Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 207-222

[Copyright © 1993 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]








Taylor University

Upland, IN 46989



Commentators have offered a variety of opinions on Isaiah's call

within its context in Isaiah 1-6. Part of this diversity stems from the

call's placement. Unlike his fellow prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel,

whose call experiences open their books, Isaiah's initial command to

preach seems to come in chapter 6. This difference has led to specula-

tion on the authorship, date, compilation, setting, and purpose of the

whole section. Though these issues cannot be solved beyond question,

it is necessary to examine them to analyze Isaiah's call effectively.

Therefore, this article will explore Isaiah's call in its context by not-

ing the section's genre, historical setting, structure, biblical context,

placement, contents, and theology. This discussion will conclude that

Isaiah 6 functions as a linking passage between the book's presenta-

tion of the difficulty of the prophet's message in chapters 1-5 and the

difficulty of the prophet's ministry in chapters 7-12. It will thereby

demonstrate the strenuous nature of Isaiah's life and work.


Isaiah 1-6 and Prophetic Literature


Isaiah begins the latter prophets segment of the Hebrew canon.

As the opening prophecy, it sets the tone for the rest of the books.

Themes, images, and personae that appear here emerge again and

again in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve. The importance

of this observation lies in its ability to help explain the logic of the

placement of Isaiah 6.

The prophetic genre uses both narrative and poetry to proclaim

its message.1 Thus, what separates prophecy from the law and the


1 Of course, scholars are currently debating the nature of Hebrew poetry and its

existence. This article uses the terms in their traditional sense. However one defines

Hebrew poetry, it is evident that Isaiah 1-5 and Isaiah 36-39 utilize different syntactical



writings is its content, not its mode of composition. B. D. Napier ar-

gues that five basic themes distinguish prophetic literature: (1) Word

and symbol, (2) election and covenant, (3) rebellion and judgment, (4)

compassion and redemption, and (5) consummation.2

R. Clements basically agrees with Napier. He thinks canonical

(written) prophecy stresses the inspiration of the prophet's words and

the destruction and restoration of Israel. Clements says "special em-

phasis was attached" to restoration, and that Israel's eventual renewal

assumes a variety of forms in the prophets.3 Napier and Clements offer

a balanced view of prophetic themes, in contrast to commentators who

tend to over-emphasize the prophets' concern with sin and doom.4

Isaiah 1-6 constantly claims to present God's own words. Twice

the passage says that Isaiah received these messages as "visions" from

the Lord (1:1; 2:1). God is quoted repeatedly (1:2-3, 24-26; 5:1-2; etc.).

Chapter 6 presents an episode where Isaiah speaks with God face to

face. Claims for direct inspiration permeate these chapters and the

whole prophecy as well.

Yahweh and the prophet denounce sin in great detail in chapters

1-6. These denunciations set the stage for later calls to repentance

and offers of consolation. Often, the Lord announces the nation's

wickedness (e.g., 1:2-3), and then Isaiah explains the implications

of Yahweh's comments for Israel (e.g., 1:4-9).5 At other times, the

prophet introduces God's condemnations (e.g., 3:13-15). Israel's wick-

edness becomes so evident by 6:5 that Isaiah admits, "I am a man of

unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips."

Because of this sin, God will punish Israel. The elect people do

not recognize their master (1:2-3), so Yahweh will purge the rebel-


styles and that Isaiah 6 combines both styles. Cf. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred

Poetry of the Hebrews (original 1753; reprinted Andover: Codman, 1829); James Kugel,

The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven: Yale, 1981); Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical

Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985); and Mona West, "Looking for the Poem: Reflec-

tions on the Current and Future Status of Biblical Hebrew Poetry Analysis," Beyond

Form Criticism: Essays in Old Testament Literary Criticism (ed. Paul R. House; Winona

Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992).

2 B. D. Napier, Song of the Vineyard: A Guide Through the Old Testament (Phila-

delphia: Fortress, 1982) 250.

3 Ronald Clements, "Pattems in the Prophetic Canon," Canon and Authority: Es-

says in Old Testament Religion and Theology (ed. G, W. Coats and B, Long; Philadel-

phia: Fortress, 1977) 45.

4 Many early critical scholars tend to argue that the prophets preached judgment,

and that any mention of hope must be an addition to the text. Cf. Ivan Engnell's survey

and refutation of this tendency in The Call of Isaiah: An Exegetical and Comparative

Study (Uppsala/Leipzig: A-B. Lundequistska/Otto Harrassowitz, 1949) 20-23.

5 Note John D. W Watts' division of Isaiah 1-6 into speeches and counter-speeches

in Isaiah 1-33 (WBC 24; Waco, TX: Word, 1985) 1-77.



lious nation of all His foes (1:24-26). This purging will occur on the

day of Yahweh, a time of reckoning (2:12) that will humble the proud

among Israel's leadership (3:1-12) and general populace (3:15-4:1). Ex-

ile will be the most obvious sign that the "day" has come (5:13). Only a

remnant of righteous persons will remain in the land after the judg-

ment ceases (6:9-13).

God punishes to effect redemption. After the devastation, all na-

tions will worship Yahweh together in Jerusalem (2:1-4). The filth of

Israel will disappear, and the "survivors in Israel" will enjoy God's

protection in Zion (4:2-6). A remnant of people will survive even the

harshest punishment (6:13). Though chapters 1-6 stress sin and judg-

ment, they do not neglect restoration altogether. Renewal remains

Yahweh's ultimate purpose.

Clearly, Isaiah 1-6 introduces the basic themes of the prophetic

genre. Isaiah will participate in the main traditions of prophetic

preaching. Since condemnation and calls for repentance are so prom-

inent, his audience may not appreciate his message. His ministry may

not prove easy or popular.


Historical Setting of Isaiah 1-6


Some scholars attempt to date chapters 1-5 fairly specifically. For

instance, Hayes and Irvine note that Isaiah 7's setting is ca. 733, since

it describes the Syro-Ephraimite crisis. At this time Syria and Samaria

invade Judah (7:1-2), which causes Ahaz to ask Assyria for help (2 Kgs

16:7-9). Since chapter 6 is dated about seven years earlier, Hayes and

Irvine suggest that most, if not all, of chapters 1-6 is preached 745-

740, or, in other words, a few years before Uzziah's death.6 In their

scheme, Isaiah 1-6 comes from Isaiah's early ministry, when Judah's

wickedness has yet to place them in political danger. Chapters 7-12,

then, are sermons delivered during and after the 733 crisis that inau-

gurates a new, politically conscious phase of Isaiah's ministry.7

Other commentators are more cautious. For instance, J. Oswalt

thinks chapters 1-5 are broad introductory messages that have no

"more direct relationship with chaps. 7-12 than they do with any

other segment of the book."8 Thus, they can only be dated sometime

during Isaiah's career. R. Clements says that chapter 1 is an introduc-

tory collection of texts from various periods of Isaiah's ministry. Most


6 John H. Hayes and Stuart Irvine, Isaiah the Eighth-Century Prophet: His Times

and His Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987) 52-53.

7 Ibid. Note, too, their discussion of chaps. 7-12 (113-220).

8 John Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1986) 173.



of chapters 2-6 originates during 733-725, since these passages are

similar in content to Isaiah 7-9, though messages of hope like 2:1-5,

4:2-6, and 6:12-13 are post-exilic additions.9 E. J. Young essentially

agrees with Oswalt's assessment of the section, and though they date

more oracles after 587 than Clements, Kaiser and Gray also think

much of chapters 1-6 comes from eighth-century Isaiah.10 Other au-

thors could be cited, but the point has been made. These writers con-

clude that Isaiah 1-5 arises from a variety of eighth-century settings

and introduces the book in some way. All agree that Isaiah 6 occurs

by 740.

The prophecy itself offers no exact life setting for chapters 1-5.

Two inscriptions appear, but they merely state that Isaiah delivers

these messages sometime "during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz,

and Hezekiah" (1:1) and that they consist of comments "concerning

Judah and Jerusalem" (2:1). Chapter 6 originates "in the year of King

Uzziah's death" (6:1), but this reference reveals little. It sets a date for

the call experience without divulging how Uzziah's death affects

Isaiah. The book's internal evidence can be interpreted in a number

of ways, as the survey of scholarly opinions noted above indicates.

Therefore, chapters 1-5 can only be dated sometime during the

reigns of the kings listed in 1:1, or between 783-687.11 Again, chapter

6 takes place near 740. Isaiah's ministry spans from at least 740, and

concludes no sooner than 701, when Sennacherib invades Judah (cf.

Isaiah 36-37).

Because chapter 6 mentions Uzziah's death, it is possible to

suggest a general historical situation for Isaiah 1-6. Uzziah rules ef-

fectively from ca. 783-742.12 He helps Judah attain economic and

military success at a time when Jeroboam II (ca. 786-746) enjoys an

even greater reign in Samaria.13 Despite these prosperous times, Yah-

weh is not pleased with the people. Hosea and Amos, who minister

during the earlier decades of Uzziah and Jeroboam's era, charge the

people and their rulers with a variety of individual and societal sins.

By the time Uzziah dies, the people are ripe for judgment. Assyria


9 Ronald Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (NCB; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 2-8.

10 Cf. E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah: Vol. 1, chapters 1-18 (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1965) 233; Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972) 1-7; 23, 53,

73; G. B. Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 1-27 (ICC;

Edinburgh: or and or Clark, 1912) l-li. It is unnecessary to argue the merits of these au-

thors' opinion on specific texts at this point in the article. What matters is their agree-

ment about the general date and purpose of chaps. 1-6.

11 John Bright, A History of Israel (2d ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972) 288-


12 Ibid., 254-55.

13 Ibid.



will soon threaten the region and will eventually destroy Samaria. As

a new prophet, Isaiah should have even less hope for Israel's immedi-

ate future than his predecessors.


Structure of Isaiah 1-6


A passage's structure unites its various themes, images, ideas,

characters, plots, points of view, and time sequences. It is the glue

that holds artistic pieces together. E. V. Roberts states:


Structure is a matter of the relationship among parts that are usually de-

scribed in terms of cause and effect, position in time, association, symme-

try, and balance and proportion. . . . Literary artists universally aim at a

unified impression in their works, and because literature is a time art. . . ,

the study of structure attempts to demonstrate that the idea and the re-

sulting arrangements of parts produces a total impression.14


Because of its ambiguous historical background, this section's struc-

ture is particularly important to grasp. If the chapters are introductory

in nature, then their progression of thought becomes extremely vital.

Certain "seams" exist in these chapters. First, both chapters 1 and

2 have inscriptions which separate them into two distinct segments.

Second, chapters 2-4 form a unit, since 2:1-4 describes Israel's glori-

ous future, 2:5-4:1 warns of coming judgment, and 4:2-6 returns to the

restoration theme. Third, 5:1- 7 is a song about Israel's rebellion

against God. Fourth, 5:8-30 consists of woes against Israel. Fifth, 6:1 is

a dated, narrative account. Sixth, 7:1 presents a totally different setting

from chapter 6. Except for 5:1- 7 and 5:8-30, each seam also marks a

thematic transition.

Linguistic parallels help link these sections. L. Liebreich notes

that variations on fmw (sm') ("hear") and wdq (qds) ("holy") occur

throughout the chapters. Israel is told to "hear" or "obey" in both 1:2

and 1:10.15 The Torah is the object of the "hearing" in 1:10, and 5:24

blames rejection of the Torah for Israel's certain punishment.16 Fur-

ther, 1:4 and 5:24 charge that Israel has "rejected the holy one of Israel,"

5:16, 19, and 24 mention Yahweh's holiness, and chapter 6 presents

Yahweh as the thrice-holy one.17


14 Edgar V. Roberts, Writing Themes About Literature (3d ed.; Englewood Cliffs,

NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973) 119.

15 Leon J. Liebreich, "The Position of Chapter Six in the Book of Isaiah," HUCA 25

(1954) 37.

16 Ibid., 38.

17 Ibid., 39.



Thematic progression is evident as well. Chapter 1 utilizes sev-

eral common prophetic rhetorical devices, each intended to shame the

people into repentance.18 Yahweh exposes Israel's rebelliousness by

comparing them unfavorably to an ox and an ass (1:2-3). Next, God

asks the people why they are determined to perish (1:4-9). The land

has been devastated, so why do they remain stubborn? Why not

"wash" themselves of this sin (1:10-17)? After all, repentance will

bring blessings (1:18-20). As a last resort, Isaiah calls Israel a harlot

(1:21-26) and once again demands repentance (1:27-31).

Chapter 2 uses a new inscription to break from chapter 1, but it

continues the sin, punishment, and restoration sequence. P. R. Ackroyd

places 2:1-5 with chapter 1, thus creating two segments that begin

with condemnation and conclude with hope (1:2-2:5 and 2:6-4:6).19

Though this ordering is possible, it fails to accept the separate in-

scriptions as clear divisions and does not recognize another viable

structural option. If 1:1-31, 2:1-4:6, and 5:1-30 are distinct units, then

1:1-31 and 5:1-30 begin and end with oracles of doom. Conversely,

2:1-4:6 begins and ends with words of hope. This rhetorical strategy

allows Israel to receive the prophet's message however they wish,

either as a message of doom or hope. Unfortunately, they reject threats

and promises equally. No wonder Isaiah despairs over the nation's un-

cleanness in 6:5.

            God gives Israel a vision of what the people can be (2:1-5). This vi-

sion rejected, Yahweh declares Israel a hopelessly proud and idolatrous

people (2:6-11). God will therefore set a "day of reckoning" (2:12) to re-

move idols (2:12-22), proud officials (3:1-15), and rich and haughty citi-

zens (3:16-4:1). Apparently the people choose to inherit the glory descri-

bed in 2:1-4 by suffering the devastation promised in 2:12-4:1 (cf. 4:2-6).

Chapter 5 begins with a parable (5:1-7), moves to a series of woes

(5:8-23), and ends with predictions of exile (5:24-30). The parable, or

"song" (5:1), denounces the way Israel has destroyed itself through op-

pression and murder (5:7). Since Israel rejects God, only "woe" can result.

"Woe" awaits all who rape the land (5:8), live for wine (5:9), pervert God's

word (5:20), and take bribes (5:23). The people refuse blessing (2:1-5;

4:2-6; 5:1-2), so a purging disaster has become inevitable (5:24-30).

The first five chapters have done more than introduce the book's

contents20 or simply stress the message over the messenger.21 After


18 Douglas R. Jones, "Exposition of Isaiah Chapter One Verses One to Nine," SJT

17 (1964) 468.

19 P. R Ackroyd, "Isaiah 1-12: Presentation of a Prophet," VT Sup 29 (1978) 43.

20 Cf. Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 173.

21 Cf. Young, Isaiah 1-18, 234 and Geoffrey W. Grogan (EBC 6; ed. F: Gaebelein;

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986) 54.



all, some major Isaianic themes, such as the coming Messiah and the

fall of the nations, receive very little treatment, and 1:1 and 2:1 make

Isaiah quite visible to readers. Rather, chapters 1-5 reveal the callous-

ness of the people and, thus, the difficulty of the prophet's ministry.

Regardless of his rhetorical skill, he will be rejected. Neither threat

nor promise will change the people. Yahweh will have no choice ex-

cept to destroy his vineyard. With this desperate situation in place,

Isaiah 6 presents the prophet's call. The reader now knows the obsta-

cles Isaiah faces.

Isaiah 6 has its own structure, since it narrates a single event, yet

continues the main emphases of chapters 1-5. N. Habel suggests that

this episode unfolds like other OT call stories22 and therefore divides

Isaiah 6 as follows: (1) divine confrontation (6:1-2); (2) introductory

word (6:3-7); (3) commission (6:8-10); (4) objection (6:11a); (5) reas-

surance (6:11b-13).23 Habel notes that God offers Isaiah no sign like

those given Moses and Gideon.24

There are several difficulties with this arrangement. First, it is

not logical to divide 6:1-2 from 6:3-4, because both texts narrate

connecting parts of the same vision. The scene is broken by Isaiah's

speech in 6:5. Second, Isaiah's startled "how long?" (6:11) is hardly

''as bold as'' the objections "of Jeremiah or Moses"25 as Habel asserts.

Jeremiah gives a reason for not prophesying and has significant later

confrontations with Yahweh.26 Moses makes repeated excuses for not

leading Israel (cf. Exod 3:11- 4:17). Isaiah simply asks a question. He

has already volunteered to go do God's work (6:8). It is best, then, to

leave 6:11-13 as one section, since these verses all describe the diffi-

culty of Isaiah's ministry to a soon-to-be-judged nation. Third, Habel's

labelling of 6:11b-13 as "reassurance" is questionable. Certainly

Isaiah learns that judgment will not last forever and that punishment

will help forge a new, purified people (6:13). Still, Isaiah receives

no special promise of God's presence as did Moses (Exod 3:12), or

promise of survival as did Jeremiah (Jer 1:17-19). Again, these verses

focus on immediate struggle and long-term hope. The volunteer is

learning his task. Isaiah 6 is a call story, but it does not match Habel's

divisions exactly.

Hayes and Irvine suggest a better division. They state that all of

6:1-4 describes Isaiah's vision of God, that 6:5-7 presents Isaiah's


22 Norman Habel, 'The Form and Significance of the Call Narratives," ZAW 77

(1965) 298.

23 Ibid., 310-12.

24 Ibid., 312.

25 Ibid.

26 Note Jeremiah's "confessions" found in 11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17:14-18; 18:18-

23; and 20:7-18.



"sense of unworthiness; and that 6:8-13 details Isaiah's commis-

sion.27 Clements claims that 6:12-13 is a sixth-century addition to the

text and therefore separates 6:8-11 and 6:12-13.28 Otherwise, he

agrees with Hayes and Irvine's description of the contents of 6:4-13.

Young simply divides the chapter into vision (6:1-7) and commission

(6:8-13), while Gray separates the passage into vision (6:1-4), effect

on Isaiah (6:5-8), and message for Israel (6:9-13).29

Given the chapter's generic and thematic characteristics, it is best

to adopt the following combination of the suggestions made by Hayes

and Irvine, Clements, and Gray.


1. Isaiah's Vision of God (6:1-4);

2. Isaiah's Sin and its Cleansing (6:5-7);

3. Isaiah's Commission (6:8-10);

4. Isaiah's Difficult Ministry and Israel's Difficult Future (6:11-13).


This ordering reflects the main ideas in chapters 1-5. God reveals him-

self to a disobedient people bound for punishment (1:1-31). Unlike these

people, Isaiah repents, and receives the dubious honor of preaching to

a rebellious nation. As 2:1-5 and 4:2-6 state, however, Israel does have

a future, but one forged from the fires of a punishing day of Yahweh

(2:6-4:1). Thus, the structural progression in Isaiah 1-6 is fairly clear:


1. God's Complaint against Israel (1:1-31);

2. Israel's Rejection of Forgiveness and the Resulting Day of Yahweh (2:1-


3. "Woes" Connected with Israel's Judgment (5:1-30);

4. Isaiah's Call to Minister to the Rebellious Nation (6:1-13).


The Placement of Isaiah 6


As has been noted above, Isaiah 6's placement in the book has

caused much discussion. Some of the debate stems from curiosity about

a call story so late in a prophecy, while concern about chronology fuels

other discussions. Scholars normally accept variations on two basic so-

lutions. Either this chapter discusses Isaiah's initial call, and the func-

tion of chapters 1-5 must be considered as an introductory word of

some kind, or chapter 6 begins a second phase of the prophet's work.

Most commentators adopt the first solution. E. J. Young and

G. Grogan simply believe Isaiah stresses his message more than him-

self.30 This theory does not explain why Isaiah would ever insert him-


27 Hayes and Irvine, Isaiah, 110-12.

28 Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 72.

29 Young, Isaiah 1-18,231,253; Gray, Isaiah 1-27; 102-9.

30 Cf. Young, Isaiah 1-18, 234, and Grogan, 54.



self into the story, or why more of the major elements of Isaiah's

message are not included in chapters 1-5. Gray, Kaiser, and Clements

follow K. Budde's contention that 6:1-8:18 forms "a memoir written by

the prophet himself, and relating to prophecies at the time of the

Syro-Ephraimite war."31 These authors therefore argue that redac-

tional concerns account for the call story coming after other material.

Chapters 1-5 and 6:1-8:18 may have existed as separate collections be-

fore being joined by a final editor. Though this redactional reconstruc-

tion deserves extensive discussion, it is impossible to do so here. It is

only possible to note the function of chapters 1-5 and chapter 6 in

this viewpoint. Clements states that the main "theme of this memoir

is how Ahaz came to refuse the message which Isaiah gave to him"

and how this refusal brought punishment on king and people.32 Simi-

larly, Kaiser concludes that the call account reveals "that God's judg-

ment was already decreed when he called him to a task that went

beyond all normal feeling and understanding."33 Both Kaiser and

Clements highlight refusal and judgment. To them, chapters 1-5 an-

nounce these themes, chapter 6 calls Isaiah to proclaim them, and

chapters 7-12 show the prophet experiencing them.

P. Ackroyd, L. Liebreich, and J. Oswalt believe that chapter 6

serves as both "a suitable conclusion to the chapters before it, and an

equally suitable introduction to the chapters which follow."34 Liebre-

ich thinks Isaiah 6 draws together the early chapters' emphases on

God's holiness and Israel's rebellion.35 He also states that chapter 6's

portrayal of Yahweh as king contrasts the activity of Israel's earthly

kings in chapters 7-12.36 Ackroyd says that Isaiah 1-12 introduces Isa-

iah's role as preacher of doom and hope. Given this purpose for the

whole section, chapter 6 draws together both Israel's "prospect of the

future" and its present "recognition of failure and doom."37 Thus,

the chapter does balance this major section of the book.

Oswalt agrees that the "recognition of the double function of

chapter 6 is fundamental to an understanding of its position in the

book."38 He decides, however, that chapters 1-5 are very broad and

introductory. Therefore, chapter 6 does conclude chapters 1-5, but

does more as well. The text also introduces chapters 7-39 by offering


31 Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 70. Cf. Gray, Isaiah 1-27, 99, and Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 73.

32 Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 71.

33 Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 73.

34 Liebreich, "The Position of Chapter Six," 40.

35 Ibid., 38-39. See also this article's discussion of the structure of Isaiah 1-6.

36 Ibid., 39.

37 Ackroyd, "Isaiah 1-12, 45.

38 Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 173.



Israel two choices. The people can repent like Isaiah and be forgiven,

or they can rebel and face the devastation outlined in 6:11-13.3 Like

Ackroyd, then, Oswalt claims that Isaiah's call sets him apart as a

preacher of hope that emerges from doom. He also uses Isaiah as a

paradigm of Israel's relationship with God.

Some authors adopt the position that Isaiah 6 announces a new

phase of Isaiah's ministry. J. Calvin argues that chapters 1-6 are chro-

nologically correct. Isaiah receives a prophetic call "after that he had

for some time discharged the office of a teacher."40 Calvin assumes a

chronological ordering of the book, but such an ordering was unneces-

sary for the original audience, since 1:1 divulges the book's setting. His

emphasis on Isaiah's work as teacher may also reflect Calvin's belief

that teachers "have an ordinary office in the church."41 At any rate,

Calvin's position has no textual evidence other than the position of

chapter 6.

Hayes and Irvine conclude that the rhetorical styles of chapters

1-5 and chapters 6-12 reflect different settings. The early chapters

are addressed to a general audience, and admonish "the population

about particular actions, ethical stances, and faith postures."42 Later

chapters deal with problems among "the Davidic court and its sup-

porters in Jerusalem."43 Hayes and Irvine also claim that chapters

1-5 are Isaiah's attempt to change Israel after a great earthquake.44

Though the rhetorical styles vary somewhat in chapters 1-5 and 6-12,

there are also several similarities. Too, 3:12-15 condemns the nation's

rulers, and Isaiah never mentions the earthquake noted in Amos 1-2

and Zech 14:5. Thus, Hayes and Irvine lack the textual evidence they

need to sustain their argument.

Isaiah 6 does act as a linking text. Chapters 1-5 detail the sins of

Israel and how those sins postpone God's blessings for the nation.

Clearly the nation ought to repent, yet refuses to do so. Chapter 6 ad-

mits this national sin and announces its long-term cure. Chapters 7-

12 explain how Isaiah announces the cure to the rebellious people

but has little success in changing them. Thus, the reader learns Israel

is a difficult audience, Isaiah has a difficult task, and Isaiah will expe-

rience a difficult ministry.


39 Ibid., 174-76.

40 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, chapters 1-32

(trans. William Pringle; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989) 199.

41 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Ford L. Battles; re-

printed, John T McNeill; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) 1056.

42 Hayes and Irvine, Isaiah, 52.

43 Ibid., 63.

44 Ibid., 69-78.



Contents of Isaiah 6


N. Habel correctly identifies Isaiah 6 as a call story.45 Though

there are problems with his division of the text, as has been noted,

Habel does reveal that Isaiah 6 parallels call stories like those of

Gideon, Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Each account includes an ap-

pearance of, or statement from, Yahweh, a commission, and a com-

ment about the difficulty of each person's ministry. These elements,

along with Isaiah's sense of sinfulness, provide the four main the-

matic divisions of this chapter.


Isaiah 6:1-4: Isaiah's Vision of God


6:1. Isaiah says his call occurs "in the year of king Uzziah's death,"

which is a difficult date to determine. Hayes and Irvine observe that the

dates scholars assign the kings of Isaiah's era "may vary as much as a

decade or more."46 Uzziah's reign is particularly hard to fix, since he is

co-regent with his son Jotham in the last years of his life (2 Chronicles

26-21). Bright's 742 date for Uzziah's death, though, leaves enough time

for the events of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah's reigns.47

Many scholars argue that Uzziah's death greatly affected Isaiah.

For example, G. A. Smith thinks this king, who had led Israel so effec-

tively, was probably the young prophet's hero.48 Oswalt notes that

Uzziah was the only king Isaiah had known. Thus, his death, and the

mounting Assyrian threat brought on by Tiglath-Pileser III's ascen-

dancy, helped Isaiah realize that Israel was at a crossroads.49 Ultimate

spiritual and political decisions would soon be made. Smith's theory is

intriguing, but has no support in the text. Oswalt's comments are

probably accurate. Early readers of Isaiah would definitely recognize

the transitional nature of this time.50

Isaiah sees "Adonai sitting on a throne, high and lifted up." This

phrase refers to God's kingship and sovereignty, images that appear

throughout the book (e.g., chaps. 13-23; 37:23-24; 40:18-22). Uzziah

may be dead, but the Lord remains sovereign. A second image rein-

forces this picture of greatness. The edges of Adonai's robes are

"filling the temple." God is too magnificent for the temple to contain.


45 Habel, "The Form and Significance."

46 Hayes and Irvine, Isaiah, 34.

47 Bright, History, 254.

48 G A Smith, The Book of Isaiah, chapters 1-39 (rev. ed.; New York: Harper,

1927). 58.

49 Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 177.

50 Of course the call could have come before Uzziah's death. Cf. Gray, Isaiah 1-27,

102. Still, readers would note the changing political scene.



6:2. "Seraphim," or "burning ones," stand before the Lord. This

term is used several ways in the Old Testament, including to describe

a burning serpent (Num 21:6) or flying serpent (Isa 14:29; 30:6).51

Here the word applies to six-winged creatures who fly before the

Lord, praising him as they go (6:3). The mighty God has unusual


6:3. These "burning ones" increase the distance between the Lord

and human beings. Isa 5:16, 19, and 24 have already established God's

holiness.52 Now the "seraphim" declare tOxbAc; hvAhy; wOdqA wOdqA wOdqA

(qados qados qados YHWH sebaot  "Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of

hosts"). Some writers have been tempted to find the trinity in this

formula, but Young rightly concludes, "The number three seems to be

employed primarily for the sake of emphasis."53 God is totally dif-

ferent in nature, character, and worth from the human race or the


Engnell observes that the second half of 6:3 also carries "em-

phatic import."54 Not only is Yahweh holy, he also fills the earth with

"his glory." The phrase OdObK; Cr,xAhA-lkA xlom; (melo' kol-ha'ares kebodo)

parallels lkAyheha-tx Myxilem: vylAUwv; (wesulayw mele'im 'et-hahekal)

from 6:1. God's gJory fills the earth, just as it fills the throneroom of

the Lord. The ruler of the earth governs by inherent holiness. This

verse sounds wonderful until one realizes that "where God's glory is

manifested, there is judgment for sin, for the two cannot exist side by

side. . . . "55 Yahweh's ethical perfection ("holy") makes his presence

("glory") eliminate sin.

6:4. The initial vision of God ends with the building's founda-

tions shaking at the voices of the seraphim, and the area filling with

smoke. The reference to smoke re-emphasizes Yahweh's presence.

Engnell notes that smoke accompanies appearances of God in Exod

40:34 and 1 Kgs 8:10ff. as well.56 Smoke covers God in Leviticus 16, so

perhaps smoke protects Isaiah from viewing the Lord, which could

cause Isaiah's death. Regardless of the smoke's exact purpose, Isaiah

has now seen evidence of Yahweh's greatness, heard the seraphim's

comments on God's holiness, and felt the shaking of the building. His

senses have been assaulted by Yahweh's power.


51 BDB, 977.

52 Cf. Liebreich, "The Position of Chapter Six," 38-40.

53 Young, Isaiah 1-18, 244.

54 Engnell, The Call of Isaiah; 37.

55 Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 181.

56 Engnell, The Call of Isaiah, 37.



Other scenes of a divine throne room appear in the OT.  For in-

stance Job 1-2 portrays the Lord and Satan in conversation in God's

"control room." The text that parallels 6:1-4 the most, however, is

1 Kgs 22:19ff. Here God sits on a throne, has heavenly messengers,

and reveals a message to a prophet. The texts differ, though, since one

of the heavenly beings carries the Lord's message, not a human

prophet, and there is no prophetic commissioning in 1 Kings 22. Ap-

parently Isaiah shares a common OT vision. Certainly the whole OT

attempts to explain in understandable terms how Yahweh rules the



Isaiah 6:5-7: Isaiah's Sin and its Cleansing


6:5. Given his experience in 6:1-4, it is no wonder Isaiah cries,

"Woe is me, for I am ruined." This "woe" (yOx ['oy]) parallels Israel's

"woe" (yOh [hoy]) in 5:8-23, except that Isaiah is wise enough to sense

his own "woe," unlike Israel, which forces Yahweh to pronounce

"woe" on it. Why does Isaiah feel so unworthy? Because he knows he

is "a man of unclean lips" ( MyitapAW;-xmeF;. wyxi yKi [ki teme' sepatayim])

who lives in a nation filled with unclean lips.

"Unclean" often refers to ceremonial uncleanness in the OT,58 so

perhaps Isaiah feels unworthy to remain in God's temple. F. Delitzsch

suggests that Isaiah mentions his lips because he could not match the

praise of the seraphim.59 Clements offers a better solution. He claims

Isaiah realizes his unfitness to act as God's spokesman.60 Thus, Isaiah's

unclean lips make it an unlikely prophet, just as Israel’s unclean

lips" make it a poor elect nation. Both Isaiah and the nation should ex-

pect "woe" for their "uncleanness." Isaiah fears for another reason.

Not only is he a sinner, but he has also seen God. Jacob has a similar

fear, as does Yahweh for Moses (Gen 32:30; Exod 33:20). Clearly,

Isaiah has good reason to feel "ruined."

6:6-7. The Seraphim immediately come to Isaiah's aid. They pu-

rify his lips with a coal from the divine altar. God's desire to cleanse

and forgive is evident. Isaiah can now speak for God. Besides Yah-

weh's kindness, this cleansing emphasizes the stupidity of Israel's


57 Note Habel's contention that the similarities between Isaiah 6 and 1 Kgs 2:19-

21 strengthen the argument that Isaiah 6 is indeed a typical call story. Habel, “The

Form and Significance," 310.

58 BDB, 379-80.

59 Franz Delitzsch, Isaiah (reprinted; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 196.

60 Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 75.



continued rebellion. Forgiveness would come just as quickly for Israel

as for Isaiah if the nation would change.


Isaiah 6:8-10: Isaiah's Commission


6:8. Gratitude leads to service. Isaiah hears God ask "Whom

shall I send, and who will go for us?" Yahweh allows Isaiah to volun-

teer. Calvin believes "for us" (UnlA [lanu]) refers to the trinity, and Gro-

gan says the phrase suggests God's majesty or "fullness of being."61

Oswalt thinks, in light of 1 Kgs 22:19-21, that "for us" probably refers

to the heavenly council, which is probably the best interpretation.62

Regardless of the identity of "us," Isaiah feels compelled to answer

the question. His ykiHelAw; ynin;hi (hinni selaheni, "Here I am, send me!")

echoes other obedient cries of ynin;hi, such as Abraham's in Gen 22:1

and 22:11. It also contrasts excuses such as those made by Moses and

Jeremiah.63 Isaiah responds unreservedly to the all-powerful and all-

merciful Lord.

6:9-10. Now Isaiah learns the specifics of his task. The MT reads

that he must tell the people, "Listen and listen, but do not understand.

Look and look, but never perceive" (6:9). Then 6:10 uses three hiphil

imperatives--"make fat" (Nmew;ha [hasmen]), "make heavy" (dBek;ha [hak-

bed]), and "shut" (fwahA [hasa'])--to describe Isaiah's effect on the peo-

ple's heart, ears, and eyes. Since the hiphil carries causative force, it

appears that Isaiah must intend to harden the people.

C. A. Evans notes that the Dead Sea Scrolls change the negative

particle lxa ('al) in 6:9 to lfa ('al), which would mean Isaiah must

preach to effect understanding and knowledge. Further, the first

hiphil imperative (jmew;ha) has no nun, which changes the word's

meaning to "make appalled." In this reading Israel's appalled heart

saves them from horrible sights and sounds.64 Evans also observes

that the LXX makes the verses descriptive, not imperatival.65 Thus,

both the Qumran and Greek texts shift the blame for Israel's sin

"from Yahweh and his prophet to the people themselves."66

Four factors argue in favor of the MTs reading of Isaiah's task.

First, changing the first hiphil imperative does not totally blunt the

next two. Why would an appalled heart cause heavy ears and closed

eyes? Second, the latter half of 6:10 begins with a strong averting con-


61 Calvin, Isaiah 1-32, 213; Grogan, EBC, 57.

62 Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 185. .

63 Cf. Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12,82.

64 C. A Evans, "The Text of Isaiah 6:9-10," ZAW 94 (1982) 416.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid., 418.

Paul House: ISAIAH'S CALL AND ITS CONTEXT IN IsAIAH 1-6        221


junction "lest" (NP, [pen]).67 The second half of the verse explains what

the first half seeks to avoid, and adding a vav ("and") to NP,, as Evans

suggests,68 does not erase this syntactical intention. Third, chaps. 1-5

have already established Israel's callous nature. Further preaching

will make them even more callous. Fourth, Isaiah's startled reaction

in 6:11 implies the extreme difficulty of the preaching, not just disap-

pointment at a lack of response. Therefore, Isaiah must live with the

fact that he will preach repentance, but that this preaching will

harden his hearers.


Isaiah 6:11-13: Isaiah's Difficult Ministry and

Israel's Difficult Future


6:11. A startled Isaiah inquires "how long" he must pursue this

mission. Engnell states "that the Hebrew ytamA-dfa ('ad-matay) is a

technical term from the phraseological fund of the lamentation

psalms. . . . "69 Often the question is asked in frustration, or during a

time of perceived injustice (cf. Pss 74:10; 82:2; 94:3).70 This phrase is

not a response to a normal instructional assignment. God's answer is

not typical either. Isaiah must preach until the cities have no inhabi-

tants and the land lies "utterly desolate; or until the threats made in

2:6-4:1 come true.

6:12-13. Several scholars, including Clements and Kaiser,71 think

these verses are an addition to the text, since they speak of deporta-

tion, desolation, and a remnant. In this view, 6:12-13 was inserted in

post-exilic times to explain the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions

and to offer the exiles hope. Isaiah's predictions of doom were thereby

vindicated and his predictions of hope kept alive.72

Linguistic and thematic details argue against this position. Eng-

nell asserts that the verses' stylistic unity is evident, since the devasta-

tion images build to the announcement of a "holy seed" (wd,qo fraz,

[zera' qodes]), a remnant, for the holy God.73 Verse 11 ends with a

play on words that continues in v 12. The houses will have no "man"

(MdAxA ['adam]), the "ground" (hmAdAxEhAv; [we'ha'adama]) will be desolate,

and Yahweh will "remove men (MdAxAhA [ha'adam]) far away." Also, the

metaphors of desolation in 6:11b and 6:12b are similar. It is logical to


67 BDB,814.

68 Evans, "The Text," 416.

69 Engnell, The Call of Isaiah, 44-45.

70 BDB, 607.

71 Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 84; Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 78.

72 Cf. Ackroyd, "Isaiah 1-12," 46.

73 Engnell, The Call of Isaiah, 47.



conclude that a hard, impenitent nation under God's judgment will

lose the land. Israel knew this truth long before the many Assyrian


Despite the horrors described in 6:9-12, all is not lost. There will

still be a "tenth" (hy.ArWifE ['asiriya]) in the land.74 This remnant may

be burned, it may be like a felled tree, but it will survive. Restoration,

like that outlined in 4:2-6, will emerge at some future point. Israel

will never lack a "holy seed." Isaiah learns that he will get to an-

nounce restoration, not just sin and punishment.




Isaiah 6 draws together the main thematic emphases of chaps.

1-5. The God who delivered Israel and planted the nation in the land

(5:1-7) remains a powerful, holy Lord (6:1- 4). Israel is determined to

sin and must face the day of Yahweh (cf. 2:6-4:1 and 6:9-12). Re-

newal will overtake the nation's wickedness only when punishment

has done its work (4:26; 6:13).

Isaiah 6 also instills great respect in readers for Isaiah the

prophet. No part of his mission is easy, as chaps. 7-12 reveal Thus, he

embodies Israel's present difficulties, yet at the same time leads the

way to the nation's future blessings. Like Moses, who must deal with

Pharaoh's hardened heart, and Jeremiah, who can expect total opposi-

tion, Isaiah's commission is extremely difficult. He can expect few

positive results. He can expect restoration to come at a high national

cost. Still, he can depend on the power, holiness, and mercy of God.

The holy God must destroy sin, yet will do so to create a holy people.



74 Verse 13 is notorious for its textual problems, and these difficulties cannot be

explored here. Still, the restoration theme emerges in any reconstruction of the text.



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