The Desolation of Self-Indulgence

The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant."
-Isaiah 5:9 (ESV)

This verse is an indictment from God on some of the large houses and the people who own them.  Some of these houses that were large and beautiful, will become empty and in desolation.  Desolation means ruined, appalling, horrible, destroyed, and wasted.  Desolation is also astonishing.

Prophets have visions they write down that require taking a picture and putting it into words.  Here we have direct words, from God, that came to the prophet's ears.  These words of outrage are ringing in Isaiah's ears.

We usually look at large houses with curiosity and a bit of jealousy.  We think of how good it would be if we were living there.  But, in Isaiah's day, God told him that many houses were in trouble because of the sins of the people who owned them.

People who were at least supposed to be part of the community of God, who were supposed to be monotheists; living before God and walking in an ethical, charitable life of loving one's neighbor; were instead living in self-indulgence.

In his book on Isaiah, John Goldingay wrote, "the problem is the self-indulgence involved in the acquisition, as people (stupidly) create for themselves lonely estates around lonely property instead of gladly sharing with others" (1).

God was exposing the folly and tragedy of self indulgence.  The man who builds bigger grain towers, just for the sake of bigger, is called a fool by Jesus (Luke 12:13-21); because the man's heart was set on 'bigger', rather than generosity flowing from a life of worship.

J. Alec Motyer wrote, "The OT does not condemn or despise wealth but appraises how it was acquired and how it is used" (2).

If real estate acquisition (or anything else) is a higher priority for you than God, than being a disciple and taking up your cross daily and allowing Christ's resurrection life to flow through you, then you are in trouble.

Walter Brueggeman wrote (3) about what was going on with people having these large and beautiful houses, that God was going to judge.  Nothing is wrong with beautiful houses or owning a farm, a factory, or a gold mine.  There was a big problem with the hearts and actions of the owners.  God does not have an issue with wealth, but how you attained wealth and how you use wealth, or how wealth owns you:
"an anticipated lament for those who will come to grief for an inequitable economic practice in which those who are prosperous, aggressive, and greedy eventually confiscate and possess the houses and fields of their more vulnerable neighbors... In prophetic usage this warning does not pertain to particular acts of greed but a general economic policy and frame of reference whereby big landowners buy up and crowd out small farmers in what we might now term agribusiness.  This economic procedure, which destroys the neighborly fabric of the community, apparently was  wide-spread in eighth century Judah and was regarded by the prophets as a grave violation of Yahwism.  They insisted that Yahweh had a stake in maintaining small-scale farming and in resisting large concentrations of land and wealth...
   ...The accumulation and concentration of land, produce, and wealth considered in the first woe invites inordinate self-regard and self-indulgence.  Such foolishly gotten and foolishly used wealth tends to desensitize.  In this case, the woe warns those who become insensitive to the workings of Yahweh in their very midst.  And because this woe stands between mention of "justice" in verse 7 and 16, we may surmise that as the self-indulgent disregard Yahweh, so they likewise disregard their neighbor.  They see and care only for themselves...
   ...The severe and solemn response of Yahweh to this betrayal of Yahwistic neighborliness is twofold (vv. 9-10).  It is anticipated that many "large and beautiful houses," emblems of rapacious economic policy, will be desolate...Thus the threat of Yahweh matches the affront: The big, avarcious landowners intended to become rich and prosperous at the expense of their neighbors, but their own actions and policies would leave them diminished.
There is a good reason why the command against coveting is in the ten commandments.  It is the tenth of the ten and wraps them up:
“You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.”
-Exodus 20:17
Covet means, "yearn to posses or have".  Adam and Eve yearned to posses the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6).  It is the same Hebrew word.  Coveting means that we want something so bad that we take it, in our minds.

Those who take and steal think about taking and stealing long before they do it.  It is the same with adulterers.  People do not suddenly, out of the blue, commit adultery.  They think about it for a long time.  They mull it over and they do it in their minds a thousand times.  That is why God says, "do not covet", and that is why Jesus says that we murder and commit adultery, in our hearts.  It is in the hidden heart where sin begins and must be immediately stopped.

We live in a culture where coveting is the norm.  We want what others have that we perceive is better than what we have.

Martin Luther wrote about covetousness. Wikipedia summarizes him:
"the tenth commandment is not intended for the rogues of the world, but for the pious, who wish to be praised and considered as honest and upright people, because they have not broken any of the outward commandments. Luther sees covetousness in the quarreling and wrangling in court over inheritances and real estate. He sees covetousness in financiering practiced in a manner to obtain houses, castles, and land through foreclosure."

The way of God is to love your neighbor (Lev. 19:18, Matt. 22:39), and to be generous (2 Cor. 9:8-11, Prov. 11:24-5, 1 Tim. 6:18, Psalm 112:9).

Covetousness is a symptom of a life not rooted in the love of God.

Without God, we are idolaters.  We make idols of things, people, and our selves.  Woe to the so-called people of God, who live a life with their own self-indulgence at the center.  That is the message of Isaiah 5:9.

1. Understanding Isaiah, John Goldingay; p. 53
2. Isaiah, J. Alec Motyer; p. 70
3. Isaiah, Vol. 1, Walter Brueggemann; pp. 52-3