As we have seen in previous essays, the first five chapters of Isaiah form an introduction to his book. In chapter one we saw Isaiah introduce the book as a whole. Then in chapters 2-4 Isaiah laid out the huge gap that exists between what Israel was and what she was supposed to be. Then in chapter five he concluded the introduction by presenting a vivid parable in the form of a song (vv. 1-7), a series of “woes” that reiterated the wickedness of Israel (vv. 8-12; 15-17), and two “therefore” sections in which he presented eventual results of that wickedness (vv. 13-14; 24-25). Then he added a poetic prophecy of coming destruction at the hands of a foreign power (vv. 26-30).
Next, in chapter six, comes the vivid and powerful account of Isaiah’s call and commission as a prophet. We discussed in an earlier lesson the question of why Isaiah placed five chapters of prophecies before the account of his call as a prophet. The logical order would be to give the call and then the prophecies. It might be helpful to review that discussion at this point.
You may recall that Oswalt offered two possible answers to that question. One was that Isaiah actually could have uttered these prophecies before his experience in the temple. He could have seen the terrible plight of his people and nation and tried to bring them back to God prior to discovering what he really was like before God.
The second possibility was that the prophecies were uttered after Isaiah’s call, but either Isaiah himself, or his followers who may have edited the final version of the book, made an editorial decision to place the prophecies of chapters 1-5 before chapter six. As I indicated before, I favor the second possibility.
In any case, Oswalt, correctly in my opinion, suggests that chapter six has a double function in Isaiah’s plan for the book as a whole. First, it provides a kind of short answer to the question raised in chapters 1-5. The question is how can Israel become the holy servant of God that God intended it to be? And the short answer is that sinful Israel can become servant Israel by doing what Isaiah did in chapter six.
But chapter six has a second function. It not only provides a conclusion to chapters 1-5, it also provides an introduction to chapters 7-12. According to Oswalt, “chapters 7-12 are a fulfillment and an explication of the word given to Isaiah in his call” (Oswalt, p. 175). And so it serves as an introduction to chapters 7-12.
Turning to the content of chapter six, it becomes evident that the experience recorded there shaped Isaiah’s entire ministry. The glory, majesty, holiness, and righteousness of God came to rule his life and ministry.
Isaiah tells us that it happened “in the year that King Uzziah died.” That date can’t be established absolutely, but it probably was 739 BC. The significance of the death of Uzziah for Isaiah is not hard to discern. Uzziah had been an extremely solid ruler. He was a good administrator and military leader. Judah thrived during Uzziah’s reign (2 Chron. 26:1-15); and the people naturally focused their hopes on him. Then Uzziah died at a time when Assyria was gaining fresh strength and was once again looming on the horizon as a serious threat to Judah. That made the time of Isaiah’s experience a fearful time, and Isaiah connected his call and commission to prophetic ministry with the national crisis of the death of Uzziah.
It was quite unusual in Old Testament times for God to reveal himself to human beings in a visual way. But occasionally he did so, and this was one of those occasions. In his vision Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple “sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” The vision immediately suggests that it was God who was King, not Uzziah, nor his successor, Jotham. Interestingly, notice that it was God’s throne and robe that Isaiah saw filling the temple, rather than his seeing an unobstructed view of God himself. That reminds us once again of the separation that always exists between God and ourselves.
Suddenly Isaiah became aware of other beings in the room (v. 2). He calls them seraphs, or seraphim. They are described as having six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, because even heavenly creatures cannot gaze brazenly on the face of God. With two other wings they covered their feet. The meaning of this is not completely clear. The feet probably represented the seraphs’ whole bodies. And with the third pair of wings, the seraphs flew.
The fact that the seraphs called to one another suggests that their calling was antiphonal. And their message was a proclamation of God’s holiness and glory. But immediately the question arises as to what would they have meant by “holy.” And we have to ask how Isaiah would have understood the word.
Other religions of the day used the term “holy.” They used it in a cultic way to represent the distinctiveness of the divine from other things and to set apart certain objects for holy use. For example, temple prostitutes of the god Baal were called “holy women,” because of their association with the god, Baal. Israel used the word “holy” in a similar way. The altars and censors in the temple were “holy,” because they were set apart for holy purposes.
But in Israel the Lord had given the term “holy” an ethical or moral dimension as well. In Lev. 19, where God was giving Moses ethical instructions for his people, the chapter begins with the command, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And the instructions that follow are moral instructions. In other words to be holy was to behave in a moral manner. So for Isaiah, this experience not only would have affirmed the idea that God was distinct from him; but also Isaiah would have understood it to mean that God was one who absolutely ethically pure.
Let me offer one final note on the cry of the seraphs. Notice that they were proclaiming that God’s glory filled the whole earth. That means that God’s glorious presence is not restricted to the temple. He is everywhere, and everything reflects his glory.
After seeing and hearing the seraphs, Isaiah felt the “doorways,” or “doorposts” of the temple shaking. The NRSV translates “doorways” as “pivots.” The word may occasionally have been used to mean “pivots,” but it certainly is not helpful here. Then Isaiah saw smoke filling the temple. The smoke symbolizes the presence of God. That is a consistent symbol throughout the Old Testament. You will remember that God led Israel following the Exodus by means of a pillar of cloud (Ex. 13:21). Then after they built the tabernacle, the cloud of God’s presence covered the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34). And after Solomon later built his temple, the cloud of God’s presence filled it (1 Kgs. 8:10).
Next, in verse five, Isaiah recognizes his personal uncleanness and the uncleanness of his people. The experience focuses on his lips, because what one says represents what one’s inner life and character are like. If the lips are unclean, so are the heart and the will.
Verses 6-7 describe Isaiah’s cleansing. Notice that it is all by grace. He does not even ask for forgiveness. A seraph simply comes to him with a symbolic live coal, touches his lips, and announces his forgiveness.
Then in verse eight God speaks, and Isaiah responds. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” What a great passage! Many people whom God has called to ministry can identify with this experience of Isaiah’s. For many of us some crisis, more often personal than national, leads to a spiritual experience. It may not be as dramatic as Isaiah’s, but it is just as real. It involves conviction of sin, which leads a cleansing forgiveness, which in turn leads to a call from God and an offering of oneself to God for service.
We do not hear many sermons on the next paragraph. In verses 9-10 the Lord to spells out Isaiah’s commission. And what he says has raised controversy among scholars. The verses seem to depict God as preventing repentance. Isaiah is to preach a message that no one will listen to, because God does not want the people to hear and understand it. He does not want them to repent. When the New Testament quotes this passage (Mt. 13:13-15; Acts 28:25-27), it quotes version found in the Greek Septuagint, which puts the responsibility on the hearers rather than on God. Either way, God was saying that the end-result of Isaiah’s preaching would be failure. The people would not repent.
Obviously, this word from God was not pleasing to Isaiah. So Isaiah cried out, “How long, O Lord?” And the answer was devastating. He was to preach his ineffective message until the land and its cities were totally destroyed and the people sent away. These verses provide quite an illustration of the fact that it is more important for God’s messengers to be faithful than successful, at least in the way that we normally define success.