Responding to God’s Call

Isaiah 6

General Introduction

The “prophetic” books of the Bible, especially the “Major Prophets,” are chock full of both theology and practical aspects of living righteous lives.  Most Christians assume that the “prophetic” books are all about predicting the future, specifically our future.  While large portions of all the prophetic books concern the future, they most often foretell the future of either Israel or Judah, not the future of America or the Christian church.  In fact, many of the prophecies recorded in Scripture have already come to pass, being fulfilled in the history of the Jewish people and the surrounding nations.  However, that being said, there are some astounding passages of prophecy yet to be fulfilled.

The role of the prophet in ancient Israel and Judah must be understood if their works are to be appreciated.  The prophet was more often than not a preacher of righteousness—a forthteller of the Word of God, not a foreteller of future events.   It is unfortunate that this side of their writing gets overlooked, because there is much to learn from their writing about the kind of life that pleases God.

Introduction to Isaiah

The book that bears Isaiah’s name is massive; it is the third longest book in the Bible.  Only Jeremiah and Psalms are longer, although Psalms is not considered a single literary entity but rather a collection of separate, shorter units.

Isaiah is somewhat of an anomaly; it is both very familiar yet neglected at the same time.  Some chapters and verses are among the most familiar passages of the Old Testament; the calling of Isaiah, the “Christmas” prophecies, and the “suffering servant” chapters, for example, are parts most of us know well.  But there are large portions of the book that are unknown and unread and seemingly mysterious.

The prophet Isaiah is regarded as the foremost “Major Prophet.”  Of all of Israel’s inspired messengers, he is viewed as most significant.  He was a skilled writer and speaker; his long ministry was timely and far-reaching in its influence.  His name properly means “the Eternal One is Salvation,” that was the frequent theme of his teachings and sermons.

The historical context of Isaiah is to be found in 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 26—32.  He prophesied in Jerusalem during the reigns of Uzziah, Johtham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  Tradition, not history, suggests that he the vile king Manassah had the prophet killed.

A native of Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom, Isaiah was born around 760 BC into a fairly influential family of some rank.  Again, tradition tells us that he was a cousin of King Uzziah, although he seems to have been very familiar with and a close confidant to many of the nation’s leaders.  Isaiah’s ministry lasted a lifetime, beginning in his early youth and ending his old age.  He lived and ministered within miles of his birthplace and is considered to be a statesman without equal among the prophets.

Because of Isaiah’s tact and wisdom, Kings were saved from implementing suicidal policies because of his timely intervention and discernment.  His faith alone was a major source of encouragement to the population of his hometown of Jerusalem and the salvation of Judah.

1.  Standing in awe of God’s majesty, 6:1—4

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6 is not necessarily the beginning of Isaiah’s work as a prophet.  Note the very beginning of his book—

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.  (1:1)

Clearly, the man had a prophetic ministry that spanned Uzziah’s lifetime.  This is highly suggestive; here was Isaiah, doing the work of the Lord faithfully, when a vision of God in all His splendor and majesty completely transformed him, opening the door to an even greater and deeper spiritual life and ministry.  There is never a time in a believer’s life when “they have arrived!”  We never stop learning about and growing in our faith.  The greatest Bible scholar can never plumb the depths of the majesty of God.  No matter how much we think we know about God or how much fellowship we have with Him, there is always so much more about Himself God desires to reveal to us.

(a)  The context

Uzziah was under a death sentence.  His whole story is recounted in 2 Chronicles 26 and 2 Kings 14:1—22 where he is known by another name, Azariah.  King Uzziah, early in his life and career, was close to the Lord, influenced greatly by another prophet, Zechariah.  God blessed the King with prosperity and success, but as is so often the case, those things became more important to the King than God.  In his pride, and defying the priests, Uzziah barged into the Temple of God to burn incense, and as a result of this presumptuous action, he was struck with leprosy, that ultimately separated him from the rest of his family.  In fact,  his condition got so bad toward the end of his life that his son became the real power behind the throne while he lived in exile.

It was a time of great crisis and transition in Judah; the people, and especially the prophet were very disillusioned; all the hopes they had for Judah seemed to be dissipating, despite the outward prosperity of the nation, inwardly it was seething with corruption.  The future of the nation was in question and a horrific earthquake that occurred at this time only served to drive home the possibility of divine judgment in the mind of the young prophet.

Against this backdrop, Isaiah experiences his life-changing vision.

(b)  Jaw-dropping holiness

We have no idea how many seraphs Isaiah saw.  “Seraphim” means “burning ones,” as opposed to “cherubim,” meaning “shining ones.”  Curiously, this is the only time seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament.  Unworthy to look upon God, these angels covered their faces and their feet in His presence.  In addition to these acts of reverence, they voiced the trisagion, the three-fold ascription of holiness to God.  Some commentators see “holy, holy, holy” as applying to the Trinity.  In light of the New Testament, the repetition of “holy” seems only to emphasize the theme of God’s complete holiness, a vitally important aspect in the writing of Isaiah.  The young prophet would never forget what he saw in this vision.

What is frequently missed in these verses is that God’s transcendent holiness does not separate Him from the rest of Creation or make Him aloof and remote.  His holiness was experienced in His presence, not from a distance.  Some time later, Isaiah would collect his thoughts and write this stunning verse—

Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.  (12:6)

God’s holiness may be awesome, frightening, it may inspire feelings of unworthiness, but it does not keep God from His children and it does not exclude them from living in His presence.

2.  Made right for service, 6:5—7

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”   Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Some Christians mistakenly think that anybody who sees God dies.  This is not at all what the Bible teaches.  Only the holy see God and live—

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  (Matthew 5:8)

Before Isaiah could preach against the sin of his people, he first had to be brought face-to-face with the sin in his own life.  Any person who is in God’s presence cannot help but become deeply aware of their own shortcomings.  This is not a bad thing, however; it is the first necessary step of cleansing and empowerment for service, as Isaiah found out.

(a)  Seeing himself as God sees him

Isaiah was a product of both his people and his time.  A man in the presence of God is made aware of his own nothingness, but a man with “unclean lips” is literally “struck dumb” (literal Hebrew).  He was unworthy to say to God, “holy, holy, holy” just as his people were, for the prophet was representative of his society.  The power of verse 5 is so simple that is lost in the grandeur its setting.  In order to be effective in serving God, the Word of God must not only be on our lips but in our hearts.

Was Isaiah a foul-mouthed man?  Probably not, but he was tainted by the sins of his people, just as all men are tainted by sin by virtue of living in a sinful world.  Every one of us should desire this kind of life-changing encounter with the Almighty.  Remember, Isaiah was already well into his prophetic ministry by this time.  He was a man of God, devoted to the Lord in every way.  Yet he needed this experience to move him into deeper realms of spirituality.  If Isaiah needed this, how much more does the average Christian?

(b)  God’s cleansing solution

God demands purity of life and holiness in those who serve Him.  He makes this impossible demand achievable by doing it for us, as he did for the prophet.  God provided cleansing from the sacrificial altar in the form of a fiery hot coal.  The symbolism cannot be missed; it was on the sacrificial altar of the Cross that the Son of God not only secured our salvation, but made a way for us to live pure and holy lives through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us.

When the Holy Spirit initially filled the Church, He appeared, not as a dove as He did when He filled Jesus, but rather in the form of tongues of fire.  It is not until a person has received their own “baptism by fire” that they can join in with the “burning ones,” the seraphs, in praise and worship of God.

3.  Commissioned to serve, 6:8—13

This group of verses is interesting because it presents a controversial Biblical doctrine in a very balanced way.  For God to redeem His people, He needed an instrument, and only one of their own would do.  In verse 8, the prophet is permitted a rare privilege; to listen in on the deliberative counsel of the Godhead—

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (8a)

Verses 9 and 10 are strongly predestinarian and yet in verse 8 we see Isaiah’s part in the plan.  God’s pre-ordained plan and man’s responsibility work hand-in-glove!  The prophet was not forced into service; his willingness to serve was based on his reaction to God’s forgiving grace.

(a)  A bad message

If we read what Isaiah is to tell his people, it’s amazing he still wanted the job!  Imagine being told that the very people you are to talk to would not only disregard your message but that message would harden their hearts!

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (verse 10)

The Word of God, which Isaiah will deliver, must be received and loved by those who hear it in order for it to be understood.  God’s description of the people denotes those who are spiritually insensitive; those who do not love the Word of the Lord.  These very words find a NT application; they were quoted by in each of the Gospels in relation to the rejection of Christ.  Interestingly, each reference is made in connection with the parable of the Sower, which teaches the general failure of people to accept and respond to the Word of God in the proper fashion.  It is not the Word of God that hardens their hearts, it is the continual response of the people that hardens their hearts.

Isaiah, sensing perhaps that his commission may be more than he bargained for, does what most of us would:  he asks a question—

Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” (verse 11a)

That is surely an appropriate question to ask!  God’s answer, however, is startling.  Isaiah’s people will, essentially, never respond to the Word of God.  Isaiah’s commission would last as long as the people’s rejection of God would last:  until Jerusalem is destroyed.

These verses speak of an event yet to occur in Isaiah’s time, but it has already passed into Hebrew history.  Historically, this judgment is seen in the devastation wreaked on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Empire.  On three separate occasions, he invaded, plundered, destroyed the city, and deported the citizens.  With the last wave of invasion, the annihilation of Jerusalem was complete, bringing Isaiah’s words to fruition.  The reward for their insensitivity to the Word of God was a 70-year captivity.

With verse 13, Isaiah injects a glimmer of hope—

But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.

Even if a tiny part of the nation remains, it too would have to be burnt out, like the stump of a terebinth tree when it is chopped down.  Though seemingly wiped out by their enemies as punishment for their sins, God’s people will survive; there will always be a Messianic hope.  Out of the stump would come forth a holy aftergrowth; a remnant of believers referred to here as “the holy seed.”  And from the remnant, God’s promise to David will be fulfilled—

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears;

but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.  Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.  (Isaiah 11:1—5).

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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