“In the year that King Uzziah died” Isaiah had a vision of the Lord sitting on the throne and the hem of his robe filled the Temple. His life would never be the same. I suppose “the year that King Uzziah died” could be a poetic way of saying 742 BC.
February 6, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright
“In the year that King Uzziah died” Isaiah had a vision of the Lord sitting on the throne and the hem of his robe filled the Temple. His life would never be the same.
I suppose “the year that King Uzziah died” could be a poetic way of saying 742 BC.
It could indicate the end of an era. Uzziah had enjoyed a long reign and popular support: perhaps because he improved agricultural yields – meaning cheaper bread and less hunger; perhaps because he won victories over the Philistines and Ammonites; perhaps because he repaired Jerusalem’s defenses, re-opened ports, and fortified trade routes[i] But it is more likely shorthand for a major catastrophe: like our own 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. That would mean that Isaiah had his vision in a time of great national instability, when leadership was uncertain, when threats abounded, when the future seemed grim.
On the surface, this vision is reassuring. The earthly throne of Judah may be empty, but God is securely occupying the one in heaven! The scale of that throne is enough to convey power – just the hem of God’s robe fills a space as large as Notre Dame Cathedral. And awe is the order of the day – with smoke and singing seraphs filling the court with the chant “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Even hearing about it second hand is enough to provoke goosebumps and a weak bladder! Isaiah is so overwhelmed by God’s majesty and holiness that he cries out in despair, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips … yet I have seen the Lord of hosts!” It is a vision that says, foreign armies may be marching toward the border, but God is not shaken. Since God is in control, you need not fear. I can imagine Isaiah waking up at this point and telling all of Judah to calm down.
But the vision continues and I wonder if we have failed to reckon with the second half which is dominated by fire … and seeds. First, a seraphs stops singing in the choir long enough to touch Isaiah’s unclean lips with a live coal, burning away all sin and feelings of guilt. This quiets his keening! In the resulting silence, the one who will be a prophet is able to hear the Lord asking “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” If this were a play, how would you direct a reenactment? Would God be a booming voice, commanding a response? Would an emboldened Isaiah respond immediately? Would all the seraphs smile at his bravery … and his chances? Or would you go darker? Is God bereft at the death of Uzziah, asking in a worried voice, “Will anyone step up?” Is there an uncomfortable silence with heavenly beings shaking in fear and shrinking back? Does God’s plan hang in the balance waiting for someone/anyone to respond? If it is the one, then it is a Disneyfied historical account – dramatic, but all turns out well! If it is the other, then the One on the heavenly throne may be “high and lifted up” but that does not insulate the Lord from grief; and ordinary mortals like Isaiah are not bit players.
The key to deciding which way to go may lie in the verses that follow, verses that we don’t always read, verses that bleed with weariness and worry, with devastation and despair. God’s commission will not win Isaiah friends. It will not change people’s hearts and minds, or souls. It will not rally the people’s spirits, or bring healing, or stave off destruction. It is no wonder that preachers usually stop with the exuberance of “Here I am, send me!” It is no wonder that we collude with them because we want newly commissioned pastors and elders, mission workers and young adult volunteers to feel like they have a fighting chance. It is no wonder that we tell congregations that the gospel will find hungry ears. But the full text says sometimes things are broken and people refuse to listen. Sometimes God is heartbroken and prophets shout themselves hoarse. Sometimes that has been true in the past and it may be true now. You’ll know it is true because of the fire – not the purifying fire of lips kissing live coals – but the destroying fire of riots and wars, of crematoriums trying to keep up and forests ablaze. Judah experienced such fire; we have too. But fire is not all there is in the message. And humans, whether Isaiah or his audience, are not the only actors. Notice the end. Yes, fire will leave nothing but stumps, but even in the stump there is a seed. And that seed signifies that death will not have the last word. There is hope. God promises this is so. So do not be afraid to say, “Here I am, send me!” Do not think it all depends on your words. Look for the seeds the Lord is nursing to life. They are signs of hope! Amen.
[i] based on John Bright’s summary of his reign in A History of Israel, page 258