We are studying highlights from the great prophecy of Isaiah "Isaiah's greatest hits," as someone has described them. One of the greatest is the well known sixth chapter, where the prophet is given a vision of the glory of God.
Some commentators feel that this event is what introduced Isaiah to his prophetic ministry. From the placement of the chapter, however, it is clear that it follows ministry which he has already had. In Chapter 1 we looked at his first message to the people of Judah. He had prophesied for some years of ministry during the reign of King Uzziah who is also called Azariah in the Book of Chronicles. Uzziah began his reign at age 16, and for 52 years ruled Judah. For the most part he was a good and righteous king. The record shows that he followed in the footsteps of his ancestor King David. But the Book of Chronicles tells us that when Uzziah "grew strong, he became proud, to his own destruction." He presumed to enter the office of priesthood. He went into the temple, taking incense from the altar of incense which he sought to offer before the Lord. Immediately he was struck with leprosy. He spent his remaining years isolated from the court, living the lonely life of a leper. This permitted trouble to begin in the kingdom of Judah. Ominous clouds were already darkening the national sky as enemies gathered around the nation. Chaos threatened as the young prince Jotham came into office. This is what Isaiah saw as he looked out over Judah.
But he saw something else as well, as he tells us in these opening words of Chapter 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory"
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4 RSV)
Beyond the chaos which threatened the land, Isaiah saw in a vision the God of order and sovereign authority, ruling over the affairs of earth.
Only occasionally does the Scripture break through the limitations of our vision and open up to us the unseen kingdom that surrounds us on every side, permitting us to see the true glory of God. Hundreds of years ago everybody believed that the earth was flat. As you look toward the horizon, of course, you cannot see any curvature; the earth does seem flat. People in those days thought it was possible to sail to the very edge of the world, and to drop off the edge, into what, they did not know. They believed only what they could see. Gradually, however, evidence began to mount showing that the world was round, not flat. Today almost everyone knows this to be a fact, although a few diehards still deny this. (One group even said that the moon landing was merely a television production put on to convince people that the world is round when it actually is flat.) Most know that the world is round, disbelieving the evidence of their eyes in order to do so.
Many people regard God this way -- they think he is flat and uninteresting. If he exists at all he is remote, obscure, mysterious, limited. He has little to do with the affairs of earth; we are left to our own devices. Since God cannot be seen with human eyes, he cannot possibly exist, they say. This passage and others like it in the Scripture, however, demonstrate that God is not flat. He is an exciting, majestic Being. Isaiah had opportunity to look beyond the visible to the realms of the invisible and see the majesty of our God. He saw God enthroned, "sitting upon a throne," the symbol of sovereign authority, in charge of everything in heaven and upon earth. A great hymn expresses this well,
God only wise.
In light inaccessible,
hid from our eyes.
the Ancient of Days!
Thy great name we praise!
This world is not, as some would tell us, stumbling blindly along, ruled by man, the most intelligent of the animals. Isaiah saw God, sitting upon a throne, in full sovereign authority over our world.
More than that, God was encircled with the highest of the heavenly beings, the "seraphim" ("the burning ones"), bright as the sun. Yet these beings were themselves eclipsed by the glory of the One they encircled.
Their characteristics are symbolized for us. Each of them had three pairs of wings. With two they covered their faces, a picture of reverence, of the impossibility of looking at the full glory of God, just as it is impossible for us to behold the burning glory of the sun. With two wings they covered their feet. The feet, in Scripture, are a picture of earthly, personal activity. By covering their feet the angels are testifying that their authority is a derived authority; it does not spring from them, but from the One they worship and serve. With the other two wings they flew, a symbol of ceaseless activity and swiftness in service. Thus the seraphim are an angelic order concerned with the beauty and majesty of the One whom they serve. They serve him in reverence and humility, eager to carry out his work.
Not only did the prophet see these beings, but he heard them extolling the greatness of God, calling to one another in a great antiphonal chorus, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The thrice repeated word "holy" is a recognition of the threefold nature of God. It is a mystery which we do not fully understand. Later in this account the beings speak to Isaiah and say to him, "Who will go for us?" Thus even here in the Old Testament is revealed the plurality of God.
But these words also express the holiness of God. I confess for years I never liked the word "holy." The people I knew who were considered holy were grim-looking individuals who looked like they had been soaked in embalming fluid. They never seemed to have any fun or joy in life. But I have learned since that the word "holy" is a very wonderful word. It comes from a related English root, the word "whole." We all want to be whole, complete, with nothing out of order or unbalanced about us. That is how God is. He is perfect, total, lacking nothing. He is exactly what he ought to be. That is what the angels are singing. We admire people who approach in any degree this idea of wholeness or completeness, although we know how broken and fragmented is all mankind. But God, in his perfection, is absolutely whole "holy."
Further, the seraphim declare that God's glory is manifest everywhere: "the whole earth is full of his glory." It has always struck me as strange that in this universe of order and procedure men so often fail to apprehend the glory of God. The universe is incredibly vast. Astronomers tell us that even our own galaxy, our own little neighborhood, is three hundred thousand light years across. Light traveling at eleven million miles per minute takes three hundred thousand years to traverse it! And there are millions and even billions of galaxies like ours, and larger than ours, flung throughout the vast cosmos.
But when we turn to the minutest forms of matter, the atom, with its tiny electrons, neutrons and protons, we see a miniature universe, just as wondrous, with distances on a relative scale as vast as the cosmos itself. Think of the beauty and the order of the world of nature, of our own being, with our amazing capacities that far surpass those of the animal world. If only we had eyes to see we would know what the seraphim declare, "the whole earth is full of his glory." This is what led Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write,
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with God.
But only those who see take off their shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Isaiah is given a vision of God, wondrous in his glory, shining above the brightness of the sun, amazing in his character, praised by the highest of the angels, awesome in majesty.
Further, the prophet sees the effectiveness of the God who sits enthroned:
The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:4 RSV)
The full meaning of this breaks upon us when we turn to the 12th chapter of the gospel of John, where the apostle quotes from the latter part of this chapter of Isaiah. Speaking of Jesus, John says these amazing words: "Isaiah said this because he saw his (Jesus') glory and spoke of him" (John 12:41). This One whom Isaiah saw, by the words of an inspired apostle, is identified as none other than the Lord Jesus, the very One who, following his resurrection, declared, "All power in heaven and on earth is given unto me," (Matthew 28:11).
But this vision of the majesty of Jesus reveals to Isaiah what we can only call, the malady of man.
And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5 RSV)
As he observes the majesty of God, Isaiah's immediate reaction is to see himself in a new light.
I doubt if Isaiah had ever thought of himself quite like this before. But to see God is to see man. Scripture says we are made in the image of God; thus to see God is to see ourselves. And when we see ourselves in the light of the greatness of God, we see, with Isaiah, how far we have fallen from that image. Seeing his own pollution, Isaiah cries, "I am a man of unclean lips."
Scripture frequently uses the symbol of the lips -- the tongue or the mouth -- as revealing what is in the heart. Jesus said, "The things that go into a man are not what defile him." It is not what you eat, what you wear, or what you read that defile you. It is what comes out of a man, according to Jesus: "Out of the heart come murders, adulteries, fornications, jealousies, envies," etc. (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21). James says the tongue is but a small member but it is set on fire of hell (James 3:6). All of us have said things we wish we could take back. As Proverbs says, "Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks." This is what Isaiah recognized when he saw the majesty of God.
Notice he does not say, "Woe is me! For I am worthless." The Scripture never teaches that man is worthless. In fact, Jesus taught quite the opposite. He said what a pity it is for a man to gain the whole world and lose himself! That is how valuable man is. Even the world, with all its kingdoms, wealth and glory, is not worth the life of a single individual. What Isaiah does see and what he declares is, "I am lost. I am ruined, defiled. Woe is me." There is a moment of fear, a sense of failure, and a cry of despair as he sees how far he is from ever measuring up to the wholeness and beauty of God.
If you feel this way -- and many do today -- thank God for it, for God never uses anybody without first bringing him to an awareness of his own weakness. The pervading sickness of our day is meaninglessness, an inner conviction of defilement. Many find themselves unable to do w hat they would like. They feel powerless, unable to control their own destiny. All of us are faced with moments of truth, when we see what Isaiah saw, that the cause of our problems is our own inner defilement. When you see yourself in this way, thank God for it, for it can be the moment of healing.
A marvelous lesson that runs all through Scripture is that nothing hinders our being used by God more than pride and self-sufficiency. When Isaiah saw the majesty, the glory and the effectiveness of God, there came burning in his heart a desire to be used of God, to have a part in God's glorious work. Who does not want to have part in a highly successful enterprise? The great hunger of the human heart is the desire to be used of God. Even those who have given themselves to abusing themselves and others have within themselves a strong desire to be so used. I have seen presidents of great companies here in the Silicon Valley who trembled at the realization that God was about to use them to change somebody's life. There is no greater hunger than the hunger to be used of God. But when Isaiah became aware of that hunger, he also became aware that he was not fit to be used; he would mess everything up if he tried. This is what draws this cry from his heart.
It is not a pleasant way to feel, but it is a very hopeful place to arrive at, because pride is the source of all human evil. All the agony of life flows from our feeling that we deserve more than we are getting. We desire to be bigger, better or more noted than others. In the Bible, pride is the source of all evil. Humility, on the other hand, is the source of all virtue. The first of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount corresponds to what Isaiah declares of himself as he viewed the majesty of God. "Blessed are the poor in spirit [the bankrupt ones, the ones who have nothing in themselves], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," (Matthew 5:3). God labors constantly in our lives to bring us to this same awareness as Isaiah.
A few months ago a pastor shared with me that he had arrived at the place where he was proud and happy with all that was going on in his church. The church was bursting at the seams and they were engaged in a new building program. He was congratulating himself on the tremendous job he had done in the ministry. When he and his wife went on vacation in another city they went to a church to hear a man preach whom they had always wanted to hear. This man took for his text Peter's word, "Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, for God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble," (1 Peter 5:5-6). He listened critically to the message, analyzed its weaknesses, and thought he could have done a much better job of preaching himself. They went on to another city and visited another church the following Sunday. To his astonishment, the sermon was on the same text, "Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, for God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble." He listened much more soberly on this occasion. The text came home to him in a profound way. The next day, he and his wife opened a devotional book and he was incredulous to find the text for the day was, "Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, for God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble." He began to get the message. They both got down on their knees and confessed to God how proud and arrogant they had been.
My dear patron saint, Dr. H. A. Ironside, used to tell about a young Scottish preacher who preached his first sermon in a new church. The pulpits in Scottish churches are raised high above the congregation, so that the preacher must climb several steps up to the pulpit. This young man had just graduated from seminary, having reached the place where he knew more than he would ever know again! Bible under his arm, his head held high, he climbed the steps to the pulpit, confident that his message would lay his hearers in the aisles. But his thoughts eluded him, he fumbled and stumbled about. His notes fell to the floor and he had to regain them. Nothing went right. As he came down the steps, his head downcast, sagging under a sense of failure and guilt, a dear lady sitting right by the pulpit tugged his robe and said to him, "Young man, if ye'd gang up like ye cam doun, ye'd have cam doun like ye gang up!"
Yes, God resists the proud. What a contradiction this text is to the spirit of our age! Think highly of yourself, we are told. Believe in yourself; you have what it takes. The whole world is committed to the philosophy that you can succeed only if you believe in yourself. But Scripture declares that God works to bring us to the end of ourselves, to shatter the illusion of self-sufficiency. It must be done, before we can be used of him.
When Isaiah reaches this place, there is an immediate change. The next word is "Then" at that moment:
Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven." (Isaiah 6:6-7 RSV)
How wonderful to see the gospel of forgiveness in the Old Testament as well as in the New. This coal was not taken from the altar of incense (which stood before the door of the Holy of Holies), but from the brazen altar in the courtyard, where the sacrifices were offered. It speaks of the cost of redemption, the cost of forgiveness. It foresees One who had to lay down his life that we might be forgiven. This is the glory of the gospel. William Cowper sings,
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins.
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day.
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
That is true not only at the beginning of the Christian life, but every day of it. We need each day the forgiveness of our sins. That is why Paul writes in Ephesians, "He has lavished upon us the forgiveness of sins," (Ephesians 1:7). Never begin a day without thanking God that the wrongs of yesterday are forgiven. You can begin each day with a clean slate. What a gift is the grace of forgiveness! When the heart confesses its need, then cleansing and commission immediately follow. That is the mystery of grace.
Isaiah heard the praise of the seraphim, and their thunderous song which shook the very foundations of the thresholds. But what did God hear? He heard the faint, fearful cry of a guilty man who was conscious of his terrible pollution. As David cried in one of his psalms, "The broken and contrite heart God will not despise." When God hears that cry, immediately a seraph must stop his worship, leave his place, and minister to that needy heart. Taking a coal from the altar of sacrifice, he touched it to the lips of the prophet, and at once came the word, "Your sin is forgiven; your guilt is taken away." This is the great, comforting word of the gospel.
Once again the prophet hears the voice of God.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us ?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." And he said, "Go, and say to this people:
'Hear and hear, but do not understand;
see and see, but do not perceive.'
Make the heart of this people fat,
and their eyes heavy,
and shut their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed." (Isaiah 6:8-10 RSV)
What a strange message! But it only comes after a long period during which God has been seeking to reach a difficult and stubborn people. Isaiah was sent with a message that was to go on until the land was laid desolate.
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?"
And he said,
"Until cities lie waste
and houses without men,
and the land is utterly desolate,
and the Lord removes men far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.
The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:11-13 RSV)
The message Isaiah was given was one of judgment. God was saying, "These people have so resisted my word, they have become so indifferent to it, the only thing that will awaken them is to be led into captivity in Babylon, and the land allowed to become desolate." That is not a result of the anger of God. That is his mercy. He is trying to awaken people who have turned their backs on the truth. This passage is quoted frequently in the Old Testament as a symbol of the stubbornness of men who refuse to listen to the revelation of the mercy and grace of God. But it is not our message. Our message is yet a word of mercy and grace, the word that God is still in the business of forgiving sins.
When Isaiah hears the call of God his heart is instantly responsive. By now he has believed what God said. He no longer feels undone and defiled. He believed that when God said he was forgiven he really was forgiven. No longer does he feel unworthy or unable to serve. He is eager to go, "Here am I, send me."
In seminary it was pointed out to me that, when many Christians hear the voice of God telling them to serve, they often say, in paraphrase of Isaiah, "Here am I! Send my sister!" (This especially applies to missionary work.) Such an answer reveals that they never have truly felt forgiven. They have never sensed the wonder and privilege of being used of God, the marvel of a call to serve people in need, whether a need of food and shelter, a need for knowledge, truth or love, or a need for cleansing and forgiveness. But that is what Christians are called to do. I often think of the words of Peter Marshall, "Many Christians are like men dressed in diving suits designed for many fathoms deep, marching bravely forth to pull plugs from bathtubs." Much Christian activity seems to merit that description.
But Isaiah, responding to God's call, was sent immediately to meet the need of his people. God's word is, "Go." Something great has happened to you, so go!
Do not go if you have had no vision of the majesty and greatness of God, if you have never heard his voice speaking to your heart, if you have never cried, "Woe is me! I am undone." Unless you have felt God's cleansing and restoring grace, do not go. You will have nothing to say. You cannot help anyone by commiserating with them and sharing their misery. You must go, knowing you have what they need to hear, which God will speak into their hearts as he has spoken it into yours. If you have felt that, then you can say, as I hope you are saying, "Lord, here am I! Send me."
Thank you, our Father, for this marvelous revelation of your unceasing labors on behalf of mankind. Grant to us who have felt the touch of the cleansing coal from your altar that we should be like the prophet, eager and available to go. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.