Isaiah was an interesting character to say the least. Like other prophets of the era, particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel, his ministry included some rather outlandish–at least by our standards–actions. For example, Isaiah 20 tells us that he preached naked and barefoot for three years. Wow! That took more courage than I have, and that is just the beginning. The absolutely most fascinating thing about Isaiah, the thing about him that required the most courage, was that he preached for about 60 years* even though he knew from the beginning that it would be a ministry without visible, quantifiable results. In these days of a numbers-obsessed church Isaiah’s fruitless ministry is more unimaginable than preaching naked and barefoot. Would we do what Isaiah did? Would we faithfully continue to preach the gospel of Christ knowing the message would fall on deaf ears and hard hearts? Probably not. Furthermore, how many churches would tolerate such a ministry? Not many. The contemporary church cans “fruitless” pastors faster than Jerry Jones replaces football coaches with a losing record.
So, just how did Isaiah do what he did, and how did he do it so well? What kept him going for 60 years—his lifetime—when he knew his message would not be heeded? How did he overcome the futility of it all? How did he continue to minister in such a hopeless situation? How did he maintain his great faith in God even though he could not see what good he had done? The Scripture answers that question, and not just for Isaiah, but for everyone who heeds the call, “Follow me.”
The key is in the call. Isaiah 6 tells of God’s call of Isaiah. While Isaiah was in the temple to worship he had an extraordinary vision of God in all his glory. He saw the Lord “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” That glory filled the temple, and the cherubim were there praising God for all they were worth. Naturally, upon seeing the Lord Isaiah saw his own sinfulness and received a blessed cleansing from the Holy One of Israel. It was truly a magnificent spiritual experience. Truly, that wonderful vision of God is worthy of careful contemplation, but that would take more time than I have here in this article. So, let me focus on just God’s call to Isaiah.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “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.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. (Isaiah 6:8-12)
God was very open with Isaiah. God acknowledged from the beginning that those who heard Isaiah’s prophecy would have dull hearts, heavy ears, blind eyes, and hearts without understanding. God hid nothing from him. He simply presented Isaiah with a proposition and Isaiah responded. There are two elements to this call that are crucial in our understanding of Isaiah’s strength across 60 years of ministry.
First, Isaiah was obviously a man of great faith. While God did tell Isaiah that his ministry would not bear visible results, he did not explain why he wanted Isaiah to preach to such a hard-hearted people. God did not reveal his reasoning to Isaiah. He did not reveal all of his underlying plan of redemption. He simply issued a call and made sure Isaiah knew the cost of following that call. Isaiah, then, simply followed that call. He trusted that God knew what he was doing and that God was both omniscient and sovereign. Toward the end of his ministry, Isaiah explained it in these words:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 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 55:10-11)
Second, Isaiah was sustained in his ministry by his vision of God in all his glory. Seeing God for who he really was changed Isaiah in every way. What had been important to Isaiah, which was pretty much what would be important to us, was no longer important. His emotional or psychological need for success became insignificant in light of the glory of the holy, sovereign, redeeming God of creation. Seeing God’s glory changed Isaiah’s way of thinking. It changed his worldview from one which was principally self-focused to one which only had eyes for the Holy One. In that same passage toward the end of his ministry, Isaiah said:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Isaiah’s strength was the glory of God, and that was sufficient. Because Isaiah had everything he needed in the glory of God he was satisfied. He did not require visible, countable results. He was able to proclaim the glory of God to a world that did not want to hear it simply because God in his sovereign wisdom deemed it necessary.. What about us? Can we do what Isaiah did? Will we? Are we willing or able to proclaim the gospel of Christ on God’s terms, even if it appears that our labor is in vain? The answer to that question depend entirely upon whether we have seen the glory of God or not.
* He began in the year King Uzziah died, 740 B.C., and prophesied at least until the death of Sennacherib in 681 B.C., a period of at least 59 years.