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SECTION III. ISAIAH'S VISION OF GOD UPON HIS THRONE (Isaiah 6:1-13.).
THE VISION OF GOD SEEN BY ISAIAH. It is thought by some that this vision, and its sequel, constitute the original call of Isaiah to the prophetical office, and in order of time precede all the other contents of the book. But the position of the "vision" in the book is strongly against this view. Prophets who relate their original call naturally place it in the forefront of their narrative (Jeremiah 1:10; Ezekiel 1:1). It is quite possible, as Bishop Lowth says, that this was "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 fates of the nations." The vision itself may profitably be compared with Ezekiel's first vision, which it much resembles (Ezekiel 1:4-28).
In the year that King Uzziah died. The year B.C. 759, probably. We cannot determine from the phrase used whether the vision was seen before or after Uzziah's death. I saw also; rather, then it was that I saw (comp. Exodus 16:6). The Lord. Not "Jehovah," as in Isaiah 6:3 and Isaiah 6:5, but "Adonay," for greater reverence. Sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. The imagery is, of course, taken from the practice of earthly kings. Elaborate thrones were affected by the great monarchs of Egypt and Assyria. Solomon's throne was perhaps even grander than any of these (see 1 Kings 10:18-20). It was placed at the summit of "six steps," so that its occupant was "high and lifted up" above all his courtiers. His train. Not his train of attendants, but "the skirts of his robe." Flowing robes were commonly worn by great monarchs. Filled the temple; or, the palace. The same word is used in Hebrew for both. Dr. Kay supposes the prophet to be "in vision gazing on the actual temple—to see its veils drawn aside, and instead of the Shechinah enthroned on the cherubim, to behold the King of glory, enthroned on high, the fringes of his royal robe filling the temple, so that no human priest could minister there." But, as Mr. Cheyne observes, "palace is more in harmony with the picture than temple." It is the heavenly palace of the King of kings into which the prophet's gaze is allowed to penetrate.
Above it stood the seraphims; rather, above him were standing seraphim. The "seraphim" are introduced, not as well known, with the article, but without it, as unknown. The word means "fiery ones," and is supposed to denote the burning love of the blessed spirits spoken of. They appeared to the prophet as standing above the King as he sat upon his throne—"standing" to show their readiness to minister; but why "above him" is not so clear. Perhaps, simply, as those that stand are "above" those that sit; perhaps as ready to fly through infinite space at the bidding of him who was seated in his palace, as it were upon the ground. Their form, as seen by the prophet, appears to have been human, and only distinguished from ordinary humanity by the wings. Thus, though in name they resembled those other "fiery ones," which had punished the Jews in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6-9), there is nothing to show that Isaiah in any way connected the two. Each one had six wings. Gesenius is mistaken in saying that there are at Persepolis any six-winged figures. The Persians not infrequently represented their genii with four wings; but no six-winged figures have been found, so far as I know, among the Persian remains. With twain he covered his face, etc. The general idea of the six wings was probably rapid flight, the carrying out of God's behests "with speed swiftly." But, in the Divine presence, the wings were applied to a different use. One pair veiled the seraph's head from the intolerable effulgence of the Divine glory; another concealed the feet, soiled in their various ministrations, and unmeet for the all-pure presence; the third pair alone sustained the seraph in mid-air, as he hovered in readiness to depart on any errand on which Jehovah aright send him.
One cried; rather, kept crying (comp. Revelation 4:8, "They rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy"). But the prophet scarcely goes so far; he describes only his vision—they did not rest while the vision was vouchsafed him. Holy, holy, holy. The Church on earth has taken pattern by the Church above; and the "Trisagion" is ever being repeated in one part of the earth or another without ceasing: "Thou continuest holy, O thou Worship of Israel." There is no attribute so essential to God as this. It is for his holiness, more than for anything else, that his creatures worship him. The triple repetition has been understood in all ages of the Church as connected with the doctrine of the Trinity. Holy is he who has created us, and bidden us worship him in the beauty of holiness Holy is he who has redeemed us, and washed away our sins, and made us by profession holy! Holy is he who day by day sanctifies us, and makes us in very deed and truth, so far as we will permit him, holy! The whole earth is full of his glory. Even in heaven the seraphic thoughts are turned to earth, and its relation to its Divine Creator is made the subject of angelic utterances. The lesson which they gather from their contemplation, even under all the miserable circumstances of the time, is a cheering one: "The whole earth is full of God's glory." Men, whether they will it or not, are working out God's purposes, advancing his designs, accomplishing the ends that he desires (see Homiletics on Isaiah 5:25-29).
The posts of the door moved; rather, the bases of the thresholds shook (compare Revised Version). The shout of the seraphs shook the very foundations on which the thresholds of the gates of heaven rested—a testimony to the energy with which it was uttered. At the voice of him that cried; i.e. "at the voice of each and all." The house was filled with smoke. "Smoke" is sometimes the mere sign of the presence of God, as in Isaiah 4:5; but more often it indicates his presence in anger or judgment (see Exodus 19:18; Exodus 20:18; Revelation 15:8). Here there had been no smoke at first, and we must suppose it, therefore, a sign of the anger which finds vent in verse 9-12.
THE SEQUEL OF THE VISION—THE PROPHET'S SENSE OF UNWORTHINESS.
The vision of God in this life, whether natural or ecstatic, cannot but produce in the beholder a deep feeling of his unworthiness. God "is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity;" even "the heavens are not clean in his sight" (Job 15:15). Man, being never wholly purged from sin while on earth, cannot but shrink from contact with the absolutely Holy. Hence Isaiah's cry (verse 5); and hence, to comfort him, the symbolic action of the seraph (verse 6) and his encouraging words (verse 7).
I am undone; literally, cut off, destroyed (comp. Isaiah 15:1; Jeremiah 47:5; Hosea 4:5, Hosea 4:6, etc.). God once said himself, "There shall no man see me and live" (Exodus 33:20). Men expected to die even when they had seen angels of God (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22, Judges 6:23; Judges 13:22). How we are to reconcile Exodus 33:20 with this passage, Job 42:5, and Ezekiel 1:26-28, is uncertain. Perhaps the ecstatic sight was not included in the "seeing" of which God spoke to Moses. I am a man of unclean lips. A man must be indeed" perfect" never to offend in word (James 3:2). Isaiah felt that he had often so offended. His lips were not "clean" in God's sight, and if not his lips, then not his heart; for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matthew 12:34). I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Men catch up the phraseology of their time, and use wrong forms of speech, because they hear them daily. "Evil communications corrupt good manners" (1 Corinthians 15:33).
A live coal; or, a glowing stone, as Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Knobel, and Mr. Cheyne understand. The tongs … the altar. The presence of an altar in the heavenly dwelling, with the usual appurtenances, is assumed (comp. Revelation 6:9; Revelation 8:3). The altar is, no doubt, an altar of incense, and of gold, not of stone; but the incense is burnt upon stones heated to a glow, and it is one of these stones which the angel takes with the golden tongs of the sanctuary (Exodus 25:38).
He laid it upon my mouth; literally, he caused it to touch my mouth; i.e. "he touched my mouth with it." He brought it into contact with that part of him which the prophet had recognized (Isaiah 6:5) as the seat of impurity. Thine iniquity is taken away. By the contact the prophet's impurity is purged, and he is freed from it. The symbolical net showed
(1) that sin could be purged;
(2) that the highest angelic nature could not, alone and of its own force, purge it; and
(3) that the purging could come only from that fire which consumes the incense that is laid upon the altar of God. Dr. Kay suggests that this fire is "the Divine love."
THE PROPHET ENTRUSTED WITH A SPECIAL MISSON. We do not know what special call Isaiah had had previously. Perhaps he had been brought up in the "schools of the prophets." Perhaps, when the "word of the Lord" came to him, he had accepted the fact as sufficient call. Now, however, he had, in vision, a clear and distinct call and mission (verses 8, 9). He was told to "go," and instructed as to what he was to say (verses 9, 10). As before (Isaiah 1-5.), while in the main he was to denounce woe, he was still to proclaim the survival of a remnant (verses 10-12).
Whom shall I send?. Such questions enable those who wait in the courts of heaven to show their zeal and readiness. Who will go for us? Some explain the plural pronoun as used of the Almighty and those with whom he is consulting. But he does not really "consult" his creatures (infra, Isaiah 40:14; Rev 11:1-19 :34), nor do his messengers do his errands for them. The plural form is best explained by the light which Isaiah 6:3 throws on it, as indicative of the doctrine of the Trinity (comp. Genesis 1:26).
Hear ye indeed … see ye indeed; literally, In hearing hear … in seeing see—with the force of "Listen and bear; look and see;" "Attend, "that is," with the outward souse, and catch all that sense can catch, but without perception of the inward meaning". This is what they would do. Isaiah is bidden to exhort them, in grave irony, to do it.
Make the heart of this people fat. Isaiah is commanded to effect by his preaching that which his preaching would, in fact, effect. It would not awaken the people out of their apathy, it would not stir them to repentance; therefore it would only harden and deaden them. The words have a national, not an individual, application. Shut their eyes; literally, besmear their eyes; or, seal them up. Such sealing has been employed by Oriental monarchs as a punishment. And convert; i.e. "turn to God." Our translators have used the word in an intransitive sense.
Then said I, Lord, how long? Either, "How long am I to continue this preaching?" or, "How long is this blindness and callousness of the people to continue?" Isaiah assumes that he has not heard as yet God's final purpose; that there is some merciful intention kept in reserve, which is to take effect after the close of the period of judgment. The cities … the houses; rather, cities … houses. An entire desolation of the whole land, and extermination of its inhabitants, is not prophesied, and never took place. Nebuchadnezzar "left of the poor of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen" (2 Kings 25:12; Jeremiah 39:10). Even when the great mass of these persons went into Egypt and perished there (Jeremiah 44:11-27), a certain number escaped and returned to Palestine (Jeremiah 44:14, Jeremiah 44:28). The land; rather, the ground, the soil.
And the Lord have removed men far away. The Assyrian and Babylonian policy of deportation is pointed at. Pul had attacked the kingdom of Israel ten or twelve years before Uzziah's death, and had perhaps made the Assyrian policy known, though he had allowed himself to be bought off (2 Kings 15:19, 2 Kings 15:20). And there be a great forsaking; rather, and the desolation be great; i.e. till a great portion of Judah be depopulated.
But yet in it shall be a tenth, etc.; rather, and should there still be in it a tenth; i.e. should there still remain, after the great deportation, a tenth part of the inhabitants, "this again shall be burned up," i.e. shall be destined to further judgment and destruction. The trials of the Jewish nation under the Persian, Egyptian, and Syrian monarchies may be intended. As a teil tree, and as an oak, etc.; rather, as the terebinth tree and as the oak—trees which shoot up again from the stock after being cut down; or, as the prophet expresses it, "have a stem in their destruction." So to Judah shall remain, after all, a "holy seed," which shall be its "stem" or "stock, "and from which it shall once more "take root downward, and bear fruit upward" (Isaiah 37:31).
The vision of God.
Sight is a thing of degrees. The healthy eye sees with infinite shades of distinctness and indistinctness, according to the amount of light which is vouchsafed it. The diseased eye has an equal variety of gradation in its powers of seeing, owing to the variations in its own condition. And it is with our spiritual as with our natural sight. The vision which men have of God varies infinitely with varying circumstances—from extreme dimness up to perfect distinctness. Amid this infinitude of gradation, depending mainly on the internal condition of the visual power, three main varieties, depending on the circumstances under which the spiritual sight exerts itself, may be distinguished.
I. THE NATURAL VISION OF GOD IN THIS LIFE. This is, even in the best men, dim and unsatisfying. "Now we see through a glass darkly" (1 Corinthians 13:12). We have to look within us and without us; and, among the confused shadows of things, as sight and memory and imagination present them to us, we have to piece together a conception of that mysterious and inscrutable Power which alone exists of itself and has brought all that is beside itself into existence. How should not the vision be unsatisfactory? Agnosticism denies that any conception which we can form can possibly bear any resemblance at all to the reality, if there be a reality. Agnosticism, to be consistent, ought not to go so far, but should content itself with saying that we cannot tell whether there be a resemblance or no. Some conception, however, of God all men form who reflect at all; and there is so much likeness among the conceptions of men of all times and countries as to point to some basis of truth underlying them all as the only conceivable ground of the similarity. The conceptions differ less in their essential character than in their vividness and their continuousness. Most men "see God" dimly and rarely—by snatches, and as through a cloud or mist. A small number have a somewhat clearer and more frequent vision. To a few only is it given to "set God always before their face," and to see him with something approaching to distinctness.
II. THE ECSTATIC VISION OF GOD IN THIS LIFE. It has been the privilege of some great saints to be lifted up from earth into that condition which is called ecstasy, and while in that state to have a vision of God. In ecstasy Moses saw "the glory of God" from the "cleft in the rock" on his second ascent of Sinai (Exodus 33:18-23; Exodus 34:6-8). In ecstasy Isaiah now saw him. In ecstasy Ezekiel saw him "by the river of Chebar" (Ezekiel 1:26-28). So St. John the divine beheld him in the island of Patmos (Revelation 4:2-11). The exact nature of such visions we do not know; but it is only reasonable to suppose that they were, to those favored with them, revelations of God more distinct, more vivid, more satisfying, than any which belong to the ordinary course of nature, even to those which are vouchsafed to the "pure in heart" (Matthew 5:8). They fall short in respect of duration; they are transient—some of them, perhaps, momentary. But their vividness seems to have so impressed them on the beholders as to have given them a quasi-permanency in the recollection, which made them possessions for life, and gave them an undying influence on the character.
III. THE BEATIFIC VISION OF GOD IN ANOTHER LIFE. What this is no tongue of man can tell. "Eye hath not seen," etc. We know only what the Word of God declares. "Then shall we see him face to face; then shall we know even as we are known," (1 Corinthians 13:12). That this vision transcends even the ecstatic one is reasonably concluded, from its being the final reward of God's saints—the beatitude beyond which there is none other (Revelation 22:4). But it is scarcely reverent to speculate on a theme so far above human imagining. Even Bishop Butler seems to overstep the just limit, when he supposes the beatific vision to include the contemplation of the scheme of the universe in the mind of him who contrived it. We shall not know what the beatific vision is until we are admitted to it. Perhaps it will not be the same to all. Probably, as on earth "the eye sees that which it brings with it the power of seeing," so, in the world beyond the grave, the vision of God will stand in a certain correlation with the seeing faculty of the beholders. All will "see his face," but all will not be capable of receiving from the sight that which it will convey to some. There are degrees of happiness in the next world no less than in the present. If we would derive from that blessed sight all that God intended man to derive from it, we must in this life cultivate the power of "seeing God" and delighting in the contemplation of him.
Man's unworthiness brought home to him by nothing o much as seeing God.
The natural man is, for the most part, very well contented with himself. He does not deal much in self-scrutiny, and is not often troubled with twinges of conscience. If at any time be has any misgivings, he compares himself with other men, and readily persuades himself that he is quite as good, or even very much better than his neighbors. "God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are," is his self-satisfied utterance; or, if he is not quite so arrogant as this, at any rate he thinks himself "quite good enough"—as honest, industrious, liberal, moral generally, as he needs to be. Occasionally he may be startled a little out of his self-complacency by coming in contact with persons of a different stamp from himself, whom he sees to have a different rule of life, a different conception of their duties to God and man. But it is seldom that he wakes up to any true conviction of, in until in some way or other, there is revealed to him some "vision of God," some conception of the true nature of that pure and holy Being who has made and rules the universe. Once let him open the eye of his soul and see God as he is—perfectly pure, holy, just, immaculate—and he cannot but be driven by the contrast to recognize his own weakness, wickedness, impurity, unrighteousness, deeply engrained sinfulness. Some conviction of sin must flash on him. Well for him if it be deep and strong! Welt for him if it brings him, first to confession (Luke 18:13), and then to earnest, heartfelt prayer for pardon! God's seraph will then haply bring him such a "burning coal" from the altar before the throne of God as he brought to Isaiah, and convey to him the assurance that, for the merits of Christ, his "iniquity is taken away, and his sin purged."
The loving-kindness of God shown in his judgments.
"I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and flat thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me," says the psalmist (Psalms 119:75). No doubt, at last God must simply punish the obdurate and impenitent; but for the most part he sends his judgment upon men in mercy, either to turn them from their sins, or to refine and improve their characters.
I. EVEN WHEN GOD SIMPLY PUNISHES, IT IS IN LOVING-KINDNESS TO MANKIND AT LARGE. When a nation, like Israel, as distinct from Judah, has persisted in evil-doing for centuries, in spite of warnings, teaching, remonstrance, knowledge of the truth, its case is hopeless—"there is no remedy" (2 Chronicles 36:16). The blow that then falls upon the nation is penal and final—the requital of its ill desert. But if the blow is dealt to the nation itself in mere justice, it is also struck for the benefit of all neighboring nations, in mercy. It warns them from their evil ways; it says to them, in a voice which they can scarcely fail to hear, "Take heed, lest ye too perish."
II. MOST OF GOD'S JUDGMENTS ARE CHASTISEMENTS, SENT TO TURN MEN FROM THEIR SINS. "We have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us" (Hebrews 12:9) when we had done wrong, and strove thereby to deter us from evil. So God acts with his children. So he chastened Judah, bringing calamity after calamity upon her, until at last there was a "remnant" which truly turned to him, and became the germ of the Christian Church. So be has chastened many a nation besides. So, too, he chastens individuals, sending on them sickness, and poverty, and loss of friends, and other misfortunes, to check them in a career of sin, and cause them to pause, and reflect, and tremble at his mighty hand, and humble themselves under it, and change their course of life. In this way he chastened David by the loss of Bathsheba's first child, and by the revolt of Absalom and Adonijah; Hezekiah by war and sickness; Solomon by "adversaries" at home and abroad. Of this kind again are the natural punishments which he has attached to sins, the natural tendency of which is to deter men from them.
III. ONE CLASS OF HIS JUDGMENTS ARE TRIALS, SENT TO PROVE MEN, AND THEREBY TO PURIFY THEM AND RAISE THEM TO GREATER SAINTLINESS. "Every branch in me that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2); "The trying of your faith worketh patience" (James 1:3). Christ himself, we are told, was in his human nature "made perfect through suffering." The discipline of affliction is needed for forming in us many of the highest Christian graces, as patience, resignation, forgivingness, mildness, long-suffering. The sons of God are taught to expect a chastening which shall be "for their profit, that they may be partakers of his holiness" (Hebrews 12:10).
HOMILIES BY E. JOHNSON
The prophet's call and consecration.
There are turning-points in life which give a meaning to the whole of its after-course. A light may be given to the 'mind at such moments by which it may have to steer its course for years. In moments of despondency the man of God will fall back on memory, and encourage himself by the recollection that, having once received and followed Divine guidance, that guidance will not desert him in the future. Such was this moment in the history of Isaiah. Life stood before him like a crowded picture; he foresaw the difficulties with which he would have to contend, yet that picture did not dismay him. "Like Christ from the first beginning of his Messianic labors, he thought of the end, nor did he shrink flora the image of death, so that the fact as it came nearer only confirmed what had Dot seemed strange from the beginning" (Ewald). It is the sense, not of our own faithfulness, nor of our own means, but of a Divine destiny working in and through us that must be our support in weak and lonely hours. To feel that we are moving against the course of the sun, even in the midst of external comfort or popular applause, is to be weak and unnerved; while a stern yet sweet joy fills the soul in the prospect of duty and danger, in which, though we seem to fail, we must be victors forever. Every true man has his hours of prophetic revelation; and well for him whose will is strong, and who abides by the truth of that revelation through good and through evil report, unswervingly to the end.
I. THE VISION OF THE DIVINE MAJESTY.
1. Its date is fixed in memory. "The year that King Uzziah died." Dates are the resting-places of memory and fancy, around which accumulates the lore of our years. The accessions and the deaths of kings, battles, peaces, revolutions, acts of parliament that wrought weal for the people,—such are the dates of nations. And every soul has its epochs—birth, youthful events of pleasure, love, struggle, defeat, success; and for each there must be more to him than the events recorded in the calendar. The most "uneventful" year, as we speak, is eventful for the hidden sphere of many a spirit. How hint and poor are our public memorials of history compared with those private recollections which are written in the invisible ink of memory! Let us own that history means, first and foremost to every one of us, the history of our own spirit. By a Divine providence the fragment of an Isaiah's, a Jeremiah's, an Ezekiel's autobiography is preserved through the ages, to remind us that the inner life, the contact of God with the soul, is our real concern, our deepest interest. Between the two dates on the tombstone that will mark our entrance into the world, our passage from it, what a record must lie, stored in the archives of eternity—of visions beheld, of voices heard, whether obeyed or disregarded! "In the year that King Uzziah died."
2. It is a vision of the sublimity of God. Seated on a high, exalted throne, God in this image is conceived under the analogy of the Ruler. Father and Ruler—such is the Bible view of God; his rule based upon his fatherhood, his fatherhood imparting benignancy and tenderness to the sterner character of the Lawgiver of the universe. But here the Father seems for the moment absorbed in the awful Sovereign, whose throne is in the heights of heaven, his footstool earth. It is only his skirts that are visible to the awe-struck gaze of the prophet. Amidst the most magnificent scenes of external nature, the Alps or the Andes, we may gain a passing soul-expanding vision of the Highest—still only part revealed, but much more hidden. The verdure bejeweled with flowers, the forests glancing with the luster of dazzling birds of plumage,—these may represent the vesture of the great King, hinting an unutterable beauty on which none can look and live. And so in the inward or moral world. In the history of a people or of a man there are moments when God, in the still more impressive might of his holiness, sweeps by, an awakening and a purifying Spirit. Or in higher moments of devotion we may gain a momentary glimpse of that pure love, so full of terror yet so full of blessing, which burns at the core of things, and whose light is reflected in the light of every human conscience. Yet these are partial revelations, like that to the prophet; glimpses of the skirts of Jehovah's majesty, tastes of a "burning bliss" which in its fullness could not be endured. It is this sense that there is a beauty all around us, ready at any moment to break into glowing manifestation, were not our mortal eyes too dim to look upon it; an eternal music from which this "muddy vesture of decay grossly closing us in" protects us, which otherwise might paralyze by its thunderous tones;—it is this sense which does, or which should, impress an habitual reverence upon the mind. We should all be able to look back upon moments of our history when we have seen in the inner chamber of the mind something of what Isaiah saw, and to cherish the recollection as a lore never to be forgotten. For if we have never known a time when we were reduced into insignificance in the presence of God, and felt that he was all and we were naught, and that the best tradition about God must be hushed into silence before what we personally know of God, we have missed an elementary lesson which, when once obtained, adds weight and worth to all our after-experience.
3. The seraphs and their song. "Seraphs stood high around [or, 'above'] him." It is impossible to gain a true notion of the seraphic figures without consulting works of art. Like the cherubim and the griffins and the sphinxes, their origin is in the remotest fore-time. All these were, in fact, among man's earliest efforts to represent to himself in visible art the Divine power which he felt to be working in and through nature; in the flash of the lightning, the thunder's roar, the might of the blast, and all those mysterious sounds and sights which usher in the changes of the year. As this is the only place where the seraphim are named, their character must remain for the most part speculative. Similar winged figures are, however, found in Oriental sculpture (such as those in the British Museum) as attributes of a sovereign. And we can hardly be wrong in considering them as appropriate signs of Jehovah's sovereignty over nature in the vision of Isaiah. Wings in art-figures generally denote the wind. If, then, we compare the passages in the Old Testament whence Jehovah's power is described as revealed in storm and wind, e.g. Psalms 18:10 ("He rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind") or Psalms 104:3, Psalms 104:4 ("Who walketh upon the wings of the wind; who maketh his messengers spirits, his ministers a flaming fire"), we may gain a fair understanding of what is meant. The stormy winds at the turning-points of the year reveal force—the force of the omnipotent Creator. And at the same time, the Creator is concealed behind, as well as revealed in, these expressions of his might. And so the seraphic figures are seen by the prophet doubly veiled by their own wings—in face and feet. For we can neither look upon the face of God nor follow the viewless track of his footsteps. As the noble verse of Cowper aptly expresses it—
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm."
We shall not be far wrong if we find this truth symbolically set forth by the six-winged seraphic figures of the prophet's vision. But the wind is full of music as well as of might, and the seraphs give utterance to a solemn song, which falls into two members, sung antiphonally by these celestial choristers. "One called to the other," just as the priests in the temple-music below. Profound and weighty is the burden of this alternate chant—
"Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts!
The fullness of the whole earth is his glory!"
How shall we think of the holiness of Jehovah? As height, like that in which the seraphs sing—a nature and a life so "far above" our base and groveling ways? Alas for us, if we do not ever recollect in our worship that, high as yonder empyrean above this "dim spot that men call earth," distinct as the clouds in fleeciest white from the stagnant and foul spots below, are the thoughts of Jehovah above our thoughts, and his ways above our ways! Shall we think of holiness as separation? Woe to us if we know not that purity, which, like the flame, retirees to wed with ought that is alien to itself; which, like the light, divides and discriminates the evil from the good wheresoever it comes! The thrice-holy God is none other than the supremely pure Intelligence, the perfect chastity of Love. But the infinite glory as well as the holiness of Jehovah is celebrated. It is the "fullness of the earth," teeming with life, throbbing with mysterious forces, covered with a rich robe of rare embroidery, holding rich treasures in her keeping; which embodies to our thought the nature of God in its vast extent, just as the pure sky represents the intensity of that nature as a principle of holiness. Silent and inaccessible as sun and stars, he is yet near to us in the throbbing of great nature's heart—nay, of our own.
"Speak to him, then! for he hears,
and spirit with spirit may meet;
Closer is he than thy breathing,
nearer than hands and feet."
"God in all"—this was the thought of Paul the apostle, as of Isaiah the prophet. Incarnate in the flower and in the stem, vocal in the "sound of many waters," or in the tinkling of brook or murmur of zephyr; there is nothing in the world in which he is not revealed.
"Thou art, O God, the Life and Light
Of all this wondrous world we see!
Its glow by day, its smile by night,
Are but reflections caught from thee:
Where'er we turn, thy glories shine,
And all things fair and bright are thine."
4. The yoke of God. A loud cry is heard even above the hymn of the seraphim, and it causes the thresholds to tremble. The thunder was among all ancient nations listened to as the voice of God. It is the natural expression of supreme and irresistible power, before which man, in the last height of his own intelligence and power, must bow. Instantly the smoke soars from the altar, and the temple is filled with smoke. Worship is man's answer to God's voice—the answerer his conscience, the answer of his heart. Nor can we truly worship without the sense of being face to face with unutterable mystery. For behind the most glorious visions remains he "whom no man hath at any time seen, nor can see;" at the heart of the thunder is that Divine emotion which must slay us were it fully discharged into our souls. The rising smoke may fitly typify that sacred silence, the "offspring of the deeper heart," in which our worship should begin and end.
II. THE PROPHET'S CONSECRATION.
1. The effect of the revelation on his mind. First, there is the sense of utter weakness. When the true glory of the spiritual world bursts upon us, it seems as if we must die. Every difficulty conquered brings us a new sense of strength; every human being we have fairly faced in the consciousness of our own manhood we may reduce to our own level; for one man is virtually the peer of every other, the world over. But who can look and live in the presence of the white intense light of the pure and burning Spirit of God? Already, like Abraham (Genesis 18:1-33.), the man feels himself as if reduced to "dust and ashes;" or, like Moses, that he cannot see the Eternal and live, but must shelter himself in a cleft of the rock, and hide behind the hand of God (Exodus 33:1-23.); or, like Manoah, forebodes a deathful doom as he gazes into the mystic altar-flame (Judges 13:1-25.). In Greek and other Gentile legends we read of children receiving a nightly birth of fire as the condition of immortality, the meaning of which was that none but those destined to divinity could endure the fiery ordeal Profound enigma of our nature! That we to whom has been imparted the longing for life eternal, the dim consciousness of an undying destiny, should yet know moments when we seem on the verge of "dusty death." But the man whom God calls to be mighty in word and deed must pass through the whole gamut and scale of human emotion, from the lowest mood of self-distrust to that of loftiest confidence in God. No note must be left unstruck in our own heart, if we are to make it sound in the conscience of others. There is, besides, the consciousness inefficiency. The very calling which already glimmers before Isaiah's mind as his is that for which he finds himself unfit, lie is to be a nabi, a prophet; that is, a man of fluent lips and pure, through which the streams of Divine eloquence are to flow. Alas! how can this be? For he is a "man of unclean lips," and will not the truth be muddied passing through them, and so cease to be truth? All this is a typical experience. The man who has never felt unfit will never be fit for any great thing. Jeremiah, at his call, felt that he was "a child;" and Moses that he was "slow of speech and slow of tongue" (Exodus 4:10); and John fell at the feet of the Son of man "as one dead," brain and hand paralyzed, before he took up the pen that glowed with apocalyptic fire. Who is the fit man for God's ends? The self-confident man? It depends on what we mean by "self-confidence." Appearances deceive; the show of strength is not the same thing with strength itself, nor the demeanor of weakness a certain index of inefficiency. To read our own hearts is our business. And heart-experience may teach us that absolute confidence in our resources bodes humiliation, while trembling self-distrust may hint that something is to be done by God through us. "Do the very thing you are afraid to do," is in certain moments the voice of conscience and of God. So it proved in this instance.
2. Purification and pardon. One of the burning beings flies to the prophet's side, bearing a herded stone (for such seems to be the meaning of the word ritzpah) forming part of the altar, and detached without difficulty from it. With this he touches the lips of the trembling seer, saying, "Lo! this hath touched thy lips, and so will thy guilt depart, and thy sin may be atoned for." More meaning can be condensed into a symbolic action than into any mere words. Fire is the enemy of all impurity; and the idea of a fire-baptism as the means of cleansing is deeply rooted in the lore of olden time. In this respect it seems nearly allied to the sprinkling of blood. And just as when Moses sprinkled all the people with the sacrificial blood, or the priests sprinkled the altar and other sacred objects, one drop seemed sufficient to diffuse ceremonial cleanness on the object on which it fell, so the mere touch of the hot coal or stone is enough to signify the completeness of the purification. It is not the quantity of the fiery element, but the quality, which does the work. A small spark may kindle a mass of fuel, or, falling on the hand, spread a keen pain through all the nervous network of the body; so a glimpse of God, a touch from his hand, may change the mood of our being for a lifetime. It may set up a glow which shall not die down till all that is selfish, sensual, base, in us shall lie in ashes. The sense of guilt lies deep in the mind; and never is it so clear and keen as in moments of bodily sickness or mental depression. The moment when we are tempted to say, "I cannot help it," there rises up the thought that there is help in God, and therefore that we are not helpless. No sooner does the cry of weakness, the complaint concerning the unclean lips, escape Isaiah, than the eternal evangel, in all its supernatural strength to heal, comes homo to his heart. For this is the eternal gospel' in its essence, whether borne by lips of seraph, prophet, or Son of God: "Thy guilt will depart, thy sin may he atoned for." And in those blessed moments when we grasp this message in its fullest meaning, and believe it in its inmost truth, the heart is set free, and, despite present fetters and prisons in which fact or fancy holds us bound, we know that it will not ever be thus. Then, indeed, the yoke of duty becomes easy, the burden of toil, for the sake of the love which pardons and emancipates, light.
3. The call to service. Again the august and dominant voice of the Eternal is heard: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" A ready answer, full of devotion, full of self-abandonment, comes from that lately overwhelmed heart: "Here am I; send me." Out of weakness Isaiah has been made strong, and there is no hesitation now. There is "triumph lingering in his eyes, wide as of some swimmer's who descries help from above in his extreme despair." The foolish imprudence which cries, "Here am I; send me," without having calculated the cost of the enterprise and the extent of the resources, is not that of Isaiah. Still less is the unfaithful trifling with one's powers and opportunities under the excuse of modesty, or the delight in dreams of action rather than in action itself, seen in him. We see some men rashly staking their future on the cast of a die, impetuously crossing a Rubicon; others lingering on the brink, or moving superstitiously in a fancied circle, beyond which seems to lie the frowning impossible. And we see a third class who have learned the Divine magic of the word "obey," and who alone move safely and with high heart to ends greater than their dreams. The servant's readiness, his quickness of eye and ear, is what we need. Can we allege that we have never seen our vision, heard our call from the unmistakable voice? If the plea he sound, then our mistakes and aberrations cannot be charged against us. But can we maintain such plea so long as there is any meaning in the words" truth" and" duty?" Truth is ever beckoning to us, duty's low clear voice is ever sounding, though the paths to which they guide lie but dimly before. The call to act is for us all; the call to act greatly but for God's elected few. Let us not mistake our wishes for Divine commands, nor in vanity create a destiny which is only our own fiction. Still less let us treat impressions which have seized us and shaken us with awe, and against which reluctant flesh and blood have struggled, as dreams to be set aside and fancies to be overcome. If, after straining eye and ear, God seems to leave you through wide tracts of life's way to struggle with your ignorance and to work out your problems unaided,—be it so. This is your call. If otherwise you are the subject of strong and extraordinary impressions, reaching into the reality behind the shows of things, hearing with open ears where others know but confused sounds,—be it so. Your call is more direct. If only we will not indulge the blindness of those who will not see, the deafness of those who stop their ears, the proud weakness of those who hate to obey, all may be well.
III. THE MISSION.
1. It will be thankless and disappointing. Isaiah is to go and waste, as it seems, his eloquence upon dull ears, upon intelligences sealed up, and hearts that are proof against religious feeling. The light of truth as it streams from him will encounter rocks that will not melt in the sun, natures that can neither be softened nor sweetened. It is the height of a preacher's joy when every word comes back to him a silent echo from the conscience of the people; and his day of mourning is when he feels himself to be speaking in a valley full of dry bones, or before beings who seem to have life and conscience, set are but as specters of men. In his best moments it seems that all the eloquence is in the people, and he is "gathering up in a mist" from them that which he is to "return upon them in a flood." In other moments of discouragement it seems that he is alone in the world, with a sublime cry upon his lips, now become meaningless, because there are none to whom it has a meaning. We know the legend of St. Antony preaching to the fishes; and, indeed, it seems better to talk with the dumb creatures whom we can win to silent sympathy, than to a people which "does not consider." The company of the ox or the ass seems better than that or men who have become as "stocks and stones, and worse than senseless filings." The preacher and teacher will know these trials, and let him recollect that it is pro uncommon experience. We find its pathos repeated in different ways in all the great prophets, in John the Baptist, the "voice in the desert," and in Christ himself. Ate we to cease crying when the echo ceases? Rather let us go on until we hear once more the truth coming back to us. Let us believe that what is true to us in our inmost heart will one day be true for all the world. One of our great countrymen said that he was wont to iterate the same statement again and again until he heard it on the tongue of common talk; and this was a statesman to whom the people owed the greatest material blessings. The test of truth is not the way in which it is received, but the immediate reflection of it in our own mind.
2. The gloom of the time will deepen. "How long, O Lord?" The answer describes a prophet shut in by clouds and mist, or overhung by some all-pervading pall of gloom. Sin is to go on working out its waste, until there be an empty and depopulated land; Things bad begun to make themselves strong by ill." And there are times when evil must be left to gather to a head and run its full course. It may even be the part of the prophet to hasten it on its way. But when we say, "Things are getting worse and worse," let us remember that beyond the worst remains the best, and after last returns the first; for God is the principle of an inexhaustible and unconquerable life.
3. The gleam of hope. There is now visible at the close a gleam on the dark horizon, denoting a coming dawn. A section, an elect few, a tenth, will survive these coming disasters. The fire of judgment and purification, of which the burning seraphs are symbolic, must wither the goodly branches of the national tree, and leave the stem all blackened and charred. Still the stump will remain with its root still fastened in the earth. "Just as the trunk of terebinth or oak, deeply and ineradicably sunk in the earth, bears constantly new shoots, an image of eternity and immortality, springing from an inward "rejuvenating power," so with the spiritual life of the nation and the individual. Here, then, we see how the deepest seriousness and sadness is yet compatible with undying hope.
(1) The nation that hopes in the Eternal can never perish. That terebinth root lives on; all fresh developments of Christianity spring from its undying life.
(2) The man who hopes in the Eternal shall be saved. He may, he must, pass through the fire of trial; but if he endure to the end, he shall be saved. Amidst his ashes he will discover fresh life; for there is hope of the tree, and hope of the man, that though felled, he shall rise again.
(3) Holiness is the secret of life. It is health, it is the sanity of the mind which has made truth its portion, God its delight, and his service its eternal choice.—J.
HOMILIES BY W.M. STATHAM
The call of God.
"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." The symbol of the seraphim had been on the prophet's head, and the voice of the Lord had come to his conscience and his heart. The live coal had touched his lips. Prophets, apostles, teachers, must be sent of God. Other qualifications are appropriate and excellent, but this is indispensable.
I. THE DIVINE QUERY. "Whom?" Then God takes thought about Divine government in human history. Just as Nature expresses, in all her forms of beauty, his skill and care, so in grace God is observant of character, and watchful for the wisest means. He knows the secret places of grace and genius, and he can call them forth at the appropriate time. Isaiah now; Paul in the great epoch to come.
II. THE ELECTIVE HONOR. "Whom shall I send?" Here we have the sublime election to privilege, so far as responsibility is concerned, which, rightly considered, explains God's calling of Jews then, and Jews and Gentiles now. It is not an election to salvation, but to a status of honor and influence in witnessing for him. "Send!" Then God is the great Father of all human spirits, not willing that any should perish. The Jewish Church was a city set on a hill to enlighten others; the salt to save the world from death and putrefaction.
III. THE QUICK RESPONSE. There is no hesitation. "Here am I." Men should fulfill their own prayers. They ask for grace and strength to work and give. Let them inquire within whether they cannot turn supplication into consecration. "Here am I." How few say that! They look round and exclaim, "Send others!" "Send reel" says the prophet, fulfilling the commission which makes him the great evangelic spirit of the Old Testament.—W.M.S.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
The vision of God.
"I saw … the Lord," writes the prophet. These simple, strong words suggest to us—
I. THE VISION WHICH IS IMPOSSIBLE. "NO man hath seen God at any time," our Lord declares; and his declaration is sustained by the philosophic truth that he who is a Divine Spirit must be invisible to mortal eye. So far as our apprehension by sense is concerned, God must remain, to every human being, "the King eternal, immortal, invisible." Himself, in his own essential nature, we cannot look upon.
II. THE VISION WHICH IS EXTRAORDINARY. God has, on some few occasions, granted special and particular manifestations of himself—such that those to whom they were vouchsafed might say, without impropriety, that they had "seen the Lord." Of this kind were the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-22.), the vision granted to Moses on the mount (Exodus 34:5, Exodus 34:6), that of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19), this one narrated in the text, those of the Apocalypse. In these cases there was a manifestation of Deity in Some form, temporarily assumed, cognizable by the senses, and bringing the soul into close communion with the Eternal One himself.
III. THE VISION WHICH IS CONSTANT. It is something more than poetry to think and speak of God as being in the various objects and operations in nature. It is something deeper than fanciful sentiment, and truer than Pantheistic thought, to say that "nature is the robe of God." For his power is immanent in all living things. The forces of nature, which are working everywhere and in all things, are, in truth, the out-workings of his own Divine hand, in constant and regular, and therefore in measurable and reliable activity. When we watch them, we do well to feel that we are near to him; they are directly suggestive of him, and we ought not to be able to regard them with interest without reaching and resting in him of whose presence and skill and love they continually speak to us.
IV. THE VISION WHICH IS HISTORICAL. There are two manifestations of Deity which stand by themselves, the latter being transcendently the greater and more gracious of the two.
1. One was in the visible Shechinah: which remained the constant symbol of the presence of Jehovah for many generations; there in the midst of the camp, visible to any eye that looked within the veil, but only to be seen by one man on one great day in the sacred calendar.
2. The other was found in him who was able to say, "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." They who looked on him in the days of his flesh, and who heard his voice, might say with peculiar meaning, "I have seen the Lord." And we, before whose eyes a once-crucified Savior has been conspicuously upheld (see Galatians 3:1), and who, in him, have presented to our spiritual vision the holy and loving One, infinitely' worthy of our reverent affection, may also say, with profound truthfulness, that we too "have seen the Lord."
V. THE VISION WHICH IS OCCASIONAL. There are certain exceptional experiences which God grants to us now, when he comes very near to us and reveals himself to our souls. It may be on the occasion of some outward incident, the apparent nearness of death and the future world, or the passing of some intimate friend or relation into the unseen realm, or the powerful presentation of the truth by some faithful minister of Christ, or it may be the sudden illumination of the Spirit of God apart from all special circumstances whatsoever; but there are times in individual history when God comes to us, when he makes his person, his claims upon us, his grace to us in his Son, and with these, our highest, eternal interests, to assume to our souls their true, their grand proportions. Then is it well, indeed, for us so to act that we can thereafter say," I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision."—C.
A sermon from the seraphim.
Taking the seraphim of this prophetic vision as symbols of the "highest creaturely intelligences," we gather from the text—
I. THAT THE LOWLIEST REVERENCE BECOMES THE HIGHEST CREATED BEINGS. "With twain [of his wings] he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feel." Of the six wings each seraph possessed, four were used to indicate their sense of unworthiness in the near presence of God; two only were in readiness for active service. May we not fairly infer that, as we go upward in the order of intelligence, we become more impressed with the majesty and greatness of the Divine, and consequently with our own littleness? Elevation in rank does not mean diminution, but increase in reverence of spirit and in homage of worship. The higher the intelligence, the deeper the sense of lowliness, and the fuller the devotion of power in the attitude and act of adoration.
II. THAT THE HEAVENLY LIFE IS LARGELY SPENT IN ACTIVE SERVICE. "With twain he did fly." The seraphim are represented as so equipped as to be ready for the most prompt and speedy service. The heavenly life may be one of sacred song and peaceful rest; but it certainly is also one of joyous, holy activity. It will be the very crown of our blessedness that, unclothed of all that hampers and impedes, and clothed upon with those celestial organs which fit for fleetest and strongest service, we shall do the King's behests with untiring wing, with unflagging energy, with unfading love and joy.
III. THAT THE CELESTIAL INTELLIGENCES HAVE A KEEN APPRECIATION OF THE DIVINE. HOLINESS. "Holy, holy, holy," etc. It is significant enough that, in this ascriptive utterance, only one of the attributes of God finds a place. The repetition of the epithet marks the fullness and clearness of the thought, as also the intensity of the feeling. In Jesus Christ we rightly magnify the grace and mercy, the gentleness and considerateness, of the heavenly Father to whom we are reconciled through him; but we must see to it that we do not so dwell on the more gracious aspects of the Divine character as to lose sight of, or even dwarf his other and opposite attributes. As we draw near to the heavenly world we must take the celestial view, which is one of a deep and strong conviction of his perfect purity, of his stainless holiness, of his utter and eternal hostility to every shade and taint of sin.
IV. THAT THE HIGHEST INTELLIGENCES SEE ALL THINGS IN THEIR RELATION TO GOD. "The whole earth is full of his glory." Those who will receive no more helpful and decisive teaching than that of science and philosophy fall short of this; they come to the irreverent conclusion that the heavens and the earth declare the glory of those only who have studied their secrets and discovered their laws. But the highest, the heavenly intelligences find God everywhere and his glory in everything. The psalm of the seraphim declares that "the whole earth is full of his glory." And we as we ascend in mental power and spiritual worth, shall let all earthly things speak to us of God. The multitude of all created things and of all living creatures will speak of his power; the intricacy and delicacy and adaptation of all things will tell of his wisdom; the vast and measureless amount of happiness scattered over all the earth's surface and even in its depths will sing of his beneficence; the sorrow and the death which are beneath its skies will chant the righteousness of his holy rule; the upward struggle and the better life, which grow clearer and stronger age by age, will beat' witness to his regenerating goodness. All things will speak of God, the whole earth will be full of his glory.—C.
The passage depicts the prophet in a condition of great mental agitation; his state may suggest to us—
I. THE ALARM OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT UNDER THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE DIVINE PRESENCE. Anything which brings us into close contact with the unseen world powerfully affects our spirit and produces an apprehension for which we may not be able to account.
1. Any visitant, real or imaginary, from the spiritual realm fills us with fear (see Judges 6:22; Judges 13:22; Job 4:15; Daniel 10:8; Luke 1:12; Luke 2:9). We have not the slightest reason to apprehend any act of hostility from such a being, and may be said to have a positive interest in knowing that such as they are do exist and do concern themselves in our welfare. But there are few men who would not be considerably agitated if they believed themselves to be in the presence of a disembodied (or unembodied) spirit.
2. We are affected with lively apprehension when we think ourselves to be on the confines of the future, the spiritual world.
3. The conception of the near presence of the Lord himself awakens the greatest disquietude of soul. So was it with Isaiah now. "Woe is me! I am undone," he exclaimed. So was it with Peter when the miraculous draught revealed the presence of his Divine Master. "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord," was his prayer. And whenever we are brought into such a spiritual condition that we are ready to say, "Surely God is in this place," whenever the hand of the Lord is felt to be upon our souls and his voice to be manifestly addressing our hearts, we are awed, agitated, even alarmed, with a peculiar and inexpressible apprehension.
II. ITS JUSTIFICATION IN OUR HUMAN GUILT. We may not be able to explain our alarm at the nearness of any created being from the other world, but we can well understand how it is we are affected as we are under the consciousness of the divine presence. It is that our littleness is abashed at the presence of Divine majesty, our ignorance in presence of Divine wisdom, our feebleness in presence of Divine power. But this is not the explanation of our alarm. It is found in the fact that when we find ourselves before God we are conscious that a guilty soul is in the near presence of the thrice-holy One (see verse 3). The clue to our agitation is in the words, "I am a man of unclean lips;" "I am a sinful man." There is a twofold reason why sinful men should be alarmed at the felt presence of God: one, that all sin by its very nature shrinks and cowers in the conscious presence of purity; the other, that the guilty human soul knows well that it is the province, and is in the power, of the righteous God to inflict the penalty which is its due; and it knows that the rightful penalty of sin is sorrow, shame, death.
III. ITS DIVINE REMOVAL. (Verses 6, 7.) Under Divine direction one of the cherubim took a live coal from that altar of sacrifice which God had caused to be built for the purging of the sins of the people, and with the coal he touched the "unclean lips" of which the prophet had made confession and complaint; so was his "iniquity taken away," and, we may conclude, his spirit calmed. The removal of that spiritual agitation which comes to our soul when we realize that our guilt is in the full view of the Holy One can only come from God himself. We may bless his Name that he has made such ample provision for this gracious purpose.
1. He has provided the sacrifice and the altar; that is found in him who is the Propitiation for our sins, in the cross of Calvary.
2. He has provided the messengers of mercy; these are found in those faithful servants who carry the gospel of his grace on the wings of their ardent love.
3. He has provided the means by which the sacrifice and the soul are connected, and the virtue of the one is made to touch and heal the other; this is found in that living faith by which the Lamb of God takes away our sin, and our soul, "being justified by faith, has peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ."—C.
On God's errand.
Our thought is naturally divided into—
I. THE DIVINE DEMAND. "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"
1. There are some demands God makes of us all. He requires that we should hearken when he speaks; that we should be especially attentive to his Son (Matthew 17:5); that we should accept Jesus Christ as our Lord, Savior, Friend, Exemplar; that we should honor him before the world.
2. There are other demands he makes of most of his children. That they should actively engage in the work of extending his kingdom; that they should suffer some kind of persecution for his sake.
3. There remain some demands he only makes of a few. Work requiring specially hard toil, or particular preparation in study, or unusual tact and versatility, or exceptional powers of mind or body. Then he says, "Whom (of all my servants) shall I send; and who will go?"
II. THE INDIVIDUAL RESPONSE. "Here am I; send me." In order to say this wisely and rightly, there must be:
1. Thorough devotedness; half-heartedness will never succeed on such errands as these.
2. Special qualification, by native faculty or favorable antecedents.
3. Freedom from other and more pressing obligations. These conditions being fulfilled, all the highest considerations—the will of Christ, the pitiful necessities of the sons of want and sorrow and shame, the example of the noblest, the recompense of the righteous—combine to say, "Go, and the Lord be with you."—C.
The shadow of sacred truth.
We may view these words in—
I. THEIR NATIONAL ASPECT. Thus regarded, they point to:
1. Painful and guilty obduracy. The prophet should speak, but the people would disregard; all that was froward and perverse in them would repel and reject the Divine message; their reception of the truth would only end in spiritual deterioration and greater moral distance than ever from deliverance (Isaiah 6:9, Isaiah 6:10).
2. Protracted impenitence and Divine judgment (Isaiah 6:11, Isaiah 6:12).
3. Long-lingering mercy ending in partial restoration (Isaiah 6:13). But we shall gain most from these verses by regarding them in—
II. THEIR INDIVIDUAL ASPECT. The ninth and tenth verses have the most direct and serious bearing on our condition now. They suggest to us that sacred truth not only sheds a bright light, but casts a deep shadow where it falls.
1. It casts the shadow of solemn responsibility everywhere. When a greater than Moses legislates, and a wiser than Solomon speaks to us, we have more to be responsible for than they who received the Law from Sinai, and they who lived under the reign of the son of David. From those to whom much is given will much be required.
2. It casts the shadow of a heavy condemnation on those who reject it. "Of how much sorer punishment," etc. "It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment," etc.; "This is the condemnation, that light is come," etc.; "He that knew his Lord's will and did it not shall be beaten with many stripes."
3. But the special lesson from our text is that it casts the shadow of spiritual deterioration on those who refuse it. "Make the heart of this people fat … shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes," etc. The apparent sense of these words cannot be, and is not, the one that should be accepted. They cannot possibly be meant to signify that God desired his prophet deliberately and intentionally to cause moral obtuseness, spiritual blindness, in order that the people of Judah might be prevented from repenting and so from being saved. Such a thought not only outrages every reverent idea of the Divine character, but flatly contradicts the most express statements of the Divine Word (see Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; James 1:13). There is one sense of which the words are susceptible, and which is in accordance with the plainly revealed character of God; it is that the prophet was to declare such truth as would actually result in spiritual blindness, and therefore in incapacity for repentance and redemption, Now, it is the solemn duty of the minister of Christ to do the same thing continually. He knows that, as his Divine Master was "set for the fall" as well as for the "rising again of many in Israel" (Luke 2:34), and as he had occasion to say, "For judgment am I come into this world, that they who see may be made blind" (John 9:39), that as his gospel was in earliest times a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offence" (Isaiah 8:14; and see Matthew 21:44; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 2:16), so now the truth of the living God must prove, to those who reject it, the occasion of moral and spiritual degeneracy. He must lay his account with this sad fact, must go forth, like Isaiah, well aware that it is a two-edged sword he wields. But let the sons of sacred privilege understand what is their peril as well as their opportunity. Deliberately rejected truth leads down to
(1) a diminished sensibility, the lessening of pure religious emotion;
(2) loss of spiritual apprehension, an enfeebled capacity to perceive the mind and meaning of the Divine Teacher;
(3) a vanishing likelihood of personal salvation. When the ear is shut and the eye is closed, is it likely that the feet will be found in the way of life? Will they not wander off to the fields of folly, up to and over the precipice of ruin?—C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Symbolic impressions of the Divine holiness.
This is the only vision recorded in Isaiah's prophecy. It did not come at the beginning of his labors, but as an inauguration to a higher degree of the prophetic office. From the tone of the latter part of the chapter, it is evident that he had found out the rebelliousness and obstinacy of the people, and perhaps had become, like Elijah, greatly distressed and discouraged; needing, therefore, such a reviving and encouragement as this vision was fitted to afford. It introduces the prophet as outside, near the altar in front of the temple. The doors are supposed to be open, and the veil hiding the holy of holies to be withdrawn, unfolding the sight of Jehovah as a Monarch sitting on his throne, and surrounded by his ministers of state. According to the tradition, Isaiah's assertion that he had seen God was the pretext for sawing him asunder, in the reign of Manasseh. In the record of the vision it should be noticed that Isaiah gives only surroundings of God, no description of the Divine Being himself. If this had been the only vision recorded as granted by God to his people, its explanation would have been difficult. It is, however, but one of a long series, and it appears to illustrate a recognized mode of Divine dealings. God takes opportunities of impressing the Divine holiness and claims by symbolic manifestations. We review the principal illustrations from Bible records.
I. The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Fear not, Abram: I am thy Shield, and thy exceeding great Reward." And Abram, by Divine direction, took a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon, killed them, divided them, and while a horror of great darkness fell upon him, "behold! a smoking furnace and a burning lamp"—symbols of Divine holiness—"passed between the pieces, and the Lord made a covenant with Abram."
II. A vision was granted to Jacob, from which the whole tone of his life was changed, and he began a covenanted, God-fearing career. As he lay wearily on his stone pillow, under the clear-shining stars of an Eastern sky, "behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father … the land whereon thou liest, to thee and thy seed will I give it."
III. Moses led the flock of Jethro, one memorable day, to the back side of the desert, and "came to the mount of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And God called unto him out of the midst of the bush"—symbol of the holiness that consumes and purifies—"and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I."
IV. When commencing his arduous life-work, a similar impression was wrought upon Joshua. One day he looked towards Jericho, and lo! "there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand." In answer to Joshua's question he said, "As Captain of the Lord's host have I come … Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy."
V. In the times of the judges Gideon and Manoah beheld angels who delivered messages, and ascended in the smoke of sacrificial fires. Samuel, when a little lad, heard the very voice of God speaking his own name, and entrusting him with prophetic messages. Solomon was honored by God's appearing to him in a night-dream, and offering the bestowment of the best blessings upon him. Elijah, after the lightning, and thunder, and earthquake, and wind had passed, heard God in the "still small voice." Job exclaims, as in the rapture of a vision, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee, wherefore I abhor myself." Jeremiah was directly set apart for his prophetic work. "The Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth."
VI. In the New Testament records we find similar scenes. Manifestations of angels to shepherds. A wonderful scone of transfiguration for our Lord himself. The descending sheet, and its strange contents, for Peter. The overwhelming light and voice on the road to Damascus, and the elevation into the third heavens, to see the unspeakable, for St. Paul. And the apocalyptic vision for St. John. Isaiah's vision is in fullest sympathy with all these. For its explanation, see the exegetical portion of the Commentary. It bore upon the prophet, through its symbols, overwhelming impressions
(1) of the holiness,
(2) of the direct claims of God.—R.T.
Seeing God and the sense of sin.
"Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips." To Isaiah a work of unusual solemnity had been entrusted, one that needed to be done in a most serious and reverent spirit. He was at once the prophet of the Lord's terror and of the Lord's mercy. He was to denounce sin with the solemnity of one who knew what God's thought of sin was. He was to produce the conviction of sin before God in the corrupt minds and hearts of the people, and he was to announce the coming, presently, of the great Messenger of Divine mercy. Therefore it was necessary for him to have his own soul filled with the infinite glory and holiness of God, and filled with a very humbling sense of sin. These effects were wrought by the vision granted to him. It took its form from its design. All about it is holy. It is the holy place. The seraphim bow before the infinitely Holy. They cry, "Holy, holy." The threshold and the posts tremble before the Holy. And the soul of the prophet is abased. He is humbled in the sight of his own uncleanness, and the uncleanness of his people; for how can a man seem pure before his Maker?
I. A MAN NEEDS VISIONS OF GOD WHO HAS THE WORK OF DENOUNCING SIN. No man should dare to touch that work whose own soul is not oppressed with the evil of sin. Denunciation of sin is no flippant, easy work; it involves a tremendous expense of feeling. We talk about sin so freely, that for many of us it has lost its exceeding sinfulness. We confess it so often in familiar general terms, that it has lost almost all its terror. It may have been thus with Isaiah. He may have been so constantly talking about sin, that he had exhausted his feeling of its evil, and could even speak lightly about abomination that it is said "God hateth." Certainly we need such visions of God to fill our minds and hearts with seriousness; we well may pray, "Lord, show me thyself."
II. WHEN A MAN HAS VISIONS OF GOD, HE AT FIRST FEELS HELPLESS, AND DARES NOT UNDERTAKE GOD'S WORK. Compare the feelings of Moses and Jeremiah, after their visions. The first feeling will be, "I dare not." "Who is sufficient for these things?" But this will soon pass into humble dependence on Divine strength, and patient readiness to go where God sends, and do what God bids. When a man before God says, "Woe is me!" etc; he will soon respond to God's call, saying, "Here am I; send me."—R.T.
The true inspiration for workers.
"Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." What a scene is presented in this chapter for our imaginations to reproduce! The throng of worshippers had left the courts of the sacred temple; the chanting, in alternate parts, of the choir of singers, clothed in white linen, had died into silence. Other devout Israelites were praying apart, and white-robed priests silently presented their prayers in the fragrant cloud of incense which rose from the golden altar of the holy place; "then the veil of the temple seemed to be withdrawn, and the holy of holies discovered to the prophet's eye. He saw the Lord, sitting as a King upon his throne, actually governing and judging. His train, the symbol of dignity and glory, filled the holy place, while around him hovered the attendant seraphim, spirits of purity, zeal, and love, chanting in alternate choirs the holiness of their Lord. The threshold vibrated with the sound, and the white cloud of the Divine presence, as if descending to mingle itself with the ascending incense of prayer, filled the house. The eternal archetypes of the Hebrew symbolic worship were revealed to Isaiah; and, as the center of them all, his eyes saw the King, the Lord of hosts, of whom the actual rulers, from David to Uzziah, had been but the temporary and subordinate viceroys. In that presence, even the spirits of the fire, which consumes all impurity while none can mix with it, cover their faces and their feet, conscious that they are not pure in God's sight, but justly chargeable with imperfection; and much more does Isaiah shrink from the aspiring thoughts he had hitherto entertained of his fitness to be the preacher of that God to his countrymen; he, a man of unclean lips, sharing the uncleanness of the people among whom he dwells. In utter self-abasement he realizes the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the separation it makes between man and the holy God" (Sir E. Strachey). This was a vision of God granted to a worker, a man actively engaged in God's service, and about to enter on more serious and more arduous duties. Visions have seldom, if ever, been granted to individuals merely as helps to their private religious life. They are gracious aids to workers; and God's willing servants can only reach adequate convictions, feel worthy impulses, or gain a suitable and inspiring impression of the dignity of their work, through some direct manifestation of God himself to their souls. No man can do great things save as he is sustained by the conviction that God has sent him to do them, and is with him in the doing. The smallness of our aims, our endeavors, and our attainments, reveal how small and how unworthy are our views of God. It is evident that we cannot yet be said to have seen him. He has not yet overawed us with his glory and his claims, and swelled our souls with great thoughts, great resolves, and a great consecration. Those only who have seen" the King in his beauty" can give their very noblest powers, can lay down their lives, in his service.
I. CAN THERE BE PERSONAL REVELATIONS OF GOD TO HIS WORKERS IN OUR DAY? We have sadly lost in spiritual power, in self-abnegation, and in holy enthusiasm for the glory of the Lord, because we have so easily settled this question by answering, "Certainly not. God does not now give visions. Christian workers now need not expect such. We are left now to the ordinary illuminations of the Holy Spirit." But will this answer bear looking at and thinking about, and testing by the light of actual experience? God's forms of Divine dealing do indeed differ in different ages, but the essential features of God's relationship with men do not change. He can reveal himself still to individual souls; and he is not limited to the particular forms of vision which he has used in ancient times. He may adapt his visions to the altered circumstances of each age; and if once he appeared in human form to meet the sight of bodily eyes, he may now reveal his glory in the spheres that lie open to the vision of the loving and believing soul. It he be the living God, ruling, guiding, choosing out his instruments, fashioning them for his purposes, and sending them upon his commissions, he must still have visions for his servants. They will take less of outward symbolic shape, they will relate more to thought and less to dreams; but that only makes them more immediate and direct Divine communications—contacts of the Divine Spirit with the human spirit without the intervention of any earthly symbols. God spoke to the boy Samuel with an audible voice, he spoke afterwards to the man Samuel in a spirit-voice; but both were his voice. The New Testament promise is, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God,"
II. WHEN IN OUR LIFE MAY WE LOOK FOR SUCH DIVINE VISIONS TO WORKERS? Is there any special time or occasion at which they may be expected? They will net necessarily come at the beginnings of our special labors, though that might seem to be the most fitting time. They do often come at the outset, but sometimes we are permitted for a while to" go the warfare at our own charges;" we have a period of trial and of comparative failure, as Isaiah appears to have had, and then we are renewed in our consecration by some holy scenes of communion and revelation. Among the visions of the Old Testament we find several that were granted in the very midst of life's work: e.g. Abraham's, Moses', Joshua's, this of Isaiah; compare our Lord's transfiguration, and Paul's ascent to glory. The times for God's personal disclosures of himself to a man can never be fixed 'rod anticipated. Like other workings of grace, they are divinely, sovereignly free; the fitting occasion for them the unsearchable Wisdom alone can decide. This only may we say—No Christian man has ever become truly great and noble and enthusiastic, no man has become utterly self-denying in the Lord's work, until he has been called and solemnized and prepared by some soul-vision of God. He may be a Christian worker before, but he is not inspired and spiritually powerful until then. Life takes on its highest nobility only after we are able to say, "Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." We may not say that such visions come only once in a man's life. They will be given as often as there is need for them, and openness to receive them. Christ, our Lord, had visions at his baptism, at the mount, in the wilderness, and in the garden. The Apostle Paul had visions on the road to Damascus, of the man from Macedonia, of the third heaven, and amid the dangers of shipwreck. We often hear of our dying friends seeing something of which those around their beds cannot catch the faintest glimpse. And this is true of Christian souls in life. They have times of insight, times of seeing truth and seeing God; times when, apart from study and thought, they seem to be plunged in all the glory of Divine and eternal things; moments in which they could not tell whether they were "in the body or out of the body." Two or three instances may be given in illustration. While Luther was laboriously climbing up Pilate's staircase at Rome, seeking to win a righteousness out of his own works, he heard a voice thundering in his soul and saying, "The just shall live by faith." That was a New Testament vision el the truth, and from that vision Luther's power began. The following is a testimony rendered concerning a godly man: "About a year after his conversion, returning from a meeting greatly distressed with a sense of his unworthiness, he turned aside into a lonely barn to wrestle with God, and while kneeling on the threshing-floor he gained a little light. Shortly after his eyes were opened to see all clearly. He felt that he was nothing, and Christ was all in all; and from that time commenced a life of most devoted and successful labor for Christ." "The holy John Flavel, being alone in a journey on horseback, and willing to make the best improvement of the day's solitude, set himself to a close examination of the state of his soul, and then of the life to come, and the manner of its being and living in heaven, Going on his way, his thoughts began to swell, and rise higher and higher, like the waters in Ezekiel's vision, till at last they became an overflowing flood. Such was the intention of his mind, such the ravishing taste of heavenly joys, and such the full assurance of his interest therein, that he utterly lost the sight and sense of this world, and all the concerns thereof; and for some hours knew no more where he was than if he had been in a deep sleep in his bed." The following passage is taken from the margin of John Howe's study Bible. It is the only record of his personal experience preserved for us. "After I had, in my course of preaching, been largely insisting on 2 Corinthians 1:12, this very morning I awoke out of a most ravishing and delightful dream, that a wonderful and copious stream of celestial rays, from the lofty throne of the Divine Majesty, seemed to dart into my expanded breast. I have often since, with great complacency, reflected on that very signal pledge of special Divine favor vouchsafed to me on that memorable day, and have, with repeated fresh pleasure, tasted the delights thereof. But what, on Oct. 22, 1704, of the same kind I sensibly felt … far surpassed the most expressive words my thoughts can suggest. I then experienced an inexpressibly pleasant melting of hearts; tears gushing out of mine eyes, for joy that God should shed abroad his love abundantly through the hearts of men, and that for this very purpose my own should be so signally possessed of and by' his blessed Spirit." Dr. Bushnell says, "We have vast crowds of witnesses, rising up in every age, who testify, out of their own consciousness, to the work of the Spirit, and the new-creating power of Jesus, who, by his Spirit, is revealed in their hearts. In nothing do they consent with a more hymn-like harmony than in the testimony that their inward transformation is a Divine work—a new revelation of God, by the Spirit, in their human consciousness. So do they all testify with one voice—Paul, Clement, Origen, St. Bernard, Hass, Gerson, Luther, Fenelon, Baxter, Flavel, Doddridge, Wesley, Edwards, Brainerd, Taylor, all the innumerable host of believers that have entered into rest, whether it be the persecuted saint of the first age, driven home in his chariot of blood, or the saint who died but yesterday in the arms of his family." We do well to guard against any fanatical and superstitious watching for sensible appearances, symbolical manifestations, or the guidance of our dreams. But this we should better understand—there are delectable mountains in our Christian pilgrimage nowadays, and we may climb the heights, and get visions of the far-away celestial city. We are Christians of the plains and the low country; we should oftener be breathing the fresh air of the mountain-side. If we would open our hearts; if we would have a well-trodden path to the place of prayer; if we would yearn for it,—God would come nearer to us, and oftener show us his glory. He is a new man, and a new worker, who can say, "Mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts."—R.T.
Isaiah 6:6, Isaiah 6:7
Divine endowment the proof of Divine forgiveness and acceptance.
What occurred must be explained in connection with the vision. One of those seraphim who stood, with poised wings, ready for an instant and unquestioning obedience, at the bidding of the King flew down, having taken a live coat from the sublime altar which formed part of the vision, and with it touched the mouth of the prophet, speaking also words of gracious assurance. This touch of the mouth of the prophet was the symbol of the endowment of speaking power; and with it may be compared the gift of tongues made to the early Christian Church. We note—
I. THE ENDOWED ONES MUST BE THE FORGIVEN. It scarcely needed the seraph's words to carry home this assurance. Illustrate by the gift of the Holy Ghost—recognized in the possession of some special talent—to the early believers. It was the seal of their forgiveness. Compare the case of fretful and desponding Elijah. The assurance that his sin was forgiven came in the renewal of his prophetic commission.
II. THE ENDOWED ONES MUST BE THE ACCEPTED. God would not honor with a place of service for hint those who were not in gracious relations with him. We may recognize that God uses all men, "making even the wrath of man praise him, and restraining the remainder of wrath;" but so far as his redemption work is concerned, in all its many branches, the possession of special gifts may be recognized as proof of God's acceptance and appointment. It shows that God has chosen and approves the workman. Isaiah was rightly cheered by such an endowment, or re-endowment, to prophetic work.
III. THE ENDOWED ONES RESPOND BY SELF-CONSECRATION. When the joy of for-Ripeness and acceptance comes, and the solemnity of a Divine trust rests on a man, if he be a good man, he can but watch for the Divine voice saying, "Whom shall I send?" and at once and heartily respond, "Here am I; send me." Compare the hesitation of Moses to take up the trust God would commit to him, and his grieving God by a hesitation that was based on a false humility; and see the words Eli put on the lips of young Samuel: "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth."—R.T.
A mission of hardening.
Dean Plumptre says, "No harder task, it may be, was ever given to man. Ardent dreams of reformation and revival, the nation renewing its strength like the eagle, were scattered to the winds; and he had to face the prospect of a fruitless labor, of feeling that he did but increase the evil against which he strove. It was the very opposite mission of that to which St. Paul was sent, to open men's eyes, and turn them from darkness to light'" (Acts 26:18). Mr. Hutton, in one of his essays, says, "When civilization becomes corrupt, and men are living below their faith, I think it may often be in mercy that God strikes the nations with blindness—that the only remedy lies in thus taking away an influence which they resist, and leaving them the stern lesson of self-dependence." This gives the key to the view we propose to take of Isaiah's mission. From one point of view a mission of hardening is a mission of judgment; but, from another point of view, it is a mission of mercy. From both points of view it is always a most trying mission for him to whom it is entrusted.
I. A MISSION OF HARDENING IS A MISSION OF JUDGMENT. Compare Moses' mission to Pharaoh. It was a fact that Pharaoh's heart was hardened. On natural mental laws we can explain the process of hardening. Yet we are hidden see deeper, and recognize that, in judgment on his willfulness, "God hardened his heart." If a man resists a gracious influence once, he finds it easier to resist a second time, and gradually the influence has no persuasive effect on him; he is "hardened." Illustrate by the Pharisees, who at first inquired concerning Christ. They resisted the witness of his words and works, until at last a blindness and hardness came upon them as a judgment. The Jews are under Divine judgment now; it is a blinding, veiling, hardening, which makes it impossible for them, as a whole nation, to see the Son of God and Savior of the world from sin in Jesus of Nazareth. The man who won't see shall come into this judgment—he shall not be able to see. All missions, even Christ's, have a side of hardening. Some missions are almost wholly the execution of this Divine judgment. Blindness is God's punishment for refusing to see, and spiritual blindness comes through the very preaching of the truth that saves to unwilling hearts; and such preaching-work, that seems worse than fruitless, may be the mission given by God to some men. To us they may be ministers of judgment, even in their preaching of the gospel. J.A. Alexander says, "The thing predicted is judicial blindness, as the natural result and righteous retribution of the national depravity. This end would be promoted by the very preaching of the truth, and therefore a command to preach was in effect a command to blind and harden them."
II. A MISSION OF HARDENING IS A MISSION OF MERCY. It may be
(1) considerateness for individuals, on whom it will prove the only effective agency. It may be
(2) the quickest way to secure the humbling of the soul. God may have to let men get hard in their pride that, through the fall that must surely follow, their pride may be broken; just as the mother lets the child, that is conceited with its first attempts to walk, stumble and fall, in order that henceforth the walking may be less venturesome. The thought is almost beyond us, but we are permitted even to believe that God works his work of grace by calamities that we call destructive, and by hardenings that seem to us hopeless. In Isaiah's days, "events that were 'signs of the times,' calls to repentance or to action, were taken as things of course. For such a state, after a certain stage, there is but one treatment. It must run its course, and 'dree its weird,' partly as a righteous retribution, partly as the only remedial process possible." The evident results of his mission made Isaiah's ministry extremely trying and depressing; his preaching rocked some to a fatal sleep, and made others outrageous and exasperated. And the final results of his work, as at heart a work of mercy, could not be revealed for his cheering during his life. He could only hold that before him as a mysterious vision of the far away. But he was nobly faithful; a servant of God who reaped no results such as he would himself desire, but actually seemed only a mischief-maker, an increaser of existing evils, and a hardener of hearts. But to none are the words more fitting than to tried Isaiah, "Well done, good and faithful servant," executor of Divine judgment, and ministrant of Divine mercy.—R.T.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Isaiah 6". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30