Six Woes

It’s one thing to cry out “Woe is me!” It is a cry of pain; a cry of distress over circumstances; a cry of “why me?”; a cry of lament that swirls around the soul. For many of us, these are but moments of self-focus. They may be imagined or real. They may be heavy or light. They may be about what is deserved or undeserved. But it is a different matter altogether if God pronounces a woe over you. There is no escaping the weight here. There is no dancing away from blame here.

This oracle (Isaiah 5:8-25), following the Song of the Vineyard, pronounces six woes over the people. The timeframe spans from the reign of Uzziah until the invasion of the Babylonians. The first woe is pronounced over those who gobble up houses and land until there is a displaced and homeless populace wandering alone in the midst of the land. Leviticus 25 protects the rights of ownership. If they have to sell land because of debt, the kinsman redeemer must be allowed to pay off the debt and receive back the land for his kinsman. If that is not possible, when the Year of Jubilee rolls around (every 50 years) the land will come back to the family. But this rite of land is being ignored and judgment is coming. Houses will be destroyed and vineyards will produce at a loss. One source puts it at a 90 percent loss.

The second woe is spoken over drunkards who rise up in the morning to run after strong drink and then tarry in the evening to burn with wine. They party it up without even a glance at Yahweh’s works. Because of this they are going into exile because of a failure to understand. And the failure to know is not ignorance; it is a defiantly refusing to see God’s message. Therefore, their men of abundance hunger and the common person is parched. The soul or appetite of Sheol will be grow large. Sheol is the place of the dead and this is a poetic way of saying that many will die. Jubilant Jerusalem, all full of splendor they thought would last forever, will descend into her gaping maw. Man will be bowed down and brought low. The eyes of the exalted will be abased. But Yahweh of Hosts will be exalted in judgment. God is right. His judgment is true. If they would have lived this understanding, they would have avoided this moment. But sojourners will eat and lambs will graze in their abandoned land. All because they defiantly refused to know.

The third woe is spoken over those who drag around their guilt with measuring ropes of emptiness. The measuring rope was knotted in increments for measuring. Their measuring right and wrong is empty – it means nothing. They load their sin onto a cart and drag it along with them. Verse 19 seems to be an excuse – one that is used to this day. God hasn’t shown up, so what can He expect. Do something amazing God and we will listen. The fourth woe is similar. It is about those who call evil (misery, injury, calamity) good (benefit, welfare) and good evil. They set up obscurity in the place of clear light. They set up the bitter in place of the sweet. The fifth woe is spoken over those who are wise (skillful) and clever in their own eyes. The sixth woe comes back to drunkards. It must have been a serious problem. Instead of being mighty in knowing and obeying God, they are mighty in drinking. They are valiant with mixing of strong drinks. Hey good job! You can drink others under the table. They also take bribes and pervert justice.

Because they have rejected Yahweh’s torah – his communication; because they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel, they have become like dry grass; like trees with rotten roots. So, when the fire of judgment comes, and it is coming, they will burn up with no resistance. The anger of Yahweh is a raging fire. They have defiantly refused to know for far too long. The innocent have been oppressed for far too long. The strong drink has flowed while the poor suffer for far too long. They have patted themselves on the back for the superior intellect for far too long. God is slow to anger. Yes. But his anger does burn and the mountains quake and the corpses drop in the street like so much garbage. For the Jewish people burial was very important. But these bodies will not be buried.

There are times when life is difficult and woe sweeps over us. But it is a different matter altogether when the Holy One pronounces woe over a people. God is the righteous one. His woes are true. Within this litany of woe, there can be found a means of avoiding woe. Humble yourself before the mighty God. Trust in his righteousness. Don’t allow drink or your own sense of intelligence or worth intoxicate you. Don’t set up evil in the place of good. Humble yourself and let God exalt you. Shalom.