Selections From the Prophets Week 3

The Prophetic Call: Isaiah 21:1–10

By Jeffrey Keuss
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology, and Culture

Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 21:1-10


Mikhail Vrubel, Six winged Seraph (after Pushkin's poem Prophet) (1905). Water-color, Lead pencil on paper.
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Imagine walking through a desert landscape, thinking about your day, what you will be having for dinner, or what you will be doing with friends and family the next week, when the following events occur:

As whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on,
it comes from the desert,
from a terrible land.
A stern vision is told to me;
the betrayer betrays,
and the destroyer destroys.
Go up, O Elam,
lay siege, O Media;
all the sighing she has caused
I bring to an end.
Therefore my loins are filled with anguish;
pangs have seized me,
like the pangs of a woman in labor;
I am bowed down so that I cannot hear,
I am dismayed so that I cannot see.
My mind reels, horror has appalled me;
the twilight I longed for
has been turned for me into trembling.
They prepare the table,
they spread the rugs,
they eat, they drink.
Rise up, commanders,
oil the shield!
For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, post a lookout,
let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
very diligently.”
Then the watcher called out:
“Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
throughout the night.
Look, there they come, riders,
horsemen in pairs!”
Then he responded,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods
lie shattered on the ground.”
O my threshed and winnowed one,
what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel, I announce to you. (Isaiah 21:1–10)

What was normal and predicable has become starkly different and strange. Something grabs hold of you seemingly unannounced and propels your life into another reality that you didn’t expect but no longer can deny.

As strange and otherworldly as both the language and the volatile nature of this event sound, it is also familiar in many of the stories we encounter in popular culture:

  • The doomed planet launches its last remaining survivor — an infant swaddled in clothes of blue and red — into space to traverse light-years and grow into manhood in Smallville, Kansas, for the sake of a small, blue planet called Earth.
  • An awkward teenager from the Bronx, New York, is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a voice of hope and strength.
  • A young boy watches his parents murdered before his eyes and claims the mantle of darkness like a bat to become a defender of the downtrodden in the mythic city of Gotham.

The costumes are different, but the story is very familiar.

Popular culture has long been fascinated with the origin stories of its heroes — whether it is grand myths of ancient Greece with very human heroes such as Odysseus who face supernatural challenges, or the modern comic-book heroes called out of their previous lives into the mantled identities of Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and the like. Origins are vital to any tale and become the basis by which we know who we are. Knowing where we come from helps orient us as to where we will go and to whom we will ultimately bind our lives.

As we continue to explore the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament, we are similarly reminded that origins matter. Unlike the fantasy realm of comic books, prophets neither hide their origin nor fear being discovered. There is no costume, no cape, no mask to separate them from the people. Yet, like many of our tales of heroes both real and imagined, prophets come into their lives through a sense of calling.

“Here I am; send me!”

One of the distinctive aspects of the prophetic call is that, when the prophets employ the first-person singular “I” or “me,” they are putting themselves outside of and at odds with the fixed order of religious authority. As we see in Amos 7–9, Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, Ezekiel 1–3, Zechariah 1:7, and other verses, prophets are personally called out to serve the Lord, and, in separating themselves out from the establishment of religious tradition, they are left with little to no conventional resources by which to justify their statements, let alone their own sense of call [see Author’s Note 1]. Their reliance on the power and presence of the living God becomes that much more potent. Yet what we see in the prophetic call is that the Lord God does not merely commission those he calls; he literally inhabits and animates them.

“But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’”

One of the most remarkable aspects of the prophetic call is that those who are called are free to question and turn away from it. As seen in Moses’ call in Exodus 3–4, Moses offers his arguments with God for choosing someone like him. What is important to note is that God neither disagrees nor denounces Moses’ assessment of his lack of suitability; rather, as seen in Exodus 4:12, God promises not merely that he will give a script but that “I will be with your mouth.”

The lives of prophets are also distinct from the lives of priests in the Old Testament, in that there is no previous faith, family heritage, or lifelong demonstration of piety that is a prerequisite for this calling. While Moses resided for years in the household of Pharaoh, it is the revelation that he is not of royal lineage that begins his journey as a prophet. Central to the prophets’ call is to highlight that it is not skill or pedigree that qualifies them for the call, but the call itself and the God who issues it.

“I am a herdsman ….”

The prophets received their call through God’s direct and very personal claim on their lives. In this, prophets were simultaneously separated from their past and empowered by it for a completely embodied life of service to the message of God to a particular people. This is clear in Amos, where he reminds the people,

I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:14).

Everything changes for the trajectory of the prophet’s life once the call comes. As Gerhard von Rad notes in his study of the prophets,

This was more than a new profession: it was a totally new way of life, even at the sociological level, to the extent that a call meant relinquishing normal social life and all the social and economic securities which this offered, and changing over instead to a condition where a man had nothing to depend upon, or, as we may put it, to a condition of dependence upon Yahweh and upon that security alone. [see Author’s Note 2]

The call of the prophet also summons the prophet away from seemingly natural tendencies in order to live and work more fully in the world for the sake of God’s calling. In the case of Jeremiah, he is called from being a spiritual pacifist to calling down harsh threats to get people to change. In the case of Ezekiel, we see the opposite shift, where he moves from being a person prone to severe words and actions to being a prophetic presence of comfort and calm.

Rudolf Rabatin, Tornado (2003). Acrylic and oil on panel.
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“Therefore my loins are filled with anguish; pangs have seized me, like the pangs of a woman in labor ….”

Lastly, the call of the prophet takes hold not merely of their speech but of all their senses — their very being. While the call of the prophet entails speaking words of wisdom drawn from the boundless well of God’s provision, these are individuals who are so taken up and into the heartbeat of God that their very vision becomes visionary.

The prophets look upon the world with the eyes of God and do not look through the world as though this existence were merely a transitory weigh station prior to an afterlife. No, the prophetic call refocuses the vision of the individual to see, taste, hear, and touch the particular and very real context of day-to-day life. The eyes of the prophet see the stones of the road, the faces of the weeping, the smell of excrement, and the twinned choirs of laughter and sorrow intermingled yet boldly evident to the awakened heart.

Over and over, God will ask the prophet a sublimely simple question: “What do you see?” The answer is forged in plain speak — a bowl of fruit, a plumb line, an olive tree. It bears no theological gloss and is completely unvarnished from distracting rhetoric. As we heard (and felt) through our passage from Isaiah 21, the fully embodied call upon the prophet takes over all that they are: he is drawn into a whirlwind, he sees clearly the torment of the people, he hears the cries of the downtrodden — and this vision of body, mind, and soul leaves him in solidarity with those who are on the threshing floor.

So, as we walk through this world with minds turned aside from the world so very present around us, we should be aware that in the call of the prophets is a call to all of us. Perhaps you are called as well to a life taken up as if in a whirlwind. Perhaps you are called to heed the still, small voice amidst the storms. Perhaps you are called in ways that transcend your ability, your skill, your confidence, your station in life. Perhaps you are called but are hesitant, worried, concerned, or indifferent to what you are being called to. Perhaps where you are from and where you are now is too much to let go of, and the thought of being called to a place and people beyond your imagination is impossible to reconcile with your present life. Perhaps the call you are experiencing is so deep, so clear, and so pure that it makes everything else seem false in comparison.

As we have seen, heard, and felt, these feelings of call are found not only in the grand epics of ancient times and the comic book films of our multiplexes, but also in political exiles, common sheep herders, and former sons of Pharaohs.

And perhaps, yes perhaps, they are found in someone like you.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Gerhard von Rad has said that the prophets are ones who are “called upon to abandon the fixed orders of religion which the majority of the people still considered valid.”  What would such a call look like in your world?
  2. Isaiah 6 and Jeremiah 1 depict God’s call upon these two prophets’ lives.  Read these two chapters.  What similarities do you notice?  What differences?  As these chapters challenge and/or encourage you, spend some time in further prayer and reflection.
  3. Prophets are free in that they can accept the call that God gives them, or they can turn away.  Can you think of any examples of this in Scripture?  Have you ever had a moment where you felt God calling you to do something and you turned away?  What unfolded after that point?
  4. What kind of call on your life would you find most fulfilling?  What kind of call would cause you the most anxiety?  Why?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Gerhard von Rad makes this point:

The prophetic call in fact gave rise to a new literary category, the account of a call. In Israel the connection between a person’s experiences in his religious and cultic life and the way in which he expressed himself by means of the spoken or the written word was such a direct and living one that any innovation of importance at once made itself apparent in the realm of form: an old form was modified, or a new one was brought into being. Here I mean the innovation by which the accounts of prophetic calls were given in the first person singular…, [T]he “I” the prophets speak of is expressly exclusive. The men who speak to us in these accounts were men who had been expressly called upon to abandon the fixed orders of religion which the majority of the people still considered valid – a tremendous step for a man in the ancient east to take  …”

Gerhard von Rad, Message of the Prophets (Harper & Row, 1967), p. 34 (emphasis added).


Author’s Note 2

Message of the Prophets, p. 37.


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Discussion and Comments

4 Comments to “The Prophetic Call: Isaiah 21:1–10”

  1. Rev. Jerry Ableidinger says:

    Great article. One addition I would add. You say, “The prophets look upon the world with the eyes of God (see my addition) and do not look through the world as though this existence were merely a transitory weigh station prior to an afterlife.”

    I would add: “…and do not look at God through the world’s eyes…”
    The prophets employed a “God’s eye view” (Phil Yancey, Prayer) of the world. They were radical because they did not look at God with the blinders/lenses/filter of the culture/world and “define” God through those narrow parameters.

    A timely point to make today since so many denominations have made modern culture the determiner of what is True about life and especially about how God operates in the world. They shape God and the Scriptures to fit the latest cultural trends instead of allowing God’s Word to shape their theology, behavior and ethics. This is especially true of my church, the PC(USA), which has more reverence for Inclusivity, Diversity and Theological Relativism that for submission to the authority of Scripture and it’s clear revelation about the centrality of Jesus Christ.

    Your last phrase, “…and do not look through the world as though this existence were merely a transitory weigh station prior to an afterlife” rightly speaks to the opposite extreme of many conservative/fundamentalist Christians who often ignore the clear Biblical mandate to live deeply in the world/culture as salt and light (radical change agents), concern themselves only with “soul saving” (important as that is), ignore justice issues for the least, the last and the lost, and just bide their time until the rapture.

    Both extremes are in error and need correction by a fuller and deeper understanding of the “whole gospel”. As Raymond E Brown famously said, “Heresy is not always believing something that is false, but rather it is more often taking part of the truth and treating it as the whole truth.”

    Hey, there’s a sermon in there!!

    Rev. Jerry Ableidinger

  2. Jeff Keuss says:

    Rev. Ableidinger – wonderful points to underscore in your comments and I wholeheartedly agree with your points here. True, what we see in the Prophetic literature is a radical embrace of a vision that supersedes the visual in many respects: the Prophets do indeed look with eyes that see through and beyond what is only perceptible by the senses and mere reason. With faith and calling they draws us into God’s vision that looks deeper that mere visual apprehension of life. Yet I would also add that they might not look at God through the world’s eyes per se, they do indeed employ an all-too-human vantage point and use the same eyes and mind you and I have been given. I do think Yancey is saying this as well yet in perhaps a different way. In short, we have all the tools to see and respond to God’s call that the prophets do and perhaps that is the most stunning realization of all… that we all could be called as Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jonah and others to the prophetic task in this world. We too look through worldly eyes yet, as you say, “need correction by a fuller and deeper understanding of the “whole gospel”” Thanks for your passionate words and as another PC(USA) pastor I too pray that our tradition and others incline themselves to the Holy words of God in new and prophetic ways.

  3. Jamie Rohrbaugh says:

    I teared up when I got to the paragraph under “Here am I; send me.” I don’t think you have to be a prophet to sense that feeling of loneliness and separation. I think every Christian who sells out to Christ 100% will feel that at some point. We are misunderstood, mistreated, and even persecuted, yet there is no going back. After you have tasted the goodness of the Lord, the song that says “This world has nothing for me; I will follow You” becomes all too real. It’s not comfortable. It’s not always fun. Yet there is no other way. No one else can satisfy my soul like Jesus.