Reading the Old Testament prophets is a little like having a conversation with an aging grandparent. You know that it’s important and to be treasured, but a lot of what they say seems to belong to a world that no longer exists. If they carried an aroma, the words they use would smell like they’d been hanging next to worn out winter coats in an old wardrobe or like they’d been lifted from the pages of a Zane Gray western that’s been sitting on a basement bookshelf low these many years.
But the most uncomfortable thing about reading the prophets or talking to grandparents is their apparent lack of filters. It’s like someone installed a pipe from where thoughts are formed straight to the mouth, bypassing the part of the brain that screens for offensive content. Who among us has never had to come out with, “Nana! You just can’t say things like that anymore!”
But grandparents and prophets care not a whit for political correctness or the culture’s latest shibboleths. They say what’s on their minds, like it or not, take it or leave it. I had one of those discomfiting moments earlier this week when I read Isaiah 5:20 – 21. Here he is in all his unfiltered, unapologetic, incorrect glory:
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 clever in their own sight.
Woe There Big Fellow
To begin with, who says “Woe” anymore? In the Bible, it is used in at least three ways. It can be an expression of great sorrow at suffering – one’s own suffering (Woe is me) or that of another. Our equivalents would be something like, “This is killing me,” or “I feel your pain.”
Woe can also serve as a warning of coming calamity, particularly if certain individual or national behaviors do not change. I don’t recall my father ever using the word “woe,” but he was fond of saying, “Boy, I’m going to cloud up and rain on you,” if I did not comply with his parental wishes.
Then there is the Woe of Judgment. That’s the one Isaiah uses here. Judah has ignored God’s commands and God is about to bring the rain. And it won’t be showers of blessing. By the way, do you know who used the Woe of Judgement more than anyone else in the Bible?
Jesus. Check out Matthew 23 or Luke 11.
The Offense of (Some) Objective Morality
For a long time, I thought the problem with our culture was its rejection of objective truth – one feature of a late 20th century philosophical movement known as postmodernism. The idea of objective truth is that some things are true all the time. They are not just true if you believe them. And they are not just true for some people. They are true all the time for all people in all situations. That regardless of circumstances, certain things are always right and certain other things are always wrong.
You could see this rejection of objective truth in statements such as, “I have my truth, you have yours,” or “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” And while people still say things like that, it has become increasingly clear that there are precious few who actually believe it.
For example, the next time you are on the campus of a large, publicly funded university, try walking around with a big sign that reads, “There are only two Genders!” Or, “Gay Marriage is Sin!” You will immediately discover that there are many people who are all too willing to pronounce the Woe of Judgement in your general direction. In the Orwellian world that academia has become, some truths are more objective than others.
So the problem in our culture is not that no one believes there is such a thing as objective moral truth – it is that we do not agree on what those truths are. Hence the relevance of Isaiah’s woe. We cannot come to terms on what constitutes “good . . . light . . . sweet,” and what qualifies as “evil . . . dark . . . bitter.”
The Lord Says
If you could ask him, “How can we know which morals are objectively true,” Isaiah would say, “Those which come from the Lord.” One of his favorite phrases is, “The Lord says.” Other than Jeremiah – another crotchety old prophet who possesses even less tact than your grandfather – Isaiah uses it more than any other biblical author.
What’s so special about what the Lord says? Isaiah roots his confidence in what God says in God’s holiness. God’s utter otherness. The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, (8:13). Isaiah once had an encounter with this holy God that so terrified him, he employed the Woe of Suffering; “Woe to me,” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!” (6:5).
It is interesting that Isaiah would use the metaphor of unclean lips to describe his and his people’s unworthiness before God. Because, when you get right down to it, the conflict is about who gets to say what is and is not true. If you think the culture should make that call, good luck. In the last fifty years it has changed its mind so often that the only thing we can be sure of these days is moral confusion.
With uncanny, dare I say supernatural insight, Isaiah offers a better alternative:
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
Do you hear Isaiah’s confusion, his inability to know what to say, to know what is eternally, objectively true? God gives him, and us, the answer:
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall . . . But the word of our God stands forever,” (40:6 – 8).