A great many Christians can bear testimony to the earthshaking effects of realizing the sovereignty of God. These same kinds of testimonies are found in the Bible, perhaps none more profound than the prophet Isaiah’s account of his life-changing encounter with the sovereign Lord. If the apostle Paul is the New Testament figure most associated with the teaching of God’s sovereignty, his Old Testament counterpart is surely Isaiah. How did Isaiah gain his understanding of God’s sovereignty, and what influence did this have on his life? In other words, how would Isaiah answer the question, “What’s so great about the sovereignty of God?
What difference does God’s sovereignty make? For Isaiah, it meant everything. In his response to the vision of God’s sovereign lordship, we can observe four hallmarks that will also play out in our experience as our faith is centered on a biblical vision of the sovereign grace of God.
The first change for Isaiah came immediately upon his vision of the Lord enthroned. The first mark of his awareness of God’s utter sovereignty was a readiness to serve: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Isa. 6:8). We don’t know about Isaiah’s attitude prior to receiving this vision, but we do know what it was immediately afterward. Seeing God’s sovereign glory, he exclaimed, “Here am I! Send me.
Since God is the true sovereign, there is no greater privilege than to serve Him. Awe before His glory makes other pursuits diminish. Not all are called to the prophetic office. God calls people to be carpenters, lawyers, doctors, sound engineers, and garbage men. But those who have seen the sovereignty of God see all of their labor as an opportunity to extend His reign and serve His kingdom. It is when we realize how great is the God we serve, how total is His sovereignty over all, and how glorious is His kingdom that we want to serve Him in all we do. Isaiah had not even learned what labor God had in mind for him, but when he heard the question, “Whom shall I send?” his newly consecrated lips broke forth: “Here am I! Send me.” If we see just a portion of what he saw, we will do the same, considering not the difficulties but the high privilege of serving so great a Lord.
Many people do not believe in God’s sovereignty, yet still serve the Lord. But there is a great difference. Those who see the Lord in His sovereign glory have an inward compulsion to serve this God. Serving God is the glory of their lives. Their service is measured not so much in what they achieve–or what God achieves through them–but rather in the sheer wonder of the God they serve. Like little boys dividing up into teams on the playground, being picked to play on this team is the greatest joy imaginable, especially for those who are so unworthy. “Here am I! Send me,” is not merely the response of those who see God’s sovereign glory, it is their delight. Since God is certain to be glorified, they want to be among those glorifying God.
A second mark of an awareness of God’s sovereignty appears in this passage: a humble, trusting obedience to God’s commands. Chapter 6 concludes with God’s description of what He wanted Isaiah to do, the shock of which caused even the awe-struck prophet to flinch:
And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” (Isa. 6:9–11)
Isaiah’s calling was to bring about a hardening in Jerusalem. His ministry would cause calluses as a prelude to judgment, because God intended first to purify and only then to deliver His people. We can hear Isaiah stifle a cry at this instruction, yet without complaint, without quarreling with the wisdom of his Sovereign. He simply asked the reasonable question, “How long, O Lord?” The answer could not have failed to shock the prophet:
And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isa. 6:11–13)
Undoubtedly, Isaiah entered the temple because he was concerned for the well-being of Jerusalem with King Uzziah gone. Having met the true Sovereign, he learned of terrors far beyond his original fears. But Isaiah is singular among the major prophets in that he never complained. He had seen a sovereign, saving God. If he was called to a ministry of hardening, then hardening it would be. It did not occur to Isaiah that he knew better than the Lord of Hosts. If it pleased the Lord through a faithful ministry to reduce His church to the stump of a holy seed, then Isaiah would make that remnant the object of his labor.
A similar commitment to God’s saving sovereignty would inspire us to a humble, trusting obedience to God’s Word. Relying on God’s sovereign purpose, knowing that there is a decree of marvelous grace behind everything that happens, we can face difficult circumstances without wavering from God’s law. We can face the hostility of the world or even the apostasy of the church without faltering in our ministry. We can trust the wisdom and obey the commands of a sovereign God who works all things out according to the purpose of His holy will. As Isaiah later declared: “I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him” (Isa. 8:17, NIV).
A third mark of Isaiah’s ministry surfaces in the passage that immediately follows, a passage that is surely linked in theme to chapter 6 even if the events are separated by almost a decade. Jotham, Uzziah’s son and successor, had finished his reign. It had been a time of decline and the beginning of decay. But with Jotham’s successor, Ahaz, a period of flagrant disobedience to God was about to begin.
The proximate cause of the trouble was an invasion of Judah by the northern nation of Israel along with its neighbor Aram. Unbelieving Ahaz began hunting around for a worldly ally who would bail him out, even if it meant leading his people into idolatry. His choice was Assyria, the growing power on the northern side of his enemies. But God sent Isaiah to confront and proclaim a message to this king:
Say to him, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,’ thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.’” (Isa. 7:4–7)
God’s message to Ahaz was an application of the vision Isaiah had seen earlier: the mighty kings of Israel and Aram were not real sovereigns. The true Sovereign is the Lord who reigns over all. Isaiah pointed this out to King Ahaz with classic words calling for faith: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all” (Isa. 7:9).
This was the message God sent Isaiah to deliver to King Ahaz, a monarch equipped with all his earthly sovereignty.
If you don’t think this was a frightening encounter, you are kidding yourself. Most of us are terrified at the thought of mentioning God to friends at work, much less issuing an ultimatum to a king. But that is the difference it makes to have seen the sovereignty of God. Whatever fear Isaiah felt for King Ahaz was brushed aside by his much greater fear of the sovereign Lord God.
A consciousness of God’s sovereignty bestows in us a holy boldness before the world and its powers. This is what made Isaiah useful: he could proclaim the Word of the Lord, even the word of judgment, to a decadent and dangerous generation. “Ah, sinful nation,” he accused in the opening chapter, “a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Isa. 1:4). I realize that this kind of talk may not fill a stadium today. It may not place a congregation on the roster of church-growth success stories. But the willingness to speak the truth of God, preaching God’s judgment to a generation as depraved as ours, is a sure sign that the speaker has beheld the sovereignty of God.
Finally, we see in the prophet Isaiah a sure mark that he had beheld the Lord in His sovereign majesty–an utter reliance on God’s sovereign, saving grace.
This is seen in the sign Isaiah gave to King Ahaz. Isaiah urged this sign on Ahaz to enliven his faith. It was a sign that was foolish in the eyes of the world, but glorious in the eyes of God: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14). In the presence of Ahaz’s apostate unbelief, Isaiah laid his hand on the greatest sign of sovereign grace of which he could think: the virgin who would be with child.
Later, Isaiah would speak of childbirth through a barren womb as a sign of saving grace (Isa. 54:1). A barren womb represents human labor that has failed. But the virgin womb speaks of a field where man has not sown at all. From that womb comes the Savior, Jesus Christ. Imagine how little a man such as Ahaz would have esteemed the birth of a baby as a reason to trust God with his problems, just as many today consider the preaching of the gospel to be “foolishness.” But both the divinely incarnated baby and the preaching of His gospel today are the power of God for the salvation of those who believe.
This reminds us that a true gospel ministry can succeed only if a virgin girl gives birth to a son. What foolishness to the world! But she has. And the miracle of grace continues today. If this does not encourage us to labor in the otherwise barren fields of prayer and simple Bible preaching, not to mention humility, long-suffering, self-denial, and holy obedience to God, then nothing ever will. Isaiah’s sign of the virgin birth tells us not to trust human wisdom, even as we must not despair in the face of human difficulty or personal failure. For if we, like Isaiah, gain a vision of God’s sovereign glory, especially in the salvation of sinners, we will count it our privilege to serve this sovereign Lord, who brought our Savior into the world through a virgin womb, and who will bring many to salvation as we likewise rely on His sovereign, saving grace.