The cry of Isaiah sounds strange to the modern ear. It is rare that we hear people today use the word woe. Since this word is old-fashioned and archaic, some modern translators have preferred to substitute another word in its place. That is a serious mistake. The word woe is a crucial biblical word that we cannot afford to ignore. It has a special meaning.
When we think of woes we think of the troubles encountered in melodramas set in the old-time nickelodians. “The Perils of Pauline” showed the heroine wringing her hands in anguish as the heartless landlord came to foreclose on her mortgage. Or we think of Mighty Mouse flying from his cloud to streak to the rescue of his girlfriend, who is being tied to the railroad tracks by Oilcan Harry. She cries, “Woe is me!” Or we think of the favorite expression of the distraught Kingfish in “The Amos and Andy Show” who said, “Woe is me, Andy, what is I gonna do?”
The term woe has gone the way of other worn-out exclamations like alas or alack or forsooth. The only language that has kept the expression in current usage is Yiddish. The modern Jew still declares his frustrations by exclaiming “Oy vay!” which is a shortened version of the full expression oy vay ist mer. Oy vay is Yiddish for “Oh woe,” an abbreviation for the full expression, “Oh woe is me!”
The full force of Isaiah’s exclamation must be seen against the background of a special form of speech found in the Bible. When prophets announced their messages, the most frequent form the divine utterances took was the oracle. The oracles were announcements from God that could be good news, or bad news. The positive oracles were prefaced by the word blessed. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, He used the form of the oracle, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.” His audience understood that He was using the formula of the prophet, the oracle that brought good tidings.
Jesus also used the negative form of the oracle. When He spoke out in angry denunciation of the Pharisees, He pronounced the judgment of God upon their heads by saying to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He said this so often that it began to sound like litany. On the lips of a prophet the word woe is an announcement of doom. In the Bible, cities are doomed, nations are doomed, individuals are doomed—all by uttering the oracle of woe.
Isaiah’s use of woe was extraordinary. When he saw the Lord, he pronounced the judgment of God upon himself. “Woe to me!” he cried, calling down the curse of God, the utter anathema of judgment and doom upon his own head. It was one thing for a prophet to curse another person in the name of God; it was quite another for a prophet to put that curse upon himself. — R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 40–42.
I have just completed a seven-part Bible Study called Ancient Words. It explores seven key Hebrew words we need to understand in order to really understand the gospel. This article is an excerpt from this Bible study. The Bible Study is available on Amazon. It is also avail as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service.
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