< June 07, 2009 >

Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

 

This text is among the more famous in the Hebrew Bible, serving as a source for the centuries' old shape of worship (Praise, Confession, Forgiveness/Pardon, and Response).

In addition, it offers the origin of more than a few popular hymns, the best example being Dan Schuette's 1981 composition: "Here I am, Lord." It could fairly be said that the words from verse eight, "Here I am, send me," have become cliched language in the church when preachers urge their congregations to respond to the call of the gospel.

A rich text indeed, both in its own language and time, and in its subsequent influences in religious history! However, I wonder whether the fullest measure of the context of Isaiah's call has been silenced in the shout of verse eight.

Is Isaiah's reaction to the call of God for service−his ready and energetic reply, "Here am I, send me"−all that we moderns should take from the text? The answer is both "no" and a highly qualified "yes."

As sometimes happens with the lectionary readings, those who decide on the texts have stopped too soon.

Of course, the lectionary is designed to offer readings with lengths that can be heard comfortably. But in this important case, the decision to stop at verse eight carries significant dangers for a full hearing of Isaiah's answer to his Lord's summons. And that fuller hearing is important for those who are trying to answer the call of our God in our own time.

God's address to Isaiah did not end with verse eight. Verses 9-10 provide something of the content of the call of God. Unless we hear what it is God asks of Isaiah in some detail, we run the risk of imagining that God's call is only generic and lacking specificity.

We might imagine that all we have to do is sing Dan Schutte's hymn in a splendid service of worship, surrounded by familiar worshippers, and we will thereby be answering the call. Reading the tough-minded prophets of Israel makes such a conclusion unthinkable.

As Isaiah stands before the Lord in the temple, the smallest hem of the divine robe swallows the holy house in eternal fabric; the mighty seraphim, monstrous six-winged creatures now bent to the service of that Lord, screech the praise of the Holy One, and God announces what it is Isaiah is called to do.

The command is devastating! The prophet is demanded by his God to speak in such a way that no one will finally understand what it is he is saying. Their eyes and ears will be useless, so dull and sightless that their minds will be clouded with confusion. As a result, their healing will be delayed.

What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their responsibilities plainer. Everything will be more confusing and less certain. It will be more difficult to perceive just what it is that God wants from the people.

Not surprisingly, that eager prophet of verse eight, the ready follower of the mighty Lord of the temple who is so anxious to do the divine work, now sounds very different in verse eleven, after hearing what God has in mind for him. Instead of "Here am I," we now hear the prophet bleat, "How long, O Lord?"

I hear in these words an undercurrent of "choose somebody else," rather more like Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 4:13).

What are the words of the famous catechism? "The chief work of humanity is to love God and enjoy God forever." The enjoyment of God has apparently drained away from the plaintive cry of the prophet in the face of these divine demands. Perhaps, he now wishes he could take back that precipitous response, made in the flush of radiant divine appearance.

Elijah comes to mind, when he bested the bleeding prophets of Baal at Carmel and rode off the mountain on the shoulders of apparent converts, all shouting "The Lord indeed is God, the Lord indeed is God!" (1 Kings 18:20-40).

But the very next verses (1 Kings 19:1-3) find Elijah now alone, running for his life from an enraged Jezebel, furious at the death of all her favorite prophets. From victory at the prophetic Super Bowl to the desire for death at the hands of God (1 Kings 19:4), it is a shockingly short journey. Isaiah's second thoughts about what he is being called to do spring just as quickly to his timorous mind.

After Isaiah's fearful "how long," God gives him cold comfort by announcing that cities shall lie waste and the land will be desolate, finally presenting a vast emptiness (Isaiah 6:11-12). Somehow that stirring hymn, "Here I am, Lord," seems strangely out of place, or at least premature.

What can all this mean for the preacher of this famous text?

By all means, call your people to follow the Lord, bid them give their lives for God's service. It is what we do!

But to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations.

What we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness.

Another hymn rises to mind: "The Voice of God is Calling," John Haynes Holmes' 1913 poem. "From ease and plenty save us," begins the fourth verse, and it ends, "Speak, and behold! we answer; command and we obey!"1 

By all means, respond to the call of God. But be careful to know that the call is never easy, never simple to grasp, never designed for ready comfort and success.

Just ask Isaiah.


1John Haynes Holmes, "The Voice of God is Calling" in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), #436.