Isaiah 5:21 Link to LXE
The Fifth Woe
Woe to them that are wise in their own conceit, and knowing in their own sight. (LXE, Brenton)
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! (ESV)
You Say There’s a Problem?
Doesn’t current children’s media teach youngsters to trust themselves? to look within? to find their center? to be independent? And when we look at the current political scene in America, don’t we find many whose problem is that they believe everything they read? wild conspiracy theories, unscientific viewpoints about coronavirus? They fail to use their own wisdom and discernment to distinguish what not to swallow.
And don’t we all get frustrated with the friend or relative who can never make up their mind? who can’t even decide where to eat? who seems to always want to be told by others what to do?
Coming towards the end of a list of powerful “woes,” I’m not sure I understand what is so bad about this woe. What is wrong with trusting my own mind and my own judgment? Let’s unpack this verse together.
The Biblical View of Wisdom
The Bible often carries its own unique point of view. For example, consider the phrase, “fear of the Lord.” My whole evangelical life I’ve been taught that I shouldn’t be afraid of God, that he is not mean, that he is a kind and loving father who only wants to bless me. This line of teaching continues–The God of the Old Testament may have been an “angry” God. But we are in the New Testament. All that has changed. Jesus is love. And yet, contrary to all this, the Bible teaches that “the fear of the Lord” is a good thing for me to have.
What about wisdom? What does the Bible teach? The Book of Job is classified as both poetry and wisdom literature. Job 28 is appealing to read. In that chapter, the speaker very poetically asks questions about where wisdom can be found. Can one dig for it? Is it in a stream? “It’s not in me,” says the ocean. “Nor in me,” says the sea. The birds don’t have it. Neither destruction nor death have it, although they’ve heard a rumor that wisdom is in the province of God.
Job concludes these questions by quoting God, Job 28:28, “And he said to man, ‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.'”
The Example of Job
Job considers himself to have greater discernment (wisdom) than the three misguided friends who seek to advise him. Even in the midst of great suffering, Job chooses to cling to his own argument, rather than theirs. The biblical account presents Job in a positive light.
And yet, when God speaks to Job, his first statement in Job 38:2 is, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” God proceeds to reveal his creative power, glory, and might to Job through a series of questions that extend through two entire chapters.
God ends his monologue, the first of two, with this question, Job 40:2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.”
Job, however, replies by backing down, Job 40:4 “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. 5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”
The Sin of the Israelites
Scripture teaches us through the example of Job that when we consider wisdom, we need to compare ourselves with God, not with other people we may know. To “fear” the Lord is to respect, honor, and revere him. When we compare ourselves with God, who created all things around us, it is indeed true that none of us is wise.
The sin of the Israelites that God condemns in Isaiah 5:21 is their failure to regard God. They discount him, thinking him to be of little value or worth to themselves. They ignore the fact that he is their creator, and that he has been their benefactor throughout their long history.
Unfortunately for those adhering to this attitude, God is holy and they are not. God’s ways are paths of righteousness and justice. Their own ways are paths of evil and injustice. By considering themselves wise in their own eyes–that is, leaving God out of their considerations–they have chosen to disobey the precepts of his goodness.
What Is the Antidote?
The Israelites are selfish. “Selfish” in this sense means that they raise themselves above God to the point of excluding him entirely. The prior verse, Isaiah 5:20, describes the result of excluding God. Excluding God results in the moral universe turning upside down. Both Satan and Cain provide examples of beings who are wise in their own eyes.
What is the antidote to this grave, lethal mistake? The attitude of the poet in Psalm 119 is the antidote.
9 ב (Bet) How can a young person maintain a pure life? By guarding it according to your instructions.
10 With all my heart I seek you. Do not allow me to stray from your commands.
11 In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.
12 You deserve praise, O Lord. Teach me your statutes. (NET)