Isaiah 5:8
Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!
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(8) Woe unto them that join house to house.—The series of “Woes” which follows has no precedent in the teaching of earlier prophets. The form of Luke 6:24-26 seems based upon it. The general indictment of Isaiah 1 is followed by special counts. That which leads off the list was the destruction of the old village life of Palestine. The original ideal of the nation had been that it should consist of small proprietors; and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:13; Leviticus 27:24), and the law of the marriage of heiresses (Numbers 27:1-11, Numbers 36, Numbers 33:54) were intended as safeguards for the maintenance of that ideal. In practice it had broken down, and might had taken the place of right. Landmarks were removed (Deuteronomy 19:14; Deuteronomy 27:17; Proverbs 22:28), the owners of small estates forcibly expelled (Micah 2:2) or murdered as Naboth had been (1Kings 21:16); the law of debt pressed against the impoverished debtor (Nehemiah 5:5), and the law of the Jubilee was practically set aside. In place of the small freeholders there rose up a class of large proprietors, often the novi homines of the state (e.g., Shebna in Isaiah 22:16), while the original owners sank into slavery (Nehemiah 5:5) or became tenants at will, paying exorbitant rents in kind or money, and liable at any moment to be evicted. Isaiah’s complaint recalls the agrarian laws by which first Licinius and then the Gracchi sought to restrain the extension of the latifundia of the Roman patricians, and Latimer’s bold protest against the enclosure of commons in the sixteenth century. The evil had been denounced before by Micah (Micah 2:2), and in a psalm probably contemporary with Isaiah (Psalm 49:11). The fact that the last year of Uzziah coincided with the Jubilee may have given a special point to Isaiah’s protest.



Isaiah 5:8 - Isaiah 5:30

Drunkenness is, in this text, one of a ring of plague-spots on the body politic of Judah. The prophet six times proclaims ‘woe’ as the inevitable end of these; such ‘sickness’ is ‘unto death’ unless repentance and another course of conduct bring healing. But drunkenness appears twice in this grim catalogue, and the longest paragraph of denunciation {Isaiah 5:11 - Isaiah 5:17} is devoted to it. Its connection with the other vices attacked is loose, but it is worth noting that all these have an inner kinship, and tend to appear together. They are ‘all in a string,’ and where a community is cursed with one, the others will not be far away. They are a knot of serpents intertwined. We touch but slightly on the other vices denounced by the prophet’s burning words, but we must premise the general observation that the same uncompromising plainness and boldness in speaking out as to social sins ought to characterise Christian teachers to-day. The prophet’s office is not extinct in the church.

The first plague-spot is the accumulation of wealth in few hands, and the selfish withdrawal of its possessors from the life of the community. In an agricultural society like that of Judah, that clotting of wealth took the shape of ‘land-grabbing,’ and of evicting the small proprietors. We see it in more virulent forms in our great commercial centres, where the big men often become big by crushing out the little ones, and denude themselves of responsibility to the community in proportion as they clothe themselves with wealth. Wherever wealth is thus congested, and its obligations ignored by selfish indulgence, the seeds are sown which will spring up one day in ‘anarchism.’ A man need not be a prophet to have it whispered in his ear, as Isaiah had, that the end of selfish capitalism is a convulsion in which ‘many houses shall be desolate,’ and many fields barren. England needs the warning as much as Isaiah’s Judah did.

Such selfish wealth leads, among other curses, to indolence and drunkenness, as the next woe shows. The people described make drinking the business of their lives, beginning early and sitting late. They have a varnish of art over their swinishness, and must have music as well as wine. So, in many a drink-shop in England, a piano or a band adds to the attractions, and gives a false air of aestheticism to pure animalism. Isaiah feels the incongruity that music should be so prostituted, and expresses it by adding to his list of musical instruments ‘and wine’ as if he would underscore the degradation of the great art to be the cupbearer of sots. Such revellers are blind to the manifest tokens of God’s working, and the ‘operation of His hands’ excites only the tipsy gaze which sees nothing. That is one of the curses which dog the drunkard-that he takes no warning from the plain results of his vice as seen in others. He knows that it means shattered health, ruined prospects, broken hearts, but nothing rouses him from his fancy of impunity. High, serious thoughts of God and His government of the world and of each life are strange to him. His sin compels him to be godless, if he is not to go mad. But sometimes he wakes to a moment’s sight of realities, and then he is miserable till his next bout buys fatal forgetfulness.

The prophet forces the end of a drunken nation on the unwilling attention of the roisterers, in Isaiah 5:13 - Isaiah 5:17, which throb with vehemence of warning and gloomy eloquence. What can such a people come to but destruction? Knowledge must languish, hunger and thirst must follow. Like some monster’s gaping mouth, the pit yawns for them; and, drawn as by irresistible attraction, the pomp and the wicked, senseless jollity elide down into it. In the universal catastrophe, one thing alone stands upright, and is lifted higher, because all else has sunk so far,-the righteous judgment of the forgotten God. The grim picture is as true for individuals and their deaths as for a nation and its decay. And modern nations cannot afford to have this ulcer of drunkenness draining away their strength any more than Judah could. ‘By the soul only are the nations great and free,’ and a people can be neither where the drink fiend has his way.

Three woes follow which are closely connected. That pronounced on daring evil-doers, who not only let sin draw them to itself, but go more than halfway to meet it, needing no temptation, but drawing it to them eagerly, and scoffing at the merciful warnings of fatal consequences, comes first. Next is a woe on those who play fast and loose with plain morality, sophisticating conscience, and sapping the foundations of law. Such juggling follows sensual indulgence such as drunkenness, when it becomes habitual and audacious, as in the preceding woe. Loose or perverted codes of morality generally spring from bad living, seeking to shelter itself. Vicious principles are an afterthought to screen vicious practices. The last subject of the triple woes is self-conceit and pretence to superior illumination. Such very superior persons are emancipated from the rules which bind the common herd. They are so very clever that they have far outgrown the creeping moralities, which may do for old women and children. Do we not know the sort of people? Have we none of them surviving to-day?

Then Isaiah comes back to his theme of drunkenness, but in a new connection. It poisons the fountain of justice. There is a world of indignant contempt in the prophet’s scathing picture of those who are ‘mighty’ and ‘men of strength,’-but how is their strength shown? They can stand any quantity of wine, and can ‘mix their drinks,’ and yet look sober! What a noble use to put a good constitution to! These valiant topers are in authority as judges, and they sell their judgments to get money for their debauches. We do not see much of such scandals among us, but yet we have heard of leagues between liquor-sellers and municipal authorities, which certainly do not ‘make for righteousness.’ When shall we learn and practise the lesson that Isaiah was reading his countrymen,-that it is fatal to a nation when the private character of public men is regarded as of no account in political and civic life? The prophet had no doubt as to what must be the end of a state of things in which the very courts of law were honeycombed with corruption, and demoralised by the power of drink. His tremendous image of a fierce fire raging across a dry prairie, and burning the grass to its very roots, while the air is stifling with the thick ‘dust’ of the conflagration, proclaims the sure fate, sooner or later, of every community and individual that ‘rejects the law of the Lord of Hosts, and despises the word of the Holy One of Israel.’ Change the name, and the tale is told of us; for it is ‘righteousness that exalteth a nation,’ and no single vice drags after it more infallibly such a multitude of attendant demons as the vice of drunkenness, which is a crying sin of England to-day.

Isaiah 5:8-10. Wo unto them, &c. — The unfolding of the parable, after the general key in the preceding verse, comprehends two things, according to the argument of the parable; the crimes of this ungrateful people, and the punishment decreed to their crimes. That join house to house — That add new purchases of houses and lands to their former possessions. Not that this was in itself absolutely unlawful, but because they did it from an inordinate desire of riches, and with the injury of their brethren. That they may be placed alone — That they alone may be the lords and owners, and all others only their tenants and servants. Thus, “the first crime condemned is avarice and rapacity; which is strongly described in this verse, and which prevailed remarkably among the Jews. Its punishment, even the desolation of those houses which they coveted, and the devastation of those fields which they obtained so rapaciously, is set forth in the two following verses.” See Vitringa. In mine ears, said the Lord — That is, It was revealed in mine ears: or, I heard God speak what I am now about to utter. Of a truth many houses shall be desolate — “In vain are ye so intent upon joining house to house, and field to field; your houses shall be left uninhabited, and your fields shall become desolate and barren: so that a vineyard of ten acres shall produce but one bath (not eight gallons) of wine, and the husbandman shall reap but a tenth part of the seed which he has sown.” — Bishop Lowth. Thus it is predicted that a fruitful land should be made barren for their wickedness, according to God’s threatening, (Psalm 107:34,) and they would have as little comfort in their lands as in their houses.

5:8-23 Here is a woe to those who set their hearts on the wealth of the world. Not that it is sinful for those who have a house and a field to purchase another; but the fault is, that they never know when they have enough. Covetousness is idolatry; and while many envy the prosperous, wretched man, the Lord denounces awful woes upon him. How applicable to many among us! God has many ways to empty the most populous cities. Those who set their hearts upon the world, will justly be disappointed. Here is woe to those who dote upon the pleasures and the delights of sense. The use of music is lawful; but when it draws away the heart from God, then it becomes a sin to us. God's judgments have seized them, but they will not disturb themselves in their pleasures. The judgments are declared. Let a man be ever so high, death will bring him low; ever so mean, death will bring him lower. The fruit of these judgments shall be, that God will be glorified as a God of power. Also, as a God that is holy; he shall be owned and declared to be so, in the righteous punishment of proud men. Those are in a woful condition who set up sin, and who exert themselves to gratify their base lusts. They are daring in sin, and walk after their own lusts; it is in scorn that they call God the Holy One of Israel. They confound and overthrow distinctions between good and evil. They prefer their own reasonings to Divine revelations; their own devices to the counsels and commands of God. They deem it prudent and politic to continue profitable sins, and to neglect self-denying duties. Also, how light soever men make of drunkenness, it is a sin which lays open to the wrath and curse of God. Their judges perverted justice. Every sin needs some other to conceal it.Wo unto them ... - The prophet now proceeds to "specify" some of the crimes to which he had referred in the parable of the vineyard, of which the Jews had been guilty. The first is "avarice."

That join house to house - That seek to possess many houses; or perhaps that seek to live in large and magnificent palaces. A similar denunciation of this sin is recorded in Micah 2:2; Nehemiah 5:1-8. This, together with what follows, was contrary to the law of Moses. He provided that when the children of Israel should enter the land of Canaan, the land should be equitably divided; and in order to prevent avarice, he ordained the "jubilee," occurring once in fifty years, by which every man and every family should be restored to their former possession; Leviticus 25. Perhaps there could have been no law so well framed to prevent the existence, and avoid the evils of covetousness. Yet, in defiance of the obvious requirements and spirit of that law, the people in the time of Isaiah had beome generally covetous.

That lay field to field - That purchase one farm after another. The words 'that lay,' mean "to cause to approach;" that is, they "join" on one farm after another.

Till there be no place - Until they reach the "outer limit" of the land; until they possess all.

That they may be placed alone - That they may displace all others; that they may drive off from their lands all others, and take possession of them themselves.

In the midst of the earth - Or rather, in the midst of the "land." They seek to obtain the whole of it, and to expel all the present owners. Never was there a more correct description of avarice. It is satisfied with no present possessions, and would be satisfied only if all the earth were in its possession. Nor would the covetous man be satisfied then. He would sit down and weep that there was nothing more which he could desire. How different this from that "contentment" which is produced by religion, and the love of the happiness of others!

Isa 5:8-23. Six Distinct Woes against Crimes.

8. (Le 25:13; Mic 2:2). The jubilee restoration of possessions was intended as a guard against avarice.

till there be no place—left for any one else.

that they may be—rather, and ye be.

the earth—the land.

That join house to house, that lay field to field; that add new purchases of houses and lands to their former possessions; not that this was in itself unlawful, but because they did this from an inordinate and insatiable desire of riches, and with the injury of their brethren, as is manifest from the foregoing and following words.

That they may be alone; that they alone may be the lords and owners, all others only their tenants and servants.

Woe unto them that join house to house,.... Or "O ye that join", &c.; for, as Aben Ezra observes, it signifies calling, as in Isaiah 55:1 though Jarchi takes it to be expressive of crying and groaning, on account of future punishments; and he observes, that as there are twenty two blessings pronounced in the book of Psalms, on those that keep the law, so there are twenty two woes pronounced by Isaiah upon the wicked:

that lay field to field; the sin of covetousness is exposed and condemned in these words; not that it is unlawful in itself for a man that has a house or field of his own to purchase another that is next unto it; but when he is insatiable, and not content with his houses and lands, but is always coveting more, this is his sin, and especially if he seeks to get them by fraud or force:

till there be no place; for others to dwell in and possess; and so the Targum,

"and say, until we possess every place;''

or "unto the end of the place" (x), city, or field; till they have got all the houses in the town or city, and all the pieces of ground in the field, in their own possession:

that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth, or land; that is, of Judea; wholly inhabit it themselves, and have the sole power and jurisdiction over it. It is in the Hebrew text (y) "that ye may be placed", &c.; the Targum is,

"and they think they shall dwell alone in the midst of the land.''

(x) "usque ad terminum loci", V. L. (y) "constituamini", Vatablus, Forerius, Montanus; "colloeemini", Calvin.

Woe to them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there is no {k} place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!

(k) That is, for the poor to dwell in.

8. that they may be … earth] Render with R.V., and ye be made to dwell alone in the midst of the land; i.e. so that only the few have residential rights.

8–10. The first woe, against the absorption of small properties by the wealthy landowners. Cruel evictions, by which the smaller peasant proprietors lost not only their homes but the rights of citizenship, were common in the age of Isaiah, both in Judah and Israel. Cf. Micah 2:2; Micah 2:9; Amos 2:6 f. “The old Israelite state was so entirely based on the participation of every freeman in the common soil, and so little recognised the mere possession of capital, that men were in danger of losing civil rights along with house and fields, and becoming mere hirelings or even slaves” (Duhm). An instance of the tenacity with which the Hebrew yeoman clung to his land may be seen in 1 Kings 21. For legal checks to this evil, see Leviticus 25:8 ff.; Num. 27:1–11, 36; Deuteronomy 27:17.

8–24. Denunciation of the Social Evils which call down God’s Judgment on the Nation

The indictment contains six counts, each introduced by the word “Woe,” and is addressed exclusively to the upper classes, although the punishment of their sin falls on the nation as a whole. The prophet sets before us a vivid picture of a debased aristocracy, in whom public virtue has been eaten out by avarice and sensuality; and he traces with remarkable insight the effect of these sins in the religious insensibility and perversion of the moral sentiments which characterised the nobles of Judah at this time.

Verses 8-24. - THE SIX WOES. After the general warning conveyed to Israel by the parable of the vineyard, six sins are particularized as those which have especially provoked God to give the warning. On each of these woe is denounced. Two have special punishments assigned to them (vers. 8-17); the remainder are joined in one general threat of retribution (vers. 18 - 24). Verse 8. - Woe unto them that join house to house. This is the first woe. It is pronounced on the greed which leads men to continually enlarge their estates, without regard to their neighbors' convenience. Nothing is said of any use of unfair means, much less of violence in dispossessing the former proprietors. What is denounced is the selfishness of vast accumulations of land in single bands, to the detriment of the rest of the community. The Jewish law was peculiarly inimical to this practice (Numbers 27:1-11; Numbers 33:54; 1 Kings 21:4); but perhaps it is not without reason that many writers of our own time object to it on general grounds. Till there be no place; literally, till want of place; i.e. till there is no room for others. A hyperbole, doubtless, but marking a real national inconvenience. That they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth; rather, that ye may dwell by yourselves in the midst of the land. The great landlords wished to isolate themselves; they disliked neighbors; they would fain "dwell by themselves," without neighbors to trouble them. Uzziah seems, by what is said of his possessions (2 Chronicles 26:10), to have been one of the greatest sinners in respect of the accumulation of land. Isaiah 5:8"Woe unto them that join house to house, who lay field to field, till there is no more room, and ye alone are dwelling in the midst of the land." The participle is continued in the finite verb, as in Isaiah 5:23; Isaiah 10:1; the regular syntactic construction is cases of this kind (Ges. 134, Anm. 2). The preterites after "till" (there are to such preterites, for 'ephes is an intensified אין enclosing the verbal idea) correspond to future perfects: "They, the insatiable, would not rest till, after every smaller piece of landed property had been swallowed by them, the whole land had come into their possession, and no one beside themselves was settled in the land" (Job 22:8). Such covetousness was all the more reprehensible, because the law of Israel and provided so very stringently and carefully, that as far as possible there should be an equal distribution of the soil, and that hereditary family property should be inalienable. All landed property that had been alienated reverted to the family every fiftieth year, or year of jubilee; so that alienation simply had reference to the usufruct of the land till that time. It was only in the case of houses in towns that the right of redemption was restricted to one year, at least according to a later statute. How badly the law of the year of jubilee had been observed, may be gathered from Jeremiah 34, where we learn that the law as to the manumission of Hebrew slaves in the sabbatical year had fallen entirely into neglect. Isaiah's contemporary, Micah, makes just the same complaint as Isaiah himself (vid., Micah 2:2).
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