The Woes of Isaiah 5

Isaiah 5 could be called the “Woe Chapter.” In six places in the chapter,  Isaiah pronounces woe on the Israelites.  It totally reminds me of Matthew 23 and the woes that Jesus declared towards the Pharisees.

And here’s something cool.  In both Isaiah and Matthew, the Hebrew and Greek word for woe actually sounds like an expression of sorrow.  Phonetically, the Hebrew word is “hohee” and the Greek is “00-ah-ee.”  Can’t you hear mourning in these words?  They’re like sighs or groans.

Literally, both words mean, “alas.” So in Isaiah, it’s like God is deeply lamenting all of the foibles of his people, and the consequences of their behavior.

Because here’s the thing.  God doesn’t bring consequences simply because he is angry at disobedience.  People bring natural consequences on themselves because their actions are destructive.  And all sin is destructive.

So it will help us to look at what God is lamenting here, and think about why it is lamentable.

1. They valued things, instead of valuing God.  “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until there is no room and you dwell alone in the land.”  On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad.  We built crowded subdivisions all the time!  But what we are looking at here is materialism.  The focus on “adding” reminds me of the parable Jesus told about a man who built a bigger barn to store all the grain he’d been blessed with.  Because this man decided he had it made and could take it easy, God called him a fool and ended his life.  Jesus’s conclusion was, “This is how it will be for anyone who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:21)

So we need to be careful not to love our stuff more than God.  But I’m going to go deeper here, and talk about another way we store up treasure for ourselves.  Jesus also said, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”  (Matt. 12:25)  I’ve been very convicted lately at how much I get angry at the slightest little thing someone does, or at the slightest little situation I don’t like.  I’ve realized that I’ve let the things that bother me become more significant in my heart than love and faith.  I’ve stored up evil, not good.

And it hit me that it’s like I’ve been drinking poison.  It doesn’t change the other person or the situation.  It just harms me.

So I’m refusing to drink the poison anymore.  I’m making God my treasure, and intentionally filling my heart with all the ways I love him, and all the good things about him.

2. They saw the physical, instead of seeing God.Woe to those who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger into the evening, to be inflamed by wine. . .  They disregard the actions of the LORD, and fail to see the work of His hands.”  We just talked about this in the last blog.  The Israelites should have looked at the natural world around them and seen abundant evidence of their Creator.  They should have looked at their lives and seen all the ways he was taking care of them.  But they missed the whole spiritual dimension.  Their souls could have been giddy with God, but instead, they filled their emptiness with the giddiness of wine.  It’s like Paul said in Ephesians 5:18, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.”

Last week, Ken and I watched an amazing video of an MRI of a child growing from conception to birth.  It was absolutely mind-boggling to see how cells multiply at a rate of a million a second, how the heart develops, or how a baby gets 60,000 miles of circulatory system.  How can we view things like this and not be in giddy with God?

Watching videos like this represents a shift for me.  I used to always find activities to do in my free time that zoned me out and put my troubled mind to sleep.  Now I’m finding activities that wake me up to the truths of God!  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for rest.  But if we always need to dull our senses (like the Israelites did with wine), maybe we’re missing something.

3. They believed lies, instead of believing in God.  “What sorrow for those who drag their sins behind them with ropes made of lies, who drag wickedness behind them like a cart!  They even mock God and say, ‘Hurry up and do something! We want to see what you can do.’”  The picture here is a man in a harness pulling a heavy cart.  The harness is composed of lies, and the cart is laden with sin.

It illustrates that lies are always connected to sin.  People sin because they don’t understand the truths of God.  And that is certainly the case here.  These Hebrews are like, “God, show us you’re real!”  They have patent unbelief. And with that comes wickedness.

Do we realize how our unbelief affects us?  My heart is heavy at the train wrecks I’ve seen people make of their lives lately.  I know someone who is imprisoned for a felony.  I know someone who had a short-lived affair, which led to divorce, and now she is a single mother with two small children and another one on the way.  I think in each of these cases, the individuals started believing lies about God.  They started thinking that God wouldn’t take care of them or relieve their suffering.  So they took matters into their own hands.

We can avoid our own trainwrecks by asking ourselves, “How am I doubting God?  What lies am I believing?”  We can remember that faith is, “the certainty of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1). 

Let’s make a rock solid, teeth-gritting decision to believe that God is faithful and working, even when it isn’t easily apparent.  This will keep us from getting hitched to sin.

4. They created their own moral standards, instead of following God’s moral standards.What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.”  You know, I want to look back at the Isrealites and think, “Why in the world would you get into the idol worship of the people around you?  Isn’t it obvious those idols are nothing but wood or stone?”

But I forget how easy it is to assimilate the mindset of those around us.  Our black and white morals become grey.

Today, I see so many examples of blurry moral lines among Christians.  We want to have the freedom to drink, but everyone has a different idea of how far to go.  The same applies to what we wear, and what we watch or listen to.

I’ve got to say that living in a world where we are inundated confusing messages from the media and social media doesn’t help.  It also doesn’t help that there’s a strong sense that everyone has their own truth.  And there’s a mistrust of authority, so there’s even more a feeling of each person has to find their own moral barameter.

So we start assimilate the mindset of those around us, and we start making Bible passages fuzzy.  And, just like the Israelites, we end up in sorrow.  It’s not fun to wake up with a hangover and regrets. Or to crave the soft porn of today’s media. Or to find that your dabbling took you to a place you  never intended to go, and you became a person you never intended to be.

5. They relied on their own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God.  “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.”  From the beginning, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, people have been thinking that they know better than God.  It’s certainly my biggest stumbling block.  Over and over again, I get tripped up because I’m sure I know a better way that a situation should go.

But it’s kind of like how our government has handled foreign affairs.  You know how we have gone overseas and gotten involved in righting the abuses committed by a foreign power, and then ended up bringing someone else to power who’s evil in another way?  We find out it’s not that simple to fix.  All that stuff is totally complicated.

And that’s what I need to remember when I feel the need to fix something — I don’t understand all of the complexities behind the situation.  It’s not to say that I shouldn’t try to right wrongs.  But it does mean that I shouldn’t get all bent out of shape if I can’t fix it according to my thinking.  And more, that I shouldn’t get all bent out of shape if others don’t fix it according to my thinking.

Only God understands all of the complexities.  It’s a much better idea to rely on him, first and foremost, for wisdom and guidance.  And it saves us much grief.

6. They cared about themselves, instead of caring about others.  “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.”  The picture that’s painted here is a group of people who thought being an expert at something was the highest achievement.  Specifically, they thought they were hot stuff because they were awesome at mixing drinks.  I know,  I know.  That’s a little ludicrous.

But the underlying concept isn’t that far off from our thinking today.  We also think we’re a champion if we become super proficient at something.  And God does want us to use the talents he gave us.  But God’s idea of greatness is different than ours.

I’m preparing for an MLK service project, and I just listened to Martin Luther King Jr,’s last sermon.  It was on the “Drum Major Instinct.” King said, “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.”

King talked about all the ways we try to be great, and contrasted this to how Jesus responded to James and John when they asked to sit at his right and left in the kingdom, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Mark 10:43b

People are God’s priority, and, to him, the greatest one is the one who serves people.

Are people our priority?  This is the time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions. We’re trying to lose weight, get more organized, achieve goals, and so on.  Do we have a resolution to love and serve people better? Are there people on our to do list today?

So let’s not get tied up in our accomplishments to the point that we lose sight of others. The result will not only be that the needs of our “brothers” do not get met.  The result will be that we end up lonely, realizing that we didn’t do what was most meaningful.  So many people regret on their deathbed that they didn’t spend more time on others.

King recognized that.  Here is what he said he wanted to be shared at his funeral: “Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. . . I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others. . . . I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. . . that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. . .  that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. . . that I tried to love and serve humanity.”

I want that too!! At my funeral, I can think of nothing better than people saying that I made a difference in thier lives.  But the only way I’m going to make it until the end is to avoid these woes that Isaiah mentions here.   I hope there is mourning for the right reasons at my funeral, and not mourning for my foibles and the consequences of my behavior.

I especially hope that I don’t cause God to lament, but instead, to celebrate when it is time to face him.  I know he believes in me, and he’s cheering me on.  I know Jesus is at his side, being my advocate.

And that kind of sums up the book of Isaiah.  It contains a lot of woe about how people have messed up.  But there’s also a message of hope and redemption.   As Isaiah 9:1 reads, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those in distress.”  Or here is one of my favorite Isaiah verses, “So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.” (Is 54:9b)

We need the warnings.  Yet what a God we serve, that he also gives us hope and redemption.

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