In Isaiah chapter six, in one of the most stunning pictures of the pre-incarnate Christ recorded in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah experiences a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne. When he lays eyes on Him, he cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)
Isaiah is so distraught that he curses himself—he knows that no one can see the Lord and live (Exodus 33:20). But he doesn’t die—instead, an angel takes a piece of coal from the altar and cleanses him, touching the burning coal to his lips. His guilt is taken away; his sin atoned for (Isaiah 6:7).
And then the Lord speaks: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
Almost every time this story is shared, this is where it stops. We get to see Isaiah boldly answering the Lord’s call, in what I always imagine is a rather heroic fashion, as though he’s saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this!”
And this is how so many of us treat this passage—as though it’s a call to “our” moment to go and do great things for God. To move mountains and make the sun stand still.
At least, if we stop reading at verse eight and totally ignore Isaiah’s marching orders. This is what God commands:
Go, and say to this people:
Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed” (v. 9b-1o).
Essentially, Jesus tells Isaiah he’s going to be ignored by the people to whom he will be sent. He will preach judgment upon Israel, and promises of the coming of the Messiah to rescue His people…
And they’re not going to listen to a word of it.
Isaiah’s ministry, like so many of the prophets, is marked by stubborn disobedience that comes as a response to his preaching. The people won’t hear, because they cannot. That’s the point. His ministry is to “make the heart of this people dull.”
Can you imagine how difficult that would be? To know that your calls to repentance will have the exact opposite effect?
Maybe this is what God’s calling you to, as well.
This isn’t a pretty thought for many of us. This is not the stuff mega-churches are made of. And yet, it’s probably the reality for more of us than we realize. We speak, we pray, we plead… and there’s nothing. For many, your words are nothing more than the incoherent mutterings of Charlie Brown’s school teacher.
This is the reality I deal with on a regular basis, in fact, as I try to share the gospel—it’s like it passes right over them. And it can be unbearable, if you don’t remember where to find hope in the midst of discouragement. Again, Isaiah helps us:
…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)
There’s a confidence here that grounds the exuberance of Isaiah’s cry of “send me!” It puts flesh on the bones of Isaiah’s cry, if you will: God’s word does exactly what it is purposed to do. It means some hearts will be hardened by the unapologetic proclamation of God’s Word, while others will turn and be saved. As Spurgeon said so well, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”
This truth should cause us not to despair, but to rejoice. We need not be ashamed of the gospel, and we need not be despondent when its truth goes unheeded. God’s word will still accomplish all that He purposes. Whether we’re heard or ignored, that has to be enough for us.
An earlier version of this post first appeared in May 2009.