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Lowell Brueckner

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Six Woes


7. An expository study of Isaiah, chapter 5:17-30

Photo from "Shrine of the Book" in Jerusalem
It would seem that the Lord is a good deal gentler in judgment with Israel, than He is with pagan world powers. A little later in Isaiah (13:20-22), in the destruction of Babylon, for example, it is depicted as a place totally uninhabited forever. Not even shepherds will use it as a place to rest their flock, never mind to feed them. The nomadic Arabian would not stop to pitch his tent. Instead, it would be a place, where wild desert creatures, owls, ostriches, hyenas, and jackals would make their caves and nests undisturbed. In another example, the Lord, through Ezekiel, said of Tyre, “I will scrape her debris from her and make her a bare rock… and you will never be found again” (Ez.26:4,21).

However with Israel, God, in judgment, remembers mercy. The Lord will be exalted and men will be abased, and where the rich possessed the lands, the lambs would graze and the nomad would eat (v.17). What once was regulated by the rich landowner, has now become pastures for open grazing. It is quite a contrast with the total destruction of other countries. To this day, 250,000 Arabic Bedouins pitch their tents and feed their flocks in the open fields of Israel.

Woes three through six

“Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field… Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink” (v.8,11. Please notice expository study 6). Isaiah opens a third woe for his written sermon in this chapter. He maintains that deception, no matter how beautifully it is portrayed and no matter how many are enchanted with its delights, is defined as vanity in the Bible. Truth is useful, full and enduring; a lie is empty and useless. Ecclesiastes deals convincingly with this subject, Solomon speaking of his own experience as “vanity and striving after wind… to him who toils for the wind…” (Ecc.2:11; 5:16).

To live in sin is to live worthlessly, but men try to give it weight and substance, dragging sin, falsehood, or vanity behind them with cart ropes (v.18). They are hitched to it, expend energy on it and carry it from place to place as if it were a valuable possession. The commentators see this as a progressive process, as deception usually is. If it were depicted in its full stature from the beginning, it would be rejected. So it begins as a little, white lie and grows from there into a preposterous and ridiculous monstrosity.

Isaiah’s favorite term the Holy One of Israel is misused, in verse 19, by men without the fear of God, who use His holy name in vain. They speak blasphemously, daringly challenging God, defying Him to take action against themselves. As sin is dealt with generally in the last verse as something which grows and is accepted a little at a time, so it is with blasphemy, men lowering their concept of God, little by little, and becoming irreverent and light-hearted. It is common in our day. My dad told the story of a man in my grandpa’s tavern, who changed the words of the hymn “He taught me how to watch and pray” into “He taught me how to drink and smoke.” He was dead within days. Another drove back and forth by our little country church on his tractor, making as much noise and disturbance as possible. Shortly thereafter, the tractor tipped and crushed him beneath its back wheel.

In this same gradual and progressive manner, a spirit of perversion prevails. Men learn to term “evil good and good evil; who substitute darkness (ignorance, error, false doctrine, crime) for light (truth, knowledge, piety) and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (v.20, the fourth woe). Often this is done, even among Christians, by excusing sin, and condemning the one who exposes that sin. He is judgmental, critical, and non-forgiving, while it is said of the erring one: “He doesn’t need to be preached at, he needs to be encouraged and shown love.” Sin which should be held up to the light is kept in the dark and is handled with kid gloves.

Paul counselled Timothy, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Ti.5:20). The bitter pill of idolatry is swallowed, while the sweet presence of the true and living God is spit out. The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews 12:15 does not refer to having a bad attitude or resentment against another, (as I have heard some teach) but to Deuteronomy 29:18: “There will not be among you a man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from the Lord our God to go and serve the gods of those nations; that there will not be among you a root bearing poisonous fruit or wormwood.” This bitter root springs up and bears fruit, troubling and defiling many with idolatry and false doctrine.

A fifth woe (v.21) belongs to the ones who “are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.” These will never admit that they are wrong and never give in to the truth, no matter how clearly it is laid out for them. They are the ones with vision, they stubbornly think; God has given them special insight and not to anyone else. This attitude is always wrong, because the insight that God has given, He has given in His word, by which all can profit. We are to fulfill the demands of His word and not religious exclusivism that sets some apart from the general body of Christ. The commentator Albert Barnes says: This is the fifth crime specified. It refers to those who are inflated with a false opinion of their own knowledge, and who are, therefore, self-confident and vain. This is expressly forbidden; Pro.3:7: ‘Be not wise in thine own eyes;’ compare Pro.26:12: ‘Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.’”

The sixth woe (v.22-23): This woe is reserved for the ones whose valor comes from outside influences rather than from strong inward character. They are outstanding, as long as they are under the intoxicating influence of whatever it is that they rely upon and do very well in the company of their own kind. According to what is convenient for them, they will justify those who are in the wrong, and take away from those who are brought in by God in true righteousness. There is no sense here of godly convictions according to the unchanging truth of His Word. It is all relative to the situation and changes according to circumstances.

Two ultimate targets for the wrath of God

However, “as a tongue of fire consumes stubble and dry grass collapses into the flame”, when they are forced to stand alone and face the consuming flame of the truth of God’s word, their heroic reputation collapses into ashes. In all their presumptive loyalty to the Bible, under specific prosecution, according to chapter and verse, the truth comes out and the hostility that has built up inside is revealed (v.24). For the judgment of some, we will have to wait to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ, where all will stand alone and give account of himself (Ro.14:10: 2 Co.5:10).

The anger of the Lord… What an ignored attribute it is today, when people discuss the personality of Almighty God! Yet nothing is so clearly taught and exemplified in the Holy Scriptures. God is angered by certain flaws, which are evident among His people and, as is also clearly taught in the Bible, He is no respecter of person. Before him, no one is ever excused with a flippant remark, “Oh well, that’s just the way he is.” Judgment sometimes falls, but it is misinterpreted, just as spiritual discernment among the church fails to hit the mark.

“For all this His anger is not spent, but His hand is still stretched out” (v.25). What does this mean? It means that God’s wrath is infinite and is never satisfied on this side of hell! Or the cross!! It is to one of these two locations that we must ultimately come to receive of His fullness… the fullness of His wrath or the just sentence of acquittal, due to Someone who has borne the full weight of His wrath for us.

God has heaven and earth at His disposal. In this chapter already we have heard from the Lord of hosts (v.7). He is Commander in Chief over all the earth and world powers bow at His command. “He will lift up a standard to the distant nation and will whistle for it from the ends of the earth; and behold it will come with speed swiftly” (v.26). It is disciplined and well-armed and will effectively carry out His purposes. The will of the Sovereign God, the Lord of hosts, never fails (v.27-29).

Sea and land will obey Him. If one goes to the sea for shelter and protection, “its roaring is like a lioness, and it roars like young lions; it growls as it seizes the prey and carries it off with no one to deliver it. And it will growl over it in that day like the roaring of the sea.” If one turns to the land to find peace and safely, “Behold, there is darkness and distress; Even the light is darkened by its clouds” (v.30). There is nowhere to hide from the righteous judgment of God. Let us fall meekly upon the Stone that the builders rejected.

Kneel at the cross, give your idols up
Look unto realms above
Turn not away to life’s sparkling cup
Trust only in His Word,
Kneel at the cross, Jesus will meet you there.


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