A mysterious voice resounds in the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the very point at which comfort overwhelms judgement as the book’s dominant tone. This voice is mysterious precisely because it is anonymous. Ordinarily, a text does not introduce a new protagonist without identifying him.
Isaiah, no slave to convention, does exactly this.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ (Isaiah 40:1–3 ESV)
The anonymous voice is clearly aligned with that of Israel’s God, who speaks first. Yet it is also distinct, not merely God’s own voice. Just a few verses later, ‘a voice’ speaks once again. Significantly, it commands an equally unidentified listener to cry out, just as the voice itself had led off the chapter by doing.
A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6–8 ESV)
There seems to be a contagion that runs from ‘a voice’ on to the experience of the hearer of its cry. Here, the first person singular pronoun ‘I’ represents that hearer.
This is to say, the voice rouses someone or conceivably some group of persons to action that consists of taking up the voice’s own declared message. We see this in the flurry of imperatives that surround the crying out of the voice, commands that put flesh on the bones of the simple mandate of crying out.
We see it as well in a verse like Isaiah 58.1:
Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1 ESV)
It is not difficult to conjecture that this anonymous voice is summoning a prophet, a group of prophets, or even a remnant from within Israel to some action vis-à-vis Israel herself. And that this prophet, these prophets, or this Israel-within-Israel in some way joins the voice in this commission.
But what of the anonymous voice itself?
We may find some clue the the identify of the voice in the programmatic vision of Isaiah in chapter 6. By ‘programmatic’, I mean that the brief passage to which I’ve referred sets the agenda or establishes the program of the book as a whole. Its themes, even its details, recur as they are taken up at different moments and developed. This places Isaiah’s throne-room vision in a distinct light, for it would seem that the events and the words of that experience lie at the generative core of the Isaian message.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ (Isaiah 6:1–5 ESV)
By all accounts, the seraphim are majestic beings. Their angle of vision on the whole earth and the effects of their voice on large structures say so, to say nothing of their proximity to YHWH. Their name seems to drive from the verb ‘to burn’, so we might think of ardent, gleaming creatures.
They are in several ways like the anonymous voice of Isaiah 40, for they are never identified in detail; they are deeply aligned with YHWH’s presence and purpose; and they cry out a fundamental, transcendent truth that is not entirely to be recognized by mortals apart from their instruction.
Could it be that these seraphim—or, better, one of them—owns the anonymous voice at the outset of chapter 40?
It must be admitted that in the throne-room vision of chapter 6, YHWH himself makes a declaration, and with a distinct message to the prophet Isaiah.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! 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.’ (Isaiah 6:8–10 ESV)
Yet YHWH speaks rather than crying out, just as appears to be the case in chapter 40, where YHWH speaks but the voice cries out.
It seems that the best construction we can place upon this text is that the unidentified voice both in chapter six’s commission of the prophet Isaiah and in chapter 40’s summons to a group of declarers is that of a heavenly council that is represented by the seraphim. This understanding may in fact be corroborated by the unusual first person plural of YHWH’s remarkable deliberation in chapter six:
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ (Isaiah 6:8 ESV)
It seems that in both of these pivotal passages in the book of Isaiah, YHWH appears in the company of a heavenly council. From that celestially social location, he summons his prophet(s) to declare to Israel her destiny. In the first case, the outlook is dark and foreboding. In the second, it is bright and so promising that only the stirring poetry of the book can cause hearts to rise up and seize it.