It has long puzzled interpreters that the apparent call of Isaiah is not recounted until chapter 6.

November 18, 2012

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Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8

It has long puzzled interpreters that the apparent call of Isaiah is not recounted until chapter 6.

Indeed, many interpreters conclude that Isaiah 6:1-8 represents not Isaiah’s call, but rather something like a renewal-of-call experience or a re-commissioning for a new situation that was precipitated by the death of King Uzziah in 742 BCE (or 736, according to some historians).

Certainty is impossible; but, in any case, the present canonical arrangement certainly helps the reader appreciate Isaiah’s confession that he lives “among a people of unclean lips” (verse 5), since chapters 1-5 offer a detailed and stinging indictment of the people of Judah and their leaders. These chapters may also help the reader appreciate why Isaiah also confesses that he himself is “a man of unclean lips” (verse 5) — that is, if nothing else, he would have incurred guilt by association!

Of course, there is something else. In particular, there is the overwhelming experience described in verses 1-4. Isaiah says that he “saw the Lord” (verse 1). In some traditions, to see God is to die (see Exodus 33:20, although compare Psalms 24:6; 27:8-9), so it is no wonder that Isaiah is struck by his inadequacy and unworthiness in the presence of a God whose holiness has been emphasized by the repetition of “Holy” in the song of the seraphs (verse 3). To be holy is to be totally other, and especially to stand apart from all that is sinful and unclean.

Isaiah’s experience apparently takes place in “the temple” (verse 1), the innermost portion of which was known as the “Holy of Holies.” It housed the ark, which was viewed as God’s earthly throne. In Isaiah’s visionary experience, the carved creatures that decorated the ark come to life, and gradually the distinction between the earthly temple and God’s heavenly abode becomes blurred.

Isaiah is aware of standing in the very presence of God and God’s heavenly council (see the “us” in verse 6; and see 1 Kings 22:19 where the prophet Micah also “saw the LORD sitting on his throne,” surrounded by heavenly attendants). Isaiah knows he has truly been confronted by “the King, the LORD of hosts” (verse 5).

Even though encountering and being encountered by the holy God appropriately humble him, Isaiah has nothing to fear. God is not out to kill him, but rather to forgive him. Since this a direct experience of God, no sacrifice need be brought or offered. The fire of the altar, conveyed by the seraphs, is cleansing enough. Isaiah is forgiven (verses 6-7).

Interestingly, Isaiah’s call (or renewal-of-call) comes not in the form of a divine command, but rather in the form of a question. And the question is not even addressed to Isaiah. Rather, God speaks to the heavenly council, and Isaiah overhears the conversation. Nonetheless, as if overwhelmed with gratitude at having been forgiven and permitted to live, Isaiah cannot help but reply: “Here am I; send me!”
The immediacy and enthusiasm of Isaiah’s positive response represents a marked contrast with several other call narratives, including Jeremiah’s, whose hesitancy recalls Moses’ call (see Jeremiah 1:4-10). For Isaiah, there is no hesitation and there are no excuses, contingencies, or “what-ifs.”

Given the continuation of chapter 6 in verses 9-13 (which is not part of the lection), however, one wonders if Isaiah would have been so positive and enthusiastic if he had waited to hear what God was sending him to say and to do — that is, to dull people’s minds, stop up their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they cannot repent and be healed.

Isaiah responds with a typical element of the psalms of lament, “How long, O Lord?” (verse 11). To be sure, such a mission does not represent a very encouraging way to begin one’s ministry (or a new chapter in one’s ministry). But such a conclusion may over-psychologize the text.

Almost certainly, verses 9-13 were framed in retrospect; and verses 11-13 seem even to look back on the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. In any case, these verses stand as a stark reminder of how the prophetic preaching was generally received — that is, not with enthusiastic repentance, but rather with routine disregard (and often with outright hostility). It would be true for Jesus’ preaching as well (see the citation of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12).

Despite the discouraging direction of chapter 6, verse 13 ends the chapter with a glimmer of hope: “The holy seed is its stump.” The destruction will be real, but it will not be the final word. The occurrence of “holy” in verse 13 may be a little reminder that the holy God whom Isaiah encountered refused finally to stand apart from sin and sinners (see Hosea 11:1-9, especially verse 9 where God is the “Holy One in your midst”).

Isaiah was forgiven; and as the Book of Isaiah will proclaim, God’s people will be forgiven too (see Isaiah 40-66). Even the more immediate context of chapter 6 offers a word of hope. While chapter 7 illustrates the truth of 6:9-10 by relating King Ahaz’s failure to comprehend and trust, the following chapters anticipate a good and faithful king who will pursue the justice, righteousness, and peace that God wills (see Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-10; compare 5:1-7).

In the context of the Book of Isaiah, this good king-to-come should be understood as Hezekiah; but the early Church understood these texts to receive their ultimate fulfillment in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the quintessential sign that the holy God will simply not separate God’s own self from “a people of unclean lips” (verse 5).

King of heaven and earth,
As you cleansed Isaiah with a coal of fire to prepare him for proclaiming your word to the world, prepare us, so that we may know your bidding and carry out our callings with eagerness and urgency. Show the world greatness that cannot be contained any more than smoke or fire can be caught, in the name of the one who sacrificed everything to carry out your commands, Jesus Christ our sanctifier. Amen.

Send me, Jesus   ELW 809, UMH 497
Rejoice, ye pure in heart!   ELW 874, H82 556, 557, UMH 160, NCH 55, 71
Isaiah in a vision did of old   ELW 868
Isaiah the prophet has written of old   NCH 108

We wait for thy loving kindess, O God, William McKie