Isaiah 6 narrates a remarkable experience that changed the prophet’s life. This life-changing encounter with God took place in 740 BC “the year that King Uzziah died” (6:1 NIV). But more than that, it helps us understand the context of Isaiah’s extraordinary experience. Why is King Uzziah’s death significant? Uzziah’s life is recorded in 2 Chronicles 26. He “was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for fifty-two years ... He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD ... He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God. As long as he sought the LORD, God gave him success” (26:4-5). The whole nation enjoyed his success, experiencing peace, world status and prosperity. He was particularly admired because of his military might: “Uzziah had a well-trained army ... he made machines designed by skillful men for use on the towers and on the corner defenses to shoot arrows and hurl large stones. His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped” (26:11-15).
Try to imagine the effect of 52 years of peace, stability and prosperity. No one in Judah under age 55 knew what life could be like without king Uzziah. But these good years came to an end. King Uzziah sinned, was inflicted with leprosy, and died. There was tension in the air, and questions: What will happen now? Who will lead the nation? Will enemies invade? It was in this time of national crisis, “in the year that king Uzziah died,” that the Lord God chose to call, cleanse and commission the prophet Isaiah.
We also face times of crisis. It can be a family crisis dealing with the consequences of ill-health, divorce or death. There can be a national or global crisis – related to terrorism, unemployment or unstable financial markets – that affects us personally. We may experience a crisis of faith, as we wrestle with new doubts, reflect on unanswered prayer or deal with some local church conflict.
A time of calm had come to an end, and now the future of Israel looked uncertain. God’s dealings with Isaiah teach us that He can use painful and difficult seasons. In God’s hand, times of crisis provide opportunities for personal growth. Let’s look at five of them.
1. In times of crisis, seek the Lord. “I saw the LORD seated on a throne” (Isaiah 6:1).
When crisis comes, some people are paralyzed, either by fear or shock. Others become over-active, seeking a quick solution as they run from here to there. What did Isaiah do? He could have joined a delegation to visit neighboring countries to sign peace agreements. He could have entered into discussions with the powerful military men. He could have tried setting up his own “religious” political party. When Uzziah died, we do not find Isaiah in the palace or the market place, but in the temple seeking the Lord.
The Lord was happy to see him there and rewarded him with an important vision. It was not a vision of a peaceful millennial future. It was not a vision about the destruction of enemies. God knew exactly what Isaiah needed – a vision of God Himself: “I saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of His robe filled the temple” (6:1). The Lord was in no panic. The crisis of the king’s death had not taken Him by surprise. He was not running from one side to another. He was seated. Isaiah needed to see that, and so do we.
The Lord was seated on His throne, a sign of authority. It was “high and exalted.” When Isaiah saw this, his spirit found rest. For Judah the crisis opened the door to an uncertain future. But for Isaiah, this vision of God filled him with confidence. Knowing that the future was in God’s hands, he could later write: “This is the plan determined for the whole world; this is the hand stretched out over all nations. For the LORDAlmighty has purposed, and who can thwart Him? His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?” (Is. 14:26-27). If we are to remain calm in times of crisis and confident about the future, we also need a fresh and realistic vision of God.
2. In times of crisis, look at yourself. “Woe to me! … I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).
As Isaiah gazed at the Lord, he saw two seraphs flying above His throne. He heard them call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (6:3). To complement the awe-inspiring experience, “the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke” (6:4). God has many wonderful attributes: He is love; He is faithful; He is almighty. But the only attribute repeated three times here was that He is holy. The repetition was used for emphasis, and Isaiah got the message. His eyes turned from the Lord to himself. The contrast was painfully obvious: “Woe to me!” cried Isaiah, “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips” (6:5). A crisis provides opportunity to draw near to the Lord. And as we do so, we become painfully aware of our own inadequacy.
Before the crisis, we happily say that our future is in the Lord’s hands. But when the crisis hits – and our savings are stolen, our job is lost, our health breaks – our future no longer feels safe. It is easier to trust the Lord when we feel confident, secure and in control. The crisis shatters our security. The Lord considered it important that Isaiah should feel his own smallness, so He showed him His greatness. The Lord considered it important that Isaiah feel his own sinfulness, so He showed him His holiness.
Our crises are invitations to draw close to the Lord and take a realistic view of ourselves. In the Lord’s hands, a crisis is a tool to awaken us from our comfortable religious routine, to expose the way we think, and to help us see our ungodly priorities. Rather than trying to blame others for their part in our crisis, we need to look at ourselves. Maybe there is something we need to correct. Maybe we also have “unclean lips.”
3. In times of crisis, listen. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?” (Isaiah 6:8).
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for’” (6:6-7). This was a symbolic action. The altar probably represents the work of Christ, since forgiveness and cleansing are normally associated with the sacrificial death of our Lord Jesus: “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb. 9:28). Imagine the effect of a burning coal touching sensitive lips! I’m sure Isaiah never forgot that painful moment. The scars and memories ensured that he would never forget his unclean lips. We also need to remember where we came from and what we were. Without the memory of our own inadequacy and His sufficiency, we’ll lack grace in our dealings with others. The Lord wanted to use Isaiah’s lips, so He burned them.
Isaiah, now clean and attentive in the presence of the Lord, was ready to listen. “Then I heard the voice of the LORD saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for Us?’” (6:8). It’s easy to have our own ideas, plans, opinions and solutions. And when our mind is busy with these things it’s difficult to listen to the Lord. His quiet voice is drowned out by our internal chaos. But if we are to benefit from the crisis and grow through it, we must hand over our ways to the Lord and listen to His voice.
Later Isaiah applied this principle to the whole nation: “Woe to the obstinate children … who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin … Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for Him! … Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isa. 30:1,18-21). The Lord may speak to us through others, His Word, circumstances, or a dream. The Sovereign Lord chooses the vehicle. Our part, like Isaiah, is to be in a condition to hear: “Speak LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
4. In times of crisis, be open to change. “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).
When Isaiah answered the Lord, “Here am I. Send me!” (6:8), what task did Isaiah expect the Lord to give him? Did he think the Lord would send him to anoint a new king, like Samuel did to David nearly 300 years before? Did he play with the possibility that the Lord would appoint the next king? Did he imagine the Lord would use him, like Moses, to lead His people out of the crisis of slavery in Egypt? The Lord did not ask Isaiah what he thought should be done. Rather He said, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving’” (6:9). The Lord knew what needed doing.
We may also have our preferred options in a crisis, but when we say to the Lord, “I am yours. Here I am. Use me,” we must be open to His answer. Before the crisis – when friendships, family, church, studies, work, health and finances were all developing in a satisfactory manner – there was no need for change. But a time of crisis may be a time for change. Isaiah’s life changed. It was never the same again.
It is important to notice that it was not the crisis itself that changed Isaiah. A crisis provides us with an opportunity to stop the normal, move closer to the Lord, clean up our act and listen. As we do these things, we may sense the Lord calling us to change. Or He may direct us to continue faithfully with our labors. Like Archippus, He may be telling us to “complete the work you have received in the Lord” (Col. 4:17). But the Lord may also be opening a window to show us a new direction, a new ministry, a new calling.
Isaiah was given a difficult prophetic ministry. The people he was to speak to were stubborn. If he had his eyes on “success” and visible results, he would not last long. Crises and difficulties alone should not determine when we stop. When commissioned, Isaiah asked “For how long, O LORD?” And the Lord answered, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant … until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken” (6:11-12).
Every activity under the sun is temporal. This includes Christian activities such as Christian schools, hospitals, orphanages, mission organizations, music bands, magazines and even local churches. Like Isaiah we should also ask, “For how long, O Lord?” It is for the Lord to determine the starting and ending times. To continue when He says stop is not faithfulness, but disobedience. To stop when He says go is also disobedience. A crisis may suggest a change, but don’t start, stop or change until you feel the Lord is speaking.
5. In times of crisis, choose. “Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD … is the Rock eternal” (Isaiah 6:5).
Perhaps life has taken a strange and difficult turn for us recently. Sometimes we wonder why the Lord is using such a painful and blunt tool. The Lord uses times of internal unrest to encourage us to get closer to Him, to clean us, to speak to our heart. View the crisis as an opportunity to grow. The Lord is still seated on His throne, high and exalted. He remains in control.
We must choose to draw nearer to Him, choose to confess, choose to listen to His voice, choose to grow through this crisis. Soon, as a testimony, we will be able to sing with many others: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD, is the Rock eternal” (Isa. 26:3-4).
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org