Call to Ministry Series #17: The Call of Isaiah, part 1
April 11, 2013
I have resigned from my ministry as president at Sioux Falls Seminary, effective in December 2013. Does that mean I am leaving ministry? No, I am not retiring. Yet. I hope the Lord has more in store for me. What? I’m not sure.
These questions led me to reflect on Isaiah’s call. In my series on call, I will have at least three installments on Isaiah. Here is the start.
God’s call to the writing prophets provides more information than some of the ones we have been reading. And among the writing prophets who tell us something about how they received direction from God (they don’t all do so), Isaiah’s is most well known. Isaiah 6 serves as a favorite text for many.
In the book of prophetic words and visions that bears his name, Isaiah’s call comes after some messages have already been given, i.e., chapters 1-5. Questions arise out of this placement. Is chapter 6 a reflection back on Isaiah’s early ministry and simply placed here for editorial purposes? Is chapter 6 a new call for Isaiah that changes the course of his prophetic ministry? You will find commentators on Isaiah divided on these questions. Some don’t even consider them. I think the question of the call coming somewhere other than the beginning is an intriguing and potentially important one. Before taking a closer perusal of chapter 6, let’s examine its placement.
The book of Isaiah opens with a courtroom drama in chapter 1 that acts as a summary of the whole book and the primary themes the reader will find. I think it was placed initially as an opening salvo to the whole book, like Psalms 1 and 2 provide an introduction to the psalter.
Chapters 2-5 present a series of messages that float from hope to the reasons for failure to realize the hope that God envisioned. A mighty mountain will reflect God’s presence (ch. 2). In reply, humanity embraces false gods. They taint the hope, bringing instead the judgment of the day of Yhwh. Chapter 4 ends with the Branch of the Lord glorified. Hope wins.
Chapter 5 finds Yhwh singing a song of the vineyard. The Lord did everything possible to cause his vineyard to flourish. The lack of justice on the part of the house of Israel leads to destruction. Woes follow that describe specific sinful actions – accumulation of wealth and property, misuse of the joy of the vineyard for drunkenness and sexual exploits, redefining truth to fit their evil definitions, pronouncing judgments in court that have nothing to do with justice and right. The anger of Yhwh strikes them. Light is dimmed by the darkness.
At this point Isaiah receives a vision of Yhwh “high and lifted up” in chapter 6.
So, what is my answer to its placement after five chapters? I cannot say definitively one way or another. His commission after all is two-thirds pronouncement of judgment which fits with chapters 2-5 (see 6:9-10). But in another sense I see a pattern starting that I will address later where we find other possible calls in the book of Isaiah. So I find it intriguing that possibly Isaiah began to speak into his culture and time as a prophet, then Yhwh met him in a vision that redirected his ministry (ch. 6). No matter your understanding of the authorship of the book of Isaiah, in the canonical form of the book the prophet may have been further redirected in later chapters (perhaps 40, 43, 61, and other hints).
When Dick Hillis, missionary to China and later director of China Inland Mission (now renamed), was driven out of China by the Communists and Chairman Mao, someone asked him how it felt to not have a call to ministry anymore. He replied that he still had a call from the Lord; its specific direction had simply changed course.
I think that same scenario may have happened to Isaiah on multiple occasions. But the clearest meeting of God and prophet occurs in chapter 6 in Isaiah’s “call.” We’ll look at it closely in the next blog.