church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

The call of Isaiah to the prophetic office is narrated in Isaiah 6.  Isaiah was in the Temple when he had a vision of Yahweh of hosts, King of the heavenly armies, in all His glory.  As Yahweh sat on His high throne, the lower skirt of His kingly robe seemed to fill the Temple, like the incense which filled the place as well, the fiery angels, the seraphim, cried ecstatically to each other, declaring His holiness and proclaiming that not just the Temple but the whole earth was full of His glory.  So mighty was their cry that the door sockets at the Temple threshold shook and the whole Temple began filling with smoke. 

       Not surprisingly Isaiah was overwhelmed and overcome.  How could a man like him, one with unclean lips and who dwelt in the midst of a people whose lips were unclean, survive after seeing the holy King, Yahweh of armies?  It was then that a live and burning coal from the sacrificial altar was brought to him with tongs and touched his lips.  As sacrifices cleansed their offerers, so this coal would cleanse his lips, and enable him to live and speak.  So it was that when Yahweh asked His angelic council who would go for Him to bring His word to His people that Isaiah called back, “Here! Send me!”  Thereafter, Isaiah the worshipper became Isaiah the prophet.

       It is easy to miss something very significant about this event:  it was said to have occurred “in the year of King Uzziah’s death”—i.e. as his death was drawing near, or perhaps shortly after he died.  This was not simply an historical marker of the event (like the historical marker in Amos 1:1, which dates the visions of Amos to “two years before the earthquake” that everyone remembered).  The opening reference to King Uzziah’s death gives the colour and character of the entire time in which Isaiah lived.

       In King Uzziah’s days the land was at peace and enjoyed abundant prosperity. He was only sixteen when he became king and he reigned for an amazing fifty-two years in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 26:3).  He conquered his enemies and brought his people security; he built and enlarged.  Under Uzziah, life was good and things were booming.  As his death approached after so long a reign, the certainty of his demise brought with it doubt and fear, as dark storm clouds gathered on the horizon.  Isaiah began his ministry at a time when everything that had been securely fastened down was starting to come loose.

       The biggest storm cloud gathering on the horizon was called “Assyria”—the superpower intent upon expansion and conquest, skilled in cruelty and brutality.  Assyria was proving itself to be an unstoppable juggernaut, swallowing up everything in its path.  And Judah and Israel were right in its path.  What should Judah do?  What policy should the royal successors of Uzziah adopt?

       Judah was threatened not only by somewhat distant Assyria, but also by the northern kingdom of Israel directly to the north, and by Syria north of that.  Indeed, soon enough Israel and Syria would join forces to threaten Judah and Jerusalem.  The solution, it seemed to many (including Ahaz, king of Judah) was to look to Assyria for help.  This of course involved the usual syncretism necessary when becoming a partner and vassal of a pagan power, but it seemed to Ahaz that he had little choice.  Such betrayal of the Sinai covenant and such cozying up to other gods was necessary if Judah was to survive.  But this policy was fatally short-sighted.  In the words of one commentator, “The prospect of Judah’s asking Assyria for help against Israel was all too much like one mouse asking a cat for help against another mouse.”  Isaiah saw this clearly.  Ahaz did not.

       Isaiah spent his long ministry proclaiming to king and country alike that trusting in politics and to princes rather than trusting in God was fatal folly.  Isaiah was informed at the beginning that he would be fighting a losing battle.  God told him that He was sending him to a people who would keep on listening, but who would never perceive, who would keep on looking, but would never understand.  When Isaiah asked how long he should keep on with this, he was told, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses without people, and the land utterly desolate” (Isaiah 6:9-11).  No one would heed his words.  In other words, keep on banging your head against the wall until all your words of doom come true. 

Certainly King Ahaz did not heed his words.  Hezekiah after him also trusted in politics, receiving the prophetic rebuke that this would later spell exile to Babylon. Manasseh who succeeded Hezekiah, cared even less for Isaiah’s counsel.  According to tradition, Manasseh regarded Isaiah’s words as treasonable, and he had him executed by being sawn in two (compare Hebrews 11:37).  Having served God in his generation, Isaiah left behind a wife and children, the latter named so as to be living witnesses to his prophetic authority (see Isaiah 7:3, 8:3-4).

       Isaiah lived in tumultuous times, as the peace and prosperity built up under Uzziah increasingly gave way to disaster as the bill for Israel’s spiritual infidelity came due, and Judah and Jerusalem collapsed under the blows of the Babylonian hammer.  All Isaiah could do was to look on helplessly as his words counselling repentance were ignored and his words promising judgment were fulfilled.  He must often have felt that he had been born at the wrong time, and grieved that he lived long enough to see such terrible things.

       Many have felt such things, both before Isaiah’s time and after.  Men who lived to see senseless bloody war and crippling economic depression, men who lived through the collapse of empires, through the spread of Bubonic plague, men who looked on helplessly knowing that their cause was lost and nothing could save it—all these knew how Isaiah felt as he strove to be faithful in the midst of a faithless generation.  At such times one is tempted to despair, and to whisper to oneself in the night, “I wish these things need not have happened in my time.”  But (as has been wisely said) that is not for us to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that has been given us.

       Each time and epoch contain its own challenges, sorrows, temptations, joys, and opportunities. We who know the Lord need never succumb to despair because of the times.  Instead, when opportunities arise and we hear the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”, we must spring to our feet and say, “Here am I!  Send me.”





Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.