Isaiah 5:18-23 Link to LXE
Four More “Woes!”
God continues to express his anger through the prophet Isaiah with the last four “woes” shooting out in rapid-fire succession, unbroken by statements of consequence. The consequences occupy paragraphs of their own following the woes and continue to the end of the chapter. They begin with three occurrences of the word “therefore.” Here are the woes.
- Woe to them that draw sins to them as with a long rope… (vss 18-19) The Third Woe
- Woe to them that call evil good, and good evil… (vs 20) The Fourth Woe
- Woe to them that are wise in their own conceit,… (vs 21) The Fifth Woe
- Woe to the strong ones of you that drink wine… who justify the ungodly for rewards,… (vss 22-23) The Sixth Woe
The Third Woe
The imagery of Isaiah 5:18 is difficult to interpret, no matter which translation one uses. The following link reveals most of the English versions in existence: Bible Gateway. (Yes, this site is amazing!) But even with all these translations, the underlying meaning of the imagery is not quickly revealed.
Those who “draw sins to them as with a long rope,” (LXE, Brenton) would seem to be those who go out of their way to find sin. Not satisfied with sins close at hand, they cast far and wide for them.
These same people “draw,” or pull towards themselves–attract, as with a magnet–“iniquities as with a thong of the heifer’s yoke:” In other words, they’re pulling iniquities–wrongdoings, sin–along behind themselves, as though transporting a valued possession.
The best help I found for verse 18 is in The Orthodox Study Bible (1). The comment for verse 18 in the study notes says, “intentional evil acts.” This lines up well with the imagery as I described it. There is the picture of someone straining with a rope, leaning forward, pulling, working hard to commit sin.
These same people also say in the next verse (vs 19), “Let him speedily hasten what he will do, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel come, that we may know it.”
I see two ways of reading these statements–
First, they could carry a hypocritical intention of piety. The same people who spend time and energy attracting sin to themselves pretend to want to see and hear the actions and counsel of the Lord. They pretend to want to know the Lord’s will. Correlating with this interpretation are Jesus’s many statements to the religious leaders of his day. Matthew 23:27 provides an example of this meaning. While the Pharisees went around committing sins, they pretended to be holy and desirous of God’s will.
Or, second, the statements the sinners speak in verse 19 could be out and out sarcastic mockery. This latter possibility evokes a heart that is truly hardened. Correlating with this interpretation is Ezekiel 12:22 and 2 Peter 3:4, both citations provided by the ESV reference margin.
Personally, my inclination is toward the first interpretation. The reason is that the KJV’s “cords of vanity” in the prior verse (Isaiah 5:18), indicate falsehood (ESV), emptiness (NET), and deceit (NIV). These correspond to the hypocrisy described with more detail in the verse at hand, verse 19.
Christians seem to be very careful to not throw stones at their own. This is with good reason. Nevertheless, sometimes sins need to be called out. This is especially true when the sinner is an upstanding church community member, or even the church itself. It takes strong prophets, such as Isaiah and Jesus (in one of his many roles), to call out specific sins.
I believe we need strong pastors who are willing to lay their own careers on the line to call a spade a spade. When pastors do so, they get attacked and often suffer severe consequences. So did Jesus. So did Isaiah. As a member of my congregation, I need to support my pastor when they call out sin as they see it. That is part of their duty in leading their flock to God’s righteousness.
Nevertheless, all Christians are called to exercise wisdom and discernment in what they swallow. And, they themselves should constantly examine their own hearts and actions. God can help in this. For after all, Isaiah addresses his words to God’s own people in his own day and age. Think of that. These words of woe are being addressed to God’s people, not to the “pagans” in the land.
For my part, when I read these words in Isaiah, I can’t help but make application to the world around me. That includes what I read in the media, what I see the various levels of government doing in my own country. What politicians speak and what they do.
How does my church react to the atrocities committed around me? Does my church love all the poor and needy as much as God does? Do I? I cannot neglect to consider myself. Do I love my comfort and my ease more than I love others?
Am I guilty? Do I commit these sins and then rationalize my behavior to myself?
“Lord, show me my heart. Show me now while there is still time for me to change. Show me the areas where I wrong you. Then help me to agree with you and most importantly, to have the courage to change, to do what is right, to follow your law. In Jesus’s name, Amen.”
Do you see how easy it is to pray that prayer? To say those words? But, am I kidding myself? Isn’t that exactly what Isaiah says the people in Isaiah 5:19 were doing? They were asking the Lord to share his counsel with them, so that they would know it. As the old saying goes, truth lies not in the hearing of God’s word, but in the doing of it.
Only the Lord knows my heart. Help me, Lord, to honestly yield and submit to you. Thank-you, Amen.
1 Academic Community of St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology, Elk Grove, California. The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008, p 1062.