Isaiah 6 records the “call” of the young prophet to the difficult task of preaching a message of judgment to the nation. This incident focused his ministry and prepared him for it. It may be best to say that the elaborate material recorded here actually looks at how the sovereign LORD inspired the young prophet for service. The revelation of the glory of the LORD was the foundation; it led to a response of confession, which brought cleansing, which in turn enabled him to hear the Word of God, which carried a commission to preach the message.
A few notes of caution are in order, because this passage is so widely used today. First, Isaiah already was a prophet, so this is not actually a “call” to become a prophet, but a call to a new direction in service. We shall have to be careful how we use that word, or how we define it. It is a call to a new and more difficult task that had to be performed.
Second, your exposition will have to be very careful in its correlation and application. Very few people have seen in this life what Isaiah saw—the pre-incarnate Christ (cf. John 12:41) in glory. We work with passages in God’s revelation that describe this heavenly scene with now the risen Christ in glory. That will be the foundation and inspiration of ministry and service today. Passages like 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, and Revelation 1, then, become rather significant in our correlation with the New Testament. Many basic themes that we find here will surface there. There must be a supernatural basis for ministry, or we shall not endure the suffering, opposition, discouragement, and hardship that follows. Paul says that he kept his focus on eternal things, things heavenly and spiritual—the eternal weight of glory. But if you try to apply this passage to say we must see this exact vision, even if you use the words figuratively and rhetorically without defining them, you will make an impossible barrier.
Third, the substance of the message is the negative or dark side of the good news. Perhaps this is why speakers usually leave it out, and simply stop with “Here am I, send me.” It was a message of judgment, of warning; they were not going to believe. And Isaiah really did not want to deliver it. So we shall have to consider why this is in the passage.
The setting of Isaiah 6 is the year 742 B.C., if our chronology of the death of Uzziah is accurate (and seems to be, given a year or so variance). Uzziah had been a good king (and there were so few of them). But in his latter years he became proud and usurped the role of priest, and God struck him down. With his death the hopes of many probably seemed dashed. Good King Uzziah was dead—and his wicked son would now take over! But on that occasion God broke through and revealed Himself to Isaiah. The young prophet may have been closing down things in the temple, and as the shadows crept across the temple precincts the flash of glory broke through and the prophet entered into the vision of the heavenlies—he could look past the curtain, past the holy of holies and into the sanctuary in heaven.8 The king was dead; but Isaiah saw the King! Kings come and go; but in a theocracy the LORD reigns eternally from heaven. He is the One whom we must please. He is the One who cleanses from sin, or strikes with judicial blindness those who persist in rebellion. He is the Holy One of Israel, and those who believe in Him will be the remnant, the holy seed, the future of the promise. The impact of this vision was overwhelming! In seeing the LORD of glory, the prophet saw himself, and the nation. As with Moses on Mount Sinai, Job hearing God from the whirlwind, Paul on the road to Damascus, or John on the Isle of Patmos, the young seer was changed forever with this vision.
I shall use this passage to work through the exegetical expositional method, at least in survey form. You will get a better idea of how some of the steps fit together. For more explanation of the method, and examples, see my commentary on Genesis, Creation and Blessing, published by Baker Book House. Also the same method is used throughout the Book of Leviticus in my forthcoming commentary Holiness to the LORD (due out by June, 2002)..
The first thing to do is verify the exact wording of the text that you think is the best rendering into English. Without Hebrew you are at a decided disadvantage—you have to trust the work of others more than you might wish to do. Select one good modern translation as your working base and then choose two more to work through line by line to compare translations. Where they are merely switching synonyms or stylistic arrangements you need not pause; but where the ideas are different, note them. Then, as you study the passage, decide which is the best (not which you like best) and change this base text accordingly. Observe:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD
seated on a throne, high and exalted,
and the train of his robe filled the temple.
Above Him were seraphim, each with six wings:
with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet,
and with two they were flying;
and they were calling to one another,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of Hosts,
the whole earth is full of His glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook,
and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me,” I cried. “I am ruined.”
“I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips,
for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand
he had taken off the altar with tongs;
with it he touched my mouth and said,
“See, this has touched your lips,
your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.”
Then 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.”
“Go and tell this people:
`Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “For how long, O LORD?”
“Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
As you go through the passage several times, watch for structural markers and subject matter changes. Begin by jotting a word or two description in the margin and bracketing off the sections. In narrative you will have to watch for clauses that advance the narrative as opposed to subordinate and descriptive clauses. In poetry you have to label each line of poetry and then group the similar ideas. Some of the commentaries may help you, but be sure to be ready to challenge their arrangements.
I have already done some of this in the above translation layout. Already the development of the passage begins to come clear. The first four verses describe the revelation of the LORD in glory. Verses 5-7 describe the response of the prophet to the vision and the remedy for that response. Then, beginning with verse 8 we have the dedication of the prophet to ministry with the instruction about what he should say. As more and more exegesis is done in the passage, the wording of the points in the exegetical outline can be refined. But at the outset this preliminary wording can help express the contents of the sections. Now, as I study through the passage for the meanings of words and for the figures of speech, I will be able to sharpen the focus of my rough divisions and write an exegetical outline.
As you work through passages you will begin to discover that there are key theological words that must be explained, or difficult and problematic words that need solving, or basic words along the way that are unclear but not that crucial to your exposition. List the words in these groups, prioritize them, and then do as much research on them as time permits. The more word studies that you do, the less you will have to do because they keep repeating; and the more that you do the easier they become.
In Isaiah 6 there are several words that need to be clearly understood by the expositor. Of primary interest will be the words qadosh, “holy” (both in the trisagion and in “holy seed”); kabod, “glory”; tame’, “unclean”; `awon, “iniquity/guilt”; and kipper, “atone, expiate.” Of additional interest for rhetorical purposes would be the words mille’, “fill”; shama`, “hear”; and shalakh, “send.” In the process of studying you will also have to define the words such as “Lord,” “king,” “seraphim,” “temple,” and the like. But, as already stated, since the revelation of the glory and holiness of the LORD are basic to the cleansing and the call, I would make these my focus.
You will have to make use of whatever resources are available to you; a good word study book or two would be most helpful, provided you can use them and find the discussions of the critical Hebrew terms.
Now you must determine which words are figures of speech, what the figures are, and what the meanings of those figurative uses of those words should be. With practice you will do this rather quickly—off the top of your head. But here at the beginning you will have to think them through carefully. It will be like trying to get your car dug out of a snow drift—sooner or later you either get your car dug out or the snow melts! That was an extended simile by the way.
You should even classify idioms in a passage, because people do not know what they mean—they were originally figures of speech that became common expressions. To say something is “idiomatic” does not help clarify the meaning.
One of the values of going through this process—even if you do not get the correct figure of speech—is that you are forcing yourself to think more about the words and their meanings. For Isaiah 6, which does not have as many figures of speech as other Isaianic oracles, the following words would have to be explained. See how you can do with this list (interpreting in the context, of course):
“I saw the LORD seated upon a throne”
“and the train of his robe filled the temple”
“and with two [wings] they covered their feet”
“Yahweh of armies”
“the whole earth is full of His glory”
“Woe to me”
“I am a man of unclean lips”
“with it he touched my mouth”
“Whom shall I send?”
“Be ever hearing but never understanding”
“Make the heart of this people calloused”
“see with their eyes and hear with their ears”
“But as the terebinth and the oak leave stumps”
“the holy seed”
“will be the stump in the land”
Now we probably have enough information to refine the wording of an exegetical outline. It will be written in full sentences that are descriptive of the content of the passage. Do not spend an inordinate amount of time here; you are simply trying to write clear sentences in which you express your understanding of the verses. But do not whip (figure!) over it too fast or write things that are too general. And do not leave the figures of speech in the outline, unless they are easily and readily understood. And for you perfectionists, do not make the outline twice as long as the passage.
I. Revelation: When the king died Isaiah saw the LORD reigning in glory, being attended by the angelic praise of His sublime presence, and filling the temple with the evidence of His majesty (1-4).
A. Historical reference: The revelation occurred when the king died (1a).
B. The prophet was allowed to see into the heavenly sanctuary (1b-4):
LISTNUM 1 l 3 s 1 He saw the LORD reigning from on high with all His glory.
LISTNUM 1 l 3 The angels attending Him covered themselves while flying and crying out their message:
LISTNUM 1 l 4 They proclaimed that the LORD was incomparable.
LISTNUM 1 l 4 They announced that His presence and His importance filled the whole earth.
LISTNUM 1 l 4 The temple was shaken to its doorposts and filled with smoke at their voices.
II. Sanctification: When Isaiah acknowledged his sinful condition in the presence of the LORD he was forgiven immediately (5-7).
A. Isaiah confessed his unworthy condition before the LORD and bewailed his lamentable state (5).
1. He lamented his ruin because what he said was common and base.
2. He only realized his sinful condition when he saw the King, the LORD who has all powers at His disposal.
B. One of the seraphim intervened directly to take away his guilt and to remove his sin (7).
III. Dedication: When Isaiah heard the call of the LORD to go, he immediately obeyed and was commissioned to deliver a message of judgment (8-13).
A. Isaiah heard the voice of the LORD prodding him to take the message to the nation (8a).
B. Isaiah immediately obeyed the call (8b).
C. Isaiah was given a message of judgment (8c-13).
1. God told him to declare a message that people would not believe because they were spiritually blind.
2. God told him to do this until judgment was complete, until nothing was left in the land.
LISTNUM 1 l 3 God encouraged him that there would be a remnant of righteous believers that would remain.
As you write the summary statement you will have to decide which part of the passage is to receive the primary focus—and become the independent clause of your statement. This is critical, for your exposition and application will center on this. It could differ depending on the audience and occasion of the message; but usually it will be what the author intended. Messages could take different views on this and still be exegetically sound, as long as the context governs the interpretation.
Start by writing the main points together:
(I) When the king died Isaiah saw the LORD reigning in glory, being attended by the angelic praise of His sublime presence, and filling the temple with the evidence of His majesty. (II) When Isaiah acknowledged his sinful condition in the presence of the LORD, he was forgiven immediately. (III) When Isaiah heard the call of the LORD to go, he immediately obeyed and was commissioned to deliver a message of judgment.
Now we need to work on this. Start by editing the sentences so that they are concise. Then, decide what the independent clause will be, and how the others relate to it.
Now the summary of the passage might look like this:
When Isaiah saw the LORD reigning in glory, being attended by angelic praise of His majesty and shaking the temple with His presence, he acknowledged his sinful condition, received the forgiveness of sins, and obeyed the call of the LORD to deliver a message of judgment.
At this point in my approach I made Isaiah the subject of the sentence because it is often easier to make the transition to the exposition and application with the focus on the human. That is not to say that the revelation section is less important. It is most important, since it begins the chain reaction: revelation leads to awareness of sin, awareness leads to confession, confession brings cleansing, cleansing enables hearing, and the hearing leads to the commission. There would be no response of Isaiah if there had been no revelation. But in summarizing the contents of the passage I chose to subordinate the first section and focus more on what resulted from it. I might reword this in the expositional section, but that would depend on my purpose in the sermon.
Working with the summary statement just written, and with a knowledge of the passage in mind, I now condense the ideas and edit the sentence to produce a propositional theological statement that is biblically sound and true from age to age. This step will be easier in the Psalms and the Prophets than in Narrative, Law, or Wisdom literature, because the material is obviously devotional or sermonic, and the points made pretty much universal in their scope. The setting might be different, but the ideas standard—faith, prayer, obedience, confession, and the like. This theological summary should capture the main motifs of the passage; and it must be worded in a way that is true to the original setting and true to the current audience. To do this it is helpful to substitute more general words for the specific (that is, moving up the ladder of abstraction but staying in the categories): “believers” or “covenant people” instead of “Israel”; “pagans” or “unbelievers” instead of “Assyrians”; “worship” in place of “festivals in Jerusalem” or “making sacrifices,” and so on.
There may be other theological points that surface for individual verses or sections along the way, incidental to the main point; these can be brought in too. But the theology you are trying to state should cover the whole passage.
It may be that the theological statement may be the same as the homiletic or expository statement. That is fine, because it is the timeless truth, the theology, that must be preached. But I have found that a sermon idea that is more condensed and worded rhetorically, in a memorable way, is far more affective. Of course, understand that we are not reducing the sermon to one sentence. We still expound the whole passage. But the sermon idea enables us to keep our focus on the unity of the passage and the purpose of the message—how it all fits together and where it is going.
As is clear by now, the main theological motifs of this passage are the revelation of the sovereign majesty of the holy Lord with all the attending circumstances, the confession and cleansing of the prophet’s sinful condition, and the inspiring and commissioning of the prophet to proclaim the LORD’s message. If I word these in the form a theological statement, it might read something like this: When people perceive the revelation of the LORD’s sovereign majesty in glory they become convicted over their sinful condition; when they acknowledge their sin, they find cleansing; and when they are sanctified, they respond obediently to the call of God. I could use this as a sermon idea because it is a sentence that captures the movement of the passage. But if I do not, at least I have expressed theologically the teaching of the passage.
The procedure to be followed now for the sermon idea and the main points of the exposition (and sub-points if possible) is simply a continuation of the editing and shortening. For the main idea I can keep the theological statement, unless it is too long and cumbersome. Here I would find it rhetorically better to make it more concise and direct: The revelation of the Lord in glory transforms the lives of God’s servants and inspires them for service. The exposition will “flesh” this out so that each section of the passage reflected here will be fully explained and related. Having written the summary and the theology, it is easy for me to explain the text. But this point keeps me focused.
Now I take the main points of the exegetical outline and go through the same process of editing, condensing, and abstracting, to get expository wording. My fuller exegetical and theological statements will come in handy as I get into the exposition and wish to explain the sections. Here again I want to make the points positive, powerful, and precise; but I also want to stay tied to the text—it is the message of the text, not my message loosely connected to the text, that is the substance of what I must say. This is exegetical exposition.
You probably will have New Testament correlations, or systematic theology correlations, already in mind by now. You can keep them close at hand while working on the wording of the message, but be careful not to read that material into the text, or make your outline a New Testament outline (“Jesus died for our sins” is not the best way to express the sermon point that Isaiah is making when he is cleansed with coals from the altar, even though ultimately, theologically, that would be true).
For the exposition of Isaiah 6 these points are workable for exposition—short, easy to understand and remember, and theologically accurate. Others are also workable, but these will illustrate the difference between the exegetical outline (above) and an expositional outline. They are:
I. The revelation of the glory of the Lord uncovers sinfulness.
II. The acknowledgment of sinfulness brings forgiveness.
III. The removal of sin inspires obedience to God’s call.
However the points are worded, they must be expressed clearly in the oral presentation. People need to know where you are in the exposition, and what you are saying about those particular verses. The points and the transitions must be clear.
If you have not done so before, you now need to find other passages that teach the same theology, whether in the Old Testament or New. But you always want to include a New Testament text to show that the theology is timeless. You may not find one that does all that this passage does; you may need to join a couple to cover the different sections. But do not use a large number of passages, unless you are correlating them step by step along the way. By bringing New Testament texts from the epistles to bear on your passage, you are safe-guarding that your theology is correct. It may also be wise to make sure that your theological ideas are correct and correctly stated—you may need to check good systematic theologies.
With Isaiah 6 we shall not find many passages that are on the same level. This is a rather dramatic event—not a normal vision (if we may speak of visions as normal). This parallels Moses on Mt. Sinai speaking to God face to face, Paul being caught up into the third heaven, and John seeing the risen Christ on the Isle of Patmos. So it will be important to say that while it is possible God could let one of us see this heavenly scene, it is not very likely—it never was normative. So we shall have to look for “lesser” parallels—but even saying that is risky, because I do not want to minimize any revelation. One of the best passages, however, is 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. It is about Paul’s ministry, how he was able to endure a difficult ministry with all kinds of troubles and persecutions. At the heart of it is his statement that when we see Christ in the Word of God, as in a mirror, we are transformed into that same glory, by the power of the Spirit. Therefore we will be inspired to obey the call to minister, keeping our eyes on eternal things, the weight of glory, and not on temporal things. That works well for most of it, but does not express much of the forgiveness of sin. For that I would relate other passages where the response to revelation is conviction of sin, whether Moses, Job, the disciples, or others. I am using revelation in a specific sense here. I could broaden it to mean Scripture, but it seems better in correlation to talk about those portions of Scripture that reveal the risen Christ, or the Lord in glory.
If you are following a lectionary for Scriptures for a service there will be several passages grouped together for that particular day. Since Prayer Books do this, it is helpful to show the congregation how they relate, if they do. I personally do not try to construct a sermon using all the passages as if they were a unit. To me that runs contrary to the basics of exegesis. Nor do I try to deliver three short homilies in sequence to cover the passages. There is not the time to prepare or deliver three. What I will do is preach on one of them—a contextual, exegetical exposition. Where the other passages have clear links, I will allude to them or incorporate them incidentally and significantly.
Two errors exist with regard to conclusions: they are ignored, or they go on forever (that was a hyperbole by the way). The conclusion may have a brief summary of the passage and a rehearsal of where you have been. This may not be necessary if it was all very clear and interesting. Keep it short and powerful.
But it must have precise applications. This step is sometimes very difficult, and often is the undoing of an otherwise good message. Be able to say what you want people to know and to believe as a result of this message; and be able to state what they should do. Do not make long lists—just a couple of things in each area. Do not simply apply the material mentally; words for “thinking, recalling, realizing, remembering” and the like are not as good as using words for “doing” in the applications, even though a good number of messages leave it there. For Isaiah 6 I could certainly include instructions to spend time in studying the Scriptures that portray the glorious Christ, to respond with conviction and humility to the revelation of God (never suppress the proper response to God’s revelation) to confess sinfulness and maintain an ongoing sanctification, and then to obey the commands of God to proclaim Him, whether the message is popular or not.
Now I am ready to write the introduction, because I know where I am going. The introduction must capture the attention of the audience, create or uncover a need in them that this passage will address, and make them want to listen. Do not, I repeat, do not start out with the historical background or a description of the events of the passage. That is one of the most ineffective ways to begin. And do not take up two or three minutes explaining that if you had more time you could do a better job.
Once again, introductions like conclusions do not need to be long; shorter ones are most effective—if they are powerful and clear. Of course, if they are not powerful or clear, long ones are merely painful.
I would think writing a draft of the sermon will be most helpful for you to gauge where you are and how much time you can devote to the different things that need to be said. Working through wording on paper also helps you be able to say things more readily when speaking.
But I do not think you should write a draft in order to read it from the pulpit. That is one of the worst things you could do in preaching or teaching—unless you have had lots of training in script writing and public reading (which means you will have memorized most of it anyway). Personally, I would much rather hear direct speaking than reading, even if it means some of the things that were intended did not get said. The direct approach of speaking will mean that what you do say is easier to understand and retain.
After you have spent some time working through the passage you should have plenty of ideas in mind—more than can fit in one Bible class or sermon! The following notes are meant to supplement the discussion and reinforce the main ideas. I have inserted my expository outline here, using topical headings before each main point for an easy overview: Revelation, Sanctification, Dedication, and Inspiration. You will notice that I decided to make a fourth point to cover the subject matter of message. It could have been left under the third point, but this seems also to work well.
Verse 1 begins the report of the heavenly vision in the year that King Uzziah died. Several points from the Hebrew text need to be noted here. The first would be the use of the verb “saw” (wa’er’eh from ra’ah); this is not the word for the “seer” of visions, but the ordinary word “to see” or look at something. This suggests Isaiah is very much awake and physically observing this sight.
The object of the sight is “the Lord”—’adonay, and not the personal name Yahweh (which would be rendered “LORD”). The term signifies lord or master, the sovereign. The term “sitting” (yoshevfrom yashav) when used of God is an anthropomorphism; it means “rule,” that is, sit enthroned above. The word “throne” is actually used here; in other passages it must be understood.
The exalted nature of the Lord is presented to us with “high” (ram from rum) and “lifted up” (wenissa’ from nasa’). The physical description of His location, part of the anthropomorphic vision, is also symbolic of His nature as the “Highest”—an expression often used in the Bible for absolute sovereignty. The symbol of sovereignty, “his train,” completely fills the temple. Such is the dominance of the Lord of Glory.
Verse 2 introduces the angels. The term for angels in this order is seraphim (from saraph, “to burn”—”are they not all flames of fire?”). These are attending (literally, “standing about/over him”) the LORD as ministering servants. Their description focuses on their wings (Hebrew uses a distributive construction: “six wings, six wings to [each] one); each angel had six wings. Two covered the angel’s face—such is the nature of God that even angels blush to look at Him—two covered their bodily parts (probably a euphemism, feet meaning their central body), and with two they flew. The vision is similar to Ezekiel’s on Ezekiel 1.
Verse 3 reports what they cried continually to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of Armies; the whole earth is full of His glory!” This line needs a lot of attention. It is the central and turning point of the passage (as well as a prominent part in liturgy).
The word for “holy” is qadosh (s.v. qadash). A study of this word shows that it means “distinct, unique, set apart.” It does not mean “righteous”; but we use the word “righteous as well as all the other attributes to explain what holy means (i.e., in what way is God distinct from us, from angels, from pagan gods?). The description of God as holy is a major theme in the Book of Isaiah. If I may simplify it, it means there is no one like the LORD in the universe. The threefold use of the term is a Hebrew way of expressing the superlative degree—He is incomparably holy. This trisagion (as it is called, Greek for thrice holy) may harmonize with the later and full revelation of the tri-unity of the Godhead (see Isa. 48:12ff.); but it does not in itself teach the trinity.
The expression “Yahweh of Armies” must be understood. The armies are all armies—earthly or heavenly. They are all at His disposal. The use of this epithet usually introduces a judgment theme.
The other key word in here is “glory” (kavod from kavad). The basic idea of this word has to do with “weight, being heavy”; metaphorically this becomes “be important.” To describe God as glorious, if I may run the risk of oversimplification again, means that He is the most important person in the universe. The physical manifestation of His presence, the “glory of the LORD,” is metonymical for Him Himself. The words of the angels assert that the whole earth is filled with the evidence that Yahweh is the sovereign God of the universe. Isaiah’s vision concludes with the note in verse 4 of the effects of the Presence—the place shook, and was filled with smoke. This imagery is drawn from Mount Sinai and the Sanctuary.
Verse 5 gives the typical response of one who sees such a scene—struck with the knowledge of one’s own sinfulness. “Woe is me.” Hebrew “woe” (‘oy) is a wail of lamentation. It is an expression that cries out of distress, that all is lost, that grief will overtake; there is nothing that can be done.
The key word in here is “unclean” (tame’). The better that you know the Book of Leviticus the better you will understand this. It comes from the temple liturgy and ritual. To be “unclean” need not mean “sinful”; but it does mean off limits, out of bounds, unacceptable in the presence of God because of physical, earthy nature and contaminations. The focus is on the lips (here a metonymy of cause)—what he talks about is perhaps good, clean, and normal; but it is not as holy as the angels’ speech was. Question: What will we talk about in the presence of the LORD? How will our conversations change? The Bible has so much to say about speech, how it is a window to the heart. Isaiah, and the nation, are not fit to enter the Presence of the LORD—their speech betrays greater problems.
This is a critical section. Isaiah is probably the finest in the land. People often compare themselves with others and come out looking fine. The standard, however, is the glory of the LORD. There is an old saying: If you have never caught sight (literally or figuratively) of the Sublime, you have never really seen yourself.
The next stage in the preparation of God’s servant is sanctification, sanctification that was inspired by the vision of the glory of the LORD. What is described in verses 6 and 7 is a symbolic act; it signifies that the sin was removed. We know this is symbolic because never in the sanctuary was sin removed by searing the lips with a coal from the altar. What reality there was to this we may only surmise—it is unlikely that an angel actually took a coal and touched his lips. This is a heavenly scene and the heavenly correspondent to the coals is meant; the coals were the instrument of consuming the sacrifices that became the sin offering. The point is that the prophet was cleansed by direct divine intervention. The focus is on the lips because they represented the sinfulness of the prophet. The prophet was cleansed; the people, however, had yet to hear the word, confess, and be cleansed.
The meaning of this act is clear from the end of verse 7: “your iniquity has been removed, your sin atoned.” The term “iniquity” here probably includes all three of the categories of meaning it has—sin, guilt, and the punishment for the sin. The critical word to define here is “atoned” (tekuppar from kipper). A careful study of this word and its usage will reveal the meanings of “expiate, pacify, atone.” There is a homonym—exactly the same spelling of the root—that means “cover over.” Unfortunately, in many studies and many sermons the two have not been kept as separate words, and the idea that atonement only covers over and does not expiate has become popular. No. The sins were removed; the person was forgiven. The point here is that Isaiah’s sins were forgiven; God will not bring them up again. (The only thing that Old Testament believers did not know, and could not know, was who would ultimately pay for these sins, since they repeated sacrifices. But God knew, and on the basis of that perfect sacrifice [which, by the way, was from before the foundation of the world] He could guarantee forgiveness. They had His word on it).
Verse 8 records the commission of the prophet in response to the Word of God. The first verb is fraught with significance: “Then I heard” (wa’eshma` from shama`). The conjunction is a “waw consecutive” that expresses the sequence: this hearing follows the preceding sanctification almost with a “so that” or “and then.” A valid point can be made that one cannot “hear” the call of God until there is sanctification. Once one is forgiven and walking with Him, one can hear His voice through His word. One has to be on speaking terms with God.
The parallelism of the word of the Lord (not LORD) is forceful: “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” The call passages in the Bible all use the verb “send”; it expresses divine authentication and enablement for the mission, usually accompanied by the divine Presence. Unless the Lord sends, one cannot go with any authority.
For discussions of “for us” you can go back to the several treatments in the commentaries, and back to Genesis. It has been interpreted to mean the Lord and the angels, which is possible; it has also been taken as a plural of majesty for the Godhead that allows for the later full revelation of the nature of God.
Isaiah’s response? “Here am I, send me.” You probably will not have the time to do much with this, since the other parts are so important. And that is fine since this is easily understood. But “here am I” is a bold break-through response: “Look—me!” And then the verb is repeated, “send me.” Not “I will go.” That would be presumptuous. But “send me,” an imperative, is a request for the divine authority that goes with the mission.
The message in these last few verses is a message of judgment. You will have to take a little time to show that God warns sinners of judgment. He does this in order that they will repent and become part of the “remnant”—the holy seed (rather than the “seed of evil-doers” of 1:4). This generation had persisted in sin for so long that God was going to judge them. And he will begin to do this by hardening their hearts at the hearing of the Word of the LORD, just as He did Pharaoh of old. The theology of this is heavy: if people live under the influence of the Scriptures and continue to reject its message, Paul says that God gives them up. There is a point of judicial rejection. We do not know when that is, so we can not say; we keep on preaching. Isaiah was told in his case. And then it was the actual preaching of the Word of God that hardened them even more. We can see that even today when the Word offends even the ones who appear “religious.”
Lancelot Andrewes said it very well: “It is not our task to tell people what they want to hear; we must tell them what in some sad future time they would wish they had heard.”10
Isaiah is not happy about this; it is much nicer to have a positive message. But the positive message is meaningless if there are no “teeth” in it. Both in the prophets and in the ministry of Jesus there is the same refrain, “repent or perish.” The denial of judgment, the rejection of the idea of Jesus’ death being atonement, begins with the denial of sin and evil. Modern theologies cannot explain evil, let alone resolve it.
Isaiah had to preach this until all the cities were laid waste and the judgment complete. The preaching of it was a call for repentance. Join the message of chapter 1 with this call and you can see that Isaiah 1:18 is a big part of the warning oracle. Jonah knew this; he knew that the LORD was compassionate and merciful, whereas he—Jonah—wanted the sinners wiped out.
The end of this passage refers to the “holy seed” (zera’ qodesh); the term “seed” is a hypocatastasis for people, here characterized by holiness. Terms like “seed” and “generation” are used this way to describe a segment of the population. This “seed” is distinct (holy) from the rest of the population. It is only a remnant.
The Bible often uses the (implied) metaphor of the tree for the nation or the kingdom of God. Israel was the tree; but because it bore no fruit, it was cut down (exiled). There was only a stump left—the righteous believers who kept the covenant alive. Isaiah will develop this image further by showing that a small branch, a tender shoot, will grow out of the stump, and become a great king, and restore the nation to its glorious heritage.
Isaiah was thus commissioned to go and preach the Word of the LORD to the nation, a complete message that would not overlook sin, hardness of heart, judgment and sorrow, but a message that would hold out the hope of glory. And before the prophet could preach this, he had to experience it. So I have worded my main expository idea of the passage: The revelation of the Lord in glory transforms the lives of God’s servants and inspires them for service.
Of course the applications now have to be made. Naturally, we want to say people need to be sanctified and hear the Word of the LORD for He might be calling them to service. But we have to go back to the revelation to begin the applications. One cannot go and have a look at the LORD in glory; instead today we have the revelation of it in Scripture, many times over. My first application would be that one should meditate on those passage frequently, and that vision of the glory of the LORD, the risen Christ, will convict and inspire. The correlation in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 helps us here. In chapter 3 Paul says that we (believers) look into the Scriptures as in a mirror and behold the glory of the Lord. But since it is a mirror it reflects and so we are changed into that glory (this idea could cover the point of sanctification in Isaiah 6). Then, in chapter 4 he lists all the hardships of the ministry, but concludes that focusing on the eternal weight of glory enables him (and us) to endure.
Growing out of this is the second application: when the Word of the LORD convicts us, we must not cloak our sin but confess it so that we may be open to His will. Sanctification must be the response of meditation in Christ, otherwise we harden out hearts.
A third application might be that we are His servants. We must be willing to go where He sends, and to speak what He wants us to speak. It may not be popular; it may not be what we would like to say. But we are to proclaim the Word of the LORD.
Driver, G. R. “Isaiah 6:1, “His Train Filled the Temple.” In Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright. Edited by Hans Goedicke. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. Pp. 87-96.
Key, Andrew F. “The Magical Background of Isaiah 6:9-13.” JBL 86 (1967):198-204.
Knierim, Rolf. “The Vocation of Isaiah.” VT 18 (1968):47-68.
Liebreich, Leon J. “The Position of Chapter Six in the Book of Isaiah.” HUCA 25 (1954):37-40.
Love, Julian Price. “The Call of Isaiah: An Exposition of Isaiah 6.” Interpretation 11 (1957):282-296.
Whitley, C. F. “The Call and Mission of Isaiah.” JNES 18 (1959):38-48.
8 It helps to remember that the earthly sanctuary where the glory of the LORD dwelt on earth was the one spot on earth where heaven and earth touched, where the Lord could be enthroned in the earthly and the heavenly spheres as the same time.
9 You will have to decide at the outset if you are going to stay with the traditional translation “the LORD” instead of using what is really in the text, “Yahweh.” It does not matter, but which ever you use you will have to explain frequently.
10 Lancelot Andrewes preached to the courts of Elizabeth I and James I; he was personally responsible for the translation of Genesis through Samuel in the Authorized Version. I have modernized his words here for easier understanding.