I have been working on a new book project for a while, God Is: Portraits of the King. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.
It was the year that the king, Uzziah, died; I saw Lord seated upon a throne, high and lifted up. The edges of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim stood above him; each had six wings. With two each covered their faces, with two each covered their feet, and with two each flew. This one called to that one and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy is YHWH of Armies; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The doorposts at the threshold shook from the voice calling out, and the whole building was full of smoke. I said, “Woe is me, for I am destroyed! Yes, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of Armies.”
One of the Seraphim flew to me—in his hand was a hot coal which he had taken from the altar with tongs—and he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity has been removed; your sins have been atoned for.”
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Who shall I send; who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am, send me!” He said, “Go and say to this people, ‘Listen carefully, but do not understand; see clearly, but do not know. Make fat the hearts of this people; make heavy their ears; and shut their eyes lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and their hearts understand, they turn, and I heal them.” I said, “How long, Oh Lord?” He said,
Until cities lie wasted from lack of inhabitants
and houses from the lack of a person,
and the land is made utterly desolate;
YHWH will send the people far away
and the forsaken places will multiply amid the land.
—But there will still be at tenth in it,
and it will turn—
It will be for the burning,
as in the case of a terebinth or an oak,
when felled, a pillar is among them;
a holy seed is its pillar.” – Isaiah 6:1-13
Centuries after Yahweh revealed himself to Moses and Israel at Sinai, many things had changed, but Israel’s inclination to sin had not. The prophesied new covenant had not yet arrived, but the curses anticipated in Deuteronomy 29-31 were at the cusp of fulfilment. For hundreds of years, Israel’s kings and the people had done “what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6, my translation), forsaking Yahweh. The kings of the North had abandoned the worship of Yahweh from their first king, Jeroboam. Judah did not lag far behind. Though there were several significant exceptions, king after king pursued idolatry and selfish ambition. The people were no better, worshipping idols at the high places, as had the Canaanites whom they displaced. As Yahweh had promised, disobedience would receive a curse. The first five chapters of Isaiah indict Judah and promise severe judgment (though not without hope, see 2:1-5, 4:2-6).
In this milieu, God summoned prophets—his emergency spokesmen. Israel had regular means to communicate with God and worship him, the priesthood and the written Law, but often they needed God to speak in a special way. Through his prophets, those who spoke for him, he would declare their present state, the consequences of sin, coming judgment, and God’s plan to uphold his covenant—despite their unworthiness.
We are told in Isaiah 1:1 that Isaiah’s ministry began in the reign of Uzziah, so the commissioning of Isaiah in chapter 6 takes place near the beginning of his ministry. We are told that it was the year Uzziah “the king” died. Uzziah at first did what was right in God’s eyes, but then he became strong and succumbed to pride (2 Chron 26:1-23). God’s kingdom prospered for a time but once again languished in sin. Powerful nations were rising in the areas surrounding Judah; war came and went. Amid their failures, Israel needed a king. Thus, Isaiah receives a vision of the King, not the leprous king who had recently died but the true king, the righteous and reigning king. Yahweh is seated on his throne; he is not ruling from a distance, for the edges of his robe fill the temple. He is present in glory and power. As Isaiah will shortly declare, “I have seen the King!” This king is not alone but surrounded by a vast multitude—an army. He is Yahweh Sabaoth, Yahweh who possesses armies, who rules over and commands the armies of heaven and of earth. With this title, we are reminded of the vision God shows Elisha’s servant: when a hostile army had surrounded them, the prophet assured his servant, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” and he prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see” (2 Kgs 6:16-17, NIV). “Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kgs 6:17, NIV). God reigns in heaven with an innumerable host of angels at his command.
It is certain members of this angelic army that catch Isaiah’s attention. His eyes are drawn to beings flying above the throne. Their name suggests that they are either like fire or flying serpents (Num 21:6; Isa 14:29; 30:6), but Isaiah doesn’t give a detailed description. He observes primarily their response to the one on the throne. These mighty beings—as we must surmise, dwelling as they are in the presence of God Almighty—are endowed with three sets of wings. Only one is necessary for flying; the other two? These demonstrate the creatures’ humility, their understanding of their own relationship to the one on the throne and his holiness. With two they veil their faces, unworthy to look upon the King. With two they cover their feet, demonstrating humility or unworthiness. These beings are not silent but cry out praise in antiphonal songs. God is not a mere holy thing, like the temple filled with his presence, but most holy—not once, nor twice, but thrice holy. This is the one that makes things holy, holiness itself. He is lifted up, exalted and far above the earth in power and majesty, yet he is nevertheless immanent: “The whole earth is filled with his glory.” The Temple may be the resting place of the tips of his robe, but his glory does not stop there. In response to the song of the Seraphim, the doorframes shake and smoke fills the temple: God is present, and his power is on display.
Isaiah gives the only possible response: “I am destroyed!” He knows he is unworthy of seeing the King, he is unworthy to even be in his presence. Isaiah is a man of “unclean lips,” he does not speak rightly as do the Seraphim, nor do the people with whom he dwells. What is left for an imperfect, profane, unworthy creature like Isaiah other than death? He is not alone in this expectation; when people see God or even an angel, they know that death awaits them (e.g. Judg 13:22). Did not God tell Moses as much, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exod 33:20, ESV)?
Yet God has not revealed himself to destroy Isaiah. Though worthy of death in the presence of the holy God, God shows mercy. A Seraphim cleans Isaiah from his sins, permitting him—even just for this moment—to stand in the presence of God. The message given to Isaiah is a brutal one. He has the ministry of hardening hearts; he will preach a message that will not bring repentance—though that is its offer—but will only provoke further sin. What happens when sinful people hear God’s words of judgment? We double down, don’t we? Though God offers life—turn and be saved!—we deny that judgment is coming, that Isaiah’s words are true, and find escape in sin’s fleeting pleasures.
Accompanied by God’s Spirit, preaching brings life and repentance; when the sentence of judgment has fallen, when enough is enough, preaching is itself judgment. The word of hope—repent and be saved!—falls on deaf ears. “Why repent when sin is so good? God has not judged me or my fathers—why should I believe he would act now?” is the boast of the Israelite then, as it is of the modern person. God’s patience becomes an excuse for dismissing his existence—or at least that he cares. What a horrifying job Isaiah is given! Yet there is hope: a remnant will remain, a tenth, God’s portion. The preaching of judgment will not bring about the final end; Deuteronomy’s New Covenant is still coming. But judgement will certainly fall, for God is holy.
“Holy” is a term frequent in the Bible. Though it has various uses, it often refers to something that is consecrated, that is distinguished from other things by its special purpose. The Temple is holy, set apart from all other places as the dwelling place of God on earth. God’s very throne is the holy of holies—or the most holy place—where he is enthroned between the cherubim. Next is the holy place, where incense offerings take place and the priest minister regularly. There are then the inner and outer courts—less and less holy as they move farther from the presence of God and are devoted to more and more mundane purposes (relatively speaking). Certain instruments are holy not because they are particularly distinct in their appearance but because of their intended use, in service to God. The more something is set aside for God, the more holy that thing is, and the more untouchable it is by that which is not devoted to God: if a person or animal even touched God’s holy mountain, Sinai, they were to be put to death! (Exod 19:12-13). All things are holy in relation to God; God is holy in relation to himself. He is not holy because he is devoted to this or that purpose, but because he is devoted to himself; he upholds his purposes, his plans.
This is what it means to be the ultimate king, he submits to no one; the creator, he was made by no one; the sovereign, he is controlled by no one; self-sufficient, he needs no one. If humans and all other things are made holy by their alignment and use for God’s purposes, God is holy by the fact that he unfailingly pursues his purposes and his plans; he unfailingly acts to make himself known. Thus, holiness is closely related to glory, or God’s character on display. We find the combination of holiness and glory in Isaiah’s vision: God is high and exalted, utterly distinct from everything created—terrifyingly so—and he makes himself known, filling the temple and the whole earth with his knowledge. Not only does Isaiah see God enthroned, but he also receives a tangible revelation of God’s glory; God is the King, ruling on a throne; God is the Lord of an immense army; God is merciful, through the Seraph cleansing Isaiah from his sin and permitting him to live even though seeing God is deserving of death (Exod 33:20). God is holy because he is so distinct from us, yet this very distinctness shaped by his character compels him to give of himself in the revelation of his glory. Thus the God who is holy, distant on his throne is by reason of this holiness close to us, present in the temple, and filling the earth with his glory.