ISAIAH 1-5. THE CONTEXT
In chapters 1-5, Isaiah uses harsh words to speak of Judah’s wickedness. He speaks of Judeans as rebellious children (1:2) and “people loaded with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken Yahweh. They have despised the Holy One of Israel. They are estranged and backward.” (1:4). He says that the faithful city has become a whore (1:21). He tells of a vine grower (God) who planted a vineyard (Judah) with choice vines, expecting it to yield grapes, but “it yielded wild grapes” (5:1-2). Dip into chapters 1-5 at random, and you will find yourself reading about Judah’s sin or God’s judgment. Isaiah’s tone throughout is critical and condemnatory.
It seems surprising that the events of chapter 6 are reported where they are rather than at the beginning of the book. The first verse of chapter 1 speaks Isaiah’s vision. It would seem appropriate for Isaiah’s call to be reported in chapter 1 instead of chapter 6.
Scholars are divided with regard to this issue. Are the events of chapter 6 Isaiah’s initial call, or are they a subsequent call that defines his call and gives it direction? It could be that chapters 1-5 are intended to be introductory—to set the stage, so to speak—and that chapter 6 is the beginning of the “action” portion of the book. It could be that a later redactor (editor) pieced the book together as we find it today. A full discussion of the possibilities is beyond the scope of this exegesis, because there are so many scholarly opinions on this point (See Oswalt, 171 ff. for an overview).
However, it seems to me that Isaiah’s work in chapters 1-5, denouncing Judah’s sin and warning of judgment, was necessary to prepare Isaiah for the surprise that he experiences in chapter 6. For five chapters, he has pointed his judgmental finger at his fellow Judeans. In chapter 6, in the presence of Yahweh’s holiness, he suddenly recognizes his own unholiness. It finally occurs to him that he is not only dwelling among a people of unclean lips, but that he is one of them—that his lips are unclean—that he, too, is subject to judgment. It is that “Aha!” moment that humbles him and prepares him for a life of service beyond anything that he otherwise could have rendered.
ISAIAH 6:1-4.I SAW THE LORD SITTING ON A THRONE
1 In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each one had six wings. With two he covered his face. With two he covered his feet. With two he flew. 3One called to another, and said,
“Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh of Armies!
The whole earth is full of his glory!”
4The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
“In the year that King Uzziah died” (v. 1a). Uzziah (known as Azariah in 2 Kings 15) was one of the better kings of Judah—the best after Solomon. He began his reign at age 16, reigned 52 years, and “did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Chronicles 26:3-4). He commanded a mighty army, defeated the Philistines, and collected tribute from the Ammonites. He built towers and encouraged agriculture. “But when he had was strong, his heart was lifted up, so that he did corruptly, and he trespassed against Yahweh his God” (2 Chronicles 26:16). Toward the end of his life, he tried to usurp priestly prerogatives, and God afflicted him with leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:20).
Uzziah’s reign began sometime around 790 B.C. and he died sometime around 742 B.C.—a half-century reign during which Judah prospered. However, Tiglath-pileser began to reign in Assyria in 745 B.C.—in the last years of Uzziah’s reign—and soon brought Assyria to a position of world dominance. Soon, Tiglath-pileser would begin pressuring Judah, and Judah’s fortunes would wane. Uzziah’s successors would find themselves unable to deliver the kind of peace and prosperity that Judah had enjoyed during Uzziah’s reign. Thus Uzziah would be remembered fondly and his death would be remembered with great sadness. “In the year that King Uzziah died” is a phrase heavy with meaning. Judeans would remember Uzziah’s reign as “the good old days.”
Isaiah’s ministry will span approximately four decades, beginning sometime around 742 B.C. and continuing through the rest of the century.
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up:” (v. 1b). In the year that a great earthly king died, Isaiah was privileged to see an even greater heavenly king sitting on a throne in the temple—probably in the Holy of Holies of the Jerusalem temple. The throne was “high and lofty” —appropriate for God’s exalted nature.
Earlier, God told Moses, “You cannot see my face; for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20; see also Exodus 19:21). However, there were occasions where people were allowed to see God and live (Genesis 16:13; Exodus 24:10). This is one of those.
“and his train filled the temple” (v. 1c). This detail conveys the sense of awe that Isaiah feels in the presence of Yahweh. To him it seems that Yahweh’s robe fills the temple. He feels too small to see beyond the hem of Yahweh’s robe.
“Above him stood the seraphim” (v. 2a). “Seraph” is a transliterated Hebrew word (a word brought into the English language as it sounds in the original language)—seraphs or seraphim are plurals of seraph. Most scholars believe that the word, seraphim, means “fiery serpents.” Scott believes that it means “burning ones” and that the idea of serpents is derived illogically from Numbers 21:6, 8 (Scott, 208).
“Each one had six wings. With two he covered his face. With two they covered his feet. With two he flew” (v. 2b). As noted in verse 1b above, people were not usually allowed to see God and live. The seraphim cover their faces to protect them from seeing God. “Covered their feet” is probably a euphemism for covering their nakedness.
“One called to another,” (v. 3a). This suggests antiphonal choirs, where one choir sings a phrase from one part of the sanctuary and another choir sings a response from another part. Just imagine several choirs of perfect voices, positioned throughout an acoustically perfect temple, singing antiphonally. Each response would come from a new direction and would complement the earlier song rather than copying it. The effect would be rich and beautiful—almost beyond a person’s ability to absorb.
“and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh of Armies! The whole earth is full of his glory!'” (v. 3b). The Hebrew language depends on repetition for emphasis, and this threefold repetition depicts the epitome of holiness. The author of the book of Revelation uses this same image and thrice-holy formula (Revelation 4:8).
These are the words of the song sung by the seraphim choirs—a hymn of praise—a tribute to God’s holiness and glory. God’s holiness is an inherent part of his being. God’s glory is the visible manifestation of his magnificent presence. Holiness and glory are often linked in Old Testament descriptions of God.
“The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” (v. 4). The seraphim sing so loudly that the doors of the temple shake. The temple is also filled with smoke from incense (Exodus 25:6, 29; 30:1, 7, 27, etc.) and/or burnt sacrifices. The smoke and violent shaking are reminiscent of Moses’ encounter with Yahweh at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:18).
ISAIAH 6:5-7. WOE IS ME! FOR I AM A MAN OF UNCLEAN LIPS!
5Then I said, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because 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, Yahweh of Armies!”
6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar. 7He touched my mouth with it, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
“Then I said, ‘Woe is me! For I am undone, because 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, Yahweh of Armies!'” (v. 5). Isaiah speaks, confessing his guilt. As noted above, he has railed for five chapters against his sinful nation and its people. He has used graphic language to describe their guilt and the judgment that they should anticipate. Now, in the presence of the Almighty, he is overwhelmed by his own guilt. In the presence of Yahweh’s holiness, he is struck by his own unholiness. He sees that, like the other citizens of Judah, he too is guilty—that he, too, is deserving of judgment.
To gain some sense of how Isaiah felt, imagine how you would feel in the presence of a modern saint—someone like Mother Teresa. In the presence of saintliness, most of us feel spiritually drab by comparison. Their holiness accentuates our unholiness. Now multiply that feeling by a thousand, and you begin to understand how Isaiah felt. To get the full impact, multiply by infinity.
“unclean lips” seems like an odd phrase to use here. It is not only Isaiah’s lips that are unclean, but his whole person. Why would he speak only of unclean lips? Jesus gives us a clue when he says, “For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34) and “the things that proceed out of the mouth come out of the heart” (Matthew 15:18). The point is that unclean lips (a secondary uncleanness) express what is in an unclean heart (the root uncleanness). Isaiah’s unclean lips give expression to his unclean heart, just as the unclean lips of the people of Judah (on whom Isaiah has been pronouncing judgment) give expression to their unclean hearts. It is only when Isaiah finds himself in the presence of Yahweh’s holiness that he recognizes his own uncleanness.
“for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” (v. 5b). To see “the King, Yahweh of Armies,” is to die. Isaiah must think that he is about to be incinerated on the spot.
“Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar” (v. 6). While there is no mention of Yahweh commanding the seraph to take this action, it is clear that the seraph is doing God’s will.
While a live coal could come either from the incense altar or the sacrificial altar, the latter seems more appropriate for cleansing a person’s sins. Temple sacrifices involve blood atonement, which makes possible forgiveness of sin.
“He touched my mouth with it, and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven'” (v. 7). The seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the live coal, burning away the uncleanness of his lips and heart. He who was unholy is made holy. He who was unfit to stand in God’s presence is, by the grace of God, made fit.
ISAIAH 6:8. HERE I AM. SEND ME!
8 I heard the Lord’s voice, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Then I said, “Here I am. Send me!”
Isaiah has spoken, confessing his guilt. Now God speaks, addressing the heavenly council (the seraphim and whatever other angelic host might be present). “The throne room of God is the policy room of world government. There is business to conduct. There is creation to manage. There are messages to be sent” (Bruggemann, 59-60).
God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah is only a bystander, overhearing God’s question. God says neither where the envoy is to go nor what the envoy is to do—nor does God ask Isaiah to volunteer.
“Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah, caught up in the excitement of the moment—grateful to be cleansed and even more grateful to be alive—volunteers to be God’s envoy, even though he does not know where Yahweh will ask him to go or what Yahweh will ask him to do. In essence, Isaiah writes Yahweh a blank check, offering to go wherever and to do whatever. This is unusual in the call stories of the Old Testament, where people often object to their call (Exodus 3:11; 4:10; Judges 6:15; Jeremiah 1:6).
But something like Isaiah’s response happens yet today whenever a person of faith commits him/herself to God’s service. When making such a commitment, the person cannot say, “I will serve God as long as I can do it here”—or “I will be happy to serve God in this way but not in that way.” The commitment must be to serve God, and the person making such a commitment can only wonder where God will lead.
ISAIAH 6:9-10. YOU HEAR INDEED, BUT DON’T UNDERSTAND
9He said, “Go, and tell this people,
‘You hear indeed,
but don’t understand;
and you see indeed,
but don’t perceive.’
10Make the heart of this people fat.
Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn again, and be healed.”
Preachers tend to preach on verses 1-8 and to ignore verses 9-13, because these latter verses represent God as having made up his mind to condemn people. Having determined the verdict, God wants nothing—not even repentance—to interfere with the judgment that he will soon render. That clashes with our idea of a loving God.
However, the two passages go together. Verses 1-8 tell of the messenger, while verses 9-13 tell of the message. The message is dismal, but it has a twist—a hopeful twist—at the end. Everything is to be destroyed and re-destroyed. It will appear that no life could possibly emerge from the twice-burned wreckage, but life will emerge—a holy seed—a bright green ray of hope growing improbably from the charred wreckage. A remnant will survive to carry on Yahweh’s plan.
The idea of a remnant is found throughout the Old Testament. Typically, God judges sinful people, allowing many to die—sometimes quickly as in the great flood (Genesis 7), and at other times slowly, as on the journey to the Promised Land. In each instance, God chooses a faithful remnant to survive and carry on his work. In this book, Isaiah often raises the hope of a remnant (10:19-22; 11:11, 16; 28:5; 37:4, 31; 46:3). The idea of a remnant continues in the New Testament (Matthew 7:14; Romans 9:27-29; 11:2-5, 7; Revelation 12:17).
“He said, ‘Go, and tell this people,‘” (v. 9a). The phrase, “this people,” distances Yahweh from the people of Judah—rather like a father saying “this kid” instead of “my son” or “my daughter.” In better times Yahweh said, “my people” (Exodus 3:7; 6:7).
“‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive.'”
(v. 9b). This describes what has been happening. “This people” has had every opportunity to hear and see. Their history is replete with stories of their relationship with Yahweh—how he chose them—and loved them—and led them—and even how he punished them when they sinned. They have scripture and temple worship as constant reminders of this relationship. Yahweh has given them every possible advantage, but they have nevertheless failed to comprehend—failed to understand—failed to obey.
Their failure is willful, and has taken place because their hearts are far from God. They do not understand, because they don’t want to understand. If they were to understand, they would have to change—and they don’t want to change.
“Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” (v. 10). “If anyone hardens his heart, God will complete the hardening. Anyone whose heart is hardened has his condition made even worse by the call to repent” (Kaiser, on verse 10). A call to repent only causes such a person to raise his/her defenses even higher.
But Yahweh’s purpose is redemptive. Yahweh won’t be an “enabler”—a person who supports intolerable behavior. Yahweh will allow “this people” to fall—to “hit bottom,” if we may borrow a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous. Otherwise, they will limp along forever in their sins.
Prophets are seldom popular. They speak truths that people don’t want to hear and are often persecuted for their trouble (Matthew 5:12). Being a prophet is thankless at best and dangerous at worst. Still, a prophet can find satisfaction by speaking the truth—and by hoping that people will respond and be saved. But Yahweh will not permit Isaiah to hope. Isaiah is to speak the truth while knowing in advance that the people will refuse to respond.
It seems that Yahweh has willed that it be so—that he has no interest in seeing “this people” repent—that he has no desire to see them healed. We are left to wonder if Yahweh’s love is truly everlasting (Psalm 103:17)—if he has “forgotten to be gracious” and has “withheld his compassion” (Psalm 77:9). It is a possibility that doesn’t sit well with our one-dimensional idea of a gracious, loving, and forgiving Father.
But it seems to me that there is a parallel between Yahweh’s dealing with “this people” and his earlier dealings with the people of Israel in the wilderness. In that earlier situation, Yahweh dealt with their sin by forcing them to wander in the wilderness until they all died—died without entering the Promised Land.
While that was a severe judgment, it fell far short of a final judgment. The original Israelites died in the wilderness, but Yahweh fulfilled his promise to Israel by allowing their children to enter and possess the Promised Land. Yahweh punished the sinful Israelites, but continued the covenant relationship through their children.
Something similar will happen here. “This people”—the people to whom Isaiah will proclaim the truth—will soon be exiled. Their exile will continue for decades—a lengthy period during which most of them will die. But their children will live, and Yahweh will enable a remnant to return and to rebuild the city and the temple.
As Yahweh gives Isaiah his charge, it seems obvious that he has already decided on this scenario. If the people were to repent without experiencing the rigors of exile, their repentance would be half-hearted. Better that they die! Better that the promise be worked out through their children!
We will see these words again in the New Testament. Each of the Synoptics will report Jesus as speaking them (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10), and the authors of the Gospel of John will quote them (John 12:37-43), as will the Apostle Paul (Acts 28:26-27).
ISAIAH 6:11-13. UNTIL CITIES ARE WASTE WITHOUT INHABITANT
11Then I said, “Lord, how long?”
“Until cities are waste without inhabitant,
and houses without man,
and the land becomes utterly waste,
12And Yahweh has removed men far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 If there is a tenth left in it,
that also will in turn be consumed:
as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stock remains when they are felled;
so the holy seed is its stock.”
“Then I said, ‘Lord, how long?'” (v. 11a). “Lord, how long,” is more a lament than a question. It expresses despair rather than seeking precise information. It appears in the book of Psalms as a plaintive cry (Psalm 13:1; 35:7; 79:5; 89:46). When God says, “How long,” it is usually a cry of frustration at Israel’s recalcitrance (Exodus 10:3; 16:28; 14:11, 27), but here it is a cry of grief.
Isaiah’s response makes it clear that he is surprised and dismayed at the task that the Lord has given him. He finds no pleasure in the prospect of Judah’s demise or in being a party to it. This is not what he anticipated when he raised his hand to volunteer.
“He answered, ‘Until cities are waste without inhabitant, and houses without man, and the land becomes utterly waste, and Yahweh has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. If there is a tenth left in it, that also will in turn be consumed: as a terebinth, and as an oak, whose stock remains when they are felled'” (v. 11b-13a). Most scholars treat verses 11b-13a as Yahweh’s response to Isaiah’s “How long?” question. Yahweh answers that the destruction will continue until it is complete. Not even a tenth part will be allowed to remain. The only glimmer of hope is that Yahweh doesn’t say that the people will die, but rather that they will be sent far away—a reference to the exile that they will soon experience. However, most of them will die in exile. Most will never see their beloved city again. “Even so, there is a limit on this judgment. Isaiah won’t have to preach doom forever. There will be an end to this end” (Strawn, 309).
Dunn sees verse 11 as Yahweh’s response to Isaiah’s question, “How long, O Lord?” He then sees verses 12-13a as a second question from Isaiah, and translates those verses as follows: “When YHWH shall have removed humankind and the abandoned area in the land’s core (shall have become) great, if (perchance there be) yet in it a tenth part, if it turn, will it be for burning?” (Dunn, 101). He says that Isaiah’s question “assumes the fulfillment of God’s judgment, but also (it is hoped) assumes the survival of a tiny remnant. It then poses the question of the future: Will the ban apply to all future generations? Will they too be banned from repentance and summarily condemned to ‘burn’?” (Dunn, 109).
The terebinth is also known as the turpentine tree, because it produces resins from which turpentine can be derived.
“so the holy seed is its stock.” (v. 13b). These few words are the glimmer of hope that emerges from verses 9-13. They represent well the reality that they portray, in that they surprise the reader, who has just waded through a sea of words full of desolation and emptiness and charred embers. Just as the people of Isaiah’s day would have been heartened by the image of a spot of green emerging from a charred stump, so also we are heartened by these hopeful words at the end of this difficult passage.
The good news of this half-verse is that Yahweh will not abandon his people forever. He will continue to honor the covenant made so long ago with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants will suffer, but a remnant will survive to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: Isaiah Still Speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Kaiser, Otto, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983)
Newsome, James D. in Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV–Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 1-39); Kilpatrick, G.G.D., (Exposition of Isaiah 1-39),The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Strawn, Brent A., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holliday, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M.,Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1994)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol.VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Copyright 2007, 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan