In Isaiah 6, in one of the most stunning pictures of the pre-incarnate Christ recorded in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah experiences a vision of the Lord sitting on his throne. When he lays eyes on the Lord, the prophet cries out:
Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! (Isa. 6:5)
Isaiah is so distraught that he curses himself—he knows no one can see the Lord and live (Exod. 33:20). But he doesn’t die; instead, an angel takes a piece of coal from the altar and cleanses him, touching it to his lips. His guilt is taken away, his sin atoned for (Isa. 6:7).
Then the Lord speaks: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah replies, “Here I am! Send me” (Isa. 6:8).
Almost every time this story is examined, this is where it stops. Isaiah’s bold answer to the Lord’s call is inspirational. It tends to be declared in heroic fashion, as though he’s saying, “Don’t worry, Lord; I got this!”
This is how so many of us treat this passage. We act as though it’s a call to embrace our “moment” and do great things for God, to move mountains and make the sun stand still.
Deaf Ears, Blind Eyes
And this is true—if we stop reading at verse eight. But if we stop there, we miss Isaiah’s marching orders:
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.” (Isa. 6:9b–10)
Essentially, Jesus is promising Isaiah that he’ll ignored by the people he’s being sent to. He’ll preach judgment on Israel, and unfold the promises of the Messiah’s coming to rescue his people.
And they’re not going to listen to a word of it.
Ministry of Rejection
A reponse of stubborn rejection did indeed meet Isaiah’s preaching. The people didn’t hear because they couldn’t. That was the point. The prophet’s ministry was to “make the heart of this people dull.”
Isaiah is not alone in this call. Most of God’s prophets have similar experiences. Jeremiah is called to prophesy judgment on Judah, but they won’t hear. Instead, they curse him (Jer. 15:10), beat him (Jer. 20:1–3), and throw him in prison (Jer. 32:2–3). He laments his ministry such that he even accuses God of deceiving him (Jer. 20:7). Elijah is hunted by Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1–2). Noah preaches righteousness and condemns the world as he obeys the Lord in building the ark, but the rest of humanity ignores him (2 Pet. 2:5; Heb. 11:7; Matt. 24:39).
As the great and true prophet, Jesus himself shares in their experience as well. He’s rejected in Nazareth, his hometown, as he announces that he’s Isaiah’s promised rescuer. Rather than honor him, they try to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:16–30). He’s rejected by the elders and priests, betrayed and denied by his followers, put on trial, mocked, scourged, and brutally executed.
Can you imagine how difficult this would be? To know that the call to repent and believe will have the exact opposite effect? That every word coming from your mouth, no matter how much love you exhibit, will be the stench of death to those who hear (2 Cor. 2:16)? That’s not the kind of ministry most—or any—of us would be quick to sign up for. And just as God has called some to this ministry throughout the ages, he may be calling you to it as well. You may faithfully preach the gospel Sunday in and Sunday out without any visible fruit.
Not Megachurch Material
This isn’t a pretty thought for many of us. It’s not the stuff from which megachurches are built. And yet it’s probably the reality for more of us than we realize. We speak, we pray, we plead . . . and there’s nothing—not from our vantage point at least. Many receive our words as no more consequential than the incoherent mutterings of Charlie Brown’s school teacher.
My wife and I deal with this rejection on a regular basis. For years we’ve tried to share the gospel with many, and it’s seemingly passed right over. One family member heard the gospel and became a practicing Buddhist. Two other friends stopped speaking to us for a number of months. One of my oldest friends cut ties with me after learning I’d become a Christian. That kind of rejection would be unbearable if I didn’t remember where to find hope amid discouragement. Only God can open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears.
His words through Isaiah again come to our aid:
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. (Isa. 55:11)
There’s a confidence in those words that grounds the exuberance of Isaiah’s cry of “Send me!” God’s Word does exactly what it’s purposed to do. Some hearts will be hardened by the unapologetic proclamation of the Word, but others will turn and be saved. As Charles Spurgeon observed, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”
This truth should cause us to rejoice. We need not be ashamed of the gospel, and we need not despair when it’s rejected. The Word of God will still accomplish all its Author purposes.
And that is the case whether he calls us to be heard or ignored.