Here’s a puzzle for you: John tells us that ‘no-one has ever seen God’ (John 1:18),
and Paul—agreeing with him—calls God ‘the invisible God’. So how could the prophet
Isaiah say, ‘I saw the LORD’?
We shall see as we go along. But first let’s note that with Isaiah we have reached
a major staging post in our journey through the Old Testament. We have covered the
Books of History (Genesis to Esther) and the Books of Experience (Job to Song of
Solomon); now we start with the Books of Prophecy, which will take us from Isaiah
to the end of the Old Testament. There, the long line of major and minor prophets
runs in parallel with the line of Israel’s kings, and their roles are intertwined.
So what kind of men were these prophets? They had a dual function as both forthtellers
and foretellers. As forthtellers they declared God’s word to their own generation
in Israel and Judah, calling those often-erring people to live in line with the covenant
and with the Law that spelt out its obligations. As foretellers they looked forward
to Christ, who would introduce a new and better covenant, and a worldwide kingdom.
Isaiah was one of the greatest. If you take the trouble to read his book from start
to finish you will notice the tone changing radically at the start of chapter 40.
Up to that point it is rather negative, stressing Judah’s abysmal failures as the
people of God. But then the book turns a corner and adopts a positive tone, prophesying
the coming of ‘the servant of the LORD’ who will be anointed with the Holy Spirit,
will die for the sins of his people, and will rise from death to be highly exalted.
So by the time you get to the end of Isaiah you’re feeling pretty exalted yourself,
which is a good way for a book to finish. And a good pattern for your own life, too.
Yes, like Judah you’ve had your bad times and made your mistakes, but now it’s time
to trust God to give your life a pleasant flavour that will be a blessing to all
you meet. Finish well!
Isaiah started prophesying in Judah around 754 BC, about 25 years before the northern
kingdom of Israel went off to exile in Assyria. His ministry lasted some 60 years
and covered the reigns of four kings, beginning with Uzziah. His own family, in fact,
had royal connections, so he moved in top-rank court circles. Because that was his
world, many of his prophecies concern political affairs like alliances with surrounding
nations. Here is a reminder that God places his people in every echelon of society.
What kind of world do you yourself move in? Are you being a voice for God there?
It is at the very beginning of his ministry that Isaiah makes his intriguing statement,
‘I saw the Lord’. It was a key element in his commissioning as a prophet of God.
Read the passage now for yourself—Isaiah 6:1-13. Isaiah was in his late teens or
early twenties when this commission came to him. Is that your age group? God can
address you, too, just as clearly. Be ready!
So he ‘saw the LORD’. But ‘saw’ in what sense? Clearly not literally, since God is
invisible. Maybe it was in a vision, which is a kind of waking dream. Or it may have
been a sudden awakening of his understanding and awareness of what God is really
like—the kind of situation where somebody explains something to you and you say,
‘Ah, I see!’
But we needn’t speculate because the New Testament answers our question. There John
tells us that ‘Isaiah...saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him’. So it was the pre-incarnate
Christ that Isaiah saw! He had an encounter with the Saviour about whom he would
later prophesy. Have you had an encounter with Jesus yourself? Have you moved from
saying, ‘I know about Jesus’ to the more intimate ‘I know Jesus’? Without such an
encounter your ministry is always going to lack vitality.
In particular, Isaiah caught a glimpse of the Lord’s greatness and holiness. He saw
him ‘seated on a throne, high and exalted’. It was a bit scary, to say the least.
This was, after all, God Almighty, not God all-matey. Certainly you may ‘approach
God’s throne of grace with confidence’, but never casually. This is the God who
is a ‘consuming fire’. We should therefore ‘serve the LORD with fear and celebrate
his rule with trembling’. Sadly, Muslims and Hindus often seem to have a clearer
grasp of God’s greatness than many Christians. Sometimes, like Job, we can get a
bit stroppy with him, almost as if we are on equal terms. But equal we are not, and
the slightest glimpse of him destroys that illusion once and for all, as Job was
quick to admit: ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore
I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’.
Specifically, Isaiah became aware of God’s holiness. He saw angels in his presence
‘calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty”’. Three times
for emphasis—thrice holy. The basic meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘separate’. So they were
saying, in effect, ‘Separate, distinct, set apart is the LORD Almighty’, or ‘In a
league of his own is the LORD Almighty’. God is holy, in particular, in his moral
separateness, which is why Isaiah felt so dirty by comparison. If you have merely
learned the meaning of the words ‘great’ and ‘holy’ without having an encounter with
the Lord, you will be able to continue to smoke, abuse alcohol, lie, steal and fiddle
your tax return. But if you have ‘seen’ him you will react as Isaiah did.
And how was that? He became acutely aware of his sinfulness and unworthiness.
It’s a bit like the old Persil adverts. You think your shirt is white till you see
it alongside the one washed in Persil, then you realise that at best it is grey.
‘Woe to me!’ cried the prophet—in today’s language, ‘I’ve had it!’ or ‘That’s me
finished!’ or ‘There’s no hope for me now!’ He went on to declare, ‘I don’t deserve
to live’ (‘I am ruined’), ‘I’m not fit to speak on God’s behalf’ (‘I am a man of
unclean lips’), and ‘I’m no better than the non-Christians around me’ (‘I live among
a people of unclean lips’). He felt totally wiped out because, he said, ‘my eyes
have seen the King, the LORD Almighty’ and such glory must surely shrivel him to
This is the normal reaction to a vision of God’s greatness. Have you had such a vision?
Have you been smitten with an overwhelming sense of your own unworthiness? I hope
so, because the gung-ho person who thinks he is God’s greatest asset is in fact a
liability in the kingdom of God. I remember a young potential church elder being
interviewed with eldership in view. He said, ‘I feel completely unworthy of it’.
To which came the wise reply, ‘That, young man, is one of the essential qualifications!’
Now note God’s response to Isaiah’s sense of unworthiness: he sent an angel with
a hot coal from the altar to touch Isaiah’s lips and assure him that his sin has
been dealt with. In Isaiah’s sense of unworthiness and God’s grace-response we
have a picture of salvation. Until we acknowledge our need we cannot be saved and
go on to a life of service. God isn’t in the business of throwing lifebelts to people
who won’t admit they are drowning. But when they do admit it he rushes to help.
The altar in question was the bronze Altar of Sacrifice in the temple. The hot coal
touching Isaiah’s mouth indicates the application to him of the atonement made there,
and especially the preparing of his lips to speak as God’s prophet. It must have
hurt a great deal. Cauterised lips can never be comfortable. Your pride has to be
wounded if you are to boast only in the cross of Christ—which that altar represents.
Jacob limped after his encounter with the living God, and Isaiah’s lips would ever
after bear the scars of that ‘live coal’ from the altar. He would use those very
lips to proclaim God’s message to Judah, but he would no longer be trusting in his
skills of diplomacy and oratory. Touched now by God, his gift was at God’s disposal,
dependent on his grace alone.
This is the way God works. Moses, at the burning bush, could have said, ‘I’m a gifted
shepherd, Lord, with lots of experience, so I’m well able to shepherd your people.’
The first statement was true, but the second didn’t follow from it. Instead, God
called him to throw down his staff, that symbol of shepherding practice, then to
take it up again, now injected with supernatural power as a living, writhing snake.
Have you had your own natural gifts cauterised? Have you fully realised the truth
of Jesus’ sobering words: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’?
Now that Isaiah had seen the LORD and been touched by his holiness he was ready to
respond to God’s call with, ‘Here am I. Send me!’ He volunteered—and he got the job!
I encourage you to do the same if you have ‘seen the Lord’. Offer your services to
him. But do so for the right reason: because you love him and have a heart for his
people, not out of the kind of insecurity that makes folk volunteer for everything
in order to get noticed and feel valued.
So Isaiah had been caught up in visions of God; he had had his lips cauterised; and
he had been commissioned to divine service. It is interesting to note exactly when
all this took place: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died’. That is significant.
Uzziah—sometimes called Azariah—reigned over Judah for 52 years, a long reign, and
one that brought great prosperity to the nation. His death naturally brought a time
of unsettling. That extended to Isaiah, who was Uzziah’s cousin and so had enjoyed
acceptance at court. That was now at an end. But happily, God doesn’t stop working
when things get unsettled. In fact the unsettling can make us depend more on God
than on the legitimate human props that may have sustained us in the past. And the
newly-commissioned Isaiah, his lips freshly cauterised, no doubt felt that with God’s
help he could turn the whole nation around in no time. But he was to be disappointed.
God warned him that most of the people would not respond to his message at all!
There are times and seasons in God’s dealings, and your job is to serve him faithfully
regardless of how well you seem to do. You are called to be a ‘good and faithful
servant’, not necessarily a successful one. I grieve that the gospel in my home
country of Great Britain is not today enjoying the rampaging progress we see it making
in, say, Africa, China or India. But that simply makes it all the more vital that
I remain true to my calling and serve the Lord faithfully as best I can.
The situation is in God’s hands. Certainly we can’t rely on techniques to change
things. I have seen British church leaders dashing off to Toronto, to Pensacola and
to Brownsville to ‘catch the vision’, with little, if anything, to show for it. I’ve
seen them rush to embrace the G12 model, the purpose-driven church model, the cell-church
model and more besides, with pretty much the same result. We can, of course, kid
ourselves we are finding success by building a showcase mega-church in a major city.
But it’s an illusion, because a church of 10,000 in such a city represents a similar
proportion to a church of 100 in a small town like mine. It’s not techniques that
matter. It’s faithfulness, and it’s God.
So Isaiah was put on the spot. Would he remain obedient to God’s call now that he
knew the people wouldn’t respond? An Isaiah with un-cauterised lips—a non-limping
Jacob—would look for a role with better prospects. But the person who has ‘seen the
LORD’ carries on regardless with the job that God has given. What about you? Are
you ready to quietly get on with your service in the church and your life of witness?
Then Isaiah asked a key question: ‘For how long, Lord?’ How long, he asked, will
I have to preach to people who don’t want to hear? When will the tide turn? When
will the breakthrough come? God told him clearly that it wouldn’t come till divine
judgment on the nation was complete. That meant Judah’s exile to Babylon—which wouldn’t
in fact be in Isaiah’s lifetime. He died still preaching to people who mostly rejected
his message. And according to the historian Josephus he died as a martyr at the hands
of wicked King Manasseh. They bound him and forced him inside a hollow tree-trunk,
which they then sawed in two. Are you ready to serve Christ faithfully even if
you never see revival in your land, and if you suffer for your faith?
God encouraged Isaiah by assuring him that his long-term purpose remained firmly
on course: ‘The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down—Every
tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there’s a holy seed in those stumps’.
Like new growth after a forest fire, when things seem to be as bad as they could
possibly be, the stumps will start sprouting again—people will be saved; revival
will come before Christ returns.
I hope you have ‘seen the LORD’. I hope, too, you will find direction and take courage
from Isaiah’s experience. If you are still under the illusion that you are indispensable
to God for getting his work done, take your pride to the cross. ‘See the LORD’ in
his majesty and holiness—let him cauterise your lips. Then become his faithful servant,
regardless of whether or not you see success.
God’s plan is on track. Be sure that you remain part of it. Whether you live in a
period of ‘forest fires’ or of ‘sprouting stumps’, serve God and his people. And
look forward, when your task is done, to going to ‘see the Lord’ for ever!
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
The gist of this article
In spite of the fact that God is invisible Isaiah could say, ‘I saw the LORD’. It
was a life-changing experience that enabled him to persist with his ministry against
all the odds. You can learn a thing or two from him about persisting yourself!