For the last two weeks, we have been in the Northern Kingdom with first, Elijah and then, Jonah. This week we move south to the Kingdom of Judah with the story of the call of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah is the greatest prophet of the Old Testament. To him was granted the clearest revelation of the nature and character of the coming Messiah; so much so that he is often referred to as the “Fifth Evangelist”. Our passage today is one of the most familiar passages of the O.T.
Read Isaiah 6:1-13
The passage naturally divides into three sections. The first is . . .
A Holy God (vss. 1-4)
While the Northern Kingdom had a series of royal dynasties, the Southern Kingdom of Judah had only one. Throughout its history a descendant of David always occupied the throne in Jerusalem. One of those kings was Uzziah. He became king at sixteen years of age and reigned in Jerusalem for fifty-one years. He was one of the most successful and powerful kings of the Southern Kingdom.
The great powers of the day, Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the north, had fought over this area for centuries. But now, both Egypt and the Mesopotamian powers were relatively weak, allowing the smaller kingdoms in the area, such as Israel and Judah to grow and prosper. But that was soon to change. In the east, the power of Assyria was rising. Soon the armies of the Assyrian Empire would conquer the Northern Kingdom and threaten Judah as well.
Our passage begins with a time notation, “In the year that King Uzziah died” (vs. 1a). That would be about 740 B.C., 18 years before the fall of the Northern Kingdom.
But it is more than just a note of the time. It is also a statement about the mind and heart of the nation. There would be folks living in Jerusalem who had never known any other king, and now the king was dead.
I remember my mom talking about the death of FDR. He had been in office so long that some people had trouble recalling any other president. It was almost inconceivable that he was dead. My mom talked about how upset everyone was—how they worried about the future. He had steered the country through the Depression and World War II and now he wouldn’t be there to guide the nation into the post-war world.
I think something like that was going on in the minds and hearts of the people of Judah. What would happen? What did the future hold? What kind of king would Uzziah’s successor be?
It is in this time of uncertainty and political upheaval that Isaiah comes into the temple (he’s apparently a priest). While he is there, perhaps with his heart filled with foreboding for the future of his country, he has a vision which changes him forever, “I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (vs. 1b).
The word “Lord” here is not the name of God, YHWH, it is the word which can be used to refer to any earthly king—a person in authority, a boss. Isaiah is saying “In the year that the king died, I saw the King, seated on a throne . . .” The king may be dead, but the real King is still on the throne. Although the times may be uncertain, the heavenly King is still in control.
We know that he is more than just an earthly king because he’s in the temple. The curtain that separates the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies is drawn aside and Isaiah sees the Lord. But the “train of his robe filled the temple.” The meaning here is “the hem of his robe.” This God is so immense, so great, that just the hem of his robe fills the temple.
And above him fly seraphim. The “burning ones” who stand continually in the presence of God. They are terrifying. In Revelation, they are called the “four living creatures”. Listen to the description of them from Revelation 4:6-8:
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. 8 Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings.
Not exactly the Victorian concept of an angel, certainly not something you’d want to meet in a dream (nightmare?). But most terrifying of all is what they are saying,
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (vs. 3).
The word holy means “set apart – different”. When something is holy it is set apart from common use. For example, something like the shovel that was used to remove the ashes from the Altar of Burned Offerings in the temple. It was just a shovel, but it was holy because it was set apart for a special purpose.
In Hebrew there are no adverbs, so repetition is used to convey intensity. Holy = different; holy, holy = really different; holy, holy, holy = really, really different. God is not just different in degree; he is different in kind. “Who is like you, Lord God Almighty?” (Psalm 89:8). God is the only truly holy one; for only he is self-existent and non-determined.
This is not some kindly “grandfather in the sky”. This is not Jesus my pal. This is the transcendent God, Creator of heaven and earth and judge of the universe. And, although God invites us to come boldly into his presence and to call him father, we must never forget that he is the incomparable God “High and exalted.”
Once we have the vision of a Holy God then we find what follows . . .
A Humbled Servant (vss. 5-7)
“Woe to me!”
Isaiah’s first response when he has the vision of a holy God is not “In the year the year that the king died, I saw the real King and now he’s going to deal with those nasty Assyrians.”
His first response is “Woe to me! For I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5).
Notice: “Woe to me!” not “Woe to them!” The first concern of the person who has had a true encounter with God is not the sins of others but their own sin.
Now, that does not mean that there is no condemnation of sin. Twenty-three times in the book of Isaiah we find the prophet speaking out against the sin of his nation, saying “Woe to them”. Just in the first five chapters:
Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him (1:4)
The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves (3:9).
Woe to the wicked! Disaster is upon them! They will be paid back for what their hands have done (3:11).
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land (5:8).
Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine (5:11).
Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit, and wickedness as with cart ropes (5:18).
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter (5:20).
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight (5:21).
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks (5:22).
But this comes after the prophet has acknowledged his own complicity in the sin of his society. “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” They’re bad, and I’m just like them.
One of the criticisms that people level against Christians is that we excel in pointing out the sins of others, while ignoring our own sins. We point to the evil of homosexuality and abortion and do not acknowledge that we are guilty, too, guilty of pride, of self-righteousness, of unconcern. How much better, instead of pointing fingers of condemnation we held out to them the hope of grace from one sinner to another.
In the next verses, we see the grace of God.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for” (vss. 6-7).
What Isaiah could not do for himself, God does for him. Isaiah could not atone for his sin; for that he needed outside help. The seraph comes to him unbidden. We have no record of Isaiah asking for help—only a cry of despair that he was ruined because he had seen God.
The seraph takes the coal from the sacrificial altar, reminding us that our cleansing comes through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is a picture of the teaching of Paul, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
A Hard Message (vss. 8-13)
Then I heard the voice of the Lord (vs. 8)
Until now he had not heard the Lord’s voice because he wasn’t ready to hear it. But now, his sin covered and cleansed he hears the voice of the Lord.
“Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
It’s as if the Lord is not even speaking directly to Isaiah, but to the heavenly council, the assembly of heavenly beings. But Isaiah overhears and offers, “Here am I. Send me!” This is not some heroic statement, “Even if everyone else fails you, I follow you to the death!” It’s more like, “Is there anything I can do? Do you have a job for me?”
Maybe Isaiah regretted volunteering for he is given is a hard message to preach,
9 [The Lord] said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never
Isaiah is told to preach in such a way that will cause the hearts of his hearers to be calloused against the message. “Otherwise,” God says, “they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. And I don’t want that! I want them to be calloused and dull and blind.” When a people are so far gone, that judgment is already determined, then the truth becomes a cause of hardening.
We see it in the earthly ministry of Jesus. In John 8:45 he tells the Pharisees, “Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!” Not, “Although I tell you the truth, you do not believe me” but “Because I tell you the truth.” The telling of the truth itself becomes the cause of unbelief.
And what do you do when the truth is the one thing that will not be believed? Do you stop speaking the truth? Do you try to “spin” it to make it more palatable to the culture? Do you hide some of the more disturbing aspects of it so as not to offend?
Isaiah, perhaps feeling some sympathy for the people asks, “For how long, O Lord?” How long do you want me to do this? For a year? Ten years? Forty years? And then there will be a great awakening and the people will understand and come back to you and be restored?
“Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remain in the land, it will again be laid waste” (vss. 11-13).
How long, Isaiah? Until the judgement comes. There will be no eventual turning, no revival—only conquest and captivity and even if a remnant remains in the land (a tenth) it, too will be laid waste.
Isaiah would not live to see it. For about 150 years the Kingdom of Judah would continue to exist, but then, God’s chosen instrument of judgment, the Babylonians, would conquer Jerusalem, deport her people and destroy the temple.
And yet, there is hope. Verse 13 . . .
But as the terebinth and oak
This looks ahead to the promise in 11:1, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Even though the house of David has been cut down, a stump remains, and, as sometimes happens, the stump will sprout. A descendant of David will again sit on the throne of Israel and his kingdom will be from everlasting to everlasting.
1. God knows the future. He knows what is going to happen and he controls the outcome. All the kings and presidents and powers of earth are as nothing. Not even the rebellious actions of sinful humans can prevent the fulfillment of his purpose.
2. There are times when rebuke and judgment is the will of God. Times when the very truth of God will be the cause of the hardening of hearts. There are times when repentance and revival may be his will. We don’t know when and we can’t control them.
We don’t know if we live in a time of judgment—when the preaching of the word will lead to further hardening and rejection.
We don’t know if we live in a time of repentance and renewal—when hearts will be softened and people will return to God in great numbers.
We don’t know which—but we are called to be faithful to the word of God in the time in which we are called to speak.