“Why speak in parables instead of explaining the kingdom clearly?” Jesus realized people want autonomy rather than authority. It’s why, “they close their eyes, block their ears, and obstruct their hearts so they won’t see, hear, and respond” (Matthew 13:10-17).
In mediating the heavenly king’s message to his earthly kingdom, prophets struggled with the same frustration. Calling Isaiah as his spokesman, God revealed to him both sides of the kingdom relationship:
- the heavenly king, devoted to his people (Isaiah 6:1-8);
- the earthly kingdom, with closed eyes, blocked ears, and obstructed hearts (Isaiah 6:9-13).
The second part only makes sense in the context of the first. Only if God is sovereign does it make sense to keep calling people to live as his kingdom. When Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in response to a question about the kingdom, the context of seeing God on his throne is assumed.
Jesus and Isaiah were kingdom proclaimers in different contexts. To handle this quotation well, I’d like to devote this post to Isaiah’s proclamation of the kingdom of God established by the Sinai covenant. Then we’ll do a follow up post on Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as a new covenant that includes Israel and the nations under God’s throne, and how we as kingdom proclaimers handle the same frustration that Jesus and Isaiah faced.
As always, context is king. More accurately, context leads us to the revelation of the king, which is the goal of Scripture. In the context of the verses Jesus quoted, God was calling Isaiah to be his spokesman (prophet).
Read Isaiah 6:1-13.
Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly sovereign (6:1-7)
Isaiah kept records for King Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:22). When Uzziah died, God showed Isaiah who was their everlasting sovereign (6:1).
The Sinai covenant had established this relationship between God as sovereign and Israel as the prototype kingdom under his law. Coming under his leadership, they provided a house for God to live among them and lead them. At the heart of this dedicated palace/temple was a chamber dedicated to the king alone. It was furnished with a throne (ark) where their invisible God sat enthroned between symbolic guards of the presence (cherubim).
The holy chamber was off-limits for Isaiah, until God gave him a vision of the presence. He saw the heavenly ruler (ʾǎḏō·nāy) seated on a throne, high and exalted above everyone and everything. The ark was more footstool than throne, for the majestic sovereign was seated far above. The house they provided could never contain him (1 Kings 8:27), merely the fringes of his robe filled the temple (6:1).
Attendants flanking the cosmic sovereign ensure everyone is aware of his presence. Winged serpents (seraphim) are more than capable of striking any threat to the sovereign (6:2). In this moment they draw everyone’s attention to his authority over the earth: Holy, holy, holy is YHWH of hosts! All the earth is infused with his glory! (6:3).
Holiness is more than flawless character. Holiness finds expression as whole-hearted devotedness. The seraphim declare the sovereign’s unswerving dedication to his earthly realm, a realm designed to be lit up with his majestic presence.
His holy devotion to his people was established in the Sinai covenant. Isaiah hears the rumbles of the mountain that shook at God’s presence and filled with the smoke that surrounded the invisible presence (Exodus 19:10-20), the cloud that entered the house they built for him (Exodus 40:35). At the sound of seraph voices, the pillars and supports of the temple still shake as the smoke of his presence fills the temple (6:4).
It wasn’t just the mountain that shook as the covenant was laid out between king and people at Sinai. Everyone in the camp trembled (Exodus 19:16). Seeing the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear (20:18). Moses said it was so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning (20:20). The abusive relationships they had known under Pharaoh’s dominion could not continue in YHWH’s kingdom.
The revelation of the holy heavenly sovereign devoted to his people on earth invariably makes us conscious of the failure on our side of that relationship. Isaiah feels he does not belong in this holy presence: Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of hosts! (6:5).
Friends, this is so crucial to how we proclaim the gospel. God never called us to proclaim people’s guilt to make them call out to God, although the church has often done it that way. God called us to proclaim the good news of his authority, relying on the Holy Spirit to open people’s eyes to see the brilliance of the gospel of the glory of the Messiah who images God (2 Corinthians 4:4). The revelation of God makes us aware of our failure, not the other way around.
Isaiah’s response is what happens when a human sees the King. YHWH was Israel’s king because of the Sinai covenant, and yet he is more than that. He is YHWH of hosts — the cosmic king with authority over the multitudes of heaven and earth (6:5).
Despite Isaiah’s terror, the seraphim don’t strike him. The covenant made provision to reconcile heaven and earth. So they cleanse Isaiah’s lips, preparing him to serve as kingdom spokesman (6:6-7)
Isaiah’s commission by the heavenly sovereign (6:8-10)
Now we learn why God gave Isaiah this vision of divine sovereignty. This was no personal mystic experience. The king was appointing someone to kingdom proclamation: I heard the voice of the Ruler saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ (6:8).
It’s pretty clear who the sovereign intends. Isaiah is the one receiving this revelation. But just as at Sinai, the sovereign invites our response. Isaiah accepts his commission: Here I am. Send me (6:8).
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? What could possibly go wrong when we’re representing the most powerful ruler of the cosmos? Can’t he impose his sovereign will and have everyone obey? The whole narrative of Scripture — especially the bit about the cross — reveals that this is not how God exercises his sovereign authority.
God calls people to live under his authority, and often they don’t. In the short term, people frustrate God’s plans. Why did he call Abraham? Because the nations had gone their own way. Why did the first generation of God’s nation die in the wilderness? Because they would not trust him to lead them into the Promised Land. Why did foreigners overrun the land in the time of the judges? Because they forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt (Judges 2:12). God doesn’t force himself on people. It’s the reason he has such a frustrating time with his earthly realm.
Isaiah will face the same problems as the sovereign he represents:
Isaiah 6:8b–10 (NIV):
I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
9 He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
I love God’s vulnerability here. His people pretend to listen, but their body language says otherwise. God’s experience with his nation is, The more they were called, the more they went away from me (Hosea 11:2).
The more Isaiah speaks, the more this people will close their hearts to him, close their ears to his message, close their eyes so they cannot see the Lord and all he has done as he seeks to draw them back under his governance and heal them.
That’s how Jesus understood the frustration God promised Isaiah, the frustration he himself felt with his kingdom proclamation, the frustration every kingdom servant knows.
A hopeless commission? A hopeless realm? (6:11-13)
Isaiah’s responds not with a commitment but with a question. He asks when he might get back to something more productive, especially since the more he says the worst it gets.
God’s answer is not encouraging. Isaiah’s commission lasts until Jerusalem falls, Judah’s towns are wiped out, and the people are carried off into exile — essentially until there’s no one left to speak to.
11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, 12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. 13 And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Tragic! What started out as an astounding revelation of the divine throne over the earth has sunk to devastating destruction because God’s people refused to follow his direction and live as his kingdom. Isaiah is stuck in the middle — a spokesman for heaven on earth, with a message no one will heed.
Is this a hopeless commission? What’s the point if God’s prototype kingdom will fall like a rotten tree?
At the end of this tirade about unresponsive proclamation, Isaiah is given a seed of hope: the holy seed will be in the stump in the land. It’s not much to go on, but Isaiah keeps trusting that seed. He accepts the commission and goes on to plant that message: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit (Isaiah 11:1).
It’s not hopeless. Though everything would be lost — kingship terminated, land overrun, kingdom exiled — a son of David would rise to bring the fruitful harvest that the heavenly sovereign intended for his earthly realm.
That’s why a sower went out to sow … (Matthew 13:3).
What others are saying
Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic—Theological Approach, (London: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 13–14, 30:
Without a king, there is no kingdom. If this king fails to capture the allegiance of the people, the kingdom disintegrates. The book of Isaiah endeavours to orient the allegiance of its readers around a king, namely YHWH. …
During a time when an earthly king, Uzziah, takes his final breath (6:1; 740 BC) and when a distant and ancient kingdom, Assyria, is again on the rise under Tiglath-pileser III, Isaiah reports, ‘I saw the Lord’ (6:1b)….
Since people in Isaiah’s time ignored the holy king, it is not surprising that this would continue when the holy king, the one Isaiah spoke about, was incarnate and also surprisingly takes on the mantle of the suffering servant.