On a Scale that is God
Shaquille O’Neal doesn’t look all that tall when you are standing on the top of a mountain.
We don’t know a lot about Isaiah the man just from reading Isaiah 1-5. We know that he was in tune with God message. We know that he had the inner strength to engage in public debate. There was a big part of him that thought he had his act together. He knew he had a face-to-face meeting with God coming up. I suspect a part of him thought he had advanced to the point where he felt “advanced” above his contemporaries in his service to God. Intellectually, he knew that God is good, and that he would have to be respectful and reverent in his approach to God.
And I will even concede that he had indeed advanced above his contemporaries. But on what scale? To someone standing from the top of the Sears Tower, Shaquille O’Neill’s height advantage over you and me doesn’t impress me as very noticeable – if noticeable at all.
When Isaiah said in 6:5, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,” he was extending the scope of the six woes he pronounced in chapter 5. When he saw holiness from a scale that is God, he discovered that any advantage he might have was trivial and barely – if at all observable when looked at on a scale that is God. It totally shook his world to come face to face with the reality that he really had no goodness over the crowd of people he had just woed six times. Sure, the gap was there, but it was too puny to bother regarding. He was a man of unclean lips, no better than the people he was with who were people of unclean lips. All differences after that are inconsequential. So he picked up from 5:25 where he thought he had completed his pronouncement of woes, and added one final woe: Woe is ME. For I am no better than they are.
That revelation from God about himself shook Isaiah’s world apart. He became “lost”, or “undone.” Would that reading the word of God begin to chip away at what we think of as “trusting God,” and to undo each of us to one degree or another. The more Isaiah can shake you up regarding how short our comprehension of trusting God really is, the easier it will become to trust God.
Isaiah walked into God’s presence a sinner – as full of sin as those he was earlier preaching to. Every word that Isaiah spoke to the people in chapters 1 through 5, Isaiah was seeing God speak back to Isaiah. Perhaps the modern versions that prefer “ruined” (ESV says “lost”) in 6:5 are technically more accurate than the King James. But I really like the KJV word “undone.” Woe to me. Everything I ever thought about myself is wrong. I am sinful; I am equally as sinful as the people who heckled me. That sounds like being undone.
Consider typical “church-talk” today:
· “I am so mature in Christ that my church just named me a Deacon.” No, you are equally as sinful as the man who dragged an oxcart of iniquities pulled with cords of vanity (Isaiah 5:18).
· “The Sunday School class I teach sets new records for attendance every week. God has blessed my teaching.” It must be God, for despite all your knowledge, your teaching is just as sinful as the teaching of the ignorant teacher across the hall.
Isaiah has now seen holiness, and he is not holy. Everything that used to make him feel spiritual has been undone. Whatever legacy you have built, let it be undone. The scale that is God recognizes nothing you have accomplished.
“How can a sinful, corrupt people become the servants of God?” All mankind is several examples of sinful corrupt man. “But how can a particular sinful corrupt person become a servant of God?” If the answer to that question were “to want it badly enough,” then Isaiah would have not approached God in sin. He would have desired for and achieved holiness in his own desire. For Isaiah did persuade all he encountered that he was zealous to be a servant of God. Isaiah preached that the people were headed in the wrong direction; but Isaiah was headed in the wrong direction too. Isaiah preached that Israel does not know their Master’s voice (Isaiah 1:3); neither did Isaiah. Isaiah prophesied of Israel’s day when everything that is lifted will be brought low; Isaiah was in the very process of experiencing that very knee-buckling fall. Isaiah was thoroughly “undone” by what he saw.
If there were any possible way Isaiah could have transformed his sinful corrupt nature into service for God, Isaiah would have so transformed himself. But man can never convert the scarlet of sin into the white of snow (Isaiah 1:18). They are two separate substances. For through the corruption, man, who looks on the outward appearance only, saw an eager servant. God saw a sinful corrupt heart.
But in the presence of God, Isaiah became undone. He was brought low. He was on the ground and helpless. Dr. Oswalt1 refers to people who offer God deals – people who hastily thing that by pledging, “God, if you supply the money, I’ll start going to Church every Sunday for a year.” Each of us already knows in his heart that that is an unholy way to approach God, and God will not respond to that approach. But Isaiah 6 articulates WHY He will not respond. If a man demonstrates he still has the strength to negotiate bargains with God, then that man is not ready to meet Him. He is simply not undone enough.
It was when Isaiah was flat on the ground that the seraph saw he was ready to be cleansed. Isaiah was pleading no cause; defending no thought, and fighting no battle. He had given up. And that is precisely when God can save you: when you have given up doing anything to save yourself.
The scene was awesome in Isaiah 6:6. A seraph took a live coal. The flaming thing picked up a flaming hot coal, and approached Isaiah. This was more symbolic, and Dr. Oswalt1 explains that well, than it was physically effective. What Isaiah got physically was a real bad burn mark across his face from the heat of the flaming thing coming so close to him, and he got a mouth that required months (years) of healing . What it represented was Isaiah’s guilt was taken away, and his sins became atoned for. When Isaiah gave up on himself, God was now ready to accept him into servanthood. And God goes through this process each day today one soul at a time.
I believe that the fiery thing (seraph) and the live coals are literal. What would happen if God directed a fiery being to get in your face, and touch a live coal to your lips? A first-degree burn perhaps? If God were to inflict Isaiah with such burns, it would take (say) eight years to recover from that. There seems to be about an eight-year gap between chapter 6 and chapter 7. Isaiah was too injured for service, and needed time to heal. But he was in exactly the right place to attend the University of God. For eight years, Isaiah listened to God, and his injured mouth prevented him from arguing.
How can sinful corrupt Israel become a corporate servant of God? When the souls of Israelite men and women – one at a time – follow the example of Isaiah and fall down, and give up. When they have no fight left to plead their cause. When they have so little confidence in themselves that they don’t bother trying. When they are ready to accept the spiritually discerned invitation of Isaiah 5 and follow behind Isaiah into the presence of God’s holiness, and one by one, they become undone.
Isaiah could not will himself to be a servant of God, and neither can the nation of Israel. This is the manner of depths that is required for God to command a burning substance to pull a live coal out of the altar, and touch you to the removal of guilt and the atonement of your sins. It cost Isaiah the very life he had been accustomed to. But each day as I discover God’s economy, I am reminded that what it cost Isaiah was and is the market price for qualifying for God’s service – the life you have become accustomed to.
It isn’t even clear that Isaiah responded to God in an intelligible manner when he uttered his famed response “Here am I, send me,” his mouth was so wounded. But it doesn’t matter. When God saw Isaiah’s heart respond in purity to a mission God had in store, it was the man who saw God who is holy, and had given up on himself and was now trusting God that God called to become His next servant.
“The king’s death prepares the way for the vision of God.
The vision of God leads to self-despair.
Self-despair opens the door to cleansing.
Cleansing makes it possible to recognize the possibilities of service.
And the total experience then leads to an offering of oneself.”
1Dr. John N. Oswalt, NICOT Series, Isaiah, Eerdmans, 1996.