“Woe!” but not “Woah!”
What’s the difference?
“Woah” is an utterance of surprise, or a command to “Stop!”
But “Woe” is a wailing of sadness. In the Bible there are Woe Oracles in the Old Testament. That word “woe” was used in Israel primarily at funerals. People would loudly proclaim “woe” at the passing of a loved one or friend. From the descriptions we have in the Bible, it seems like a funeral could have been quite a boisterous, awful display. Some cultures around the world still today have similar practices of mourning.
A common phrase in our culture is “Woe is me.” We use this phrase to have a pity party for ourselves, to explain that we are feeling sad. But in the Bible, the word “Woe” is most often directed at someone else. In the Bible we don’t read “woe is me”, but instead we often read “Woe to you!”
The biblical prophets often uttered woe oracles crying out the word “Woe” as a part of their prophecy against a nation. In so doing, they were invoking funeral language over that nation. “Woe to you, who are complacent in Zion” the prophet Amos declared, for the people of Israel lived lavishly while practicing injustice. There are examples in many of the other prophets as well. The gist of a prophetic woe oracle, then, was that the nation should be very sad because their funeral was impending! Thus, a woe oracle is designed to shake people up, to make changes, so that their funeral could be delayed.
In our ongoing series through the Gospel of Luke, our next section is an episode in which Jesus joins the chorus of prophets and proclaims a bold woe oracle. Who would he say this to? Like the prophets of old, would he say “Woe” to the nation of Israel? No. There was a different group he focuses on. The religious leaders. You’ve probably heard of them: the Pharisees and the experts in the Law.
Why would Jesus give a woe oracle against them? Take a look at Luke 11:37-53, and you can see what he has to say.
As you read this, try to learn why Jesus got so bold. And then try to imagine what he might say to Christians! Is it possible that Jesus might have reason to proclaim “Woe to you American Christians…”?
I think he might. And I think it could be hard for us to hear.
Recently on the Today Show, the hosts each answered one of those “Would You Rather?” questions. A “Would You Rather?” situation asks you to choose between two options, neither of which is completely desirable. In this case, the question was “Would you rather know the time of your death or the way you will die?” I can imagine that the knowledge of either of those could lead to lots of anxiety. Which would you choose? I lean toward knowing the way I will die. But really, I don’t want to know when or how I will die. When a prophet proclaims a woe oracle they are doing something far better than the “Would You Rather?” question. A woe oracle is saying “People you will die if you continue living this way! So make a change and live.” Therefore, I think we Christians should want to know the woes that Jesus might proclaim over the American church. We’ve been hearing for years that the American church is in decline, dying. Perhaps we need a bold woe oracle to shake us up and help us get healthy again!
On Sunday at Faith Church, we’ll study the woes that Jesus proclaims against the religious leaders of his day, and we’ll see if those woes might lead us to woes that he would have for us.