Although the Protestant Reformation paved the way for Christians to be able to read the Bible for themselves, it’s still important to improve Hermeneutical/Bible Study skills. After all, the Holy Bible is a book written by over 40 different authors, separated by many locations, and spans thousands of years of history. Suffice it to say, it can be a very difficult book to read. Unfortunately, some Christians do not grasp that and go on believing that all they need to understand the Bible is to feel that the Holy Spirit is with them and teaching them exactly what the Scriptures mean. Of course, the Bible does talk about how the Holy Spirit guides Christians into the truth; however, that does not mean logic and rationality should be taken out of the equation. For example, some Christians may be stumped by the occurrence of the word woe in the Bible. It’s an odd, old-sounding word that people may have difficulty with should they see it in a verse. So what does the word woe mean in the Bible? That’s precisely what this article is hoping to discover.
The Short Answer
To put it simply, woe is a strong term that is usually associated with a warning or judgement from God. It’s certainly a negatively used word, often a connotation for extreme emotions such as: grief, sorrow, anger, regret, or even some type of grave misfortune (such as a judgement). However, it’s important to note that it is an intense version of all of those things; it’s not just grief—it’s overwhelming grief—and so on and so forth. As we look into various Bible passages, it’s likely to see it repeated over and over again.
One of the most common associations woe has in the Bible is that of judgement. Saying woe back in these biblical times is almost like saying “oh no!” or “alas.” In other words, it’s showing that something bad is going to happen and that it will not be pretty at all. Interestingly, Jesus used the word more than anyone else in the Bible. For example, Matthew 23:13 reads: “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” This verse starts off a series of verses (from Matthew 23:13-16) in which Jesus continually uses the word woe in his condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees. In this passage, roughly seven woes are given and they all condemn those religious leaders for saying and appearing to be righteous, when in actuality they were not. They were people who prayed loudly, who judged others on a moral high ground, and who would set strict standards for other people. Despite looking holy on the outside, though, they were rotten to the core.
At times, woe is used for a warning of a coming judgement instead of a definite judgement or condemnation that is already coming. In other words, it tells people that if they continue going on a current path then they will encounter God’s wrath—but there is hope of bypassing the wrath by returning to the righteous path. For instance, when speaking about people who may tempt others to sin, Jesus states in Matthew 18:6-7 “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” To put it another way, woe in this context is almost like saying “watch out!” because something bad will accompany the man/woman who tempts others away from Christ. Again, judging by Jesus’ graphic illustration used in this passage, it’s clear that woe is not a lighthearted word. Rather, it carries significant weight to it!
As a person who has taught Junior High Bible studies for roughly 7 years and as a person who has been teaching High School classes in a Christian setting for a little while, I can attest to the fact that people confuse words in the Bible all the time—and it’s not just younger kids! Adults can fall prey to misunderstanding biblical passages simply by not understanding a word or two that is used. So, with words like woe and others, it’s important to look for all the instances in which the Bible uses it, put them in a proper context, and then ascertain just what it is that the word means.