A MISSION OF PROCLAIMING GOD’S TRUTH WILL HARDEN THOSE HEARTS GOD ALLOWS TO BE HARDENED
People today love a positive message – something that will make them feel better about themselves. They want to go away from the church service encouraged and uplifted with an extra bounce in their step. As we study Isaiah’s calling and commissioning in chapter 6, we come face to face with an extremely negative commission and calling. Go preach to these people about imminent judgment with words that will essentially harden their hearts and confirm them in their stubborn rebellion. Your expectation should be that none will respond and repent. Can you imagine a Seeker Church pastor stepping forward to volunteer for such a discouraging mission – “Here am I. Send me!”
I think of the current series of TV commercials for AT&T where the marketing executive in a suit sits at a small table in an elementary school classroom with young children and asks them for their preference regarding obvious choices:
– Is bigger better? Would you like a bigger tree house?
– Would you prefer more or less?
– Would you like to save more or less?
– Are two better than one?
– Do you prefer faster or slower?
The children jump on the obvious choice and ramble on with their cute explanations … but the bottom line is “It’s not that complicated.” Here, we ask as a prophet of God, would you rather have people respond to your message or reject your message? The preference is obvious. But it is not about what Isaiah prefers. It is about what God has determined will glorify Him.
The doom of the Lord’s people has been fixed; there will be no relenting or second chances. The Assyrian Captivity for the northern kingdom and the Babylonian Captivity for the southern kingdom are already fast approaching.
Let’s not forget some important background about the depravity of man:
– Since Adam’s sin, all men are born into the world as sinners
– Salvation requires God’s sovereign intervention in mercy and grace; if left on our own we lack the ability to even choose to repent and trust in Christ
– 2 Cor. 4 – the minds of the unbelieving are blinded to the gospel apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to see the Light
– The Light has come into the world, but men love darkness rather than the light
That is the sad condition of man apart from God’s saving grace – so any ministry of hardening hearts does not impact people that are morally neutral and send them over the edge – they are already confirmed sinners – God is just allowing them to continue further down the path they have chosen for themselves
We want to first look at one OT example and then one NT example of this ministry of judicial blinding before diving into our text in Isaiah:
1) OT example — Pharaoh
This ministry of hardening hearts is nothing new – God used Moses to harden the heart of Pharaoh – important background theologically. Van Parunak did a great analysis here captured on his website at cyber-chapel.org
– Pattern established – Ex. 7:1-5 God’s prophets bring the message of truth to Pharaoh; God authenticates his messengers and His message with signs and wonders; end result is that Pharoah’s heart is hardened
– As you work your way through the plagues, sometimes that process of hardening is attributed directly to God Himself – 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17;
Sometimes that process is attributed to Pharaoh himself (8:15) – leading to the conclusion that we must look at these two perspectives as flip sides of the same coin – wherever you find God hardening the heart you find the person hardening his own heart – and in all cases as we already noted because of the doctrine of man’s depravity, that heart is not a morally neutral entity
– Also we can see that God is not working some Houdini magic in the background; He is using the presentation of the truth as the method for hardening Pharaoh’s heart
– We must also understand how this interaction between God and Pharaoh is used by the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 to teach the doctrine of Sovereign Election – He will show mercy to whom He chooses in a way that is inscrutable to us – don’t try to unscrew the inscrutable – hold to both sides of the same flip coin: God’s sovereignty in salvation and man’s responsibility – the blame for man’s reprobation never falls on God for not electing someone
PreceptAustin.org: In Exodus we see how Pharaoh’s decision to harden his heart was followed later by Divine hardening. . . This sovereign act of God, designed to make His power known (Ro 9:17-note) might seem cruel except that Pharaoh volitionally hardened his own heart against God (Ex 8:15), and so fully merited God’s judgment. Here is an example of the great mystery, inscrutable to our finite minds, of God’s election versus man’s will. Like two sides of the same coin, both are real but can only be viewed and pondered separately. Neither can be discarded. Paul uses this as an example of the inscrutable will of God and of His mercy toward men (Ro 9:14, 15, 16, 17, 18.)
2) NT example – Proclaiming the Gospel — 2 Cor. 2:14-17
Important to see that the message of God’s truth is the same in both cases; our responsibility lies with the proclamation – not with the results
Illustration: It is the same sun that melts the wax that also hardens and bakes the clay.
Some hard words here this morning – not at all what we would expect God to say . . .
A MISSION OF PROCLAIMING GOD’S TRUTH WILL HARDEN THOSE HEARTS GOD ALLOWS TO BE HARDENED
I. (:8) A MINISTRY OF HARDENING HEARTS REQUIRES A FAITHFUL PROPHET – NO PREDETERMINED EXPECTATIONS
Isaiah volunteers willingly with no strings attached; no predetermined expectations; Rom. 12:1-2
A. Voice of Commissioning Authority — Finally God Speaks
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying,”
Up to this point, Isaiah had only heard the impressive voice of the seraphim extolling the majestic holiness of the King of kings – that was enough to cause an impressive impact of the foundations of the temple/palace shaking
Isaiah was now prepared for spiritual service — Cleansing must precede significant service to the Lord; the Lord will only use holy vessels
2 Tim. 2:21 “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”
What a privilege for sinful Isaiah to have such an opportunity for service; a moment ago he was lying face down, undone; now he is being commissioned for the most important task the Lord has at hand
Young: A moment before he had feared that there was no hope for him; now, however, that he has received the assurance of the forgiveness of his sins and understands that God will not banish him from His presence, he is ready to do service for the sovereign Lord.
B. Vacancy for Serving the Triune God – Presented as an Opportunity
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”
Significance of the Lord speaking in the plural? Is He including the seraphim? But He only needs to consult with Himself so more likely a reference to the Trinity; same sense of Gen. 1:26 “Let us make man in our image” (compare Gen 3:22; 11:7).
Motyer: The New Testament, however, relates this passage both to the Lord Jesus (Jn. 12:41 – where Jesus is identified as the agent of the judicial hardening of Israel – still a small remnant believed) and to the Holy Spirit (Acts 28:25 – Paul’s explanation of turning the focus of gospel preaching to the Gentiles because of Jewish rejection), finding here that which will accommodate the full revelation of the triune God.
God does not ask questions such as these because He does not know the answer; prompting Isaiah to respond willingly from his heart to serve the Lord
C. Volunteer Offers His Service
“ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Rom. 10:14-21 – God is pleased to use the instrumentation of human preachers to proclaim His truth in a way that glorifies Him and accomplishes His purposes
Are we available to serve God? Are we willing volunteers? Should not be difficult to get people to serve in various capacities in the local church; here Isaiah offers himself before he has even heard the job description; presents himself as a blank check – just like the prophet Samuel – Here am I, Send me. At the end of the day do you want to look back and see that your life counted?
Young: One cannot but admire and even love Isaiah for his willingness and readiness to serve God, even though he was told that his labors would appear to be fruitless. From this we learn the necessity for continuing in the work of the gospel, even when outward success does not appear to attend our work. It may be that apparent lack of outward success is in part due to our own inefficiency; our task, however, is to be faithful. May God grant that His church may have ministers who, above all else, are faithful, even as was Isaiah.
Willing to volunteer even before he fully understands the details of the mission
1 Cor. 4:1-2 “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.”
Oswalt: But if the truth could not save the present generation, if it would, in fact, destroy that generation, it could, faithfully recorded, save future generations. This, then, was Isaiah’s commission, as it is of all servants of God, not to be successful in a merely human sense but to be faithful. . . Such a grateful offering of themselves is always the cry of those who have received God’s grace after they have given up hope of ever being acceptable to God.
Grogan: Biblical teaching presents a beautiful balance . . . The message of God to Isaiah in vv. 9-10 is strongly predestinarian. How appropriate, therefore, that the verse preceding them should place such emphasis on the prophet’s responsibility! He is not coerced into service; rather, his will makes ready response as a grateful reaction to God’s forgiving grace. No doubt Isaiah’s very response was itself the product of divine grace, but this is not where the stress falls here. Instead, we see him faced with the challenge to personal commitment.
Jerry Bridges: Isaiah gave his life in service to God. He essentially offered himself as a blank check, to be filled in as God saw fit….With Isaiah we see a three-step process: first, acute realization of one’s own sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness; second, hearing the gospel that one’s sins are forgiven; and finally the response of gratitude, love, and surrender leading to action….
II. (:9-10) A MINISTRY OF HARDENING HEARTS SEEMS CONTRADICTORY TO GOD’S CHARACTER (e.g. HIS GOODNESS) –
A. (:9) A Ministry of Hardening Hearts Keeps God’s Truth Unintelligible
“And He said, ‘Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’”
Possibly refers to them in a derogatory sense as “this people” rather than “My people” (although you can find examples where the expression is not always one of displeasure)
Not going to a seeker friendly group
The truth from God is not hidden; but it is not perceived by those whose hearts are hardened
Problem is not with the obscurity of the message; Isaiah made it simple and clear
Cf. Parable of the Soils – problem is with a heart that is hardened and not receptive to truth
The message Isaiah has to bring is one of doom; Jonah would have loved this calling as he set off for Nineveh
Presented here as commands to the Jewish people – but God using irony and sarcasm … you don’t actually see Isaiah going out and commanding the people in this way; God setting forth the ministry expectations for Isaiah –this is the type of rejection you will face
Borgman: “Hear Ye indeed, but understand not” — Qal infinitive absolute construct – not idea of repetition (keep on hearing) but emphasis is the key; most emphatic way you could make a command; “You will certainly listen to this; but do not understand;
Van Parunak: In each case, the command
● reflects the predisposition of the hearers,
● is to be understood as permission to continue their current sin rather than as recommending a new course of action (“Since your heart is set on this course of action, go ahead. I won’t stop you.”)
● is associated with a warning of the consequences that will follow.
Thus these commands do not communicate God’s will to the people, but are all examples of how God abandons people, or “gives people up,” to their own lusts:
Psa 81:11-12 But my people would not hearken to my voice; and Israel would none of me. 12 So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels.
Acts 7:42 Then God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, O ye house of Israel, have ye offered to me slain beasts and sacrifices by the space of forty years in the wilderness?
Rom 1:22-24 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, 23 And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things. 24 Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, (cf. v. 26).
Oswalt: hear indeed (lit. “hear a hearing”). The infinitive is functioning in an adverbial way to strengthen the main verb (as in “you shall surely die,” lit. “to die you will die,” Gen. 2:17). It expresses for the Hebrew the strangeness of the contradiction, for to hear was normally synonymous with acknowledging and doing (Deut. 1:43; 6:3). Here the prophet is saying that the disease of pride and rebellion has gone so deeply that they will simply misperceive the truth of what they hear (cf. 2 Tim. 3:7).
B. (:10) A Ministry of Hardening Hearts Negates the Healthy Functioning of the Senses
Parallel passage — Deut. 29:2-4 “Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.”
Chiastic arrangement: now these are commands to Isaiah himself
1. Dead Heart
“Render the hearts of this people insensitive, . . . [Lest they] Understand with their hearts,” make their hearts fat – a layer of fat that obscures the truth
2. Dull Ears
“Their ears dull, . . . [Lest they] Hear with their ears” ears heavy
3. Dim Eyes
“And their eyes dim, Lest they see with their eyes,” eyes obscured
Besmear their eyes – like poor windshield wipers
C. (:10b) A Ministry of Hardening Hearts Prevents Spiritual Repentance and Healing
“And return and be healed.”
Application: In order to be responsive to God’s Word to us we must cultivate:
– Sensitive Heart
– Sharp Ears
– Bright Eyes
Young: He is charged to work in such a manner that his labors will bring about a hardening of heart and sensibility upon the part of the nation.
Multiple fulfillments – not just the Babylonian Captivity – John 12: 39-40
Why would God desire and even destine these people to a state of reprobation? There must be something more important to God than their healing? Somehow His glory will be established in a greater way through this judgment.
God’s insight here into the process of hardening hearts is intended to help the prophet cope with the negative reaction to his ministry;
John MacArthur: Isaiah’s message was to be God’s instrument for hiding the truth from an unreceptive people. Centuries later, Jesus’ parables were to do the same
NT Quotation of these significant verses:
cf. Mt. 13:14-15 — Explanation of Jesus for why He taught using parables; Mk. 4:12; Lk. 8:10; Rom. 11:8 – Paul’s explanation of Jewish unbelief during the times of the Gentiles
III. (:11-12) A MINISTRY OF HARDENING HEARTS MUST ACCEPT THE DURATION AND SEVERITY OF GOD’S JUDGMENT WHILE MAINTAINING A HEART OF COMPASSION –
“Then I said, “Lord, how long?” And He answered, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, Houses are without people, And the land is utterly desolate, 12 “The LORD has removed men far away, And the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.”
Tone of lament – heart of compassion on the part of the prophet; he is not insensitive to the consequences of those who persist in their rebellion
question related to both the duration and consequences of his ministry
How long must Isaiah labor in this ministry?
How long before the nation is removed from this judicial blindness?
Borgman: does not ask a sovereign God Why, but How long; be careful about asking Why; there is a difference; we don’t have the right to know Why; the secret things belong to the Lord our God;
Van Parunak: Heb. “the Lord has removed the man” – talking about mankind; but an allusion here; Gen. 1-3 this phrase used extensively; here it is a reversal of God’s gracious creation;
“great shall be the forsaking in the midst of the land” – 54:6 a woman who has been put away by her husband; 60:15; 62:4; very striking image in 50:1 – bill of your mother’s divorce referenced; God divorced Israel; the result is that she is a forsaken woman; ultimately she will be reunited;
Undue His creation; divorce His people
IV. (:13) A MINISTRY OF HARDENING HEARTS STILL ANTICIPATES THE HOPE OF A BELIEVING REMNANT –
“Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, And it will again be subject to burning, Like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”
In the case of the nation Israel, these Messianic expectations are eschatological in terms of their time reference; small picture of hope; fulfilled at the end of the Babylonian Captivity; population that came back was much smaller under Ezra and Nehemiah; there will yet be a subsequent judgment under Antiochus Epiphanes and under the Romans in AD 70; still life there and it will sprout again
Motyer: Typically of Isaiah, hope is the unexpected fringe attached to the garment of doom.
Grogan: God has so ordered the plant kingdom that almost total destruction does not always extinguish life.
PreceptAustin.org: It will again be subject to burning – This is a difficult phrase. Although, one should avoid dogmatic interpretation, it seems to predict that the remnant will pass through another “fire”, which could refer to further chastisement. Irregardless, the important point is that the “burning” would not result in complete destruction, for God would preserve a holy remnant. Some commentators see this as a prophecy that will ultimately be fulfilled in the time of the Great Tribulation, the time of Jacob’s distress, when “Many will be purged, purified and refined” (Da 12:10), which will result in 1/3 of the nation of Israel receiving the Messiah as Savior (Zech 13:8, 9).
The holy seed reminds us of the good soil of the Parable of the Soils; the godly remnant; the tree looks dead
Is. 37:31-32 [regarding deliverance from Sennacharib, King of Assyria in Hezekiah’s day] “The surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this.”
Grogan: How astounding that God should use the word “holy” of the remnant of his people when it has been used already in v.3 in relation to his own transcendent being! This is condescending grace indeed!
7:3 name of his son – Shearjashup – the remnant shall return – Rom. 11:5 – God is still faithful to His promises to Israel
By contrast with Isaiah’s situation look at the privileged position we are in today as ambassadors for Jesus Christ. Yes, we minister in the last days when judgment is approaching with the return of Jesus Christ. But the one who has commissioned us has assured us that the fields even now are white for harvesting. There are many prepared hearts out there with good soil ready to respond to the glorious message of the gospel. Our message will still only appeal to the minority for the way is narrow that leads to the cross as opposed to the broad way that leads to destruction. God authenticates our message by transforming our lives so that we can testify that the gospel has proved powerful in our own experience. We have the assurance that our preaching will be both a savor of life unto life and of death unto death. So regardless of the results, God desires our faithfulness and obedience. We need to be available and willing to be ambassadors for Jesus Christ today.