RPM, Volume 15, Number 48, November 24 to November 30, 2013

Isaiah's Commission

Isaiah 6:8-13

By D. Marion Clark


Review Isaiah's atonement
The strangest call


Verse 8 starts off with a positive call and response: 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

The reason for God appearing to Isaiah in a vision is to issue this call. He is making a rhetorical question, giving Isaiah the opportunity to "volunteer." Note Isaiah's enthusiasm. Where does he get such confidence to even volunteer? Just a moment ago he had been in despair over the judgment he expected to fall upon him as a miserable sinner, and now he has the gumption to act as the Almighty's messenger. Where did he get that self-assurance from?

Indeed, let's contrast him for a moment with Moses. He also received a call from God, and yet responded with fear and trepidation. I wonder if the reason has to do what each experienced in God's presence. They were both confronted with God's holiness. Yet Isaiah experienced two things that Moses did not: he had a vision of God himself and he experienced God's atonement. Moses heard God in the burning bush, but did not see him, nor did he receive personally a sign of atonement. Moses would later have his own vision of God in the cleft of a rock and hear God pronounce forgiveness and a covenant relationship (Exodus 34), and never again do we hear of Aaron being his mouthpiece.

It is the atonement of God that caused Isaiah to turn from fear to confidence. He then can zealously volunteer for service, not because he is confident in his ability, but because he is confident in God's mercy.

The next verses are among the most perplexing in scripture and surely form the strangest call for a messenger.

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.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed."

Two questions immediately come to our minds. Why would God send a messenger to in effect make sure that the hearers do not hear the message? And why would God not want his people to turn and be healed? Let's address the first question.

Why would God send a messenger to in effect make sure that the hearers do not hear the message? Do you recall my installation service? It was Benson Cain who gave me my charge. Imagine Benson charging me, "Preach the Word of God in such a manner that your people will not understand. Make their hearts calloused, their ears dull and their eyes blind. Be careful that no one is convicted by the Word, lest they repent of their sins and turn to the Lord to be healed."

The purpose of being a preacher of the Word is to make the Word known. The goal of the preacher is to proclaim the Word effectively so it will awaken hearts, not put them to sleep. So it is with the prophet. He had the same commission — to proclaim God's word that the people might turn to the Lord.

That's why Jonah did not want to be a prophet to Nineveh. He feared that the word he preached would convict the people; they would repent; and God would forgive.

10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 3:10-4:3).

Now, if this was truly the commission of Isaiah, he seemed to have given a poor effort, judging by the book of prophecy he left behind. Isaiah is exalted as the greatest of the prophets precisely because of the clarity and forcefulness of his messages. We may have trouble pinpointing what judgment he is referring to at any one time, but that he does an effective job of warning of sin and of holding forth the promise of redemption is without question. There is no one better with the language than Isaiah.

Did he then try to circumvent God's commission? "You might want me to be dull and perplexing, but I'm going to give them the best messages I can." I don't think he would try such a thing after his vision.

Then what is going on? What God is telling Isaiah is, "Preach boldly; preach clearly; but know that the effect of your preaching is to bring the sin of a rebellious people to its fullness, that they might receive their just judgment. You, in effect, will be magnifying their callousness and obstinacy, by the words that ought to be bringing them to repentance.

Why will this happen? It will happen not because Isaiah is able to dull their hearts, but because God is. He will stop up their ears and blind their eyes, just as he did pharaoh when he freed his people from Egypt.

Why would God do that? which leads to the second question: why would God not want his people to turn and be healed? Listen to what God tells Israel in Ezekiel 18:30-32:

30 "Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!"

That sounds like the God we know, not one who prevents people from turning to him for healing. Again, what is going on?

First, note that God will heal. The next verses are brutal in the judgment that is pronounced:

11 Then I said, "For how long, O Lord?"
And he answered:

"Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.

This is what we have heard before in our previous chapters. A great judgment is coming that will bring Israel to near total destruction. Even so, it will not be an utter destruction, for there will be those who are saved, because they will hear and repent.

But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land."

However few there may be, there will be a remnant that will turn and be healed, and that stump will someday become a great tree. The remnant will become a great kingdom. As Isaiah caught on, timing was the real issue. Not all people would be without hearing and not for all time would the dullness last. It would extend to all the people not ordained to live and last until the righteous judgment would take place.

God wants his people to live, including those who are wicked now and yet are called to be in his kingdom. They will hear and turn to him. But those who do not belong to him will not hear.

That still leaves us with the question of fairness. Why does God prevent the reprobate from hearing? We are treading not into waters that, quite frankly, are too deep for us. We ultimately do not know why he grants life to some and withholds it from others. We don't know. All we do know is that those who are granted life, receive it out of mercy. What is not fair is that God should save the wicked, and we are all wicked. The fair thing for God to do is to condemn us all. That he chooses some to save is pure mercy.

That we confront God with being unfair for not choosing some to be saved is an indictment on ourselves that we have such little opinion of his holiness and our sin. Notice that Isaiah did not question God's commission. Why? Because God had impressed upon him his holiness and Isaiah's sinfulness.

Do you remember my commenting two weeks ago about how a number of people would like to meet God and have him answer some questions? Isaiah showed what happens when people meet God. They become undone in the presence of holiness as sinful people. We dare to reproach God because we have never truly experienced God. Job's experience is a good lesson for us in trying to fit God into our understanding and judgments:

Then Job replied to the LORD:

2 "I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.

4 "You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.' 5 My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:1-6).

The issue is not that God doesn't have to answer to us (which he doesn't), but that God is too far beyond us for us to be able to understand. To look fully into God's holiness would overwhelm us; to look fully at our sinfulness would terrify us.

What this passage of Isaiah's commission is intended to teach us is that God is in control. He is not sending Isaiah out on a commission that he will fail in completing. Isaiah will experience rejection. God says, "Expect it, not because I can't succeed, but precisely because I will succeed in carrying out my secret counsel." My Word, even by its rejection, will carry out the intention I have set for it.


Having said all this, we are still responsible for what we receive. It is not excusable for us to blame God for what we do not accept. Even Isaiah's commission applies to people who already have reject God's word. They have rejected the law of Moses. That's why the prophets were being sent by God — to tell people to obey the word that they had already received and rejected. No hearer of Isaiah could blame God that he had made them unable to receive Isaiah's message, when they had already rejected Moses' message. And if they could understand Isaiah 6:9,10, they had no excuse for not understanding Isaiah 1:18-20:

18 "Come now, let us reason together,"
says the LORD.
"Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
20 but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

It all goes back to this: we hear what we want to hear. No one is condemned for failing to hear the gospel. We are condemned because we have already rejected it. Instead of crossing our arms and demanding that God satisfy us with what we perceive to be our rights, we ought to be falling on our knees and thanking the holy God for such tender mercy he would show to such wicked people as ourselves.

If we really had ears to hear, we would be asking why God would send any messenger with the words of Isaiah that proclaim the glorious redemption of God. Let us give thanks that he did.

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