The king was dead. His death may have preoccupied Isaiah more than he cared to admit. What did the future hold for Judah?
Isaiah entered the Temple. Perhaps he expected to see the throne set up for the coronation of Uzziah's son. But instead of the throne of David, the prophet saw the throne of heaven. Not the king of Judah sat there, but the King of glory sat upon it.
The sight was awesome. The throne extended into the heavens like a New York skyscraper. And the sanctuary was filled with just "the train of his robe" (Isa. 6:1).*
Isaiah would never be the same again.
The prophetic authority
The true prophets of the Old Testament had at least one thing in common. Before they gave out God's message, they did not ask how many people agreed with them, how the heavyweights viewed them, what the constituency thought of them, or how the giving out of God's message would affect their chances of a move to a more prestigious parish or chances of a promotion within the hierarchy. They felt no divided responsibility. They sought no safety from ridicule.
They spoke with an authority that involved no self-doubt, and countenanced no contradiction.
They spoke to the world the message of God even though they might have no human ally—one man against the world.
The office of the church pastor today is dissimilar from that of the Old Testament prophet in at least one way. We cannot assume that a "Thus saith the Lord" has conferred on us as individuals a sort of personal in fallibility. Indeed, many of our problems as individuals and as churches are caused by such false assumptions. But the office of the pastor and the prophet are similar in that our proclamation to the church and to the world has a prophetic edge. We lose that edge if we give in to theological market forces. We need to detach ourselves from all kinds of intimidation. We need to pray for confidence to proclaim the gospel of God with out ducking and diving, trimming and tailoring to every theological pressure group that would seek to intimidate.
Strength to stand
From whence comes this strength to stand up against theological market forces? From whence comes the strength to run forward (as opposed to sit on the fence) and preach the gospel devoid of works-righteousness phrases so often put in as adverbial clauses to please the intimidators?
Isaiah's experience provides three helpful pointers:
First, we shall stand up for the gospel when we have a personal experience of God's sovereign majesty. The impact of that encounter with the God of glory on His throne was burnt on Isaiah's mind for the rest of his life.
Prophets saw both earthly rulers and heavenly angels dwarfed by the power and glory of a sovereign God. That stiffened their backbone against the most inimical intimidator. They rebuked autocratic kings to their faces. It was a case of "fear Him, ye saints, and you will then have nothing else to fear."1
The ultimate employer of pastors is the One to whom they are ultimately responsible: the One with nail-pierced hands and feet, and a spear-riven side. To Him is the pastors' first allegiance, before all other allegiances.
Unless they know this, pas tors become craven and cave in to theological market pressures. The winds of doctrine blowing at a particular moment will sweep them along. This danger is especially strong in a pluralistic church with many independent ministries.
Unless they know this, pas tors will overreact to so-called feedback whether it takes the form of a church door head-banger or a Mon day morning letter writer. Pastors need to know that this is not, in any event, representative feedback. Overreaction to feedback from the fringe makes us reactionaries. Pastors should act, not react.
Second, we shall stand up for the gospel when we have personally experienced God's sovereign grace. '"Woe to me!' I cried. T am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips'" (Isa. 6:5).
The cry that came spontaneously from Isaiah's lips was not "Wow!" but "Woe!" The vision of the great and gracious God did not blow his mind—it embarrassed his conscience. When pastors come into close quarters with God they do not experience a psychedelic ecstasy. Instead they feel too unworthy; they realize their failure to bring the worthiness (righteousness) of Christ to the souls in their charge.
Isaiah was teetering on the raw edge of terror. But he acknowledged his unworthiness. And pardon came from the place where God's anger against sin is revealed: the altar of sacrifice. The atoning coal was applied to his lips, the focus of his moral shame.
Third, we shall commit our lives to unambiguous preaching and unstinted service to God when we have experienced the power of the gospel.
His sins atoned for, Isaiah could no longer be overwhelmed by feelings of personal inadequacy or weakness. He knew that he owed God everything he was, had, and could ever hope to be. From then on his talents, time, and testimony were dedicated for the proclamation of God's word. And once the commitment was made, the prophet was not to concern himself with how hard the task or how unyielding the raw mate rial was (verses 9, 10). Of course, we cannot blame Isaiah for asking how long his mission, seemingly hard and hopeless, would be (verse 11). God replied that only events in the long-term future would vindicate the prophet and his message (see vs. 11- 13). But Isaiah's determination to "go and tell this people" was undiminished (cf. vs. 8, 9).
Regardless of the market pressures of our constituency, regardless of the "false brothers" (Gal. 2:4) preaching "a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all" (Gal. 1:6, 7), regardless of the fears we may have for our positions, God calls us as individuals to make both a commitment and a testimony, sometimes even to make fools of ourselves in the eyes of the world and those who appoint/elect us.
Only on the very distant horizon of time was Isaiah given a glimpse of a tiny glimmer of hope in the scattered residue of Judah' s dismembered population: "But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land" (Isa. 6:13). Some would turn again, accept the gospel of God's grace, and at last be part of the numberless multitude on the sea of glass (see Rev. 7:9; 4:6).2
God calls us to serve
God calls us to serve the Word without any inhibiting fear. Our willingness to do this will be in direct proportion to our personal experience of God's sovereign majesty and of God's atoning grace.
God calls us to stand up and speak up for His message as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel did. He calls for the sort of greatness we see in Peter when he told the Sanhedrin, "We must obey God, not you" (see Acts 5:29). Supremely, He calls us for the kind of individual commitment and unambiguous testimony displayed by the Master Himself before Pilate when, betrayed, isolated, He said, "For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (John 18:37).
* Unless otherwise noted, Scripture passages in this article are from the New International Version.
1. Nahum Tate (1652-1715), "Through All the Changing Scenes of Life."
2. The parallel between Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 and 5 is obvious.