Woe means “grief, anguish, affliction, wretchedness, calamity, or trouble.” The Dictionary of Bible Themes categorizes the uses of the word woe in the Bible: “Woe as an exclamation of judgment on others,” “Woe as an exclamation of misfortune on oneself,” “Woe as an exclamation of sadness over others,” and “Woe may give way to forgiveness, comfort, and deliverance” (Manser, M., ed., Zondervan, 1999).
Sometimes in the Bible, the suffering person has brought about his or her own woeful condition as a natural result of foolish choices (see Proverbs 23:29–30). More often, woe is tied to sin and rebellion against God, and the resulting judgments are referred to as “woes.” In Matthew 23, Jesus pronounces seven “woes” on the hypocrites of His day; in Revelation, a group of God’s final judgments on mankind are called the three “woes.”
Dr. John MacArthur examines Jesus’ use of woe in the Bible: “In His castigation of the false Jewish leaders, Jesus repeatedly used two words, woe, and hypocrites” (emphasis is the author’s). MacArthur goes on to say, “But Jesus used Woe against the scribes and Pharisees not as an exclamation but as a declaration, a divine pronouncement of judgment from God. . . . As was already noted, it was not His desire that they be condemned but rather that they repent and come to salvation. But He knew that if they did not repent and believe they were doomed to hell under God’s righteous and just wrath. When God utters Woe against evil men He sets divine judgment in motion” (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16—23, ch. 35, Moody Publishers, 1988, p. 375).
The fiery language of the Old Testament uses the word woe in several passages of judgment. For example, in Ezekiel 16:23–27, we read of God’s anger toward Jerusalem over their idolatry: “Woe! Woe to you, declares the Lord GOD” (verse 26). In 1 Samuel 4:6–8, we see that even pagans feared the presence of God and the woes that He could bring upon them: “And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, ‘What does the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?’ Then they understood that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, ‘God has come into the camp!’ And they said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. Woe to us! Who will save us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness’” (NASB). Hosea, Zephaniah, Habakkuk, and many other prophets pronounced woe against sinful people (Hosea 7:13; Zephaniah 2:5; Habakkuk 2:15).
Job understood that sin leads to woe: “If I am guilty—woe to me!” (Job 10:15). And in this we see the way to avoid woe: be forgiven. The Bible says that forgiveness of sin comes through Jesus Christ. By Jesus’ death and resurrection God cleanses guilty sinners and declares them to be righteous in His sight. The command is to repent and believe in Christ (Matthew 4:17; Acts 16:31). “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Hard times may come in this life, but the one who has faith in Christ will never know the eternal woe of God’s judgment.