ESSAY
Combustible God
POSTED
July 10, 2013

Fire seems to be a motif in Isaiah 6. The chapter opens “in the year that king Uzziah died,” and we know that Uzziah died a leper because he tried to burn incense in the temple against the law of God. And in this context, in the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord, surrounded by the Seraphim, the “burning ones.” After their pronouncement of God’s glory, there is an earthquake and the house fills with smoke. Then one of these burning angels touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal and his guilt was taken away thereby. Isaiah is told to preach until the land lies waste, and burned twice through.

This theme of fire isn’t limited to Isaiah, either. We are told in Deuteronomy and later in Hebrews that “our God is a consuming fire,” and indeed, this is often how he shows himself in Scripture. God appeared as a burning bush to Moses, a pillar of fire to the children of Israel, in a chariot of fire for Elijah, as a man with flaming eyes and face like lightning to Daniel, as a fiery figure surrounded by wheels of fire to Ezekiel. In the New Testament, God in his Holy Spirit appeared as tongues of fire to the disciples at Pentecost, and again as seven torches of fire to John in his vision of heaven (Revelation 4). We’re told in Psalm 104 that he makes his ministers a flaming fire. Even the words of God are described as fire, and the psalmist says that he breathes fire out of his mouth (Psalm 18:8).

Along with this we may observe the contrast between God in the temple and the land under judgment. Three times the verb male' is used to indicate that God’s robe fills the temple, that his glory fills the earth, and that the smoke fills the house. I think this is chiastic, meant to draw attention to what it means that God’s glory fills the earth. God’s glory is inescapable; this is a statement about his glory, not about the earth. In contrast, the judgment of Israel involves three emptyings: The cities are emptied of inhabitant, the houses emptied of people, and the land emptied of (presumably) crops and such.

The emptying fire of which Isaiah is told is a destroying fire, yet eschatologically it is also a purifying fire. The land is burned until there is only a tenth, and then again until the holy seed remains. The seed is Christ, and so the burning is both destroying for the present generation and purifying for the world. The word used for stump in 6:13 is not the word we might expect, which Isaiah uses elsewhere. Its only other usage is in 2 Samuel, where Absalom raises a memorial stone. Perhaps there is a double meaning intended here. The stump has been burned down to the holy seed, a remnant which becomes a standing stone to God’s holiness and mercy and out of which an eschatological shoot will grow, bearing fruit for God.

What shall we make of this? It seems the language of Isaiah 6 tells us something about God’s glory: the all-consuming glory of God is the sort of thing which interacts with mankind combustibly. Isaiah didn’t stop burning when the coal was taken away from his lips, but rather, as with Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 5:14, 20:9), that’s when the fire started. The prophet's proclamation of God’s glory becomes a flaming fire, purifying the repentant and judging the wicked. This same thing happens in the New Testament, when tongues of fire come to rest on the disciples at Pentecost: The fire didn’t consume them either, but rather went in, and they set the world on fire. Isaiah was in trouble because he saw God in the temple. But God’s glory extends far beyond the temple, and so the whole earth is in trouble. Where is the burning angel to purify us with a coal from the altar? Jesus the Angel of the Lord came from heaven to purify us once and for all with his own blood, and to make us his ministers, flames of fire.

Daniel Stanley is a  senior at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis.

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