Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field until there is no more room…Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink…Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes…Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who aquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of their right! (From Isaiah 5:8-12; 18-23)
I once heard someone say, “God’s judgment is nothing more and nothing less than allowing the consequences of our actions to run their course.” I’m not sure I totally agree with that assessment, but I do believe it’s a good starting point for reflection upon today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah.
I doubt Isaiah of Jerusalem’s message of “woe” was a popular one. His critique of the lifestyles of the upper eschalons of society (royalty, the priesthood, the “wealthy”) probably didn’t garner him any invitations to the best parties in town. After all, he seems emphatic in his assessment that the only way any of the systems he’s criticizing will be redeemed is through their obliteration. And the people who are portrayed as the cause of the woe coming upon the nation are the people in power — the people who had forgotten that they had a responsibility to employ their governmental, religious or economic power for the good of the whole society, not simply for their own benefit.
Sounding a warning is often the role of the prophet. Living with the awareness that much of the message will either go unheard or be outright rejected is an occupational hazard of the job. Preaching God’s truth to people who continuously call “evil good and good evil” is a thankless one. Speaking for those who are squeezed out by greed or who are deprived of justice because of systemic corruption can (and often does!) lead to the prophet’s own demise.
Isaiah sees with the eyes of God-inspired vision. And the picture isn’t a pretty one. In offering his message of woe, I don’t believe he is calling down God’s judgment. Rather, I think the prophet is lamenting, in advance, the inevitable outcome of the attitudes and behaviors he witnesses all around him.
The Advent collect for this week asks God to “give us grace to heed [the prophets’] warnings and forsake our sins…” I suspect that if we fail in our “heeding” and “forsaking”, then our own set of “woes” are right around the eschatological corner — not because God wills such a thing, but because we did.