The six woes of Isaiah Chapter Five (Isaiah 5:8-30) are warnings against the wild grapes of the LORD’s vineyard, concerning the malignant sins of Israel. Instead of ripe, sweet grapes of justice and righteousness, the people produced wild grapes that were bitter and had a foul odor to them–the fruit of idolatry and corruption. As a result, God pronounced six severe warnings to the people:
1) Woe to the greedy & covetous (Isaiah 5:8-10)
Warning: Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.
Decree: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.
Those who will perish are the wealthy people who have accumulated vast tracts of land. They live peacefully all alone in their elite mansions and have the ideal life of grand luxury. Isaiah does not accuse them of illegally stealing property, since these are woe oracles, not judgment speeches. Later in verse 23, Isaiah will condemn the way the wealthy illegally took land from the poor people of Judah and did not return it at the end of seven years to its rightful owner (Leviticus 25:13,17). At this point Isaiah is just weeping for the nation and for these people who will soon suffer great loss (Gary Smith, NAC). Instead of honoring God they chose to build their own kingdoms, forsaking God’s will and the people of the land.
2) Woe to those who live for drink and drug (Isaiah 5:11-17)
Warning: Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them.
- They do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands.
- Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge; their honored men go hungry, and their multitude is parched with thirst.
- The nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down
Decree: Man is humbled, and each one is brought low, and the eyes of the haughty are brought low. But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness. Then shall the lambs graze as in their pasture, and nomads shall eat among the ruins of the rich.
The second woe is the most extensive of the series and the most ominously implemented. The action condemned is strong drink. It is likely that the real concern is not alcohol but rather self-indulgence and self-absorption. (See Amos 6:4–6 for a parallel condemnation of a like practice.) The accumulation and concentration of land, produce, and wealth considered in the first woe invites inordinate self-regard and self-indulgence. Such foolishly gotten and foolishly used wealth tends to desensitize. In this case, the woe warns those who become insensitive to the workings of Yahweh in their very midst. And because this woe stands between mention of “justice” in verses 7 and 16, we may surmise that as the self-indulgent disregard Yahweh, so they likewise disregard their neighbor. They see and care only for themselves (Walter Brueggemann, WBC).
3) Woe to deceivers & mockers (Isaiah 5:18-19)
Warning: Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes.
They say: “Let Him be quick, let Him speed his work that we may see it.”
They say: “Let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near, and let it come, that we may know it!”
This woe laments those who purposely attach themselves to sin through “useless deceitful falsehoods.” The picture is of an animal pulling a cart with ropes… This perverted attachment to false beliefs led the people of Judah to make preposterous claims about God’s work in this world; a seeming confirmation of Isaiah’s point in 5:12b… Mocking God with sarcastic bravado they challenge God to do something now so that they can see that he is real. Instead of being convicted and repenting of their sins, they brazenly taunt the Holy One of Israel to act according to his plans “in order that” they can actually verify with their eyes that he exists. Although Isaiah has just told them what God’s plans for Judah were in the earlier woe oracles, they stubbornly claim that they must see it before they will ever believe it. The people of Judah are in a lamentable moral and theological state of denial and defiance. Their taunts are blasphemous. These people are consciously rejecting the ability of the Almighty God to do anything, thereby essentially denying his relevance to their lives (Gary Smith, NAC).
4) Woe to those who confuse right and wrong, who twist immorality into social acceptance (Isaiah 5:20)
Warning: 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.
The moral code has been rewritten. People no longer feel guilty when they depart from what was once considered right. Just as ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison,’ so personal taste now rules supreme; if a course of behavior seems bitter or sweet to someone, then that’s what it is (Alec Motyer, TOTC).
Confusion about morality prevailed during the days of Isaiah even as it does today. Moral values no longer controlled the lives of people. Sinking deeper and deeper into sin, they became morally insensitive. The darkness of sin was substituted for the light of righteousness, and they claimed their right to enjoy the pleasures of life as they wished. In their minds, no person, not even God, had the right to put restraints upon their behavior. Consequently, certain illicit sexual acts were called good despite the fact that God said they were evil. Furthermore, the pronouncement of God’s Word against the sin was called irrelevant and outdated (evil), not good (POSB).
Sin causes moral confusion—the inability to discern good from evil. Rejecting God’s standards leads to dependence on personal standards, which merely reflect the sinner’s values. Note the switching of labels and the word games in modern culture concerning such moral issues as fornication, adultery, and homosexuality, and even with such life-and-death issues as abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia (Walker, Martens, CBC).
This is Isaiah’s way of saying that Israel turns all values upside down. The use of Woe implies that such a reversal of values is wrong. Israel lacks understanding; but even worse than that, they deliberately twist the truth (Ogden, Sterk, UBSH).
5) Woe to the prideful and arrogant (Isaiah 5:21)
Warning: Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight.
People do not do what is right because they believe that they are the judges of their own actions. They make up their own moral standards, instead of allowing God or his divine law to guide them. No one else can tell them what to do because they, in their arrogant shrewdness and wisdom, know what is best. A certain prideful egotism allows them to think that they are wise enough to handle any situation and clever enough to get out of any trouble. A humble dependence on the wisdom of others or God is rejected because they want the freedom to be in control. They do not realize that true wisdom is given by God and comes from fearing him (Gary Smith, NAC).
Instead of accepting God’s Word, they use their own wisdom and opinions to formulate their personal religion. Thus, their god becomes only a creation of their own imagination and ideas. They reject the fact that the LORD has revealed Himself and the truth about how to live a fruitful and victorious life. Think about the people who feel they are more intelligent, more attractive, more moral, and more valuable, deserving more attention and honor than others. They even look down upon others. But note what Holy Scripture says: the feelings of being better and superior are only in their own eyes. In reality they are mere human beings on the same level as the most lowly. The prideful and arrogant will bear the judgment and the punishment of God (POSB).
Before I knew the love of Christ I was driven by desire and fear. I refused to receive wise instruction and suffered in the folly of my self-directed consequences. But God. As Psalm 107 states:
17 Some were fools through their sinful ways,
and because of their iniquities suffered affliction;
18 they loathed any kind of food,
and they drew near to the gates of death.
19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
20 He sent out his word and healed them,
and delivered them from their destruction.
21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
22 And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
6) Woe to the wicked who exalt drunken carnality and glorify corruption (Isaiah 5:22-23)
Warning: Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right.
The LORD pronounced a severe warning to the unjust and the bribe-takers. For the second time, Isaiah mentioned those who were guilty of heavy drinking. Despite their drunken, unjust, and crooked behavior, they were looked upon as heroes in their sins. When it came to drinking and greedy behavior, they could hold their own against anyone. But they were overlooking one fact: the judgment of God. By accepting bribes, acquitting the guilty, and denying justice to the innocent, they were oppressing people. A perversion of justice was taking place. The innocent were being mistreated, severely exploited. But God knew about the sins, and He pronounced His coming judgment upon the unjust oppressors (POSB).
Isaiah sarcastically points to these people as “heroes, military champions” (gibbôrîm), but the skill that has made these people “famous” is their ability to mix and drink wine, not their valor and bravery in war. Injustice in the courts was another way the powerful were able to oppress the poor, enslave them, and take their land. These people pay off judges and witnesses so that the guilty people are “declared just,” but “justice” for the “just, innocent” person is denied. This is a sorrowful state of affairs and this behavior is totally opposite the just and holy character of God (Gary Smith, NAC).
In summary, commentary from Barry Webb (BST):
Here, then, is a classic passage on the corrupting power of riches (or at least of the desire to acquire them). The land-grabbing of verse 8 was contrary to the basic principle of the law of Moses that the LORD owned the land, and that all his ‘tenants’ were to have a fair share of it. The wealth was gained by oppression and could be held on to only by further oppression.
When confronted with their sin, the offenders either became brazen or resorted to specious arguments to justify their actions. But nothing could conceal the fact that they had rejected the law of the LORD Almighty. Pretending to be wise, they actually became fools. In their drunken debauchery they could no longer understand God’s ways or see what he was doing.
In contrast to all this stands the God of justice and righteousness, whose word they have despised. God’s holiness consists essentially in his moral character, and this means that he cannot be indifferent to evil. But the judgments foreshadowed here—desolation of houses and land, exile, famine and death—will affect rich and poor, noble and commoner alike. By their actions the ruling elite have brought about the ruin of the nation.