Lessons from Isaiah’s Call

The Book of Isaiah begins with Isaiah receiving a vision of the future of the kingdom of Judah. The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

2Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. 3The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. 4Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! 5Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. 6From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. 7Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. 8And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.

At the beginning of the sixth chapter we read what is called: Isaiah’s Call. In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then 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!”

9And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

So, why is it that Isaiah’s call is in Chapter 6 rather than chapter 1? And why is it that his call is dated by the reign of King Uzziah of Judah? What does Uzziah have to do with it at all?

Since David united Israel and began his reign in 1010 God had great plans for his chosen people. In Isaiah chapter 2 we hear: “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

After a good solid beginning things fell apart for Israel. The kingdom split into Judah and Israel and were plundered by their enemies. Idol worship became common place. The security and prosperity that Israel had known in its first one hundred years disappeared. The golden age had ended. It was 268 years later, with the rise of Jeroboam II in Israel and Uzziah in Judah, that harmony, prosperity and security finally returned. As Judah and Israel regained the status of a ‘superpower’ and the Temple and Jerusalem had become a national and religious center Isaiah anticipates the realization of Israel’s ultimate goal. During this prosperous time the prophets hoped for a national religious reawakening. For the first time in very long time a time as glorious as the days of David and Solomon, was achievable. The power and prosperity in the time of Uzziah promised to be the unfolding of an era in which Israel would be able to realize its biblical destiny as we just read from Isaiah chapter 2. They could become the source of guidance for all humankind.

Uzziah was 16 when he began a 52 year reign as king of Judah. The first 24 years of his reign were as co-regent with his father, Amaziah. His reign marked the height of Judah’s power. Early in his reign he stayed faithful to God but as II Chronicles 26 reports. But – well, let me simply read it:

But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. 17 Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. 18 They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.”

19 Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the Lord’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. 20 When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the Lord had afflicted him. 21 King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died.

Rabbinic sources say that when Uzziah became powerful, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly, he trespassed against God by entering the Temple to offer incense in a rite that could only be performed by priests. The priests confronted the king. They told him to get out of the Temple. He got angry with them and leprosy broke out on his forehead … and they rushed him out…” There is a Rabbinic principle that when person contracts leprosy they are considered dead. The first words of this Isaiah passage that reads: “In the year that King Uzziah died…” isn’t a reference to Uzziah’s actually death but rather the year in which he became a leper.

His punishment corresponds to his sin. Because of his haughtiness, feeling himself worthy of entering an area of the Temple restricted to priests, Torah commands that as a leper he must be sent away from the Temple and the camp of Israel! A leper, being in the Temple had the effect of making it unclean, defiled. His own sin was quite reflective of his generation. Just like Uzziah, the prosperity and wealth of the people led to their haughtiness. Their pride was more important to them than their faithfulness to God! Their own accomplishments became their idols.

Becoming this light for all nations and people was the purpose for which God had blessed Israel with wealth and security. God intended for Israel to use their new found prosperity towards achieving this great goal. Instead Israel became greedy with its wealth; its society became both affluent and haughty.

This disappointment is reflected in the continuation of the above prophecy 6For you have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob. Indeed they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they clasp hands with foreigners. 7Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. 8Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. 9And so people are humbled, and everyone is brought low— do not forgive them!

To his dismay, Isaiah now foresees God’s anger and impending punishment of Israel for their misuse of this prosperity. In another chapter God compares God’s own efforts to help Israel prosper to the efforts of a dedicated farmer working hard to assure that his vineyard would produce the finest grapes. Despite the farmer’s tireless efforts, the vineyard produced ‘sour grapes.’ The farmer, so angered and disappointed, decides to allow his vineyard to be trampled upon. So too, God has been angered, for even though God had done everything possible to ensure that Israel would achieve their goal, the exact opposite happened. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; And He hoped for justice, but behold He found injustice, For equity, but behold iniquity”

So now we have a new ear to hear Isaiah’s call. He reports in the sixth chapter: I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple. 2 Above Him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with twain he covered his face and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. 3 And one called unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory. In reaction Isaiah says: Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. … 9 And (God) He said: ‘Go, and tell this people: hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. 10 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding with their heart, return, and be healed.’ 11 Then said I: ‘Lord, how long?’ And He answered: ‘Until cities be waste without inhabitant, and houses without man, and the land become utterly waste, 12 And the LORD have removed men far away, and the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land.

On a first reading it seems that Isaiah sees God’s presence in the Temple surrounded by angels after which God appoints him to be his messenger. But why must such an enigmatic vision precede God’s charge to Isaiah of his mission? When we listen more closely to Isaiah he reports that he saw God himself, on a thrown, high and lifted up, and only the ‘skirts of his robe’ are still in the Temple. The “seraphim” cover their eyes and begin to move their wings. Even the angels’ recitation of “kadosh, kadosh…” reflects that God’s holiness will not allow God to remain in this Temple defiled by the leper Uzziah. Isaiah’s vision is not of God residing in the Temple but that of God actually leaving the Temple. God’s presence that had been once ‘concentrated’ in the Temple, has now left that spot, and instead fills the entire earth!

This suggests that since it is specifically during this vision that Isaiah receives his mission to inform the people that because of their wayward behavior God will soon come and punish them: “…until towns lie waste without inhabitants and houses without people and the ground lies waste and desolate, for God will banish the people…”

In chapter two, during the early years of Uzziah’s reign, the potential existed for the Temple to become the international symbol of God’s presence on earth. Symbolically, this would be represented by the Shechina, God’s holiness, dwelling in the Temple. Becoming this light for all nations and people was the purpose for which God had blessed Israel with wealth and security. God intended for Israel to use their new found prosperity towards achieving this great goal. Instead Israel became greedy with its wealth; its society became both affluent and haughty. Here is the bumper sticker: He hoped for justice, but behold He found injustice, For equity, but behold iniquity” But now that Israel has become haughty, just as Uzziah had to leave the Temple abandoned by God, Israel, now abandoned by God, will be lead out of the promised land into Babylonian captivity.

Is this lesson for us? Have we become affluent and haughty, willing to take inappropriate liberties with God’s creation? In looking in our land would God find for justice? Would God find equity instead of iniquity?

Despite his gloomy predictions, Isaiah’s prophecy concludes on a note of hope. Despite the forthcoming destruction and exile, a remnant shall indeed return. The thirteenth verse reads: 13Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. Or, is that our call, to seek to be that remnant that grows from a burnt over stump?

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