The most common holiday greeting is undoubtedly “Merry Christmas”. This is what many of us aim for at Christmas—for festive, light-hearted levity. We want the fuzzy feeling of nostalgia. Naturally, we avoid passages like this one, where God (through the prophet Isaiah) proclaims judgment against his people:
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.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”
Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
as wine inflames them!
They have lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands.
Therefore my people go into exile
for lack of knowledge;
their honored men go hungry,
and their multitude is parched with thirst. (Isaiah 5:8–13)
If we look beyond the condemnation for a moment, and focus just on the behaviour of the Israelites, we can see how they chased merriment too. Their lives were about feasting, drinking, singing, and accumulating wealth. These things aren’t always bad. But in this passage, it’s clear that God has a problem with a certain kind of levity. Under the veneer of “merry”, there is great danger—the judgment of God is coming.
Isaiah condemns the Israelites for their “lack of knowledge”, and because they “do not regard the deeds of the Lord”. This doesn’t mean they didn’t know enough about God. These were his chosen people, the nation he had brought out of slavery in Egypt, led through the wilderness for forty years, and brought into the promised land. God spoke to them through Moses, giving them the Law and instituting a covenant with them. Of all the nations on earth, only Israel knew the one true living God.
It’s not head knowledge that counts, but the true knowledge which comes through relationship. Living in the promised land, Israel was meant to follow God’s law and live in relationship with him. But they went astray, preferring earthly riches to their Creator.
What is God’s verdict upon these merry-makers? “Woe.” This is a dismal prediction of doom and anguish. It means judgment is coming. Israel sought happiness in food and drink, so God is bringing famine and drought.
Because of their disobedience, Isaiah was warning Israel that they were about to lose it all.
We talk about joy a lot at Christmas time, in our songs and greetings and home decorations. But there’s little point in being joyful about the things we have—music, friends, food, possessions—if that’s all we have.
So we need to shoot for something higher than merriment. We were made for a relationship with God. Apart from him, everything we relish at Christmas will come to nothing. If we don’t trust in him, and come to him for our life and joy, we will never find it.
You have a finite number of Christmases left. Maybe one, maybe eighty. There’s no way to know. So what happens when it all comes to an end? Even if you’ve got many decades left, how do you know your Christmases will continue to be happy? Sickness, grief, and loneliness can strip joy from the holidays in an instant.
Then what is left? For those who love Jesus, the answer is everything. We can lose all our money, possessions and family; and still be abundantly rich, because:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3)
Christmas isn’t about the temporary happiness we get from having the picture-perfect day. It’s about finding joy in our Saviour, who came to earth so that we can have a relationship with God. In him, we will never hunger or thirst. He has rescued us from the “woe” that would have been ours. That alone brings lasting joy.
So have a merry Christmas! Enjoy delicious food, time with family, and keeping up old traditions. God wants us to enjoy and thank him for these good gifts he gives us. But also heed the warning in this passage, and find your true joy in knowing, trusting, and obeying Jesus Christ.