In the face of every child lies evidence that one of the earliest human faculties is a sense of wonder. It’s a sense as basic to our design as hunger or thirst. Ignore this design, this need for wonder—for beauty, for enthrallment—and your soul will wither like pile of dried leaves.
So often the world around us seems bled dry of both beauty and mystery. In this world, Christianity must seem like a beautiful dream, but a dream nonetheless. Surely we can’t possibly expect to see God’s face in a world like ours.
This was precisely what Isaiah felt. The books of prophecy weren’t typically arranged in precise chronological order, so it seems likely that Isaiah really begins in the sixth chapter. And it’s a chapter shadowed by death:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.
2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
We know from the pages of history that King Uzziah had died in the year 740 B.C., his kingdom passing to Jotham. He’d been a good king—he’d strengthened the military, and bolstered the economy (2 Chronicles 26:1-14). Now that he was gone, could Israel stand against their surrounding adversaries?
So in the midst of darkness, Isaiah caught a glimpse of hope. Usually human beings weren’t allowed to see God and live to tell about it—but it was equally true that in an act of sheer grace, God chose to reveal himself to key individuals. Was this a vision? A dream? Maybe some kind of “out-of-body experience?” Isaiah doesn’t tell us, but the setting is the Temple. As you surely remember from previous posts, the Temple was where the ancient Israelites (all religions, really) believed God uniquely and specifically dwelled. Normally, a curtain would separate man from the innermost dwelling place—the “holy of holies” as it was known. But now, nothing stands between Isaiah and God. In his lengthy commentary on Isaiah, John Oswalt calls this scene “the raw edge of terror,” because it takes place “where humanity dare not go.”
And here’s what’s so stunning. Isaiah can barely describe the details. The only detail he mentions of God is “the train of his robe.” Imagine your friend meets a celebrity. You ask, “What did he/she look like?” If the only thing they remember is the cuffs of their pants, you’d either conclude that they (1) didn’t really pay attention or (2) they were so overwhelmed this was all they could remember.
For Isaiah, it seems to be the second case. The throne is surrounded by a cloud of seraphim. These weren’t angels—at least, not exactly. The Hebrew name literally means “burning ones.” These spectacular, multi-winged creatures seemed to play a unique role in surrounding God’s throne and declaring his glory. Qadosh! Qadosh! Qadosh! they sang out: “holy holy holy is the Lord.” Holiness becomes Isaiah’s key theme. To be Holy means to be set apart. And no one is more set apart than God.
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for 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!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:4-8)
Have you ever met someone important, only to later learn you had a stain on your shirt, or your fly was down? Something similar was going on here—only magnified a thousandfold. To be in the presence of holiness would have indeed been terrifying. Readers are meant to see this whole scene as filled with raw emotion—almost a sense of violence at the intensity of the moment.
Some take Isaiah’s concerns literally—that maybe he had a problem with strong language, or liked to tell “dirty jokes.” Maybe. Or maybe Isaiah was simply highlighting his own unworthiness to even speak in the presence of God.
The seraph purified Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal—a coal that could only have come from one of the altars in the temple. The coal was associated with sacrifice. Only through sacrifice can God make his people pure.
Isaiah was never exactly “called” by God. He volunteered. When he learned of God’s need—a need to address a nation’s desperate circumstances, he could only shout out “Here am I! Send me!”
Most sermons stop there. They shouldn’t. Here is God’s mission briefing to Isaiah:
9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.
Somehow I wonder if Isaiah would have been as eager had he read the instructions. He wasn’t called to success; he was called to faithfulness. And so are we.
As you survey the entire scene, are you beginning to see how the pieces come together to form a snapshot of the gospel? Isaiah—an unclean man in unclean times—stands before the throne of the God of the universe. What greater picture of unworthiness could there be? The only thing louder than the praise of the seraphim was the thudding beat of Isaiah’s wicked heart. Yet through sacrifice, God purifies his child, and gives him a new identity and new mission.
The whole scene parallels Paul’s summary of the gospel:
…you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
We live in a world where wonder is too often usurped by cynicism and fear. There are no fairy tales, only ghost stories. The gospel says that there is hope for those who place their trust in Jesus. But the gospel also says that such hope comes with a high calling: a calling to faithfulness in a world full of faithlessness. But through it all, we stand with a God who makes us pure, helps us stand, and shows us the Way.