On the Sanctify of Human Life: Lessons from Isaiah 5

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!
(Isaiah 5:20)

Prophets held the unique position in their worlds of proclaiming the truths of God to a people that was often too hardened to hear it. The prophet was witness to a world that would rather trade repentance for wrath.

The recorded messages of these mouthpieces of God provide for us today lessons in human history, timeless warnings even of our own wanderings, missteps, and injustices in our interactions—public and private, religious and political, social and economic.

Now Isaiah 5, from which I want to draw some universal cultural principles, has its own historical context. Make no mistake—it is about the nation of Israel and its specific national sins that warranted certain warnings and their corresponding corrections. (It is about nations plural if you want to be specific, for by this time the disagreement over who was king of God’s people had resulted in the dividing of His people into two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south).

But this context, though nearly three thousand years old, describes a moral failing of God’s people that is relevant even today.

As you contemplate Isaiah’s words, consider that the prophet stands out as something of a noble but sad exception:

  • He is the leader who communes with God in the midst of a people who have abandoned Him.
  • He is a warning that the decline of a nation is a grief to the righteous remnant who do not participate in the deeds of the unrighteous.
  • He is an example of the loyal servant able to see even within his grief the stability, security, and sanctity of life in God.

When the prophet speaks, society is either nearing or has already reached a turning point. A point of reversal. A point of replacement.

Things are no longer as they should be.

Disappointment for Delight

At the opening of Isaiah 5, we see this reversal in poetic imagery:

  • A love song that hits a sour note
  • Fruitless outcome from fertile ground
  • God-ordained blessing thwarted by disobedience
  • Disappointment where there should be delight

1 Let me sing now for my well-beloved
A song of my beloved concerning His vineyard.
My well-beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hill.
2 He dug it all around, removed its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
And He built a tower in the middle of it
And also hewed out a wine vat in it;
Then He expected it to produce good grapes,
But it produced only worthless ones.
3 “And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge between Me and My vineyard.
4 “What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?
Why, when I expected it to produce good grapes did it produce worthless ones?
5 “So now let Me tell you what I am going to do to My vineyard:
I will remove its hedge and it will be consumed;
I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground.
6 “I will lay it waste;
It will not be pruned or hoed,
But briars and thorns will come up.
I will also charge the clouds to rain no rain on it.”
7a For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant. (Isaiah 5:1–7, NASB95)

Upon revealing that the prophet’s love song points to the real-life relationship between God and the people of Israel and Judah, the poetic gives way to the direct:

Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed;
For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
(Isaiah 5:7b)

The theologian E. J. Young offers this insightful view: “The chief characteristic of this song is lament and this soon gives way to denunciation. In a certain sense we may say that as the vineyard disappointed the Lord, so the song disappoints us. It is not entertainment to which we are introduced, but teaching.” [1]

I must say, in a similar vein, this sermon is a disappointment.

The third Sunday of January is acknowledged in many churches as Sanctity of Life Sunday, not just to bring before us the importance of acknowledging the source—and therefore the sacredness—of this gift we have of existing in the image of God, but because we have, as did the people of the prophet’s day, failed to honor life, failed to protect it for the most vulnerable. Sanctity of Life Sunday marks the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in which abortion on demand became for us in the United States the law of the land.

I look forward to the Sunday when that is not the case.

Until then, I believe it the pastor’s and church’s job to proclaim with the prophet that we have struck the sour note, rendered barren the fertile ground, spurned blessing with disobedience, and secured disappointment where there should be delight.

We’ve traded justice for bloodshed, and as the witness against our abandonment of righteousness, we’ve muffled the cry of distress before it could take its first breath.

6 Woes of Warning

What follows in the text from Isaiah is a series of woes, an expression of deep suffering or grief and a warning of impending doom to the guilty parties.

From the six woes presented in Isaiah, what I want you to see from each is a characteristic of cultural decline. Within each is a reversal of what should be or a trade-off of one thing for another. Each of these trade-offs could and does manifest itself in several cultural vices or individual immoralities.

That’s the nature of sin.

It’s not confined to this little section. It’s not content to stay in this quadrant. And so each trade, each replacement we see within these woes, will manifest in various deadly ways for untold multiple lives in ongoing generations.

But in this moment, consider how each contributes to our failure to extend the most basic, fundamental right to everyone—the right to live.

1. Community Is Replaced by Accumulation

Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field,
Until there is no more room,
So that you have to live alone in the midst of the land!
(Isaiah 5:8)

The prophet isn’t speaking out against wealth per se or property ownership per se. Rather, he’s speaking out against Israel’s failure to understand the principle of shared blessing from God and the sharing of that blessing with others. It had become the case that the wealthy were buying up all the land and squeezing everyone out.

One individual’s pursuit had become more important than other individuals.

Community was replaced by accumulation.

What one wants for himself, what one wants for herself—accomplishment, accolade, social standing, career—becomes more important than the community.

When you trade accumulation for community, you will sacrifice the one thing required for community to persist: new life.

Perhaps you saw the clip from last year’s Golden Globe awards in which a winning actress credited her ability to achieve that moment to her ability to abort her children. She deemed that life as insignificant compared to hers and robbed that child, robbed herself, and robbed the community of life.

But she traded it for a false sense of community.

One more mansion in Hollywood Hills.
One more privileged walk on the red carpet.
One more barren belly that fits well in its designer dress.

Woe when community is replaced by accumulation.

2. Worship Is Replaced by Entertainment

Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink,
Who stay up late in the evening that wine may inflame them!
Their banquets are accompanied by lyre and harp, by tambourine and flute, and by wine;
But they do not pay attention to the deeds of the Lord,
Nor do they consider the work of His hands.
(Isaiah 5:11–12)

With this woe, the next characteristic of cultural decline we see is that worship is replaced by entertainment. The pursuit of an eternal God is replaced by the pursuit of empty pleasures.

It’s not that strong drink or wine or staying out late is evil. It’s not that we can’t host banquets and make music, but it is the case that all of those things lose their meaning outside of our sense and service to God, the realization that all of life’s pleasures point to Him.

When worship is replaced by entertainment, we will fill our days pursuing pleasure in Godless contexts. Our bodies and the bodies of others will become the means for a good time. And any intrusion into our lives, and especially into our youthful existence, will have to be eliminated.

When community is replaced by accumulation and worship is replaced by entertainment, we have violated the two great commands to love God and to love neighbor. Once that takes place, we see the third cultural reversal, that rest in God is replaced by the hard work of sin.

3. Rest in God Is Replaced by the Hard Work of Sin

Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood,
And sin as if with cart ropes;
Who say, “Let Him make speed, let Him hasten His work, that we may see it;
And let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near
And come to pass, that we may know it!”
(Isaiah 5:18–19)

Having rejected God, having rejected the image of God in another, you will not simply have rid yourself of religious burden. Having rejected the only legitimate object of worship and having rejected your true identity, you will have to replace those things with something from this world, and you will have to convince yourself of its worth, and you will drag it with you.

The more you strain to pull it along an earthly path, the more you will be bound by that which is behind you, and the more you will be blinded to the God above.

And with that blindness comes the next woe, the ultimate reversal, the complete substitution of opposites.

4. Truth Is Replaced by Convenient Lies

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!
(Isaiah 5:20)

Reality itself is upended. Reason is replaced by insanity.

Much has been said recently of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, with parallels being drawn from Orwell’s prescient concepts to the events of our time. You may remember within that novel the invention of “Newspeak” and with it the concept of “doublethink.”

That dystopian society was characterized by the restriction of language and the embracing of contradictory thought. It was, like Isaiah’s warning, a society in which evil was called good, and good was called evil.

In Orwell’s world, doublethink is revealed in statements such as:

War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength

The ministry of peace in that novel was, of course, concerned with war. The ministry of truth perpetuated lies. The ministry of love relied upon torture. The ministry of plenty rationed food.

That’s clever in a novel.

It’s sinister in real life.

And we’ve embraced our own doublethink.

The most prominent organization responsible for the destruction of that which is the very essence of family is called planned parenthood. It is the opposite. It is the purposeful avoidance of becoming a parent and is brought about by that which is its opposite—not the giving of life but the taking of a child’s life.

But this sort of doublethink is what we’re being led to embrace. We protest that which we should unanimously approve, and we celebrate that which should break our hearts. This clip demonstrates this reality.

Apart from this context were I to ask you what you just saw you might guess that it was maybe a crowd’s reaction to an entertainer on stage, the jubilation over the result of some sporting event, or some major giveaway to those in attendance. Instead, it was the reaction of a crowd gathered last month to hear the results of an Argentinian vote that just legalized abortion.

Listen to the doublethink that follows from the Argentinian president: “Safe, legal … abortion is now the law.”[2]

Safe, legal murder.

He went on to say, “Today, we are a better society that expands women’s rights and guarantees public health.”

Not the rights of the little girl whose body lies in pieces on a tray in a hospital. Not the guarantee of her health.

It’s not just a problem in Oceania or in Argentina. It’s America’s problem.

This week we inaugurated new leadership, one in which all elected phases are controlled by one party. And parties have stated platforms that we as responsible citizens should weigh. I’m sure you’ve read it, but here’s a reminder that this is the platform we voted for.

  • “[We] are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. . . . every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.”
  • “We believe that comprehensive health services, including access to reproductive care and abortion services, are vital to the empowerment of women and girls.”

Doublethink.

Destroying a pregnancy is called reproductive health.

Taking a life is called reproductive rights.

Stopping the beating heart of an innocent child is called reproductive justice.

Destroying one’s ability to become a mother is that which we’ve deemed vital to the empowerment of women and girls.

Woe to those who call evil good.

5. Wisdom Is Replaced by Self-deception

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:21)

I won’t outline here the so-called wisdom and cleverness of the abortion machine (I address some of those arguments here), but some of the bumper-sticker false mantras go something like this:

  • My body, my choice
  • You can’t legislate morality
  • Abortion is a decision only for women and doctors
  • It’s just a clump of cells

A culture of accumulation and entertainment that rests not in God but works hard at sin, that lies to itself, must validate these choices by its own self-declaration of wisdom, and it will have to twist just ever so cleverly so as not to have the plain sense of conviction.

6. The Hero Is Replaced by the Playboy

Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine
And valiant men in mixing strong drink,
Who justify the wicked for a bribe,
And take away the rights of the ones who are in the right!
(Isaiah 51:22–23)

The price we will pay and are paying for this great “women’s issue” is that we lose not only part of what it means to be a woman, but also what it means to be men. When we unite as men and women as co-image bearers we understand God and one another better. When we separate, we will fail to see God and will destroy one another as we destroy ourselves.

Men, you are called to channel and wield your strength at the appropriate time.

It means not impregnating a woman who’s not your wife.

It means encouraging women in our lives to choose life, which is more than just a biological event, but it is a lifelong commitment to fatherhood and family.

It means educating yourself about the lies of both the entertainment and medical communities regarding what normal sexual and reproductive habits are. Quit destroying your mind, your soul, and your current or future relationships with pornography. Quit passively allowing the women in your life to destroy their bodies and the bodies of their young children with pills and other so-called contraceptive devices.

Learn what it means to be a good human.
Learn what it means to be a good man.
Learn what it means to be a good friend.
Learn what it means to be a good husband.
Learn what it means to be a good father.
Learn what it means to be a good citizen.

Be a hero and a valiant man in the right things.

3 “Therefores” of God

Our actions, our cultural decline, will not be the last word. God was faithful to judge Israel, and He will be faithful to judge us. In the midst of their deception, God had three big “therefores” for Israel. As we heed His woes, we must beware of His judgments.

God might allow us to be absorbed by a culture that will neither honor nor provide for its people.

Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst. (Isaiah 5:13)

God might give us our culture of death and with it—for those who survive—an equality of misery that will overtake everyone.

Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure; And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it. (Isaiah 5:14)

God might destroy the nation that promotes the destruction of life as it rejects God and His living Word.

Therefore, as a tongue of fire consumes stubble And dry grass collapses into the flame, So their root will become like rot and their blossom blow away as dust; For they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts And despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 5:24)

 

[1] Young, E. (1965). The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–18 (Vol. 1, p. 194). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

[2] https://apnews.com/article/mexico-abortion-pope-francis-argentina-bills-1117dc57fe66ff4dee5d2bab68a24646.

About the author: Michael Stewart serves as vice president of Reflections Ministries and pastor of GraceLife Church.