RPM, RPM Volume 15, Number 45, November 3 to November 9, 2013

The Woeful Pronouncement

Isaiah 5:8, 11-12, 18-23

By D. Marion Clark


"Woes and Judgments" — that is the heading in my Bible for the remaining part of chapter five. The title is not as inviting as the previous one of "The Song of the Vineyard," but at least we know what we are getting ourselves into. I am going to handle this portion a bit differently than my normal routine. Instead of taking each verse as it comes, I'll discuss tonight the "woe" verses and cover next week the "judgment" verses.

The Woes

We've got six woes corresponding to six sinful fruit that the Lord found in his vineyard. The first is the sin of coveting and oppression.
8 Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land…

There are a couple of sins here. One is the simple sin of coveting or greed. Men want more — more houses and bigger houses, more land. They cannot be satisfied with their portion. They go beyond even the desire to be well off; they want as much as they can possibly attain until nothing is left and they are left alone.

The other sin that is implicated is oppressing one's neighbors. Understand that land was livelihood, as well as living space. This is an agricultural society. Defrauding someone of his land made him destitute. The only means left to survive is to work for the new owner, which in effect made him a slave. Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, also denounces this activity.
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning's light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.
2 They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud a man of his home,
a fellowman of his inheritance (Micah 2:2).

This act is made all the more worse considering that the law had intended to protect God's people from that very condition. The land of a man was to pass down through his generations. If someone, due to poverty, had to sell his land, it was the obligation of another family member to redeem the land for him. If there was no one, and the man could later repurchase it, the new owner was bound to return it. In whatever case, the land had to be returned in the year of Jubilee. The price for the land was determined by calculating the cost of the number of crops remaining until that year. Be sure that the new owners Isaiah is referring to paid a much less price and had little intention of returning anything.

The second woe addresses is debauchery — engaging in sensual extravagance.
11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning
to run after their drinks,
who stay up late at night
till they are inflamed with wine.
12 They have harps and lyres at their banquets,
tambourines and flutes and wine,
but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD,
no respect for the work of his hands…

Here are people who burn both ends of the candle to keep up their schedule of drunken bouts. They wake early with a craving for drink and stay up light filling their insatiable thirst. This is not a description of the harden alcoholic. It is a description of the unrestrained man pursuing sensual pleasure. Pleasure of the flesh is all that drives him.

Now note verse 12:
12 They have harps and lyres at their banquets,
tambourines and flutes and wine,
but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD,
no respect for the work of his hands…

These people are an apt illustration of Romans 1:18-32:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

The third woe is deceit.
18 Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit,
and wickedness as with cart ropes,
19 to those who say, "Let God hurry,
let him hasten his work
so we may see it.
Let it approach,
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come,
so we may know it."

We don't have here another group of people with a different sin from the others; rather, they accomplish the other sins through deceit. They are pulling along their carts of sin with ropes of deceit. They are working at defrauding and debauchery through lying, hypocrisy, and trickery.

It's hard to discern which sacrilegious posture they are taking in verse 19. Are they saying, "Fie on God. If he can act against us, then let him try." It is hard to believe they could be so blatant in their defiance. Perhaps they are simply speaking hypocrisy. "Oh yes, may God's justice come," all the while they plan their own schemes of wickedness. Either activity is a blasphemous one.

The fourth woe moves us into a worsening condition of reversing the moral order.
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter.

It is one thing to act badly and admit that it is bad; it is another to act badly and proclaim it as good. But you can see the progression of how this occurs. When a people commit sin over and over, either that behavior will break down or it will become assimilated into the accepted order. We could spend all night with that one: fornication, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, and intoxication make up a short list of what our society has assimilated as, not only acceptable behavior, but good.

How are we able to turn what was once regarded as evil into being regarded as good. That's easy. We've made man as wise as God.

That takes us to the fifth woe.

21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.

This is perhaps the greatest illustration of man's foolishness, that he regards himself as wise. I don't mean to pick on the Unitarian Church, but its stated principles speaks for themselves.

We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves. We put religious insights to the test of our hearts and minds.
We uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. We say ours is a noncreedal religion. Ours is a free faith.

Another way of saying it is, "Ours is a religion that doesn't need God's input, thank you very much."

Finally, the sixth woe is a mockery of what is good.
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
and champions at mixing drinks,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice to the innocent.

The designations of heroes and champions are reserved for those who do great deeds. Now they are claimed by profligates of indulgence who take pride in their feats of indulgence and scorn justice to finance their excesses.

The Picture

We are given a picture of people who have plunged into the river of wickedness headfirst. Shame is abandoned, unless it is shame in not abandoning restraint.

How did Judah get there? The same way our own society has gotten there. I want to be careful here. Most moral people regard the society of their day as the worse. There are a few instances in which some have actually believed that their present day was better than the past, but on the whole those who are moral look upon their immorality and injustice as a growing phenomenon. But there really is nothing new under the sun, especially the causes of wicked behavior.

The Israelites sinned for the same reason we do today: they and we have a bent nature. We always choose to sin if left to our own resources. That's just good Reformed theology. We like sin. What differs between "sinners" and "upright" people on the whole is a willingness to practice self-restraint.

"Sinners" mock the "upright," by accusing them of harboring the same desires. That accusation is correct. No argument. That's why self-restraint needs to be practiced. The hearts of everyone are wicked. We all love darkness. It is because we do have regard for the deeds of the Lord, and respect for the work of his hands; because we trust the wisdom of God over our foolishness, that we check our natural impulses.

But we still need to go further. Practicing restraint may produce an outwardly upright life, but what is required is a righteous heart. Checking wickedness is not the same as replacing it with righteousness. Isaiah does not pronounce his woes to make people shape up. He pronounces them to turn the people to God for redemption. They need to be redeemed, not merely reformed. Judgment is upon them and no amount of self-reform will save them, just as it will not save us. Disciplining ourselves to restrain our indulgences is not good enough. We need the blood of Christ to wipe our guilt away and create in us new hearts.

And by the way, we ought to consider how different we really are from these woeful people. The same sinful dispositions can manifest themselves in different forms.
8 Woe to you who add to your wants
and to your felt-needs
till no space is left
for the needs of others, even your closest loved ones.

11 Woe to those who rise early in the morning
to run after their own agenda,
who stay up late at night
till they are obsessed with achieving their personal goals.
12 They have their good works
but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD,
no respect for the work of his hands…

18 Woe to those who draw their egos along with cords of self-deception,
and pride as with cart ropes,
19 to those who say, "Let God hurry,
so that he may see our work."

20 Woe to those who call self-righteousness good
and good self-righteousness,
who put up morality for light
and regard grace as darkness,
who put rules-keeping for sweet
and living by grace for bitter.

21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight,
and yet believing they are really being humble.

22 Woe to those who are heroes at trivial activities
and champions at debating trivial matters,
23 who acquit the guilty for being lauded as religious,
but deny justice to the innocent who want play by the rules.

Think about it. The only real difference between anyone is not that one sins and the other doesn't, but that they sin in different forms.

Which again, leads us all to the same place for hope, the redemption of Jesus Christ and our faith in him. When judgment comes, we will not stand before God and say, "See how good a person I was." Indeed, I don't think we will say anything. Our hope is that Jesus Christ will speak on our behalf, "See my righteousness by which I have clothed him.

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