The death of kings makes a big difference sometimes. When Solomon died, the kingdom that David and he had built up split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, with Judah keeping Jerusalem as its capital. From there on, the Old Testament tells the story of those kingdoms in parallel, kind of going back and forth as they weave together. It also goes back and forth between describing good kings, who held to the worship of God alone, and bad kings, who worshiped pagan gods, with a handful of kings who went with whatever was politically convenient. On this scale, Uzziah’s grandfather was a bad king. His father was one of the wishy-washy ones. Uzziah was good.
Not only was Uzziah good from the standpoint of his faith, he was militarily and politically effective. He operated at a time when the most powerful states of the Middle East were in disarray and used the time that their disorganization bought him to strengthen the defenses of Judah and regulate its economic life. One historian points out that in his day agriculture was healthy and even the southern wilderness shows signs of more intensive settlement than ever before. “It was, superficially at least, a time of great optimism, and of great confidence in the promises of God for the future.”
Now, the good old days aren’t always the good old days for everybody. Prosperity didn’t reach everyone in Judah. Isaiah would have a few choice words to say about that once he got going. Nor were things always so great for Uzziah himself. At the end he developed leprosy. He was cut off from human contact. He had to leave the palace and II Kings 15:5 says that they built a separate house for him and his son acted in his name. Still, he had come to the throne at the age of sixteen and reigned for fifty-two years (for comparison, that’s eleven less than Queen Victoria), and his death meant a real crisis in leadership, and put real grief in people’s hearts.
The poet Robert Graves wrote a poem for Elizabeth II when she became queen, and it was about how his father had reacted when Victoria had died. It says, in part:
“My mother sought to comfort him, leaned closer,
Whispering softly: ‘It was a ripe old age. …
She saw her century out.’ The tears still flowed,
He could not find his voice. My mother ventured:
‘We have a King once more, a real King.
“God Save the King” is in the Holy Bible.
Our Queen was, after all, only a woman.’
At that my father’s grief burst hoarsely out.
‘Only a woman! You say it to my face?
Queen Victoria only a woman! What?
Was the orb nothing? Was the sceptre nothing?
To cry “God save the King” is honourable,
But to serve a Queen is lovely. Listen now:
Could I have one wish for this son of mine…’”
There is a connection between a loved and trusted ruler and the people that is not to be discounted.
So, when that ruler is gone, what happens? Isaiah felt acutely the grief of Uzziah’s death and with it the fear that, with him gone, there would be no one able to rein in the abuses of power that were showing up among the rich and influential people of Jerusalem. There was no one there to keep them mindful that faith is more than words and ritual. There was no one to prevent them from giving in to the idolatry that was demanded as part of the politics of the day. All that was most important to Judah’s core being, all that set them apart from the nations around them and marked them as a people dedicated to God and God alone was endangered.
When Uzziah died, it was a crisis of the spirit, not just a matter of succession. King Jotham followed his father on the throne, but Isaiah was not satisfied, and he was convinced that God himself was not satisfied.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
God had put Isaiah on the spot. It was not enough to mourn the loss of a good leader. God asked for someone to take up the work that needed to be done. Isaiah could say, “I’m not good enough.” God said, “I’ll take care of that.” There is no getting away with saying, “The people around me aren’t going to pay attention. I am going to be a failure.” God says, “I know they won’t listen, but when you take them my message, that is success whether or not they pay attention.”
Since this is Memorial Day weekend, I’ll use an analogy that honors the people whose memory we call to mind. It was clear that people in the first landings on D-Day would die without establishing a beachhead. It was clear that the first soldiers to put their feet onto sand in the South Pacific would get no further. Without their attempt and their sacrifice, however, others would never have gone on to complete the work of liberation, and for Eastern Europe that work wasn’t finished until 1989. So, too, as we are all called to the work of God’s kingdom, the battles to which we are sent may seem lost or pointless, but may open the road for others in ways we will only find out in God’s time.
Who knows what task, large or small, known or unknown, recognized or thankless, God is preparing for you or me or the guy who changed your tires last week? There are words in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) that speak to that.
“Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people's lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
rich men endowed with resources,
living peacefully in their homes-
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”
The year that King Uzziah died was also the year that Isaiah’s work was born. What, even now, is God bringing to light? This year, so far, we have lost Harry Anderson. Who now will make people smile and laugh? We have lost Roger Bannister. Who will push the human body to go faster or farther than we were taught to expect? We have lost Barbara Bush. Who will stand up to politicians and presidents and tell them to mind their manners? We have lost Stephen Hawking. Who will point out the wonders of the stars and of pure mathematics? We have lost Billy Graham. Who will proclaim there is a Savior and that his name is Jesus?
 John Bright, A History of Israel, third edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 259.
 Robert Graves, “Coronation Address” in The Poems of Robert Graves (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), 230.