Woe to the World!

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Habakkuk 2:6-19

When we hear the word “prophecy” we think “predictions.” Foretelling the future is an important element in biblical prophecy. But that future isn’t always a pleasant prospect.

A certain image comes to mind when we hear the words “Old Testament prophet.” we think of a tall, gaunt figure with a long beard and flowing robes. His expression is stern, and when he speaks, thunder rumbles and lightning flashes. His message is doom, his words announce judgment. In fact, when something spectacularly bad happens in the world, we sometimes describe it as a ‘disaster of biblical proportions.’ That’s how strongly we identify the Bible – at least its prophetic sections – with apocalyptic events.

As with many caricatures, there is a good bit of truth underlying this one. The Bible, in particular the Old Testament prophets, says a lot about coming judgment. Prophecy, to most of us, suggests prediction, foretelling the future. And the future foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament for the people of Israel was not a pleasant one. It included war, siege, disease, famine and finally conquest by foreign superpowers and exile in a far country – for those who weren’t exterminated, that is. Israel’s prophets spoke in graphic and vivid imagery of coming suffering, devastation and death. Of course, that’s not all they spoke of. Almost all the prophecies held out hope as well; hope for those who repented, hope for a future restoration by God’s grace following the judgment.

SPEAKING OF JUDGMENT

So it is tempting, when reading Old Testament prophets, to skip over the unpleasant passages about judgment and just focus on the hopeful parts. Or even to skip the prophets altogether, strange books that they are, and limit our Bible reading to a few familiar Psalms and comforting texts from the Gospels. As a preacher, I can think of a lot of reasons why I would rather not talk about judgment. For one thing, it’s a very unpleasant subject. For another, it’s as unpopular as it is unpleasant. The idea of judgment runs directly counter to the dominant mood of our culture, where many don’t like to think of assuming personal accountability for their actions and prefer not to believe that sin demands punishment. Then there is the fact that a message about judgment plays to the common stereotypes – both of preachers (“Yeah, give ‘em hell . . . more fire and brimstone!”), and of God (“He’s gonna get ya! It’s ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ time!”)

Of course, once again there is some truth to the stereotypes. God is angry about sin. If we attempt to strip God of his wrath, his just and resolute determination to punish and destroy evil, we trivialize him and turn him into a tame creature of our own imagination. And sometimes preachers do speak about judgment in inappropriate ways, talking about it with relish, almost gloating over the prospect of hellfire, angrily denouncing sinners as if that were some alien category of humans, as if judgment applied only to “them,” not to “us.”

So it is easy to see why many thoughtful people just avoid the subject of judgment altogether. In fact, I can think of only one good reason to talk about judgment at all: because the Bible does. It would have been hard for me, in good conscience, to plan a series of messages on the prophet Habakkuk and skip the one third of the book that prophesies judgment to come.

A CATALOGUE OF WOES

We love to sing “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.” But in connection with the Lord’s coming to the world, the Old Testament is more likely to say, “Woe to the world.” Habakkuk’s second chapter, for example, consists mostly of a series of “woes” – warnings about approaching disasters. The biblical exclamation translated as “Woe to . . .” means something like “Alas for . . .” It is used to express the pitiable condition of those who, whether they realize it or not, are about to be overwhelmed by tragedy. “Woe” is not a very appealing word to start out a message with. When is the last time you heard a sermon that began, “Woe to you . . .”? But the Bible uses the word frequently, especially when it talks about the future. The last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, is full of the word “woe.” And Jesus also employed it often, particularly as he neared the end of his life. In fact, there is a chapter in the Gospels (Matthew 23) that’s very similar to Habakkuk 2. It consists of a string of woes pronounced by Jesus against the religious leaders of his day. Running through this chapter is the somber refrain: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Over and over this terrible judgment is pronounced upon the proud and spiritually blind leaders of Israel. That such language could come from the lips of Jesus Christ ought to make anyone think long and hard before dismissing the reality of judgment or the possibility of hell.

The prophet Habakkuk is equally blunt. He pronounces God’s sentence of doom upon wicked and evil people in a whole string of woes. The first is a condemnation of thieves and robbers, those who steal from or cheat others in order to enrich themselves. God says to them in effect: It’s payback time. “Woe to you, you robbed cities and nations . . . Now [others] will be as cruel to you” (v. 8, cev). One of God’s favorite forms of judgment in this world is to cause people to experience the same kind of things they’ve done to others. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword,” is how Jesus expressed it. Or as we like to say nowadays, “What goes around comes around.”

The second woe is pronounced against rich and powerful people who have exploited and taken advantage of those who are weaker (verses 9-11).

You made your family rich at the expense of others. You even said to yourself, “I’m above the law.” But you will bring shame on your family and ruin to yourself for what you did to others.

Think, for example, of a drug lord or a greedy business owner who mistreats his employees. Such people think their wealth and power allow them to do anything they want. They build huge and lavish houses and put walls around them and hire guards and install sophisticated security systems, but those things can’t keep out the judgment of a righteous God. “The very stones and wood in your home will testify against you,” says the prophet (v. 11).

The third kind of people who are doomed are those who resort to violence to achieve their ambitions, men who will hurt or even kill others to get what they want. “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed” (v. 12a, niv). They may get things that way but God says they won’t be allowed to keep them, for he will take away all ill-gotten gains.

Then comes a woe pronounced on a different type of abuser, one who takes advantage of others, not economically, but physically.

Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors . . . till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies. You will be filled with shame. . . . The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you. . . .

(vv. 15-16, NIV)

Here I think Habakkuk is talking about people who seduce and corrupt the innocent, or who prey upon the weaknesses of others and turn them to their own profit or advantage. Once again, his words of judgment have an amazingly contemporary ring to them. Think, for example, of the purveyors of filthy and violent entertainment in our own society. Think of modern technology such as computers and the Internet, supposed to be wonderful tools for the sharing of knowledge and information, but often used for things like the dissemination of child pornography. God’s judgment is upon those who abuse their neighbors. And it also includes those who abuse and pollute the earth or rape the environment.

You destroyed trees and animals . . . you were ruthless to towns and people everywhere. Now you will be terrorized.

(v. 17, CEV)

The fifth and final woe God pronounces upon the sin of idolatry.

Woe to him who says to wood, “Come to life!” Or to a lifeless stone, “Wake up!” Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; [but] there is no breath in it.

(v. 19, NIV)

Now I find that interesting. All the other sins in Habakkuk’s list have a very modern ring to them. They are social sins. They are sins that the rich and the powerful perpetrate against the poor and defenseless. Most of these sins involve activities that are clearly just. So we can understand God’s judgment because these sins are all about hurting people. It is a very contemporary sounding catalogue of evil. Even ecology is mentioned. Anyone with a conscience can agree that the kinds of things mentioned in Habakkuk’s list of woes are very bad and deserve some kind of punishment, particularly if the punishment is to receive exactly what the guilty party has inflicted on others. So when a murderous terrorist is gunned down, or when a thief loses all his money, or when a corrupt tyrant is overthrown and imprisoned, we can understand and appreciate that sort of justice.

But when it comes to idolatry, many people can’t see why this is such a serious sin. After all, an idol in the literal sense – an object of wood or stone that people bow down before and worship – is something most of us see only in museums or maybe on a trip to some third-world country. Idolatry in this form simply isn’t part of our daily experience. But we forget that what idolatry really involves is putting something ahead of God in your life. Any time you love some thing or some one more than you love God, you have created an idol. Idolatry means to worship the creation instead of the Creator, as the apostle Paul described it. And that is part of the reason why it’s the most serious sin of all. All those other sins are committed against what God has made, but idolatry is a sin against the Maker himself. More than that, every other sin stems from this fundamental one. What you worship determines what you do. People who worship gods of their own making tend to develop morals of their own choosing.

WHAT ABOUT US?

So how does all this apply to us today? What is the meaning of Habakkuk’s ancient prophecies for our contemporary society? Does God have woe in store for our world? Is this concept from ancient times still relevant? I’d like to suggest three points in conclusion.

First, judgment is God’s unwavering reaction toward sin and evil. Nothing has changed about the character of God. He feels exactly the same way about human rights abuses and idolatry today as he did when he revealed Old Testament Israel’s destiny through his servants the prophets. God may express his judgment within history through natural disasters or calamitous reversals, as he did with the people of Israel. But God will express his judgment fully and finally at the end of history when the Lord Jesus comes again “to judge the living and the dead.”

Second, judgment is not God’s final word to the world, at least not yet. There will come a time in every life, and for the world itself, when the door of salvation will be shut and it will be too late to enter (Matthew 25:10-13). But that time is not yet for any of us. So the warnings of coming judgment are really an expression of God’s mercy, intended to alert us before it is too late so that we may turn away from sin and seek his grace. This is why the Bible is so insistent on the need for us to respond to God’s word right now, without delay: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8, cf. Isaiah 55:6-7).

Third, God’s judgment is good news as well as bad news. To be sure, these terrible prophecies of doom do sound like bad news. It really is hellfire and brimstone. But if you look at it from a different angle, you could see something else. God’s determination to judge all sin and overthrow all evil is a function of his desire to establish righteousness throughout the world. The kind of world we live in now isn’t going to last. This world – where God is insulted or ignored, where people are hurt and abused and exploited and corrupted, where lying and cheating are commonplace, where violence and bloodshed stain our streets, where moral and physical filth blot every landscape – this is not the world as God wants it to be. It is not the world as God will make it be. He will not put up with evil forever. Or even for very much longer. Judgment is coming. Justice will be done. Wrongs will be righted. Evildoers will be punished. And righteousness, truth, beauty, and peace will be established.

Now whether or not that sounds like good news depends on whether we are one of the exploiters or one of the exploited. If we read Habakkuk and find ourselves on the wrong side of the woes, hadn’t we better repent and seek the mercy of God?