Isaiah, a willing prophet

Title:Isaiah, a willing prophet

Aim:To answer God’s call to serve.

Scripture:Isaiah 6:1–12


Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room, Isaiah 6:1–4


Isaiah 6 is the prophet’s record of how he heard and responded to God’s call to serve. At first, it may seem odd that Isaiah’s commission to prophesy does not come until after five chapters of oracles. 


These chapters deal with such themes as judgment, discipline, exile, restoration, and blessing. Yet, Isaiah placed his commissioning account here to prove he had the credentials to deliver the opening series of oracles against Judah. 


God dramatically called Isaiah to his prophetic ministry “in the year that King Uzziah died” (v. 1), namely, 740 B.C. Uzziah (or Azariah) was a monarch of Judah, and he helped restore the nation to some of its former glory. 


Second Chronicles 26:4 notes that Uzziah’s obedience was pleasing to God. Uzziah extended Judah’s territory and brought the nation to a time of great prosperity. 


In the south, Uzziah maintained control over Edom and rebuilt port facilities at Elath on the Gulf of Aqaba. To the west, Uzziah warred against the Philistines, seizing several cities. Uzziah also apparently defeated and subdued the Ammonites (vv. 6-8). 


Because of Uzziah’s political and economic successes, many people in Judah flourished economically. Yet, regrettably, the wicked rich exploited the poor through extortion and injustice. The unparalleled prosperity diverted many from worshipping the Creator and obeying His laws. 


The era of high living came to a crashing halt with the death of Uzziah. He remained leprous until his death because he tried to usurp the high priest’s duties (vv. 18-21). Uzziah’s death meant that his successors would be Jotham (750–735 B.C.) and then eventually Ahaz (735–715 B.C.), both known for their morally weak dispositions. 


The loss of a beloved national leader such as Uzziah and the unsettled situation it created in the royal palace undoubtedly affected Isaiah at the start of his ministry. People looked for security amid change. Meanwhile, God summoned Isaiah to arouse them from their spiritual apathy and wickedness.


The prophet said he “saw the Lord” (Isa. 6:1). The spokesperson did not physically see God’s innermost nature with the naked eye. Rather, Isaiah was able to perceive the Creator in visible form seated upon a heavenly throne with the hem, or fringe, of His robe filling the celestial temple. 


The above description expresses the overwhelming presence of God as both King and Judge over the entire cosmos. Isaiah’s lofty view of the Creator gives us a sense of the Lord’s greatness, mystery, and power. 


God used Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne room to commission him as the Lord’s messenger to His people. Isaiah was given a difficult assignment. He had to tell people who believed they were blessed by God and exempt from His judgment, that instead He was going to destroy them because of their disobedience.


Accompanying the Creator were “seraphs” (v. 2). These were spiritual beings who served as God’s attendants. 


The meaning of “seraphs” is “burning ones,” which suggests these creatures had a fiery appearance. Evidently, these were immensely bright creatures, even though they had to hide their faces before God’s infinitely brighter light. Nowhere else are seraphs mentioned in the Old Testament. 


Two of the angels’ wings covered their faces in reverence and awe before the Lord. Because the seraphs had no glory to compare with that belonging to God, they could not look on Him directly. 


Two of the seraphs’ wings covered their feet, which suggests lowliness. They remained humble before the Creator, even though they engaged in divine service. The seraphs’ final two wings were used to fly, which signifies that they existed to do God’s bidding.


Drawn against the backdrop of Judah’s sin and Isaiah’s personal needs, the Almighty’s infinite holiness came through powerfully in the prophet’s vision. The Lord was the central focus of this heavenly throne room scene. 


That is why the angels lauded God with the thunderous chorus, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lordof armies” (v. 3). The threefold repetition was the strongest way in the Hebrew language to emphasize that nothing is as absolutely holy as the Creator of the universe. 


The basic meaning of “holy” is to be set apart from that which is commonplace. The word also refers to what is special or unique. 


That the entire earth is filled with God’s glory emphasizes the cosmic perspective of Isaiah’s prophecies. He would proclaim that the Lord reigns supreme over all creation and that His salvation and judgment encompass all nations. 


First, God’s regal position is the basis for His moral authority as the transcendent and sovereign Judge.         Second, God’s holy character establishes the ethical standard for upright conduct and gives Him the right to decree to humankind how they should behave (Rom 3:23). 


Third, the Creator’s infinite holiness is the basis for people worshiping Him. Indeed, God’s holiness is the theme of worship in heaven (Rev. 4:8). 


Often in the Old Testament, phenomena such as earthquakes, smoke, fire, and lightning accompany a manifestation of God. Isaiah 6:4 notes that the thunderous chorus of the seraphs caused the foundations of the celestial temple to be shaken. Also, smoke filled the entire heavenly sanctuary. 


The Hebrew noun rendered “smoke” possibly reflects the cloud of God’s glory that filled the tabernacle, which Moses had built in the wilderness (Exod. 40:34). Both the shaking and the smoke that Isaiah described were manifestations of the Creator’s holiness, especially as it related to judgment.


Isaiah’s commission, Isaiah 6:5–12


Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord seated on His celestial throne proved to be a life-changing experience for the prophet. First, God’s presence made Isaiah realize the depth of his sinfulness. Second, seeing the seraphs humbly covering themselves before the Creator must have reminded the prophet of his moral imperfection. 


The preceding emphases are reflected in the Hebrew noun rendered “woe” (Isa. 6:5). This interjection conveys feelings of intense sorrow and distress. When the prophet exclaimed that he was “ruined,” he made it seem as if his destruction had already occurred. 


Isaiah could have made excuses, pleaded for mercy, or fallen back on his pious deeds. Yet, he did none of these things. Instead, he fully accepted God’s judgment. After all, Isaiah knew that what he had seen and heard left him feeling totally helpless and hopeless before the Lord.


Isaiah confessed that he and his people were guilty of “unclean lips.” While this possibly included uttering vulgar language, most likely Isaiah had something else in mind. The people’s lips were instruments of religious hypocrisy and false professions of faith in the Creator. 


Isaiah was careful to include himself in this withering accusation. Even though he did not have to confess the sins of his people, he did so anyway.


First, Isaiah realized his need for the Lord to cleanse and purge the prophet of his wrongdoings. Second, Isaiah needed his lips purified so that he could praise the Lord with the seraphs and declare God’s message to the people. 


Isaiah reported seeing “the King, the Lordof armies” (Isa. 6:5). The depiction is one of a divine Warrior who commanded the legions of heaven and earth. The impression is that the Creator remained in absolute control of the planet and its inhabitants.


Upon Isaiah’s confession of his sinfulness, a seraph flew over him with a hot coal that had been taken from the celestial altar (v. 6). This coal symbolized the redeeming power of God to purge and forgive sins. 


Next, when the angel touched Isaiah’s lips with the coal, both his iniquity and guilt were removed. Also, the prophet’s sin was forgiven (v. 7).


Admittedly, the coal did not atone for Isaiah’s transgressions. Rather, the Creator pardoned His spokesperson in anticipation of offering a future sacrifice, namely, the Messiah in His redemptive work on the cross (Rom. 4:25-26). In turn, Isaiah’s purification served to prepare him for his upcoming ministry as the Lord’s messenger.


God saw that the people of Judah refused to follow His ways. So, He wanted someone to tell them about their need for change and to warn them about what to expect. The Lord chose Isaiah for this job, and he willingly accepted the assignment. 


God asked whom He would send to proclaim His judgment oracle (Isa. 6:8). There are several views about the identity of “us” in this verse.


One option would be a reference to the Trinity. A second possibility is that God was addressing His question to the angelic beings in His royal court.


In any case, it’s clear how Isaiah responded. Though shortly before he felt unfit to serve God as a prophet, now Isaiah was eager. He wanted to go wherever the Creator directed.


Now God proceeded to give Isaiah the core of the message he was to deliver to the people. Surprisingly, Isaiah was to tell them that they would hear the truth without understanding it and would see the truth without perceiving it (v. 9). Isaiah’s face must have fallen in disappointment when he heard this. 


We can imagine Isaiah anticipated hearing that the Creator would use the prophet to lead Judah to repentance. Yet, instead, the Lord informed Isaiah that his ministry would have little positive spiritual impact. In fact, the people’s hearts would become even more hardened against God. 


Isaiah’s prophecy would do the following (v. 10): first, it would cause the peoples’ hearts to become further calloused; second, it would dull their spiritual hearing; and third, it would cloud their spiritual vision. 


Certainly, God is displeased when people reject His truth. He wants all sinners to turn to Him in faith and be spiritually healed. Yet, the Creator knew in advance that Isaiah’s message would have a hardening effect on the hearts of most of the people, just as the sun hardens moist clay.


God’s summons of Isaiah to render the hearts of the people unresponsive might seem puzzling to us. After all, why would the Lord prevent His people from responding favorably to His pronouncements through Isaiah? 


The answer is that the people had consistently rebelled against the Creator. The people had also become stubborn in their thinking and obdurate in their hearts.


During the final 10 years of Uzziah’s life, his son, Jotham, ruled in Uzziah’s place. Jotham excelled in honoring the Lord, and the time of prosperity continued (2 Chron. 26:21; 27:1-6). Yet, as noted earlier, Scripture tells us that despite the leadership of these two godly kings, their subjects persisted in their evil ways (27:2). 


After the death of Uzziah (or Azariah), and following the reign of his son, Jotham, Ahaz came to power. During his rule, Judah pivoted completely away from God (2 Kings 16:1-4; 2 Chron. 28:19). Because the people and their leaders (both religious and civil) deliberately ignored the Lord, the nation eventually reaped the consequences of moral and spiritual decline.


Isaiah did not object to the commission God had given. Before knowing his commission, the prophet had accepted, and now he would not shrink from it. Yet, understandably he was curious about the duration the Creator wanted His spokesperson to minister to people who had calloused hearts. 


So, Isaiah asked how long his assignment would last (Isa. 6:11). God’s reply was that Isaiah should continue preaching until Judah was devastated and abandoned, its inhabitants having been taken into exile (v. 12). Since the Babylonian captivity did not occur for another century and a half, Isaiah would have to keep up his poorly received message for the remainder of his life.


For thought and application


The message of this week’s lesson is clear: God wants us to be unwavering in our commitment to Him as Christians. Like Isaiah, the Creator expects us to give His plans and will foremost priority in our lives. 


Moreover, God wants from us the same relinquishing of our plans and will as He had from Isaiah. The Lord desires to be our foremost priority in life. 


While we probably won’t experience visions of the Lord and His celestial throne room as the prophet encountered, we have something better. We have God’s complete Word, including the record of Isaiah’s profound experience.


Through the Bible, countless people have been led to faith in the Messiah. They have been spiritually transformed. Also, they have been made fully aware of the Creator’s infinite holiness, glory, and love. Yet, along with those many who have ears to hear, there are even more who resemble the people of Judah, their hearts only further hardened by the gospel. 


Thankfully, there continue to be those of among us who trust in the Son, who are pardoned and cleansed from sin, and who are commissioned. Our orders are clear: proclaim the good news with total commitment.


Our strategy may be different than the methods Isaiah used, especially since the circumstances are different. The doom and despair that Isaiah foresaw and preached has since come and gone. Nonetheless, in many real forms it exists today as devastatingly as ever. 


For instance, governments and individuals inflict horrific atrocities upon one another. Also, the personal despair of individuals living independently of the Creator’s hope and grace is just as palpable. People still desperately need the Lord, and they need Jesus’ followers to stand up and say, “Here I am. Send me!”

Dan T. Lioy

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.