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  • Anton Chan

Go and Tell This People: Command in Isaiah 6:9–10 (Part One)

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Isaiah 6:9–10 has been an enigmatic passage where God commissioned the prophet to go and seemingly tells these people not to repent and harden their hearts. Does God really want to prevent his people from understanding, repenting, and being healed? It is a passage that describes the people’s rejection of Isaiah’s message of repentance from God. This passage is quoted five times in the New Testament.

He said, “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”

Make the heart of this people calloused;

make their ears dull and close their eyes.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,

and turn and be healed." - Isaiah 6:9-10 (NIV)

Part one of this article will examine the verses as a command in their historical and God's foreknowledge and literary and rhetorical irony meanings during Isaiah's time to answer the above question.

Part two will examine the theological context, God's judgment, God’s character and the prophetic message over the text in the New Testament. We will draw some lessons from these truths from the Isaiah text and make them applicable in our lives.

Historical Context

During the reign of Uzziah (he ruled for 52 years (791–739 BC)), Judah was politically and economically at her height, but Isaiah 1–5 show that her spiritual, moral, and social ills had reached a crisis state. Isaiah is preaching to a nation of people whose land was corrupted by greed, arrogance, drunkenness, injustice, oppression, and murder; their words and deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious present (3:8)1.

God’s Foreknowledge

The text also raises the issue of God’s foreknowledge. Does God know how the people respond, or does he in some way also determine them?2 In Exodus, ten times the scripture records that Pharaoh hardened his own heart3 and similarly, ten times it records God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart4. Pharaoh had actually hardened his own heart, not to let the Hebrew people leave Egypt, so God would likewise harden his heart.

Similarly, Isaiah's ministry to Judah will only result in increased callousness in their hearts. In this instance, we can understand that it is man’s responsibility to respond to the warning of God to repent, but in his sovereignty, God knew that his people would not. It is therefore not God who does not want the people to repent, but these people stubbornly refused to repent at all costs. The people hear the sound of God’s word but do not feel the power of it (6:9a). They cannot see God’s righteous judgment because they will not receive the truth in the love of it (6:9b).

Our Hardened Heart

Let us reflect on our own lives. Each year, we attend numerous services, and so many preachers preach the Word of God to us. Yet some of our hearts are still hardened. Why? There are three possible causes of a hardened heart: They are forgetfulness of God’s goodness to us, sin, and pride.

In Mark 8:17–19 (NIV), “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” The disciples were concerned with the little bread supply, and they have forgotten the miracles Jesus did by feeding thousands with only five loaves of bread. Jesus rebuked the disciples and spelled out the characteristics of their spiritual heart condition as an inability to see, understand, hear, and remember. In order not to let our hearts be hardened, let us remember how God has blessed us and what He has done.

Our sin obviously causes our hearts to grow hard, especially unrepentant sin. In John 1:9, we are told to confess our sins, and Jesus is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins. Pride will also harden our hearts. Obadiah 3 warned us: The pride of your heart has deceived you. The root cause of Pharaoh’s hardened heart was his pride and arrogance, as discussed earlier.

So then, what should we do for a heart condition such as forgetfulness of God’s goodness, sin, and pride? Firstly, we should recognize this spiritual disease in ourselves. Secondly, we should constantly remind ourselves of the goodness and kindness of God in our lives through prayers and thanksgiving. Thirdly, we should constantly read and study God’s word (2 Tim 3:16) as a manual for our lives to ensure that pride will not take root in us.

Let us now move to the literary and rhetorical irony of the text, Isaiah 6:9–10.

Literary and Rhetorical Irony

Rev Dr Gordon Wong has proposed that these verses should be understood as rhetorical irony urging people to return to God and be saved. He gave an illustration of a father speaking sarcastically to his rebellious son, telling him not to study and to let his life waste away. The father's real intention is to hope that his son will be persuaded to do his study religiously5.

As a father of three adult children, I share this conviction that God's ultimate intention is to see his people repent, even though He speaks angrily to them. Just like any father who scolded his children over laziness and rebellion, deep in his heart, he loved them and wanted them to return to the path of righteousness. He is a God who is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love for thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin (Exodus 34:6).

Gordon has also defended his irony interpretation by considering the wider context of Isaiah’s teaching. They are within Isaiah 6; God is a forgiving God. Isaiah 7 also showed that the prophet urged the people to believe in God’s word (Isaiah 7:4–9). The wider context of Isaiah reveals that God is looking for true repentance in his people. There are other passages that use irony to convey a divine message (Isa 29:9 and 50:11). The rhetorical view is consistent with the five New Testament quotations of Isaiah 6:9–10. This will be discussed in Part 2 of the article.


We have discussed the historical context, God’s foreknowledge, and rhetorical irony of the text of Isaiah 6:9–10. We can conclude that God's real intention is to call the people into repentance and return to Him, even though He speaks angrily and commands Isaiah to go to the people and tell them not to repent. Isaiah is actually commanded to preach faith and repentance to a group of wicked people who have a hardened heart, like Pharaoh. Yet God still called out to them in love and compassion.



1. Sawyer, John F.A. Isaiah Vol 1. Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1984, pg 66

2. Wilken, Robert Louis, Angela Russell Christman, and Michael J. Hollerich. Isaiah. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007, pg 62.

3. (Exodus 7:23, 14, 22: 8:15, 19, 32: 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15)

4. (Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17)

5. Gordon C. I. Wong, “Make Their Ears Dull: Irony in Isaiah 6:9-10” Trinity Theological Journal 16 (2008) 24-24.


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