Woe, what is it?

In both my distant and recent past, when I read the word “woe” in the Bible I was accustomed to saying “I’m not sure what ‘woe’ is, but I don’t want any of it in my life”. It just did not sound like fun to me. Then I thought, “Maybe I should look this word up and see what it means.”

Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon says the word translated “woe” in the Bible is an interjection—a word that is used and inserted into a statement to arrest our attention. The Hebrew word is הוֹי, hoy. You may have heard the common Yiddish expression oy vey, which is an expression of—you guessed it—woe. Hoy is an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like it’s meaning, like the words “slam,” “splash,” “gurgle,” and “belch”. When you say hoy, the air rushes out of your lungs and your chest deflates just as when you express a feeling of exasperation, grief, sorrow, or dread.

Brown-Driver-Briggs says that hoy is a “lament (like “ah,” “ha,” or “alas”), expressing usually dissatisfaction and pain” (see 1 Kings 13:30) and “preparatory to a declaration of judgement” (see Amos 5:16 and Isa. 10:5). “Sometimes hardly more than an exclamation arousing attention, Ha! (though perhaps with a touch of sympathy or pity)”. It is used 51 times in the Old Testament.

All things considered, I was right—woe is not something I want in my life.

Woe and leadership:

Many times, when the word “hoy” occurs, it is in the context of leadership—those exercising authority over others. In Israel of old, leadership was comprised of Kings, Prophets, Priests and Tribal Elders. These were the individuals who were entrusted with the responsibility of guiding, teaching, and leading Yahweh’s people in the right direction. They were to be His mouthpieces. But as history, especially in the Bible, has shown, they failed miserably. This is something God did not blink at.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says Yahweh. 2Therefore this is what Yahweh, the God of Israel, says against the shepherds who feed my people: “You have scattered my flock and driven them away, and have not visited them. Behold, I will visit on you the evil of your doings, says Yahweh.

Jeremiah 23:1-2

There it is—“woe”. Yahweh was lamenting over the fact that those He set over His people, Israel, were destroying and scattering His beloved rather than leading them righteously. Look at the degree of sorrow and grief in the words Yahweh told Jeremiah to write.

Concerning the prophets: My heart is broken within me, all my bones tremble; I am like a drunken man, and like a man overcome by wine, because of Yahweh and because of his holy words. 10 For the land is full of adulterers; the land mourns because of the curse, the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their way of life is evil and their might is not rightly used. 11“For both prophet and priest are ungodly. Even in my house have I found their wickedness, says Yahweh. 12Therefore their way will be to them like slippery places in the darkness. They will be driven on and fall down there; for I will bring evil on them, even the year of their visitation,” says Yahweh. 13“I have seen an offensive thing among the prophets of Samaria: they prophesied by Baal and led my people Israel astray. 14 Among the prophets of Jerusalem also I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies, and they strengthen the hands of evildoers so that no one turns from his wickedness. All of them have become to me like Sodom, and her inhabitants like Gomorrah.”

Jeremiah 23:9-14

Yahweh’s heart was broken. He had genuine sorrow over what took place in Israel and concerning the prophets and priests. Following this lamenting comes the statement of judgement (Jeremiah 23:15-40) which follows the exasperation, the feeling of woe.

I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4I will set up shepherds over them who will feed them, and they will fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor will any be missing, says Yahweh. 5Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, that I will raise for David a righteous Branch, and he will reign as king and deal wisely, and will execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6 In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; and this is his name by which he will be called: ‘Yahweh our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 23:3-6

Another record regarding Israel’s leadership, where “woe” is in the mix, is in Isaiah.

Woe to those who add house to house, […] 11Woe to those who rise up early in the morning in pursuit of beer; who stay up late into the night until wine inflames them! […] 18 Woe to those who drag iniquity with cords made of deceit, and sin as if with cart ropes, […] 20Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put 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 prudent in their own sight! 22 Woe to those who are mighty to drink wine, and champions at mixing beer, 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe and deny justice for the innocent!

Isaiah 5:8, 11, 18, 20-23

God abhors injustice and despises the abuse of power and authority to overlord others for one’s own aggrandizement and benefit. These types of leaders lead people into captivity, not liberty. They exalt themselves as if they are superior to everyone else—superior in knowledge, wisdom, insight, strength—and by virtue of their superiority they supplant God and His rightful position of lordship, thus setting themselves up as lords over the humble masses.

Especially notice verses 20-21. How much of this do we see today? Regardless of personal political leaning, we all see people being besmirched, lies told, good things being called evil, evil things being called good. Those that do so “drag iniquity with cords of deceit” in an endeavor to capture others in their web of lies. What a vivid mind-picture! They take bribes, willfully misleading people and gleefully watching them walk down a rosy error-filled path simply to fill their own bellies.

Today we have many more levels and positions of leadership within our societies: Kings, Queens, Presidents, Emirates, Sheiks, Imams, Secretaries, Ministers, Priests, Preachers, Reverends, Doctors, Lawyers, Senators, Representatives, Teachers, Professors, Magistrates, Law Officers and so many more who are in positions of responsibility and oversight of people’s lives. They have an awesome responsibility and can lead people to truth and liberty—the true liberty God intended for His mankind—or they can serve their own bellies, themselves, and lead people into captivity.

Unfortunately, many do just that: they fill people with false hope and say “no evil will come upon you, all is well, do your own thing”. But God will not abide this foolishness forever. These verses in Isaiah 5 should remind us of the original lies spoken in Genesis.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any animal of the field that Yahweh God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You must not eat of any tree of the garden?’” 2The woman said to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, 3but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You must not eat from it, neither must you touch it, lest you die.’” 4The serpent said to the woman, “No! You will not ‘die, yes, die.’ 5for God knows that in the day you eat it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5

Is this not a perfect example of calling truth a lie and a lie the truth, or evil good and good evil? There is no new thing under the sun. Certainly, the Devil was a liar from the beginning (John 8:44) and a liar today. These things mislead people and take them into all sorts of physical, mental, and spiritual captivity. These words and actions may appear to have short-term or even long-term profit, but their end is destruction (Phil. 3:18-19).

How and why do these things occur?

How did we get here? What happened? Unfortunately, these honest questions are usually asked far too late. Scripture gives the only true answer:

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth, for Yahweh has spoken. “I have nourished and brought up children, but they have rebelled against me. 3 The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s feeding trough; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”

Isaiah 1:2-3

When people, especially leaders, turn away from Yahweh, God’s people are injured and at times, destroyed. When the people follow such leaders, they walk blindly into danger and end up rebelling against Yahweh. As Christians, we need to be wise, yet harmless (Matt. 10:16) and we need to understand the Devil’s schemes (Eph. 6:11). Ask yourself, “do the things I see and hear lead people to godliness?” If not, reject them.

Woe to the sinful nation, a people weighed down with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken Yahweh. They have spurned the Holy One of Israel. They have turned their backs on Him.

Isaiah 1:4

When people reject truth and the Lord, they end up looking for those who affirm that which they are leaning toward or believing. They look for affirmation of the lie they are listening to (misery loves company).

Why would you want to be beaten any more? Why do you rebel more and more? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6 From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, only wounds, welts and open sores. They have not been cleansed, nor bandaged, nor softened with oil. 7 Your country is desolate. Your cities are burned with fire. Strangers devour your land right before your eyes, and it is desolate, as overthrown by strangers.

          Isaiah 1:5-7

Oh, Poppycock, Dennis!

No, it’s not poppycock! God is extremely concerned about His people, His children. He has entrusted leaders of all types with the honest and correct oversight of His flock. He expects them to oversee them with love, compassion, honesty, justice, and truth—all His own attributes. God does not lead people to benefit His own belly, and neither should those set in positions of leadership, regardless of what arena it may be.

“I will utter my judgments against them for all their wickedness in which they have forsaken me, and have turned incense into smoke-perfume to other gods and worshiped the works of their own hands.

Jeremiah 1:16

The word of Yahweh came to me, saying, 2“Go and cry out in the ears of Jerusalem, saying: This is what Yahweh says: “I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, through a land that was not sown. 3 Israel was holy to Yahweh, the firstfruits of his increase. All who ate of it were held guilty; evil came upon them, says Yahweh.” 4 Hear the word of Yahweh, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel! 5 This is what Yahweh says: “What unrighteousness did your fathers find in me, that they went far from me, and walked after worthlessness and became worthless? 6 They did not ask, ‘Where is Yahweh who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, who led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought and of the shadow of death, through a land that none passed through, and where no man lived?’ 7 I brought you into a plentiful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness; but when you entered, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination. 8 The priests quit asking, ‘Where is Yahweh?’ And those who handle the law didn’t know me. The shepherds also transgressed against me, and the prophets prophesied by Baal and walked after things that do not profit.

Jeremiah 2:1-8

Yahweh’s sorrow and pain is palpable in these verses. He laments over His people’s failure to acknowledge Him as their one and only God, their savior, their true King. His people are led astray by leaders who serve themselves on the backs of the people they are called to lead. Today we see very similar things. Yahweh is mocked at every turn. His children are mocked. God is ignored; in essence, many say with contempt, “Where is Yahweh?” By a growing number, the Bible is considered antiquated and irrelevant to today’s society, generation, and events. Why take time to study the Bible? Why invest in understanding it? Why become a lifelong student of its contents? As Hosea told us, God’s people are destroyed because they lack knowledge (Hosea 4:6).

Is that all there is?

Although these prophecies by Isaiah and Jeremiah were directly given to Israel and Judah, their application extends to the nations today. God’s mind and economy has not changed. But do not despair; be of good cheer, all is not lost! Because God is just, honest, true, and compassionate, His plan will be fully executed and completed.

I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds, and they will be fruitful and multiply. 4I will set up shepherds over them who will feed them, and they will fear no more, nor be dismayed, nor will any be missing, says Yahweh. 5 Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, that I will raise for David a righteous Branch, and he will reign as king and deal wisely, and will execute justice and righteousness in the land. 6In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; and this is his name by which he will be called: ‘Yahweh our righteousness.’ 7Therefore behold, the days come, says Yahweh, that they will no more say, ‘As Yahweh lives, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ 8but, ‘As Yahweh lives, who brought up and who led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries where I had driven them.’ They will live in their own land.”

Jeremiah 23:3-8

A final woe is coming, and we should not want anything to do with it (Rev. 8:13-9:21). But you and I do not need to fear such a time; in fact, we should be comforted by the words in Revelation. We escaped the wrath that is to come (1 Thess. 1:10, 5:1-11) when we accepted Jesus Christ (the victorious Messiah, Christ, Anointed one, the King of kings, Lord of lords) as our personal Lord, savior, master, and believed that God raised him out from among the dead (Rom. 10:9, 10).

If you have not accepted Jesus as your Lord, I implore you to do so. If you would like someone to pray with or to talk to about this crucial subject, contact Spirit & Truth at [email protected]

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  1. Truly an awakening word from our Lord and God!

  2. Thanks! This is so descriptive. It helps me understand how abundantly merciful God is to have made that way of escape from the wrath to come for us even though we were all caught up in those things that lead to woes. What an amazing salvation there is in our Lord Jesus!

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