Here’s a puzzle for you: John tells us that ‘no-one has ever seen God’ (John 1:18),[1] and Paul—agreeing with him—calls God ‘the invisible God’.[2] So how could the prophet Isaiah say, ‘I saw the LORD’?[3]

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’.[4] 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’.[5] 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’,[6] but never casually. This is the God who is a ‘consuming fire’.[7] We should therefore ‘serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling’.[8] 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’.[9]

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”’.[10] 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.[11] 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 cinders.

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.[12] 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’?[13]

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’.[14] 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![15]

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.[16] 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?’[17] 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.[18] 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’.[19] 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!

Copyright © David Matthew 2010

 

 

ISAIAH

I Saw The LORD

 

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.

 

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Isaiah

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!

 

1. John 1:18

2. Colossians 1:15

3. Isaiah 6:1

4. John 12:41

5. Isaiah 6:1

6. Hebrews 4:16

7. Hebrews 12:29

8. Psalm 2:11

9.Job 42:5-6

10. Isaiah 6:3

11. Isaiah 6:5

12. Isaiah 6:6-7

13. John 15:5

14. Isaiah 6:1

15. Isaiah 6:9-10

16. Matthew 25:21

17. Isaiah 6:11

18. See Hebrews 11:37

19. Isaiah 6:13 The Message