The first five chapters of Isaiah have revealed the sinfulness of the people of Israel. Chapter 5 showed that the people had received the grace of God in vain. God had graciously blessed the people but the people did not bear fruit from that grace. God has described the people as covered in filth and bloodstained. Therefore judgment has been decreed against the people for casting away the grace of God and being consumed by the ways of the world. It is at this point that Isaiah places the Lord’s commission to call him to be a prophet to the people. This is a strange location for this commission. Most prophets have their commission from the Lord to prophesy in the very first verse. But Isaiah is not a book in chronological prophetic sequence. Isaiah has a purpose for holding his commissioning story to this point in the book. We will consider this as we read the call of the Lord for Isaiah.
Seeing the Holiness of the Lord (6:1-5)
Isaiah notes that it is the year that King Uzziah died. This is noted not simply because the death of a ruler is a sad occasion, but because it symbolically represents the end of the good times for the nation. Uzziah had reigned an unprecedented 52 years, an amazing duration in that world. King Uzziah has died and listen to the words of Isaiah: “I saw the Lord.” Isaiah is being allowed to see something majestic, amazing, and great. Listen to what Isaiah saw.
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” This is a declaration of power. God’s train fills the whole temple. I was too young, a boy, and did not care, but when Princess Diana was married, do you remember how long the train of her dress was? It was ridiculously long. That is not an accident but a picture of power and majesty. Further, no king rules on the level of his subjects. The throne is always on a platform so that the king is higher than all who approach him. God is seen as on the throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe fills the whole temple. Look at what is going on around this throne room scene. Above the Lord sitting on the throne stood seraphim. We do not know what seraphim are except some kind of spiritual beings. The word “seraph” literally means “burning ones” and is the same word used for the fiery serpents in the wilderness. All that we know about these seraphim is what we read in verse 2: they have six wings, two cover the face, two cover the feet, and they fly with the other two. The seraphs say to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The foundations of the thresholds are shaking at the voice of him who called and the house was filled with smoke. The holiness of God is the focal point of this scene. God’s name is qualified by the adjective “holy” in the Old Testament more than all other qualifiers combined. God’s voice is booming. The foundations are shaking. Smoke has filled the room. The train of his robe has filled the temple. The seraphim are calling out to each, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”
What is Isaiah’s response to this whole scene? Is his response that this is a pretty cool thing to see? Does he stand in amazement and awe? Please hear the words of Isaiah: “Woe is me! I am ruined!” Combining the other translations, “I am lost, undone, doomed, ruined, and destroyed!” Isaiah thinks that it is over for him! This is what the holiness of God looks like. We cannot approach God. We cannot be near God. We cannot come to God. We can have nothing to do with God. We are ruined and doomed before the majestic Lord Almighty. When we see people fear God, the fear is not because humanity is in the presence of the divine. People fear God because they are conscious of their sinfulness in the presence of his purity. God is holy. He is unapproachable. He is separate.
We see this in the very words of Isaiah. Isaiah does not say, “Woe is me because I am finite and you are infinite.” He does not say, “Woe is me,” because he is human and God is divine. Listen to what Isaiah exclaims. “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Here is the problem with what is happening. I am sinful and I live among sinful people, and I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty! What separates us from God is moral corruption and such corruption cannot co-exist with God. This was symbolizes through the Law of Moses. The people could not approach God. Priests had to be authorized to stand between the people and God. No one approaches God. When God came to Mount Sinai, no one was allow to even come close to that mountain, not even animals. No one can come to God. No one can approach God. No one can be near God. We are ruined because of our moral corruption.
God’s Gracious Response (6:6-7)
There is nothing Isaiah can do here. What else can he possibly say? But notice the graciousness of God. Verse 6 tells us that one of the seraphim flew to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar. He touches Isaiah’s mouth and listen to these glorious words: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away; and your sin atoned for.” God does not want Isaiah to be destroyed. God does not want anyone to be destroyed. Therefore God acts to atone for our sins. God’s purpose is not annihilation but grace, and to see our need for grace. You cannot come to God. But God can come to you through atonement.
Now we made the observation at the beginning that this is an unusual location for Isaiah’s commission to sit in the book. Why doesn’t the book start with this chapter? But Isaiah has set up for us an amazing teaching moment. How can the present corrupt, rebellious Israel, defying God’s instruction, ever become the promised clean, obedient Israel from whom all the nations will learn instruction? The location of Isaiah’s commission sets itself up as the pattern. Isaiah wants the people to see what God has done for Isaiah and will do for his people. You are ruined but God will save. You are doomed but God will atone for our sins. Now we would have the tendency to want to the stop the story now. In fact, many times the story gets interrupted and the full picture is not seen. But God does not leave Isaiah alone at this moment. The commission of the prophet must continue.
God’s Call (6:8-13)
The voice of the Lord (which we heard in verse 4 causes the shaking of the foundations of the thresholds of the temple) now asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Immediately, Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me.” Isaiah has the desire to go. Now that I have seen my condition and I have seen what the Lord has done for me, then I have the desire to do whatever the Lord asks. Isaiah does not even know what he is getting into. There is no job description given. The Lord just asked who would go for them. Who should the Lord send? Isaiah does not know what he has to do but he will do whatever the Lord asks because rather than being ruined, doomed, and destroyed, Isaiah has been lifted up. His sin has been atoned for and his guilt has been taken away. I will do anything you ask, Lord! What is the job? In verse 9 the Lord tells Isaiah what he has volunteered to do.
“Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10 ESV)
Isn’t this a shocking mission that Isaiah is sent on? What Isaiah is going to do is make the hearts of the people dull, their ears heavy, and their eyes blind. Otherwise they would see, hear, and understand so they would turn and be healed. The Lord tells Isaiah to go preach to the people. Tell them that they can keep on hearing but won’t understand. Keep on seeing but you are not going to see and understand. The message that Isaiah is given are words that will harden the people’s hearts and keep them from being healed. When God’s word is proclaimed, people either move closer to God or further from him. This is how hearts are hardened. God is not saying that he is directly causing their hearts be darkened so that they will not turn and be healed. God is saying that the continual proclaiming of the Lord’s word is causing the people turn their hearts dull, ears heavy, and eyes blind. Preach to the people but they are not going to turn.
So there is a call for faithfulness to evangelism. Keep on proclaiming so that they will keep on hearing and keep on seeing. But understand that though you expose them to the gospel, they are not going to understand. They are not going to turn to be healed. These people in Isaiah’s day had their hearts hardened and would not listen to the saving message that God would heal them of their sins if they would only turn to him. They will not respond. Isaiah then asks how long this condition will remain on the people (vs. 11). The Lord’s answers that they will continue to reject until the day of judgment. Judgment is coming and they are not going to turn before it is too late. It is a sad message. God wants to save but the people will not turn.
Verses 9-10 is one of the most frequently quoted scriptures in the New Testament (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39; Acts 28:26-27). Jesus and the apostles are going around the earth proclaiming this very message from Isaiah: listen to the word of the Lord and do not harden your hearts. God’s word is being proclaimed to you. Do not shut off your ears to the message and as such be lost! How can we make sure that we do not fall into this trap of having dull ears and hard hearts?
(1) See God. The more clearly we see the Lord as he is, the more we will be crushed by our own sinfulness and corruption. See the holiness of the Lord. See his majesty. See his power. See that he rules over all things and must be honored and served.
(2) See yourself. Only when we see God in his holiness can we see ourselves for who we are. We cannot approach God. We cannot come near God. We have no avenue for which to request anything from God. We are ruined. We are doomed. We are utterly lost.
(3) See grace. God has acted for us while we were doomed from our sins. We have nothing to give to God but our sinfulness and corruption. But God has acted through the sacrifice of Jesus to atone people of their sins of those who will turn to him in faith.
(4) See your task. When we see God’s grace at work in our lives we will desire to serve him. We will desire to share the good news. We will be compelled to raise our hands and say that we will go and declare the glory of God to the world. Our task is to be faithful to the message of God and faithfully proclaim the message of God, whether the people accept or reject.
The word of God is being proclaimed. What is happening in your heart? Are you coming closer to God and turning to him? Or is your heart being hardened and you are turning away from him. God is trying to draw you time him. Listen to his words and turn so that you can be healed.