Today’s Passage: Isaiah 6
Ah, Isaiah 6: the temple vision. I remember first learning about this passage in Sunday school in Charlotte, NC, which means that for my first encounter with it, I couldn’t have been older than five years. Everything is new at that age, but as I get older, I run the risk of getting inured by familiarity with passages like this. But even if you’re reading it for the first time, if you don’t take the time to visualize it or read it attentively, you can gloss over it without getting the impact of Isaiah’s vision. If you “keep on looking, but do not understand” (6:9), the words remain mere words on the page.
Getting a glimpse of the Lord’s majesty must be an insane experience. In Isaiah’s vision, God’s on a throne, wearing this massive robe, and the temple is full of robe and smoke and seraphim flying around. The seraphim have six wings, only two of which are they actually using for flight, and whenever the seraphim tell each other how holy God is, the temple shakes like an earthquake (6:3-4). Confronted with such surreal, mind-baffling holiness, Isaiah exclaims, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (6:5). God’s holiness throws his own unholiness into stark relief.
Then Isaiah has a close encounter with one of the seraphim. He relates:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’ (6:6-7).
Imagine one of these six-winged quasi-Lovecraftian creatures coming within arm’s reach of you, touching a red-hot coal to your mouth, and in that earth-shaking voice declaring your sanctification. The event is loaded with symbolic significance; it functions as Isaiah’s commissioning, as the seraphim employs the purifying fire of the coal used in sacrifices to prepare Isaiah’s mouth to deliver God’s prophetic words to the people. But the actual incident–just picture it happening to you! Isaiah is able to at least blurt out a declaration of his own sin, but in the same situation, I might well be a gibbering mess on the floor.
God fully expects Israel to reject his message, though. He tells Isaiah: “Render the hearts of this people insensitive; …otherwise they might…understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (6:10). The people are precisely the sort of people who will refuse to pay attention to the message they most need. Fortunately, though, their thick-headed refusal to listen will not go on forever! God tells Isaiah that it will only last “[u]ntil cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people and the land is utterly desolate” (6:11).