I would say the word means “bad news” about 100% of the time. Revisionists have their way with many genres of literature. History, for example, can be rewritten based upon the perspectives of those pushing today’s academic pens. And Biblical interpretation is certainly not exempt. The church finds itself in the midst of ethical conversations that were unthinkable 50 years ago.
But here’s where I kind of like “woe” – it doesn’t allow for much of that. Woe means woe – it means something’s wrong on a major scale in God’s view. And odds are if it was wrong then, it’s likely wrong now.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of 6 major ethical misses that earned God’s “woe” (an “F” in heavenly ethics class). These were the things that brought down a nation – not just any nation, but the one of God’s own making. Now if these ethical evils brought down the nation God made, how disastrous might they be for our time, our nation, and our city?
Here’s the list, straight from Isaiah 5:8-30. God says “Woe to you who are…
- Property Grabbers (“Woe to you who add house to house…”) – those who enrich themselves by disregarding the sacred right of land inheritance (Lev. 25:14-17, Micah 2:1-2). Because of them there is no room left for people of ordinary means to own a house and land.
- Party Animals (“Woe to those who rise early for drinking…”) – those who have become alcoholics, shown by their need for “beer” early in the morning. They party through the day and into the night until they’re totally hammered, showing no time for God’s deeds and no regard for his work.
- Parading Shamelessly (“Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit...”) – those who are openly proud and brazen over that which they should be ashamed of, openly defying the Lord with parade floats of sin so heavy that they have to use cart ropes to drag them along.
- Repeal Morality (“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil…”) – those who reverse moral distinctions. These are folks who have become so seared in their depravity that they consider sin to be perfectly normal and good to be the evil. These are the sophists of any age, who have found a clever word game for proving black is white and white is black.
- Pump Themselves Up (“Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes…”) – those who put their own ideas on a pedestal and now imagine they know more than past wisdom, being highly enlightened above God’s revelation, his prophet’s warnings and his promised judgment.
- Prostitute Justice (“Woe to those who acquit the guilty…”) – those who have sold their responsibilities in social leadership to buy that which feeds their base habits. This is the judge or policeman who has an addiction and takes a bribe to support it. Justice goes hungry while social leaders feed their cravings.
Seen any of that stuff around today?
One writer described Israel in the 6th century BC as “a false, government-aided prosperity encouraging a corrupt luxury accompanied by oppression of the poor and a sensual, immoral, heathenish religion” Now that does sound familiar.
When crime, sensuality, and greed are ascendant, it’s hard to imagine justice ever being done.
Justice did come to the nation that God told “woe” – big time. Consider Amos 4:1-2 in light of the bas-relief from Nineveh showing the conquest of Lachish. In it captive Jews are being led before King Sennacherib of Assyria by ropes attached to giant fish hooks put through their jaws.
Before God says “woe” on our time, we need to cry “whoa!” to any part we play in such.