In my Introduction to the Bible class, our Old Testament professor started with this passage when he began teaching us about the prophets. He stayed with it for four or five class sessions.
I’ll just sum up what he was getting at quickly, since you all won’t have to take a test like we did. We remember the ancient Israelites believed the first true king of their people, David, was anointed by God for the role. The king was more than just a political ruler; he was a symbol of God’s connection to the people.
For many, many years, the Israelites had very bad kings, especially when it came to modeling godly leadership. The faithful folks who hadn’t mixed idol worship and whatnot in with their worship of God were probably resigned to the fact that the king was pretty much never going to be on their side. King Uzziah was a welcome change – he was a believer who worked to get the nation back into compliance with the Torah as it had been delivered through Moses. Faithful people like Isaiah found hope in his efforts.
After his pride put him in conflict with the priests and he contracted leprosy, Uzziah retired from the throne while his son Jotham reigned. When Uzziah finally died, faithful people like Isaiah wondered what would happen? Would his son Jotham do right in God’s sight as well? What would happen to the people without their anointed and proven righteous leader? Jotham was righteous, but he outlived his father by only three years, and his successor Ahaz went back to business as usual.
It’s in the uncertain time after Uzziah’s death we see Isaiah’s vision of the presence of God filling the temple. On the one hand, it’s reassuring. Even though the righteous king has died, God remains.
But on the other hand, it’s a little nervous-making. Isaiah realizes that neither he nor his people are clean in God’s sight; they have said and done things that go against the God they claim to follow. Such a condition gives hope for longevity.
In his vision, the angel touches a fiery coal to his lips and proclaims that God has cleansed the taint Isaiah has admitted. He hears God calling for a messenger to speak to the people, and he calls out his desire to answer God’s call. His words echo Samuel’s when God called to him in the night. “Here am I! Send me!”
We stop there most of the time. “Will you answer God’s call?” preachers may ask. “God has cleansed you himself – how will you respond?” It’s a good question, and I believe God does want us to respond to his displayed love by bringing that love into the world around us.
But there’s a catch. We never seem to read the message Isaiah is meant to give the people: “Listen but don’t get it. See but never perceive. Make their hearts calloused, dull their eyes and ears.” How long do I do that, Isaiah asks? “Until everything is in ruins,” the Lord says. “Until everything is in ruins and there’s just a remnant left over.”
Bible scholars argue over just what God means Isaiah to say – some suggest God is literally dictating the message he wants Isaiah to give. Others say God describes how the people will respond to what Isaiah tells them. I lean the second way myself for a couple of reasons. One is the common experience most of us believers have had of people ignoring us or cutting us short when we might want to talk about our faith. Another is how often I have ignored God’s words to me about some area of my life that needs changing. Sometimes I wise up and listen right away and sometimes it takes awhile and sometimes I don’t listen until I’m wiped out down to the ruins and remnants.
Either way, this message would inspire little enthusiasm in the budding prophet or preacher. Who wants to proclaim a message that’s guaranteed to be ignored?
And yet, that’s the call and that’s the offer Isaiah has taken up. That’s what he does. Interestingly, Isaiah’s visions are what we see as some of the first inklings that God will give the people about his ultimate plan of salvation, made real in his son Jesus. A messenger who’s told to proclaim a message without hope is the source of our understanding of God’s ultimate hope.
How is that possible? I believe it’s because of that “stump” that God calls “the holy seed.” Like a tree stump produces new shoots that may in time become a whole new tree, the bare remnant of God’s presence among the unfaithful people will be enough reason for the few faithful to keep hope.
Expand that view some, and we can see God telling us that he remains no matter what the condition or situation. From a wrecked country he will bring forth his people, and from what may seem like a life wrecked by sin he will bring forth his redeemed child.
Maybe that’s trying to read too much into God’s words to Isaiah here; I don’t know. What I do know is that after this encounter comes the prophecy of Emmanuel and the promise of redemption by the suffering servant as well as the better part of sixty more chapters of messages from God to the people. Sounds to me like Isaiah heard something in these words that made him figure he had something to say, whether anybody listened or not.