In the 18th century, Archibald Boyle was the leading member of an association of wild and wicked men known as “The Hell Club” in Glasgow, Scotland. After one night of carousing at the Club’s notorious annual meeting, Boyle dreamed he was riding home on his black horse. In the darkness, someone seized the reins, shouting, “You must go with me!” As Boyle desperately tried to force the reins from the hands of the unknown guide, the horse reared. Boyle fell down, down, down with increasing speed. “Where are you taking me?” The cold voice replied, “To hell!” The echoes of the groans and yells of frantic revelry assaulted their ears.
At the entrance to hell, Boyle saw the inmates chasing the same pleasures they had pursued in life. There was a lady he’d known playing her favorite vulgar game. Boyle relaxed, thinking hell must be a pleasurable place after all. When he asked her to rest a moment and show him through the pleasures of hell, she shrieked. “There is no rest in hell!” She unclasped the vest of her robe and displayed a coil of living snakes writhing about her midsection. Others revealed different forms of pain in their hearts.
“Take me from this place!” Boyle demanded. “By the living God whose name I have so often outraged, I beg you, let me go!” His guide replied, “Go then—but in a year and a day we meet to part no more.” At this, Boyle awoke, feeling that these last words were as letters of fire burned into his heart. Despite a resolution never to attend the Hell Club again, he soon was drawn back. He found no comfort there. He grew haggard and gray under the weight of his conscience and fear of the future. He dreaded attending the Club’s annual meeting, but his companions forced him to attend. Every nerve of his body writhed in agony at the first sentence of the president’s opening address: “Gentlemen, this is leap year; therefore it is a year and a day since our last annual meeting.”
After the meeting, he mounted his house to ride home. Next morning, his horse was found grazing quietly by the roadside. A few yards away lay the corpse of Archibald Boyle. The strange guide had claimed him at the appointed time.
Unfortunately for Boyle, he did not respond appropriately to the dreadful scene that he did witness in his dreams. It was obvious that the Lord was trying to get his attention. The Lord was seeking to sound an alarm and call him to reform. But while his conscience was deeply affected, he chose not to seek the Lord.
What we find in that illustration is something of what we see in the passage that is before us this morning. In this section of Scripture God is sounding an alarm for sinners who have become thoroughly ensconced in their wickedness. With these “Pronouncements of Woe” Christ paints for us a dreadful picture of a hellish end.
Yet while these pronouncements of woe are supposed to be chilling to us, they should be a comfort to us. For these are words of warning, indicating that there is a chance to escape. This is why Charles Spurgeon once said, “God’s woes are better than the devil’s welcomes.” The words before us are here to urge us to go to Christ and make amends with him so that no harm may befall us on the day he has appointed.
So that we do not experience the same fatal havoc that Archibald Boyle experienced, it behooves us then, to take note of what is said in each of these woes. We are going to begin by examining the first of these woes today. And that is found in verses 8-10. And it is important that we start by identifying who is being addressed in this woe.
I. To whom does the woe come?
Verse 8 makes it clear that the woe comes to those who are greedy. It says, “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land.”
What is happening here is that people are buying up all the land they can. They are accumulating for themselves an exorbitant amount of property, and they are turning their houses into mansions because they are not satisfied with the midsized house that they have.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with purchasing your neighbor’s property or putting an addition on your house if you have a productive use for it. For instance, if you have a large family, then you are going to need the extra space.
That is not what is going on there though. Isaiah here condemns the covetous spirit that had come to consume the people of his day. These people were not adding fields and houses because their families were growing. (The passage makes it clear that they dwelt alone in the midst of the land.) These people were simply feeding their materialistic spirits. They were seeking to acquire large amounts of land so that they could have sprawling estates and luxurious homes. In the process what most likely was happening is that they were forcing poorer, weaker people off their land by dubious methods.
I think that Calvin sums up well what is under scrutiny here. He says, “He now reproves their insatiable avarice and covetousness, from which the acts of cheating, injustice, and violence are [prone] to arise.”
Let me give you a modern example of what most likely was happening. My father-in-law recently wrote an article that has been published entitled, “Bulldozed in New London: The latest in Kelo and Eminent Domain.” The article recounts how the major drug company Pfizer went about building a rather large research complex in the city of New London, CT. In order to build this plant they had to acquire many homes that would then be razed to make way for the construction site. With the aid of the city’s officials, who were salivating at the prospects of increased tax revenue, Pfizer sought to obtain the land by the process known as “eminent domain.” (Eminent domain is the inherent power of the state to seize a citizen's private property with due monetary compensation, but without the owner's consent.)
The people who lived in the community objected to this land grab though. One of the citizens, whose name was Kelo, sought to protect her home through litigation. Her case ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for her, the Court voted in favor of the City and Pfizer.
Outrage quickly spread across the country. And, as a result of this appalling injustice, many states tightened up their eminent domain regulations so that the same would not happen in their area.
But that is the essence of what you find in this passage. Those who are in positions of power roll over any who get in their way in order to satisfy their incurable thirst for more space, more luxury, more money, and more power.
This is the nature of a covetous spirit though. No amount of wealth will satisfy the greedy person. No matter how much you have, the desire is like a fire that just thirsts after more and more to consume.
The other day a friend of mine was asking a bunch of us for a good definition of wealth. I wanted to say, “Just a little more.” While that might not fit in Webster’s dictionary, that is the intent of many people’s hearts. “If I could only get a little more.”
And we see this sumptuous spirit all over the place today. As a matter of fact, we have whole shows dedicated to it! When we look at the some of the most popular shows on TV today, we see things like Extreme Make-over and House Hunters. I think it goes without saying that these shows are not built on the premise of contentment. They are designed around the whole notion of bigger is better, and they feed on your base yearnings for opulence. I might even suggest that their purpose is to rouse those covetous hungers within you. They don’t want you to be satisfied with the quaint little space that you have. Ultimately they want you to get out there shop at their sponsors.
What is important is that we be on guard against having this kind of gluttonous, materialistic spirit. We are just as susceptible to fall into this sin because our hearts have the same, insatiable appetites. Because of our sinful nature, we have the same propensity to lust after the bigger and better when there is absolutely no reason to do so.
So when we go to purchase a new car, we need to think about what is proper for our needs. Purchasing an SUV might not be what is most glorifying to God. If you don’t have kids to tote around or you are not going to be hauling anything, then an SUV might not be what God wants you to have. If you are buying an SUV simply because it feeds your craving for the bigger and more luxurious, or if you are buying it because it you think it will increase your prestige, then your most likely buying a car that will not please the Lord.
I know that this might not sit well with many in our day. I can just hear people making an outcry, “How can you tell people what kind of car to buy? You are an overzealous (uptight!?) preacher! Nobody is being hurt with an SUV. You make it sound like someone who drives and SUV is involved with extortion!”
But think about it. It may be that God wants you to downsize a bit so you are not dumping a ton of money into your gas tank. With the money you save with a mid-size care, think of all the money you would have left over. Instead of spending it all on yourself, you have the opportunity to save up an inheritance for your children or help people who may be in need.
That is the real issue at hand in this denunciation. Isaiah was against people who were running amuck with their selfish inclination. And someone purchasing a bigger car or a bigger house or a bigger and better TV when they don’t need it may be fraught with the exact same disease.
And if you are in such a position where your heart is plagued with covetousness, then you are a person who whom this expression of woe comes. Those who need to fear this woe are those who are overly infatuated with their own personal gain.
But what exactly do they need to fear? What is the woe that this kind of person will experience?
II. What is the woe that they experience?
This passage goes on to tell us that such a person will experience a shortfall in his/her life. Interesting isn’t it? The people who made it their highest intention to get are people who will be left wanting. But if you look at what is said here you’ll notice that the shortfall isn’t in just one area of their lives. Their losses will be across the board, touching every part of their lives.
You can start in verse 9. It says, “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.” What happened here? The housing market crashed in on them, didn’t it? How contemporary is that?
Someone was telling me a while ago that they were in Florida and it was rather eerie in some places because there were so many houses for sale. All these luxurious housing developments went up overnight as people sought to fulfill their infatuation with dry wall. The Lord then came alone and evicted them. Now you have what seem like ghost towns because so many houses have been left desolate. What is happening is that people are experiencing the woe that God speaks of here in verse 9.
The shortage that befalls them can also be seen in verse 10. Here you see that they experience scarcity in their crops. It says, “For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”
You don’t have to be an expert in Hebrew measurements to know that the harvest was not all that plentiful. Yet this is such an apt judgment. They accumulated all this land, but it ends up infertile, spoiling their lustful cravings.
I mentioned a few minutes ago the article that my father in law wrote about the misuse of the eminent domain regulation by the city of New London and Pfizer. I didn’t tell you all about the article though. My father-in-law wrote it because there had been a development in the story in recent months. After Pfizer had built their research facility and had enjoyed 10 years of tax abatement, the company decided to pack up and leave. They ended up consolidating and relocating to another town not too far away. As a result, all the tax revenue the city thought they were going to pull in is gone. What’s more is that the whole neighborhood that used to be called home by many people is gone. The only thing they are left with is a huge empty building and a soiled name.
This is a beautiful illustration of the kind of famine that God can cause. Anybody who is obsessed with economic extravagance and hordes all kinds of stuff in their greed, will find that their financial dreams will be cut short.
Perhaps the worst shortage that such a person will experience though, is found in the last part of verse 8. It says that they are “made to dwell alone.”
They say it is lonely at the top. You work all your life to get success. You spend yourself silly trying to achieve all that you ever wanted. But then, once you get there, you look around and you wonder, “Where is everybody?” You are all by yourself.
What a punishment this is! In Romans 1 it says that God punishes people by giving them over to their own desires. This is exactly what you see here. The greedy person pushed everyone out of his way. He stepped on everyone and anything to get to the place where he was, then after he got there nobody else was around to witness it. His whole life he said, “Me, me, me, mine, mine, mine.” Then he looked around and it was only “me.”
Ultimately though, these pains that they experience are pointing to a greater reality—an eternal reality. It is what Jesus meant when he told the parable about the man who built bigger barns for all his goods so that he could live a life of ease. God came to him in the night and said, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you!”
The ultimate woe is that you go to hell. That’s the greatest shortfall of all because you miss out on the excellencies of heaven. But that is the lot of the person who prizes the creation over the Creator. Sure, all that has just been said may be avoided. There is a chance that you may never have lost your mansion or investment revenue. But, as the saying goes, he who dies with the most toys, still dies.
This is why I entitled this message “Take That.” The person to whom woe comes is a person who’s life is been dedicated to taking. They want this and they want that. Their lusts burn and blaze as they acquire more and more. His life has been dedicated to taking, taking, taking.
But in the end, God says, “Take that.” He comes and strips them of all they ever had and leaves them barren. Then, for the rest of eternity, he is left to be be eaten by their own ravenousness desires.
So may this be a lesson to you. May we be sure to focus our attention on a more prudent spirit. Never should our focus be on simply acquiring more for more’s sake. While there may be nothing wrong with an upgrade, we need to be sure that our acquisition of it is honorable.
The Bible makes it clear that our chief concern is to be our Lord, and not our land. It is not the pursuit of our own grandness that we are to be endeavoring after. It is the pursuit of the granger of God that is supposed to be our main concern.
This passage is most applicable to us because we live in an age where you are measured by what you have. But we must remember that there is only one thing that needs to be acquired. And that is Jesus. He is the pearl of great price. He is the most valuable possession that anyone can have. And everyone who is willing to sell all to have him will not have to fear this pronouncement of woe.
You might be sitting here today thinking, “I have a lot of stuff I don’t really need. My garage or my attic is stuffed full of evidence of my greed.” And you might be thinking, “Woe is me!” But whoever posses Jesus, possesses the remedy. Jesus came to earth for this very reason. He was stripped of everything on your behalf. There at the cross he lost his clothes, his dignity, and his friends. Everything was taken away from him. And it was taken from him so that you might be invested with the abundant riches of heaven.
And whoever is willing to cling to him above all earthly treasure, will inherit all the riches that are stored away there.
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.