Updated: Nov 13, 2020
Things weren't as great in Israel as it might seem, so God sent Isaiah on a mission that would consume his life. Isaiah said yes without even knowing what it would be.
Theme Verse for the Christian Life
Do you have a "theme verse" that guides you on a large scale? Obviously, every Bible verse is important, but do you have one that you really focus on? Some people live by "Do unto others . . ."; some by "Go and make disciples . . ."; some by "Do not be conformed . . ."; some by "This is the day the Lord has made . . .". What's yours? If you don't have one, make sure it's because you have a whole bunch (and not because you have none!).
As often as not, I would consider my "theme verse" to be "Let your attitude be like that of Jesus Christ . . .". Everything in the Bible matters, but I always want to make sure that I strive toward Christ's awareness and humility.
The passage we're studying this week contains a key verse for missionaries and church leaders the world over: "Here I am, send me." If you were to talk to a lot of missionaries, you would probably also hear:
"Declare his glory among the nations" (Ps 96:3)
"Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:18)
"For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Rom 10:13)
"Let us not get tired of doing good" (Gal 6:9)
"Always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15)
But there's something about Isaiah's encounter with God in our passage this week that has captivated Christians throughout history and inspired them to go in the name of the Lord to places and peoples familiar and unfamiliar. Maybe you will be inspired this week! As I will explain below, it's harder than usual to go to the other side of the world at the moment, but there are probably people right here that you can go to in the name of Jesus.
About Southern Baptist Missions
I think it's really important that members of our churches understand and be committed to the uniquely defining characteristic of Southern Baptists: the Cooperative Program. Every denomination has a missionary force. But only Southern Baptists were formed as a group for the sole purpose of maintaining their missionary force. (In the years since, we have taken on other ministries, and I'll explain them below.)
In 1814, a group of Baptist churches came together to form the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions, headquartered in Philadelphia. You see, some missionaries in India (Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice included) had recently realized that the Bible taught believers' baptism and so repudiated their church membership. That meant they lost all of their financial support. It just so happened that they had recently met William Carey, the man who helped found the British Missionary Society in 1792. Carey came with them to America, gathered a group of Baptist leaders, and inspired them to form an American Missionary Society which immediately sponsored the Judsons in India and soon sent missionaries to China, Africa, and Burma.
In 1845, due to a disagreement about slavery, Southern Baptist churches formed the Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta. The General Missionary Convention eventually became the Northern Baptist Convention and finally the American Baptist Churches.
How the Cooperative Program Works
If anyone in your class doesn't know about this, I think it would be worth taking a few minutes to explain. At First Baptist Church, we send a certain amount of money each month to "The Cooperative Program". What this means is we send that money to our state convention, the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. The GBMB then spends money like this:
40% goes to the national convention (SBC)
13%~ goes to theological education in Georgia
33%~ goes to ministries in Georgia
14%~ goes to the executive staff and maintaining facilities
I would love to see us put more of that money directly into missions, but I understand why our budget is the way it is. The GBMB supports things like: college ministry and evangelism, disaster relief, and mission training in churches. It also supports things like: pastor wellness, pastor retirement (for pastors who served poor churches), The Christian Index, church consultants, and more. Their idea is that they can strengthen local churches to help those members be more involved in mission work locally and regionally.
The money that goes to the SBC is spent like this:
50%~ goes to the International Mission Board (IMB)
23%~ goes to the North American Mission Board (NAMB)
22%~ goes to Southern Baptist seminaries
2%~ goes to our Religious Liberty commission
3%~ goes to the executive staff and maintaining facilities
When you consider that our seminaries are primarily training those who are either going into mission work or going to churches that are necessary to inspire people to become missionaries, you can say that even today, almost all of our national convention budget is spent on supporting missionaries.
Here's the IMB's Annual Report for 2020 (4 mins)
Here's an overview of the IMB for 2020 (6 mins):
And here's a really cool short history of IMB missionaries (4 mins):
About Bureaucracy and Red Tape
For anyone in our churches who wants to complain about the amount of money that is seemingly spent on "middle management" and facility maintenance, I understand. I'm sure our conventions could be more efficient in the way they spend money, just as I'm sure our churches could be more efficient in the way we spend money. But we don't want to skimp on the support personnel and ministries for our missionaries! The world has gotten more dangerous, and international law has gotten more complicated. We want to make sure we have qualified people who are keeping an eye on our missionaries and their families.
Missionaries and COVID-19
These past few months have been very strange for our missionaries. Some have been isolated in their mission fields, and some have been forced to come back to the US. Here are some articles that might help humanize what missionaries are experiencing:
How to pray for missionaries who are unable to go to their field: https://www.imb.org/2020/07/07/pray-for-missionaries-in-waiting/
A video testimony of a family who was doubly displaced in Africa: https://www.imb.org/2020/04/13/why-are-we-here/
Things that churches need to consider for mission work in 2020; includes links to "virtual mission trips" and the "175 Days of Prayer" initiative. https://www.imb.org/2020/07/06/imb-urges-caution-sustained-commitment/
Where We Are in Isaiah
This passage should be so very familiar to many of our church members; it probably won't need a lot of explanation. Spending a little time on a side topic shouldn't prevent you from getting the most our of our passage this week! In chapter 6, we read Isaiah's commission -- how he heard from and responded to God.
We think of Isaiah 1-6 as a kind of introduction, laying out the main themes of his ministry. There is a section of "charges" against the rebellious people (ch 1). There is a section describing the future (God will restore Zion, 2:1-5; God will bring low His people, 2:6-22). There is a section combining charges with future judgment (ch 3). There is a section hinting at a Messiah (4:2-6). And then there is a section that combines charges and judgment in the form of a parable (ch 5). Finally, Isaiah's commission (ch 6) explains how Isaiah will be sharing messages of the people's sin and coming judgment. So, yeah. We will be getting a lot of that in Isaiah.
In 6:1, we finally get a time reference - the year of Uzziah's death. (This reference does not necessarily apply to the preceding chapters!) This was about 740 BC, a time of prosperity for Judah. Uzziah was mostly a good king. Also, his rivals were weak. Israel was weak, Syria was in decline, and Assyria had not yet filled the power vacuum. Uzziah conquered many Philistines (see 2 Chron 26). So, Judah was prosperous and secure, and this led the people to become gaudy and arrogant (see Isa 3:16-26).
The Lifeway material says that God picked this moment to speak to Isaiah because of uncertainty in Judah. Perhaps. Certainly, there would be uncertainty with the death of a king who had ruled for 50 years! But Jotham had been on the throne for a decade, and Judah would prosper for at least a few more years under his sole reign. Rather, I think God picked this moment because the death of Uzziah marked a turning point in Israel's history. All of the ingredients for judgment were in place -- the people's hearts were far from God, but things were going so well in the land that no one cared. Jotham was an unmemorable king, and it would be less than 5 years between the death of Uzziah and the ascendancy of wicked Ahaz.
I think God picked this moment as a warning. Things were not going as well as the people thought. In the background of this is King Uzziah's own sin. In arrogance, he apparently tried to usurp the role of the priest and refused to listen to reprimand. God punished him with a skin disease, and he lived his final years in seclusion (see also 2 Ki 15). There's a fascinating inscription near Jerusalem dating to the first century that reads, "Here were brought the bones of Uzziah. Do not open."
Uzziah or Azariah?
Uzziah is a conundrum for historians. His reign is extremely long for that era (I think that many years involved a co-regent). In 2 Chron 26, it is said that Isaiah recorded Uzziah's entire reign, but this is the only reference Isaiah makes to him. And in 2 Kings, he's named "Azariah". I don't have many answers for you about this. A common theory is that "Uzziah" was the "throne name" he chose for himself because Azariah was so very common. There are at least 25 other Azariahs in the Bible. Uzziahs? Not so many. As for Isaiah's records of his reign, the most common theory is that it refers to a history book that was destroyed with Jerusalem was sacked. Sadly, there are multiple references in the Bible to books of history/annals that no longer exist. (Shed a tear for the history books that have been destroyed in warfare in the Near East over the millennia.)
Part 1: God's Glory (6:1-4)
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth.
4 The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.
We don't have many examples of God revealing His throne room to a human. Basically, there's this passage (Isaiah 6), and there's Revelation 4/5. That's it. Here's the complete list of everything else the Bible has to say about God's "room" in heaven:
1 Kings 18: 18 Then Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and the whole heavenly army was standing at his right hand and at his left hand.
Job 1: 6 One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.
Ezekiel 1: 26 Something like a throne with the appearance of lapis lazuli was above the expanse over their heads. On the throne, high above, was someone who looked like a human. ("their" refers to "living creatures" / seraphim?)
Daniel 7: 9 “As I kept watching, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white like snow, and the hair of his head like whitest wool. His throne was flaming fire; its wheels were blazing fire.
That's part of the reason why this passage is so very memorable. It is utterly unique in the Old Testament.
In preparation for this lesson, I suggest reading Revelation 4 & 5 and also Ezekiel 1. It's been 5 years since we studied Revelation in Sunday School (where has the time gone??!??!), so here are my notes from that lesson:
You'll notice that the "details" don't completely line up between the three accounts. Don't worry about that. I've never understood why some modern readers believe that men who lived in different millennia and spoke different languages should be required to describe indescribable things in exactly the same way. Further, why should we assume or expect that God would reveal exactly the same thing in exactly the same way? It's not like God's throne room "exists" in the same way that humans exist. We're dealing with things beyond our ability to comprehend or explain.
Here's how people have tried to draw what Ezekiel saw:
And here's how people have tried to draw what Isaiah saw:
We're just not going to come close. One day, everyone will stand before God in this throne room. Then, we will understand.
There are a few things we can say. (Very few.) The word "seraphim" literally means "burning ones". Only Isaiah mentions creatures by this name. Many passages mention "cherubim" or, like Ezekiel, "living creatures". That has led some scholars to believe that cherubim and seraphim are one and the same. That may very well be, but let's be clear: WE DON'T KNOW.
Cherubs (translation note: the "-im" ending is simply the Hebrew plural "-s"; "seraphim" is actually "seraphs") are described as
the angels who guarded the entrance to Eden (Gen 3:24)
the angels carved into the tabernacle (Ex 25-26) and the temple (1 Ki 6-8), the "throne room of God on earth"
the angels described in Ezekiel's vision (Eze 10)
Of the 70 references to cherubs, almost all are in description of the tabernacle or temple. But note that Ezekiel's description of cherubs is distinct from his description of the "living creatures" in his vision of chapter 1. That implies to me that there is a distinction between cherubs and seraphs. The Holman dictionary says that cherubs are heavenly guards, and seraphs are heavenly attendants. Sure? The main point is they are indescribably mighty. And yet they are utterly subservient to Almighty God on His Throne.
[Aside: Seraphs vs. Seraphs
The Old Testament also uses "seraph" to describe poisonous snakes or "flying serpents" in Num 21:6, Deut 8:15, Isa 14:29, and Isa 30:6. This probably refers to the burning sensation a bite leaves, and perhaps to how fast they could move.
Skeptics have noted that Egyptians used actual winged serpents as one of their gods and say that Isaiah just stole an image he heard about in neighboring mythology. But Egyptians and every other Ancient Near East culture depicted all kinds of creatures with wings standing near or behind the throne of their king, "guarding him", including an extremely famous relief from Tell Halaf (Syria) depicting a human-like guardian creature with six wings!
So, because a few of the thousands of pictures drawn by nearby cultures seem to resemble in some ways the description given by the prophets of God's throne room, we are to assume that the prophets copied them? That doesn't make sense. Rather, I believe that Isaiah and Ezekiel are simply doing their best to describe what they saw in human terms. As for the use of "seraph" to describe "serpent", I really don't see the problem. The word does mean "burning one", which can apply to a poisonous bite just as much as an actual flame. Maybe Isaiah coined this term to refer to these angelic creatures, and Ezekiel didn't bother trying to give them a name. In any event, they specifically didn't use the term "cherub" to describe them.]
Scholars who don't believe that seraphs actually exist (i.e. they're fictional) look for symbolism in the description -- why six wings? Rather, we should take the description at face value. They covered their faces out of humility before God. They covered their feet out of modesty before God (and I do believe that "feet" is used as a euphemism for their private area). They flew because they served the Lord throughout the universe.
Repeating "holy" is the Hebrew form of superlative. "Holy, holy" means "holier" and "holy, holy, holy" means "holiest".
"Lord of Armies" is "Yahweh Sabaoth", often translated as "Lord of Hosts" or "Lord Almighty". (Martin Luther kept "Sabaoth" in "A Mighty Fortress".) It's not necessarily a military title. It simply means that God is the Ruler of the hosts of heaven -- all of them, from the soldiers to the messengers to the attendants.
The explicit reference to God's glory "filling the earth" alongside the foundations "shaking" is intended to remind us that the only danger the people of the earth should be worried about is offending Almighty God.
Note that the foundations shake at the voices of the seraphs -- and yet they can't even show their face to God out of humility. That's how awesome God is!
Part 2: God's Forgiveness (Isaiah 6:5-7)
5 Then I said:
Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Armies.
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand was a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said:
Now that this has touched your lips, your iniquity is removed and your sin is atoned for.
Isaiah gets it. He shouldn't be there. There's no place more dangerous for a sinner than in the presence of a holy God. And so he cries out "Woe!" This is one reason why I think Isaiah put chapter 5 where he did -- to establish the utter despair associated with the word "woe".
"Woe" is a strange word. I think of it more as a noise, an onomatopoeia. If you read classical literature, you'll read that when a character cries out in despair, it'll be a syllable like "Ai!" or "Oy!" or "Ayee!" or "Aah!" A similar word in English would be "alas!" It embodies grief and helplessness. When was the last time you felt a real "woe is me"?
Isaiah felt woe in the most "biblical" sense -- he was a sinner, and as such he knew he deserved to experience the wrath of God. If you've been through any kind of evangelism training, you know that salvation does not happen until a person truly realizes his standing with God. If you don't believe that your sin really deserves judgment, you won't believe that you really need a savior.
Isaiah did realize his need for a savior, and God provided the necessary purification for safely remaining in His presence. There is a lot of debate whether God intended this to be a picture of salvation in Jesus or if it simply represented the current function of the sacrificial system. I think there's a little bit of both. The coal from the altar almost certainly a reference to the "bronze altar" just in front of the temple; coals from the altar were used to light the incense in the Holy Place and Most Holy Place.
Quiz time: what was the purpose of the sacrificial system? That would be worth reading up on -- Leviticus 1-7.
Burnt offering (pleasing aroma)
Gran offering (memorial)
Fellowship offering (pleasing aroma)
Sin offering (atonement and forgiveness)
Guilt offering (restitution and forgiveness)
The concept of iniquity and atonement are both embedded in the sacrificial system.
[Aside on atonement. "Atonement" is one of the most important (and difficult) concepts in the Old Testament. It is closely related to the Hebrew word for "ransom". Both Old (Lev 17:11) and New (Mark 10:45) Testaments describe the sacrifice as a ransom. However, "ransom" meant the opposite then as it does now. Today, we think of a ransom payment as something an innocent party pays to a guilty party to achieve a release. But in Israel, a ransom payment was given by a guilty party to an innocent party to be released from a worse, just punishment. If we think of ransom in modern terms, this image won't make sense! Atonement also includes the idea of "cleansing". On the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), blood would be sprinkled in the temple to cleanse it. An innocent animal would be sacrificed so that the defilement of sin could be removed/washed away.
In the New Testament, we see the final picture of atonement: substitutionary. Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed for our cleansing, and because He was perfect and spotless, His sacrifice completely fulfilled the demands of the law, allowing God to truly forgive us of our part in sin. Jesus' death ransomed us from the punishment we deserved.]
What's important for us to take away from this is that our God is not a vengeful God of wrath, but a loving God who makes provisions to forgive.
What did Isaiah do to receive forgiveness? It looks to be as simple as he acknowledged his sinfulness and God's awesomeness. And he accepted that he deserved whatever punishment God gave him. He certainly desired forgiveness, but I'm not sure he felt himself worthy enough even to ask for it. That's the kind of contrite and humble spirit God desires within us. When we are that realistic about ourselves, we finally realize the great price that was paid to make our forgiveness in Jesus possible. However, we don't have to stay silent on our own behalf any more. Today, we know that Jesus died for us. And because of that, we know that He desires for us to call on His name for forgiveness and salvation. But we are still to have the attitude of abject humility.
Part 3: God's Call (Isaiah 6:8-10)
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord asking:
Who will I send? Who will go for us?
I said: Here I am. Send me.
9 And he replied:
Go! Say to these people: Keep listening, but do not understand; keep looking, but do not perceive. 10 Make the minds of these people dull; deafen their ears and blind their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their minds, turn back, and be healed.
And this is one of the most amazing exchanges in the Bible; it should be clear why so many missionaries have been inspired by it. Note that Isaiah had no idea what God was sending him to do. But he immediately said "I'll go". Stop and think about that for a while.
Obviously, this was a rhetorical question from God. He knew exactly what He was going to do. But it was important for Isaiah to acknowledge his role in God's plans. The "us" has sparked debate for centuries. Does "us" refer to the Trinity? Does it refer to the heavenly court? Yes? Probably some combination of the two. Isaiah certainly would have applied the plural to the fact that there were so many mighty beings in front of him. He wouldn't have been thinking about high-level theology.
God's commission is admittedly odd and even self-defeating. It's certainly not the sort of mission I would want to receive! "This'll never work." It's rhetorical and sarcastic and even ironic, and it should have really disturbed Isaiah's listeners (not that anyone was listening). This is what happened to pharaoh -- he had made the decision to resist God, and so God further hardened pharaoh's heart.
The best way I've heard this described is that Isaiah may as well have began and ended every sermon with this caveat for all of the difference it would have made. "Don't listen to me! Or else you may decide to repent and thus be forgiven. But who around here wants that?" However, this isn't a kind of reverse psychology that we might use on our kids ("whatever you do, don't eat that broccoli"). God knows what the people are going to do. God knows their hearts. It's not that God doesn't want to forgive them -- He knows they no longer want forgiveness.
That should also give us pause . . .
Part 4: God's Persistence (Isaiah 6:11-13)
11 Then I said, “Until when, Lord?” And he replied:
Until cities lie in ruins without inhabitants, houses are without people, the land is ruined and desolate, 12 and the Lord drives the people far away, leaving great emptiness in the land. 13 Though a tenth will remain in the land, it will be burned again. Like the terebinth or the oak that leaves a stump when felled, the holy seed is the stump.
This obviously makes Isaiah a bit concerned. Remember, this is his first encounter with God! "How long, exactly, is this going to be my job?" There might be a little bit of shock in this, as per Zechariah's response to the angel in Luke 1, but it's probably more direct, as per Mary's response to the angel also in Luke 1. Isaiah already said "yes" to God; now he just wants to know the full parameters of the job. This would be the *slow whistle* part of the scene in the movie when the chief explains his audacious plan to the rest of the crew.
How long? Until what you've prophesied actually comes to pass. They're not getting out of this one.
Think about all of the times God "relented" in His punishment because the people actually repented. Over and over again in Exodus. And in Judges. Even Nineveh repented and was forgiven. But not this time.
Interestingly, there was a delay on this judgment. Under Hezekiah and again under Josiah, there was a revival and return to the Lord. But all that did is delay the inevitable. Uzziah died in 740 BC. The final destruction of Jerusalem took place in 586 BC. Sadly for Isaiah, this meant that he would be declaring this message for the rest of his life.
Note the reference to the "tenth". We would think of this as the "remnant" and say "good!". But not so fast -- even they would be burned. And that is quite literally what happened. Poor Jeremiah experienced this firsthand (see chs. 41-44).
But even that would be used by God for the good. This "stump" that remained of what was once a mighty tree of God's people would grow again. There are two other places the Old Testament uses "stump" imagery. One is in Daniel 4, in which Nebuchadnezzar is the tree cut down to a stump but that grows again. And the other is Isaiah 11, in which the Messiah is said to sprout from the stump of Jesse. That's no coincidence that Isaiah would associate "stump" with God's perfect, eternal plan for salvation in the Messiah.
What a passage! Soak on it for a while. Are you heeding God's voice? Are you listening only for "missions" that you want do do, or are you willing to say "yes" no matter what?