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Isaiah’s Call

Detail of Isaiah and a seraph

Isaiah’s commissioning is one of a number of biblical stories about how God calls prophets and others into service. Most people stop reading after Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me.” But what follows is very strange: he is to tell people they are welcome to listen but that he does not want them to understand his message.

How does God regularly call or relate to people?

The Hebrew Bible offers several examples of prophetic commissioning that share certain elements with Isa 6.

The books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel begin with accounts of the prophets’ commissioning; in contrast, Isaiah’s commission comes a few chapters into the book. Other prophetic books contain allusions to being called in other narrative contexts, as for example in Amos 7:14-15.  The book of Isaiah also contains a second account referring to his commission (see Isa 49:1-6)—one indication that the book of Isaiah includes the work of more than one individual.

The reason for telling these commissions or call stories varies. In Jeremiah and Ezekiel, they provide an argument for taking seriously what the prophet has to say. In Amos, the account explains why judgment must come on the sanctuary in Bethel. In Isa 49, the prophet’s testimony relates to the theme of Yahweh’s servant. In Isa 6, the call story provides background to the initial collection of prophecies and introduces the stories about Isaiah’s activity and the later collection of prophecies.

So each commissioning story is unique to the situation and the person. Isaiah 6 begins by referring to the year King Uzziah died and then describes a vision of God enthroned on high (Isa 6:1), thereby contrasting human and divine kingship. Like any king, Yahweh has attendants, the seraphs. (Isa 6:2); these are winged creatures, though we get no additional details about them. They declare how “holy” Yahweh is (Isa 6:3)—the word suggests transcendent, sovereign, awe-inspiring, incomparable. God as “holy one” is a key idea in Isaiah; a description of Yahweh as “the holy one of Israel” runs through the entire book in a way that is not true of any other book in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah recognizes that it is dangerous for him, a mere human being, to see this electrifying sight (Isa 6:5). One of the seraphs uses a burning coal to purify Isaiah, who then hears Yahweh asking for a representative to send to Judah (Isa 6:6-8). The verb “send” occurs in many of these commission stories; Isaiah is sent as a messenger from the divine assembly to the people. Significantly, Isaiah volunteers—the only prophet in the Bible ever to offer himself willingly. (Jeremiah, for example, tries to get out of the commission.)

In Isaiah 6, why does God desire human ignorance?

The commission of Isaiah is a strange one—to make people incapable of listening to God:

“Make 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.” (Isaiah 6:10)

Perhaps Isaiah wrote this later in his life, speaking this way because the people actually did not listen to him. Or perhaps Yahweh speaks this way (through Isaiah) because Yahweh knows what the result of Isaiah’s work will be. Accepting that it will be so, Yahweh states it as the aim.

In the context of Isaiah’s own prophecies, two other understandings are more plausible. Both reflect the assumption that Isaiah’s account of his call is aimed at his contemporaries. The first understanding is that Yahweh’s words are a declaration of judgment. People have been unwilling to accept Yahweh’s message; the punishment for this will be ignorance. The second option is that Isaiah intends to shock his audience; the prophet’s powerful and castigating words are meant to drive Judahites to turn to Yahweh. Isaiah leaves the people to work that change out for themselves, perhaps because the response of repentance will then be more authentic.

If they do not turn, the warnings will come true. But the good news for the people living after the coming catastrophe described in Isa 6:11-13 and onwards is that judgment is not Yahweh’s last word. The final verse in the chapter notes that even when the tree has been felled and burned, there is still a stump from which there can be new growth. This introduces another major theme of Isaiah: the holy remnant who will survive.

  • John Goldingay

    John Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. Previously he taught at St John’s Theological College, Nottingham, United Kingdom. He is also priest-in-charge of St Barnabas Church, Pasadena. He wrote the commentary on Isaiah in the New International Biblical Commentary (Hendrickson, 2001) and also the commentary on Isaiah in the Old Testament for Everyone series (Westminster John Knox, forthcoming).