The book of Isaiah has a very brief introduction, one verse, and then plunges into a searing indictment of the people of Judah and Jerusalem. They are sons who do not honor their father, worse than donkeys and oxen who at least know their master. They are a bruised and battered body, a body with unbandaged wounds that ooze with pus and blood. There is no health in the body.
Their rulers are rulers of Sodom, their people the people of Gomorrah, and Yahweh is tired of their sacrifices and their noisy entrance into His presence. “Stop this trampling of My courts,” He says in exasperation. Jerusalem has become a harlot city, no longer full of justice or righteousness, but instead a city of murderers.
When Yahweh comes to His vineyard looking for fruit, the wine of righteousness and justice, He finds instead bloodshed and cries of distress. He finds rotten fruit that produces no good wine. He finds greedy acquisitors, people who lift themselves up and lift up their idols on high places. He finds moral dullness, a loss of discernment, drunkenness and self-indulgence, judges who take gifts to take away the righteousness of the righteous and to judge the wicked.
Yahweh is not going to take this. He is aroused, and He is going to act.
He is going to light a fire that cannot be quenched, a fire that keeps burning right to the end of Isaiah, whose last words are, “the fire shall not be quenched; and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” He’s set a day of reckoning against all the high places and high people, against all that have exalted themselves against Yahweh, and He is going to make them low.
He’s going to level the mountains, cut down the tall trees, topple every high tower. He is going to remove bread and water, and all the honorable men, leaving wealthy, jangling women in charge. Then He’s going to strip their finery away too, and leave them slaves sitting in the dust. He’s going to break down the walls of His vineyard so that it gets trampled. He’s going to open up Sheol so that it swallows down Jerusalem’s people and glory and her revelry.
He’s going to string up a banner calling the nations to invade. He’s going to whistle for a plague of flies, a roaring relentless army that is going to overwhelm the land, roaring like a lion after prey, roaring like the sea.
Above all, he is going to put down the haughty and the high, the proud and the pompous, and He is going to be exalted in judgment. He is the Holy One of Israel, and He is going to display His holiness, hallow His own name, by bringing down the proud and by engendering righteousness and justice among His people.
Isaiah has been reporting all this. He communicates Yahweh’s indictment to the people, and he’s been doing it for five chapters. But through the opening five chapters, we don’t know what his role in this whole process is. What place does he have in Yahweh’s purpose for Jerusalem and Judah?
Jeremiah knows from the outset that his task is to pluck up and break down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. Before Ezekiel opens his mouth, Yahweh’s glory appears to him at the Chebar canal in Babylon, surrounded by living creatures full of eyes, and tells Him that he is going as a prophet, so that Israel will know that a prophet has been there. He is to set his face like flint, and fear nothing, even though he is surrounded by thorns and briers and scorpions hide in every corner. Ezekiel is given a scroll that is sweet as honey in his mouth.
Isaiah doesn’t know and we don’t know. Not until chapter 6.
In a vision, if not in reality, Isaiah finds himself in the presence of the Holy God, the Holy One of Israel, Yahweh of Hosts, the Master. In vision, if not in reality, Isaiah is in the Most Holy Place, before the ark-throne, in the presence of God’s chariot. And the vision is overwhelming.
It is the year of King Uzziah’s death, but in the same year as King Uzziah’s death, Isaiah sees another King, a permanent and eternal King, the King behind the King, King Yahweh of Hosts (v. 5). Yahweh sits on His ark throne, and is high and exalted. He is an exalted King, but wears a garment like a priest – the word for the “train” or “hem” of His robe is the word used for the hem of Aaron’s robe, adorned with pomegranates and bells. Yahweh’s robe is a garment of glory and beauty, the robe of a priest-king, and the edge of it fills the entire temple, Yahweh’s palace.
The temple fills with smoke, the smoke of incense in the temple, the smoke of incense on this Day of Atonement when the prophet-priest Isaiah enters before the throne. The temple fills with smoke, the smoke that manifested Yahweh’s appearance to Abram in the terrors of the night, the smoke that descended on Sinai, the smoke that blasts from Yahweh’s nostrils, the smoke that fills the sanctuary when angels are sent out with bowls to pour out on the harlot city.
Yahweh’s glory fills the temple-palace as it filled the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle when the cloud descended from Sinai to be enthroned above the wings of the cherubim. It is filled like the temple was filled when Solomon dedicated it. When it was filled with Yahweh’s glory, all the attendants of the temple had to flee. Isaiah doesn’t. Isaiah stands in the searing presence of the glory that fills the temple.
Yahweh is attended by seraphim, who “stand” as attendants to serve the purposes and obey the commands of the exalted King. Seraph means simply “burning one,” and elsewhere in Scripture seraphs are associated with serpents who spit fire, look like fire, or whose bites burn like fire.
Yahweh appears in a storm cloud that crashes with thunder, and flashes with lightning. He breathes smoke and fire from His nostrils. His voice is like thunder, the arrows from His bow like lightning. The seraphim are lightning flashes, personified shimmering snakes of fire that crackle and flash from the cloud of Yahweh’s glory.
Even the seraphim, the burning ones who stand and serve in the presence of the King and Priest on the throne, even these do homage before Yahweh. They fly with two wings, but they cover their faces with two of their wings – because they cannot be face to face with the King – and they cover their feet – covering the feet that have had contact with the cursed ground.
And as they fly, they sing continually, calling out to one another in voices so loud that they shake the temple threshold, in voices that harmonize into the single thunderous voice of Yahweh Himself (v. 4). They are lightning and their voices are thunder, the thunder of Yahweh Himself, the thunder of Yahweh’s advent. Holy, Holy, Holy is Yahweh of hosts – that is their triune refrain.
The vision is a vision of fullness. Yahweh’s robe fills the temple, and smoke fills the temple. And the cry of the seraphim is a cry about the fullness of Yahweh’s glory.
Translated woodenly, their cry is that the “fullness of the earth is His glory.” It is not that the earth is a container filled with the smoke and fiery cloud of Yahweh’s glory. That is a biblical image, but it’s not the image used here. Rather, the earth itself, in its fullness, the earth in its abundance and beauty, the earth especially as Israel the righteous people, that is the glory of Yahweh. The earth is Yahweh’s glory-robe, the coat of many colors with which He wraps Himself. The earth, and especially the land and people of Israel, is the Bride that is the glory of Yahweh.
The Holy God is high and lifted up, exalted and lofty, but He is exalted and lofty in His dwelling with and in His creation. He is exalted and holy insofar as He wraps Himself with the earth like a garment. He is exalted and holy insofar as He takes to Himself the glory of His Bride. He was Holy Holy Holy before the world was, because He was eternally in communion as Father, Son, and Spirit. But He determined that He would be Holy by adorning Himself with the glory of His creation.
Isaiah sees this vision of Yahweh’s glory, and he is “silenced,” ruined, undone. He doesn’t play the role of prophet, member of the divine council. He is the publican in the corner of the temple, “God by merciful to me a sinner.”
Yahweh has complained since the beginning of Isaiah about Israel trampling His courts and offering their worthless offerings. Now Isaiah stands in the presence of Yahweh in His temple, and he sees himself as just another member of that trampling tribe. He sees the vision of glorious holiness and holy glory, and he knows that he does not belong. He doesn’t stand apart from Judah. He is an unclean man among an unclean people, and neither prophet nor people have any business in Yahweh’s house, no business at all.
He cannot even speak to Yahweh, cannot even communicate, without defilement. The organs of communication, confession, praise – his lips – are unclean, and every breath that passes through them is just going to pollute the temple. He cannot join the seraphic song of praise, cannot cry out about holiness and glory, because his lips are unclean, as unclean as the lips of the people among whom he stands. Because the lips express the content of the heart, his lips are especially unclean.
Unbidden, uncommanded, in response to a helpless cry of woe, one of the seraphim flies to the incense altar and takes a coal from the altar. The seraph is a burning one, personified lightning. But the coal is too hot for the seraph, so he takes a coal with tongs and places it on Isaiah’s lips. This is the key to the whole vision, the key to Isaiah’s ministry.
What happens when his lips are touched with the coal? Most explicitly, his iniquity is removed and his sin is covered. For Isaiah, if not yet for Israel, this is a day of atonement, a day of coverings. He has confessed that he is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. His words only pollute and defile. But when the coal touches his mouth, he is cleansed. He can stand before Yahweh. His lips have been circumcised, and the obstacles that keep him from communication with Yahweh are removed.
Implicitly, Isaiah is distinguished from the people. He identifies with the unclean people, but now he is differentiated. He is no longer unclean, but covered; no longer polluted but pure. He is on the side of the angels, on the side of the seraph. Because his lips are cleansed by fire, his entire life is reoriented, and he is completely at Yahweh’s command.
And that means that he can take up his proper prophetic role. He can speak in the divine council. He can talk to Yahweh of Hosts, the Holy One, the Master, the Holy One of Israel. And he does: “Here am I. Send me!” and “Lord, how long?” His tongue is loosed and he can join in the cries of the seraphim.
More implicitly still, Isaiah is lit on fire. The burning coal lights his lips, and with burning heart he becomes a seraph. He becomes a burning one, and it’s specifically his mouth that lights. His lips are ignited, and he begins a fire-breather. The breath that earlier polluted the presence of Yahweh now becomes an agent of the Spirit of judgment and the Spirit of burning by which Yahweh is going to cleanse the people of Judah. Touched with the coal, Isaiah becomes an agent and an angel of the Holy One who will be hallowed in justice and judgment (5:16).
“I saw Adonai sitting on a throne,” Isaiah begins. That phrase is used only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, by Micaiah, the sole true prophet among all the prophets of Ahab, who says, “I saw Yahweh sitting on a throne.” Isaiah is a new Micaiah.
That analogy is not accidental or superficial. Micaiah appears only once in Scripture (1 Kings 22), when Ahab assembles his prophets to consult with them about a battle with the Arameans. “Shall I go against Ramoth-gilead to battle?” Ahab asks, and the prophets speak with one voice, “Go up, for the Lord will give into the hand of the king!” Only Micaiah demurs, and he is the only prophet who has actually stood in the divine council. There he saw Yahweh enthroned among the hosts of heaven, just like Isaiah.
Yahweh asks for a volunteer. “Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” He asks His hosts. One spirit offers a plan, a plot to deceive Ahab by putting a lying spirit into the mouths of Ahab’s prophets, so they give him false encouragement so that he goes out to his death.
Isaiah too sees Yahweh on a throne, and in Isaiah’s hearing, Yahweh asks for a volunteer: “Whom shall I send, and who will go out for Us?” Isaiah has been ignited and become a seraph, a human lightning bolt, and he, like the spirit in 1 Kings, volunteers. His commission is a commission like the commission of the spirit.
Judah’s body is diseased, full of sores and wounds. And Judah’s corporate body has become insensitive. She has been worshiping deaf idols, blind gods, images with hearts of metal and stone, and she has become like the ones she worships.
Yahweh judges her by giving her over to her insensitivity, and by sending a prophet whose work will not be to show but to blind, not to instruct but to make their ears heavy, not to soften their hearts but to turn their hearts fat. He sends a prophet that is going to lure Judah to her destruction, fill up her sin, until she is utterly destroyed. Isaiah can barely get out any words when he hears his commission, but he utters a single lament, “Master, how long?” And the answer is, long enough to desolate Judah.
Daughter Jerusalem has turned harlot, and according to the law priests’ daughters that play the harlot are burned. Jerusalem is apostate, and according to the law, apostate cities were ignited with coals from the altar and offered as ascension offerings. Jerusalem has become a Sodom and Judah like Gomorrah. And Isaiah is the fire that falls from heaven to consume the city of the mountain. He is the lightning that burns houses and cities and land. As prophet, Isaiah comes as the seraph, the burning one.
First, Yahweh is going to burn and whittle down Judah to almost nothing. He will remove men from the land and leave it empty. Where there was once a busy buzzing crowd at the temple, there is going to be a hole, forsakenness will fill the gap. There will be only a tithe left, a tenth, like the ten men that He looked for at Sodom.
Then, when there’s only a stump left, when it looks as if Yahweh has exhausted himself in judgment, when the fire seems to be over, when there’s only a small tithe left, then Yahweh really begins the purging. Then the judgment and the fire really heat up. Just when it looked as if it was all over, Yahweh says it’s just getting started. Only a stump of Israel remains, but even that stump will be burned.
It was Yahweh’s way with Job: Take away his family, his wealth, everything, and just when it looks like things are settling down, the Lord unleashes Satan against Job’s person. When will it stop? When will he put out the fire? Lord, how long?
Isaiah has been purged by fire, and by that same fire, he has become an agent for the purging of Judah and Jerusalem. He will breathe fire and speak lightning until the land is desolated, but when the tree is felled a seed will remain.
Through the desolation, through the great tribulation, through purging prophetic fires, Yahweh is sanctifying His people, the Holy God is making His people holy, the God who is exalted in righteousness and justice will bring justice and righteousness on earth, in the land, among His people. The holy God will have a holy seed in the end, but only through fire.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.
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