President Biden isn’t the first president to misquote Scripture, only the most recent. He did it by quoting Isaiah 6:8, when the prophet answered the Lord’s call with, “Here am I. Send me!” This reference was made in a speech responding to last week’s terrorist attack at the Kabul airport. It was odd. It was out of place. It was inappropriate. In doing so, the President not only blurred the line between America and the Kingdom of God, he deflected his own responsibility for this disaster onto “God’s will.”
Of course, the service and self-sacrifice of our military should always be recognized and honored. And it’s completely appropriate, as many members of our armed forces surely do, to see military service as one’s service to the Lord. For believers, every calling, if legitimate and done as to the Lord, is sacred. But how we carry out those callings – or as in this case how we order others to carry out theirs – is on us, not God.
Still, in his misuse of Scripture, President Biden joined not only a long line of presidents (especially the previous two), but plenty of pastors and other Christians, as well. I’ve lost count of the number of mission conferences I’ve attended in which the words, “Here am I, send me,” were plucked from the middle of Isaiah 6, printed on banners, and hung around the church. The intent of encouraging people to respond to God’s call on their lives is noble. However, to miss the full context of the story is not only to miss the significance of Isaiah’s famous words, but to miss details that are particularly relevant for our cultural moment.
First, the recent death of King Uzziah puts it in the context of a national crisis. Not only had Uzziah reigned over the kingdom of Judah for 52 years, but he had been, at least for the most part, one of the few good kings. When God allows Isaiah (who may have been a cousin of Uzziah) to see Him, He is showing Isaiah that even though the earthly king is dead, the True King of the universe is not. God’s status remains unchanged. Even the most chaotic cultural moment does not alter the rule and reign of Christ Jesus. We would do well to remember that, too.
Second, Isaiah’s answer was not so much courageous or heroic as it was grateful. The key point of this passage is not what Isaiah said at all. It’s what God did.
Immediately after Isaiah saw the Lord, he said, “Woe is me!” This could be very roughly translated as, “uh-oh… I’m dead meat.” After all, the central feature of God’s presence described here is God’s holiness. Isaiah is not special. He’s a sinner like the rest of us and, as such, cannot survive in the presence of God’s perfection.
The whole scene is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s, The Last Battle, where the soldier who had spent his life serving the false god Tash sees Aslan and, sure of his impending death, thinks to himself, “Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.” Isaiah has something of the same response. But when Isaiah predicts his ruin owing to his unclean lips, God spares him: He orders coals from the altar to touch his lips, cleansing him from his impurity. I suppose even a prophet can have a dirty mouth, but only mercy from God Himself can make any of us presentable to Him.
Having thought that his life was over only to have it spared by God, what else will Isaiah say when the question is asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” What’s too often missed, especially when we fail to read beyond Isaiah’s response to the rest of the passage, is what God is calling Isaiah to do.
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 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.”
In a word, God is sending Isaiah to fail. Isaiah the prophet, whose job it was to speak for God, is told that the more he speaks for God, the less the people will listen. The more he speaks, the more their hearts would grow harder and harder. To which Isaiah asks a question of his own (a good one, in fact): “How long, O Lord?” I think it’s safe to assume Isaiah may have been asking for some degree of assurance that, eventually, they would listen. Like any committed communicator, he wants to know he is being heard.
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.”
In other words, Isaiah, you’re going to speak, and they aren’t going to listen. And this is going to go on and on until it’s all over. The next chapter isn’t repentance for Judah. It’s captivity.
“For us there is only the trying,” said T.S. Eliot. “The rest is none of our business.” Any result of our work, when done for the Lord, is up to God. In a Biblical framework, success is defined by faithfulness. Nothing more, nothing less.
In Hebrews 11, the “hall of faith” passage, Isaiah makes a cameo appearance. It’s near the end, when the author admits to running out of time. In his list that starts with miracles and victories and, without breaking stride, shifts to sufferings and defeats, the author includes “they [who] were sawn in two.” According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah spoke as commanded. The people, as predicted, eventually became so enraged with him, so tired of what he was saying, that they stuffed him into a hollow log and sawed him in half. But, the author of Hebrews continues, he was one “of whom the world was not worthy.”
I can’t imagine any more important truths to sustain Christians in this cultural moment, than to know that the King of the universe is still on His throne, and that God in his mercy forgives our guilt that is before him. And any results or successes we might achieve come from His strength, not our own. This is why the context of Isaiah’s words is absolutely essential, whether quoted by pastors or by presidents.