And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear you indeed, but understand not; and see you indeed, but perceive not.…
1. Isaiah summed up his whole future life in those two words, "Behold me; send me." Then on his ardent soul was poured the heavy message, "Go, and thou shalt tell this people" (God speaks of them no more as His own), "Hear ye on, and understand not; and see ye on, and know not. Make thou dull the heart of this people, and its ears make thou heavy, and its eyes close thou; lest it see with its eyes, and with its ears hearken, and its heart understand, and it return and one heal it." Startling office for one so sanguine and so young! Heavy burden to bear for probably sixty-one years of life, to be closed by a martyr's excruciating death!
Outside of that commission there was hope: hope, because the promises of God could not fail of fulfilment: hope, because in the worst times of Israel there had been those seven thousand which the prophet knew not of, but whose number God revealed to him, who had stood faithful to God amid the national apostasy; hope, because when God pronounces not a doom, we may take refuge in the loving mercy of Him who swears by Himself, "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure individuals: the people, not to individuals, only as they were such as the mass of the nation was, as they themselves made up that mass. This, in all seeming, was the thankless office to which Isaiah was called, to be heard, to be listened to, by some with contempt, by others with seeming respect, and to leave things in the main worse than he found them.
3. Isaiah's office was towards those, in part at least, who were ever hearing, never doing, and so never understanding. And so (so to speak) he was only to make things worse. So St. Paul says, "The earth which drinketh in the rain which cometh oft upon it — if it bring forth thorns and briars, is accounted worthless and nigh unto cursing," not yet accursed, yet nigh unto it, "whose end" — if it remains such unto the end — "is to be burned." There were better among the people; there were worse; but such was the general character; it was an ever-hearing, — hearing, — hearing (such is the force of the words, "hear ye hearing on," evermore), never wearied of hearing, yet never doing; ever seeing, as they thought, yet never gaining insight; and so becoming ever duller, their sight ever more and more bleared, until to hear and to see would become well-nigh, and to man, impossible. The more they heard and saw, the further they were from understanding, from being converted, from the reach of healing. Such they were, a little later, in Ezekiel's time.
So it was when He came of whom Isaiah prophesied. They thought that they knew the law, but only to allege their interpretation of it against Him. The more they heard, the more they were blinded. And their imagined seeing and their real blindness, was their condemnation (John 9:41). This is inseparable from every revelation of God, from every preaching of the Gospel, from every speaking of God inwardly to the soul, from every motion of God the Holy Ghost, from every drawing or forbidding of that, judge which He has placed within, our conscience, from every hearing of God's Word. All and each leave the soul in a better condition or a worse. Not by any direct hardening from God, not through any agency of the prophet, but by man's free will, hearing but not obeying, seeing but not doing, feeling but resisting, the preaching of the prophet would leave them only more hopelessly far from that conversion, whereby God might heal them.
4. And what said the prophet? Contrary as the sentence must have been to all the yearnings of his soul, crushing to his hopes, he knew that it must be just, because "the Judge of the whole world" must "do right." He intercedes, but only by those three words, "Lord, how long?" He appeals to God. Such could not be God's ultimate purpose with His people. The night was to come; sin deserved it; but was it to have no dawn? Hope there is yet, but meanwhile a still-deepening night, a climax of woe; and that in two stages. In the first, "cities left without inhabitants"; and not cities only, as a whole, but "houses" too "tenantless"; nor these alone, but "the whole land desolate, and God removes the inhabitants far away, and there shall be a great forsaking in the midst of the land." Nor this only, but when, in this sifting time, nine parts should be gone, and one-tenth only remain, this should be again consumed: only, like those trees which survived the winters and storms of a thousand years, while the glory, wherewith God once clad it, was gone, its hewn stem was still to live; "a holy seed" was to be the stock thereof. The vision, opened before him, stretches on until now and to the end. His question, "How long? Until when?" implied a hope that there would be an end; the answer "until," declared that there would be an end. We have, in one, that first carrying away, the small remnant which should return; its new desolation; the holy seed which should survive; the restoration at the end, of which St. Paul says, then "all Israel shall be saved."
5. And this message fell on one of the tenderest of hearts in its early freshness. As he is eminently the Gospel-prophet, the evangelist in the old covenant, so he had already been taught by the Holy Ghost the Gospel lesson, "Love your enemies." He denounces God's judgments; but he himself is the type of Him who wept over Jerusalem.
6. Yet where there is desolation for the sake of God, there is also consolation. Wherein was Isaiah's? Not in the solace of his married life. His daily dress was like John Baptist's, the hair cloth pressing upon his loins, wearing to the naked flesh, although mentioned only when he was to put it off and himself to become a portent to his people, walking naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20:2). His two sons were, by their names, the continual pictures of that woe on his people. What, then, was his solace? Isaiah had seen, as man can see, Christ's Deity (John 12:41). He had seen Him, the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person. Yet he had not seen the Son alone. He himself says, "Mine eyes have seen the King," Him who is the Lord of hosts. And the Holy Ghost says by St. Paul that He spake by Isaiah in these words (Acts 28:25-27). It was a human Form which he beheld, sitting enthroned as the Judge, and receiving the worship of the glowing love of the seraphim. How should not this vision live in him for those threescore years? So God prepared him to be, above all "the goodly company of the prophets," the evangelic prophet, in that he had seen the glory of the Lord. He, too, was a man of longing. His darkest visions are the dawn streaks of the brightest light. He lived in a future for himself, a future which God had promised to the remnant of His people He looked on beyond this world of disappointment and shadows. God Himself is the everlasting bliss of those who wait for Him.
7. Be not dismayed, then, though men who think that they see, see not, or though they see not, because they think that they see. It is but the condition of the victories of faith over the soul, free, if it will, to disbelieve. Be not discouraged, if iniquity abound, or mankind seem to deafen itself in its pleasures or gains, or at the stupidity of an intellect which will not acknowledge a God whom it does not see, or own its own free will, which it has used against God continually, and, by repeated choices of its own evil against God's good, has well-nigh enslaved to its master passion, which God would have subjected to it. Jesus foretold at once His victories and His sorrows; His victories in those who willed to look to Him as their Master, their Saviour, their Regenerator, their Life, their Resurrection, their Immortality of joy; His sorrows, in those who would not be redeemed.