Chapter 8-3 The Ministry And Personal Life of Isaiah
Isaiah's ministry began in the reign of Uzziah (Is. 1:1); Uzziah died with Judah prosperous and stable. However, the prophecies of Isaiah 1-5 speak of a time when Judah was breaking up and under threat of imminent invasion; they must therefore have been given at some time after Uzziah's reign. Yet 6:1 speaks of Isaiah having a vision in the year Uzziah died. As is common with the major prophets, Isaiah isn't a chronological prophecy; it's a compilation of various prophetic events given at various times and that compilation isn't necessarily in chronological order. I'd therefore suggest that chapter 6 is the initial commissioning of Isaiah. He realized his call to be a prophet, but he needed to be convicted first of his own sin and inadequacy, and of the greatness of the Lord. He was then commissioned to go out and preach: "Hear!" (Is. 6:9)- which is exactly how he begins his preaching in Is. 1:2. So I suggest that all his prophecies were preceded by the vision of chapter 6. He saw "the Lord high and lifted up", enthroned in the temple, with an earthquake, the temple filled with smoke, the doorposts that held up the veil being shaken (with the implication that the veil falls; 6:4). Note how Rev. 15:5-8, building on this passage, has the veil being removed, the Most Holy opened, and the temple filled with smoke. This sends the mind straight to the rending of the temple veil at the crucifixion and the earthquake (Mt. 27:51). The Lord "high and lifted up" (6:1) is a phrase that occurs later in Isaiah (52:13), concerning the crucified Lord, lifted up and exalted "very high" by the cross. John 12:37-41 tells us that Isaiah 6 is a vision of the Lord Jesus in glory; and in this passage John quotes both Isaiah 6 and 53 together, reflecting their connection and application to the same event, namely the Lord's crucifixion. So it is established that Is. 6 is a vision of the crucified Lord Jesus, high and lifted up in glory in God's sight, whilst covered in blood and spittle, with no beauty that man should desire Him. The point is, when Isaiah saw this vision he was convicted of his sinfulness: "Woe is me, for I am undone...". And yet the same vision comforted him with the reality of forgiveness, and inspired him to offer to go forth and witness to Israel of God's grace.
The holiness and power of Isaiah’s cleansing is perhaps indicated by the fact that even a holy Seraphim Angel had to take the burning coal with tongs from the altar. The altar having coals which could be removed by tongs suggests that it was the incense altar. The incident clearly points forward to the cleansing power of the sacrifice of Christ. The burning coal from the incense altar therefore represented Him; yet the incense is a symbol of our prayers in Rev. 8:3,4. It’s the fire beneath them, the work of Christ, which gives power to them. The idea of an Angel taking the fire from an altar is found in Ez. 10:7,8, again in the context of the Cherubim. But the burning coal that was taken there was a symbol of judgment against Israel’s sin. Thus we see the two aspects of Him with whom we have to do. The fire is either of cleansing and forgiveness, or of judgment to condemnation; as a cup of wine from the Lord is a double symbol, of either condemnation or eternal blessing. The Divine touching of lips can be seen as speaking of being given a commission to preach- for this is what was done to inaugurate Jeremiah’s ministry (Jer. 1:9). But here in Isaiah, it speaks of forgiveness of personal sin. The dual symbolism surely suggests that it is the very real, concrete experience of forgiveness which is in itself the commission to go out and speak God’s word to other sinners. Note how immediately Isaiah believed in the receipt of forgiveness; it often takes our weaker faith quite some time to believe in forgiveness, because in our experience of human relationships, it is often time which heals and the dimming of memory which leads to an appearance of forgiveness. Divine forgiveness isn’t like this; it is granted and exists for real at a distinct point in time, and if believed in, can be fully felt at that instant. It’s therefore a deep insight into the depth of Isaiah’s faith in his forgiveness that he could immediately offer to go forth and take God’s word to others. For it seems that he as it were overheard God’s discussion with the Angel Seraphim in the council of Heaven: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?”. And Isaiah interjects from earth, as it were: “Here am I, send me” (Is. 6:8). There was initiative taken by Isaiah; he wasn’t passive. He wanted to share in God’s mission, and even pushed himself forward before the council of Heaven; when moments before he had been stricken with a sense of sin and total unworthiness, feeling so unworthy to speak on God’s behalf- for he had protested on realization of his sinfulness: “I am dumb [AV “undone”] (Is. 6:5). The specific failure of which he felt convicted was that he was “a man of unclean lips”- again hinting at his own sense of unworthiness to speak on God’s behalf as a prophet was supposed to.
It was on the basis of Isaiah’s own sense of sinfulness and certain experience of forgiveness that he was able to witness to others and empathize with them. The only other time the Hebrew word translated “undone” or “dumb” occurs in Isaiah is in Isaiah’s prophecy against Moab- Moab was “brought to silence” (Is. 15:1) by Divine judgment; and having uttered this prophecy, Isaiah says that his heart “cried out” for Moab just as they would “cry out” in the agony of condemnation (Is. 15:4,5). He- and we- found the possibility of true empathy with others, even with a condemned Gentile nation who hated Judah, on the basis of realizing how he too had stood condemned before the holiness of Yahweh. In a similar way, having uttered a prophecy against Elam, Isaiah appears to have some kind of seizure as he realizes the tragedy of condemnation which is to come upon those Gentiles: "A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease. Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it. My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me" (Is. 21:2-4).
And the same ideas occur in the condemnation of Judah in Is. 33:14: “The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?”. As Isaiah beheld the fire and the Seraphim, the ‘burning ones’, he had felt just the same. And on this basis he was able to appeal to and empathize with the hypocrites within the ecclesia as well as the sinners of the Gentile world. Indeed the whole people of Judah are condemned by Isaiah for being a people of unclean lips; and yet he goes straight on to say that "our transgressions are with us, and as for our iniquities, we know them" (Is. 59:3,12). So through being convicted of his own uncleanness, Isaiah was able to witness with true empathy to others; he was able to connect, to intersect with others' hearts, because of his own conviction of both sin and forgiveness. The Angelic assurance that Isaiah's sin was "purged" (Is. 6:7) became the pattern of forgiveness for Isaiah's later audience- for they could be told by Isaiah with all integrity that if they repented, then their sin also would be purged and their iniquity taken away (Is. 27:9). But this ability to empathize is only brought about by a Divine conviction of our own inadequacy. As we come before the cross of Christ, as in vision Isaiah did, we should feel this; and yet be empowered from that same vision to go forward with a quiet boldness in sharing God's grace with other sinners, both in the world and within the community of God's people. We should have no indifference to the future which others might miss. Is. 22:4 is perhaps the most poignant example. Having uttered judgment upon Judah, Isaiah explains: "Therefore said I, Look away from me; I will weep bitterly, labour not to comfort me, because of the spoiling of the daughter of my people". The opposite of love isn't so much hatred as indifference; and if we truly feel the wonder of our own forgiveness and salvation, we can never be indifferent to others' spiritual position but will instead do all we can to testify to them, being truly grieved in our hearts for their position before God.
How Isaiah Preached
Isaiah's Attitude To His Own Message
Reading through Isaiah, we find there are passages where Isaiah is simply stating "Thus says the Lord:"; others where he relays to us, perhaps in his own words, what the Lord has revealed to him; and others where we have Isaiah's interjections into the prophecy, his commentary, his laments, his appeals to those around him to repent. All these passages are inspired, but the mechanism of inspiration is working in different ways. Isaiah's conviction of his sinfulness and grasp of the reality of forgiveness led him to not be insensitive to the message which he preached; he wasn't, as it were, lamely standing on a street corner holding out religious pamphlets for anyone to take who may be interested, making a website and lamenting nobody looks at it; rather here was a man who wasn't passive to the message of which he was the medium. I love his interjections. Re-read his classic prediction of the coming Kingdom of God on earth in Is. 2:1-4, a direct "Thus says the Lord" statement- and then in Is. 2:5 he adds his comment: "O house of Israel, come and let us walk in the light of the Lord!"- 'Let's live that Kingdom life now, if then we will be walking in His ways, let's do so now; and so, therefore, repent!'. And reflecting upon that, Is. 2:6-9 records Isaiah's prayer for God to have mercy upon Israel, and Is. 2:10 is another appeal to Judah to repent. The good news of the Kingdom which we likewise preach ought to be eliciting a similar burning desire for others to repent and accept it; and fervent prayer that they will do so. There's another example of this in Is. 10:20-24. In the midst of prophesying on God's behalf about the remnant, Isaiah interjects a prayer of exclamation to God in Is. 10:22: "Though Your people [note the change of personal pronouns] be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return!". Again in Is. 31:4-8, Isaiah prophecies of how God will preserve Jerusalem from her invaders, yet in the midst of the prophecy he interjects: "Turn ye unto him from whom ye have deeply revolted, O children of Israel!" (Is. 31:6). Likewise in the midst of a prophecy pronouncing "Woe!" upon Israel for their sins, Isaiah interjects: "O LORD, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble" (Is. 33:2). He had come close enough to God to know that even the prophetic words which he was uttering on God's behalf could be changed by repentance and prayer; for surely he had learnt the lesson provided by Moses and by Abraham as he pleaded for Sodom. Indeed in Is. 1:9,10 Isaiah states that Judah can expect Sodom's judgment, but he goes on to say that for the sake of a faithful remnant God would not treat Judah as Sodom- and yet that remnant was also left spiritually strong by grace. Isaiah felt he knew God well enough to interject after uttering a prophecy about the blessedness of God's people. Having stated from God that "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light", Isaiah interjects: "Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy!" (Is. 9:2,3).
The message which we preach is ultimately God's and not ours; just as Isaiah's words were Divine and not human. Yet this doesn't preclude our witness to His word having a personal element to it. Indeed, without this, our appeal to men will somehow lack powerful entreaty and credibility. For we aren't mere pieces of computer hardware reproducing God's message to others; that word must be made flesh in us, as it was in the Lord Jesus. We noted above that at times, Isaiah hears God's word and then relays it to his hearers; hence he says things like "For so the Lord said unto me" (Is. 18:4). He speaks of how God revealed things in his ears, and he now speaks those things to others (e.g. Is. 5:9; 21:10). One moment God speaks to Isaiah directly, and then addresses His people generally: "For though thy people [you singular- Isaiah's people] be as the sand of the sea... O My people that dwell in Zion, be no afraid..." (Is. 10:22,24). It was incumbent upon a prophet in this situation to share that word faithfully and accurately (Jer. 23:28). At times Isaiah spoke a "Thus says the Lord" by as it were direct propulsion; in other passages, he shares what God had revealed to him, in his own way: "That which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you" (Is. 21:10). This is the situation we find ourselves in too as we share God's word with others. For what we hear in the ear we are to teach upon the housetops (Mt. 10:27)- language which surely alludes to how Isaiah and the prophets heard God's word in their ear and then taught it to others (Is. 5:9; 50:4). But it's the human stamp which we leave upon it which, like a hallmark, will give it integrity and appeal to our hearers. This is why the commissioning vision of Isaiah 6 is alluded to throughout Isaiah- his personal conviction of sin and experience of forgiveness left a stamp upon his appeal on God's behalf to others to repent. Thus Isaiah sought that his audience should share in his experience of salvation, and thus the pronouns reflect how he as it were merges with them: "Behold, God is my [Isaiah's] salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the Lord JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye [you plural- Judah] draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Is. 12:2,3). Their experience was to be as his; Isaiah aimed to become their representative.
Merging With God
Yet Isaiah not only merged with his audience; he was representative also of God. We like Isaiah are in that sense to be a bridge between God and man, identifying both with Him and with humanity, doing the work of the Lord Jesus in our own lives insofar as we manifest Him and are "in Him". As you read through Isaiah, try to work out who's speaking. At times it's God, other times it's Isaiah personally; and so often the personal pronouns become confused. Take Is. 55:6-9. Verses 6 and 7 are clearly Isaiah's appeal to Israel, speaking of God in the third person: "Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon Him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon". But the passage goes straight on in verses 8 and 9: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways... so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts". Somehow the appeal of Isaiah personally becomes that of God personally- because God's spirit was within Isaiah. Isaiah sings a song about God and His vineyard, and how He did everything for it to bring forth good grapes; but then the pronouns change and this song becomes God Himself speaking to His people, remonstrating with them that they have no excuse for their lack of spiritual fruit considering all He has done for them (Is. 5:1-4). In the same way, musicians today may sing a song which God as it were takes over in order to speak to the heart of a person. If we are truly "walking in step with the Spirit", this same merger between God and man will occur in us too. Whilst not inspired in the sense Isaiah was, it will be natural and easy for God to work through us to appeal to others. As His word abides in us and we in Him, so His Spirit becomes ours and ours becomes His; we are His Son to this world.
Like every truly motivated preacher, Isaiah's sense of inadequacy remained throughout his ministry. He had initially felt alienated from God by two factors- his own "unclean lips" and the fact he lived amongst a people of unclean lips (Is. 6:5-7). The Seraph touched his lips and assured him of purging from his own "unclean lips"; but no comment is made about his sense of guilt for living amongst an unclean people. This was simply because God doesn't operate the principle of guilt by association- he wasn't guilty on that count. And yet he took upon himself this false guilt. We have pointed out that he was able to appeal to Israel to repent and receive God's forgiveness on the basis that he himself had been purged from uncleanness; and yet the intensity of that conviction appears to have wavered at times. In the midst of one prophecy of the coming Kingdom, Isaiah as it were breaks down with a sense of his own unworthiness: "From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous. But I said, My leanness, my leanness, woe unto me!" (Is. 24:16). He had earlier said the same words: "Woe is me!" (Is. 6:5), and yet been assured of God's forgiveness. Although it doesn't justify our weakness, there's surely some human comfort in the fact that Isaiah had those moments of doubt in God's acceptance of him, despite all assurances; that lost intensity of certainty in salvation. Perhaps this was why God interjected into a prophecy He was dictating to Isaiah and warned him not to just go the way of the faithless people around him: "For the Lord spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people" (Is. 8:11). The fact God had to place "a strong hand" upon Isaiah may suggest that Isaiah wished to turn away from his ministry. In Is. 20:2, God has to tell Isaiah: "Go and loose the sackcloth from off thy loins, and put off thy shoe from thy foot" and then He sends him off to witness to Judah. There's no immediate explanation of why Isaiah was dressing in sackcloth- it could be that his self-obsession had led him into depression, or vice versa; and God was telling him to pull out of this and get out there and witness to people.
Indeed Is. 8:16-18 could be taken as Isaiah saying that he had decided not to teach his school of prophets any longer, but rather to just personally focus upon his own relationship with God: "Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. And I will wait upon the LORD, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him". The next verse is however quoted in Heb. 2:13 about the Lord Jesus and His brethren being of the same nature: "Behold, I and the children whom the LORD hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts". The Hebrew writer therefore understood this statement to reflect an intense unity between Isaiah and his "children", be they his literal children [Immanuel and Mahershalalhashbaz] or his spiritual children. It seems to me that Immanuel could've been some kind of Messiah figure- but for whatever reason, he didn't live up to it and the prophecy was therefore given a greater application to the Lord Jesus. Likewise, the "children" Isaiah refers to in Is. 8:18 became the faithful children in Christ under the new covenant, according to how Heb. 2:13 quotes it.
This leads on to the reflection that perhaps Isaiah's literal children didn't turn out as he had hoped nor as God had potentially enabled them to. As God's Spirit was so merged with that of Isaiah, it wouldn't be surprising if God's family experience with Israel was to an extent replicated in Isaiah's life. A major theme of Isaiah is that God's children were rebellious and didn't live up to His hopes of them (Is. 1:2; 30:1). Is. 8:2,3 records how Isaiah's child was to be a child of sign- Mahershalalhashbaz. However, Is. 8:18 states that Isaiah had children of sign, in the plural. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that Immanuel, the other child of sign predicted in the same section (Is. 7:14-16) was also Isaiah's. Although this prophesied child is interpreted in the New Testament as being the Lord Jesus, conceived of "the virgin" Mary, the prophesy must've had an immediate fulfillment in Isaiah's time- "For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings" (Is. 7:16). Isaiah and his wife, the virgin or "young woman" of Is. 7:14, are the ones who state: "Unto us a child is born, a son is given" (Is. 9:6,7). This was the standard birth announcement from proud parents. The child was destined to be some Messiah figure- and yet Isaiah's son didn't turn out like this and the prophecy came to have its true fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. Isaiah 53, the well known prophecy of Christ's death, resurrection and glorification in a faithful "seed" (Is. 53:12), was spoken in the first instance by Isaiah. He laments that none have believed his report, his preaching (Is. 53:1); but that Messiah too, the ultimate prophetic "servant of the Lord", would also be rejected; yet through this Israel's sin would be purged and iniquity carried away, just as had happened to Isaiah at the commencement of his ministry in Isaiah 6. Isaiah thus becomes a significant paradigm for those who feel that their life's mission hasn't come to anything, their preaching hasn't been much responded to, and their kids haven't 'worked out'. Isaiah's aim and base motivation in these things was the glory of God. He was taught that in fact the desire of his heart would be worked out- but through Messiah. The way that the New Testament quotes his personal hopes for his son Immanuel and his comment about "I and the children whom God has given me" (Is. 8:18) and applies them all to the Lord Jesus is confirmation of this. And so what, therefore, if we ourselves achieve a merger of spirit with the Father as Isaiah did, feel and know His forgiveness and ultimate salvation, even if at times the intensity of our faith and feeling for these things wavers as Isaiah's did- and yet our preaching of these things to others, our attempts to raise our sons in this faith, hope and love doesn't work out? If our focus is truly in the Lord, as Isaiah's was, then ultimately we have not failed. For the desires of our heart, for His glory and not our own, and for the final redemption of God's Israel, will all ultimately be fulfilled in their essence. This is why Isaiah at times breaks out into such joy as he spoke forth the good news of God's coming Kingdom- for to him, as for God, the words of the Gospel were as good as already fulfilled. Even though before his eyes there was no evidence of the fulfillment of the prophecies, yet he could exclaim: " O LORD, thou art my God; I will exalt thee, I will praise thy name; for thou hast done wonderful things; thy counsels of old are faithfulness and truth" (Is. 25:1). The future prophecies were as good as done, and he rejoiced in that.