The Calling of the Prophet Isaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived during a very troublesome era during the years 742-701B. C. E. He preached during the reigns of four kings of Judah: Uzziah (783-742), Jotham (742-735), Ahaz (735-715), and Hezekiah (715-687). Judah faced many challenges and crises throughout those years primarily at the hands of the Assyrian Empire. Isaih interpreted the events as part of the Lord’s will, and he encourages the people to trust in the Lord rather than relying on political alliances. Isaiah is thought to be one of the greatest poets of the Bible, and his book a classic of the Hebrew language.

His writing has a very concise style, effective imagery, and an equilibrium between form and content which classify the type of poetry as classical. From the theological aspect, Isaiah moves in the religious tradition influenced by David’s dynasty and the election of Sion, and also contributed to the shape and expression of the messianic hopes (Obstat, p. 278). The book Isaiah contains mostly oracles from various authors, however the authentic oracles of Isaiah are found in the first part of the book. Chapters 6-12 are considered the oldest collection in the book.

It includes the account of the vocation and mission of the prophet, the oracles concerning the Syro-Ephraimite War, oracles referring to the crisis of 701B. C. E. , and other salvation passages (Obstat, p. 278). Isaiah chapter 6 versus 1-13 stand apart from the rest of the Bible as a unique record of how God called on and reached out to a man, and in doing so a prophet was born. Interpreting this chapter is of vital importance for the understanding of Isaiah’s teaching as a whole. In it he describes a real experience which effects him both psychologically and spiritually.

Through the passage it can be perceived that his ministry was initiated by a soul shaking experience of the reality of God, and it’s authenticity validated by it’s results and influence on the prophet’s life and work (Berrtrick, p 205). One of the main purposes of any prophet’s call narrative is to justify his right to speak in the name of God. Oftentimes a prophet’s message isn’t accepted of very popular with the people he is preaching to, and in the face of this opposition the prophet’s most valuable defense is that he was sent by the Lord. (Boadt, p. 329).

Isaiah’s calling launched him into his public life as a prophet and gave him the courage to fulfill the specific task for which he was commissioned, being a spokesperson for God (Clements, p. 70). The narrative opens with “In the year that King Uzziah died”, which gives a chronological indication of when the vision took place. The year in which he died is uncertain but scholars have set it somewhere around the year 74 B. C. E.. Uzziah had been a popular and peaceful ruler, and Issaiah’s reaction to his death can be compared to the shock and disorientation which Americans felt when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.

The people wondered what would happen to Israel now? What will be the fate of the nation? It was with worries like these that Isaiah experienced his vision of the divine king, the Lord, in the holy temple of Jerusalem (Holladay, p. 26). In the vision Isaiah saw God “sitting upon a throne”. This means that he viewed God as a functioning king full of authority and power. With the death of their king, the nation of Israel was vulnerable to attack by outside violent nations such as Assyria, which could bring the people to a panic.

But through Isaiah’s visions, if convincing and conclusive, then the people could see that the king of Assyria isn’t the strongest figure in the universe, God is. It was this simple belief that would rule Isaiah’s life for forty years or more (Holladay, p. 29). The next words “high and exalted”, only reinforce the point made earlier, that God is higher than everything else. The idea of the “height” of God is one of the main themes in the book of Isaiah.

He is very caught up in the notion of the awesome majesty of God and the notion that there is such an immense distance which separates him from all that is earthly and human , that there is no comparison (Holladay, p. 28). Isaiah describes God’s robe and how its skirt filled the temple, “And the skirt of his robe filled the temple. ” Here he shows again how mighty and immense God must have been to take up the whole temple with the bottom of his robe, filling the earth with his glory (Holladay, p29). Isaiah doesn’t make any other attempts to describe the image of God he saw, giving it a more powerful effect (Bertrick, p. 7).

The next verse describes the seraphim that appeared in the vision. They are winged beings mentioned only here in the Old Testament. Each had six wings they used to cover themselves and to fly. Depending on the translation they cover their “bodies” or “feet”. It is clear that feet and bodies are euphemisms for the genitals (compare with Deut. 28:57). They also cover their faces against the glory given forth by God, and the third pair of wings are used to fly. The seraphim could be compared to the courtiers and bodyguards of an earthly human king (Holladay, p. 29).

They were guardian deities, or servants protecting the way the throne of Yahweh (Kaiser, p. 74). Their name suggests that they were of serpent form, but had three pairs of wings and hands and “feet” like a man (Kaiser, p. 74). Verse three continues: 3 They were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole Earth is full of his glory. ” The word “holy” repeated three times refers simply to what is a characteristic of God (Kaiser, p. 30). The whole second like of the verse could have derived from a choral antiphon actually sung in Jerusalem temple.

This could possibly mean Isaiah’s vision occurred during some act of worship. In the next line of the verse it states that the Earth is full of God’s glory. The Hebrew word whose English translation is “glory” has a remarkable range of meanings, including the idea of respect and distinction. To “give glory” to someone is to show him respect (Holladay, p. 29). Verses four through seven make up the second part of the call account which consists of an act of cleansing and preparation of the prophet for his mission.

The passage continues: “And the foundation of the thresholds shook”. The basic understanding of this verse is that it describes the prophet’s impression of what was taking place in the temple. It is also believed the smoke which filled the temple must have come from the smoke of incense and other offerings in the sanctuary, even though it is commonly thought of as part of the visionary accompaniment of a theophany (Kaiser, p. 74).

Following the imagery of the vision Isaiah speaks, saying: 5 Woe is me! I am doomed, for my own eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts, I, a man of unclean lips, I, who dwell among a people of unclean lips. The prophets words of uttered out of grief, not wrath, for he is under the conviction that no one can see God and live: “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for a man shall not see me and live. ” Exodus 33:20 He is fully aware of his unfitness to use his mouth in the service of God (Kaiser, p. 75). Because Isaiah is to be speaking for God it is important that his lips be rendered suitable for such a task. But the idea runs deeper than that.

Isaiah has the idea that he is wholly polluted and so are the people of Israel, they are unfit to stand before God because of their unclean lips-that is their polluted thought, words, and actions (Holladay, 75). Verse six describes his purification by one of the seraphim touches his mouth with a burning coal. The burning coal symbolizes the total significance of the alter from which it was taken (Gutherie, p. 595). When the seraphim touched his lips they pronounced the words, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven”.

This suggests Isaiah’s lips had been unclean due to “guilt” and “sin”. After the cleansing though, Isaiah himself is purged from any attachment to Israel’s sin, and he is purified through the grace of God, not by works (Kaiser, p. 34). In the next verse, God speaks to Isaiah, asking for a volunteer to be his messenger, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? ”. In response Isaiah steps forth willingly to volunteer: “Here I am; send me” (Holladay,p. 75). Verse nine continues with God saying, “Go tell this people”.

It is evident from the context of the verse that he will no longer lay claim to the Israelites as “his people”. There is a note of divine rejection in his words, and also an awareness that the people of Judah and Jerusalem whom Isaiah will address do not constitute the whole of the people who were once Yahweh’s (Holladay, p. 76). God goes on the tell Isaiah: However hard you listen you will never understand. How ever hard you look you will never perceive. 10 This people’s wits were dulled; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes,

It is often thought that Isaiah formed this prophecy retrospectively because of its unusual nature and its inherent doom for failure (Kaiser, p. 82; Clements, p. 77). This saying is also full of irony, for the prophet sincerely wanted the people to hear and understand (Kaiser, p. 77). But in verses nine and ten, God explains how he plans to deal the people. Verse eleven begins with Isaiah asking the Lord the question, “How long? ”. This question is a common cry in psalms of supplication, a prayer for pity and relief (Brown, p. 234).

In this case the cry was not simply a request to know how long the suffering must be endured, but a deep rooted plea that it might be swiftly brought to an end (Kaiser, p. 77). The lord answers Isaiah: 11 Until cities fall in ruins and are deserted, until houses are left without occupants, and the land lies ruined and waste. 12 The Lord will drive the people far away, and the country will be in vast desolation. The picture given in verse eleven demonstrates the devastation caused by war. The reference to “the land” must have been to Judah and Jerusalem, which at the threat of judgment would suffer greatly.

But Isaiah must have certainly seen the Northern Kingdom included as well. Verse twelve is thought to be an addition made by a later editor to show how the judgment would result in the deportation of many from the land. This situation could possible relate to after 721B. C. E. when many citizens of the Northern Kingdom were carried off to Assryia, or to Judah when many of its inhabitants were carried off to Babylon (Kaiser, p. 78) The Book of Isaiah is a book full of oracles such as the one narrating Isaiah’s calling to be a prophet for the Lord God.

In accordance with his classical poetic style the passage is full of imagery and sensual descriptions. Concerned with the fall of the nation, Isaiah has God himself warning the people of what is to come for a stronger impact on the Israelites. As a man who lived through the reins of four kings whom throughout the book are of great importance, Isaiah sees God as a functioning king and ruler. Much of what is said and seen in Isaiah 6:1-13 relate to other events in the rest of the book and surely influence Isaiah’s life completely.

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