I’ve long been intrigued by God’s commission of the prophet in Isaiah 6. I’ve heard many missionary send offs centered around Isaiah 6:8, but I’ve yet to hear one which continues into 6:9-13. His ministry is one of hardening, at least for those not among the remnant. He is going to keep preaching and proclaiming God’s Word and not many are going to respond. He’ll think he’s got at least a tenth of the nation on his side, and then, even that is going to be burnt up until “the holy seed is its stump.”
I don’t want to read too much into this text, but I’ve got to wonder how in the world Isaiah avoided getting bitter, jaded, and deeply discouraged. I’ve had seasons in which I felt like nobody was listening, but I’ve never been there like Isaiah. I’ve also wondered how in the world Isaiah remained faithful to the message. Did he ever flirt with the idea of tweaking it a bit to make it more palatable to his countrymen? Did he ever think that maybe a different tone would turn the burnt stump into a mighty oak of ministry? I bet this guy had to hate going to the monthly meeting with area pastors – "So, how many did you baptize this month, Isaiah?”
But Isaiah remained a faithful prophet of God for a very lengthy ministry. And he wasn’t just really good at one thing. He wasn’t one of those preachers that was only amazing at beating you up and bringing a flood of conviction. He was also one of those preachers who helped you heal. Likewise, he wasn’t just filled with syrup and sugar. His words could lay you bare and have you snot-crying without a moment's notice. That’s really what the gospel does, though. It breaks when we need breaking and heals when we need healing. Isaiah was that type of gospel minister.
And that blows me away. Because it had to have been tempting for Isaiah to compromise the message in order to at least gain a couple friends. Or to go all 2-Pac and take a "me against the world" posture. But he doesn’t do that. He’s balanced. And he does this for 50 plus years. How?
I believe the events of Isaiah 6 and it’s placement in the book give us the answer.
Not Missing the Seventh
Look at Isaiah 5:8-30 and count the woes. You’ll find six of them, all of them true. Isaiah is calling out his sinful nation and letting them know that, apart from repentance, they will be given over to God’s wrath.
There is a poetic device that the Hebrew people loved to employ. You can see examples of this in the Proverbs. “Six things the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him.” The final item in the list is the highlight. The one to which the author really wants to draw your attention. Now, look at Isaiah 6. Notice the "woe" there? It’s the seventh one.
What keeps Isaiah from being that bitter and jaded and angry prophet? It’s the vision of God’s holiness. All of the things in Isaiah 1-5 are still true. He is still a prophet to a woefully sinful nation. But when Isaiah stands before the Holy One of Israel, his eyes are not fixed on his countrymen, he goes inward. I love how Sinclair Ferguson says it:
Any consciousness Isaiah might have had of his own ability to conform to the inner standards of God’s law was shattered. The sheer bright intensity of God’s holiness made him—of all men in Jerusalem—feel unclean, unfit for God’s presence. He felt undone. Here one of the greatest prophets or preachers of his (or of any) generation discovered that it was precisely in the area of his strengths and gifts that he was deeply sinful. And so, following the six woes; he had uttered against sinners, the climactic, consummating seventh woe—the ultimate woe—was reserved for himself. (Ferguson, 20)
And I’m convinced, unless we too have a vision of God’s holiness, we’ll be great at pronouncing woes against sinners, but we’ll be woefully inadequate at proclaiming God’s grace. Without this brokenness, you’d have had a prophet bold enough to proclaim woe, but not equipped to heal a broken nation.
You tell me that a man who has been in such a state would even consider for a second changing one of the words of the Holy One? You think this guy is going to be tempted with the empty applause of mankind? You think he’d even dare risk not being a faithful messenger so that he can please men and gain a few pals on the other side of this curtain? Nope. Isaiah is stunned speechless by this vision of the Holy One. You don’t tamper when you’ve seen the things Isaiah has seen.
But without the coal from the altar touching Isaiah's lips, you would only have a mute prophet crippled by his own guilt. Or he’d be filled with truth, but have all the grace of a crotchety old Pharisee. This is why I believe Isaiah 6 isn’t Isaiah 1 for a reason.
Why Isaiah 6 Isn’t Isaiah 1
Why in the world doesn’t Isaiah start with his commission? Why start with five chapters of “ah, sinful nation filled with woes” and then give us the story of his calling? Perhaps what is happening to Isaiah is the same thing that happened to Ezekiel, Hosea, and many other prophets; namely, he is becoming his message.
Isaiah is in the first five chapters. Apart from chapter 6, I don’t think we’d gather that. But his vision of the Holy One levels the playing field. Confronted with the glaring holiness of Yahweh, Isaiah doesn’t fare any better than his countrymen. Their woes become his. Therefore, Isaiah’s solution ought to also become theirs. They too need the atoning touch from Yahweh’s servant and His declaration of innocence.
The experience of Isaiah 6 is why the prophet was able to minister in grace and truth. He saw both. He was undone by truth and rescued by grace. And, unless we too have a proper vision of the Holy One of Israel, we’ll miss the seventh woe. We’ll lambast and opinionate and get all distracted with the sound of our own declarations. But this won’t happen (at least not nearly as much) to a man who has been crippled by the holiness of God.
We also need a proper view of God’s restorative grace or else we’ll knock it out of the park in giving hugs to hurting people without having the chutzpah to call sin what it really is. We won’t stand in the way of the soul-destroying effects of sin. We’ll be too pressed under the weight of our woe to actually live in grace. But, when we’ve been simultaneously wrecked and healed by grace, everything will change. To be crippled and then transformed will give the boldness to call sin what it really is and to do so with a voice saturated by grace.
May God grant us such a vision of Himself.