The commission of Isaiah is a favorite text for a missions sermons. After Isaiah witnesses a glorious vision of God in the temple he hears the fateful question, “Who will I send and who will go for me?” (Isa 6.8). Like a child desperate to please his teacher Isaiah responds, “Look at me! Send me!” The prophet should have waited to hear the message he would be commissioned to give,
Go and say to this people, ‘Surely hearing you will not discern, and surely seeing you will not know.’ Make the heart of this people fat and their ears heavy and their eyes blind lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and discern with their hearts and turn and it will heal them. (Isa 6.9-10)
This is a foreboding commission. Isaiah is not called guide Israel to repentance but to turn people away! He alludes to covenant language of Israel’s stubborn refusal to obey God resulting in a divine curse (esp. Exod 15.26; Deut 32.15). The tragedy of this commission, however, is that Isaiah’s call is to announce the curse.
I sometimes hear people say things like, “Well, that’s in the Old Testament so . . .” and then go on to give some explanation as to why the OT is basically irrelevant for Christians. Even if we wanted to dismiss this text as being so “Old Testament,” we couldn’t. Jesus cites Isaiah’s commission to explain his most characteristic form of teaching – parables. Shockingly, Jesus found this message to be a useful explanation of his own ministry. Before Jesus’ citation makes sense there are some important features of Isaiah’s commission that need to be observed.
Typically, call stories are placed at the beginning of a prophetic book (cf. Jer 1.4-19; Ezek 1.1-3.15; Hos 1.1-3). This prompts the question as to why Isaiah’s call is belated to chapter 6. This peculiarity is a reminder that chapter 6 cannot be understood apart from the state of the people to whom Isaiah is called to prophesy. Apart from the context of Isaiah 1-5, the commission seems arbitrarily harsh. How dare God send a prophet to turn people away? In chapters 1-5 the larger picture comes into focus. Isaiah is called to a people who have refused to acknowledge their God (Isa 1.2-3; 2.6-8; 5.11-12), worship improperly (Isa 1.11-14; 3.8-9) and engaged in terrible injustices (Isa 1.15, 21-23; 3.11, 14-15; 5.18-23). Yet, God has graciously promised restoration (Isa 1.18-20, 26-27; 2.1-5; 4.2-6; 6.13b). In light of Israel’s offense and stubborn refusal to repent, the commission is God’s response to an unrepentant people.
The historical context of Isaiah’s prophetical call is relevant to understanding the passage. Isaiah 6.1 explicitly observes a significant chronological marker with the death of Uzziah (c. 739 bc). Early in his reign Uzziah prospered significantly (2 Chron 26.5). He was notable for his military conquests (2 Chron 26.6-8), building projects (2 Chron 26.9-10) and advanced weaponry (2 Chron 26.14-15). Later, however, he was afflicted with leprosy because of his arrogance (26.16-18) and rampant idolatry (2 Kgs 15.4-5). The Bible describes the latter part of his reign and co-regency with his son Jotham (2 Kgs 15.32-38; 1 Chron 27) as characterized by rampant economic injustice (Isa 1.4, 5, 23; cf. Amos 2.6; 5.10, 11) and a broken covenant relationship (Isa 1.3; cf. Hos. 4.6). It was in this context of economic prosperity and spiritual turmoil that the king died. Simultaneously, Assyria was rapidly rising to political dominance. As if these challenges were not enough, the king’s death left a vacuum of political leadership and looming political dangers from neighboring countries (cf. Isa 7.1-2). Israel was on the brink of political disaster and Isaiah is called to tell them there is nothing they can do to stop it.
The foreboding message of Isaiah’s commission is taken up in all four gospels as an explanation for why Jesus is rejected (Mt 13.10-15|| Mk 4.10-12 || Lk 8.10; cf. Jn 12.36-43; Acts 28.26-27). Matthew provides the lengthiest explanation (13.10-15) at a crucial point in his gospel. Matthew’s citation follows the LXX exactly, which in turn follows the MT fairly closely. Jesus explains that the reason for Jesus’ parables is to “completely fulfill” Isaiah 6.9-10 (Mt 13.14). Jesus’ disciples, unlike those who do not “hear,” are privileged insiders because of Jesus’ willingness to reveal himself to them (13.16-17). Parables, then, simultaneously reveal to insiders and conceal to outsiders. Jesus even says that he tells parables to intentional confuse outsiders.
The obvious question, then, is what differentiates insiders from outsiders? In Matthew’s gospel, the revelation of kingdom mysteries is given to those who are close to Jesus (Mt 13.11; cf. 12.15-21; 16.16-20), accept his authority (Mt 11.25-30; cf. 12.7-8; 16.1-4), and have faith (Mt 9.29-30; 16.8-11). Still, this revelation is portrayed as a divine gift first and foremost. This is especially evident in Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity, which is not revealed “by flesh and blood” but by God (Mt 16.17). Even when God gives grace to insiders, they do not always fully comprehend. Again, Peter is the prime example. After the great confession Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ announcement of his impending death, thus he is described as “Satan” focused on “the things of man” (16.21-23). The difference between insiders and outsiders is their willingness to follow Jesus as divine wisdom exemplified in the cross rather than the wisdom of man.
Jesus used Isaiah’s foreboding commission to describe his own ministry as the revelation of God that separates God’s true people from those that are not. It is interesting that Isaiah’s commission ends with the vague hope that God will preserve a holy seed (Isa 6.13b). This promise, though not cited by Jesus, is fulfilled by him. His ministry divides the true people of God from hypocrites who honor God with their lips but not their lives (Isa 29.13 in Mt 15.8-9). In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is the promised “Immanuel” child (Isa 7.14 in Mt 1.23), the light among darkness (Isa 9.1-2; 42.7 in Mt 4.14-16), and the anointed “servant” (Isa 42.1-3 in Mt 12.17-21) who heals (Isa 53.4 in Mt 8.17). The gospel writers faithfully appropriate Isaiah 6, but place Jesus as the center of its eschatological fulfillment. Matthew intentionally describes Jesus as the hope of Israel. Just as in Isaiah, the reason why people reject Jesus is the refusal of an unrepentant people to recognize God’s revelation.