Isaiah’s ministry began during the prosperous reign of King Uzziah (2 Kings 15; 2 Chronicles 26). At that time the Lord blessed Judah. The borders were expanded, and the people enjoyed affluence on the home front. Yet, their wealth led to greed and their status to pride. The prophet helped Judah picture their situation by prophesying that they were in fact an abandoned vineyard that would experience a series of woes if they did not turn from their haughty ways (Isaiah 5). To affirm his authenticity as a prophet, Isaiah described the Lord’s call on his life and the difficulties that would characterize his ministry (Isaiah 6).
Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as a vine (Ps 80:8-19; Jer 2:21; Ezekiel 17). For His vineyard, Isaiah argued, the Lord had done all that was necessary to receive a harvest of good fruit, “but it yielded worthless grapes” (Isa 5:2). The Lord thus had every right to remove its hedge and allow the vineyard to be trampled: “For the vineyard of the LORD of Hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah, the plant He delighted in. He looked for justice but saw injustice, for righteousness, but heard cries of wretchedness” (Isa 5:7). Their unfruitfulness was characterized by a love of wealth (Isa 5:8-23). Because of these greedy pursuits, the Lord would call foreign nations against His people (Isa 5:24-30). Israel and Judah would be carried into captivity with no one to rescue.
To justify the boldness of his prophecy, the prophet recounted the Lord’s call on his life (Isaiah 6). The Lord called Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died—when the king was yet marked by a serious skin disease he had received for unlawfully entering the Lord’s sanctuary to burn incense (2 Kgs 15:5-6; 2 Chron 26:16-23). Isaiah was thus called at a time when Judah was flourishing but nonetheless aware that the Lord would judge the offenses of His people. Isaiah saw the Lord as perfectly holy—the One whose glory was over all the earth; thus, no one calling out for His aid, or spurning His mercy, would go unnoticed (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). In the presence of the Holy One, Isaiah confessed his uncleanness and finitude, which could only be cleansed by the Lord’s resources (Isa 6:5-7). Isaiah, cleansed of wickedness and forgiven of sin, wished for God’s people also to know the mercy of the Lord. But Isaiah was told that his audience was beyond hope (Isa 6:11-12).
When the Lord called Isaiah to prophetic ministry, the Lord told Isaiah that he would be rejected by many who would hear him. In the storyline of Scripture, the ministry of Isaiah prefigured that of Jesus and Paul.
(1) Jesus and John interpreted the rejection of Jesus in light of Judah’s rejection of Isaiah. Isaiah’s messages confirmed God’s judgement upon those who rejected God’s word. Jesus saw in Isaiah’s situation an instance that set the stage for His own ministry and provided justification for His use of parables. When Jesus’ disciples asked about His frequent use of parables (Matt 13:10//Mark 4:10//Luke 8:9), Jesus replied by quoting from Isa 6:9-10. The Lord had instructed Isaiah to continue preaching to people so that their hardened hearts would continue to be hard, their blind eyes would continue to be blind—lest they hear, understand, and be healed by the Lord. Jesus taught in parables to ensure that those who had been given the ability to hear would understand and respond while those who had rejected Him would simply go on in ignorance, just like the majority in Judah during the ministry of Isaiah. John likewise interpreted the Jews’ rejection of Jesus as a reflection of Judah’s rejection of Isaiah, quoting Isa 6:10 in John 12:40.
(2) When the Jews in Rome rejected Paul’s message of the gospel, Paul interpreted the situation in light of Judah’s rejection of Isaiah. When Paul finally arrived in Rome to stand trial before Caesar, he was allowed to meet with the Jews of the city. When Paul expounded the Law of Moses and the Prophets, the Jews were divided about Paul’s preaching (Acts 28:23-25a). Paul said, “The Holy Spirit correctly spoke through the prophet Isaiah to your forefathers” (Acts 28:26) and quoted Isa 6:9-10.
(3) John’s vision of the heavenly throne room included imagery that matched Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne in heaven. In Isaiah 6, the prophet was allowed to see God’s throne and the angelic figures that worshipped Him. They cried out “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Hosts; His glory covers the earth” (Isa 6:3). John saw God’s throne surrounded by four living creatures who cry out continually, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord god, the Almighty, who was, who is, and who is coming” (Rev 4:8).