Sermon on Prophetic Text (Isaiah 6)

Intro to Old Testament Interpretation

Duke Divinity School

Prof. Anathea Portier-Young

Feb. 21, 2011

The phrase “Here am I! Send me” from Isaiah 6 is one of the most oft repeated phrases in contemporary mainstream Christian worship.  It’s first half is one of those phrases that repeats itself through the Hebrew Bible.  “Here am I” begins with Isaac, unwittingly volunteering for possibly the most disturbing event in the Bible, in which his own father is prepared to slaughter the youngster as a bull or a lamb at the altar.[1] Jacob, too, utters the response, after which he is told to go with his sons to Egypt.[2]

The only other biblical figure to share the phrase in a commissioning scene is Moses himself.[3] He is a reluctant leader, but God uses him nonetheless. Moses has to be coaxed and goaded to go, even though he hears his mission before finally agreeing to its terms.  The miraculous sight of the burning bush is merely God’s hook to get Moses’ attention.  The sight of the divine council, on the other hand, awes the prophet Isaiah, and his zeal can hardly be contained.  Isaiah dares to follow up the offer of himself (“Here am I”) with the insistence “Send me.”  He does not know what he has agreed to at the time he invests himself, an act of courage certainly emulated by a number of contemporary Christians.

The tale of Isaiah’s calling in ch.6 is relatively familiar to Christians.  We recognize vv.2-5, in which heavenly bodies encircle the throne of the Lord of Hosts.  It foreshadows Revelation 4, where the apostolic seer describes a similar scene. Unique to Isaiah is a confession that he is “a man of unclean lips and [he] dwell[s] in the midst of a people with unclean lips.”[4] At this, a fiery being brings a burning coal from the altar and touches it to the prophet’s lips and cleanses them (and him) of sin.  John, merely an observer, does not relay a similar ceremony of reconciliation.

But this is where a lot of contemporary Christians stop actively listening to the story.  Or at least they don’t frequently cite much from the rest of the chapter, where Isaiah’s actual call is explained.  Perhaps there is good reason to divert our attention, since his vocation is one for which few would volunteer.

Immediately upon agreeing to his as-yet-unknown prophetic task, God describes what lays ahead for Isaiah.  The central focus of the chapter, the description of Isaiah’s mission itself, is to

Go and say to this people: “Listen carefully, but you shall not understand! Look intently, but you shall know nothing!” You are to make the heart of this people sluggish, to dull their ears and close their eyes; Else their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand, and they will turn and be healed.[5]

God has decided to confuse Israel, to make it impossible to turn and be healed, despite their apparent desire to do just that.  Isaiah is to harden the people’s hearts as God did Pharaoh, a task that challenges the justice of God and our notions of divine benevolence.  Is it any wonder that we rarely dare to venture into this theological territory?

Is God really being unfair, though?  Isaiah’s cry, though failing to confront the callousness God seems to project here, resounds within us, “How long, oh Lord?”[6] As harsh as his vocational call sounds, Isaiah figures there may be hope in the possibility of restricting such a condemning word to time, if not to literary fiction.

But a closer look at Israel’s history favors YHWH.  God repeatedly asks ‘how long’ to an obstinate people: “How long” says the Lord… (NIV)

  • will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions?[7]
  • will these people treat me with contempt [and] refuse to believe in me?[8]
  • will this wicked community grumble against me?[9]
  • will you harbor wicked thoughts?[10]
  • will you be unclean?[11]
  • will [Samaria] be incapable of purity?[12]

More troubling to Christian Biblical interpretation is that fact that few, if any, New Testament characters quote Isaiah 6:8 with as much zeal as contemporary Christian missionaries.  In fact, three of the most prominent figures of the New Testament actually cite v.10 instead, the troubling text that condemns Israel to seemingly perpetual moral and doxological confusion.  Jesus, in explaining why he speaks in parables, cites the entirety of the verse, exchanging future tense (used in Isaiah) to past tense.  Isaiah is told to make the hearts of the people fat, their ears heavy, and their eyes shut,[13] but Jesus says their heart has grown dull and their eyes have closed.[14] John, too, uses the past tense to describe how God “has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart.”[15] Finally, the Lukan author also puts the past tense in the mouth of the Apostle Paul in Acts, citing a broader swath of Isaiah’s commission than the Johannine author.[16]

So where does this leave us, how do we reconcile God’s benevolence with the call of one of the most widely quoted Hebrew prophet being one that is at odds our understanding of divine grace?

I don’t know about you, but some of the first times I was on an airplane was not long after I joined the military in 2000.  I flew a total of two times before I landed at the US Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, GA.  There, I would learn how to jump out of aircraft that are in perfectly working order.  Before I really became used to flying, I was jumping out of the sky at low altitude.  One of the most curious results of this was that I became disproportionately nervous during landing when I was a commercial passenger thereafter.  I was used to having my own parachute, and the absence of one heightened my anxiety.  But the worst part was descending through the clouds, when you look out the window and all you see is a monotone grey.  To make matters worse, there is usually turbulence as the plane moves through different air densities so quickly.

It made no sense, since in military aircraft on airborne operations, we didn’t even have windows.  There was something about having a window and it not making a difference to what you could see that irked me.  At least in uniform, I had to trust totally on the pilot and their abilities.  But when your sight only clues you into how totally blind you are it is something else entirely.

I wonder if that is what Isaiah’s ministry was like; having a window seat but not having any idea what is going on or why the plane is shaking so violently.  With our beliefs about justice and mercy, Isaiah’s commissioning is displeasing.  How could God condemn God’s own people to confusion, sealing their fates to waste, desolation, and an inferno?[17] If God truly loves us, how could this be?  But that tells a partial story, one that venerates creation over Creator.  We grumble and have wicked thoughts, we refuse to keep God’s commandments, and we treat our covenant partner with contempt.  We suppose that we are innocent and undeserving of punishment; we have relied upon selective memory.

To grasp at straws of theological salvation here seems trite and uncalled for when we consider how much we have wronged God.  The ministry of Isaiah is one characterized by God’s slowness to anger.  Our eyes are blinded to God’s patience at the very moment we open our mouths to complain about God’s wrath.  Instead, we must silence ourselves, close our eyes, and humble our hearts.  The call of Isaiah comes at a time when God is fed up with our self-certitude, so he does for us what we would not do for ourselves, thereby keeping us from turning and being healed.

Our task is not to find answers, but to have faith.  God does not live in the immediacy of the moment.  God is in the pilot’s seat, with a bird’s eye view of the entirety of human being.  Though the plane shakes violently, we will eventually reach our destination.  It may not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen.  We dare not complain if we fail to see the eschatological vision or read the writing on our hearts.

My mom is much more afraid of flying than I am, but you wouldn’t know it looking at her on a plane.  I know her well enough to be sure that she is having images of gory plane crashes racing through her head every moment she’s in the air.  But she simply hums and fidgets nervously until we finally get to where we’re going.  Once the wheels are on the ground, her humming turns to singing, as she opens her eyes, pulls up the window shade and exclaims her joy at having arrived at our destination.  For her, the entire journey is done faithfully.  She is VERY aware that she could die, and that would not be good, but she just does what she can and accepts the fact that she is not in control and may not know exactly what the future holds.  For me, with all my schooling, I think I need to know why we’re experiencing turbulence, and I get a bit testy when the pilot remains silent throughout the flight.  “Just f*ing say SOMETHING.  Come on!”  Not my mom.  She just goes on humming, secure in the futility of grasping at false security.

God does not allow us to overlook our own guilt, refusing to gloss over the ministry of Isaiah, giving it to us with all its horrifying indictment.  The prophet knows that there is no point in arguing with God about how life is not fair, as though God is at fault.  When we find ourselves in the grey fog of eschatological ambiguity, when we come face to face with the wrath of God directed at us, Isaiah calls us to remember that we are not purely innocent.  We need to recognize our own limitations, both bodily (though we may in fact lose our lives, it will not be our ultimate end) and intellectually (though we aren’t capable of omniscience, God is).  Our place is to humbly submit ourselves to the reality of God’s anger and endure the wrath in store.  There might be desolation and forsakenness, but we are to have faith that God will not destroy ultimately.  We are not innocent, but neither are we alone.

[1] Genesis 27:1

[2] Genesis 46:2

[3] Exodus 3:4

[4] Isaiah 6:5 (RSV)

[5] Ibid, v.9b-10 (NAB)

[6] Ibid, v.11a

[7] Exodus 16:28

[8] Numbers 14:11

[9] Ibid, 14:27a

[10] Jeremiah 4:14b

[11] Ibid. 13:27b

[12] Hosea 8:5

[13] Isaiah 6:10a (paraphrased from RSV)

[14] Matthew 13:15a (paraphrased from RSV)

[15] John 12:40a (RSV)

[16] Acts 28:26 & 27 (RSV)

[17] Isaiah 6:11-13, paraphrased

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