The Call of Isaiah

Day Five of “Through Advent with Isaiah”

I won’t comment on the readings today, but rather focus on Chapter 6 of Isaiah, the call of the prophet.

What is a prophet? The Hellenistic Greek word is προφήτης “pro-pheé-tees”, which means “the one who speaks on behalf of another”. A prophet speaks on behalf of God to God’s people, or their leaders; a prophet also speaks to God on behalf of the people. The Hebrew word is נְבִיָּא “Naw-vee”, and Wikipedia suggests it also means “spokesperson”, but I’m not convinced that’s where the word comes from, just what it came to mean. My copy of Brown-Driver-Briggs (the standard Hebrew lexicon, or at least what was when I studied Hebrew) sees the root as נבא, or “nva”, which in the related language of Arabic is the root of a word that means “utter in a low voice”. Wilhelm Gesenius and others thought it was related the the sense of “bubble up” or “pour forth”, words from a prophet being like the water of a spring. While this is debated, I kind of like that last idea, because it catches the sense of a prophet being one who has a kind of ecstatic experience, that the Spirit of God is giving a vision to the prophet, or the words are just flooding out.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem, perhaps as it was in Solomon’s time. The Temple is at the top, on Mount Zion. The City of David is to the south, in the bottom of the picture. Over time the city shifted north, so that the edge of the Temple is now at the south of the modern Old City of Jerusalem; the City of David is now outside the medieval walls of the city.

In the Hebrew tradition Moses was the prophet par excellence. He received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai, but he also interceded for the people of Israel when God threatened to destroy them and start over with the descendants of Moses.

In the time of Samuel and David prophets were part of the royal court, and often seemed to band together. Prophets often foretold bad news that resulted from bad behaviour – Samuel to Eli, and Nathan to David. Prophets could get lost in ecstatic trances. In 1 Samuel 10, after Saul has been anointed King by Samuel, we read:

10When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy along with them. 11When all who knew him before saw how he prophesied with the prophets, the people said to one another, ‘What has come over the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?’ 12A man of the place answered, ‘And who is their father?’ Therefore it became a proverb, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ 13When his prophetic frenzy had ended, he went home.         1 Samuel 10.10-13

After the time of Solomon, when there were two successor kingdoms, Israel and Judah, the prophets were either at the court or were called by God to go to the court and speak truth to power. Elijah was definitely in the latter group, challenging Ahab and Jezebel in the northern Kingdom of Israel in the 9th century BCE.

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A cutaway diagram of Solomon’s Temple. Most sacrifices took place at the outside altar, which also functioned as a kind of barbeque. Animal sacrifices were either burnt whole, or in part, with the cooked part being used for food for the priests and feasts for the people on behald of whom the priests were offering the sacrifices. The building of the Temple had two inner rooms, each separated by curtains. The first room is where incense and bread would be offered daily. The innermost room, the Holy of Holies, was where the Ark of the Covenant was, and only the High Priest would go in there, once a year on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Isaiah was a prophet of the southern Kingdom of Judah. Chapter 6 of the book reads:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’ 9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’
11 Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:
‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

This passage falls into two halves, the call and God’s words to Isaiah. Isaiah is a priest, being a descendant of Aaron and his sons. He was probably a farmer, but one month a year he would go to Jerusalem and take his turn making sacrifices in the Temple. In this passage he is offering the daily sacrifice of incense inside the first room. It may be that he can see into the Holy of Holies. It is probably there that he sees Yahweh enthroned. His immediate reaction before this vision is to have a deep sense of unworthiness. One of the seraphs – angels, it seems, who attend Yahweh as servants attend a king – hears Isaiah, and purifies him with a coal from the incense burner, which miraculously does not burn him.

The song of the angels inspired John of Patmos in his vision of heaven in Revelation. It also inspired Reginald Heber, first Bishop of Calcutta, in the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy“, the first verse of which was sung virtually every Sunday at Bethel United Church in Grand-Mére, Quebec, where I was baptised.

God then asks, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah, now restored to grace before Yahweh, says, “Here I am, send me.” In these words Isaiah echoes Samuel’s call in 1 Samuel 3. In both cases “Here I am” is one word in Hebrew: הִנְנִ֥י “Hi-nen-ni”, which I always want to translate as “Yo!”. These two passages also inspired this hymn, beloved of ordinations services –  “I the Lord of Sea and Sky” or “Here I Am, Lord”:

The second half is a bit confusing.  God tells the prophet to say to the people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Why would God send the prophet on a fruitless mission? According to this Isaiah’s prophecies will not result in repentance or their being healed, but just the opposite, condemning them despite the warnings. It is even more confusing because we know that King Hezekiah did respond to some of what Isaiah said. However, it may be that the prophet believed that the people and leadership were so far gone that they were beyond turning. Alternatively, this may have been added at a later time, when it was known that Isaiah’s warnings did not change the downward trajectory of Judah.

Of course, a prophet is recognized as a true prophet because what they say comes to pass. It may be that others were prophesying at the same time, but their prophecies did not come true, whereas Isaiah’s did, and that is why he is remembered.

This confusing later section is taken up Matthew 13.14-15, where Jesus talks about the purpose of parables (which actually is the second reading this morning). With parables – stories with images and frequently outrageous aspects that related to the kingdom of God – Jesus subversively preached without directly challenging the powers that be. It was a kind of “plausible deniability” that allowed him to preach in public but not immediately bring condemnation down upon him.

What is interesting about Isaiah s that, as a priest, he was part of the hierarchy. Nevertheless he became one who challenged the people and the leadership, calling them back to the ways of God. He is part of a privileged group, but receives a higher calling directly from God. What exactly those are we will look at in a future post.

 

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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1 Response to The Call of Isaiah

  1. Pingback: Justice in II Isaiah | The Island Parson

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