“Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and shrewd in their own sight." (Isaiah 5:20-21)
The world is never as clear or direct as we imagine it to be. We have a habit of thinking that facts are facts, and that truth is mostly obvious. But that is not often the case because we are always engaging in interpretation. We might say that "interpretation" is the skill of deriving meaning from something. To put it another way, take the two examples: "Jack fell and needs help!" and "my baby is crying." If there is no meaning behind those words, then Jack and the baby don’t get the help they need. “Help” is the meaning here, the thing to which the statements hope to occasion. And that meaning is derived from facts—there is a Jack, a baby, Jack has fallen, the baby is crying, etc. This is not rocket science. But what I want us to observe is that even seeing the facts as facts requires an interpretive skill. In other words, "facts" are not obvious; they are often debated, and saying something is a fact doesn't make it so (just as denying something is a fact does not make it so).
In Isaiah, some people so stretch the truth of the facts that they completely misnarrate the world. The real problem Isaiah identifies is renaming. The renamers are creating their own meaning (the meaning they want) by twisting the facts. It's the sort of thing that people hate in the worse kind of politicians and lawyers. You can justify anything if you want to with some creative definitions. Isaiah speaks "woes" over these people because they are undermining God's truth and endangering the society they are part of. A few verses later, Isaiah will add a comment about these people, "they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel" (v. 24).
What's at stake here is who has the authority to speak the truth? None of us can become purists and fail to engage in interpretation. Every word, every art form, every intention—all the outside world gets processed into our interiority via the process of interpretation. That's just the way our brains and language work. But we also don't interpret in a vacuum. Our culture, upbringing, struggles, education, status, and so on work to produce patterns in the way we “see” the world. We interpret communally just as much as we do individually. As we move through life, we interpret and derive meaning so quickly that often we are unaware of the cultural forces at work in us and allow us to move through life "making sense" of it. How can we have confidence that we could ever be in touch with the truth in such a situation? How would we know when good might be bad and darkness, light or sweet as bitter? Isaiah's condemnation of these truth spinners infers their success at relativizing everything. Woe to them because they make deceit matter. These spinners are influential; they are, in a sense, successful. And that means that when good becomes bad and sweet becomes bitter, and it may not be so obvious why up is not down. All of us can and are deceived. So, what are we to do? Can we really ever know the truth as truth?
Only a relationship with God, one that continually listens to his voice, will pierce the darkness of lies. "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free," Jesus says. Freedom is the opposite of woe-dom. We must remind ourselves and teach our children that God's voice is the voice that matters. He tells us right from wrong, good from bad, and real from unreal. We go to church, we pray and read the Bible because we want to be good listeners. We are not listening in order to become smug people who revel in our grasp of the truth. Instead, we listen so that we can set others free from the bondage of lies. Every lie traces its origin to Satan. Every truth is established by God. Let us pray that God teaches us how to be good listeners to his Word, and let us rejoice in the truth about who God is, what He is doing, and what he had done for us. This means that "facts" are ultimately judged by how they align with what God says—not with our perception of reality. After all, perception is a form of subjectivity. That's a problematic philosophical idea to grasp, but philosophy aside, all it means is that God gets to be the one who says what is true. "Truth" in this understanding is a person, it is God himself, and "facts" become the substantive reality that relates to and finds existence in the work and truth of God.
That is why, though the world hates it, the righteous live by faith. They live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. As Luther's catechism so rightly says over and over, "This is most certainly true." It is true because God said it, and that is where why we can always trust God's words.