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Lessons of a Vision
We have seen how wrathful Isaiah was with the oppressions and iniquities of his day. The death of Uzziah probably coincided with the year of jubilee, and therefore brought out more vividly than was otherwise possible the state under which the people groaned and mourned, a state which elicited the maledictions which we have already studied. The prophet's mind is still upon the year when King Uzziah died. A great gap was created in history. It was time that the prophet saw something to cheer him. He had been looking at the earth, and all was vile; iniquity had filled up her measure to the brim. The people were groaning under the heel of the oppressor; the small freeholders had been driven into slavery, as we have just seen. It was in that darkness that Isaiah began to feel that he had eyes within, the vision of the heart, the sight of the soul. God's opportunity is often created out of our extremity. The prophet would have died of the grief of wounded patriotism if something had not occurred to lift him up into a new state of mind, and a keener realisation of the broadest facts of the universe. As a statesman and a patriot he had been wounded to the heart. The Lord will now come to him through a vision, through his higher imagination, through those wondrous sensibilities which set us at an infinite distance apart from the noblest beast of the earth or finest bird that seeks the gate of the sun. It is well to have amongst us some seeing men. We are tired of earth's bleak monotony: the days are so much alike; the wheel goes round and round so regularly as to weary us by its very punctuality. Is there nothing but what we see with the eyes of the body? is this the sum-total of things? that sky, now so beautiful, now so thunder-laden; and this earth, so green, so wild, so beautiful, presenting a thousand phases, according to the process of the sun, is this all? Then there come to us prophets who live a hard life amongst us. The prophet cannot have an easy life: he does not belong to the country; he does not belong to the time in which he lives; he has little or nothing to do with the present, and the future is so far away, and the market-place spirit of the world is so material, that the prophet has laughter for his applause, and pity or contempt for his reward. Still he lives, and he must speak as long as he lives; and some men receive him with gratitude; occasionally they pay visits to him by night and say, Rabbi, what seest thou? anything new in the fields above? any new voice spoken to thee lately? Come, tell us the whole tale, for really and truly, though we dare not confess it in public speech, we are sick at heart, and we are dying under the burden of weariness. What seest thou? is there anything more to be seen than these blear-eyed lamps that skirt the sluggish river of time? what hast thou seen? The prophet in this instance answers: I will tell thee what I have seen: I have seen the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Have you seen that? Yes. Do you affirm that vision? I do. Then that circumstance cannot be overlooked in any true psychology. There it is: you saw it, or you thought you saw it; so be it, in the meantime; but there it is: what is possible to the imagination may be possible to the realisation of human experience. What you have imagined may one day come to pass. I will not sneer at thee, O prophet, but listen to thee: come, tell me all thy tale, for I have a spirit of discernment, a spirit of criticism common to man, and in troth I will find thee out if thou art trying to impose upon me with some poor necromancy. What was the vision noble or mean, useful or merely sentimental? State the terms: come within the sphere of rational judgment.
Let us look at Isaiah's vision, and in doing so let us mark first the intellectual sublimity of the text:
"I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne" ( Isa 6:1 ).
So far there is nothing to find fault with. The Lord is always upon a throne, even when he is nailed to the Cross; this Lord and his throne are inseparable. There are dignitaries that have to study how to keep their thrones, but the Lord and his throne are one. "His train filled the temple": the glory-cloud filled all high places I saw the Lord in vivid representation, in perfect outline of figure; I saw him in his majesty. It a man can persuade himself that he has done so, then by so much he elevates the whole level of his character. To have had such a dream is to enter upon to-morrow with a new spirit, if the dreamer be a wise man, sound in judgment and resolute in will. I saw more than the Lord: the Lord is not solitary in his heavens: I saw the seraphim the celestial salamanders, standing in the midst of fire, without the smell of fire having passed upon them. We do not know what the seraphim are, but our point is that here is a man who has seen new beings. That is an exciting, and in the issue may become an ennobling, thought. We have seen nothing but men; yea, when we have sought to image the Eternal we have thought of a glorified man: our anthropology has been the base of our theology. Here is a man who says there are other beings than men, and brighter beings; wondrous creatures, but still creatures, waiting, listening, learning, obeying. To know this fills us with ardent desire to have a similar vision. Then comes the promise that one day we shall know even as also we are known; this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality, and in our resurrection state we shall have the companionship of beings wondrous in form, capacity, power to serve. There is something beyond. Tell us about these burning ones! Each had six wings; with twain he covered his face, for the glory would have blinded him but for his sheltering wings; with twain he covered his feet, he had a sense of imperfection, inferiority, littleness; with twain he did fly, he was delivered from the prison of our limitation, and the whole space of heaven seemed to be the field in which he could fly the burning seraph, the swift messenger of God. If Isaiah imagined this, we thank him for the imagination; it ennobles us whilst we think of it. That there are other beings, greater, more capable, more variously gifted, is a thought which lures us upward, and moves with holy excitement our best spiritual ambition. But we could not rest here. To imagination something must be added to give it solid value. What conception do the seraphim form of God? They have known him a long time for centuries, aeons, millenniums innumerable, what say they about him when they speak or sing or worship? "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts." Imagination ceases there, and we feel that we are on solid ground. There is character behind the glory. The glory itself is nothing except as it expresses moral attributes, sound character, reality of justice, righteousness, and love. This testimony is not to be overlooked in estimating what we understand to be the doctrine of providence, redemption, and retribution. Then see how the whole picture rounds itself into superbness, completeness of significance. We have to deal with glory an undefinable term; with a great cloud a revelation by concealment: quite a mystery in words, but a known and intelligible reality in consciousness. Then after glory and cloud we find worship; and the worship is associated with music; and all the glory, and all the concealing and revealing cloud, and all the worship, and all the music we find directed to one object of adoration "the Lord of hosts." So far the vision reveals great intellectual sublimity; the conception is only possible to a strong mind. We might risk the intellectual reputation of Isaiah even upon this portion of the vision.
Let us look, in the second place, at the personal effect of what Isaiah saw:
"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, the Lord of hosts" ( Isa 6:5 ).
So the prophet does not come away triumphing in what he has seen; he does not hold the vision as a prize, and mock other men because they have not seen similar revelations; he says in effect: If ever you see God you will fall down in humility, self-abhorrence, and self-helplessness: "Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone." He was self-convicted. Not a word of accusation is reported as having been addressed to the prophet. Up to this point he has done nothing but behold, look upon, and stand in amazement before the great vision; there is no report of any one having whispered in his ear, Thou art a bad man, O Isaiah; thou art a sinner, and this vision is sent to judge thee, and fill thee with a sense of condemnation and shame. Nothing of the kind. To see God is to hate all sin; to see God is to be reminded of sin; to see the universe aright is to tremble. Who has ever had right clear vision of the whole sphere of things, its vastness, its order, its pomp, its solemnity, its obedience? If we could see all the worlds, and watch the way of their revolution and palpitation, we should be filled with shame, saying, Only man is vile: man does not show forth the glory of his Maker in this way; man's worship at the best is marked by spasm, irregularity, incompleteness; but see these great worlds, "For ever singing as they shine, The hand that made us is divine." If we could see our own little earth aright, in all its portions and sections, we should feel that we were unworthy of a place upon it, and that we should stain it by having our grave dug in it. How beauteous its flowers, how regular its swing around the sun, how obedient, how motherlike, how gentle, how willing to house us and screen us, and find roots for our hunger and fountains for our thirst! Oh could we but see thee, poor little sin-stained earth, in all thine industry and obedience, we should hate our own negligence and rebellion! To see God aright is to feel self-condemnation. We need no preaching, or exhortation, or recrimination, or words of charge and indictment The prophet gives a right reason when he says: "For mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." If you would know whether this or that is pure, do not analyse it, but put side by side with it something about whose purity there is no doubt. If you are wondering as to the correct colour of this or that object, you will make nothing out by mere words; put by its side some thing about whose correctness of colour there is no debate, and the issue is already assured. Comparing ourselves with ourselves we become wise, and respectable even, and pride ourselves upon our reputableness: one man is honest as against another's dishonesty; one man is honourable as against another man's villainy. So we have classified society into respectable and non-respectable, into good and bad, into clean-handed and foul-handed, and in our little mutual criticisms and our small emulous moralities we have become filled with a spirit of conceit and complacency. What we have to do is to seek a vision of God, to cease all merely mutual comparison and criticism, and to ask to see the King, the Lord of hosts; and one sight of his ineffable purity fills us with burning shame, and causes the proud head to fall upon the sobbing breast, and the whole man to collapse in self-impeachment. Do not let us look at one another for the purpose of forming a character for ourselves for relative respectability; judge everything by the standard of the sanctuary and by the balances of the altar.
What effect had the vision upon Isaiah? Look at its moral inspiration:
"Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar" ( Isa 6:6 ).
Then the seraph did not come in his own personality alone; he did not say, I can remove all the impurity of which thou dost complain; it lies within my power to make thee a good man? No such speech did he make. It is not in mortal to purify mortality. This help that we need is supernatural aid. Even a seraph cannot redeem, purify, or forgive. But the seraph instantly answered the cry, which was implied rather than expressed, for purification. When was a prayer for holiness long neglected? When a man has really felt the burden of sin, how long has God kept him waiting, groaning, and suffering under the intolerable pressure? They are all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be the heirs of salvation. The twelve legions of angels are always near at hand to help those who need supernatural help. The angel was not far off when the devil left the Saviour; hardly had the tempter gone until "angels came and ministered unto him." About this angel-life we know little; we can know but little whilst we are in the body; but what little we do know helps us to believe that we are assisted, directed, by messengers, sent from the living One and by the living One to do us good in this weary difficult pilgrimage of life. Who shall say when they come, when they go? who knows what relation the spirits of those who have left us sustain to us now in all this earthly toil and discipline? There we can but wonder, sometimes we dream, sometimes we hope, sometimes we think we see a hand others cannot see, and hear a voice they cannot hear. If what we do feel in this direction tends towards purification, enrichment, it is no phantasmagoria. Invite it to come again, and next time have the door of the heart wide open; for any vision that tends to purification is God's vision, and it should be received with glowing thankfulness.
Was there any practical purpose to be served by this vision beyond what has already been seen? The answer is found in the text, notably in the eighth verse:
"Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." ( Isa 6:8 )
Then the vision was no phantasm; it was not an exercise of a diseased imagination; it led to the consecration of life, to the settlement of a divine purpose, to the warming of the heart into sympathetic obedience towards all things divine, and therefore largely human. It has ever been so along the Biblical line: when men have had an interview with God they have been prepared to risk anything and everything in his strength and grace. It is because we have not seen God that we do not serve him; it is because we have had no transporting, transforming vision that when we are asked to work in the Church we tell lies, we grieve the Spirit with mocking excuses. Oh, lying Christian nominalist! thou art a sevenfold liar; thou dost not lie unto men, but unto God. There is no excuse for idleness, for illiberality, for littleness, for mean criticism; if you had seen God you would have been purified, and if you had been purified you could not rest without saying to God, Send me anywhere, and send me now. When Moses had seen the Lord he said, Make use of me as thou wilt; when Peter had seen the Lord he said, O Lord, I am a sinful man: I hate myself, but I will do what I can to serve thy will; when Paul had seen the vision he was stunned by it, blinded by it, but he came out of it; and who could stop that fire or quench its sacred burning? Call these mental actions dreams that lead to no sacrifice; say you have had grievous nightmare, if your churchgoing ends but in censoriousness and worldliness, and in enlarged audacity to tell lies and do iniquity. Then I care not if you have dreamed with a Bunyan, and expressed yourself with a Shakespeare; it all goes for nothing if the issue be not purification and sacrifice. Bless God for any ecstasy that leads to self-immolation. If you come out of your trance saying, Here am I; send me, send me to the worst neighbourhood, the poorest locality, the most difficult situation: I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts: do not deny me: let me go, what you have seen has been no trance; you have had, real communion, vital fellowship with the holy One.
Observe, by way of practical application, that God's holiness is never represented as a terror to men, but is always in holy Scripture set forth as an example, so to say, to be copied in daily and precise imitation. The holiness of God is not meant to consume men, to drive them into despair, to fill them with a spirit of dejection. Jesus Christ interprets God's holiness, and he brings it very near to us: he says, "Be ye holy as your Father in heaven is holy." In another case he is reported in other words, "Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect." So, then, we are not to understand by God's holiness an image of brightness that takes all heart out of us, because it is impossible to be so holy as the vision we have seen. God's holiness is meant to encourage us in the pursuit of holy character ourselves. His holiness is a proof that he will help us. What a sight to the living One to see some poor, sin-stained, sin-damned man trying to imitate the holiness divine! What oaths of consecration he utters! what resolutions every daybreak hears! what corrections are poured into the ear of listening eventide! Yet the man says, God helping me, I will be better to-morrow; I mean to be holy as God is holy, but I dare not utter the words aloud to myself, for their very utterance seems to spoil the pith of the vow, and to take the bloom oft the consecration; but I know in my heart's heart that I have recorded a vow, that by the help of God I will never rest until I am clothed with the meekness of Christ, and filled with the holiness of God. Any book, any vision, any sermon, that points in that direction is sent of God, and is not to be turned aside as an idle dream or a vain appeal.
Almighty God, all things are in thine hand, even the great and the small. Thou tellest the number of the stars, thou bindest up the broken in heart; thou takest up the nations into thine hand, and settest them down again as a little thing. Thy throne is on the circle of eternity, and thy sceptre is over all; thou rulest in blessedness: thy purpose is one of love; thou dost not desire the death of the wicked or the ruin of those who oppose thee; thy continual cry is, Turn ye, turn ye! why will ye die? Yet it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. As we read the history of the world, we say again and again with wonder and awe, Our God is a consuming fire. Clouds and darkness are round about thee, righteousness and judgment are the habitation of thy throne; no man can sin and live; no man can blaspheme against the heavens and live in peace and joy, for the Lord is against him, and all heaven is opposed to his progress. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked. This thou dost not say arbitrarily, as a threat of vengeance; thou dost make it known as a revelation, showing that wickedness always ends in turbulence, discontentment, pain, and hell. But if we confess our sins, then thou dost cast them behind thee; if we make full repentance for iniquity, we hear of it no more: the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin: help us to bring our sins to the Cross, and to leave them there in an act of penitence and faith. Lord, save us, or we perish! God be merciful unto me a sinner! is the cry of every heart that knows itself. Thou wilt not listen to this cry without answering, and the answer of God to the cry of penitence is pardon, purity, and peace. Amen.
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"Above it stood the seraphims." Isa 6:2
This is the only passage in which the seraphim are mentioned as part of the host of heaven. The primary meaning of seraphim is, the burning ones. A use of the word is made in the Book of Numbers which is alarming, referring as it does to the fiery serpents that stung the people in the wilderness. Notice that these burning ones of the text are in the likeness of men with the addition of wings. A distinction has been drawn between the seraphim that excel in love, and the cherubim that excel in knowledge. But this is of little importance. By cherubim and seraphim I understand symbols of essential life. I understand, indeed, the life of God himself. Notice how many degrees and varieties of life are known to ourselves. Take the meanest insect; then take the noblest man; pass on to angels; from angels ascend to archangels; from archangels rise higher still; and thus at the uppermost summit of the idea of life stand the cherubim and seraphim, the meaning being that God himself is the grandest expression of life. Concerning the whole universe it may be said, "Above it stood the seraphim." Around the meanest thing that lives they stand, the seraphim. In the estimation of God there is nothing little, nor can there be anything great. Beside eternity all other duration is as nothing, though men count it by centuries or cause it to dwindle down to dying moments. Let us accustom ourselves to the thought that above our life stand the seraphim; round about all our noblest impulses, desires, and ambitions stand the seraphim; that is to say, we are cared for, watched, loved, and protected by the living God. Thoughts of this kind redeem our life from its insignificance by showing us its true suggestiveness and indicating its purposed destiny. In every little thing see some symbol of the great thing. In time see the beginning of eternity. In life, as we know it, see the type of life as God lives it. Thus the whole universe becomes a sacred temple; all life a holy worship; all destiny a sublime and beneficent decree. Set the Lord always before you; in the high noon when the sun bums in his meridian splendour see a dim emblem of the relation which God sustains to all nature, all life, all evolution.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 6". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
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