When God called Isaiah (Isaiah 6)

    Isaiah 6 is a great intro on how to read the Prophets. God explains what a prophet is and what a prophet does.

    To discover what a prophet is, chat to one. How were they called? What was God calling them to do?

    Isaiah gives us that conversation. It all started with the death of the Davidic king who had reigned well for 50 years (2 Chronicles 26). What would happen now?

    Isaiah 6:1 (NIV)
    In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

    Wow, this is who has the throne! The undying ruler is seated on the throne, in the royal palace his people had prepared for him in Jerusalem.

    Actually, God doesn’t fit in the house. Merely the edge of his robe fills the temple. It’s like Solomon said, “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)

    In the most devoted chamber of God’s house, the ark was the throne they’d provided for their heavenly sovereign, inviting the God of Israel to sit enthroned between the cherubim (Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 80:1). Realistically, the ark was more of a footstool on earth for the one who reigns in the heavens (Psalm 132:7; Isaiah 66:1).

    As you’d expect, the Lord of heaven’s hosts is attended by other-worldly servants who draw attention to his majesty:

    Isaiah 6:2-4
    2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
    3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
    4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

    It’s his character they comment on. Holy means devoted. Holy things were set aside (devoted) for specific tasks. The Holy One of Israel is the one devoted to Israel. Isaiah loves that name (1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:6 … twenty-six times!) YHWH’s devotion to them is the covenant relationship they live in.

    But what about the other side of the relationship? How devoted was God’s nation to their heavenly sovereign?  Who they say they are doesn’t match who he is.

    Isaiah 6:5-7
    5 “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.”
    6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

    The revelation of who God is makes us aware of our need. Despite our sense of inadequacy and failure, the Holy One remains committed to his people. He designed the covenant with provisions to maintain the relationship. God reconciles (atones), enabling his people to speak for him.

    That is the point of the covenant relationship. God’s nation represents him to the nations, embodying the revelation of the heavenly sovereign in his earthly realm. That’s the prophetic calling of God’s people.

    And that’s the specific commission God gave Isaiah:

    Isaiah 6:8
    Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

    Isaiah now knows his identity. He’s appointed to convey the word of the Holy One of Israel to his nation. He’s a spokesman for the throne. That’s what a prophet is.

    But God’s people often ignore their heavenly sovereign. Being his spokesman is therefore an incredibly frustration commission:

    Isaiah 6:9-10
    9 He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 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.”

    The more God speaks to them, the less they listen. Every prophet faced this frustration. Including Jesus (Matthew 13:13-15).

    Isaiah asks how long he must persist with a job that feels so pointless. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result—isn’t that madness? How long do you cultivate a land that yields no fruit?

    Isaiah 6:11-13
    11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
    And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, 12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.
    13 And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

    In the years ahead, Isaiah saw the devastation of the land. Assyria captured most of it, leaving only Judah. Babylon captured what remained, destroying God’s house and cutting off the Davidic kings who represented his reign. They lost everything.

    This is the tragic context for Isaiah’s prophetic ministry:

    • Isaiah 7:17 introduces the Assyrian threat. It would have been the end of Judah too if King Hezekiah had not called on the name of the Lord. That story is retold in Isaiah 37–39 (almost a repeat of 2 Kings 19–20).
    • Isaiah 39:6 introduces the Babylonian threat. From Isaiah 40 onwards, God’s nation has died and his people are under foreign rule. How will God rescue them and reign over them again? Isaiah 40–66 contain amazing insights into the restoration of God’s reign in his anointed.

    The commission God gave Isaiah was frustrating, but not hopeless. The nation would fall like a tree, leaving nothing but a stump in the land. But God said the stump wasn’t dead:
    The holy seed will be in the stump in the land (6:13).

    Isaiah will speak of a branch shooting from the stump. A descendant from David’s family will be raised up as God’s anointed, restoring heaven’s reign to the earth, bringing justice and peace for all people (Isaiah 11).

    In the end, Isaiah reveals the Holy One of Israel as sovereign over the whole earth, restoring all things (Isaiah 65). The one whom Isaiah saw on the throne of the Jerusalem temple declares, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (66:1).


    So, what is a prophet? Isaiah’s call tells us: a prophet delivers a message from the one who has the throne, calling his people to live under his leadership as the people who make the heavenly sovereign known on the earth.

    Isaiah proclaimed the Lord’s kingship in the frustrating times when the kingdom that represented God’s reign was falling apart. That’s the context of Isaiah 1–39: the time of the divided kingdom (Israel and Judah), during the reign of the kings named in Isaiah 1:1.

    Then there’s another context for Isaiah 40–66. Israel and Judah have both fallen. Exiled and under foreign rule, God’s people were no longer a nation under heaven’s throne. Yet the prophet proclaims good news: God is king over the whole earth. The proclamation of God’s throne — the restoration of God’s reign — that is the gospel!

    In our next post we’ll take a high-level survey of Isaiah, seeing how the call of Isaiah unfolds into a message of good news, despite the frustration.

    What others are saying

    Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings, The Bible Speaks Today (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 58-61:

    Chapter 6 towers like a majestic peak over the surrounding terrain and is clearly of central importance for the message of the book. It was in this encounter with the Lord that Isaiah’s understanding of both God and his own mission was crystalized. …

    In the implied contrast between King Uzziah (1) and ‘the King, the Lord Almighty’ (5), we are taken at once to the central theme of the chapter (divine kingship) and the root problem underlying Israel’s failure (trust in mere humans rather than trust in the Lord, cf. 2:22). …

    As well as giving us an awesome view of God, this chapter provides us with a succinct portrait of his servant Isaiah. He was a man with a big vision of God (1), a deep awareness of his own sinfulness (5), a profound experience of the grace of God (7), and a willingness to spend and be spent in his service, whatever the cost (8). May God help us to be more like him.

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