Weal or Woe?
Updated: Sep 9
“I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe;
I the LORD do all these things.” (Isa. 54:5-6 [NIV], 7 [NRSV])
What is “Weal,” and what is “Woe”? And what do either of these have to do with anything? Including the social-political-economic issues of our times that I’m seeking to address in this blog category.
When COVID became a “thing,” I began taking an even closer look at how Jesus, while He was on the earth, saw and handled various social, political, and economic issues. How might His way of looking at things and dealing with them be applied to the issues and developments of our day?
I believe taking this approach helped more than anything else to give me a much more sound and balanced perspective than I would have had otherwise. It gave me a lot of assurance during a difficult time, and I believe it helped to keep me from getting caught up in the extremes that ended up causing major disunity—in the world, in personal relationships, and in relation to God Himself.
I don’t believe the equilibrium this approach gave me made me neutral, wish-washy, or lukewarm; but it did help me to find firm footing during a time of great unsteadiness. During a time of social, political, and economic shaking caused by COVID shut-downs, shut-ins, mandates, suicides, and deaths; endless dehumanizing (in the name of humanizing) and destructive riots and demonstrations; unusual weather patterns; forest, and other fires; and one of the most divisive and possibly corrupt elections in U.S. history among other things.
Seeking to see and deal with matters through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus, through God’s Spirit of love, made all the difference in the world for me during this time. It provided weal in my life at a time of woe.
So, again, what is weal? And what is woe? And why should anyone care?
The best place to find definitions for terms used in the Bible is the Bible itself, in context. So, hopefully, you’ll look with me at a verse in scripture from Isaiah that contains both words.
In newer translations, the older English words weal and woe are not used. Instead, for example, in the New International Version this verse reads:
“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7, NIV).
The beginning and ending phrases of this verse, “I form the light and create darkness,..” and “..I, the Lord, do all these things” are translated almost identically in most English versions of the Bible. These English expressions appear to be descriptive enough of the original meaning in Hebrew.
However, there are two terms in the middle section of this verse that are translated using quite a few different words in various English Bible versions. Following are some representative translations:
“I bring prosperity and create disaster (NIV);
“I make blessings and create disasters (GW);
“I make success and create disaster” (CSB);
“...happiness and sorrow” (CEV);
“I make well-being and create calamity” (ESV);
“I make peace, and create evil” (KJV);
“I bring peace, and I cause trouble” (ERV);
“I make weal and create woe” (NRSV).
The Hebrew word שָׁל֖וֹם or shalom, as you can see, is translated as prosperity, blessings, success, happiness, well-being, peace, and weal. The Hebrew word רָ֑ע or ra is translated as disaster(s), sorrow, calamity, evil, trouble, and woe. All these English words help to give a sense of the original Hebrew meaning, but they also demonstrate that shalom and ra have become hard to describe with a single English term or expression.
The early English words weal and woe, loaded with practical Biblical meaning when they were assigned, were far closer in essence to the original Hebrew words. But Western moderns, who have in large measure pushed aside the Bible, especially the Old Testament, have lost the substance of these terms until no single, current English expression seems to fit.
Defining terms is an important beginning, but it’s not the only tool available for understanding the meaning of a text. The context also gives important clues about the application weal and woe have in this verse (Isaiah 45:7). The preceding verse is a parallel literary phrase: “I form [or make] the light and create darkness.” It illuminates that the following phrase: “I make weal and create woe,” is also contrasting opposites.
Another context in the Bible where light is contrasted with darkness is in Genesis (1:1-4). These verses describe the original event when the Lord actually “form[ed] the light and create[d] darkness.” It wasn’t until God formed light that the darkness was revealed or separated. Without the light, there was only indistinguishable darkness—a void; but once the light was formed, there was a distinction. Darkness is not an entity without light to make it apparent. When God formed the light, He also created or defined darkness. As a side note, the first thing in creation God formed was light.
Just as with the light God formed, which caused darkness to be differentiated, it isn’t until God brings shalom or weal into the human experience that ra or woe is exposed for what it is. Once weal is seen or experienced the contrast becomes evident. Woe is not fully defined until perfect weal makes it apparent. In this sense, when God brings weal into people’s lives, He also creates or exposes the woe in their lives.
The material world God has created is a shadow, type, or symbol of the spiritual world. The Lord, God, Himself is the spiritual—unseen, but more real than physical—light who is the source of shalom or weal within the human soul. It’s also true that when His Spirit enlightens the human spirit, mind, heart desires, and emotions, He also causes the ra or woe in us and in the world around us to be exposed.
Because it can be painful to see these things in us or in the world, humans tend to hide or deny them. Another human inclination, when confronted with sin or evil within or around us (especially in those we love), is to blame others or circumstances. But by doing these things people perpetuate the ra or woe and diminish or extinguish the shalom or weal in their own lives and the lives of those their lives touch.
This is not God’s intent for us. He is compassionate, empathetic, good, and kind. He created humankind for weal. However, a person cannot undo evil spoken or done; the consequences are like a ripple in a pond with death and separation from God and others being the end result. God cannot diminish the seriousness of wrongdoing without being unjust to someone Himself. But He has worked out a singular way to resolve this dilemma.
He has revealed this way, along with reaffirming the truth of who He is, so people might desire to turn back to Him and His light. The Way is illuminated in myriad forms through direct words, stories, symbols, types, and examples in the miraculously preserved Old and New Testaments of the Bible record.
The entire Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, points to the mission and work of One, Jesus Christ, and our individual and collective human need for redemption through Him from sin or separation from God (as well as others) and physical death. Jesus is the One God promised to send, and He did. He is the One who unites the material and spiritual realms for us, so we can see God, His purposes, and His way as clearly as is humanly possible; and so we can receive His light. Jesus, Himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Through Jesus, or God’s Word in the Bible, He has made it clear that He created people for weal, not woe; but it’s also evident it’s His will people remain free to choose. When people resist or reject God and His Word, it enables them to avoid the pain of exposure, but it also deprives them of receiving the shalom or good God intends for them to have.
God knows exposure is hard for us. He doesn’t give or allow more than we can endure. It’s not His intent that we are or remain in pain or anguish of soul. Through Jesus and His Spirit, He’s made a way He can tenderly, yet firmly, help and guide us. In His way, He can walk alongside us and be with us through our difficulties; and He can be endlessly merciful as we need it. In this way, He can assure us He also feels our pain—and our joy. He hurts and grieves with us, but also comforts us, and even rejoices with us when we have entered into the (narrow) way with Him. His end goal is to bring us into the full light of His Presence to dwell with Him forever in His Kingdom of light.
At the beginning of this year, our home-church group started an unusual study. It was disconcerting to realize that our study—which was so spiritually enriching and full of light for me—would be considered disgusting and offensive by many, many people. What was so potentially censurable about it? Only that it was a study to better understand a major book of the Old Testament.
Just a mention of the Old Testament triggers an unwarranted but real, negative reaction in a lot of people. More people “put up with” the New Testament, but God and the whole Bible are becoming increasingly unpopular—in the Western world especially. It’s troubling because this trend is affecting our society, economy, politics, and relationships in general on many levels. It leaves people unwittingly accepting and living in and even supporting undifferentiated evil and destruction.
The most disturbing thing about this current revulsion toward God and His Word is that it stems from an intentional choice. There is an unprecedented willingness in a large majority of people to readily adopt popular, seemingly enlightened, but truly ignorant, unjust assumptions and presuppositions about the existence and nature of God and the purpose and veracity of the Bible. There is a deliberate turning from and hardening of hearts toward God and anything or anyone connected with Him. There are echoes of the dialogue between the Serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden in it.
This antipathy or repulsion is a sign of something much deeper and darker at work than is generally understood. In electing this perspective, people are unknowingly, but of their own volition, setting themselves up against their own and societal weal. For this reason, undifferentiated woe is increasing in their own lives and the world.
Only the truth about the Lord, God through the lens of Jesus Christ can reverse this trend. May the Lord’s light shine, and may weal increase, and woe decrease on the earth!
 See: https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Isaiah%2045:7  “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day” (Gen. 1:3-5).  See Ps. 18:28; 118:27a; Dan. 5:11, 14; John 1:1-9; 3:21; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 1:5; Rev. 21:23