The prophet Isaiah was commanded by God to walk around stark naked and barefoot for three years (Isa. 20:1-6). I could get three sermons out of just that one sentence so pause a moment to let it really sink in. Three years, people. That’s three winters. That’s no protection against the cold breezes, gawking eyes, and nothing between your sensitive toes and sharp pokey things on the ground. Are you ready to strip down for God? I don’t think any of us are going to jump up and volunteer for that particular assignment. Isaiah had serious dedication.
So, what was the point of this little exercise? It wasn’t a sign to Israel at all, but a message to Egypt and Ethiopia that one day they’d be dragged off stark naked by the Assyrians. So I guess the idea was that everyone would hear about the naked weirdo and the prophetic word would be spread about by gossiping lips along with a bunch of snickering and derogatory cracks.
Let’s get back to the three years part. Was this really necessary? I could streak naked through a public park in thirty seconds and make the headlines today. Three years seems ridiculously long to make a point to a bunch of foreigners. How do you recover your pride and good name after three years of indecent exposure? I don’t think you do.
It’s not like God didn’t understand the shame of being naked. In the Bible He often refers to nudity as a man’s glory, and then warns His people that their “glory” will be shamefully exposed by Him during seasons of discipline. So here’s Isaiah: the willing, faithful servant of God, getting totally shamed for three years. Welcome to the world of unconditional obedience. God plays hardball.
Whenever we get up close to the major Old Testament prophets, we start reading about all kinds of nasty stunts that God put them through. Perhaps this is why we tend to avoid books like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. We dip into them for an occasional vision about the throne room of Heaven, or to quote some Messianic passage, but we don’t like to stop and dwell on images of Isaiah fully exposed or Ezekiel cooking over cow dung.
The fuel used for a fire affects how the smoke of the fire smells, and that aroma is in turn transferred to any food that comes into contact with it. Today we love our smoked ham, smoked ribs, and smoked bacon. We play around with different fuels: hickory wood, maple wood, cherry wood, apple wood. It’s fun to experiment and see what different nuances are picked up. But no one ever tosses a shovel full of cow patties onto the fire, because we don’t want to know what THAT would taste like. Double yuck.
Ezekiel had to make some very dry sounding multigrain cakes over his dung fire. After giving him the specific recipe, God initially told him to use human excrement as the fuel. We can almost see poor Ezekiel gagging at the thought. He was a priest, after all, and had spent his life being very careful to follow God’s dietary laws. The whole dung topic comes up in a long list of other miserable instructions and apparently God can see His little man has hit his limit with the human excrement orders. So God generously offers a compromise: Ezekiel can use cow dung instead (Eze. 4-5). Gee…thanks.
Nothing like having some dung smoked grain cakes while you’re lying on your side on the ground. And of course everyone’s watching because that’s always the point with God. The ground is hard and after about thirty seconds, a man feels like his ribs are grinding and wants to change positions. Unfortunately for Ezekiel, rolling over was not an option because God was physically restraining him (4:7). How long did this fun continue? A mere 390 days. That’s over a year of lying on one side: the left side to be exact. His reward for surviving the long ordeal? Getting to be glued down on his right side for another 40 days of fun. In medical facilities today, we are careful to constantly rotate immobilized patients to prevent them from getting bedsores. Ezekiel had no such luck. He got 430 days of being glued to the ground while nibbling on dung cakes. Ah, the joys of serving God.
It’s a big deal being a prophet of God. Of course ancient Israel is full of fakers who run around constantly saying “Thus says the Lord” and they’re nice and popular. But the real guys aren’t allowed to treat God’s holy Name so glibly. If they misquote Him even one time, they could get instantly struck down by His wrath. No pressure. But in Ezekiel’s case, God came up with a clever way to ensure the prophet would only say what He wanted. He stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth so that he couldn’t talk at all between prophesies (3:23-27). Sometimes it seems like God helps too much. Ezekiel was a married man until God killed his wife as another one of His signs (24:15-24). A man likes to talk to his wife and friends. And it’s nice to at least have the option of retaliating when someone claims your prophecy is so much wind. But Ezekiel had all these privileges taken away for seven long years—not because God was mad at him, but because God said so. Submitting to God requires letting go of one’s personal preferences.
The prophets knew firsthand how serving God can really wreck a man’s social life. Jeremiah was ordered not to attend any funerals or show sympathy for those in grief because God’s patience was exasperated (16:5). No one likes a man who personifies God’s hostility. It didn’t take long for Jeremiah’s friends to start conspiring against him (20:10). It’s hard to relax at night when you know people are plotting to kill you. It’s really a dirty trap: God calling you to speak for Him and promising to support you only to have you end up hated and hunted on all sides. A man feels downright betrayed (20:7).
Saying too much is not the only pitfall when you’re God’s prophet. Not saying enough is equally bad. God threatened Ezekiel multiple times that if he didn’t speak God’s warnings to the wicked, God would hold him personally responsible when the people died in their sins (33:1-9). When social pressures started getting to him, Jeremiah tried to keep his mouth closed but God inflicted him with such intense internal torment that he could no longer bear the pain of being silent (20:9).
When He’s on a warpath, God becomes very zealous in His orders and will not hesitate to throw His servants into the line of fire in order to accomplish His agenda. All of His prophets were treated brutally despite personal promises of protection that many received from God. When it comes to defending us on this earth and supporting us in the tough times, God’s definition of sufficient help and ours can be worlds apart.
So why do some Christians do it? Why do we sell out to God? Why destroy our lives and ruin all of our dreams just so we can be miserable, confused and hurting? When He asks “Whom shall I send?”, why do we so quickly shout out “Here I am, send me!” (Isa. 6:8).
Because He is our God and we love Him. Because we were made to serve and bless Him and no other life will do. Despite the embarrassing assignments, the horrifying commands, the miserable help, the rotten compromises, the abuse from others, the ruined friendships and the personal heartbreak, we MUST obey our God. He is our King and there is no other One. His pleasure is our oxygen, His satisfaction is our daily bread. It doesn’t really matter if we’re living or dying, laughing or crying—so long as whatever we are doing is for HIS sake, HIS glory and HIS ultimate benefit. We love our God and He loves us. There is nothing else.