Isaiah prophesied in the mid to late 8th century BC, beginning before the northern tribes of Israel were carried away by Assyria 722BC. Isaiah 6 is the story of his call to Yahweh's service. Israel has already had a long and checkered past in their relationship with Yahweh, who has at this time been relentlessly pursuing his children for thousands of years, with often dismal results. The call of Isaiah is another in a long series of attempts to get Israel's attention, to persuade them to listen to his call, to catch a glimpse of Yahweh's vision for his people, to turn and be healed.
But let's review a little more history.
The story of Israel begins with the story of Creation and the Garden of Eden. In the beginning God created, and after he had made all things beautiful he placed the man and the woman in the Garden to care for it, and they would enjoy each others' company in the cool of the day. Far too soon, however, this idyl was interrupted by human intransigence. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden he gave them all but one of the plants for food: Gen 2:16f “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...” From which tree did they eat? And thus was set the course of human ingenuity for the rest of history – Tell them what not to do, and that is the very thing they will do.
For their own good, humans are expelled from Eden before they can eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their sinful brokenness. A few generations later human wickedness threatens the entire species with extinction.
Gen 6 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
This is the first recorded instance of human activity fomenting climate change that resulted in the destruction of the planet.
Years later God calls out an individual whom he promises to bless, and through whom he will bless all peoples of the earth. When Abraham and Sara run out of patience waiting for the fulfilment of the promise of many descendants they resort to what was a common and entirely acceptable alternative of that culture and time. Sara offers her servant to Abraham so he can have children with Hagar. This plan works and Ishmael is born, but then Sara is jealous and Abraham gives her carte blanche to do as she sees fit. The end result of what Sara “sees fit” drives Hagar with Ishmael into the wilderness, and they find themselves only a few breaths from death. An angel comes to their rescue and repeats Yahweh's promise of descendants too numerous to count, in this case the promise is very explicitly applied to Ishmael (Gen 16:10 “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”) Hagar and Ishmael return to Abraham and Sara. Ishmael is circumcised with Abraham as a sign of God's covenant with Abraham, but in the end Sara's jealousy wins out and Abraham sends his firstborn son away so that Isaac will not have to share his inheritance with Ishmael. Abraham has a total of eight sons, a good start for this huge family that he has been promised, but all save one are sent away (Gen 25). The only son who is not sent away comes within a scant whisker of being slaughtered by his own father.
The pattern you should be discerning in these stories is that people are amazingly adept and persistent in “hearing” God's words, and liking his promises, then running hell-bent for leather in the other direction. Adam and Eve eat from the one tree they are told not to eat. Every inclination of the human heart was seen to be only evil all the time. Abraham may have been quite taken by God's promise to bless him, and to bless all peoples through him, but his actions seem all but orchestrated towards the sabotage of God's intentions for him. He “listens” but runs the other way.
This pattern continues. When Abraham is shown the land promised to him he sets up a tent (showing spectacularly bad judgement for one who was to inhabit the land permanently) and then breaks camp and travels on to Egypt. He later returns to the Promised Land, but his descendants soon return to Egypt, and not even abject slavery inspires them to return to their Promised Land. After 400 years of slavery Yahweh still has to drag them, kicking and screaming, back to the Promised Land.
When they get there they are initially led by judges whose role is to lead them in Yahweh's ways. The people prosper when they follow godly judges, but repeatedly fall into idolatry between periods of good leadership. Eventually they come to Samuel, who will be their last judge, and they ask for a king. They don't want to just follow Yahweh, their God who is unlike any other, they want a king, like everybody else. Yahweh recognizes that this is not a rejection of Samuel, their judge; this is nothing less than a rejection of the God who called Abraham out of Haran, and Israel out of Egypt.
The first king starts well but quickly goes bad. David, possibly the bright star in terms of Israel's kings, is not allowed to build the Temple for Yahweh because his hands are too bloody, and that they most emphatically are. David's son Solomon is touted as the wisest man who ever lived, but by the end of his reign he is leading Israel into idolatry. The kingdom promised to David is divided in his grandsons' day. The ensuing generations of kings are a litany of wickedness, idolatry, and debauchery, with only a few rare flashes of hope as a handful of kings do lead Israel in a return to Yahweh. God keeps calling, pleading, and cajoling, but the people for the most part keep running the other way.
By the time Isaiah comes on the scene Yahweh has been dealing with these recalcitrant children for over a thousand years. Those of you who have been tempted to think your offspring's teenage years an interminable interim, you ain't seen nuthin' yet! Yahweh has been around the block and back with these guys, and he has developed a pretty good sense of what can be expected, but ... he hasn't given up on them yet. Now he calls Isaiah, and sends him to call again.
All of the prophets are reiterations and retakes of what Yahweh originally told the Israelites when he first called them out of Egypt. Leviticus 26 promises rewards for obedience, and punishments for disobedience. The punishment discourse is repeatedly interrupted by phrases like ''But if you will not listen to me and obey, then... If after all this you will not listen to me, then... If you remain hostile to me and refuse to listen to me, then... If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me...''
Yahweh is pleading with his children to turn and be healed, please come back so I can relent from punishing. And at the end, when the children refuse to listen, and are sent into exile, even then Lev 26:40 “‘...if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors —their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, 41 which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42 I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. 44 Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. 45 But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.’”
Yahweh will never forget his children Is 49:15f
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Punishment is always for the purpose of restoration, and Yahweh longs to gather his children, even more than a mother longs to nurture her children. (repeat) Yahweh longs to gather his children, even more than a mother longs to nurture her children.
Isaiah's call is another step in the same direction. Yahweh is still calling, and he is calling Isaiah to call out to Israel. The text of Isaiah to this point is Yahweh recalling his history with Israel, rearing children that rebelled. There is a plea to ''Come now and let us reason together... If you are willing you will eat of the best of the land.''
Then we have Isaiah's call in chapter 6. After the call and Isaiah's response ''Here am I. Send me.'' Yahweh's words:
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.[a]
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Even in the context of what we have seen in history to this point it is clear that these words do not reflect the modus operandi of the Creator. With our benefit of additional millenia of seeing God at work in his world and among his people, we know this is not a summary of his agenda. Much more, after seeing Yahweh stretch out his hands and die for love of his people, we know with an unshakeable confidence that these words are descriptive, not prescriptive. They reflect the pattern of human response to God since the Garden of Eden. When people hear God, they generally turn and run the other way. That's not what God wants. That's what breaks the heart of God, and yet he sees it happen time after time, again and again. And yet always he hopes ''Surely, this time it will be different. I will send Isaiah to call them again. Maybe this time they will listen. Maybe this time, instead of running the other way, maybe – just maybe – this time they will really hear and come to me.'' But time and time again, people choose not to obey, but turn away, and their hearts are hardened.
Isaiah is not entirely uninformed about Israel's history, so he asks a very prudent question: “For how long, O Lord?” Isaiah knows his people, so he wants to know how long he will be expected to pursue this mission impossible.
Yahweh's response is both debilitatingly discouraging, and yet profoundly hopeful:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
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.”
You keep going, Yahweh says, until the bitter end. You keep calling until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant. You keep calling until there is no one left to hear, and no one left to even ignore your message. You keep calling, because I am Yahweh, and I never give up.
When Isaiah begins his ministry the Northern Kingdom, the ten tribes to the north of Judah, are not far from their time of exile. Isaiah begins his ministry about 740BC, and the northern ten tribes are carried away in 722BC. That leaves about a tenth of Israel, one lonely tribe of Judah, in the land, but about 100 years later (606BC and 586BC), they too are taken into Babylon, and nothing is left of the once glorious kingdom of Israel. The throne of David and Solomon are just fading memories.
And yet. And yet ... “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Even when it's all over, when the fat lady has sung, the lights have gone out, and everybody including Elvis has left the building, it's not all done. When all that is left is dead stumps, God still has a plan. God is in the business of redeeming hopeless situations, a Master at raising life out of death. When God's children insist on running the other way every time he calls, he hurts, but does not likewise turn away. He calls, and calls again, and Isaiah is the story of Yahweh calling. Our lives today are another instance of Yahweh calling. Even if a mother forgets her nursing baby, Yahweh will not forget his children. He has engraved us in the palms of his hands.
So let us hear, and pray for understanding.
Let us see, and pray for vision.
Let us turn, and obey, to be healed.