Crisis of Leadership
When asked by one of his disciples about the ingredients of good government, Confucius answered: “ ‘Sufficient food, sufficient weapons, and the confidence of the common people.’
“ ‘But,’ asked the disciple, ‘suppose you had no choice but to dispense with one of those three, which would you forego?’ “ ‘Weapons,’ said Confucius.
“His disciple persisted: ‘Suppose you were then forced to dispense with one of the two that are left, which would you forego?’ “Replied Confucius, ‘Food. For from of old, hunger has been the lot of all men, but a people that no longer trusts its rulers is lost indeed.’ ”—Edited by Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989), p. 215.
People do, indeed, want strong, trustworthy leadership. When a soldier was signing up for a second term of duty, the army recruiter asked why he wanted to reenlist. “I tried civilian life,” he said, “but nobody is in charge out there.”
This week, we will look at Judah’s crisis of leadership and the sad results that followed.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 9.
Different perspectives can be given regarding the death of this king. 1. Although Uzziah’s reign was long and prosperous, “when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chron. 26:16, NRSV) and attempted to offer incense in the temple. When the priests rightly stopped him because he was not authorized as a priestly descendant of Aaron (2 Chron. 26:18), the king became angry. At this moment, when the king refused reproof, the Lord immediately struck him with leprosy, which he had “to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:21, NRSV). How ironic that Isaiah saw a vision of the pure, immortal, divine King in His house/temple in the very year the impure human king died!
2. There is a striking contrast between Uzziah and Isaiah. Uzziah reached for holiness presumptuously, for the wrong reason (pride), and instead became ritually impure, so that he was cut off from holiness.
Isaiah, on the other hand, allowed God’s holiness to reach him. He humbly admitted his weakness and yearned for moral purity, which he received (Isa. 6:5–7, NRSV). Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, he went away justified: “ ‘for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted’ ” (Luke 18:14, NRSV).
3. There is a striking similarity between Uzziah’s leprous body and the moral condition of his people: “There is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds” (Isa. 1:6, NRSV).
4. The death of Uzziah in about 740 b.c. marks a major crisis in the leadership of God’s people. The death of any absolute ruler makes his or her country vulnerable during a transition of power. But Judah was in special danger, because Tiglath-pileser III had ascended the throne of Assyria a few years before, in 745 b.c., and immediately went on the warpath, which made his nation an invincible superpower that threatened the independent existence of all nations in the Near East. In this time of crisis, God encouraged Isaiah by showing the prophet that He was still in control.
Notice what was happening here in the first four verses of Isaiah 6. The king dies during great political turmoil (the Assyrians are on the warpath). For Isaiah, it could have been a fearful time when he was not sure who was in control.
And then—what happens? While taken in vision, Isaiah gazed upon the blazing glory of God upon His throne, heard the antiphony of shining seraphim (“burning ones”) calling out the words “holy, holy, holy,” felt the resultant seismic shaking of the floor beneath him, and peered through swirling smoke as it filled the temple. It must have been a stunning experience for the prophet. For sure, Isaiah now knew who was in control, despite outward events.
Ezekiel, Daniel, and John were in exile when they received their visions in Ezekiel 1; Daniel 7:9, 10; and Revelation 4, 5. Like Isaiah, they needed special comfort and encouragement that God was still in charge, even though their world was falling apart. (Daniel and Ezekiel were captives in a pagan nation that had destroyed their own, and John had been exiled to a lonely island by a hostile political power.) No doubt, these visions helped give them what they needed to stay faithful, even during a crisis situation. “As Isaiah beheld this revelation of the glory and majesty of his Lord, he was overwhelmed with a sense of the purity and holiness of God. How sharp the contrast between the matchless perfection of his Creator, and the sinful course of those who, with himself, had long been numbered among the chosen people of Israel and Judah!”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 307.
The transcendent holiness of God, emphasized in Isaiah’s vision, is a basic aspect of his message. God is a holy God, and He demands holiness from His people, a holiness He will give to them if only they will repent, turn from their evil ways, and submit to Him in faith and obedience.
At the sanctuary/temple, only the high priest could approach the presence of God in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and only with a protective smokescreen of incense, or he would die (Lev. 16:2, 12, 13). Isaiah saw the Lord, even though he was not the high priest, and he was not burning incense! The temple filled with smoke (Isa. 6:4), reminding us of the cloud in which God’s glory appeared on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:2). Awestruck and thinking he was finished (compare Exod. 33:20; Judg. 6:22, 23), Isaiah cried out with an acknowledgment of his sin and the sin of his people (Isa. 6:5), reminiscent of the high priest’s confession on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21).
“Standing, as it were, in the full light of the divine presence within the inner sanctuary, he realized that if left to his own imperfection and inefficiency, he would be utterly unable to accomplish the mission to which he had been called.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 308.
The seraph explained that through touching the prophet’s lips his guilt and sin were removed (Isa. 6:7). The sin is not specified, but it need not be limited to wrong speech, because lips signify not only speech but also the entire person who utters it. Having received moral purification, Isaiah was now able to offer pure praise to God.
Fire is an agent of purification, because it burns away impurity (see Num. 31:23). But the seraph used a coal from the special, holy fire of the altar, which God Himself had lighted and which was kept perpetually burning there (Lev. 6:12). So, the seraph made Isaiah holy, as well as pure. There is more. In worship at the sanctuary, or temple, the main reason for taking a coal from the altar was to light incense. Compare Leviticus 16:12, 13, where the high priest is to take a censer full of coals from the altar and use it to light incense. But in Isaiah 6, the seraph applies the coal to Isaiah rather than to incense. Whereas Uzziah wanted to offer incense, Isaiah became like incense! Just as holy fire lights incense to fill God’s house with holy fragrance, it lights up the prophet to spread a holy message. It is no accident that in the next verses of Isaiah 6 (Isa. 6:8 and following) God sends Isaiah out to His people.
Read prayerfully Isaiah’s response (Isa. 6:5) to his vision of God.
“Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me” (Isa. 6:8). Having been purified, Isaiah immediately responded to God’s call for a representative whom He could send out on His behalf. In New Testament terms, Isaiah would have been called an apostle; that is, “one who is sent.”
Interestingly enough, the book of Isaiah does not begin, as do some other prophetic books, with the prophet describing his prophetic call (compare Jer. 1:4–10, Ezekiel 1–3). In other words, he must have already been called to be a prophet, even before the events of chapter 6. The Bible does show that a divine encounter can encourage a prophet even after the ministry has begun (Moses: Exodus 34; Elijah: 1 Kings 19). In contrast to other examples, too, where God tells people they are to be prophets, in Isaiah 6 the prophet volunteers for a special mission. It appears that chapters 1–5 of Isaiah represent conditions at the time when Isaiah was first called, after which God jump-started his ministry by encouraging him at the temple and reconfirming his commission as God’s prophetic spokesman.
Not only does God’s sanctuary throb with awesome power but also it’s a place where weak and faulty people such as ourselves can find refuge. We can be reassured by knowing that God is working to rescue us through Christ, our High Priest.
John also saw Christ represented as a sacrificial lamb that had just been slaughtered, its throat slit (Rev. 5:6). This was not a pretty sight. The description makes the point that although Christ was raised from the dead and has ascended to heaven, He continually carries the Cross event with Him. He is still lifted up in order to draw all people to Himself at His altar.
Lest we should think that Isaiah heard wrong or that this message is unimportant, Jesus cited this passage to explain why He taught in parables (Matt. 13:13–15).
God does not want any to perish (2 Pet. 3:9), which explains why He sent Isaiah to the people of Judah—and Jesus to the world. God’s desire is not to destroy but to save eternally. But while some people respond positively to His appeals, others become firmer in their resistance.
Nevertheless, God keeps on appealing to them in order to give them more and more opportunities to repent. Yet, the more they resist, the harder they become. So, in that sense, what God does to them results in the hardening of their hearts, even though He would rather that these actions soften them. God’s love toward us is unchanging; our individual response to His love is the crucial variable.
The role of a minister, such as Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or even Christ, is to keep on appealing, even if people reject the message. God said to Ezekiel: “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them” (Ezek. 2:5, NRSV). God’s role and that of His servants is to give people a fair choice, so that they will have adequate warning (compare Ezek. 3:16–21), even if they end up choosing destruction and exile (Isa. 6:11–13).
In Exodus 4:21, God says, “ ‘but I will harden his heart’ ” (NRSV). This is the first of nine times when God said He would harden Pharaoh’s heart. But there also were nine times when Pharaoh hardened his own heart (for example, see Exod. 8:15, 32; Exod. 9:34).
Clearly Pharaoh possessed some kind of free will, or he would not have been able to harden his own heart. But the fact that God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart indicates that God initiated the circumstances to which Pharaoh reacted when he made his choices, choices to reject the signs God had given him. Had Pharaoh been open to those signs, his heart would have been softened, not hardened by them.
Further Thought: “Iniquitous practices had become so prevalent among all classes that the few who remained true to God were often tempted to lose heart and to give way to discouragement and despair. It seemed as if God’s purposes for Israel were about to fail and that the rebellious nation was to suffer a fate similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah.
“In the face of such conditions it is not surprising that when, during the last year of Uzziah’s reign, Isaiah was called to bear to Judah God’s messages of warning and reproof, he shrank from the responsibility. He well knew that he would encounter obstinate resistance. As he realized his own inability to meet the situation and thought of the stubbornness and unbelief of the people for whom he was to labor, his task seemed hopeless. Should he in despair relinquish his mission and leave Judah undisturbed to their idolatry? Were the gods of Nineveh to rule the earth in defiance of the God of heaven?”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, pp. 306, 307.
Summary: At a time of insecurity, when the weakness of human leadership was painfully obvious, Isaiah was given a grand vision of the supreme Leader of the universe. Petrified by inadequacy but purified and empowered by mercy, Isaiah was ready to go forth as God’s ambassador into a hostile world.