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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 6, or, the stump and the sacred seed

As I mentioned last week, this chapter records Isaiah's calling from God — the moment when he became a prophet and began his ministry. The first five chapters have been introductory material describing in general the downfall of Jerusalem and the sinful state of God's world. But this chapter describes the particular moment in time when God called Isaiah to speak into that world — a pivotal point in the text and a transition into the meat of its message. Here's the translation, with a recording above and a short reflection below as usual.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 6

1. It was the year King Uzziah died when I saw my Master. He was sitting on his throne: exalted and lifted on high, his mantle folds filling the temple,

2. The Burning Ones stationed above him — six wings! Six wings on each one. With two they were covering their faces. With two they were covering their feet. With two they were flying.

3. And they called out, one to another, and said:
The whole earth is filled with his majesty.’

4. The doorframe was rocked with the voice of them, calling, and the building was filled with smoke.

5. I wailed, ‘oh, I am dismantled. I, a man of filthy lips within a filthy-lipped nation: my eyes see the King, the God of Legions.’

6. But then one of the Burning Ones flew to me. In his hand, an ember: he picked it up with tongs from off the altar.

7. He touched it to my mouth and said, ‘Look: this touches your lips, and takes away your corruption; your sin is scoured away.’

8. And I heard the voice of my Master. Saying, ‘Whom will I send? Who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Look: here I am. Send me.’

9. And He said, ‘go. You shall say to this nation, “listen! Oh you, listen, but comprehend nothing. See! Oh you, see, but never understand.”

10. ‘Fatten these people’s hearts. Weigh down their ears; shut their eyes. Otherwise they would see with their eyes, and with their ears, listen, and understand in their hearts, and turn, and find healing.’

11. And I said, ‘Master, for how long?’ And he said, ‘until the cities are ravaged, emptied of anyone living there, houses emptied of human life, and the earth lifeless, desolate.

12. ‘And God will drive humanity miles away, and the deserted territory will yawn wide in the heart of the Earth.

13. ‘And if there’s still a tenth left, then that again will be devoured in flame — like a terebinth tree, like an oak. When they are toppled, their stump remains. Their stump is the sacred seed.’

-- -- --

This is the story of how Isaiah became a prophet. No one knows what his life was like before this moment; some people speculate that he was a member of the royal family in Jerusalem. What we know, because Isaiah tells us, is that in the year King Uzziah died (c. 740 BC) this otherwise unremarkable man saw God (line 1).

It was a moment when all Israel’s best options looked played-out and dead-ended. Back in the 1000s BC the Jewish people had chosen to be ruled by a king. They wanted military success on the world stage, and they thought a human monarch would be a safer bet to ensure that outcome than a distant, inscrutable God. But instead of imperium and majesty they got factionalism and dysfunction. Israel’s kingdom ended up broken in two – the South and its capital city of Jerusalem was ruled by noblemen from the tribe of Judah, while a northern territory split off under new leadership. Uzziah, king of Judah and Jerusalem, embodied all the arrogance and complacency of an old monied elite. He sat in decadent state over a shallow citizenry who were more concerned with satisfying their own appetites than with discerning and enacting the will of God.

One thing that’s rarely noticed about Isaiah is that, for all we know, he was every bit a part of his degraded culture before God called him. Once he became a prophet, of course, he demanded repentance and brutally condemned his fellow Israelites for their depravity. And so it’s easy to imagine that he was always pure and removed: we picture a born ascetic who never had any part in Jerusalem’s culture of hedonism. But if indeed he was royalty or at least nobility, then it's equally possible that he spent his youth right up until this transformative moment feasting and carousing while the poor went hungry in the streets. His reaction to beholding his maker in person and hearing fiery angels sing God’s glory is not that of a man who considers himself worthy of divine commission. When the Burning Ones – the ‘Seraphim’ – announce that God is truly sovreign over all the world, Isaiah does not say ‘oh good,’ or, ‘at last I am where I belong.’ He wails, ‘oh, I am dismantled. I, a man of filthy lips among a filthy-lipped nation’ (line 5). He sees that if heaven and earth are to be filled with God’s righteousness, then by necessity they must be emptied out of the blasphemy and sin in which he, no less than his fellow countrymen, is implicated.

And so I wonder whether Isaiah stumbled into this first vision completely unawares. Maybe he was hit with it in Jerusalem's ancient temple, the way you or I might be if we wandered absent-mindedly into an old church and found ourselves suddenly gripped with a palpable certainty that, like it or not, God is real. Perhaps the death of King Uzziah prompted weariness of a status quo that, despite all its pleasures, simply did not satisfy: king after king, day after day, drinking party after drinking party, Jerusalem in the 740s BC must have felt empty and directionless. The nation had lost sight of its mission and purpose, leaving nothing for the upper classes to do but glut themselves and jockey for power. Dissatisfied with that state of affairs, Isaiah is suddenly reminded that he and his people were made to do more and be better than they have been. In an agonising moment of self-recognition — a hot coal pressed pitilessly onto unclean lips — he sees his shortcomings and has them purged away from him by a forgiveness as harsh as it is complete. Now the hard work of rebuilding can begin.

All of this helps make sense of the chilling conclusion to this chapter. God proclaims a terrible sentence upon his people, who now that they have willfully ignored their true king in heaven will become more and more alienated from everything good and holy until their desiccated society is toppled by an invading empire (lines 9-10). The devastation will last until the entire sickly structure of this wayward nation collapses like a forest of old trees chopped ferociously to the ground (lines 11-13). But, God declares, when the dust settles the stumps of those trees will remain, and ‘their stump is the sacred seed.’ In the final and complete failure of Israel’s grand designs and secular politicking, when every plan they had for material success and world domination has been revealed for the pipe dream that it always was, then at last they will be thrown back to basics and find in their brokenness the rudiments of a new kind of life.

It is an understatement to say that, if human beings could get everything right on the first try, that would be nice. An incalculable preponderance of misery and suffering could be prevented if we turned to God first for the blueprints of our conduct. But the brute fact of the matter is that we don’t start there. Like Isaiah, like the people of Jerusalem, we begin with our own broken desires and selfish impulses, chasing half-baked fantasies of satisfaction and schemes for success. Yet we have a God who does not abandon us for all that: instead he consents even to be our last resort. He waits for exactly the moment when our own misguided plans have been frustrated, so that right when we feel like we’re out of options he can appear to begin the real story. King Uzziah has to die before we can see God: sometimes only the failure of the most promising hope that mere humanity can offer is enough to force us into looking elsewhere for our true sovereign. Yet we do have such a sovereign, and he waits patiently to show himself. Our rickety palaces and our rotten trees will come crashing down, but in their stump is the sacred seed.

Rejoice evermore,