Isaiah – The Prophet of Holiness

All Quotations are taken from the Revised Version

The ministry of Isaiah of Jerusalem was unique in many ways. He has been called the king of the prophets. His message came to the nation at a time of crisis, a time when perhaps an exceptional messenger was needed to challenge the people in their deep sinfulness. Unlike Amos and Hosea in Israel he laboured among the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. His ministry covered the reigns of at least four of Judah’s kings, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Tradition has it that his life ended by his being sawn asunder at the command of the evil Manasseh. He was a contemporary of Micah and their prophecies in part overlap. It was during his lifetime, in 721 B.C., that Samaria fell to the Assyrians. It was only in the goodness of God that Judah was spared the same judgment until about 588 B.C. Then because of their continued wickedness, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem, the city which Isaiah so much loved, and Judah went into captivity.

Historical Background

The evils of Judah during the life of Isaiah were very similar to those challenged and condemned by Amos and Hosea in Israel. They arose out of conditions which developed in both kingdoms through the reigns of their respective kings, Uzziah and Jeroboam II. Uzziah was a successful ruler whose policies at homeland abroad brought prosperity to the people. 2 Chronicles 26 gives a full account of his long reign of 52 years. Godliness marked his way of life, “he set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah”, v. 5, a godly prophet and counsellor to the king. The kingdom benefited materially in many ways. Such prosperity was the promised reward of righteousness. Jerusalem became a strong city and an important centre among the nations. It is obvious that such material well-being led to moral and spiritual corruption. As in the reign of Jeroboam of Israel the nation sank into shameless degradation. Isaiah condemns the same sins in his time as Amos and Hosea did in theirs. The reign of Uzziah ended in tragic failure. “When he was strong, his heart was lifted up”, v. 16. In his pride and folly he profaned the sanctuary, and he ended his days a leper. Isaiah had no doubt witnessed this with sadness. Sixteen years of righteous rule followed with Jotham upon the throne. 2 Chronicles 27 indicates that the trends of Uzziah’s time continued through the years of Jotham.

With the accession of Ahaz to the throne a change took place, 2 Chron. 28. He was a weak and evil king. The evils practised by the kings of Israel were brought into the realm of Judah. In verse 19 we read that “the Lord brought Judah low because of Ahaz” the king. He dealt wantonly in Judah and trespassed very much against the Lord. Syria and Israel united in an unholy alliance against Judah. The confusion was worsened for Ahaz when he turned to Assyria for help, sending treasures from the house of the Lord to buy the king’s favour. Such events give us an understanding of some of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. Significantly, around Judah great struggles for power among the nations were taking place, with Assyria, Egypt and to a lesser degree Babylon seeking to gain prominence.

The unique character of Isaiah was as a statesman-prophet who could deal with kings and their policies of government. He could not only condemn his rulers but also counsel them as well. This is evident in Isaiah 7 with Ahaz and in chapters 36-39 in the life of Hezekiah. He seems to have had access to the courts of the succeeding monarchs of Judah. Some historians suggest that he held high office in the court. It is certainly clear that God had His man in the right place for the times in which he lived. Upon reflection, how often do we see this happening, proving clearly the sovereignty of God in His dealings with the nations.

The Prophet’s Call

The call of Isaiah, recorded in - chapter 6, is central in his life and ministry. The whole tone and atmosphere of his work is set by the dramatic encounter he had with his God. No man can be so confronted with the glory of the Lord and remain the same. Just to read through the book with the details of his call in mind will amply bear this out. To paint a true portrait of the prophet’s life we must study carefully the vision with which his ministry began. Think then of the vision. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up”, 6. 1 Indescribable majesty and unapproachable holiness stressed heaven’s contrast to the defilement and unworthiness of earth. In Isaiah’s vision, even those who were nearest to the throne covered their faces at the sight of such glory. Someone has described the encounter of the prophet in three ways. The “Woe” of confession; the “Lo” of cleansing; the “go” of commission. Isaiah was immediately stricken with a sense of his own wretchedness and sin. “I am undone”, he says. In chapter 5 he had uttered his woes on the sins of others. Now in the light of divine holiness he is isolated in his own unworthiness. Such a vision sets man alone in his guilt. With David, how often the cry goes up to heaven, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned”, Psa. 51. 4.

In the process of his call, Isaiah is made to understand the value of vicarious sacrifice. From the altar is brought the live coal which touches his lips. For one who in his uncleanness has cried, “mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”, there is only one remedy which can set him at ease. It is the remedy which comes from the place of sacrifice. “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged”, v. 7. As we look at the message of Isaiah we shall see that he never forgot the value of that which took away his quilt. The meaning of vicarious sacrifice is made clear in his prophecy, 43. 25; 44. 22; 53. 4-12.

We see then how Isaiah is prepared for his vocation as the prophet of the Lord. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” is the question that comes from the throne, v. 8. It is well to notice the process in the call of God’s servant. Only purged lips can rightly speak the messages of the living God. Conscious of his own cleansing, Isaiah is now prepared to be committed to Jehovah’s service. “Here am I; send me”. This represents an unqualified dedication to the service of the Lord. The impact of the vision is marked out in the realities of the prophet’s vocation. A stern unrewarding task is given to Isaiah. He is sent to preach to a people who, because of persistent sinfulness, become blind and deaf to God’s claims upon them. As the vision faded, Isaiah was left with a deep realization of his responsibility to fulfil his mission to the last. Yet to look at that which began the prophet’s ministry makes us aware that he was prepared by it for his encounters with the nation and its kings during his long service for his Lord.

Before we look at the effect of the vision of Isaiah upon his message it is well to reflect upon the way in which the Lord often revealed Himself to His servants of old. From the beginning to the end of the Scriptures, men of God were overwhelmed by the appearance to them of the glory of God. To Abraham, dwelling in pagan Ur, it was as the God of glory that He appeared, Acts 7. 2. Similarly, many centuries afterwards, to exiled John on the Isle of Patmos, it was as the Son of man in glory that the Risen Lord appeared, Rev. 1. 13. He was mastered by the vision and fell at His feet as one dead. Each could say with so many others throughout the years, “I have seen the Lord”. Life is stirred, sanctified and strengthened by such encounters. For us, in everyday Christian living, such sight by faith of our exalted Lord is possible and essential. It is good when, with men such as Hudson Taylor, we can say :

Since mine eyes have looked on Jesus,
I’ve lost sight of all beside,
So entranced my spirit’s vision,
Gazing on the crucified.

The Prophet’s Message

What Isaiah saw and heard influenced directly what he said and did. Reflections of his vision can be traced throughout the book. There is a consistency of truth giving a spiritual unity to each part of his prophecy. These ideas can only be hinted at but are well worth following up more fully.

Isaiah spoke clearly of the sovereignty of God. To him He was the Holy One of Israel. The sin of the nation against God is described, “they have despised the Holy One of Israel”, Isa. 1. 4. This tremendous atmosphere of sanctity and holiness pervades the whole of his prophecy. Not only in the temple in heaven was His holiness seen, but this same God, the Lord of hosts, dwelt as the Holy One in Zion. No wonder that to Isaiah the greatest sins of the nation were seen against the background of the perfect purity of God.

To Isaiah the Lord was supreme. He had seen Him high and lifted up, sitting upon the throne. This to the prophet was His rightful place. There could be no higher place than the throne of God. Thus in expressive terms he could speak of the final exaltation of the Lord. “The lofty looks of man shall be brought low, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day”, 2. 11. When speaking of the Suffering Servant of Jehovah the same idea prevails. “He shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high”, 52. 13. The book of Isaiah ends with the Lord supreme, “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”, 66. 1. The grandeur of the heavenly vision was not lost as Isaiah gives to Jehovah the pre-eminent place in His message.

Again, the impression of sinfulness in its deep reality is developed throughout the prophet’s message. The tragedy of the nation’s sin is described from heaven’s standpoint. The utter rottenness of the existing conditions is vividly described. “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and festering sores”, 1. 6. The disquiet that Isaiah felt as he was made aware of his own sin is translated into the experience of his nation. All their righteousnesses are but filthy rags. There was no room for soft speaking as Isaiah faced the people to challenge them about their sin.

Very beautifully Isaiah affirms in his message the value of vicarious sacrifice. In the context of his age he sounds out the evangel, so much so that one has said that he died with the gospel on his lips. The fact that his own iniquity had been taken away by the touch of the live coal from the altar gave him the unforgettable assurance that he spoke of a God who was ready to pardon. It is beautiful to notice the link between throne and altar. The claims of the one are met by the sacrifice on the other. Most strikingly this is illustrated in Isaiah 53. How vital this matter is when we read concerning the Servant of the Lord, “the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all,” v. 6. To Isaiah, his God is a Just God and a Saviour.

Throughout Isaiah’s message there is the reflection of his own dedication to service. Both the nation and the coming Messiah are spoken of as the Servant of the Lord. In his own service he would be very conscious of shortcomings and failures. But he could turn his eyes to the perfection of Jehovah’s Servant, “Behold my servant… my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth”, 42. 1. Of such he could say with assurance, “he shall not fail”, V. 4, and also, “the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand”, 53. 10. The teaching of Isaiah in the Servant songs of his prophecy is unique.

We have noted that it was in the year that king Uzziah died that the prophet saw the Lord. A defiled monarchy and a debased king on earth could not mar or spoil the glory of the throne in the heavens. It was the same Lord that Isaiah saw who, centuries afterwards, gave confirmation to this fact. “These things said Isaiah, because he saw his glory; and he spake of him”, John 12. 41. It is also significant that Philip the Evangelist, when engaged in helping a soul who was reading from Isaiah 53, was able to begin at the same scripture and preach unto him Jesus. It was through this vital testimony that the Ethiopian found his way to Christ, Acts 8. 32-38.

Such is the unchanging value of the message of Isaiah, the prophet of holiness.


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