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Friday, December 31, 2010

Isaiah 6: Descriptive or Prescriptive?

Just because the Bible mentions something, doesn’t mean that it is teaching it.” Scripture mentions that Judas hung himself, but none would say that Scripture is teaching us to do the same. This might explain in part the difference between a passage being descriptive, that is, describing an event or one being prescriptive, that is, prescribing a specific action. Good biblical interpretation must look at the context in which a passage was written to see what it meant to the ones to whom it was written.  Many heresies and poor biblical understanding stem from just such a lack of diligence in Bible study.  At the same time, if our understanding of the God’s Word only reaches to the level of understanding content and never reaches to the level of application, we will most likely end up as the guardians of wonderful biblical stories that have little connection with our everyday life.

We dare not forget Paul’s admonition to the Romans: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope." (Rom. 15:4) When the apostle wrote this, he  was concluding his amazing treatise to the believers in Rome explaining how they were to relate to one another. While it is true that much of what we read in Scripture is historical documentary of what has happened to God’s people in the past, Paul encourages those in Rome to look for the larger lessons or principles that might be applied to daily life. As we look as these passages to learn the lessons they might be teaching, we must remember that since Scripture does not contradict itself, what is taught in a particular passage must be consistent with what is taught in other passages of related material. With this in mind, let’s look again at Isaiah 6:       

    [1] In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. [2] Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. [3] And they were calling to one another:
       “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
       the whole earth is full of his glory.”
     [4] At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
     [5] “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
     [6] Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. [7] With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
     [8] Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
       And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
     [9] He said, “Go and tell this people:
       “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
       be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
    [10] Make the heart of this people calloused;
       make their ears dull
       and close their eyes.
    Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
       hear with their ears,
       understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
     [11] Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
       And he answered:
       “Until the cities lie ruined
       and without inhabitant,
    until the houses are left deserted
       and the fields ruined and ravaged,
    [12] until the LORD has sent everyone far away
       and the land is utterly forsaken.
    [13] And though a tenth remains in the land,
       it will again be laid waste.
    But as the terebinth and oak
       leave stumps when they are cut down,
       so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Surely it is clear that this is God’s call on the prophet’s life, one in which he would never be the same.  In this light, Isaiah’s experience is understood as a descriptive in nature. However, many have used this as a model for worship as well, and in this sense it has been interpreted as being prescriptive, that is, more of a command than a simple description.  Recently, I have been challenged to think through this and though I can’t say that this is the final answer, I will say that this is how I understand the passage at this stage of understanding.

First and foremost, we must see how God used this experience in the life of the prophet to face the enormous task that lay before him, one that literally would shape his life from then on. We can describe it in terms that others have used: First, God takes the initiative to reveal Himself and then He reveals His nature and character, His majesty and holiness. After having seen a vision of the holiness of the Almighty, the prophet sees himself as sinful and living among a sinful people. This confession brings about God’s forgiveness, as symbolized by the burning coal from the altar. God then issues an open ended call: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, to which Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” God then gives the directives to his mission.

There is nothing in the passage that declares that every follower of God must have such a vision; it is descriptive. However, the question must also be asked, “What lessons might be learned from Isaiah’s experience?  What lessons might be learned that are consistent with the teachings of the rest of Scripture?” First, God does take the initiative. God took the initiative in the garden of Eden to seek out Adam and Eve. He took the initiative to call out Abraham. The bush was burning before Moses ever turned around to see it. God’s plan for salvation was formed before the creation of the world, – surely it is understood that God does take the initiative.

Another lesson is that God does reveal Himself: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps. 19:1) The myriad of miracles throughout Scripture reveal that God continually showed His nature and character. At the same time, we know that “our ways are not His ways,”(Is. 55:8) and that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) The acknowledgment of sin is part of confession, which is coming in agreement with God in how He views our sin.  We also know from God’s Word that “if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Refusal to confess sin breaks our fellowship with God. (Is. 59:1-2) God reveals Himself as we respond in obedience to Him: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21)

Although the Isaiah passage is not prescriptive in that we all must have heavenly visions before for we can worship God and that every occasion of our worship must mirror step by step what happened in Isaiah’s life, there are some similarities that do occur in worship. Scripture is clear that we must approach the Father with “clean hands and a pure heart.” (Ps. 24:3-4) In Jesus’ parable, it is the repentant tax collector, not the Pharisee whom God hears. (Luke 18:13) In this sense, one can see the similarities to Isaiah’s experience and identify personal experiences with his.

At the same time there are many other experiences of worship described in Scripture that do not follow the prophet Isaiah’. Many of David’s songs of praise and worship are expressions of gratitude and exaltation. For example, in Psalm 100 we are commanded to “enter His courts with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” that is, praising Him for who he is and thanking Him for what He has done. Mary’s declaration in Luke 2 became a song of praise for the Early Church. Paul and Silas were worshiping by singing praises to God before the earthquake. (Acts 16:25) All of these are wonderful expressions of worship that must also be taken into account.

So what, then? What difference does all this make in my life and worship and that of the church where I worship? I’m glad you asked. Here are a few things then, to keep in mind that I believe will aid in our worship and are lessons learned from Isaiah. First, we must remember that God has taken the initiative in Jesus Christ and we must realize that it is “in Him” and “through Him” that we come “to Him.” Secondly, we must come with “clean hands and pure hearts.” When David was moving the ark of God to Jerusalem, he failed to follow the instructions of using only Levites carrying it on poles. God struck Uzzah dead as he tried to steady the ark on the cart when the oxen stumbled. All the praise and celebration that David had organized could not make up for his lack of obedience. (1 Sam. 6) In the same way, we must come in obedience to God if we are to worship biblically. In addition, from outside of the Isaiah passage, we must come to worship in gratitude and praise as Psalm 100 commands. We must remember that just because a passage of Scripture is descriptive doesn’t necessarily mean that it has nothing to say to my life and practice.

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