But this Old Testament verse also prefigured the New Testament exhibition of the grace of God centered in the coming of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice as God’s Sin-Offering (Romans 8:3) making it possible for people everywhere to become rightly related to God and possess the indescribably gracious blessing of eternal life! And there is nothing invisible about this truth!