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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 6

Verse 1

This is one of the most famous chapters in the whole prophecy, but there is this mystery about it, namely, that nobody knows for sure just where it belongs chronologically. Practically all of the liberal and radically critical writers make it the beginning of all of Isaiah's prophetic writings, identifying it with his original call to the prophetic office. More conservative scholars find many objections to that understanding of it. If it was Isaiah's call to the prophetic office, why should it have been placed this deep into the prophecy? Furthermore, at the very beginning of Isaiah, his prophecies were identified with the reign of King Uzziah and other kings; and, since this vision is placed in the year of Uzziah's death, with the evident presumption that King Uzziah was already dead, making this vision the first one Isaiah ever had would leave no room for those prophecies clearly stated to have occurred in Uzziah's reign. It appears to this writer, therefore, that there is a better explanation of this chapter than the current fad of making it Isaiah's call to the prophetic office. Note that the scriptures do not even hint that this was the beginning of Isaiah's prophetic ministry.

Therefore, we understand this great chapter as a second appearance of the Lord to Isaiah, much in the same manner that God appeared to Abraham a second time in Haran, to Jonah a second time, and to Daniel a number of times. The true reason for God's appearance to Isaiah in this marvelous vision lies in the importance of the tremendously significant prophecy that Isaiah was here commissioned to deliver to Israel, namely, Israel's final and fatal apostasy that resulted in their official judicial hardening by God himself. This is one of the greatest prophecies in the Bible; it is quoted no less than four times in the New Testament; and it is fully applicable to the secular Israel even to the present time. This judicial hardening of Israel so dramatically prophesied here was the end of racial Israel as the "chosen people of God." Such a message, Isaiah would have understood perfectly; and the prophet's need of a special revelation and commission from God Himself in order to enable and encourage Isaiah's announcement of it is evident enough.

We fully agree with Lowth that this vision (of Isaiah 6) could be, "A new designation to introduce more solemnly a general declaration of the whole course of God's dispensations in regard to his people and the fate of the nation (Israel)."[1]

The cosmic sweep of this prophecy concerning the rejection of the once "chosen people" including, of course, the salvation of"a remnant," was also noted by Lowth, as follows:

"Although it relates primarily to the prophet's own times, and the obduracy of the Jews of that age, and to their punishment by the Babylonian captivity; it extends in its full latitude to the age of Messiah, and the blindness of the Jews to the gospel; (See Matthew 13:14,15; John 12:40; Acts 28:26,27; and Romans 11:7,8) to the desolation of their country by the Romans, and to their being rejected by God."[2]

Thus the extremely significant implications of the prophecy in this chapter constitute the only reason needed to explain why a special revelation from God to Isaiah accompanied the giving of it. The chapter falls into three short divisions: (1) The Vision of God (Isaiah 6:1-5); (2) Isaiah's cleansing (Isaiah 6:6-8); and (3) Prophecy of Israel's hardening and rejection (Isaiah 6:9-13).

Isaiah 6:1-5

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke, Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts."

"In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord ..." The king Uzziah is thought to have been the cousin of Isaiah; and he was no doubt held in highest honor and appreciation by the prophet. At any rate, his death was a public tragedy and occasion of great sorrow. It is no accident, therefore, that upon such a tragic occasion a special vision of the Great King should have appeared to his prophet. Israel's salvation could never have come from the activity of any earthly king, no matter how good, or how great. Too many might have been looking to the wrong throne for the blessings Israel needed. It was high time that their vision should have been lifted upward to God Himself, to the true throne of authority and blessing. Many a human being has found an occasion of great personal tragedy to have been also an occasion when a new vision of God upon his throne enabled him to find new cleansing and deliverance from the Lord, as did Isaiah here.

We appreciate McGuiggan's discerning comment on this: For someone it might be: in the year that my wife, or my son, or my little girl died, or in the year that my business failed, or in the year my child became a drug-addict, or in the year when my son was born crippled, or in the year of any great personal tragedy ... I SAW THE LORD SITTING ON A THRONE, high and lifted up.[3]

This is always the correct answer. No matter what tragic sorrow overwhelms and destroys mankind, whether individually or collectively, let all men behold the Lord upon the eternal throne. There and there only is the source of our hope and salvation.

Note our assumption here that Uzziah was already dead when this vision came to Isaiah. As Lowth said, "The phrase, In the year that king Uzziah died, probably means `after the death of Uzziah'; as the same phrase, Isaiah 24:28, means `after the death of Ahaz.'"[4]

"His train filled all the temple ..." The marginal note gives "skirts" instead of "train" here. "Robes" might be a better word.

The three pairs of wings on each of the seraphim are believed to stand for reverence, humility, and speedy obedience to God's will.

"The seraphim ..." These may not be identified with the Cherubim which had four wings (in the temple, two wings), not six. "This word is nowhere else in the Bible applied to God's attendant angels; but the word is applied to the fiery, flying (not winged) serpents that bit the Israelites in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6)."[5] It might be that the suggestion of these strange beings is connected in some way with the satanic wickedness which was destined, finally, to overwhelm and destroy Israel, which eventuality this revelation from God to Isaiah so sternly prophesied.

The word "house" in Isaiah 6:4 is more properly translated as "temple." Jamieson also identified the "smoke" in this passage with the holy Shekinah of 1 Kings 8:10 and Ezekiel 10:4, indicating the presence of God.

Notice that Isaiah's consciousness of God's presence resulted at once in his awareness of his own sins and uncleanness. Throughout the Bible, this reaction on the part of any person becoming aware of God's presence is normal, indeed without exception. Examples of this are Gideon (Judges 6:22), Manoah (Judges 13:22), Job (Job 42:5,6), Peter (Luke 5:8), John (Revelation 1:17), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40,41).

The notion that Isaiah was just as wicked as the Israelites generally were should be rejected. True, all men, in the presence of God, must inevitably be overcome with a sense of wickedness and unworthiness; but that is a different thing altogether from being as wicked as are those in full rebellion against God. Both Noah (Genesis 7:1) and Lot (2 Peter 2:8) were called "righteous" in scripture; but no man is truly righteous in the ultimate sense. Thus, we should understand Isaiah's confession of sin here as a conscious realization of the wickedness of all flesh in the sight of God, and not as an admission that he was just as wicked as the Jews generally were in that rebellious era. If he had been, God most certainly would not have entrusted him with the commission given in this chapter.

Verse 6

"Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he touched my mouth with it, and said, Lo, this has touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin forgiven. 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."

The forgiveness of Isaiah's sin here was not final and absolute, because the ultimate price of all human redemption from sin had not at that time been paid in the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. The meaning is simply that God "passed over" his sins as explained in Romans 3:23-26. Rawlinson observed that the symbolical "forgiveness" achieved here by means of the live coal from off the altar actually demonstrated that (1) sin could indeed be purged; but that the highest supernatural creatures, even one standing before God Himself could alone procure such a forgiveness.[6] If this should be allowed, then the live coal from off the altar would be a symbol of that greater and all-sufficient sacrifice in Christ that the ancient altar typified.

"And thy sin forgiven ..." "This forgiveness was not accomplished by any physical effect of fire to cleanse from sin, but in relation to that altar-sacrifice, of which Messiah in his death was to be the antitype."[7]

God's challenging question, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" raises the problem of who is meant by "us." Some think that God here included members of his heavenly court; but our own view is that we have here exactly the plural that was used when God said, "Let us make man, etc." The Trinity is therefore the most logical answer to the question; but this is not absolutely certain. because, "The plural may merely indicate majesty."[8]

Verse 9

"And he said, Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed. Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until cities be waste without inhabitant, and houses without man, and the land become utterly waste, and Jehovah have removed men far away, and the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land. And if there be yet a tenth in it, it also shall in turn be eaten up; as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stock remaineth when they are felled; so the holy seed is the stock thereof."

"Go and tell this people ..." This must be contrasted with "Go and tell my people." Israel is no longer God's people, but "this people". Furthermore, this designation was not confined to Israel, the northern kingdom; but "Even Judah, under certain circumstances, is addressed contemptuously as `this people' in Isaiah 8:11,28:11,14, and Isaiah 39:13,14."[9]

What is prophesied in this passage is the judicial hardening of Israel in their rebellion against God. The prophecy is stated in different forms. Here it appears imperatively; but in other places the prophecy is referred to as self-accomplished as in Acts 28:27, or as having occurred passively as in Matthew 13:13-15. Here, as Dummelow pointed out, "The result of Isaiah's preaching is spoken of as if it were the purpose of it."[10]

The Hardening of Israel, here prophesied by Isaiah, is a Biblical phenomenon of the utmost importance; and it is extensively illustrated by examples of it given in the holy Bible. For a somewhat extended comment on this subject, see our Volume 6 of the New Testament Series of Commentaries, pp. 376-379. Christ himself declared in both Matthew 13:14, and in Mark 4:12 that this prophecy of Israel's hardening was actually fulfilled in that rebellious people.

The classical example from the Bible is that of Pharaoh, of whom it is stated ten times that "Pharaoh hardened his heart ..." after which it is said that, "God hardened Pharaoh's heart." God never hardened anyone's heart who had not already hardened his own heart many times. Thus it was said of this prophecy that Israel had themselves shut their ears, closed their eyes, and hardened their hearts.

Thus we may say that God hardened Israel, that Israel hardened themselves, and further, that Satan hardened their hearts. "The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving" (2 Corinthians 4:4). The "blinding" of this passage and the "strong delusion" of 2 Thessalonians 2:11 KJV, and the "working of error" (2 Thessalonians 2:11, ASV) are all designations of exactly the same condition described here as "hardening."

The consequences of judicial hardening are very extensive. The physical destruction of hardened individuals or nations was the result usually to be expected; and when Christ himself publicly announced the hardening of Israel as a fulfillment of this very passage, the followers of Christ accepted it as a judgment of doom and destruction upon the physical Israel. This Gentile hatred of the Jews (because most of Christ's followers in that first century were Gentiles) resulted at once in an attitude of hatred toward the Jews just like that which the Jews of earlier times had developed toward the Gentiles; but the apostle Paul launched a blockbuster of a prophecy to counteract Gentile conceit which is recorded in Romans 11:25,26, indicating that the hardening of Israel would not result in their physical destruction but that the race would continue until "the fullness of the Gentiles be come in." Paul called this a "mystery"; and indeed it is, because the hardening of Israel did not issue in the total death of the people, as previously had been the case with hardened peoples, as with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon, and many others.

"How long ...?" It was fulfilled primarily in the events of the conquest of Israel by Babylon, the destruction and captivity of many of the people; but the ultimate fulfillment came when the Romans under Vespasian and Titus destroyed Jerusalem, put to death 1,100,000, crucified 30,000 young men upon the broken walls of Jerusalem, deported thousands to Egypt, and destroyed the government of Israel for almost two millenniums.

Paul's declaration that "all Israel shall be saved" is frequently misunderstood to be a declaration that all of the old racial Israel shall be saved; but the Israel Paul was speaking of in that passage is the spiritual Israel, from which the racial Israel is indeed not excluded, but which is not connected in any manner whatever with racial considerations. Jamieson commented as follows on this:

"According to Isaiah, not "all Israel" but the elect remnant alone, is destined to salvation. God shows unchangeable severity toward sin, but covenant faithfulness in preserving a remnant, and to that remnant Isaiah bequeaths the prophetic legacy of the second part of his book, Isaiah 40-66."[11]

"And if there be yet a tenth in it, it also shall be eaten up ...!" This statement is variously understood; but we find Lowth's comment on this fully in line with all that is known about it.

"This prophecy has been made so clear by its accomplishment (fulfillment) that there remains little room for doubt of the fulfillment of it. Nebuchadnezzar took into captivity the great part of the people; the "tenth" remaining in the land, of the poorer people, followed Gedaliah (2 Kings 25:12,22). Even these, fleeing into Egypt contrary to Jeremiah's warning, perished there ..." In the subsequent and more remarkable fulfillment in the Roman destruction (A.D. 70); after the great majority perished, the "tenth" remainder increased rapidly and became very numerous in the days of Hadrian, who, being provoked by their rebellions, slew half a million more, thus a second time almost exterminating the nation. Yet after such signal and near-universal exterminations, the stock of the old Israel still remains."[12]

Furthermore, these repeated massacres and exterminations of Israel have continued throughout history and even down into current times when they were again repeated under Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany. In the light of all this, the meaning of Isaiah 6:12 is clear enough.

Some have pointed out that the Septuagint (LXX) reads somewhat differently from the American Standard Version in these final verses of Isaiah 6, but as Kidner noted, "The Dead Sea Scroll Isaiah supports our text."<12b>

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 6". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.