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II. ISAIAH’S VISION OF GOD CH. 6
Many serious students of Isaiah have believed that the record of Isaiah’s call in this chapter occurred before he wrote any of the prophecies in this book. The title "Holy One of Israel," Isaiah’s trademark name for God, connects with his call, and he used that title for God throughout the book. Likewise, the prophet’s emphases on glory, majesty, and righteousness are strong in chapter 6, and they also appear throughout the rest of the book. As already mentioned, the three messages in chapters 1-5 provide a perfect introduction to the rest of Isaiah, and it was probably for this reason that these chapters were arranged in the text before chapter 6. By placing the record of his call here, Isaiah also vindicated the prophecies in chapters 1-5 for his readers. [Note: Delitzsch, 1:204.]
"Isaiah 6:1-13 is not simply his justification for being a prophet but is more particularly the heart of his answer to the problems raised by his preface [chs. 1-5]. It speaks of the triumph of grace." [Note: Motyer, p. 75.]
Also, chapter 6 provides a good transition into the prophecies that appear next, in chapters 7-39 and, particularly, in chapters 7-12. It shows how the sinful nation could become the Lord’s servant (a kingdom of priests), namely, by really looking to Yahweh and allowing Him to deal with her sin, as Isaiah did. It also explains the hardness of Israel that follows; she had not looked to God and had not responded appropriately to Him, as Isaiah did. In the call of Isaiah (Isaiah 6) his message stands out, but in the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:1-10) his person stands out.
Why did Isaiah date this passage, since he did not date most of his others? Probably he did so because King Uzziah had been the best king of Judah since Solomon. Nevertheless, during the last part of his reign he suffered from leprosy, a judgment from the Lord for his pride (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:16-23). In this respect, his life foreshadowed the history of the nation he ruled. King Uzziah died about 740 B.C., after reigning for 52 years (2 Kings 15:2; 2 Chronicles 26:3). When Uzziah died, most people in the nation would have felt a great loss. Who would lead them next, and would he provide for them all that Uzziah had? Assyria was growing in power and ambition to the east, so the threat of foreign invasion was real. Israel needed a strong king. As things turned out, Judah receded to a lower level from which she did not rise. At such a time Isaiah received a vision of Israel’s true king, Yahweh, who was more than adequate to provide for His people. This unusual vision prepared the prophet to act and speak for God (cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 19:21; Exodus 20:19; Exodus 33:20; Deuteronomy 18:16; Judges 13:22). Even though God is invisible because He is spirit (Isaiah 31:3; John 1:18; John 4:24), He has manifested Himself at various times so people can appreciate certain aspects of His personality.
"How significant a fact, as Jerome observes in connection with this passage, that the year of Uzziah’s death should be the year in which Romulus [one of the founders of Rome] was born; and that it was only a short time after the death of Uzziah (viz. 754 B.C. according to Varro’s chronology) that Rome itself was founded! The national glory of Israel died out with king Uzziah, and has never revived to this day." [Note: Delitzsch, 1:189.]
Israel suffered God’s judgment under five great powers that followed one another in succession: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
Isaiah described Yahweh as sovereign ("Lord"), the overlord of all the earth. He was exalted by means of His throne on which He was sitting in royal attire. The glory of His person filled His awesome, celestial palace-temple (cf. 1 Kings 22:17-23; Job 1:6-12; Job 2:1-6; Ezekiel 1:3-28; Ezekiel 8:1-4; Daniel 7:2; Daniel 7:9-10; Zechariah 3:1-5; Revelation 4-5). [Note: See Allan J. McNicol, "The Heavenly Sanctuary in Judaism: A Model for Tracing the Origin of an Apocalypse," Journal of Religious Studies 13:2 (1987):66-94, for further discussion of the heavenly sanctuary motif in relation to apocalyptic.]
The apostle John wrote that it was Jesus’ glory that Isaiah saw (John 12:41).
A. The prophet’s cleansing 6:1-8
Fiery angels attended the Lord. "Seraphim," a transliteration of the Hebrew word, probably means "burning ones." (cf. Numbers 21:6). This is the only reference to seraphim as angelic beings in Scripture. Usually this Hebrew word describes snakes (cf. Numbers 21:6; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29; Isaiah 30:6). What John saw may have been dragon-like creatures. They covered their faces, as we do when we are in the presence of something extremely brilliant, to hide and protect themselves from the superlative glory of God. They covered their feet for the same reason and perhaps as an indication that they renounced going anywhere on their own. One writer suggested that the feet may be euphemisms for the genital areas (cf. Isaiah 7:20; Exodus 4:25). In this case the creatures may have been expressing modesty. [Note: Watts, p. 74.] They used their third pair of wings to fly, namely, to carry out the orders of their sovereign.
Their joy in God’s presence was evident in their calling out to each other ascribing supreme holiness to Yahweh of armies. A triple appellation of holiness, a "trisagion," indicated that Yahweh’s holiness is superlative, the greatest possible, and complete. Nowhere else in the Old Testament is there another threefold repetition of God’s holiness, but there is in the New (Revelation 4:8). Other repetitions of words three times for emphasis are not uncommon (e.g., Jeremiah 22:29; Ezekiel 21:27; Revelation 8:13). Holiness is distinctness from all that is not divine, especially in reference to ethical behavior. [Note: Oswalt, p. 180.] God’s glory is His manifested holiness. [Note: Delitzsch, 1:192.]
"His holiness is simply his God-ness in all his attributes, works, and ways. . . . He is not like us, only bigger and nicer. He is in a different category. He is holy." [Note: Ortlund, p. 77.]
Isaiah saw God as absolutely upright, correct, and true. His glory was not restricted to the throne room or to heaven, however, but it filled the whole earth. God’s glory fills the earth in that the revelation of God’s attributes fills the earth (cf. Psalms 19:1-3). God’s glory refers to the outshining of His person.
The praise of one and then another of the seraphim was so powerful that it shook the heavenly temple to its foundations. Isaiah also saw smoke billowing throughout the space, suggestive of God’s power to consume (cf. Isaiah 33:14; Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 10:26-31; Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 9:2), and of prayer (Revelation 8:4). It evidently arose from the altar of incense (Isaiah 6:6).
Isaiah feared that he would be consumed since he was in the presence of the purest of all beings. He announced woe on himself; he was in deep trouble (cf. Isaiah 5:8; Isaiah 5:11; Isaiah 5:18; Isaiah 5:20-22). These are the first words that Isaiah himself spoke in this book, and they announce a prophetic woe on himself. He first had to become aware of his own sin and uncleanness before he could worship God as he should. Not only did he have unclean lips, but he dwelt among a people whose lips were very unclean and, therefore, unfit to praise or speak for God. King Uzziah died an unclean leper (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Unclean lips evidence unclean hearts (cf. Matthew 12:34). Whereas God was holy, Isaiah and the Jews were unclean, not upright, impure in their ethical conduct. Isaiah sensed his danger because he saw the real King of Israel who was Yahweh of armies. It is in seeing God for who He is that we can see ourselves for who we are and can, therefore, accurately evaluate our condition (cf. Job 42:5-6; Daniel 10:14-17; Revelation 1:17).
Isaiah only acknowledged his hopeless condition-he did not plead with God or make vows to God-and God then went into action. Confession must precede cleansing (cf. 1 John 1:9). The altar from which the seraph took the coal was probably the brazen altar in heaven, in which case the coal itself symbolizes substitute sacrifice. [Note: Motyer, p. 78.] Fire from the brazen altar lit the incense on the incense altar in Israel, so, whichever altar may be in view, the coal connects with sacrifice. Fire in the Old Testament symbolizes the wrath of God (Genesis 3:24; Numbers 11:1-3), the holiness of God (Exodus 3:2-6; Exodus 19:18-25), His purifying process (Numbers 31:22-23; Malachi 3:2-3), and the context of the Law (Deuteronomy 4:12; Deuteronomy 4:33; Deuteronomy 4:36).
"A seraph peels off from his flight path around the throne, diving straight for Isaiah. He’s holding a burning coal that he took from the altar with tongs, but not because it is hot. After all, a seraph himself is a burning one. He took this coal with tongs because it is a holy thing. It belongs to the place of sacrifice and atonement and forgiveness. But this holy thing touches Isaiah’s dirty mouth, and it does not hurt him, it heals him. What we must see, in the context of the whole Bible, is that this burning coal symbolizes the finished work of Christ on the cross." [Note: Ortlund, pp. 79-80.]
God’s purging agent touched Isaiah’s mouth, and the angelic messenger assured the prophet that he had been completely cleansed of his uncleanness. We might call this Isaiah’s conversion experience. Compare Acts 9:3-11, which records the Apostle Paul’s conversion and call.
God then asked for a volunteer to serve Him, evidently among any present in the throne room (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-20). "Us" is a plural, and the plural in Hebrew (but in no other Semitic languages) adds intensification (cf. Genesis 1:26; Genesis 11:7; 1 Kings 22:19-23). It only hints at plurality within the Godhead, but the New Testament makes that plurality clear (cf. John 12:41; Acts 28:25). This may be a plural of majesty, or the Lord may have meant Himself, the seraphim, and the heavenly host.
Note the balance of divine sovereignty and human choice in His words: He would send someone, but that someone needed to be willing to go. God’s grace to him in not consuming him, but rather cleansing him, motivated Isaiah to volunteer to be God’s servant.
This section is a major revelation of the grace of God and the condition for spiritual cleansing. It is one of the premier salvation passages in the Old Testament. God’s grace on this occasion so impacted Isaiah that his ministry bore this hallmark, as we observe in this book.
"Here in this matchless passage we find the reason why so few are willing to serve God. They need above all the conviction of sin. Only when a man has been convicted of sin and has understood that the Redeemer has borne the guilt of his sin is he willing and ready joyfully to serve God, to go wherever God may call him." [Note: Young, 1:254.]
Many preachers of this passage have pointed out that the order of events is very significant. First, after gaining a greater appreciation for God’s holiness and his own sinfulness, Isaiah said "woe," acknowledging his own uncleanness. Second, the seraphim said "lo" ("behold" in the NASB), pointing to God’s provision for cleansing. Third, God said "go" (Isaiah 6:9), giving the prophet a mission to fulfill.
God sent Isaiah back to the people among whom he lived, a people with unclean lips (Isaiah 6:5). He was to tell them to listen and to look at the revelations he brought from God, but they would not fully understand what the prophet meant (cf. Deuteronomy 29:2-4).
Does God really want to prevent people from understanding, repenting, and being healed? This verse and the next are strongly ironic. We could paraphrase Isaiah’s message to the Israelites as follow: "Go ahead; be stubborn!" [Note: The NET Bible note on Isaiah 6:10.]
B. The prophet’s commission 6:9-13
The Lord proceeded to give Isaiah specific instructions about what He wanted him to do and what the prophet could expect regarding his ministry (Isaiah 6:9-10), his historic-political situation (Isaiah 6:11-12), and his nation’s survival (Isaiah 6:13).
The effect of Isaiah’s preaching would not be that the people would repent, but that they would harden their hearts against his messages (cf. Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-41; Acts 28:26-27; Romans 11:8).
The Apostle John quoted this verse (and Isaiah 53:1) in reference to the Jews’ inability in Jesus’ day to believe on Him (John 12:40). John then added, "These things Isaiah said, because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him" (John 12:41). Isaiah may or may not have realized that his words had prophetic significance, in addition to being applicable to his own situation.
". . . this chapter immediately follows and precedes examples of wrong reaction to God’s word [Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 7:10-12]." [Note: Grogan, p. 57.]
God told Moses before he went to Pharaoh with the Lord’s message that the Egyptian king would harden his heart (Exodus 3:19). From the divine viewpoint, God had raised Pharaoh up to demonstrate His sovereignty and power in liberating the Israelites. However, from the human viewpoint, Pharaoh had the freedom to choose to submit to God or resist. His freedom was not complete; human freedom never is. We cannot do everything we want to do. But his freedom was genuine; he really could have submitted to Yahweh. God justly held him responsible for his choice because he did have genuine, though limited, freedom.
In both cases, Moses’ commission and Isaiah’s, God was not ruling out the possibility of repentance from the start. He was letting His prophet see beforehand what the outcome of his ministry would be. In both cases, too, those who heard God’s Word had the opportunity and the ability to respond to it positively, but they chose to respond negatively. Consequently, God as their Judge hardened their hearts so that they became harder, and eventually it became impossible for them to repent (Exodus 10:1; cf. Romans 1:18-32; Hebrews 6:4-6). The Israelites in Isaiah’s day had already hardened their hearts against the Lord, and His retributive judgment on them had already begun when Isaiah received his commission.
"The elect are not saved because they are creatures of light; they too were creatures of darkness and in them there was no goodness, nothing that would attract the light. God, however, out of His mere good pleasure did choose them and ordain them to life eternal, and when the blessed gospel was heard by them, they were given a heart that was then willing and able to hear and to respond. Those, however, whom God did not ordain to life eternal, He passed by and for their sin ordained to dishonor and wrath." [Note: Young, 1:261.]
The success of our ministry should not be our prime motivation to continue in the work of the gospel. Our loving commitment to remain faithful to the Lord who has graciously saved us and called us into His service, despite our lack of outward success, should be.
The news that the Israelites would harden their hearts against Isaiah’s message undoubtedly disappointed the prophet. So he asked the Lord how long he should continue to preach (cf. Isaiah 6:9) and how long the Israelites would be unresponsive (cf. Isaiah 6:10). [Note: Delitzsch, 1:201; Motyer, p. 79; Grogan, p. 58.] The Lord did not give him a certain number of years but implied that he should continue preaching until the full extent of God’s judgment on the people because of their prolonged unresponsiveness had come. The penalty for resisting-that the Lord set forth in the Mosaic Covenant-culminated in military defeat and exile from the Promised Land (Leviticus 18:25-27; Deuteronomy 28:21; Deuteronomy 28:63; Deuteronomy 29:28). The Lord took full responsibility for this judgment, though He used other nations as His instruments to execute it.
Yet there was hope. A tenth of the nation would survive. The Lord would take His tithe from among the people. But the land would again face judgment. This tenth probably refers to the remnant left in the land when Nebuchadnezzar took the majority captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:14). When the nation was thoroughly cut down and burned, there would be a little spiritual life in it that would eventually sprout. This happened when a small number of godly exiles under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, and Ezra returned to the land and reestablished the nation. Antiochus IV of Syria almost consumed even this remnant during the inter-testamental period, when the land was again subject to burning. They were the initial holy seed (cf. Isaiah 41:8; Isaiah 43:5; Isaiah 53:10; Isaiah 59:21; Isaiah 65:9; Isaiah 66:22; 1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:5), but Messiah would be the ultimate holy seed (Heb. zera, a collective singular; cf. Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 11:1) who would arise out of the chastened nation.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 6". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany