I was never a real watcher of Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs. I saw a few clips. But one clip I don’t ever remember hearing about is an episode on one of the toughest and most discouraging jobs imaginable: Isaiah’s job. I’d like to tell you—warn you—a little bit about Isaiah’s job, and why, even though it is among the toughest psychologically to maintain one’s spirit while doing, you nevertheless need to consider it.
If you have not read the classic 1937 essay by Albert Jay Nock, “Isaiah’s Job,” you need pay close attention. In short, Isaiah’s job is to preach to masses of people who refuse to listen. Worse than that, these people mock, ridicule, spit, and later threaten and kill. Yet Isaiah was called to preach to them anyway. Why?
For two reasons: first, as a warning of judgment to them; but more importantly, second, because there was a small remnant out there waiting, needing, to be ministered to. “Isaiah’s job” was a mission to reach the remnant.
This job can only be done by someone who has the nerve to go preach the truth, stand on principle, refuse all compromise with the desires and markets of the masses, and endure the ridicule that would come.
It was in this context that Isaiah had the famous exchange with our Lord:
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” (Isa. 6:8–9).
“Here I am Lord, send me,” ought to be the attitude of every Christian, especially those involved in any way with cutting-edge, world transforming ministry that challenges the values of the masses.
But Christian leaders too often labor under one of two delusions: one based on fear and one based on naïveté. The naïve ones think all they have to do is find some way to take their “the one true perfect system” to the masses, and they shall be greeted as heralds of salvation and convert the world. In an update-note to Nock called “Isaiah’s Digital Job,” Gary North summarized Nock as centering his rebuke on this delusion:
Nock argued that if you try to recruit the masses to your principled cause, you will fail to the extent that you try to take the moral high ground. If your cause is based on high principle, the masses are not interested, and people who can truly help you to spread the word will be alienated by your very promotional efforts.
There are some who suffer from this delusion, but there are far more on the other end: through fear of rejection, and desire for acceptance and accolade, many Christian leaders compromise their ministry, dilute their messages, neglect the heart of their beliefs in many places because “the people aren’t ready for it.”
Can you imagine Isaiah answering back to God that way: “Sorry Lord, the people aren’t ready for it.”
What of Elijah in the cave: “Yes Lord, I know about the 7,000 who haven’t bowed a knee to Baal, but the masses just aren’t ready for it.”
Can you imagine the apostles responding to Jesus’ great commission like this? “Sorry Lord, these people are not ready for it.”
Think of how many hardships Paul could have missed by just responding, “Sorry Lord, the people aren’t ready for it.”
“Don’t you know, Lord? You should only preach those things that the people are willing to hear?”
It was both of these delusions that Nock (almost a lone wolf in 1937) destroyed in his essay. He introduced it with this not-so-unfamiliar story:
One evening last autumn, I sat long hours with a European acquaintance while he expounded a political-economic doctrine which seemed sound as a nut and in which I could find no defect. At the end, he said with great earnestness: “I have a mission to the masses. I feel that I am called to get the ear of the people. I shall devote the rest of my life to spreading my doctrine far and wide among the population. What do you think?” . . .
I mustered courage to say that he had no such mission and would do well to get the idea out of his head at once; he would find that the masses would not care two pins for his doctrine, and still less for himself, since in such circumstances the popular favourite is generally some Barabbas. I even went so far as to say (he is a Jew) that his idea seemed to show that he was not very well up on his own native literature. He smiled at my jest, and asked what I meant by it; and I referred him to the story of the prophet Isaiah. . . .
He then describes Isaiah’s job:
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.”
Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.” . . .
In the important Part III of the essay, Nock moves from identifying the nature of the problem to explaining—with powerful acumen—how the delusion of trying to placate the masses leads people to distort and eventually destroy the heart of the very mission they proclaimed to be about:
[A]s things now stand Isaiah’s job seems rather to go begging. Everyone with a message nowadays is, like my venerable European friend, eager to take it to the masses. His first, last and only thought is of mass-acceptance and mass-approval. His great care is to put his doctrine in such shape as will capture the masses’ attention and interest. This attitude towards the masses is so exclusive, so devout, that one is reminded of the troglodytic monster described by Plato, and the assiduous crowd at the entrance to its cave, trying obsequiously to placate it and win its favour, trying to interpret its inarticulate noises, trying to find out what it wants, and eagerly offering it all sorts of things that they think might strike its fancy.
The main trouble with all this is its reaction upon the mission itself. It necessitates an opportunist sophistication of one’s doctrine, which profoundly alters its character and reduces it to a mere placebo. If, say, you are a preacher, you wish to attract as large a congregation as you can, which means an appeal to the masses; and this, in turn, means adapting the terms of your message to the order of intellect and character that the masses exhibit. If you are an educator, say with a college on your hands, you wish to get as many students as possible, and you whittle down your requirements accordingly. If a writer, you aim at getting many readers; if a publisher, many purchasers; if a philosopher, many disciples; if a reformer, many converts; if a musician, many auditors; and so on. But as we see on all sides, in the realization of these several desires, the prophetic message is so heavily adulterated with trivialities, in every instance, that its effect on the masses is merely to harden them in their sins.
Such a prophet thus becomes a prophet for the sin rather than against it, despite the fact that he may actually be preaching part of the truth. But where he shies, neglects, and suppresses for popularity’s sake totally destroys the work he’s truly called to do:
Meanwhile, the Remnant, aware of this adulteration and of the desires that prompt it, turn their backs on the prophet and will have nothing to do with him or his message.
The true servant of God approaches the masses like Isaiah:
Isaiah, on the other hand, worked under no such disabilities. He preached to the masses only in the sense that he preached publicly. Anyone who liked might listen; anyone who liked might pass by. He knew that the Remnant would listen; and knowing also that nothing was to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no specific appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not. As a modern publisher might put it, he was not worrying about circulation or about advertising. Hence, with all such obsessions quite out of the way, he was in a position to do his level best, without fear or favour, and answerable only to his august Boss.
What calculations go into such a decision? Simple: faithfulness, the stand for a principled message. What calculations go into appeasing the masses? Various: desires for wealth or prominence, or fears of reprisal and rejection. How do you successfully reach the masses? Simple: water down, dumb down, and aim for the lowest common denominator:
If a prophet were not too particular about making money out of his mission or getting a dubious sort of notoriety out of it, the foregoing considerations would lead one to say that serving the Remnant looks like a good job. An assignment that you can really put your back into, and do your best without thinking about results, is a real job; whereas serving the masses is at best only half a job, considering the inexorable conditions that the masses impose upon their servants. They ask you to give them what they want, they insist upon it, and will take nothing else; and following their whims, their irrational changes of fancy, their hot and cold fits, is a tedious business, to say nothing of the fact that what they want at any time makes very little call on one’s resources of prophesy. The Remnant, on the other hand, want only the best you have, whatever that may be. Give them that, and they are satisfied; you have nothing more to worry about. The prophet of the American masses must aim consciously at the lowest common denominator of intellect, taste and character among 120,000,000 people [now 314 million!]; and this is a distressing task. The prophet of the Remnant, on the contrary, is in the enviable position of Papa Haydn in the household of Prince Esterhazy. All Haydn had to do was keep forking out the very best music he knew how to produce, knowing it would be understood and appreciated by those for whom he produced it, and caring not a button what anyone else thought of it; and that makes a good job.
Unfortunately, pleasing the masses tends to be so profitable, and many leaders sell out their mission in exchange for money and notoriety:
If you can tough the fancy of the masses, and have the sagacity to keep always one jump ahead of their vagaries and vacillations, you can get good returns in money from serving the masses, and good returns also in a mouth-to-ear type of notoriety:
Digito monstrari et dicier, Hic est! [To be pointed at and have it said, “He’s the man!”]
We all know innumerable politicians, journalists, dramatists, novelists and the like, who have done extremely well by themselves in these ways. Taking care of the Remnant, on the contrary, holds little promise of any such rewards. A prophet of the Remnant will not grow purse-proud on the financial returns from his work, nor is it likely that he will get any great renown out of it. Isaiah’s case was exceptional to this second rule, and there are others, but not many.
It may be thought, then, that while taking care of the Remnant is no doubt a good job, it is not an especially interesting job because it is as a rule so poorly paid. I have my doubts about this. There are other compensations to be got out of a job besides money and notoriety, and some of them seem substantial enough to be attractive. Many jobs which do not pay well are yet profoundly interesting, as, for instance, the job of research student in the sciences is said to be; and the job of looking after the Remnant seems to me, as I have surveyed it for many years from my seat in the grandstand, to be as interesting as any that can be found in the world.
In my small Isaiahnic pulpit, I can certainly profess this is true. But let me also tell you a story about my own Isaiah experience:
Many years ago as an aspiring young minister (at the time), I was kneeling in private prayer in my bedroom. I had the cares of the world, of my small youth group, and friends on my heart, as well as grand visions of what great missions lay before us all—missions that seemed neglected and ignored by everyone but me (ha!). I piously prayed to God the very words of Isaiah: “Here I am Lord, send me.”
I have never had God speak directly to me, certainly not audibly, but at that very moment an answer entered my head that still has me wondering:
“I already have.”
Now stick that in your pious pipe and smoke it. The truth is that none of us await the grand call like Isaiah. We have all been subsumed into Christ’s great commission at least, and many are given special callings beyond that. We already have Isaiah’s job—and Elijah’s, and Noah’s, and the body of the Christ’s.
The question is not about a mission or no mission. It is instead about the nature of the mission, whether you’re actually going to do it, and whether you will do it faithfully an without compromise in the face of hostility.
For too many people, the realities about Isaiah’s job are great reasons they are not do it. They have acquiesced to that lust for popularity, easier markets, the pleasures and rewards of reaching the masses. But they have abandoned their mission to do so.
Let me encourage you neither to sit piously nor to compromise along the way. Isaiah’s job speaks to you, and perhaps convicts you, whether you’re an average Christian in the way, or a leader of a ministry, a pundit, a board member, a financier, a pastor, elder, or officer of any sort. We know our mission. We know our message. We know the true nature and challenge of the job we have to do. Shall we stand and do it, or not?