Isaiah spoke of God’s anger, but he began with God’s deep sorrow, with a Hebrew word, הוֺי | hôy, that is translated as ah!, alas!, ha!, ho!, O!, woe! It is meant as a cry of pain, and of lament. So, instead of hearing each of these indictments as an angry pointed finger, let us listen to them as a grief-stricken parent might say them, devastated over the effects of sin in their child.
The first sorrow was over the people’s abuse of their wealth. The second sorrow lamented the people’s hedonism. Now, Isiah would introduce God’s third cry of pain over the people’s sin.
Third Sorrow: Lack of Repentance
Isaiah pointed next to that load of sin every person has, but some people refuse to let go of
Ah, you who drag iniquity along with cords of falsehood,Isaiah 5:18 (NRSV)
who drag sin along as with cart ropes,
Instead, the people held onto their sin with cords of rationalizing and denial, trying to avoid having a guilty conscience. Isaiah’s audience seems to have grown weary with the seer alternating between impassioned polemics and sorrowful laments over their sin. They had also grown cynical about God’s power to call them to account. So they taunted God
who say, “Let him make haste,Isaiah 5:19 (NRSV)
let him speed his work
that we may see it;
let the plan of the Holy One of Israel hasten to fulfillment,
that we may know it!”
It was as though they were shouting, Fine, bring it on, let’s see it already, mocking Isaiah’s use of God’s title as the Holy One of Israel.
Fourth Sorrow: Degeneracy
Warming to his theme, Isaiah pointed out that telling lies about their sin, trying to rationalize it in an attempt to keep their wrongdoing yet also gain godly approval, was not only in blatant disregard of God’s righteousness, but it was also to make the whole standard for good and evil subjective to what everyone agreed upon.
God’s definition of good and evil became nullified in the people’s eyes.
Ah, you who call evil goodIsaiah 5:20 (NRSV)
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
It hardly seems possible, with their scriptures before them, with such clear instruction, that the people could convince themselves that darkness was light, and that evil was good. But Paul famously wrote of exactly this same phenomenon in his epistle to the assemblies in Rome.
for though they knew God, they did not honor [the Lord] as God or give thanks to [God],
but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools;
and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.
They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.Romans 1:21-23, 28-32 (NRSV)
I imagine if the Prophet Isaiah were here today, or the Apostle Paul, they would find those who are doing the same thing, who announce what we know is evil as being good, and would decry what we know is good as being evil.
Fifth Sorrow: Self-Focused Pride
And where does all this come from? In the Lord’s indictment God told them
Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes,Isaiah 5:21 (NRSV)
Intellectual arrogance and self-sufficiency. The smarter we get in our own eyes, the less we regard what God has to say.
By contrast, godly wisdom and a life of righteousness are inseparable.
A wise person . . .
. . . lives in humility, open to and harmonious with God, welcoming the Holy Spirit to suffuse and guide thoughts, feelings and thereby words and actions.
. . . is strong in the Lord by humbly abiding in God.
. . . walks in reverence before God, understands their complete dependence upon the Lord for the course of their life, the course of their day‑to‑day living, and sees the hand of God in all the events and people in their life.
. . . loves God’s word and therefore a wise person’s words naturally glorify God and build up the people who listen.
. . . keeps God’s word.
Isaiah continued God’s fifth sorrow, Woe to those who are
shrewd in your own sight!Isaiah 5:21 (NRSV)
Without godly wisdom, and without regard for God’s word, the people had come to think of themselves as shrewd, prodigious intellects, no longer in need of God’s guidance and instruction.
Sixth Sorrow: Corrupt Government
Which brought Isaiah to God’s final cry of pain.
Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wineIsaiah 5:22-23 (NRSV)
and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!
If the prophet had peered through the window of a corrupt twenty-first century politician’s or judge’s office, his portrayal could not have been more relevant! It seems like a prophetic snapshot of the good ole boys club, clinking their whiskies and exchanging bribes behind closed doors. Those who were in a position to govern banded together over mixed drinks to defraud justice and pervert the law in each other’s favor at the expense of the people who were counting on them to rule justly.
You might say, well, we have laws today to prevent this kind of thing.
But you and I can also see that laws are only as good as the people who carry them out, and those who abide by them. If everyone—those who govern as well as regular citizens—all decide to ignore the law, then what good is the law, in the end?
God had excellent laws in place, but God’s people did not care to carry out God’s laws.
Who we are and what we do must be based on God’s righteousness, not our own.
Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would exhort believers
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything;
hold fast to what is good;
abstain from every form of evil.1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
And the writer of Hebrews would echo,
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.Hebrews 3:12-13 (NRSV)
God’s righteousness is found in God’s character, and God’s word. Devoting all our time to looking good and feeling good, to pursuing our own ambitions, and working situations out for our own good at the expense of others, will end up compromising God’s righteousness.
For those of us who profess faith in Christ, who have received the Spirit of Christ within our inward beings, to compromise with God’s righteousness is to quench and grieve God’s Being within us. May our hearts remain sensitive to the Spirit’s conviction so when that happens we will know, and we can turn back to the God Who loves us.