Albert Jay Nock gives us a pretty good paraphrase of Isaiah’s depressing job description in his Atlantic Monthly article:
In the year of Uzziah’s death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are.” He said, “Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”
The people’s response to Isaiah’s message is summarized in Isaiah 30:9-11:
For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD; who say…to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions…let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
Isaiah was not the only prophet called to fight a seemingly losing battle. Jeremiah was told, “But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you” (Jer. 1:17). So Jeremiah also had to teach and exhort, even though the LORD warned him, “So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you” (Jer. 7:25-28).
Likewise, Ezekiel was told, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them…But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (Ezek. 3:4-7). Daniel mourned in Babylon, “We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land” (Dan. 9:6).
Even when God’s own son, with miracle upon miracle, calls the nation to repent, the political and religious leaders reject his message and ignore his warnings.
In our day we write and call the governor, we visit legislators at the capitol, we beg our preachers, pastors, and priests to speak up; but our “kings and princes” and the intelligentsia are following the same old pattern, rejecting repentance, rejecting the administration of justice and mercy.
At first glance, this all seems depressing. It begs the question: Why bother if they are not going to listen anyway?
First, speaking the word of the LORD is a command, not a suggestion. Throughout scripture we find numerous moral duties for believers such as: “Speak up for those…,” “Rescue those…,” “Warn them for me…,” “Go…,” “Preach…,” “Teach them everything…,” “Baptize them…,” “Make disciples…”
Second, speaking the word of the LORD encourages the remnant. Other believers are strengthened knowing they are not alone. Warning and teaching prepare us for future suffering and strengthen us for the rebuilding task that follows the destruction that attends judgement.
Third, speaking the word of the LORD preserves innocence. Notice one of the reasons given that Ezekiel should speak up:
[If] you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked person will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or from his evil ways, he will die for his sin; but you will have saved yourself. (Ezek. 3:17-19)
If we do not speak to officials who promote wickedness, we share the blame for the wicked culture around us. If we do not warn individuals living in transgenderism, homosexuality, adultery, and other sinful lifestyles, we will also be accountable for their ultimate destruction. This is a grave responsibility.
Fourth, speaking the word of the LORD saves. Emotionally, it may feel that there is zero success, but when the prophets were told that the people would not listen, that was the general principle, from a collective point of view. It is easy to look only at our collective culture, at the masses heading for destruction, and feel overwhelmed.
We must remember that even one lost sheep out of one hundred is cause for great rejoicing. Charles MacKay said in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.”
This perspective can help immensely while exercising our prophetic role. Rather than think in terms of fighting a culture war, rather than expect mass media to bring mass repentance, we should remember that we can reach individual lost sheep that need to be saved, both physically and spiritually. In our families and churches we should speak to our children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and friends who suffer from hidden sin and doubt. In our schools we should speak to board members, teachers, and students about what is true and right to learn and practice. At abortion deathcamps we should speak to would-be murderers and rescue those being led to the slaughter. At our capitols we should speak to our governor and representatives about administering justice.
In summary, we are called to join what appears to be a lost cause, to speak in the face of rejection. But perceived failure is not actual failure. God’s accounts are not like human accounts. In fact, he is more like a gardener than a bookkeeper. Yeshua’s death on the cross looked like the end of Israel’s hope, but that buried seed of presumed failure was the germ of God’s salvation.
We must bury our ideas of success as we walk in obedience. We must speak, even when they do not listen; we must warn, even when they do not heed; we must encourage, even when the cause seems lost. Even if it appears our acts fall to the ground to be trampled, in time, these seeds of obedience will bring forth life.