Saturday, 14th week in ordinary time – Isaiah 6: 1-8
Isaiah’s ministry spans approximately four decades, beginning sometime around 742 B.C. and continuing through the rest of the century to Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah which is part of later legend, claims that Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, executed Isaiah by having him sawed in two. The prophecies contained in the first part of the book refer to the period in which Isaiah himself lived.
Isaiah, one of the greatest of the prophets, appeared at a critical moment in Israel’s history. In the year 738 the political horizon of the Near East was overshadowed by the growing threat of the military strength of Assyria, which was ruled at the time by Tiglath- Pileser III. The northern kingdom (Israel) collapsed, under the hammer like blows of Assyria, in 722 B.C., and in 701B.C.
Jerusalem itself saw the army of Sennacherib drawn up before its walls. Judah, in the south, had become a vassal of Assyria and was about to succumb politically and spiritually in the reign of King Ahaz. Isaiah’s oracles especially chapters 1-39 cluster around several key historical events of the late eighth century revolving around the southern kingdom of Judah
In the year that Uzziah (known as Azariah in 2 Kings 15), king of Judah, died (742), Isaiah received his call to the prophetic office in the Temple of Jerusalem. Isaiah was charged with proclaiming the downfall of Israel and of Judah in punishment for the unfaithfulness of the people and their failure to repent. Dip into chapters 1-5 at random, and you will find yourself reading about Judah’s sin or of God’s judgment. Isaiah’s tone throughout is critical and condemnatory. In chapters 1-5, Isaiah uses harsh words to speak of Judah’s wickedness and lays out the spiritual problem of the Judeans He speaks of Judeans as rebellious children (1:2) and how they have forgotten and forsaken the Lord (1:4). They have despised the Holy One of Israel. “They are estranged and backward”; their worship is futile (1:11-17); corruption marks their leadership (1:23). Greed has led to injustice (5:8). Isaiah says that the faithful city has become a whore (1:21). He tells of a vine grower (God) who planted a vineyard (Judah) with choice vines, expecting it to yield grapes, but “it yielded wild grapes” (5:1-2).And then, Isaiah 6:1 describes an ongoing political crisis : the long-serving king Uzzaiah who brought stability, has died.
Isaiah’s work in chapters 1-5, denouncing Judah’s sin and warning of judgment, was necessary to prepare Isaiah himself for the surprise that he experiences in chapter 6. For five chapters, he has pointed his judgmental finger at his fellow Judeans. In chapter 6, in the presence of Yahweh’s holiness, he suddenly recognizes his own unholiness. It finally occurs to him that he is not only dwelling among a people of unclean lips, but that he is one of them—that his lips are unclean—that he, too, is subject to judgment. It is that “Aha!” moment that humbles him and prepares him for a life of service beyond anything that he otherwise could have rendered.
Isaiah describes now that moment of realisation revealed to him as he ‘saw’ the Lord sitting on a throne.
Interestingly we now know that THERE IS A THRONE IN HEAVEN; Bad news for those who still stubbornly proclaim atheism. One is led to wonder how exactly did Isaiah ‘see’ the Lord when previously God has said to Moses, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20). Isaiah is privileged to see the majesty of God and his angels but will not look at his face. Apparently, the same is true even for angels, so too we are told that the seraphim cover their faces with their wings.
We are now told of the Seraphim, angelic being who are distinctly mentioned only in Isaiah’s description of his call to prophetical office. (Isaiah 6:2) They are described as being above the throne of God, each with six wings. There are nine choirs of angels and the seraphim are angels composing the highest choir of the angelic kingdom. The word Seraphim has its etymology in the Hebrew word ‘Saraf’ meaning “to consume with fire.” This etymology is very probable because of its accordance with Isaiah 6:6 where one of the seraphim is represented as carrying celestial fire from the altar to purify the prophet’s lips.
Seraphim are are distinct from the cherubim who carry or veil God, and show the presence of His glory in the earthly sanctuary, whilst the seraphim stand before God as ministering servants in the heavenly court. The cries of the seraphs lift up God’s holiness and glory.
We are told that the seraphs call to one another praising God saying holy, holy, holy. Why do they repeat “holy” three times? Is it not enough to simply say that the LORD is “holy” once? In the Hebrew language, intensity is communicated by repetition. To say the LORD is holy says something. To say the LORD is holy, holy, says far more. To say, holy, holy, holy is the Lord is to declare His holiness in the highest possible degree.
Holiness, at its root, has the idea of apartness. In Greek, the word is ‘haggios’ and describes someone, or something, which is set apart from other people or things. An object can be holy if it is set apart for sacred service. A person is holy if they are set apart for God’s will and purpose. What is the LORD set apart from? He is set apart from creation, in that the Lord GOD is not a creature, and He exists outside of all creation. If all creation were to dissolve, the Lord GOD would remain. He is set apart from humanity, in that His “nature” or “essence” is Divine, not human. God is not a super-man or the ultimate man. God is not merely smarter than any man, stronger than any man, older than any man, or better than any man. You can’t measure God on man’s chart at all. He is Divine, and we are human.Yet, because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), humanity is compatible with Divinity. They are different, but they do not automatically oppose each other. This is how Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, could add humanity to His deity when He became a man.
In the presence of Gods majesty, Isaiah recognises his sinfulness and undergoes an act of intense pain to gain forgiveness (remember, this is a vision!). The live coal represents the cleansing fire. Isaiah’s sinful lips must be burned. This passage, when not taken literally, communicates the seriousness of sin. We do not think that sin originates in our lips, but our words often betray our sinfulness.
What happens next contrasts intriguingly with other key moments of divine-human encounter. Abraham (Genesis 22:1, 11), Jacob (Genesis 46:2), Moses (Exodus 3:4), and Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4-6) all responded “Here I am” to God’s calling them explicitly and repeatedly by name. Isaiah is not called in this story, but rather volunteers. In only one other place in Scripture does someone answer “Here I am” to a call that has not been extended, and that was God. Isaiah’s response to a call that has not been issued suggests eagerness to bring a message to people with whom he identifies. Unlike Moses with his myriad excuses, Isaiah is hardly able to contain his excitement, waving his hand like a student raring to speak up in class. He is Scripture’s only figure to cry out: “Here I am! Send me!” In a very few strokes the story paints a prophet who, despite discouragement, remains eager to mediate between God and his community.
The verses that come after verse 8 raise even more interesting issues. God specifically tells Isaiah that his preaching and ministry will not “work,” in the sense of positive response. The people will not listen. Isaiah’s words will even create the dullness. The church too must confronts the reality that true proclamation will not necessarily lead to “church growth,” especially in a numerical sense.