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Isaiah 5:18-21

Context

5:18 Those who pull evil along using cords of emptiness are as good as dead, 1 

who pull sin as with cart ropes. 2 

5:19 They say, “Let him hurry, let him act quickly, 3 

so we can see;

let the plan of the Holy One of Israel 4  take shape 5  and come to pass,

then we will know it!”

5:20 Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, 6 

who turn darkness into light and light into darkness,

who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter. 7 

5:21 Those who think they are wise are as good as dead, 8 

those who think they possess understanding. 9 

1 sn See the note at v. 8.

2 tc The Hebrew text reads literally, “Woe to those who pull evil with the ropes of emptiness, and, as [with] ropes of a cart, sin.” Though several textual details are unclear, the basic idea is apparent. The sinners are so attached to their sinful ways (compared here to a heavy load) that they strain to drag them along behind them. If שָׁוְא (shavÿ’, “emptiness”) is retained, it makes a further comment on their lifestyle, denouncing it as one that is devoid of what is right and destined to lead to nothing but destruction. Because “emptiness” does not form a very tight parallel with “cart” in the next line, some emend שָׁוְא to שֶׂה (she, “sheep”) and עֲגָלָה (’agalah, “cart”) to עֵגֶל (’egel, “calf”): “Those who pull evil along with a sheep halter are as good as dead who pull sin with a calf rope” (following the lead of the LXX and improving the internal parallelism of the verse). In this case, the verse pictures the sinners pulling sin along behind them as one pulls an animal with a halter. For a discussion of this view, see J. N. Oswalt, Isaiah (NICOT), 1:163, n. 1. Nevertheless, this emendation is unnecessary. The above translation emphasizes the folly of the Israelites who hold on to their sin (and its punishment) even while they hope for divine intervention.

3 tn Heb “let his work hurry, let it hasten.” The pronoun “his” refers to God, as the parallel line makes clear. The reference to his “work” alludes back to v. 12, which refers to his ‘work” of judgment. With these words the people challenged the prophet’s warning of approaching judgment. They were in essence saying that they saw no evidence that God was about to work in such a way.

4 sn See the note on the phrase “the Holy One of Israel” in 1:4.

5 tn Heb “draw near” (so NASB); NRSV “hasten to fulfillment.”

6 tn Heb “Woe [to] those who call.” See the note at v. 8.

7 sn In this verse the prophet denounces the perversion of moral standards. Darkness and bitterness are metaphors for evil; light and sweetness symbolize uprightness.

8 tn Heb “Woe [to] the wise in their own eyes.” See the note at v. 8.

9 tn Heb “[who] before their faces are understanding.”

sn Verses 18-21 contain three “woe-sayings” that are purely accusatory and have no formal announcement of judgment attached (as in the “woe-sayings” recorded in vv. 8-17). While this lack of symmetry is odd, it has a clear rhetorical purpose. Having established a pattern in vv. 8-17, the prophet deviates from it in vv. 18-21 to grab his audience’s attention. By placing the “woes” in rapid succession and heaping up the accusatory elements, he highlights the people’s guilt and introduces an element of tension and anticipation. One is reasonably certain that judgment will come, and when it does, it will be devastating. This anticipated devastation is described in frightening detail after the sixth and final woe (see vv. 22-30).



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