September 27 – Isaiah 6:1-7
Now, to back up just a bit, in Isaiah 6:1-7 Isaiah receives his call to the prophetic ministry, and right after it (v.8-13) God describes what Isaiah’s ministry will be like. Since the passage frames both our conversation on justice and our study of Isaiah it’ll be important for us to pay attention to what’s going on here, from the word choice to the sights and sounds Isaiah relates. In verse 1 Isaiah starts with the timing of the vision, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” 2 Chronicles 26 tells the story of Uzziah, who was a good king in a time when Judah had a lot of bad kings. But Uzziah’s pride got the better of him, and at one point he wanted to walk into the Temple to burn incense to the Lord, something that was only permitted for priests. When he refused to leave God afflicted him with leprosy which, according to Mosaic Law, barred him from setting foot in the Temple until he was cured. He remained a leper until his death.
So that’s the backdrop of the passage. Here Isaiah is, in the Temple before the Lord, the same place Uzziah dared to enter and from which he was excluded for the rest of his life. No wonder he was worried! And more than that, Isaiah sees the Lord himself, sitting on a throne high and lifted up with the seraphim above him. This is works off the Ark of the Covenant that was housed in the Temple in Isaiah’s day, the top of which was called the “mercy seat,” a term for a throne, and above which stood two gold cherubim statues. Before Isaiah unfolds the heavenly reality that those physical symbols pointed to, and he walks into the eternal courts of the heavenly King. Meanwhile an angelic chorus sings his praises so emphatically that the Temple building shook, adding to our sights and sounds to show that this building can hardly withstand God’s visit. Note the repetition of the praise, “Holy, holy, holy.” On display is God’s holy otherness, his infinite difference and set-apart-ness from humanity, coupled with his manifest glory that fills not just the Temple but the whole earth.
And to this Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me!” He gives three reasons for his calamity: he is lost, he is a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips, and he has beheld the Lord. Isaiah is immediately aware he is lost, a cry of having no hope for salvation, and conscious in particular of his uncleanness (back to him being in the Temple where he’s not supposed to be) and his unclean lips, which contrast against the perfect angelic chorus he’s listening to. Plus in Exodus 33:20 God tells Moses that man cannot look on God and live since his glory and holiness are fatal to sinful humanity. Isaiah is crushed, he knows he has no right to be in the presence of the Perfect King, and he cries out.
And yet God steps in for him. A seraphim brings a coal from the altar to Isaiah’s lips, pointing to the sacrificial exchange on the altar that occurred in order for Isaiah’s lips to be clean (in legal terms, his charges weren’t dismissed, they were just already paid for). And this wasn’t simply a ceremonial exercise—the seraphim specifically says, “your sin [is] atoned for.” Isaiah had been right to despair over his sin, that truly was his condemnation before the Perfect King. In this we see that right and wrong seriously matter to our God-King, not just in the governmental sense of social order but in terms of it’s reflection of or offense towards God’s holiness and glory. God is holy, holy, holy; he will always, inevitably deal with anything that is an affront to him. In our conversation about justice this should give us hope: God deeply cares about justice, and will always, inevitably deliver it. But this should also help us stand in Isaiah’s shoes and realize that, without God stepping in for us, we are also condemned before him. Any conversation about justice should start with us realizing that we need God to step in for our uncleanness (including our injustice), and without him we have no hope.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Isaiah 6:1-7 for us?
• What stands out to you from this passage?
• How does this passage describe God (what is said about him, where is he located, etc.) and what can that tell us about him?
• What’s going on with this burning coal? How is that important to the story here?
• Isaiah gives three reasons for saying “woe is me” (each one happens after “for”). Why do you think those things upset him?
• How does this passage help us understand how we relate to God?
• During our Isaiah series we’re talking about the justice of God’s Kingdom. How can this passage help us start that conversation?