corner graphic   Hi,    
ver. 2.0.19.10.22
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 6

 

 

Verses 1-13

CHAPTER IV

ISAIAH’S CALL AND CONSECRATION

740 B.C.

written 735? or 727?

Isaiah 6:1-13

IT has been already remarked that in chapter 6 we should find no other truths than those which have been unfolded in chapters 2-5: the Lord exalted in righteousness, the coming of a terrible judgment from Him upon Judah and the survival of a bare remnant of the people. But chapter 6 treats the same subjects with a difference. In chapters 2-4 they gradually appear and grow to clearness in connection with the circumstances of Judah’s history; in chapter 5 they are formally and rhetorically vindicated; in chapter 6 we are led back to the secret and solemn moments of their first inspiration in the prophet’s own soul. It may be asked why chapter 6 comes last and not first in this series, and why in an exposition attempting to deal, as far as possible, chronologically with Isaiah’s prophecies, his call should not form the subject of the first chapter. The answer is simple, and throws a flood of light upon the chapter. In all probability chapter 6 was written after its predecessors, and what Isaiah has put into it is not only what happened in the earliest moments of his prophetic life, but that spelt out and emphasised by his experience since. The ideal character of the narrative, and its date some years after the events which it relates, are now generally admitted. Of course the narrative is all fact. No one will believe that he, whose glance penetrated with such keenness the character of men and movements, looked with dimmer eye into his own heart. It is the spiritual process which the prophet actually passed through before the opening of his ministry. But it is that, developed by subsequent experience, and presented to us in the language of outward vision. Isaiah had been some years a prophet, long enough to make clear that prophecy was not to be for him what it had been for his predecessors in Israel, a series of detached inspirations and occasional missions, with short responsibilities, but a work for life, a profession and a career, with all that this means of postponement, failure, and fluctuation of popular feeling. Success had not come so rapidly as the prophet in his original enthusiasm had looked for, and his preaching had effected little upon the people. Therefore he would go back to the beginning, remind himself of that to which God had really called him, and vindicate the results of his ministry, at which people scoffed and his own heart grew sometimes sick. In chapter 6 Isaiah acts as his own remembrancer. If we keep in mind that this chapter, describing Isaiah’s call and consecration to the prophetic office, was written by a man who felt that office to be the burden of a lifetime, and who had to explain its nature and vindicate its results to his own soul-grown somewhat uncertain, it may be, of her original inspiration-we shall find light upon features of the chapter that are otherwise most obscure.

I. THE VISION

(Isaiah 6:1-4)

Several years, then, Isaiah looks back and says, "In the year King Uzziah died." There is more than a date given here; there is a great contrast suggested. Prophecy does not chronicle by time, but by experiences, and we have here, as it seems, the cardinal experience of a prophet’s life.

All men knew of that glorious reign with the ghastly end-fifty years of royalty, and then a lazar-house. There had been no king like this one since Solomon; never, since the son of David brought the Queen of Sheba to his feet, had the national pride stood so high or the nation’s dream of sovereignty touched such remote borders. The people’s admiration invested Uzziah with all the graces of the ideal monarch. The chronicler of Judah tells us "that God helped him and made him to prosper, and his name spread far abroad, and he was marvellously helped till he was strong"; he with the double name-Azariah, Jehovah-his-Helper; Uzziah, Jehovah-his-Strength. How this glory fell upon the fancy of the future prophet, and dyed it deep, we may imagine from those marvellous colours, with which in later years he painted the king in his beauty. Think of the boy, the boy that was to be an Isaiah, the boy with the germs of this great prophecy in his heart-think of him and such a hero as this to shine upon him, and we may conceive how his whole nature opened out beneath that sun of royalty and absorbed its light.

Suddenly the glory was eclipsed, and Jerusalem learned that she had seen her king for the last time: "The Lord smote the king so that he was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, and he was cut off from the house of the Lord." Uzziah had gone into the temple, and attempted with his own hands to burn incense. Under a later dispensation of liberty he would have been applauded as a brave Protestant, vindicating the right of every worshipper of God to approach Him without the intervention of a special priesthood. Under the earlier dispensation of law his act could be regarded only as one of presumption, the expression of a worldly and irreverent temper, which ignored the infinite distance between God and man. It was followed, as sins of wilfulness in religion were always followed under the old covenant, by swift disaster. Uzziah suffered as Saul, Uzzah, Nadab, and Abihu did. The wrath, with which he burst out on the opposing priests brought on, or made evident as it is believed to have done in other cases, an attack of leprosy. The white spot stood out unmistakably from the flushed forehead, and he was thrust from the temple-"yea, himself also hasted to go out."

We can imagine how such a judgment, the moral of which must have been plain to all, affected the most sensitive heart in Jerusalem. Isaiah’s imagination was darkened, but he tells us that the crisis was the enfranchisement of his faith. "In the year King Uzziah died"-it is as if a veil had dropped, and the prophet saw beyond what it had hidden, "the Lord sitting on a throne high and lifted up." That it is no mere date Isaiah means, but a spiritual contrast which he is anxious to impress upon us, is made clear by his emphasis of the rank and not the name of God. It is "the Lord sitting upon a throne-the Lord" absolutely, set over against the human prince. The simple antithesis seems to speak of the passing away of the young man’s hero-worship and the dawn of his faith; and so interpreted, this first verse of chapter 6 is only a concise summary of that development of religious experience which we have traced through chapters 2-4. Had Isaiah ever been subject to the religious temper of his time, the careless optimism of a prosperous and proud people, who entered upon their religious services without awe, "trampling the courts of the Lord," and used them like Uzziah, for their own honour, who felt religion to be an easy thing, and dismissed from it all thoughts of judgment and feelings of penitence-if ever Isaiah had been subject to that temper, then once for all he was redeemed by this stroke upon Uzziah. And, as we have seen, there is every reason to believe that Isaiah did at first share the too easy public religion of his youth. That early vision of his, [Isaiah 2:2-5] the establishment of Israel at the head of the nations, to be immediately attained at his own word [Isaiah 5:5] and without preliminary purification, was it not simply a less gross form of the king’s own religious presumption? Uzziah’s fatal act was the expression of the besetting sin of his people, and in that sin Isaiah himself had been a partaker. "I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips." In the person of their monarch the temper of the whole Jewish nation had come to judgment. Seeking the ends of religion by his own way, and ignoring the way God had appointed, Uzziah at the very moment of his insistence was hurled back and stamped unclean. The prophet’s eyes were opened. The king sank into a leper’s grave, but before Isaiah’s vision the Divine majesty arose in all its loftiness. "I saw the Lord high and lifted up." We already know what Isaiah means by these terms. He has used them of God’s supremacy in righteousness above the low moral standards of men, of God’s occupation of a far higher throne than that of the national deity of Judah, of God’s infinite superiority to Israel’s vulgar identification of His purposes with her material prosperity or His honour with the compromises of her politics, and especially of God’s seat as their Judge over a people, who sought in their religion only satisfaction for their pride and love of ease.

From this contrast the whole vision expands as follows.

Under the mistaken idea that what Isaiah describes is the temple in Jerusalem, it has been remarked that the place of his vision is wonderful in the case of one who set so little store by ceremonial worship. This, however, to which our prophet looks is no house built with hands, but Jehovah’s own heavenly palace (Isaiah 6:1 -not temple); only Isaiah describes it in terms of the Jerusalem temple which was its symbol. It was natural that the temple should furnish Isaiah not only with the framework of his vision, but also with the platform from which he saw it. For it was in the temple that Uzziah’s sin was sinned and God’s holiness vindicated upon him. It was in the temple that, when Isaiah beheld the scrupulous religiousness of the people, the contrast of that with their evil lives struck him, and he summed it up in the epigram "wickedness and worship." [Isaiah 1:13] It was in the temple, in short, that the prophet’s conscience had been most roused, and just where the conscience is most roused there is the vision of God to be expected. Very probably it was while brooding over Uzziah’s judgment on the scene of its occurrence that Isaiah beheld his vision. Yet for all the vision contained the temple itself was too narrow. The truth which was to be revealed to Isaiah, the holiness of God, demanded a wider stage and the breaking down of those partitions, which, while they had been designed to impress God’s presence on the worshipper, had only succeeded in veiling Him. So while the seer keeps his station on the threshold of the earthly building, soon to feel it rock beneath his feet, as heaven’s praise bursts like thunder on the earth, and while his immediate neighbourhood remains the same familiar house, all beyond is glorified. The veil of the temple falls away, and everything behind it. No ark nor mercy-seat is visible, but a throne and a court-the palace of God in heaven, as we have it also pictured in the eleventh and twenty-ninth Psalms. The Royal presence is everywhere. Isaiah describes no face, only a Presence and a Session: "the Lord sitting on a throne, and His skirts filled the palace."

"No face; only the sight

Of a sweepy garment vast and white

With a hem that I could recognise."

Around (not above, as in the English version) were ranged the hovering courtiers, of what shape and appearance we know not, except that they veiled their faces and their feet before the awful Holiness, -all wings and voice, perfect readinesses of praise and service. The prophet heard them chant in antiphon, like the temple choirs of priests. And the one choir cried out, "Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of hosts"; and the other responded, "The whole earth is full of His glory."

It is by the familiar name Jehovah of hosts-the proper name of Israel’s national God-that the prophet hears the choirs of heaven address the Divine Presence. But what they ascribe to the Deity is exactly what Israel will not ascribe, and the revelation they make of His nature is the contradiction of Israel’s thoughts concerning Him.

What, in the first place, is holiness? We attach this term to a definite standard of morality or an unusually impressive fulness of character. To our minds it is associated with very positive forces, as of comfort and conviction-perhaps because we take our ideas of it from the active operations of the Holy Ghost. The original force of the term holiness, however, was not positive, but negative, and throughout the Old Testament, whatever modifications its meaning undergoes, it retains a negative flavour. The Hebrew word for holiness springs from a root which means to set apart, make distinct, put at a distance from. When God is described as the Holy One in the Old Testament it is generally with the purpose of withdrawing Him from some presumption of men upon His majesty or of negativing their unworthy thoughts of Him. The Holy One is the Incomparable: "To whom, then, will ye liken Me, that I should be equal to him? saith the Holy One." [Isaiah 40:25] He is the Unapproachable: "Who is able to stand before Jehovah, this holy God?". [1 Samuel 6:20] He is the Utter Contrast of man: "I am God, and not man, the Holy One in the midst of thee". [Hosea 11:9] He is the Exalted and Sublime: "Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place". [Isaiah 57:15] Generally speaking, then, holiness is equivalent to separateness, sublimity-in fact, just to that loftiness or exaltation which Isaiah has already so often reiterated as the principal attribute of God. In their thrice-repeated Holy the seraphs are only telling more emphatically to the prophet’s ears what his eyes have already seen, "the Lord high and lifted up." Better expression could not be found for the full idea of Godhead. This little word Holy radiates heaven’s own breadth of meaning. Within its fundamental idea-distance or difference from man-what spaces are there not for every attribute of Godhead to flash? If the Holy One be originally He who is distinct from man and man’s thoughts, and who impresses man from the beginning with the awful sublimity of the contrast in which He stands to him, how naturally may holiness come to cover not only that moral purity and intolerance of sin to which we now more strictly apply the term, but those metaphysical conceptions as well, which we gather up under the name "supernatural," and so finally, by lifting the Divine nature away from the change and vanity of this world, and emphasising God’s independence of all beside Himself, become the fittest expression we have for Him as the Infinite and Self-existent. Thus the word holy appeals in turn to each of the three great faculties of man’s nature, by which he can be religiously exercised-his conscience, his affections, his reason; it covers the impressions which God makes on man as a sinner, on man as a worshipper, on man as a thinker. The Holy One is not only the Sinless and Sin-abhorring, but the Sublime and the Absolute too.

But while we recognise the exhaustiveness of the series of ideas about the Divine Nature, which develop from the root meaning of holiness, and to express which the word holy is variously used throughout the Scriptures, we must not, if we are to appreciate the use of the word on this occasion, miss the motive of recoil which starts them all. If we would hear what Isaiah heard in the seraphs’ song, we must distinguish in the three-fold ascription of holiness the intensity of recoil from the confused religious views and low moral temper of the prophet’s generation. It is no scholastic definition of Deity which the seraphim are giving. Not for a moment is it to be supposed, that to that age, whose representative is listening to them, they are attempting to convey an idea of the Trinity. Their thrice-uttered Holy is not theological accuracy, but religious emphasis. This angelic revelation of the holiness of God was intended for a generation some of whom were idol-worshippers, confounding the Godhead with the work of their own hands or with natural objects, and none of whom were free from a confusion in principle of the Divine with the human and worldly, for which now sheer mental slovenliness, now a dull moral sense, and now positive pride was to blame. To worshippers who trampled the courts of the Lord with the careless feet and looked up the temple with the unabashed faces, of routine, the cry of the seraphs, as they veiled their faces and their feet, travailed to restore that shuddering sense of the sublimity of the Divine Presence, which in the impressible youth of the race first impelled man, bowing low beneath the awful heavens, to name God by the name of the Holy. To men, again, careful of the legal-forms of worship, but lawless and careless in their lives, the song of the seraphs revealed not the hard truth, against which they had already rubbed conscience trite, that God’s law was inexorable, but the fiery fact that His whole nature burned with wrath towards sin. To men, once more, proud of their prestige and material prosperity, and presuming in their pride to take their own way with God, and to employ like Uzziah the exercises of religion for their own honour, this vision presented the real sovereignty of God: the Lord Himself seated on a throne there- just where they felt only a theatre for the display of their pride, or machinery for the attainment of their private ends. Thus did the three-fold cry of the angels meet the threefold sinfulness of that generation of men.

But the first line of the seraph’s song serves more than a temporary end. The Trisagion rings, and has need to ring, forever down the Church. Everywhere and at all times these are the three besetting sins of religious people-callousness in worship, carelessness in life, and the temper which employs the forms of religion simply for self-indulgence or self-aggrandisement. These sins are induced by the same habit of contentment with mere form; they can be corrected only by the vision of the Personal Presence who is behind all form. Our organisation, ritual, law, and sacrament-we must be able to see them fall away, as Isaiah saw the sanctuary itself disappear, before God Himself, if we are to remain heartily moral and fervently religious. The Church of God has to learn that no mere multiplication of forms, nor a more aesthetic arrangement of them, will redeem her worshippers from callousness. Callousness is but the shell which the feelings develop in self-defence when left by the sluggish and impenetrative soul to beat upon the hard outsides of form.. And nothing will fuse this shell of callousness but that ardent flame, which is kindled at touching of the Divine and human spirits, when forms have fallen away and the soul beholds with open face the Eternal Himself. As with worship, so with morality. Holiness is secured not by ceremonial, but by a reverence for a holy Being. We shall rub our consciences trite against moral maxims or religious rites. It is the effluence of a Presence, which alone can create in us, and keep in us, a clean heart. And if any object that we thus make light of ritual and religious law, of Church and sacrament, the reply is obvious. Ritual and sacrament are to the living God but as the wick of a candle to the light thereof. They are given to reveal Him, and the process is not perfect unless they themselves perish from the thoughts to which they convey Him. If God is not felt to be present, as Isaiah felt Him to be, to the exclusion of all forms, then these will be certain to be employed, as Uzziah employed them, for the sake of the only other spiritual being of whom the worshipper is conscious-himself. Unless we are able to forget our ritual in spiritual communion with the very God, and to become unconscious of our organisation in devout consciousness of our personal relation to Him, then ritual will be only a means of sensuous indulgence, organisation only a machinery for selfish or sectarian ends. The vision of God-this is the one thing needful for worship and for conduct.

But while the one verse of the antiphon reiterates what Jehovah of hosts is in Himself, the other describes what He is in revelation. "The whole earth is full of His glory." Glory is the correlative of holiness. Glory is that in which holiness comes to expression. Glory is the expression of holiness, as beauty is the expression of health. If holiness be as deep as we have seen, so varied then will glory be. There is nothing in the earth but it is the glory of God. "The fulness of the whole earth is His glory," is the proper grammatical rendering of the song. For Jehovah of hosts is not the God only of Israel, but the Maker of heaven and earth, and not the victory of Israel alone, but the wealth and the beauty of all the world is His glory. So universal an ascription of glory is the proper parallel to that of absolute Godhead, which is implied in holiness.

II. THE CALL

(Isaiah 6:4-8)

Thus, then, Isaiah, standing on earth, on the place of a great sin, with the conscience of his people’s evil in his heart, and himself not without the feeling of guilt, looked into heaven, and beholding the glory of God, heard also with what pure praise and readiness of service the heavenly hosts surrounded His throne. No wonder the prophet felt the polluted threshold rock beneath him, or that as where fire and water mingle there should be the rising of a great smoke. For the smoke described is not, as some have imagined, that of acceptable incense, thick billows swelling through the temple to express the completion and satisfaction of the seraphs’ worship; but it is the mist which ever arises where holiness and sin touch each other. It has been described both as the obscurity that envelops a weak mind in presence of a truth too great for it, and the darkness that falls upon a diseased eye when exposed to the mid-day sun. These are only analogies, and may mislead us. What Isaiah actually felt was the dim-eyed shame, the distraction, the embarrassment, the blinding shock of a personal encounter with One whom he was utterly unfit to meet. For this was a personal encounter. We have spelt out the revelation sentence by sentence in gradual argument; but Isaiah did not reach it through argument or brooding. It was not to the prophet what it is to his expositors, a pregnant thought, that his intellect might gradually unfold, but a Personal Presence, which apprehended and overwhelmed him. God and he were there face to face. "Then said I, Woe is me, for I am undone, because a man unclean of lips am I, and in the midst of a people unclean of lips do I dwell; for the King, Jehovah of hosts, mine eyes have beheld."

The form of the prophet’s confession, "uncleanness of lips," will not surprise us as far as he makes it for himself. As with the disease of the body, so with the sin of the soul; each often gathers to one point of pain. Every man, though wholly sinful by nature, has his own particular consciousness of guilt. Isaiah being a prophet felt his mortal weakness most upon his lips. The inclusion of the people, however, along with himself under this form of guilt, suggests a wider interpretation of it. The lips are, as it were, the blossom of a man. "Grace is poured upon thy lips, therefore God hath blessed thee forever. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also." It is in the blossom of a plant that the plant’s defects become conspicuous; it is-when all a man’s faculties combine for the complex and delicate office of expression that any fault which is in him will come to the surface. Isaiah had been listening to the perfect praise of sinless beings, and it brought into startling relief the defects of his own people’s worship. Unclean of lips these were indeed when brought against that heavenly choir. Their social and political sin-sin of heart and home and market-came to a head in their worship, and what should have been the blossom of their life fell to the ground like a rotten leaf beneath the stainless beauty of the seraphs’ praise.

While the prophet thus passionately gathered his guilt upon his lips, a sacrament was preparing on which God concentrated His mercies to meet it. Sacrament and lips, applied mercy and presented sin, now come together. "Then flew unto me one of the seraphim, and in his hand a glowing stone-with tongs had he taken it off the altar-and he touched my mouth and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and so thy iniquity passeth away and thy sin is atoned for."

The idea. of this function is very evident, and a scholar who has said that it "would perhaps be quite intelligible to the contemporaries of the prophet, but is undoubtedly obscure to us," appears to have said just the reverse of what is right; for so simple a process of atonement leaves out the most characteristic details of the Jewish ritual of sacrifice, while it anticipates in an unmistakable manner the essence of the Christian sacrament. In a scene of expiation laid under the old covenant, we are struck by the absence of oblation or sacrificial act on the part of the sinner himself. There is here no victim slain, no blood sprinkled; an altar is only parenthetically suggested, and even then in its simplest form, of a hearth on which the Divine fire is continually burning. The "glowing stone," not "live coal" as in the English version, was no part of the temple furniture, but the ordinary means of conveying heat or applying fire in the various purposes of household life. There was, it is true, a carrying of fire in some of the temple services, as, for example, on the great Day of Atonement, but then it was effected by a small grate filled with living embers. In the household, on the other hand, when cakes had to be baked, or milk boiled, or water warmed, or in fifty similar applications of fire, a glowing stone taken from off the hearth was the invariable instrument. It is this swift and simple domestic process which Isaiah now sees substituted for the slow and intricate ceremonial of the temple-a seraph with a glowing stone in his hand, "with tongs had he taken it off the altar." And yet the prophet feels this only as a more direct expression of the very same idea with which the elaborate ritual was inspired-for which the victim was slain, and the flesh consumed in fire, and the blood sprinkled. Isaiah desires nothing else, and receives no more, than the ceremonial law was intended to assure to the sinner-pardon of his sin and reconciliation to God. But our prophet will have conviction of these immediately, and with a force which the ordinary ritual is incapable of expressing. The feelings of this Jew are too intense and spiritual to be satisfied with the slow pageant of the earthly temple, whose performances to a man in his horror could only have appeared so indifferent and far away from himself as not to be really his own nor to effect what he passionately desired. Instead, therefore, of laying his guilt in the shape of some victim on the altar, Isaiah, with a keener sense of its inseparableness from himself, presents it to God upon his own lips. Instead of being satisfied with beholding the fire of God consume it on another body than his own, at a distance from himself, he feels that fire visit the very threshold of his nature, where he has gathered the guilt, and consume it there. The whole secret of this startling nonconformity to the law, on the very floor of the temple, is that for a man who has penetrated to the presence of God the legal forms are left far behind, and he stands face to face with the truth by which they are inspired. In that Divine Presence Isaiah is his own altar; he acts his guilt in his own person, and so he feels the expiatory fire come to his very self directly from the heavenly hearth. It is a replica of the fifty-first Psalm: "For Thou delightest not in sacrifice, else would I give it; Thou hast no pleasure in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit." This is my sacrifice, my sense of guilt gathered here upon my lips: my "broken and contrite heart," who feel myself undone before Thee, "Lord, Thou wilt not despise."

It has always been remarked as one of the most powerful proofs of the originality and Divine force of Christianity, that from man’s worship of God, and especially from those parts in which the forgiveness of sin is sought and assured, it did away with the necessity of a physical rite of sacrifice; that it broke the universal and immemorial habit by which man presented to God a material offering for the guilt of his soul. By remembering this fact we may measure the religious significance of the scene we now contemplate. Nearly eight centuries before there was accomplished upon Calvary that Divine Sacrifice for sin, which abrogated a rite of expiation, hitherto universally adopted by the conscience of humanity, we find a Jew, in the dispensation where such a rite was most religiously enforced, trembling under the conviction of sin, and upon a floor crowded with suggestions of physical sacrifice; yet the only sacrifice he offers is the purely spiritual one of confession. It is most notable. Look at it from a human point of view, and we can estimate Isaiah’s immense spiritual originality; look at it from a Divine and we cannot help perceiving a distinct foreshadow of what was to take place by the blood of Jesus under the new covenant. To this man, as to some others of his dispensation, whose experience our Christian sympathy recognises so readily in the Psalms, there was granted afore-time boldness to enter into the holiest. For this is the explanation of Isaiah’s marvellous disregard of the temple ritual. It is all behind him. This man has passed within the veil. Forms are all behind him, and he is face to face with God. But between two beings in that position, intercourse by the far off and uncertain signals of sacrifice is inconceivable. It can only take place by the simple unfolding of the heart. It must be rational, intelligent, and by speech. When man is at such close quarters with God what sacrifice is possible but the sacrifice of the lips? Form for the Divine reply there must be some, for even Christianity has its sacraments, but like them this sacrament is of the very simplest form, and like them it is accompanied by the explanatory word. As Christ under the new covenant took bread and wine, and made the homely action of feeding upon them the sign and seal to His disciples of the forgiveness of their sins, so His angel under the old and sterner covenant took the more severe, but as simple and domestic form of fire to express the same to His prophet. And we do well to emphasise that the experimental value of this sacrament of fire is bestowed by the word attached to it. It is not a dumb sacrament, with a magical efficacy. But the prophet’s mind is persuaded and his conscience set at peace by the intelligible words of the minister of the sacrament.

Isaiah’s sin being taken away, he is able to discern the voice of God Himself. It is in the most beautiful accordance with what has already happened that he hears this not as command, but request, and answers not of compulsion, but of freedom. "And 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." What spiritual understanding alike of the will of God and the responsibility of man, what evangelical liberty and boldness, are here! Here we touch the spring of that high flight Isaiah takes both in prophecy and in active service for the State. Here we have the secret of the filial freedom, the life-long sense of responsibility, the regal power of initiative, the sustained and unfaltering career, which distinguish Isaiah among the ministers of the old covenant, and stamp him prophet by the heart and for the life, as many of them are only by the office and for the occasion. Other prophets are the servants of the God of heaven; Isaiah stands next the Son Himself. On others the hand of the Lord is laid in irresistible compulsion; the greatest of them are often ignorant, by turns headstrong and craven, deserving correction, and generally in need of supplementary calls and inspirations. But of such scourges and such doles Isaiah’s royal career is absolutely without a trace. His course, begun in freedom, is pursued without hesitation or anxiety; begun in utter self-sacrifice, it knows henceforth no moment of grudging or disobedience. "Esaias is very bold," because he is so free and so fully devoted. In the presence of mind with which he meets each sudden change of politics during that bewildering half-century of Judah’s history, we seem to hear his calm voice repeating its first, "Here am I." Presence of mind he always had. The kaleidoscope shifts: it is now Egyptian intrigue, now Assyrian force; now a false king requiring threat of displacement by God’s own hero, now a true king, but helpless and in need of consolation; now a rebellious people to be condemned, and now an oppressed and penitent one to be encouraged:-different dangers, with different sorts of salvation possible, obliging the prophet to promise different futures, and to say things inconsistent with what he had already said. Yet Isaiah never hesitates; he can always say, "Here am I." We hear that voice again in the spontaneousness and versatility of his style. Isaiah is one of the great kings of literature, with every variety of style under his sway, passing with perfect readiness, as subject or occasion calls, from one to another of the tones of a superbly endowed nature. Everywhere this man impresses us with his personality, with the wealth of his nature and the perfection of his control of it. But the personality is consecrated. The "Here am I" is followed by the "send me." And its health, harmony, and boldness are derived, Isaiah being his own witness, from this early sense of pardon and purification at the Divine hands. Isaiah is indeed a king and a priest unto God-a king with all his powers at his own command, a priest with them all consecrated to the service of Heaven.

One cannot pass away from these verses without observing the plain answer which they give to the question, What is a call to the ministry of God? In these days of dust and distraction, full of party cries, with so many side issues of doctrine and duty presenting themselves, and the solid attractions of so many other services insensibly leading men to look for the same sort of attractiveness in the ministry, it may prove a relief to some to ponder the simple elements of Isaiah’s call to be a professional and lifelong prophet. Isaiah got no "call" in our conventional sense of the word, no compulsion that he must go, no articulate voice describing him as the sort of man needed for the work, nor any of those similar "calls" which sluggish and craven spirits so often desire to relieve them of the responsibility or the strenuous effort needed in deciding for a profession which their conscience will not permit them to refuse. Isaiah got no such call. After passing through the fundamental religious experiences of forgiveness and cleansing, which are in every case the indispensable premises of life with God, Isaiah was left to himself. No direct summons was addressed to him, no compulsion was laid on him; but he heard the voice of God asking generally for messengers, and he on his own responsibility answered it for himself in particular. He heard from the Divine lips of the Divine need for messengers, and he was immediately full of the mind that he was the man for the mission, and of the heart to give himself to it. So great an example cannot be too closely studied by candidates for the ministry in our own day. Sacrifice is not the half-sleepy, half-reluctant submission to the force of circumstance or opinion, in which shape it is so often travestied among us, but the resolute self-surrender and willing resignation of a free and reasonable soul. There are many in our day who look for an irresistible compulsion into the ministry of the Church; sensitive as they are to the material bias by which men roll off into other professions, they pray for something of a similar kind to prevail with them in this direction also. There are men who pass into the ministry by social pressure or the opinion of the circles they belong to, and there are men who adopt the profession simply because it is on the line of least resistance.

From which false beginnings rise the spent force, the premature stoppages, the stagnancy, the aimlessness and heartlessness, which are the scandals of the professional ministry and the weakness of the Christian Church in our day. Men who drift into the ministry, as it is certain so many do, become mere ecclesiastical flotsam and jetsam, incapable of giving carriage to any soul across the waters of this life, uncertain of their own arrival anywhere, and of all the waste of their generation, the most patent and disgraceful. God will have no drift-wood for His sacrifices, no drift-men for His ministers. Self-consecration is the beginning of His service, and a sense of our own freedom and our own responsibility is an indispensable element in the act of self-consecration. We-not God-have to make the decision. We are not to be dead, but living, sacrifices, and everything which renders us less than fully alive both mars at the time the sincerity of our surrender and reacts for evil upon the whole of our subsequent ministry.

III. THE COMMISSION

(Isaiah 6:9-13)

A heart so resolutely devoted as we have seen Isaiah’s to be was surely prepared against any degree of discouragement, but probably never did man receive so awful a commission as he describes himself to have done. Not that we are to suppose that this fell upon Isaiah all at once, in the suddenness and distinctness with which he here records it. Our sense of its awfulness will only be increased when we realise that Isaiah became aware of it, not in the shock of a single discovery, sufficiently great to have carried its own anaesthetic along with it, but through a prolonged process of disillusion, and at the pain of those repeated disappointments, which are all the more painful that none singly is great enough to stupefy. It is just at this point of our chapter that we feel most the need of supposing it to have been written some years after the consecration of Isaiah, when his experience had grown long enough to articulate the dim forebodings of that solemn moment. "Go and say to this people, Hearing, hear ye, but understand not; seeing, see ye, but know not. Make fat the heart of this people, and its ears make heavy, and its eyes smear, lest it see with its eyes, and hear with its ears, and its heart understand, and it turn again and be healed." No prophet, we may be sure, would be asked by God to go and tell his audiences that in so many words, at the beginning of his career. It is only by experience that a man understands that kind of a commission, and for the required experience Isaiah had not long to wait after entering on his ministry. Ahaz himself, in whose death-year it is supposed by many that Isaiah wrote this account of his consecration-the conduct of Ahaz himself was sufficient to have brought out the convictions of the prophet’s heart in this startling form, in which he has stated his commission. By the word of the Lord and an offer of a sign from Him, Isaiah did make fat that monarch’s heart and smear his eyes. And perverse as the rulers of Judah were in the examples and policies they set, the people were as blindly bent on following them to destruction. "Every one," said Isaiah, when he must have been for some time a prophet, "every one is a hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly."

But if that clear, bitter way of putting the matter can have come to Isaiah only with the experience of some years, why does he place it upon the lips of God, as they give him his commission? Because Isaiah is stating not merely his own singular experience, but a truth always true of the preaching of the word of God, and of which no prophet at the time of his consecration to that ministry can be without at least a foreboding. We have not exhausted the meaning of this awful commission when we say that it is only a forcible anticipation of the prophet’s actual experience. There is more here than one man’s experience. Over and over again are these words quoted in the New Testament, till we learn to find them true and always everywhere that the Word of God is preached to men, -the description of what would seem to be its necessary effect upon many souls. Both Jesus and Paul use Isaiah’s commission of themselves. They do so like Isaiah at an advanced stage in their ministry, when the shock of misunderstanding and ejection has been repeatedly felt, but then not solely as an apt description of their own experience. They quote God’s words to Isaiah as a prophecy fulfilled in their own case-that is to say, as the statement of a great principle or truth of which their own ministry is only another instance. Their own disappointments have roused them to the fact, that this is always an effect of the word of God upon numbers of men-to deaden their spiritual faculties. While Matthew and the book of Acts adopt the milder Greek version of Isaiah’s commission, John gives a rendering that is even stronger than the original. "He hath blinded," he says of God Himself, "their eyes and hardened their hearts, lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their hearts." In Mark’s narrative Christ says that He speaks to them that are outside in parables, "for the purpose that seeing they may see, and not perceive, and hearing they may hear, and not understand, lest haply they should turn again and it should be forgiven them." We may suspect, in an utterance so strange to the lips of the Lord of salvation, merely the irony of His baffled love. But it is rather the statement of what He believed to be the necessary effect of a ministry like His own. It marks the direction, not of His desire, but of natural sequence.

With these instances we can go back to Isaiah and understand why he should have described the bitter fruits of experience as an imperative laid upon him by God. "Make fat the heart of this people, and its ears make heavy, and its eyes do thou smear." It is the fashion of the prophet’s grammar, when it would state a principle or necessary effect, to put it in the form of a command. What God expresses to Isaiah so imperatively as almost to take our breath away; what Christ uttered with such abruptness that we ask, Does He speak in irony? what Paul laid down as the conviction of a long and patient ministry, is the great truth that the Word of God has not only a saving power, but that even in its gentlest pleadings and its purest Gospel, even by the mouth of Him who came, not to condemn, but to save the world, it has a power that is judicial and condemnatory.

It is frequently remarked by us as perhaps the most deplorable fact of our experience, that there exists in human nature an accursed facility for turning God’s gifts to precisely the opposite ends from those for which He gave them. So common is man’s misunderstanding of the plainest signs, and so frequent his abuse of the most evident favours of Heaven, that a spectator of the drama of human history might imagine its Author to have been a Cynic or Comedian, portraying for His own amusement the loss of the erring at the very moment of what might have been their recovery, the frustration of love at the point of its greatest warmth and expectancy. Let him look closer, however, and he will perceive, not a comedy, but a tragedy, for neither chance nor cruel sport is here at work, but free will and the laws of habit, with retribution and penalty. These actors are not puppets in the hand of a Power that moves them at will; each of them plays his own part, and the abuse and contradiction of which he is guilty are but the perogative of his freedom. They are free beings who thus reject the gift of Divine assistance and so piteously misunderstand Divine truth. Look closer still, and you will see that the way they talk, the impression they accept of God’s goodness, the effects of His judgments upon them, are determined not at the moment of their choice, and not by a single act of their will, but by the whole tenor of their previous life. In the sudden flash of some gift or opportunity, men reveal the stuff of which they are made, the disposition they have bred in themselves. Opportunity in human life is as often judgment as it is salvation. When we perceive these things, we understand that life is not a comedy, where chance governs or incongruous situations are invented by an Almighty Satirist for His own sport, but a tragedy, with all tragedy’s pathetic elements of royal wills contending in freedom with each other, of men’s wills clashing with God’s: men the makers of their own destinies, and Nemesis not directing, but following their actions. We go back to the very fundamentals of our nature on this dread question. To understand what has been called "a great law in human degeneracy," that "the evil heart can assimilate good to itself and convert it to its nature," we must understand what free will means, and take into account the terrible influence of habit.

Now there is no more conspicuous instance of this law, than that which is afforded by the preaching of the Gospel of God. God’s Word, as Christ reminds us, does not fall on virgin soil; it falls on soil already holding other seed. When a preacher stands up with the Word of God in a great congregation, vast as Scripture warrants us for believing his power to be, his is not the only power that is operative. Each man present has a life behind that hour and place, lying away in the darkness, silent and dead as far as the congregation are concerned, but in his own heart as vivid and loud as the voice of the preacher, though he be preaching never so forcibly. The prophet is not the only power in the delivery of God’s Word, nor is the Holy Spirit the only power. That would make all preaching of the Word a mere display. But the Bible represents it as a strife. And now it is said of men themselves that they harden their hearts against the Word, and now-because such hardening is the result of previous sinning, and has therefore a judicial character-that God hardens their hearts. "Simon, Simon," said Christ to a face that spread out to His own all the ardour of worship, "Satan is desiring to have you, but I have prayed that your faith fail not." God sends His Word into our hearts; the Mediator stands by, and prays that it make us His own. But there are other factors in the operation, and the result depends on our own will; it depends on our own will, and it is dreadfully determined by our habits.

Now this is one of the first facts to which a young reformer or prophet awakes. Such an awakening is a necessary element in his education and apprenticeship. He has seen the Lord high and lifted up. His lips have been touched by the coal from off the altar. His first feeling is that. nothing can withstand that power, nothing gainsay this inspiration. Is he a Nehemiah, and the hand of the Lord has been mighty upon him? Then he feels that he has but to tell his fellows of it to make them as enthusiastic in the Lord’s work as himself. Is he a Mazzini, aflame from his boyhood with aspiration for his country, consecrated from his birth to the cause of duty? Then he leaps with joy upon his mission; he has but to show himself, to speak, to lead the way, and his country is free. Is he-to descend to a lower degree of prophecy-a Fourier, sensitive more than most to how anarchic society is, and righteously eager to settle it upon stable foundations? Then he draws his plans for reconstruction, he projects his phalanges and phalansteres, and believes that he has solved the social problem. Is he-to come back to the heights-an Isaiah, with the Word of God in him like fire? Then he sees his vision of the perfect state; he thinks to lift his people to it by a word. "O house of Jacob," he says, "come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord!"

For all of whom the next necessary stage of experience is one of disappointment, with the hard commission, "Make the heart of this people fat." They must learn that, if God has caught themselves young, and when it was possible to make them entirely His own, the human race to whom He sends them is old, too old for them to effect much upon the mass of it beyond the hardening and perpetuation of evil. Fourier finds that to produce his perfect State he would need to re-create mankind, to cut down the tree to the very roots, and begin again. After the first rush of patriotic fervour, which carried so many of his countrymen with him, Mazzini discovers himself in "a moral desert," confesses that the struggle to liberate his fatherland, which has only quickened him to further devotion in so great a cause, has been productive of scepticism in his followers, and has left them withered and hardened of heart, whom it had found so capable of heroic impulses. He tells us how they upbraided and scorned him, left him in exile, and returned to their homes, from which they had set out with vows to die for their country, doubting now whether there was anything at all worth living or dying for outside themselves. Mazzini’s description of the first passage of his career is invaluable for the light which it throws upon this commission of Isaiah. History does not contain a more dramatic representation of the entirely opposite effects of the same Divine movement upon different natures. While the first efforts for the liberty of Italy materialised the greater number of his countrymen, whom Mazzini had persuaded to embark upon them, the failure and their consequent defection only served to strip this heroic soul of the last rags of selfishness, and consecrate it more utterly to the will of God and the duty that lay before it.

A few sentences from the confessions of the Italian patriot may be quoted, with benefit to our appreciation of what the Hebrew prophet must have passed through.

"It was the tempest of doubt, which I believe all who devote their lives to a great enterprise, yet have not dried and withered up their soul-like Robespierre-beneath some barren intellectual formula, but bare retained a loving heart, are doomed, once at least, to battle through. My heart was overflowing with and greedy of affection, as fresh and eager to unfold to joy as in the days when sustained by my mother’s smile, as full of fervid hope for others, at least, if not for myself. But during these fatal months there darkened round me such a hurricane of sorrow, disillusion, and deception as to bring before my eyes, in all its ghastly nakedness, a foreshadowing of the old age of my soul, solitary in a desert world, wherein no comfort in the struggle was vouchsafed to me. It was not only the overthrow for an indefinite period of every Italian hope; it was the falling to pieces of that moral edifice of faith and love from which alone I had derived strength for the combat; the scepticism I saw arising round me on every side; the failure of faith in those who had solemnly bound themselves to pursue unshaken the path we had known at the outset to be choked with sorrows; the distrust I detected in those most dear to me, as to the motives and intentions which sustained and urged me onward in the evidently unequal struggle When I felt that 1 was indeed alone in the world, I drew back in terror at the void before me. There. in that moral desert, doubt came upon me. Perhaps I was wrong, and the world right? Perhaps my idea was indeed a dream? One morning I awoke to find my mind tranquil and my spirit calmed, as one who has passed through a great danger. The first thought that passed across my spirit was, Your sufferings are the temptations of egotism, and arise from a misconception of life I perceived that although every instinct of my heart rebelled against that fatal and ignoble definition of life which makes it to be a search after happiness, yet I had not completely freed myself from the dominating influence exercised by it upon the age. I had been unable to realise the true ideal of love-love without earthly hope. Life is a mission, duty therefore its highest law. From the idea of God I descended to faith in a mission and its logical consequence-duty the supreme rule of life: and having reached that faith, I swore to myself that nothing in this world should again make me doubt or forsake it. It was, as Dante says, passing through martyrdom to peace-‘a forced and desperate peace’ I do not deny, for I fraternised with sorrow, and wrapped myself in it as in a mantle; but yet it was peace, for I learned to suffer without rebellion, and to live calmly and in harmony with my own spirit. I reverently bless God the Father for what consolations of affection-I can conceive of no other-He has vouchsafed to me in my later years; and in them I gather strength to struggle with the occasional return of weariness of existence. But even were these consolations denied me, I believe I should still be what I am. Whether the sun shine with the serene splendour of an Italian noon, or the leaden, corpse-like hue of the northern mist be above us, I cannot see that it changes our duty. God dwells above the earthly heaven and the holy stars of faith and the future still shine with n our souls, even though their light consume itself unreflected as the sepulchral lamp."

Such sentences are the best commentary we can offer on our text. The cases of the Hebrew and Italian prophets are wonderfully alike. We who have read Isaiah’s fifth chapter know how his heart also was "overflowing with and greedy of affection," and in the second and third chapters we have seen "the hurricane, of sorrow, disillusion, and deception darken round him." "The falling to pieces of the moral edifice of faith and love," "scepticism rising on every side," "failure of faith in those who had solemnly bound themselves," "distrust detected in those most dear to me" - and all felt by the prophet as the effect of the sacred movement God had inspired him to begin:-how exact a counterpart it is to the cumulative process of brutalising which Isaiah heard God lay upon him, with the imperative "Make the heart of this people fat!" In such a morally blind, deaf, and dead-hearted world Isaiah’s faith was indeed "to consume itself unreflected like the sepulchral lamp." The glimpse into his heart given us by Mazzini enables us to realise with what terror Isaiah faced such a void. "O Lord, how long?" This, too, breathes the air of "a forced and desperate peace," the spirit of one who, having realised life as a mission, has made the much more rare recognition that the logical consequence is neither the promise of success nor the assurance of sympathy, but simply the acceptance of duty, with whatever results and under whatever skies it pleases God to bring over him.

"Until cities fall into ruin without an inhabitant

And houses without a man,

And the land be left desolately waste.

And Jehovah have removed man far away,

And great be the desert in the midst of the land;

And still if there be a tenth in it,

Even it shall be again for consuming.

Like the terebinth, and like the oak.

Whose stock when they are felled remaineth in them,

The holy seed shall be its stock,"

The meaning of these words is too plain to require exposition, but we can hardly over-emphasise them. This is to be Isaiah’s one text throughout his career. "Judgment shall pass through; a remnant shall remain." All the policies of his day, the movement of the world’s forces, the devastation of the holy land, the first captivities of the holy people, the reiterated defeats and disappointments of the next fifty years-all shall be clear and tolerable to Isaiah as the fulfilling of the sentence to which he listened in such "forced and desperate peace" on the day of his consecration. He has had the worst branded into him; henceforth no man nor thing may trouble him. He has seen the worst, and knows there is a beginning beyond. So when the wickedness of Judah and the violence of Assyria alike seem most unrestrained-Assyria most bent on destroying Judah, and Judah least worthy to live-Isaiah will yet cling to this, that a remnant must remain. All his prophecies will be variations of this text; it is the key to his apparent paradoxes. He will proclaim the Assyrians to be God’s instrument, yet devote them to destruction. He will hail their advance on Judah, and yet as exultingly mark its limit, because of the determination in which he asked the question, "O Lord, how long?" and the clearness with which he understood the until, that came in answer to it. Every prediction he makes, every turn he seeks to give to the practical politics of Judah, are simply due to his grasp of these two facts-a withering and repeated devastation, in the end a bare survival. He has, indeed, prophecies which travel farther; occasionally he is permitted to indulge in visions of a new dispensation. Like Moses, he climbs his Pisgah, but he is like Moses also in this, that his lifetime is exhausted with the attainment of the margin of a long period of judgment and struggle, and then he passes from our sight, and no man knoweth his sepulchre unto this day. As abruptly as this vision closes with the announcement of the remnant, so abruptly does Isaiah disappear on the fulfilment of the announcement-some forty years subsequent to this vision-in the sudden rescue of the holy seed from the grasp of Sennacherib.

We have now finished the first period of Isaiah’s career. Let us catalogue what are his leading doctrines up to this point. High above a very sinful people, and beyond all their conceptions of Him, Jehovah, the national God, rises holy, exalted in righteousness. From such a God to such a people it can only be judgment and affliction that pass; and these shall not be averted by the fact that He is the national God, and they His worshippers. Of this affliction the Assyrians gathering far off upon the horizon are evidently to be the instruments. The affliction shall be very sweeping; again and again shall it come; but the Lord will finally save a remnant of His people. Three elements compose this preaching-a very keen and practical conscience of sin; an overpowering vision of God, in whose immediate intimacy the prophet believes himself to be; and a very sharp perception of the politics of the day.

One question rises. In this part of Isaiah’s ministry there is no trace of that Figure whom we chiefly identify with his preaching; the Messiah. Let us have patience; it is not time for Him; but the following is His connection with the prophet’s present doctrines.

Isaiah’s great result at present is the certainty of a remnant. That remnant will require two things-they will require a rallying-point, and they will require a leader. Henceforth Isaiah’s prophesying will be bent to one or other of these. The two grand purposes of his word and work will be, for the sake of the remnant, the inviolateness of Zion, and the coming of the Messiah. The former he has, indeed, already intimated (chapter 4); the latter is now to share with it his hope and eloquence.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 6:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-6.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
ADVERTISEMENT
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology