A Commentary on the Haftarah Portion by Alan Gilman
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5)
I have heard it said that Isaiah’s vision of God, even though it is found in the sixth chapter of his book, must have occurred before he began his prophetic work. That’s understandable, since it is here that Isaiah receives his marching orders, therefore serving as an introduction. Another clue that suggests this took place before he ever spoke to the people on God’s behalf is his reaction.
First, it devastated him: "Woe is me! For I am lost", which is not something we would expect from a faithful servant of God. Second, he confessed to having "unclean lips" just like the rest of his people. What kind of prophet of God has unclean lips? My proposal: a genuine one.
Let me explain. While it is possible that Isaiah’s vision is out of sequence, is it necessary that his dramatic experience had to have come first before he took up his prophetic vocation? That says more about our assumptions of how God works than our grappling with what is actually going on here.
I am aware of the many biblical accounts of people to whom God appeared and/or spoke to before they began their divine task. But there are also people to whom God appeared and/or spoke to well into their ministry. So why can’t it be that Isaiah is an example of the latter?
Our assumption may dictate otherwise due to, as I already mentioned, the nature of the vision and Isaiah’s level of interaction. It is reasonable to regard these as foundational to both his personal spiritual state and the scope of his mission, but that doesn’t mean he could not have experienced this midstream. Must we assume that God wouldn’t address foundational issues in our lives?
Why do we assume that Isaiah must have had all this in place prior to the beginning of his work? Many people hearing or reading this are engaged in some sort of work for God. Others too may do so sometime in the future. Do we believe that we are so completely spiritual and that the scope of our ministry is or will be so perfectly defined that we will never require adjustment? But we are not Isaiah, we might say. We cannot compare our callings to his. Really? Are we truly that different from him?
Isaiah, as were all the significant biblical characters, was a human being just like us, serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as we are called to do. Does it sound that farfetched that this great prophet of God might discover that he is not as spiritual as he thought he was and that he may not have yet fully grasped the scope of his calling?
Isaiah wasn’t alone in his need to grow in his faith and work. All through Abraham’s life God expanded his understanding of what was being promised to him and how it was to work out. It took Jacob years to become a true believer. Moses had a lot to learn before he was ready to assume his leadership role and even then, the challenges that he faced forced him to draw closer and closer to God. David’s whole life was one of getting to know God better. Some of his personal weaknesses did not rise to the surface until after God used him in very significant ways.
God uses imperfect people. He doesn’t perfect us prior to his using us. When God calls us to a task, he doesn’t usually give us all the details. Let us not then assume that whatever understanding we currently have of God, our relationship to him, or the nature of the work to which he calls us, is complete.
God may not appear or speak to us in the same manner as he did with Isaiah. But let us be careful not to let our assumptions about God and how he deals with us prevent him from accomplishing all he wants to do in and through us.