“How long, O Lord?” — Isaiah Models Missional Prayer

My friend Todd recently posted on Isaiah 6 as it pertains to the order of salvation in “Confronted by Glory- What Isaiah 6 Teaches Us About the Process of Salvation” and then as it pertains to repentance and salvation in “Confronted by Glory- Two Practical Questions from the Experience of Isaiah.” I would commend his posts to you. While Todd focused on Isaiah’s immediate response to this vision I want to focus on the later part of this passage as it also has much to teach us.

After Isaiah beholds the glory of the Lord, responds to it in broken humility over his sin and the sin of Israel, the atoning sacrifice is applied to his guilt and sin, and then, in verse 8, the story continues:

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.” 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?”
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.”

Isaiah hears the intertrinitarian conversation as the Lord asks Himself “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Having just seen the Lord upon His throne and experiencing His atoning sacrifice for sins Isaiah exclaims, “Here am I! Send me.” The prophet cries out, “I will tell of your glory, I will make your gracious atonement known!” The Lord’s reply is devastating as He exhorts Isaiah to proclaim, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive” and command him to “Make the heart of this people dull . . . [lest they] turn and be healed.” Isaiah, having just experienced the Lord’s atoning sacrifice for sins, would not be proclaiming that great salvation to his people; no, his message was one of judgment and its purpose was to harden Israel’s heart so that she would not turn to the Lord in repentance.

Upon hearing this Isaiah replies asking, “How long, O Lord?” There are two primary ways in which Isaiah’s question has been interpreted; first, “how long must I proclaim this message?” and second, “how long will their hardness persist?” or “how long until you save your people?” Based upon Isaiah’s emphasis upon the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant promises and subsequently his understanding of the blessings and curses of those covenants (cf. Deuteronomy 28; 30:1-10) the later understanding of his reply best fits within the context of his ministry. In this sense Isaiah cries out “How long until your people repent and you restore your blessing to them?” The Lord’s reply glimmers with the same hope promised in the covenants, though Israel will be scattered in exile and the Promised Land laid to waste a stump, a remnant, will remain. A remnant of which Isaiah later prophecies, “And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 37:31-32).

We must regain Isaiah’s missional understanding of the Lord, his missional zeal for his people, and his missional petition on their behalf. We must come to view God as Isaiah did; as a God who sends and saves, who graciously self-discloses Himself, and who makes atonement for His people. We must be broken over our sin and over the sins of our culture responding in humble obedience. We must not respond triumphalisticly as a politicized evangelicalism seeking moral legislation nor as an incensed evangelicalism in protest of sin. No, we must respond in broken intercession crying out “How long will our cities be ravaged by the worship of idols? How long will this people persist in self-reliance? How long will they perceive your invisible attributes and continue to suppress the truth in unrighteousness? How long will they harden their hearts against you? How long will they keep on hearing, but not understand? How long will they keep on seeing, but not perceive? How long will you make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes? How long until they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts? How long until you turn them to yourself that they may be healed? . . . How long, O Lord?

Acts 8:26-40: Philip and the Sexual Deviant

I hope the title caught your attention and I hope that this brief post challenges the clean Victorianesque way in which many of us read Scripture and our clean Victorian lives and our clean Victorian churches. Have you ever heard a sermon giving more than a cursory explanation of what an eunuch is? I have not. I have heard the clean version of how eunuchs played a critical role in the government of many nations at that time; how they guarded concubines in the harems and protected the emperors of Rome. At later times they became important figures in the history of music as castrati were renowned for their vocal prowess. What I haven’t heard is a lengthy exposition of how such procedures, which were performed in the early stages of life, had profound physical, physiological, and psychological effects upon an individual due to hormone depravation.

Lest we let our American obsession with power and celebrity affect the way we read this text another reminder is necessary. Yes, the text does indeed note that he was the treasurer for an Ethiopian queen; however, he did not come to this position due to his wisdom or financial savvy. No, rather he has been genetically engineered, in a most primitive way, so that he can perform certain tasks within the government and as such he and those like him were expendable. Yes, he has authority and he has influence but he has been engineered for this role.

With such basic expositions of this text have we truly recognized its significance? Is this merely a cheap incantation to be read before the congregation at baptismal ceremonies? In Isaiah 56 we find that both the salvation of the eunuch and foreigner promised. Later in acts we read the story of Cornelius and see the Spirit is poured out upon this gentile and his household. I mean no disservice to the story of Cornelius but is it not equally profound that God would choose to save this transgender man? Even more amazing is that Irenaeus noted that this Ethiopian eunuch became a missionary among his people, which does much to explain the church history there dating back to the first century.

How do you think this text should challenge our understanding of mission and how are we to go about this mission? How would you respond if God called one of these children to Himself? How would you respond if after having irreversible surgery and hormone therapy God chooses to send one of these individuals out as a missionary? Would your church send the Ethiopian eunuch out as a missionary? Would your church call him as pastor? Aside from the likes of men like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, whose answers are not answers at all, no one seems to be addressing these issues. I am not asking a question with regards to lifestyle here, Scripture both answers that clearly and demonstrates the power of the gospel to change lives. In the age of designer babies (see here) and transgender children (see here) we must wrestle with the fact that while lifestyle change through the gospel is possible undoing physical, physiological, and psychological change rooted in genetic manipulation is a different process entirely.

2008-12-06 The Brief

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  • Here is an interesting little map which looks a adoption as a global phenomenon.

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  • This chart speaks for itself.
  • Reuters details the current employment situation, as this November American employers cut the most jobs since 1974, here.

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