Of all the scenes, word pictures, and images in the book of Isaiah, the call of the prophet in chapter six is the most vivid to me. In his vision, the prophet sees the Lord seated on a throne, high and lifted up. The Lord is so large that the simple hem of his robe fills the earthly Temple that was still standing in Jerusalem when Isaiah had his vision.
In Isaiah’s vision, seraphs are in attendance above the Lord. A seraph is “an angelic being, regarded in traditional Christian angelology as belonging to the highest order of the nine-fold celestial hierarchy, associated with light, ardor, and purity.” Each of the seraphs has six wings. With two wings, they cover their faces, presumably because they cannot look on the holiness of God. With two wings, they cover their feet. “Feet” are a euphemism for genitals. Again, there seems to be the suggestion that the Lord is so holy that even the angels cannot appear naked before him, or they are afraid to so appear before him. Then, with the final two wings, the seraphs are able to fly. There is the suggestion, throughout Scripture, that angels are able to move rather quickly from place to place. Angels do not have the attribute of omnipresence like God, but they are ubiquitous.
The words of the angels make explicit that which is implicit in their body language: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The angel voices are so powerful that the “house” (presumably the Temple) is shaken. Obviously, these seraphs are not like the cute little cherubs we are familiar with from so much “Christian” art.
There is also an element of mystery to this vision of Isaiah. Thus, the entire Temple fills with smoke (from incense perhaps).
Isaiah’s response to this vision is instructive” “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” I prefer the translation where Isaiah says, “I am undone,” instead of “I am lost.” The words, “I am undone,” connote that Isaiah is “coming apart at the seams,” which I think he was.
As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, when we come into the presence of the Lord, we become aware of God’s holiness. Our natural response is either an awareness of our own sinfulness, or no awareness of ourselves at all. True humility is the only proper response to the holiness of God.
However, the response of one of the seraphs to Isaiah’s cry is also instructive for us. The angel brings a burning coal from the altar in the Temple and touches Isaiah’s mouth with it. This action removes Isaiah’s guilt and blots out his sin.
It is interesting to me that Isaiah’s sense of sin has to do with his mouth. His immediate instinct in the presence of his holy God is to realize that his sins have to do with speech. Perhaps each of us, were we in Isaiah’s sandals, would be immediately aware of a different sin in our lives. However, it is not surprising that Isaiah would be most aware of sins of speech. Often, the area where we are most gifted is also the area of our lives where we can be must subject to temptation. Isaiah had a talent for speaking. Thus, this was also the area in his life where he experienced the most temptation and sin.
However, at the point of Isaiah’s awareness of his unworthiness, grace comes into play. This always, it seems to me, is God’s response to our shame and guilt. God wants to forgive us and take away our sin—whether that sin has to do primarily with our mouths, or with other parts of our bodies or our souls.
Once Isaiah has his sin taken away, it is then that he is able to hear God speak for the first time. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”
Isaiah overhears the call of God. This call is not directed to him, but is voiced within the divine court. The “us” in this passage refers, most likely, not to the “Trinity,” a concept unknown to Isaiah, but to the members of the divine court, including the angels.
Isaiah’s response is unlike any other in the Hebrew Scriptures. When God called Moses, Moses pleaded with God to send someone else. However, Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” This is a wonderful response and it is also an appropriate prayer for each of us to have upon our lips every day.
These words of Isaiah have, to my mind, been beautifully rendered in this song of praise….