WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“Implications of God’s Holiness” --- Isaiah 6
Why does Isaiah place the record of his call to ministry in the 6th chapter? We would have expected the prophet to have started his book with this account. However, as one reads the first portion of Isaiah’s book we come to see that he placed the account of his calling where he did because it provided context for the message he was preaching to Judah. In the chapters that precede this one (1-5) we read Isaiah’s strong rebuke of the leaders and people of Judah for their wickedness and disloyalty to God. In the chapters that follow this one (7-12) we read about the political crises of the day and the prophet’s promises about the future of Judah. The vision of God on the throne puts Judah’s sin (1-5) and the political concerns (7-12) of Judah in perspective. Therefore, Isaiah’s vision of God must be understood if one is to understand why God says what He does through this prophet.
I. Vision of the Transcendent King: (vs.1-4)
The account of the vision opens with the words, “In the year that King Uzziah died” (vs.1a). This was the common dating system of that era; they did not have a universal calendar in the Ancient Near East marked from a mutually agreed beginning point (like A.D. 2017-marked from the advent of Christ). Instead things would be dated by what king was in power at the time, and in which year of his reign it took place. The date on the modern calendar would be 740 B.C.
The significance of the reference however goes beyond just when in time this vision was received. It also informs us about the nature of this time. The deaths of monarchs created a great deal of uncertainty and thus resulted in a significant amount of anxiety among the people. There was not always a smooth transition of power. Often the death of a monarch would lead to a power struggle for the throne and then civil war. Even if the transmission of office went smoothly, the people would have no idea what impact the new king would have on their lives. Since kings were absolute authorities, there was no guarantee that they would continue with pre-existing policies. This transition would have been particularly difficult because king Uzziah’s reign was long and marked by prosperity and peace.
During Uzziah’s reign (also known as Azariah) this time of peace and increased wealth had led to a diminished significance of Yahweh in the hearts and minds of the people. The focus of their security and hopes for the future rested upon human resources and not upon what their God could do.
As Isaiah proceeds in his account of his vision, he writes that “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple” (vs.1b). In this verse we find emphasis on God’s sovereignty. First, rather than referring to God by His covenant name “Yahweh”, he refers to Him as “lord”. Isaiah normally employs the name Yahweh (425x’s), doing so far more than he employs the generic word “lord” (only 53x’s elsewhere). Beyond using a title of sovereignty, Isaiah says the He saw God on an exalted throne, and wearing an immense robe of royalty. In addition, Isaiah notes that God was surrounded by attendants to obey His every wish (just like ancient human kings). The implication was clear that though the human ruler of Judah had passed, the real king, the sovereign of the universe was still on His throne. The vision then is in conscious contrast to the focus of the populace on the human king; pointing them to the king in whom they should be putting their trust.
Then Isaiah turns to describe the attendants of God whom he saw in the vision, “Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (vs.2). The word “seraphim” means “burning ones”, and is a title that is not used anywhere else in the Bible. They are some sort of heavenly creature, and not much is known about them. Though it is popular to assume that they are a kind of angel, there is nothing in this account that indicates that this is so. The reader cannot even be certain whether or not this same creature is referred to elsewhere by other titles. What is clear is that the description of these creatures indicates that their purpose in the vision is both to complement the royal imagery and to symbolize the appropriate sort of worship that is to be rendered to Yahweh. This symbolism is conveyed primarily by what these creatures do with their wings. Using two of their wings to cover their face demonstrates reverence to God; using two to cover their feet indicates humility before God, while using the final two to continually fly suggests that they are always ready at a moment’s notice to move in obedience at God’s command. The fourth characteristic of worship that they illustrate is conveyed in verse three: “And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’” The worship of God is meant to include the praise of His creatures for God’s majestic nature.
When Isaiah observes that one cried to another; the imagery is that of an antiphonal choir where two groups of singers face one another and the second group answers in song to the singing of the first group. The three-fold use of the word “holy” is a Hebrew form of the superlative, and therefore should be understood in the sense that the seraphim are saying that Yahweh is the holiest of all. The word “holy” conveys the otherness of God, His transcendent nature. God is not like what He has made. He is different, and distinct.
In saying that “the whole earth is full of His glory”, the seraphim were saying that all of creation reflects God’s glory (and thus this statement is similar to what David wrote in Psalm 19:1).
The final information we are given regarding the vision is that Isaiah notes, “And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (vs.4). The posts of the door would have been at the entrance of the holy of holies, and in the vision the voice of the seraphim praising God is so loud and powerful that it shakes the building to its foundation. The house (i.e. the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple) was filled with the smoke coming from the altar of incense, which means that Isaiah was seeing God through billows of smoke that shielded him from the full impact of the glorious sight.
II. The Cleansing of the Prophet: (vs.5-7)
Now Isaiah reports what happened to him as a result of seeing the glory of God in this vision: “So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because 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’” (vs.5). Isaiah’s response to what he sees informs us that the aspect of God’s holiness that is emphasized here is His absolute moral perfection. Having seen and experienced perfect righteousness and goodness, Isaiah’s own virtue (or lack of it) is made clear. The Hebrew word translated as “woe” is an exclamation of despair. It is ironic that Isaiah, who had been pronouncing woes upon the people of Judah for their sins (3:9-11; 5:8-22), was now finding it necessary to pronounce a woe of despair upon himself. Isaiah also expressed that he was “undone”. The Hebrew word that Isaiah used means to come to an end, or to cease doing something. The word conveys the idea here of coming to ruin (NASB). In other words, Isaiah was saying there was nothing left to do or say, no way to address his sins and moral short-comings before God.
Isaiah then says that he and the people of Judah are characterized by having unclean lips. One might think that Isaiah was saying that he and his people were guilty of using bad language or talking about immoral things. But the idea is a general sense of uncleanness from the heart and that permeates the whole person. Isaiah and all the people of Judah were unfit to be in God’s presence or have fellowship with Him. The focus on the lips is because Isaiah was a prophet and now he had been shown that he was morally unfit to be a spokesman for God, and all of Judah were unfit to represent Yahweh to the other nations. This reveals a principle. Anyone who would speak on God’s behalf must first be confronted with the same prophetic word before speaking it to others. The words “for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” conveys two ideas. First, it reinforces the idea that Yahweh is the true king of Judah; not the descendants of David; therefore it was the Divine king that the people of Judah were to seek to please. Second, the statement makes it clear that it was specifically the vision of Yahweh in His moral glory that was the reason for Isaiah’s recognition of his own sinfulness.
Next, Isaiah reports what took place in the vision after he acknowledged his pitiful state: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.’” (vs.6-7). If we are to understand this scene properly, it is important to note that Isaiah did not ask for help or deliverance, but simply expressed that he was helpless. Therefore, what happened next was by God’s initiative, and was an expression of His grace to address the prophet’s profound need. Another thing we see in these verses in terms of principles that help us understand God and His ways is that in order for a person to speak for God, they must not only be confronted with the truth, they must be made holy.
A frequent question that interpreters seek to answer is, from which altar did the seraph in the vision take the burning chunk of coal? The Altar of Incense was before the presence of God close to the Ark of the Covenant. Therefore, the design of the Temple would suggest that it was this piece of furnishing that Isaiah was referring to. Since this would have been the understanding of Isaiah’s contemporaries, it is by far the most likely option. The piece of coal that the seraph brings was red hot. This can be deduced from three pieces of evidence. First, is the fact that the Altar of Incense was always burning. Second, it is implied by the seraph’s use of the tongs. Third, the Hebrew term itself which refers to an actively burning coal.
The reason that Isaiah is touched on the lips is clear from the context. It is because that is the focus point of the prophet’s sinfulness in the vision.
But what does the imagery of this verse convey? The coal from the altar represents everything that the sacrificial system was meant to accomplish. It represents the blood of the sacrifice that was spilled to make atonement for sin, and the forgiveness and restoration with God that is obtained by making such a sacrifice; and that is why the seraph says: “your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged” once the coal had touched Isaiah’s lips. The idea is that God had cleansed the prophet of his sins so that now he was fit to speak on behalf of Yahweh. Not because of his own righteousness, but because he had received cleansing from sin through the procedures that God had established through His Law.
Isaiah therefore serves as the prototype for the rest of Judah. They, as with the prophet, were to recognize their sinfulness before Yahweh. They were also to surrender themselves for cleansing from sin; something only God could do for them. And so, this example then was essential as Isaiah confronted the people of Judah and those who would later read the written account as to how they were to respond to what God was saying through Isaiah.
III. The Hardening of a Calloused Audience: (vs.8-10)
Isaiah next wrote about what followed his cleansing with the fiery coal: “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’” (vs.8a). Once again God is addressed as “lord” (Adonai), after having been referred to as Yahweh in the last two times Isaiah spoke of Him (vs.3, 5). This is because the emphasis is upon Him once more as the universal sovereign that Judah was to serve. In asking the question about whom should be sent, it is not that God is asking because He is unsure to whom He will assign this task. It must be remembered that Isaiah is alone in this vision; therefore, God is only speaking directly to Isaiah. Rather the purpose of the question is to draw Isaiah to volunteer for the role to which God had already appointed him. So, Isaiah volunteers to be the spokesman for Judah’s true king.
One intriguing aspect in this verse is God’s use of the plural pronoun “us”. There are many suggestions offered to explain why God used it. One is the idea that this is a royal “us”, another that it expresses God’s personal majesty, and still another that this is meant to convey the truth of the Trinity (the plurality of three persons in the one God). However, given the imagery of a king’s court, it is most likely that God is speaking about someone acting as a representative of the heavenly court, including God and all the heavenly creatures attending Him. This makes sense in light of the fact that God also speaks of Himself as the sender in the singular within the poetic parallel structure of the verse.
Then we read that Isaiah accepted the invitation, “Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (vs.8b). Therefore, like the seraphim, Isaiah is immediately ready to serve the great king.
In light of Isaiah’s acceptance of the role of prophet, God then tells him about the nature of the ministry to which he was being called: “And He said, ‘Go, and tell 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 shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed’” (vs.9-10). The words “keep on hearing” and “keep on seeing” are a translation of a Hebrew verbal form that has no parallel in English and thus is difficult to translate. More literally, the sayings are “hearing you hear” and “seeing you see”, but the most accurate way to render these in English in order to convey the Hebrew idea is “you will surely hear” and “you will surely see”. The wording is intensive and was employed to highlight the contrast between the giving of the message by Isaiah and the response to that message by the people of Judah. God wanted Isaiah to understand in advance what he was being called to do so that he would not grow discouraged by the lack of response to the message he had been given. There seems to be a two-fold sense to these verses. On the one hand, there is stress upon the calloused hearts of the people of Judah who will continue to stubbornly refuse to repent as they had done for two centuries. On the other hand, there is stress on God’s pronouncement of judgment upon the people because of their stubbornness. God would no longer offer the majority the grace that he had offered in the past. Instead he would allow Judah to continue to be obstinate. Therefore, the message here is that the time is past for a response of faith; now the time of judgment was upon them where they would no longer be aided to respond. Instead God would give them an object lesson about the consequences of rebellion to Him.
On a natural level, God is informing Isaiah about the principle that when you give truth to people and they reject it, their hearts get harder to that truth. Therefore, as Isaiah continues to proclaim the truth about God, and the people of Judah continue to disregard it, the natural consequence will be that it will be easier and easier for them to ignore God’s message.
On a supernatural level God would not intervene to bring them to a place of repentance, but allow them to have what they wanted; a life rooted in the same things the rest of the nations desired. To capture the poetic form of verse ten, it is best to display it in the following manner:
The structure of this poetry is known as a chiasm. It is outlined in the following way:
A Make the heart of this people dull
B And their ears heavy
C And shut their eyes
C Lest they see with their eyes
B And hear with their ears,
A And understand with their heart
The idea is a series of parallels that come together in the middle and then go out from there to the two furthest points of a passage. The meaning of these statements is very clear. The heart, the ears, and the eyes would be understood by a Hebrew as the primary channels by which one can take in new information. If these are cut off, then it means that someone is not able to perceive such information. Therefore, God was saying to Isaiah that as he preached, the calloused nature of the hearts of the people would increase until they were not hearing anything he was trying to tell them.
But why would God do this? What is more important than rescuing people from punishment? One thing. Rescuing them from sin and lies. The way to freedom from sin is by way of the truth. Human beings must know the truth about themselves (that we are hopelessly ruined sinners), about God (that He is absolutely holy), and about the consequences of rebellion to God. Often, the only way that people will learn these things is by tasting the bitter consequences of disobedience.
IV. Hope in the Midst of Coming Judgment: (vs.11-13)
Having been told what his ministry would entail, Isaiah responds, “Then I said, ‘Lord, how long?’” (vs.11a). Once again Yahweh is addressed as a sovereign, because Isaiah responds to what God says as the royal command it is. The response is not a question about why God was doing what He was doing, nor a complaint about the hard things that God had said. Isaiah was merely asking in sorrow when the time of preaching to an unresponsive audience would be over.
God answered his question, not with a date, but with the circumstances that would be in place in Judah when the message no longer had to be given, “Until the cities are laid waste and without inhabitant, the houses are without a man, the land is utterly desolate, The LORD has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land” (vs.11b-12). This description foretells the devastation that will be wrought by the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions, and the deportations that would result from them. Because of their disobedience, the descendants of Abraham would be banished from the Promised Land. This was precisely what the Law of God had said would happen (Deut.28) if the people were unfaithful to the Covenant. Had God not done this after centuries of disobedience, then He would have been a liar. As it was God had given phenomenal grace, but the people of Israel and Judah merely abused that grace with further disobedience. Isaiah was to preach until the end of Judah’s history. Though it cannot be known for certainty, Jewish tradition would place the death of Isaiah in the late 680s B.C. during the reign of Manasseh. This would mean that Isaiah’s ministry was over almost eighty years before the prophecy was fully realized. However, in his ministry he would see the fall of the northern kingdom, and see Judah become a servant to the evil Assyrians. Isaiah saw the end of the independence of both nations and as God had said, the nation as a whole did not listen to his message, but rather grew ever more wicked.
But the chapter closes with a ray of hope, “But yet a tenth will be in it, and will return and be for consuming, as a terebinth tree or as an oak, whose stump remains when it is cut down. So the holy seed shall be its stump” (vs.13). The tenth or tithe is a remnant that will survive the foretold devastation and exile; fulfilled in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. The imagery of the stump is built upon the custom of the day in warfare to cut trees down for wood to take with the victorious army, and then burn the stumps to prevent a conquered enemy from rebuilding. Therefore, the imagery is that of hope, despite what would appear to be a hopeless situation. As it would happen at times in nature; the stump would produce shoots of new life. This element of the prophecy seems to look beyond the return of the Jews from exile, to a time of a far greater future that still lay ahead for the nation of Judah. This ultimate future is picked up again later in Isaiah’s prophecy; the future that centers in the Messianic hope:
--- Isaiah 11:1
The reader is meant to come away with the realization that Isaiah’s experience in one way or another is one we must all have. We must all be gripped with a vision of God’s holiness so that we
can make sense of His Word, and the unfolding of history around us. The vision of God’s holiness will also motivate us to be holy (I Pet.1:15-16), and it will clarify in our own minds why the world must hear the Gospel.
In the Bonds of Christ,