Isaiah 6: Who will go for Me?
Updated: May 5
Chapters 1-5 of Isaiah are a prologue to the rest of his book—a summary of what Isaiah sees and says during the course of his ministry. For the next 61 chapters, Isaiah will repeat the same message, the same warnings of destruction and promises of restoration, that he introduced in the first five. They’ll come in cycles, with different nuances and in greater detail, as the chapters advance. In chapter 6, Isaiah tells us how it all started.
From the start, Isaiah 6 is an intriguing chapter. “In the year that King Uzziah died…” The year may seem irrelevant to us, but it gives some important context to what was happening in Judah at the time. Aside from a little incident in the temple that resulted in a case of leprosy for King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:16-21), he had been the best king since Solomon. The nation had prospered and his armies had been successful in battle. So the year he died would have been an anxious one for the people of Judah. Would the next king be as successful? Would he be able to maintain the peace and prosperity Uzziah had achieved? Would the kingdoms around them take advantage of the new king’s lack of experience? The nations around them were vying for land and Assyria was bent on controlling them all. It would have been a swell time to prophesy words of encouragement, not judgment.
All the more reason for Isaiah to receive his glorious, mysterious, indescribable vision of God before he began what promised to be a rough ride. Isaiah saw God on His heavenly throne, exalted above everything else, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Just what does that mean? This is how John Piper explains it: “That God’s robe fills the entire heavenly temple means that he is a God of incomparable splendor. The fullness of God’s splendor shows itself in a thousand ways. I used to read Ranger Rick. I recall an article on species of fish who live deep in the dark sea and have their own built-in lights—some have lamps hanging from their chins, some have luminescent noses, some have beacons under their eyes. There are a thousand kinds of self-lighted fish who live deep in the ocean where none of us can see and marvel. They are spectacularly weird and beautiful. Why are they there? Why not just a dozen or so efficient streamlined models? Because God is lavish in splendor. His creative fullness spills over in excessive beauty. And if that’s the way the world is, how much more resplendent must be the Lord who thought it up and made it!” (John Piper, “In the Throne Room,” https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/in-the-throne-room).
Around the throne are seraphim—“burning ones”—continually in motion, continually singing to one another about the holiness of God. (Did you realize that when you sing “Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty” you are singing with heavenly beings? They are always singing it, so if you sing it just once, you've sung it with them.) Over and over they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD God Almighty,” singing it so loudly the whole place shakes. The second line of their song fascinates me: “the whole earth is full of His glory.” I hadn't noticed. Are the angels prophesying things to come or do they see something I don't? That's one of the things I'm still wondering about. And why in heaven’s name, if they are flying around the throne of God, do they have their eyes covered? Men have asked to see God and couldn’t. These angels had the chance and didn’t! Here is what J. Alec Motyer says: "They covered their eyes, not their ears, for the task was to receive what the Lord would say, not to pry into what he is like.” That privilege is ours alone. And their feet? Motyer says, “In covering their feet they disavowed any intention to choose their own path; their intent was to go only as the Lord commanded.” (J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 76) Selah.
Isn’t it interesting that when Isaiah comes into the presence of God, the thing he becomes aware of is the condition of his lips? Of all the things he could have said, out pops, “Woe is me" (“I am in so much trouble!). I am a man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips!” Suddenly, he’s aware of something he may not have thought about before, but in the presence of God, it became clear. Gulp.
Seriously, how much of your sin is caused by your mouth? In my case, I would have to say, maybe, 99 percent? I know that most unclean thoughts that come into my mind are planted there by the enemy, and only when I agree with them do I become guilty of sin. (Remember that the next time some random idiotic thought comes at you out of nowhere.) But the random idiotic stuff that comes out of my mouth? I'm responsible for that. I’m either guilty of storing it up (for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks – Matthew 12:34) or lacking in self-control. Have you ever heard, “two ears, one mouth?” Yeah. And we certainly do live among a people of unclean lips. Just take a peek at the television, a movie, or social media. Listen to music. Stand in earshot of a group of people. It’s shocking – when we think about it. I haven’t had a heavenly experience like Isaiah did, but I am becoming more aware of the condition of my lips. It’s not much fun to be constantly repenting, but it's encouraging to know I’m becoming more sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s gentle restraint when I’m using this powerful weapon—my mouth.
A seraph was ready with the tongs. He came with a hot coal from under the altar to remove the guilt from Isaiah’s lips. That’s easy to understand, but ponder this: there is an altar in heaven. In Christian churches today, the altar is a place where a Bible and the communion elements sit. In ancient Jewish and pagan religions, it was where the blood of bulls and goats was offered at least once a year. But the altar in heaven is there for one thing and one thing only: for the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood. And it is used only once. Hebrews 10:5-10
One touch of the coal to Isaiah’s lips and the LORD considered Isaiah ready to speak on His behalf. So He asked: “Who will I send? Who will go for Me?” Since Isaiah was the only one in the room (except for the seraphim, who had other things to do), it’s obvious who God had in mind. I think it’s significant that He asked the question anyway. I think He wanted to hear Isaiah's “yes.” And did you notice that God asked Isaiah if he would go before He told him what he’d have to say? It certainly couldn’t be that He feared Isaiah’s answer. God knows all and fears nothing. I think He was testing Isaiah to see if he was committed to Him regardless of what he’d have to say.
Here’s what Isaiah said “yes” to: "Go and tell these people: 'be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
What a difficult passage! Why wouldn’t God want the people to understand? Why would He want them to plug their ears and close their eyes? Why wouldn’t He want them to be healed? I’ve read commentaries with various takes on it, but basically, it gets back to this: “Time’s up. I’m giving you what you want.” We see it over and over again under the Old Covenant. God’s judgment for their stubbornness was to let them do what they wanted to do and then let them have the consequences. Doubtless, God knew that even if the current generation turned back to Him, the next would turn away. So over and over the people would receive mercy but never gain wisdom.
(This is probably a good time to mention that God’s covenant with Israel was a covenant with the nation, not with the individuals. Any who were part of the nation were subject to the terms of the covenant, for better or for worse. In every generation, though, there was a remnant who refused to turn away from God no matter what, and their reward is coming. The New Covenant is a different story. God made that covenant with one man, the man Christ Jesus, and those who are one with Him come under the terms of His covenant with the Father.)
I wonder how Isaiah felt when God revealed the message he was assigned to deliver. It was a guaranteed failure from the start! God told him straight out that his words would change nothing. I’m guessing it had to be a real struggle for Isaiah, but I’m also guessing he believed that if his words were God's words, if he spoke what God told him to speak, when it all was all over he would hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Now that, my friends, is success.
This reminds me of Jonah. God asked him to go and preach certain doom to the nasty city of Ninevah. Jonah’s answer was nothing like Isaiah’s noble “yes”; in fact, it was a downright “no!” When Jonah finally did go to Ninevah and deliver God’s message, the outcome was just as he’d feared: the people repented, God spared them, and it looked like Jonah had missed it. (Don’t tell me God didn’t know that would happen when He insisted that Jonah go.) Ninevah was destroyed about 250 years later, but Jonah didn’t live to see it. Neither did any of his friends and neighbors. How embarrassing. But I doubt he cares anymore. He became famous for his ride in a whale (Matthew 12:39).
Finally, Isaiah asked, "How long?" It may be that he started to understand just what he had signed up for. But he honored his commitment. He would stick with it until the end, and a very bad end it would be. But God showed him it wouldn’t really be the end: “As the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (verse 13) A stump might look like destruction and death, but within that stump, there is life: the shoot of Jesse—the promised Messiah, and the promised remnant—His people.