Isaiah 6: A Vision and a Commission
Isaiah describes a vision of the LORD, holy and glorious, and it shook Isaiah to his core with guilt and fear. But the Lord forgave Isaiah's guilt and sin, and Isaiah gladly offered his life as servant to the Lord.
The Lord set Isaiah on a mission to preach a warning of judgement upon the people of Israel. Cities would be ravaged and the land wasted, with only a tenth of the population remaining.
HOLY IS THE LORD: Verses 1-7
Isaiah saw the Lord enthroned in a temple, attended by seraphim who sang of the LORD's holiness and glory. The temple shook and filled with smoke, and the Lord's robe covered the entire temple. Isaiah cried out in fear, knowing the depth of his dirtiness compared to the holiness of the King. But the seraphim touched Isaiah's mouth with a burning coal and pronounced his sin atoned for and his guilt taken away.
Isaiah's vision was connected with King Uzziah:
Isaiah 6:1 (ESV) In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne...
Uzziah reigned as king 52 years in Jerusalem, doing what was right in the eyes of the LORD. Under his governance Israel prospered. Enemy nations were no match for Uzziah's military force and weapons. He built towers, raised large herds of cattle, farmed many acres of land, and his fame spread far (2 Chronicles 26).
But Uzziah's reign ended in disaster.
2 Chronicles 26:16 (ESV) But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the LORD his God and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense.
Uzziah's brazen usurping of priestly duties removed him abruptly from the throne.
2 Chronicles 26:19-21 (ESV) Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and when he became angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. And Azariah the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the LORD had struck him. And King Uzziah was a leper to the day of his death, and being a leper lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. And Jotham his son was over the king's household, governing the people of the land.
Ancient historian Josephus records an earthquake being felt at the moment Uzziah lifted the sacred censer (see Amos 1:1).
What do you think?
- How did Uzziah's downfall parallel Israel's condition as described in the first five chapters of the Book of Isaiah?
- What would be a modern-day equivalent of Uzziah's sin in offering incense in the temple?
God's holiness was proclaimed by seraphim.
Isaiah 6:2-3 (ESV) 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. And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!
Isaiah's description of the seraphim was simple, almost matter-of-fact, implying that his readers knew of such beings, as if their existence was undisputed.
"Seraphim" or fiery serpents, appears first in the Bible in the Book of Numbers, as punishment for the people's faithless grumbling:
Numbers 21:6 (ESV) Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.
Deliverance from the fiery serpents required Moses making a bronze serpent, raised high on a pole (Numbers 21:4-9).
Fiery serpents appear again in judgement against Philistia:
Isaiah 14:29 (ESV) Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of you, that the rod that struck you is broken, for from the serpent's root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent.
The description of the seraphim provides a strong symbol of the holiness of God. Faces veiled as unworthy to look on the holy God, unworthy to pry into his secret counsels. Feet covered, or rather the whole of the lower parts of their persons, a practice usual in the presence of Eastern monarchs, in token of reverence (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary).
The LORD proclaimed his holiness to Isaiah in the form of a dreadful vision of flying, fiery serpents. The LORD's glory was symbolized by a high throne, with his robe filling the temple and shaking the foundations.
Isaiah was overwhelmed.
Isaiah 6:5 (ESV) 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!
Isaiah's anguish was focused upon his foul, unclean lips.
A man's face will naturally grow hair, but there is a margin around the mouth that is hair-free, or "shaved" clear, creating a boundary between beard and mouth. That boundary came to be known as "lips".
The LORD responds to Isaiah's cry:
Isaiah 6:6-7 (ESV) Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.
The burning coal is a powerful symbol of sacrifice, the killing of one in atonement for the sin of another.
"Crook" is from Old Norse krokr (hook), meaning literally the hooked staff of a shepherd. Informally it came to mean a person who is dishonest or a criminal.
"Atone" does not seem an accurate translation of the Hebrew word. "Atone" literally means "at one", to make united or reconciled. However, modern usage of "atone" does mean to make ammends or reparation.
"Expiate" literally means "out of piety", putting an end to rage or sorrow by obediently suffering it to the full.
The seraphim touched Isaiah's lips with a burning coal which "covered with bitumen" his perverse, habitual sinfulness and "putting an end to God's rage or sorrow by obediently suffering it to the full".
What do you think?
- What is it about unclean lips that would make them the focus of Isaiah's guilt?
- Would you say that your lips are a major source of guilt for you? Why?
- How might a burning coal reflect the death and resurrection of Jesus?
- Has God "covered our sin" or "cleansed our sin"? Is there a difference between the two?
ISAIAH'S COMMISSION: Verses 8-13
Immediately upon having his sin atoned for, Isaiah received his commission from God: Go and preach warning to the people. The people would not understand Isaiah's message, and God would lay waste to their cities, leaving only a remnant to survive his wrath. But within that remnant would be hidden a holy seed.
A heart of glad service replaced Isaiah's heart of guilt and fear.
Isaiah 6:8 (ESV) And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, Here I am! Send me.
Jesus has commission his followers in a similar way:
Mark 16:15-16 (ESV) And he said to them, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
The message given to Isaiah was less about God's wrath and more about the people's refusal to hear and understand:
Isaiah 6:9-10 (ESV) And he said, Go, and say to 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 blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.
Jesus would later repeat this same message:
Matthew 13:10-14,16 (ESV) Then the disciples came and said to him, Why do you speak to them in parables? And he answered them, To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive...But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Matthew 13:34-35 (ESV) All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: "I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world."
The disciples of Jesus rarely understood his parables, but at least they wanted to understand:
Matthew 13:36 (ESV) Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.
After explaining the meaning of the parable, Jesus encouraged his disciples to hold to their understanding:
Matthew 13:51-52 (ESV) Have you understood all these things? They said to him, Yes. And he said to them, Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.
What do you think?
- What were you like before you trusted Christ? What was your attitude toward Scripture and faith?
- How does this chapter in Isaiah blend together the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of Man?
- Do you tend to rely upon your own intelligence more than God's blessing? Is that even a fair question to ask?
- What is your typical response when encountering verses of Scripture which do not make sense?
The people will remain dull of hearing and hard of heart, and God will make the land desolate, removing most of the people to a far away country. But the stump of the people, the essential root of which God regards as holy, will remain.
Isaiah 6:12-13 (ESV) The LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 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.
"Seed" easily became a synonym for children or descendents. When Seth was born to Eve she thanked God for giving her "seed" or "offspring":
Genesis 4:25 (ESV) And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.
"Offspring" is the same Hebrew word as "seed".
Paul spoke of the offspring of Israel:
Romans 9:6-8 (KJV) Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.
Paul refers as well to the remnant left alive after God's wrath:
Romans 9:27-29 (ESV) Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay. And as Isaiah predicted, If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.
This remnant of Isaac's offspring endures to even now:
Romans 11:5 (ESV) So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Finally, Paul speaks of the hard-heartedness that God has brought upon the people of Israel:
Romans 11:25-28 (ESV) I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob; and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins. As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.
God has not utterly forsaken the people of Israel. He yet regards them as his own people, and he's graciously allowed even non-Jews to enter into his love.
Romans 4:13, 16-18, 24-25; 5:1 (ESV) For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith...That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring - not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, I have made you the father of many nations...It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification...Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The very root of "offspring", as in Abraham and his offspring, refers directly to Jesus Christ:
Galatians 3:16 (ESV) Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, And to offsprings, referring to many, but referring to one, And to your offspring, who is Christ.