“I saw the Lord!” In chapter 6, Isaiah records the moment that shapes his life and ministry more than anything else. In a year when stability died with the death of long-reigning king Uzziah, Isaiah saw the Lord “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (1). Assyria and Israel may have been on the move, but God was immovable on His throne. He was in control.
Isaiah’s vision of God staggered, humbled, and commissioned him. He was staggered by the majesty of God and his attendants—the six-winged seraphim (burning ones) who hovered above Him (“above him stood the seraphim”—2). The seraphim called out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (3). As they called, the temple shook on its foundations and was filled with smoke (4).
Isaiah is overwhelmed. His first, instinctive reaction is to see himself as unholy and unworthy: “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” (5). What’s more, he realizes the same is true for all his fellow Jews. The reason for his sudden awareness of being sinful? His vision of the Holy One: “for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (5).
Right at this point, when Isaiah is flattened and exposed, one of the burning ones takes a “burning coal” from the altar (in the temple), carrying it with tongs (6). He touches Isaiah’s lips with the coal and pronounces him cleansed of impurity: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (7). The altar, speaking of sacrifice, has provided a way for Isaiah to be purified before a holy God.
Having been cleansed, Isaiah is now commissioned. In a sense he volunteers. He hears the Lord speaking (previously it had been one of the seraphim), asking a question: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” (8). Isaiah’s response? “Here I am! Send me.”
If Isaiah was the only human in the vision, he must have known that God’s question was more of a commissioning. Isaiah signs up for being sent before knowing the specifics of his divine assignment. It turns out his calling will not be an easy or inviting one. He is charged to bring a word of judgment and warning to people who will prove unresponsive (9-10). They have ears that don’t really hear and eyes that don’t perceive (9). It seems Isaiah’s message only accomplishes making their hearts more hardened, their ears more deaf and their eyes more blind (10). In fact, the message Isaiah carries seems to have the opposite effect of what we would expect. It brings hardening rather than hope: “lest they . . . turn and be healed” (10).
Isaiah has a follow-up question regarding his assignment: “How long, O Lord?” (11). He wonders how long he will need to speak to an obstinate people. God informs him that his assignment will not be complete until judgment comes, until the “cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away” (11-12).
The vision ends with a glimmer of hope: a holy seed will remain, like a stump of a tree after a fire (13).
Behold Your God
Human kings come and go; The Lord remains on his kingly throne. In the year that king Uzziah dies, Isaiah sees the true King still reigning over all from his heavenly temple. When Judah is shaken by the news of the death of their long-reigning king (52 years), Isaiah is shaken by a vision of God’s glory (4). In times of political and national instability, there is stability for those who have their eyes open to see the Lord.
The Lord’s holiness exposes our sinfulness. Isaiah sees the majestic glory of the Lord, high and lifted up. His first reaction is to realize how unholy he and his countrymen are (5). God’s holiness exposes our sinfulness.
The burning holiness of God purifies the repentant but burns up the resistant. The same holiness that purges Isaiah’s uncleanness without destroying him, consumes the people who resist and reject the Lord’s rule (“it will be burned again”—13).
The Word of the Lord can harden as well as heal. Strangely, the message that is needed to open eyes and soften hearts can also blind eyes and harden hearts. Jesus said something similar of the parables he spoke to crowds (Matthew 13:11-13).
Here Am I
I may not always see the Lord like Isaiah did, but I can see His glory. The seraphim declare the whole earth is full of the Lord’s glory. The implication: everyone in the world can see God’s glory (Romans 1:19-21). Better yet, John tells us that Isaiah’s vision of God was actually a vision of Christ: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). I too have seen “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The Lord makes provision to atone for our sin. From the sacrificial altar, one of the seraphim carries a live coal in a pair of tongs. After touching Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal, he pronounces his guilt gone and his sins atoned. Only after the coming of Jesus do we come to understand the basis for this cleansing—His atoning sacrifice for our sin. God has made a way for his people, starting with his messengers, to have their sins removed. Praise Him.
God’s glorious majesty and grace move us to be his messengers. Isaiah responds to the vision of God’s glory and the cleansing of his grace by volunteering to be sent in His name (“Here I am! Send me).
God’s messengers speak the message regardless of the response. Isaiah is not given much encouragement regarding the impact of his ministry. No promise of wide-spread, national revival. Rather, the Lord indicates those who hear him will remain unmoved and unchanged until judgment sweeps them away like a forest fire. Only a stump (remnant) will remain. Still, Isaiah faithfully discharges all the duties of his ministry (2 Tim. 4:5). May I do the same.