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Isaiah 6 starts off with that famous vision of Yahweh sitting on a throne surrounded by angelic creatures. At first Isaiah panics that he will die for seeing God in an unrighteous state, but then one of the creatures (a seraph) touches his lips with a hot coal and announces his sins have been atoned for, therefore he does not need to fear dying. Yahweh then asks that famous question: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?” Loyal Isaiah calls out, “Here am I. Send me!” This brief little scene has been repeated in worship songs and heavily referenced in the Church.
Funny how no one ever talks about what Isaiah’s assignment is. We’re so good at splicing scenes in the Bible and just recycling the happy parts until everyone thinks that’s all there is to the story. Isaiah saw God in majestic glory and acted like an eager volunteer. How nice.
But this isn’t the full story. After rushing to sign up as God’s messenger, Isaiah gets a very unexpected surprise.
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 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.” (Isa. 6:9-10)
In other words, “Go say a bunch of stuff that no one’s going to listen to. In fact, I’m going to block them from listening to you because I don’t want these people to be saved.” Yikes. This isn’t quite what Isaiah had in mind. It suddenly feels like we’re back in Exodus with Moses, hearing Yahweh say “Go tell Pharaoh to let My people go, but I’m going to harden his heart so he won’t listen to you.”
Nothing like marching out with the happy feeling of knowing your mission is going to fail. How excited would you be about serving God if He asked you to go preach a bunch of sermons to a crowd of deaf people? How eager would you be to obey if He told you to go call your best friend out on her sin even though He would block her from listening to you? How do people react to the truth when they don’t like it? We know the answer: they get mean and nasty. It’s preaching to deaf ears and closed minds that got Jeremiah beaten and locked into stocks. Later on Isaiah would describe getting beaten as well and having his hair torn out by the people he spoke to. This is not a fun assignment.
We tend to expect immediate rewards when we come to God all eager to serve. With so few Christians available who will really do things His way, we figure He ought to beam at us and give us some cream puff task. God might be beaming, but if we are really willing to put heart and soul into obeying Him, He is probably going to give us a highly undesirable task. This is because even the half-committed are willing to do the easy jobs. It’s the hard assignments that God has a backlog of—the jobs that don’t rake in any earthly glory. A lot of people are willing to march off like martyrs to the distant mission field because they are so heavily applauded for their efforts in the church. “Wow, look how they’re willing to lay it all on the line for Jesus,” we say, and the missionaries know that we’re saying it and they enjoy basking in our admiration every time they come back to town. It really takes the sting out of “suffering for Christ” when everyone’s treating you like a holy hero.
Then there are the prophets like Isaiah who are serving God for the right reasons. No one cares about them. In fact, we Christians like to kick these guys in the head to try and get them to stop talking. This is because we don’t like the way the Holy Spirit puts things to us. He’s so blunt with His language. His words cut into us like knives and drag all the sins we’re trying to hide out into the light. Plus, He seems to delight in insulting our egos. We don’t like that. We have no use for prophets and preachers who are really speaking for God because God doesn’t talk about what we want to hear. We want feel good speeches about how much we’re loved. God wants to talk about our bad attitudes and rebellion. We want to talk about grace. God wants to talk about how we’re abusing it. We want to talk about rewards. God wants to talk about discipline. We want to coast on theological milk and just keep going over the good half of the Gospel message every Sunday. God wants to challenge us with theological meat—provoking us to think and raising questions that we can’t answer. We don’t like this, and that’s why we don’t like those who are really speaking for God. We shun them, leave their churches, withhold our financial support, and call them nasty names. We are no different than the Jews who Isaiah was sent to go speak to.
Don’t be so quick to sing along the next time a worship team starts playing some song based on Isaiah 6. Don’t go telling God “Here am I,” when you’re not willing to give Him more than selective obedience. Isaiah was fully devoted. He didn’t mean what we mean when we sing our flippant little lyrics. He was the real deal. He volunteered to serve without conditions, which is why God gave him a job that no one else would do. “Go convict a people who won’t repent, then endure when they turn against you in violence and kill you.” Sounds pretty miserable, but Isaiah has guts. He doesn’t reject his mission, he just asks how long it’s going to last. Yahweh answers:
“Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until Yahweh has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. 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.” (Isa. 6:11-12)
The mission will last until Israel is a wasteland. Isaiah has been called to be a witness to despair and destruction. There is no hope. The people will not repent because Yahweh will not let them.
There are at least two things we should be stunned by in this passage. First, Isaiah’s dedication should inspire us. What a great role model. Forget about competing with Peter on Pentecost and trying to rake in thousands of converts for Christ. Instead of counting how many people come forward each Sunday, we should be focused on developing Isaiah’s kind of devotion to Yahweh. Serving all out with no strings attached. “Anything You want, Lord. Anything You ask, I will do.” An attitude like this is more precious to God than a billion converts. We can’t take credit for getting people saved. We can’t force souls to submit to God. But we can choose how we will respond to God in our own hearts. We can choose to want to be better than we are. We can ask the Holy Spirit to make us into fully devoted servants who will do anything He wants just because He wants it. We can ask God to make HIS satisfaction the only reward we care about. Are you willing to pray for such things?
The second thing that should leap out at us in this passage is this disturbing business about Yahweh not wanting Israel to repent.
“Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isa. 6:10)
Since when is repentance a bad thing? Why is God blocking His people from returning to Him? To understand this properly, we need to look at the big picture. By now Israel has been given ample time to repent. She’s been given many, many warnings but she simply can’t be bothered. The day comes when God presses the pause button on His grace. He closes the window of opportunity in our stubborn faces and says “Since you refuse to cooperate with Me, I’m done giving you chances. Your fate has been sealed. I’m going to massacre you. From this point on, nothing you say will change My mind.”
It’s a scary thing when God closes a window of opportunity on us. He does this in many areas of our relationship with Him. Every soul has a limited amount of time in which they can receive salvation. That window of opportunity starts the first time the Holy Spirit gives them some kernel of spiritual illumination and it ends whenever God says. Physical death is what we normally think of as the end of someone’s opportunity to be saved, but in reality God can cut someone off long before that if He chooses to. Nowhere in the Bible does it say we can come whenever we feel like it. On the contrary, God is clear that no one can come to Him without an invitation. God does not extend invitations to us forever. He stands in front of us, holding one out, and if we don’t take it in a certain amount of time, He pulls it back again. After He stops extending an invitation to us, it’s over.
God has many types of invitations. To all souls, He extends salvation. To those who accept, He then extends opportunities to grow closer to Him through continuous submission and alignment with His will. A frightening number of Christians are blowing off these precious opportunities on a daily basis. If we spurn God long enough, at some point, He withdraws His invitation for us to come closer to Him. We’re still His kids, we’re still going to Heaven, and He’ll still listen to our prayers, but He’s not going to let us advance in our personal knowledge of Him. Since we insist on keeping Him at arm’s length, He won’t let us come any closer. Since we insist on treating Him like some distant Stranger, we’ll never know what it would have been like to have Him as our Best Friend.
We are foolish to think salvation is all that matters down here. It is merely the beginning: a first step into a whole new world of relating to God. There is no higher privilege than knowing God intimately, and God doesn’t give Himself away for free, nor does He sell insights into His heart at low prices. If we want to be close to Him, we must approach Him on HIS terms. It must be HIS timing and in HIS order, not ours. There’s no room for demanding that God reveal more of Himself to us. Only those who are willing to be totally dominated and controlled by Him will end up knowing Him well. Only those who make revering Him their first priority in life will receive glimpses into His heart.
In Isaiah 6, God is showcasing His ability to control how close we come to Him. He is making it quite clear that if we spurn Him too long—as Israel did—then we will be cut off to some degree. Christians are never un-adopted. We are never cast out of God’s Presence, but again, being in God’s Presence is only the beginning. The real reward is not crossing the threshold of Heaven, but developing an intimate relationship with the Ones who created us.
In this passage, God has decided that He is done working with many souls living in Israel. He has slated these souls for death, and until they die, He will prevent them from ever progressing in their walks with Him by making them incapable of repentance. This is a chilling lesson that we can’t afford to ignore. The ability to repent is a gift from God. No one can effectively repent without an invitation from Him. God initiates in every aspect of our relationship with Him. We often slip into arrogantly thinking that we are leading Him sometimes or that we are returning to obedience of our own free will. But God is clear in His Word that no unsaved soul can come, and no rebel child can repent unless He gives them opportunity to do so. To be blocked by God from doing either of these things is a terrifying thought, yet it has become a reality for many souls over the course of human history. Those who are cut off by Him like this don’t even realize it. They are like the rebels described in Romans 1—souls that spurn God so long that He gives them up and abandons them in their own wickedness. Such people are described as reveling in evil and mocking God without ever realizing the hopelessness of their position. Likewise, the Israelites that God slated for destruction in Isaiah 6 didn’t realize they’d been cut off just as Pharaoh didn’t realize God was hardening his heart back in Exodus. All of these fools thought that their wills were the only ones that mattered. They thought they could freely choose any option they wanted, when in reality God was the One who determined how many options they had to pick from. It is the same today: God places choices before us and we then decide what we will do. If we choose to honor Him, we will be rewarded for it as Abraham was. If we choose to disobey Him long enough, He might remove the option of obedience from the table.
We don’t want to be given up by God on any level in our relationship with Him—it’s a terrifying thought. Happily, as long as the thought of being blocked like this disturbs us, we know we are still in a good place. Let’s be clear: God wants ALL of us to progress with Him. He does not cut us off just to do it. It is only our persistent, willful rebellion that ends up creating permanent distance between us and Him. As long as we are still able to repent, we have no need to worry about God cutting us off. But when we start shutting out the Holy Spirit and doing everything we can to ignore His Voice—that is when we start playing a very dangerous game. God is not a doormat. He doesn’t owe it to us Christians to let us close to Him. If we approach Him all grabby and greedy, we’re going to end up with nothing. If we approach Him with reverence and humble submission, we will go far. God is generous and He wants a close relationship with all of His kids. But He isn’t going to wait for us forever. These free wills we like to talk about are a great responsibility. If we use them unwisely, we will never even know what we could have had.
Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes will suddenly be destroyed beyond recovery. (Prov. 29:1)
Seek Yahweh while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. (Isa. 55:6)
Jesus: the Bewildering Teacher
Will all Christians be equal in Heaven?
The Eternal Cost of Willfully Defying God