Woe (Isaiah 5:20-23)

20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight!
22 Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
And valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23 Who justify the wicked for a bribe,
And take away the righteousness of the ones who are in the right!

Isaiah 5:20-23

These verses are often quoted by folks in the church. I hear them fired like a cannonade – frequently at non-believers. In fact, the most frequent application I hear of these verses is to non-believers. Though non-believers are often guilty of these things, the context of these verses is prophecy being delivered to Israel; to God’s chosen people. If this applies to anyone — anyone at all — other than Israel, it is the church.

I have been guilty of some of these things in times past. There was a time when I called evil “good” in order to try to justify my sin. My sin remained. I thought I was clever and that I was making good decisions. I was not. In the end, God disciplined me. It took longer than I would have expected, but it happened. And verse nineteen records a group of folks who challenged God on His timetable — they were challenging God to bring judgment on their heads because they “wanted to see it,” meaning they did not expect Him to do anything.

Every believer is in danger of the things listed in these verses. A person can only call evil “good” if that one knows what “good” is in the first place. We can only really understand darkness after we have been in the light. Only those who are perceived to be righteous can even consider justifying others or seeming to strip righteous people of their righteousness. The Catholic church once sold indulgences which amounted to justifying the wicked for a bribe. I am fairly certain this practice has been abolished. Lest evangelicals think ourselves superior, there are folks like Rob Bell who do much the same thing, though I would classify Bell’s actions as worse, because they are more insidious. Every believer is in danger of these wrongs. Every one of us.

There are three things I take away from these verses this morning. One, I need to stop applying verses aimed at God’s people to those who are avowedly not God’s people and I should gently and lovingly point out to others who the intended audience of these verses was and is. We need to stop bombarding non-believers with verses that are aimed at believers. Wrong target. Two, I need to be on my guard so that I do not fall prey to these wrongs. It is an easy thing to begin calling evil “good” in order to assuage my conscience. I know this from experience. It is easy, but deleterious. Three, I need to call out people who do this. I am commanded to speak the truth in love, so any calling out must be in love and with the goal of restoring my brother or sister in view. Since I do not know Bell personally and cannot sit him down for a cuppa, I will content myself with praying that he will see his error and hope that someone who knows him has pointed out or will point out his error.

Father, please prevent us from this; from substituting the false for the true, the evil for the good, the dark for the light. Please prevent us from becoming wise in our own sight or drinking heroes or from absolving things which cannot be absolved by us, but only by Your blood. Please prevent us from setting ourselves up on Your throne.

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