A Vision of Holiness (Isaiah 6:1-13)

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At dusk on 3 August 1914, the eve of the First World War, Sir Edward Grey and a friend were standing at the window of his room in the British Foreign Office. As they watched the lamps being lit in the courtyard below, Grey, remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”1

The First World War was perhaps the seminal disaster of the disastrous twentieth century. Following decades of prosperity, Europe found itself freefalling into war. The war was the seed of what would become the bloodiest century in recorded history.

If the twentieth century rise and fall of peace in Europe had a biblical parallel, it might be the events in the eighth century BC surrounding the reign of King Uzziah in Judah. Uzziah’s reign was one of great prosperity for Judah—the greatest since the time of Solomon—but the years following his death plunged Judah into political chaos.

In the midst of this chaos stood the towering figure of Isaiah, one of Israel’s greatest and most revered prophets—though certainly not in his own day.

The text that we are due to consider in this study was perhaps the turning point in Isaiah’s own life. It was this vision of God’s holiness that gave him the ability to persevere in his ministry, despite the promise of little success.

We can divide this text, and Isaiah’s experience as recorded in it, into three parts.

Looking Upward

Our text begins with a wonderful vision granted to Isaiah by the Lord.

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. 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!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

(Isaiah 6:1-4)

This event came at a crucial point in Isaiah’s life and ministry. It happened “in the year that King Uzziah died.” These words provide us with more than mere insight into the timing of this vision. They seem to indicate that Uzziah’s death was “a shattering experience” for the young prophet.2 Uzziah’s death was “a cardinal experience of a prophet’s life,”3 and so Isaiah was perhaps “looking for consolation in a time of national and personal grief.”4

We will say more about Uzziah’s reign in a moment, but for now note that Isaiah had been born and raised under the regency of godly King Uzziah. According to the biblical timeline, Isaiah ministered during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Jewish tradition tells us that he was martyred during the early years of Manasseh’s reign. It is a simple matter to do the math. His ministry under Hezekiah (29 years), Ahaz (16 years) and Jotham (16 years) lasted 58 years. Even granting a time of coregency for Uzziah and Jotham, Isaiah must have been born at some point during the reign of Uzziah.

Uzziah, largely speaking, was a godly king, which means that, until this point, Isaiah had enjoyed a ministry free of state opposition. Uzziah was recognised as the greatest king of Judah since the time of Solomon, but his reign was now at an end. We can understand why this was such a significant time for the young prophet. It was about to become even more significant.

As he mourned the death of his beloved king, Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” A great human king was dead and no one knew for sure what the political future held. Jotham, who had served for some time as coregent with his father, had so far proven to be a godly man, but there was no guarantee that he would continue his father’s legacy after his death. As Solomon had earlier written, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

But at exactly this moment in Isaiah’s life, God broke through to reveal to him that, although Uzziah was no longer on the throne, Yahweh still was!

Isaiah saw “the Lord.” The Hebrew word used here is not the name Yahweh, but the Hebrew title adonai. It means “sovereign Master”5 and is “the supreme title given to God in the Old Testament.”6 The title reveals that the God of the Bible is the absolute sovereign, always seated on his throne.

We should be reminded at this point that God is always on his throne, regardless of the political landscape in which we live. When government officials appear to be corrupt and when flagrant disregard for God’s law runs rampant in a country, God is still on the throne. When newspaper reports shock us—or worse, when we have become so numb to shocking news that it no longer actually shocks us!—God is on his throne. When the outlook is bleak, we would do well to try the uplook.

The Lord was seated on his throne “and the train of his robe filled the temple.” The mention of “the temple” here has driven some commentators to conclude that Isaiah must have been in the earthly temple in Jerusalem when he was given this vision. This possibility cannot be discounted, but it is far from certain. “The temple” here is a reference to God’s heavenly throne room, upon which the earthly temple was patterned (see Exodus 25:40; Hebrews 8:4-5; 9:1-11). “‘To insist that Isaiah must have been in the Temple as he received the vision does despite to the visionary character of the message.’ It is really impossible to be certain, but happily it makes little difference to our understanding of the chapter and its message.”7

The real significance of the mention of “the temple” is not Isaiah’s location on earth when he received this vision, but the fact that “the train of [the Lord’s] robe filled the temple.” God’s glory is portrayed here as royal robes, which completely filled the space. There was no space in the throne room for another. “As God sat enthroned, His regal garments filled the temple, His throne room, leaving no room for another. God utterly fills the space of sovereignty. . . . Not only is God sovereign, He alone is sovereign.”8

In God’s presence in the throne room—“above him,” says Isaiah—“stood the seraphim.” To say that the seraphim stood “above” God is not to suggest that they held a higher position than him. It simply indicates that, while God was seated on the throne, his attendants were hovering about it.

The temple imagery is perhaps furthered by the picture of the seraphim. You will recall that, in the earthly temple, God’s presence rested on the Mercy Seat and was flanked by cherubim on either side. In Isaiah’s heavenly vision, he saw God’s presence on the throne flanked by seraphim. Some have pushed this picture so far as to insist that, just as there were only two cherubim on the Ark, so there were only two seraphim by the throne in heaven, but this is to say more than the text actually reveals.9

We should perhaps note that seraphim and cherubim appear to be two distinct types of angels. The description of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1:4-14 does not match that of the seraphim here. It does not surprise us, of course, to see variety in the angels, because God’s earth was likewise created with great diversity.10

This is the only time that seraphim appear (by name) in the Bible, although six-winged angelic beings also appear in Revelation 4 (with uncovered faces there).11 The serpents in Numbers 21 that were sent among the Israelite camp as God’s means of judgement are also called seraphim in the Hebrew, but that is not to suggest that those snakes were in fact angels. The word “seraph” literally means “burning ones,” and it appears that the serpents of Numbers 21 and the angels of Isaiah 6 share only a name.

“Each” of the seraphs “had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” Covered faces and feet were a sign of humility and creatureliness. Like man, the seraphim could not steadfastly look at the face of God; and as Moses removed his sandals when he stood on holy ground, so the seraphim covered theirs in the presence of the Holy One. The flight of the seraphim indicates their readiness to serve and the swiftness with which they were prepared to do so.

As they hovered about the throne, “one” seraph “called to another.” This probably suggests antiphonal singing; that is, one seraph sang the first part of the song that follows, and a second seraph responded with the second part of the song.

Their song is one of the best-known in all of Scripture: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Holiness is a significant theme in Isaiah’s prophecies. One of Isaiah’s favourite phrases for God is “the holy one of Israel,” which occurs 25 times in his book (1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:6; 17:7; 29:19; 30:11, 12, 15; 31:1; 37:23; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5; 60:9, 14). By contrast, the phrase occurs only twice in the rest of the prophetic books (Jeremiah 50:29; 51:5). Outside of the Prophets, it appears three times in the Psalms (71:22; 78:41; 89:19) and nowhere else. Isaiah was clearly a man who was impressed with the holiness of God.

In addition to the ascription of holiness to God himself, Isaiah frequently recognises as holy anything that the Lord claims as his own.

This holy God will show himself to be holy by his righteous deeds (Isa. 5:16). He is the holy one, the holy one of Jacob, who must be regarded as holy (10:17; 29:23; 8:13). His name, his Spirit, his Sabbath day, and his arm (the symbol of his power in action) are holy (57:15; 63:10-11; 58:13; 52:10). As a consequence, the place of his dwelling is holy. Isaiah frequently refers to God’s “holy mountain,” which is identified as Jerusalem (11:9; 27:13; 56:7; 57:13; 65:11, 25; 66:20; see also 48:2; 52:1). The sanctuary, the house where he dwells, is also holy (63:18; 64:11). Even the road leading to Zion is characterized as a “highway of holiness” (35:8, 10). As a matter of fact, all the cities of his land may be called holy, and his people are holy as well (64:10; 4:3; 62:12; 63:18 NASB). At the same time, it must be recognized that heaven is his holy dwelling place (63:15).12

But God is not only “holy”; he is “holy, holy, holy.” The repetition of this word to the third degree is of great significance. Sproul explains:

The significance of the repetition of the word “holy” can be easily missed. It represents a peculiar literary device that is found in Hebrew forms of literature, especially in poetry. The repetition is a form of emphasis. . . . To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree, to attach to it emphasis of superimportance.13

There are a number of times in Scripture where a word or phrase is emphasised by means of repetition. For example, Jesus frequently prefaced some of his most important sayings by the phrase, “Truly, truly” (see, for example, John 3:3). When he did so, he was telling his hearers to pay special attention, because what he was about to say was of the utmost importance.

Another example is the repetition of “amen” at the end of Psalm 89. By concluding the psalm with the phrase “amen and amen,” Ethan (the author) was saying that the reader should pay special attention to what he has just read, because it is the very truth of God.

There are only a handful of times in Scripture where a word or phrase receives a double repetition. In each instance, it is a call to pay very close attention.

For example, in Revelation 8:13 an eagle is shown flying across the sky and crying with a loud voice, “Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets that the three angels are about to blow.” The inhabitants of the land were about to come under the severest judgement, and the pronouncement of woe could not have been graver.

A second example is found in Jeremiah 7:4, in which the Israelites of Jeremiah’s generation displayed their misplaced trust in the temple as the guarantee of God’s favour. While Jeremiah warned the people of impending judgement, they scoffed at his warnings and cried, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” Was Jeremiah really suggesting that God would allow his temple to be destroyed? Could anything be more ludicrous? Surely the temple was God’s absolute guarantee of favour? Their misplaced trust could not be emphasised more highly.

A third example is found later in Jeremiah’s prophecy, where he called to the people, “O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD!” (22:29). While the people continued to ignore the prophet’s warnings, he continued to plead with them—often in tears—to hear what he was saying. He desperately wanted to see repentance rather than judgement on the land, and so he called upon the land, in the most emphatic and heart-wrenching way possible, to heed God’s word.

While there are, as we have seen, a handful of terms in Scripture that receive the treatment of dual repetition, only one characteristic of God is mentioned three times in succession in Scripture. He is holy, holy, holy. The significance of this fact must not be missed:

Holiness is the sum of who and what God is. His is a holy love, a holy goodness, a holy wrath, and a holy faithfulness. Holiness is God’s exalted singularity, the separation between God and His creatures, between the holy God and all evil. If the holy angels must cover their faces for the glory of God, how much more should men fall prostrate as sinners before so holy a Lord!14

God’s holiness is so emphasised because “His holiness is simply his God-ness in all his attributes, works, and ways.”15

But what exactly does it mean that God is “holy”? It is a mistake to equate holiness with moral purity. Moral purity is implied, but not exhausted, by holiness.

The Hebrew word for “holy” literally means “to set apart,” “to make distinct,” or “to put at a distance from.” It speaks of separateness. God is holy because he is entirely separate from his creation. He is distinct, one of a kind. There is nothing in all of creation that equals God. Even the seraphim, who were as sinless as God, covered their faces and their feet in the face of God’s holiness. Even they ascribed to God a holiness that did not belong to them.

God is completely unlike anything in all of his creation. A. W. Tozer wonderfully wrote, “We must not think of God as the highest in an ascending order of beings, starting with the single cell and going on up from the fish to the bird to the animal to man to angel to cherub to God. God is as high above an archangel as above a caterpillar, for the gulf that separates the archangel from the caterpillar is but finite, while the gulf between God and the archangel is infinite.”16

Because God is unmatched by anything in his creation, his attributes are likewise unmatched by any attributes of his creatures. “His is a holy love, a holy goodness, a holy wrath, and a holy faithfulness. Holiness is God’s exalted singularity, the separation between God and His creatures, between the holy God and all evil.”17

As humans made in the image of God we have the ability to emulate, to a degree, many of God’s attributes—including love, goodness, wrath, faithfulness—but our expression of these attributes is but a shadow of their reality in the person of God.

We must pause at this point, however, to try and understand the significance of this vision to Isaiah and to those of his generation. When the seraphim declared God to be “holy, holy, holy,” they were not merely making a theological statement. Their intention was not to simply state a fact about the character of God. This vision had intense relevance to the generation to which Isaiah ministered. If we want to hear the song the way that Isaiah heard it, we must understand something of the time and the culture in which he ministered.

We have already seen that Isaiah received this vision in the year that Uzziah died. As noted above, Isaiah had so far carried out his entire ministry during Uzziah’s reign.18 Uzziah (also known by the name Azariah) had reigned for 52 years, and the overall assessment of his reign was that he had done right in the eyes of the Lord.

In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah the son of Amaziah, king of Judah, began to reign. He was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that his father Amaziah had done.

(2 Kings 15:1-3)

Pause for a moment, and try to wrap your mind around one king—and a godly one at that!—reigning for 52 years. Fifty-two years ago was the year 1960. South Africa had not even been declared a Republic at that point in history! The country was declared a Republic in 1961, and since that time—over the last 51 years—the country has been under eleven presidents (not including several interim and acting presidents and various points). Our country has seen the appointment to office of C. R. Swart (1961-1967), J. J. Fouche (1968-1975), N. J. Diederichs (1975-1978), B. J. Vorster (1978-1979), M Viljoen (1979-1984), P. W. Botha (1984-1989), F. W. de Klerk (1989-1994), Nelson Mandela (1994-1999), Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), Kgalema Motlanthe (2008-2009), and Jacob Zuma (2009-present). The landscape has changed from British rule to self-governance, and from apartheid to democracy. Fifty-two years is a long time in political terms, and it is nothing short of incredible to think of a single godly king staying on the throne for all that time.

Of course, Uzziah wasn’t perfect. In the latter part of his reign he usurped the office of priest and was rendered by God as a leper for the remainder of his life. But there was another problem identified by the writer of Kings from the outset of Uzziah’s reign: “Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places” (2 Kings 15:4).

While there were several godly kings of Judah between the time of Solomon and the Babylonian exile, few of them went as far as to remove the “high places.” God had appointed the temple in Jerusalem as the place of sacrifice. The people, however, constructed various altars around the land as their own places of sacrifice. These high places were originally used for idol worship, and a few of the godly kings—Josiah for example—took reform seriously enough to actually destroy the high places. Sacrifice at the high places—even to Yahweh—was not authorised by God.

As you read Kings and Chronicles, you soon learn that the godly kings outlawed idolatry in Judah. The high places that remained in Uzziah’s day, then, were not places of worship to false gods—at least not legally—but they were very possibly used to sacrifice to Yahweh. This, however, was still not quite what God wanted—hence the use of “nevertheless” by the writer of Kings.

By neglecting to destroy the high places, Uzziah created an interesting religious mix in Judah. While he had the power to outlaw idol worship—and did so—he did not have the power to change hearts. The presence of the high places created a sense of convenience in worship. The people could sacrifice to the true God, but they could do it on their own terms. They didn’t have to travel to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple. And so what was created was really a mixture of orthodoxy with paganism. In reality, this blend was no better than outright paganism, because while people maintained a veneer of orthodoxy, their hearts were in reality far from God.

The reality of this blended religion is evident from the opening chapters of Isaiah. For example, in Isaiah 1:12-20 God accused the people of “trampling” his courts and of bringing to him “vain offerings,” which were “an abomination” to him. God “hated” their religion, and it had become a “burden” to him. Though they made “many prayers” to him, he would not listen. God therefore appealed to them: “Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

In Isaiah 2:6-8 the prophet said that Judah’s religion was “full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines.” They enjoyed “silver and gold,” “treasures,” “horses” and “chariots,” but these things had become their “idols.” Though idolatry was technically outlawed under Uzziah, the people bowed down to “the work of their hands, to what their own fingers [had] made.”

In Isaiah 3:8-9 Isaiah accused their “speech” and their “deeds” of being “against the LORD” and of “defying his glorious presence.”

In short, while they maintained a show of orthodoxy, and while Uzziah had done what he could to rid the land of idolatry, the people were still idolaters at heart. They claimed to worship Yahweh, but they did not do so sincerely. They carried out religion, but without reverence. Simply put, they treated Yahweh as if he was just another god who could be worshipped on their own terms. They did not recognise him as holy. “They continued to affirm the traditional faith, but God himself became unreal to them.”19

Isaiah’s vision served to remind the people that God was holy, and that that he would not accept shared worship. If we want to understand the real significance of this text, we must realise the same. We can’t just attach God as a part of our life; he demands complete devotion. “How easily we bring things into our lives alongside the presence of God. How often we consider our allegiance to God as just one of many commitments, the Lord as one of many we seek to please. But He does not accept a shared sovereignty.”20

Everything you do—worship, employment, recreation, parenting, relationships—must be defined in relation to God. If anything you do contradicts the character of God as revealed in the Bible, you have embraced (at the very least) shared sovereignty.

To worshippers who trample the courts of the Lord with careless feet, and look up the temple with unabashed faces, of routine, the cry of the seraphs, as they veiled their faces and their feet, travailed to restore that shuddering sense of the sublimity of the Divine Presence, which in the impressible youth of the race first impelled man, bowing low beneath the awful heavens, to name God by the name of Holy.21

When we fall into the trap of simply doing things out of routine, we need a vision of the holiness of God!

Take, for example, our regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. This regular observance is something that God commands, but the warning is that we not do so “in an unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). When Paul speaks of not partaking “in an unworthy manner” (v. 27), he is speaking of our reverence at the table. He is not using an adjective but an adverb. He does not suggest that we must first ensure that we are worthy before we partake. That is impossible, for one the one hand none of us is worthy, and on the other hand every believer is worthy by virtue of the imputed worth of Christ. The call is not to ensure that we are worthy to partake, but to ensure that we partake in a worthy manner.

The Corinthians were guilty of partaking in an unworthy manner because they were uncaring toward one another in the love feast that preceded the Table, and many of them were actually coming to the table drunk. They were observing the Supper out of routine, and because of that many were sick and some had died! To partake of the Supper in an unthinking, ritualistic fashion is dangerous!

One seraph, or a chorus of seraphim, declared the Lord to be “holy, holy, holy,” and the other, or a chorus of others, responded, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” Glory is the outworking and the manifestation of holiness. “Glory is that in which holiness comes to expression.”22

The phrase “the whole earth is full of his glory” literally reads, “the fullness of the whole earth is his glory.” Every cell on this planet is in some way an expression of God’s glory. As Ortlund says, “Nothing is just ordinary. . . . Created reality is a continuous explosion of the glory of God.”23

It is, in one sense, a fact that the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory, and, in another sense, a fact that God is making the fullness of the whole earth is glory. To cite Ortlund again, “It is God’s will to make this earth into an extension of his throne room in Heaven. . . . It is God’s will for his kingdom of glory to come into your life and for his will to be done in you as it is done in heaven. Heaven is expanding, spreading in your direction. . . . Heaven is taking over. Yield.”23 Are you willing to yield to God’s will in heaven being done in your life on earth? Are you praying for this to be realised across the world?

As the angels lifted their worship song to God, “the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” The seraphim were not cute, chubby little beings, as we sometimes see portrayed by Peter Paul Rubens. This heavenly worship scene was explosive. Their worship was akin to a jet fighter breaking the sound barrier.23

Looking Inward

Having received a glorious vision as he looked upward, Isaiah was now driven to look inward. He had just seen something of the holiness of God; it was only logical that he would now be struck with his own condition.

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!”

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.”

(Isaiah 6:5-7)

Isaiah’s response to the vision of God’s holiness was to cry, “Woe is me! For I am lost.” The word “woe” is one that has fallen out of general usage, and when it is used its impact is understated. When we say “woe is me,” we usually mean that we have experienced a somewhat unfortunate turn in circumstances. But “on the lips of the prophet the word ‘woe’ is an announcement of doom. In the Bible cities are doomed, nations are doomed, individuals are doomed—all by uttering the oracle of woe.”26

Consider, for example, Jesus multiple pronunciation of woe upon the city of Jerusalem in Matthew 23. The Jews were about to crucify Messiah. The result would be utter devastation. The city would be destroyed and the temple razed to the ground. When his prophecy was fulfilled in 70 AD, 1.1 million Jews were slaughtered by the Romans in a single city! Jesus’ use of the word “woe” did not suggest a simple round of bad luck. The Jews were to experience utter devastation.

The word “lost” in the ESV is perhaps a bit of a weak translation. The NKJV uses the term “undone,” which is a far better representation of what Isaiah was saying. “To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. . . . The instant [Isaiah] measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.”27

These are the first words uttered by Isaiah in the entire prophecy. His first realisation, as it were, was of his unholiness in the light of God’s holiness.

Isaiah cried, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” He may have been a far more righteous man than his fellow-Israelites, but when he saw himself in the light of who God was, he realised his true condition. The character of God is a great leveller, and “the more we know of God, the more sinful by comparison we feel ourselves to be.”28 Unlike his contemporaries, Isaiah

doesn’t saunter into God’s presence. For the first time he really worships God. . . . For the first time, he sees that he’s typical of his generation, whose faith was unthinking and glib. Their mouths were not filled with seraphic worship but with flippant repetitions and self-justifying excuses. But now Isaiah sees himself, because he sees God. And something new is entering his heart—humility.29

Don’t allow yourself to have a loftier opinion of yourself than you ought to have! We measure our own righteousness in the light of God’s character, not that of fellow sinners. You may well be better than your neighbours (and if you are a Christian and they are not, you should be!), but you share your neighbour’s “unclean lips” when measured against the ultimate standard.

Isaiah’s self-evaluation in the light of God’s holiness is typical of biblical saints who came to a similar realisation: Abraham (Genesis 18:27), Jacob (Genesis 32:10), Job (Job 40:1-5), David (2 Samuel 7:18), Paul (1 Timothy 1:15), Peter (Luke 5:8-11); etc.

Isaiah’s assessment of himself was no mere expression of self-pity. It was not pretended humility. He did not want people to tell him how good he actually was! He expressed dismay because “my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” His assessment came because he had seen the King! If you want a true assessment of who you are, pray for a greater vision of the King!

God did not comfort Isaiah that he was not as bad as he was making himself out to be. God concurred with Isaiah’s estimation of himself—or, rather, Isaiah concurred with God’s estimation of him!—but provided a means of cleansing.

Note that God took the initiative to provide a means of cleansing. Note also that the means of cleansing came from the altar. The altar is Christ (Hebrews 13:10-12)! Cleansing was available to Isaiah, as it is to us, only through Christ. “The live coal from the altar is here the instrument of cleansing. The altar is the place of sacrifice. The truth for us in New Testament terminology is that all cleansing is based upon the death of Christ.”30

The means of cleansing—a live coal—was a painful one. Isaiah’s unclean lips needed to be cauterised. It is not always painless to be brought to the end of ourselves.

Looking Outward

Looking inward (after having seen the King) was the best thing Isaiah could have done. He did not need a better self-esteem; he needed a biblical estimation of himself. And when he had such an estimation, he was rendered useful for God’s service!

God has not brought Isaiah into this experience merely to let him despair. Confession is the gateway to cleansing; for when the prophet realizes his need, God can meet that need. So many people ever get to the point where they will admit that there is anything wrong with them. Consequently they never acknowledge the need of the Saviour. Self-righteousness holds the blessed Lord at arm’s length.30

Isaiah’s acknowledgement of his sinfulness, and his subsequent cleansing, had at least four practical results in his life.

Ready Service

First, Isaiah was eager to serve the Lord. “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’” (v. 8).

Having cleansed Isaiah, the Lord immediately made it known to his prophet that there was still work to do. In Isaiah’s hearing, God asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” We might wonder who the “us” in this verse is speaking of. I am of the opinion that, as in Genesis 1:26-27, it is speaking of the Triune God. There are some who have argued that God was including the seraphim in “us,” but there is, to my knowledge, no indication anywhere in Scripture that God ever consulted angels with regard to what he intended to do.32

Even though God did not actually detail what the call involved, Isaiah immediately volunteered. “Here am I! Send me.” Because he had been cleansed, he now felt ready to serve his Lord. If we share even a glimpse of Isaiah’s vision of holiness, we will no doubt be as eager to serve as he was. “What silences Christians is a curious mingling of self-admiration with a guilty fear that God is against them. His remedy is the blood of Christ purifying our consciences, so that we serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14). A guilty conscience, liberated by grace, unleashes us.”33 Are you one of God’s willing volunteers?

Unwavering Obedience

It would be nice to stop reading at v. 8. We would then end on the high note of Isaiah’s willingness to serve. Unfortunately, the text does not end there. In fact, vv. 9-10 are significant enough to be quoted no fewer than six times in the New Testament!

In the remainder of the chapter, God tells Isaiah precisely what he will be called to do.

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.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”

And he said:

“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and 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.”

(Isaiah 6:9-13)

We should note that each of the New Testament citations of this passage (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-41; Acts 28:26-27; Romans 11:8) quotes Isaiah in the context of the rejection of God’s word in Christ. The New Testament, then, specifically identifies “the Lord” in this passage as Jesus Christ.

But to return to Isaiah for a moment, his commission was a difficult one. His message would be one of retribution: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Far from promising Isaiah positive reception to his preaching, the Lord assured him that his ministry would serve to harden hearts even more than they were already hardened.

The Lord uses three figurative expressions here to describe this hardening. Isaiah would “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.”

The word translated “dull” means, literally, “to make fat.” Figuratively, it speaks of creating in the hearer a lack of feeling for the operations of divine grace. The word translated “heavy” means just that, and in this context it signifies dullness of hearing. The word for blind literally means “to smear thickly,” and it was used of the yellowy adhesive that is secreted during sleep that keeps one’s eyes closed and thereby prevents sight.

As Keil and Delitzsch conclude, “Their spiritual sight, spiritual hearing, and spiritual feeling were to be taken away, their eyes becoming blind, and their ears deaf, and their hearts being covered over with the grease of insensibility.”34

Isaiah was somewhat disturbed by this message that he must preach. Unlike Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he did not actually complain. “It did not occur to Isaiah that he knew better than the Lord of Hosts.”35 Nevertheless, “he found no pleasure in the thought that his influence would be counter-redemptive. There was no feeling of self-righteous payback.”36

Rather than rubbing his hands together in glee at the thought of declaring judgement, Isaiah asked, “How long, O Lord?” No doubt, it was a question uttered with tear-filled eyes. He was willing to serve, though he took no delight in declaring judgement.

Isaiah’s example is a good one, by the way. There is something wrong with a Christian who takes delight in judgement being exercised against unbelievers. Even God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11).

Nevertheless, judgement was certain for Judah. God’s answer to Isaiah is frightening: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and 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 destruction would be devastating. The initial losses would be 90%, but even the remaining tenth would be burned again! The people had resisted grace long enough, and God had given them over to a reprobate mind. Judgement was sure to come! “If we resist God, he may withdraw light from our understanding to the point that faith becomes impossible.”37

A vision of God’s holiness is essential to an unwavering willingness to obey.

Holy Boldness

It was one thing for Isaiah to preach during the reigns of godly King Uzziah and his godly son Jotham, and later again under godly Hezekiah. It was a different story under wicked Ahaz.

I find it significant that chapter 6 occurred in the year of Uzziah’s death, and chapter 7 opens in the reign of Ahaz. No record is given of prophecies made during Jotham’s reign. No doubt, the writer wants us to see the boldness displayed in chapter 7 in the light of the vision of chapter 6.

Ahaz was a godless man who wholeheartedly embraced idolatry. According to 2 Kings 16:1-4, he “did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” So pervasive was his tendency to open idolatry that “he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree.” This was a man who was no friend of God and therefore no friend of God’s servants. And yet, when Isaiah was sent to Ahaz, he went unwaveringly and preached boldly.

Now, let us not fool ourselves by thinking that Isaiah felt absolutely no trepidation at the thought of confronting godless King Ahaz. How would you feel having to deliver an ultimatum to a king who was so godless that he would even offer his own son in sacrifice to a false god? Most of us are terrified at the thought of mentioning God to family, friends and colleagues! But, as Phillips observes, “that is the difference it makes to have seen the sovereignty of God. . . . Awareness of the sovereignty of God, especially as it brings us to our knees in supplication before His throne of grace, gives us the holy boldness so desperately needed in our time.”38

If you lack boldness in your evangelism, what you need is a vision of God’s holiness! In the New Testament, the apostle Paul expressed it this way: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Corinthians 5:11). Just as Isaiah was driven in his preaching by a vision of the Lord on his throne, we will be driven in our evangelism by a vision of Jesus Christ on his Judgement Seat.

When John Knox was asked how he could boldly stand before Mary, Queen of Scots, and preach the truth to her, he replied, “When you have just spent time on your knees before the King of Kings, you do not find the Queen of Scotland to be so frightening.” May that be true of us!

Gospel Hope

You may have noticed that we left out one small phrase at the very end of chapter 6. God’s word to Isaiah was that he would experience opposition and would be used as God’s instrument of judgement. But even in the midst of judgement there is hope! The last phrase of v. 13 reads, “The holy seed is its stump.”

Some have seen this as a prophecy of Christ as the holy seed of the woman coming to crush the head of the serpent (cf. Genesis 3:15). I am of the opinion that it is, in fact, a reference to a remnant. God described the judgement of Judah in terms of a terebinth or oak tree being felled, but the stump remaining. Now that remaining stump is identified as “the holy seed.” The judgement would clear the way for new growth. Grace, and not judgement, would have the final word!

Isaiah concludes with an assurance of the finality of God’s grace. God will judge his people, but not with finality. . . . God was finished with Isaiah’s generation, but they did not defeat salvation. Jesus did come, and his grace will remake the whole world.39

In the same way that God took the initiative to cleanse Isaiah by means of the burning coal from the altar, God also took the initiative to secure a remnant to himself. And that remnant would be secured by the same means!

As you see when you read the records of Kings and Chronicles, God had a purpose to bring Messiah through Judah, and specifically through the line of David. Even the unfaithfulness of man could not thwart the faithfulness of God!

Don’t miss the significance of the fact that the remnant is called a holy seed! “How astounding that God should use the word ‘holy’ of the remnant of his people when it has been used already in v. 3 in relation to his own transcendent being! This is condescending grace indeed!”40

By God’s amazing grace, his remnant was preserved as a holy people, set apart for his special purposes, and made to be just like him!

Astonishing things can happen when we worship God! When our outlook in life is bleak, we need to look upward and pray to God for a vision of holiness. When we receive it, we will gain a proper estimation of ourselves, and then we will be able to serve God more faithfully, boldly and thankfully. May this be true of us!

Show 40 footnotes

  1. Wikipedia, “The lamps are going out,” http://goo.gl/MqnT, retrieved 7 October 2012.
  2. Herschel Hobbs and Franklin H Paschall, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1972, Logos Bible Software edition).
  3. George Adam Smith, The Book of Isaiah, 2 vols. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927), 1:57-58.
  4. Sproul, The Holiness of God , 19.
  5. Alfred Martin, Isaiah: The Salvation of Jehovah (Chicago: Moody Press, 1956), 33.
  6. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 20.
  7. Geoffrey W. Grogan, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1986), 6:55.
  8. Richard Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008), 6-7.
  9. In fact, in Revelation 4, we are given a picture of four six-winged “living creatures” around the throne of God. We should be careful of being too dogmatic one way or the other.
  10. Grogan, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6:55.
  11. The “living creatures” in Revelation 4 actually share characteristics with Isaiah’s seraphim and Ezekiel’s living creatures. We should not discount the possibility that John’s living creatures may be a third type of angel!
  12. O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Prophets (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004), 216.
  13. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 25.
  14. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace?, 7.
  15. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., Isaiah: God Saves Sinners (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005), 77.
  16. Ortlund, Isaiah, 77.
  17. Phillips, What’s So Amazing about the Doctrines of Grace?, 7
  18. Many commentators argue that Isaiah 6, though chronologically “misplaced” in the prophecy, is actually the record of Isaiah’s first call to ministry. I prefer to understand this chapter, with Calvin, as an affirmation of an earlier call at a significant point in Isaiah’s life. As the apostles received the Great Commission long after they were initially called as apostles, so Isaiah received this vision some time after his initial call as an affirmation that God expected him to continue his ministry even after Uzziah’s death.
  19. Ortlund, Isaiah, 76.
  20. Phillips, What’s So Amazing about the Doctrines of Grace?, 7.
  21. Smith, The Book of Isaiah, 1:64-65.
  22. Smith, The Book of Isaiah, 1:67.
  23. Ortlund, Isaiah, 78.
  24. Ortlund, Isaiah, 78.
  25. Ortlund, Isaiah, 78.
  26. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 28.
  27. Sproul, The Holiness of God, 28-29.
  28. Derek Thomas, God Delivers: Isaiah Simply Explained (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1998), 64.
  29. Ortlund, Isaiah, 79.
  30. Martin, Isaiah, 35.
  31. Martin, Isaiah, 35.
  32. Nebuchadnezzar spoke of his punishment as “the decree of the watchers” (Daniel 4:17), but, in line with the NIV’s translation, that probably means the decree that was announced by the watchers (angels). Daniel later referred to the same decree as “the decree of the Most High” (v. 24).
  33. Ortlund, Isaiah, 80.
  34. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 199-200.
  35. Phillips, What’s So Amazing about the Doctrines of Grace?, 12.
  36. Ortlund, Isaiah, 82.
  37. Ortlund, Isaiah, 81.
  38. Phillips, What’s So Amazing about the Doctrines of Grace?, 15.
  39. Ortlund, Isaiah, 83.
  40. Grogan, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6:58.