Isaiah (Part 08): Isaiah’s Call (Ch 6)
With the end of the preface (Isaiah 1-5), we begin the book proper. However, we should not forget the message of the preface because it will come into play even before Isaiah’s call is begun. I see the book as divided into four major sections. The preface, of course, was the first. The remaining three are Rule (chs 6-37), Rescue (chs 38-55), and Resplendence (chs 56-66). The call, chapter 6, begins this section I call “Rule.” It is not that any of these sections do not contain ideas from the others. We will see rescue and resplendence in the Rule section as well as overlap in the others. But the focus of each division seems to correspond with these labels.
Chapter 6 opens announcing the death of King Uzziah. From the lists in both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, we know that his son, Jotham comes to the throne and rules for 16 years after Uzziah is gone. But the mention of Uzziah’s death has more significance than simply letting us know the date of Isaiah’s call. Uzziah was probably the best administrative leader Judah had since Solomon. His reign was marked by a period of Judean affluence. His death signaled the end of that era—both the quality of administration and the affluence Judah had enjoyed.
We see immediately a contrast. Judah had been used to depending on Uzziah for both security and the wealth of their society. But chapter 6, verse 1 forces us to look first at Uzziah dying and then at the King of kings, high and lofty. This contrast means something, especially in relation to what we have learned in the preface. Notice that Isaiah sees not the Lord of hosts (Existing One of Power), but rather, simply, the Lord (Hebrew adonay – master leader). Of course it is the Lord of hosts that we see with Isaiah, but the point is not to emphasize who God is but rather simply the contrast in regarding God as master controller rather than man. It is after we see who the real master is that God’s name and holiness explode before us.
The vision of the first few verses does not take place in heaven. This is not the throne room of God into which we peek and catch a glimpse of the normal activity of God. First, this view seems to be in the temple at Jerusalem. Isaiah speaks of the temple in verse 1. And the shaking foundations of verse 4 hardly seem the proper symbolism for God’s established heavenly home. Since Isaiah does live in Jerusalem and probably made daily trips to the temple, we could assume that this vision occurred while Isaiah was indeed physically present in the temple. And, of course, as the Covenant Lord of Judah, appearing as a cloud of smoke (6:4) in the temple was how God did interact with his people in the ceremony he had established (Ex 40:34-35; 2 Ch 5:13-14).
Second, the vision is meant for specific purpose. Of course, the emphasis here is on God’s holiness, but it is holiness intended for contrast with Judah. Therefore, the picture would not be simply of God on his throne in heaven being holy, but rather of God interacting with humanity being holy. And God met with his people in the temple.
Around the throne we see seraphim. We find this word in the OT only seven times. And except for the two uses here (6:2, 6), it is never used to describe angels. The word has a basis in something that is fiery. It is used to denote the serpents in the wilderness that brought death to the children of Israel. It is the word for the brass fiery serpent on a pole that Moses held up to end the plague. Two other times it is used in Isaiah (14:29; 30:6), and both times it is shown in some relation to serpents. The point, then, in calling these angels seraphim is not to introduce a special class of angel that is stationed around God’s throne all day crying out holiness. Remember, this is a picture of OT covenant interaction with Judah, not the standard scene of heaven. The root word denotes fire. We see then a ring of fire around God as he interacts with humanity. That fiery holiness serves both to judge and to refine. The same kind of picture is presented in Revelation 15.
Another matter of significant conjecture is the purpose of these seraphim covering eyes and feet with their wings, while employing a third set to fly. Almost everyone agrees that the covering of the eyes is because even they cannot look on the holiness of God. God is too purely and infinitely other for the angels to look on him (the same idea as in Isaiah’s cry for himself in verse 5). But a little more difficulty arises in explaining the covering of their feet. Some have said it is because feet are most dishonorable among the body’s appendages. Others have said that it symbolizes that they do not walk toward or travel toward sin—in keeping with the overall holiness theme. But the dishonor and travel both relate to human feet. The seraphim, we have just been told, fly. So they travel by flight, not walking. And therefore, any point about dishonor associated with touching feet to ground is made moot. It has also been noted that the Hebrew term for feet may be associated with genitals or the body as a whole. Understanding two wings to cover the body may fit in slightly better with the holiness image.
But the discussion seems to miss the overall imagery. The holiness of God is not pictured here in the abstract. And it is certainly not intended to contrast with the angels. We have to remember both the discussion of the preface and the setting at the temple. God’s holiness is magnified here in contrast with the depravity of humankind. The angels are described as fiery—the fire of God in judging and refining. Therefore, covering the eyes and feet are not for the angels existential sake, but rather for the image they bear. They are depicting aspects of God. Their fiery appearance is intended to show God’s holiness, not their own. So, then, also their covering of the eyes is to show God’s holiness in not looking at sin. Their covering of the feet is to show God’s holiness in not moving in association with humanity’s evil without judgment or refinement. This entire throne and seraphim vision is a picture of the holiness of God.
The speech of the seraphim adds to the holiness image. They cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts: His glory fills the whole earth” (6;3). One may wonder why, if the image is to show holiness, does glory fill the unholy earth. Recognize what glory is. It is the exhibition of excellence. God’s glory filling the earth does not mean that the earth becomes holy or glorious.
Finally, notice the effect on the temple itself. The doorway (the pathways to meeting with God) shake at their foundations. The recognition of meeting with the infinite God should have this effect. This is not a shaking of anger or judgment; it is pure holiness—infinite righteous purity.
Isaiah immediately understands his state at first glimpse. The unholy, meeting the infinitely holy, is unable to bear it. He cries out, “Woe is me for I am ruined!” (6:5). His “woe” is slightly different from the woes we read in chapter 5. There the word, although it could mean a cry of lament, was more a cry of threat and admonition. The Hebrew changes slightly in Isaiah’s cry. This woe is solely a cry of grief and despair. He believes he is ruined (Hebrew means destroyed, cease, perish). And Isaiah’s judgment is in recognition of his own sin relative to his Lord’s holiness. And in this recognition, we find the faith of Isaiah that this lord is Lord.
Immediately a seraph flies to an altar from which he extracts a coal. The altar is most probably the altar of incense, which stands before the Holy of Holies in the temple. Incense symbolizes the prayers of the people, refined in God’s fire, coming before him. So it is appropriate that this refining coal is used to symbolize Isaiah’s atonement. The angel uses tongs, not for fear of being burned, but because the refining fire is not meant for him.
The seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with the coal, removing his sin. This corresponds to Isaiah’s cry that he was a man of unclean lips. This also matches the emphasis on the word throughout the Bible. Creation was spoken into existence. Redemption was accomplished by the Incarnate Word. Matthew 12:34 emphasizes that the “mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.” John 14 through 17 has the same theme climaxing in Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that God would “sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (17:17). And in Romans 10:10 Paul tells us, “One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.” Therefore, the lips cleansed—the word cleansed—symbolizes atonement for the soul.
Notice also that this is another example of faith electionism. God moves first. God presented his revelation to Isaiah. Isaiah responded in faith. And then God purified.
Verse 8 is odd simply because it startles. God asks, “Who should I send? Who will go for Us?” Send? Go? Where? What’s he talking about? We seem to be thrust into the middle of a discussion that has been going on. Well, yes, of course we are. The picture so far has been God interacting with his people (in the temple, contrasting holiness). The topic has been thoroughly discussed in the preface. There we read of Judah’s selfish sin and disregard of God and his holiness. So the obvious discussion is God’s intent to send someone to these people. It is not as abrupt a speech as ignoring context might indicate. The scene has simply shifted from an earthly perspective to a spiritual perspective.
Isaiah is ready, and he volunteers. But from the start we understand that this is not a pleading, begging, petition by God to the people. He calls them “these people” (6:9), not “My people.” This will be a message of judgment.
The message in verses 9 and 10 clearly state that the people will not listen. Isaiah’s message is intended to dull their minds, not draw them. This is markedly different from Matthew’s and Luke’s quotes of this passage (Mt 13:13-15 and Acts 28:25-27). There the command to dull is changed to a simple statement of fact that “this people’s heart has grown callous” (Mt 13:15). The difference is that Matthew and Luke used the Septuagint translation. These two forms, however, do not conflict. Again, understanding this from a faith electionist view, God reveals and a person responds either in faith or rebellion. The response in rebellion does dull the mind and heart.
Isaiah asks, “Until when?” (6:11). This is not a logistical concern. He is not merely asking how long he should preach. Isaiah’s concern is for the dulled, disobedient people. How long until God will relent and save? But God answers that the people will be carried away into captivity. The land (God’s support) will lie in waste. Relationship is ruined. This is symbolic speech of the end of the covenant.
The last two verses are not recorded in the Septuagint, most probably because the manuscripts used to translate the Septuagint did not have these verses. However, they are in the oldest manuscripts that we have. They do not seem to fit in that there is a change of person and a change of meter in the Hebrew. But yet, what they present is the clear picture of what would come. In fact, Isaiah uses the stump imagery there to speak later (11:1) of the coming shoot—the Messiah.