The priest Ezekiel was the first prophet to be called by the Lord outside of Israel during the Babylonian Captivity. Deported to Babylon by the river Chebar in 597 BC, Ezekiel – יְחֶזְקֵאל – was truly an exilic prophet, who foresaw both the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, but also the Restoration of Israel and the Temple.
Isaiah’s call to prophecy in about 742 bce coincided with the beginnings of the westward expansion of the Assyrian empire, which threatened Israel and which Isaiah proclaimed to be a warning from God to a godless people.
Isaiah dates his vision “in the year that King Uzziah died,” about 738 B.C.E. In the temple, Isaiah sees the Lord–a figure so immense that just the hem of his garment fills the temple. As often the case, the prophet also is introduced to the heavenly realms, where angels serve God. The seraphs, probably winged snake-like creatures, modestly cover themselves in God’s presence (“feet” [Hebrew regel] might be a euphemism for genitals here, as it sometimes is elsewhere in the Old Testament). They sing, for the first time in the Bible, the liturgical “Holy, holy, holy,” which becomes the never-ceasing song of heaven in Revelation 4:8, and is taken from there into frequent use in the church’s hymnody and liturgies.
Purging Isaiah’s “unclean lips”–a symbol of his sinful self–with a coal from the altar is a form of sacrifice. In the sacrificial system, God graciously provides a means to burn away the sin and guilt of the worshipers so they may be restored whole to the presence of God.
Typically, those called to speak for God are commanded to “Go and say,” as here, or “Go and tell.” Getting the words right is essential for a messenger, but so also is getting the setting right, applying the words to the appropriate context. Both mark the work of the faithful messenger.
Isaiah’s response, “Here am I” (Hebrew hinni or hinneni), is the response throughout the Old Testament of those addressed by God, from Abraham (Genesis 22:1) to Jacob (Genesis 31:11), to Moses (Exodus 3:4), to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4). It is the obedient response to anyone who calls, when the one called is ready and willing to be of service (Genesis 22:7). The sense is something like saying, “Yes! I am at your disposal.” We hear the sense most clearly when Mary repeats it in her response to the angel’s annunciation of the coming birth of Jesus: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The message given to Isaiah to deliver is one of the most terrible words in the Bible. Israel’s rebellion has now brought a judgment that cannot be averted. Things have gone too far and they cannot be called back–the Assyrian menace is at the gate, and God’s word will continue to fall on deaf ears as it has done in the past. Indeed, God says, it must now be so: minds and ears and eyes must be closed so that God’s judgment will be complete, producing a death of what now is, so that God can raise up something new (as God does in the second part of this book). There is no saving what is–things have gone too far–but God can and will make something new.
Jeremiad was called as we read in Jeremiah 1:2–3, Yahweh called Jeremiah to prophetic ministry in about 626 BC, about five years before Josiah king of Judah turned the nation toward repentance from idolatrous practices. … Many years later, God instructed Jeremiah to write down these early oracles and his other messages.
And we arrive at Daniel. He said to me, “O Daniel, man of high esteem, understand the words that I am about to tell you and stand upright, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Daniel 10:11
Are you called?