The Message of Isaiah is a Message to Us
After reading through this prophecy, one doesn’t need to make it further than the first five chapters to realize that there is a profound problem. The people of God know the right things to say. In 1:15, they spread out their hands in prayer. They know the right things to do. In 1:11, they multiplied sacrifices. But they are sick. The whole head is sick and the heart is faint. They are proud, rebellious, polluted. They are abounding in sin.
This text prompts a question. How is it possible for them, and if we’re honest, for us to be servants of the Lord? Isaiah answers that question in chapter 6 through his own experience. Isaiah tells us that during the year of Uzziah’s death he had a vision of the Lord. The Lord was on His throne high and lifted up, the train of His robe filled the temple. Seraphim were all around the throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory. And with that the foundations shook.
Do you remember Isaiah’s response? He said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Do you see what’s happening? Isaiah is identifying with the sinfulness of the people. He sees himself as ruined in the sight of the Lord. As a sinner, he is undone before the holiness of God.
And what happens next? One of the angels comes to him with a hot coal taken from the altar and with it touches his unclean lips…making them clean. The scene is pregnant with imagery. But let me point out a couple of things. Notice, the coal that the angel used to touch Isaiah’s lips was taken from the altar, the place of sacrifice, the place where sin is atoned for and God’s wrath is satisfied. In fact, the word translated “forgiven” (v.7) is the word kipper.
Leon Morris, in his wonderful book, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, makes at least two points about this word and its usage here. First, he says that the word means “to avert punishment, especially divine anger, by the payment of a ransom. The second thing Morris notes is that such a payment indicates the need for a substitute. In other words, in order for Isaiah and every other sinner to be made clean and able to servant of the Lord a ransom is required.
Now, chapter 6 doesn’t speak of that ransom, but the prophecy of Isaiah certainly does. In fact, Isaiah is clear. The Suffering Servant, about whom the prophet will speak a great deal, is the one who paid the ransom. In other words, this Suffering Servant bore the wrath of God on the altar for us that our sins might be atoned for that we might be forgiven.
Do you remember what Isaiah 53 says in verse 4?
Surely our griefs He himself bore, and our sorrows He carried…He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening of our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.
Now, my friends, do you know this Servant who came to atone for our sins and make us servants? It is, of course, the Lord Jesus Christ. I find it striking that Jesus tells us in Mark’s gospel that He came to be a ransom for His people. Praise be to God that what Isaiah stood on his toes to see; we see. Jesus the suffering servant, who knew no sin, was treated as though He were a sinner that we made be made the righteousness of God. My brothers and sisters, the prophecy of Isaiah has a singular theme, Yahweh saves.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.