Q&A: Conviction, Cleansing, Commissioning and A Message (Isa. 6:1-13)

Conviction, Cleansing, Commissioning and A Message (Isa. 6:1-13)

Question

What is Isaiah 6 about? I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the first part of Isaiah 6 but most don’t comment on the later part? What’s God doing?

Answer

There’s a lot to unfold and understand in Isaiah 6:1-13. I have categorized the chapter under four main headings: Conviction of a Servant (Isa. 6:1-5); Cleansing of a Servant (Isa. 6:6-7); Commissioning of a Servant (Isa. 6:8); and The Message of God (Isa. 6:9-13).

Conviction of a Servant (Isa. 6:1-5)

When God convicts a person, he does so in their entire being. It’s a complete work of the spirit, soul, body, mind, intents, emotions, and ones’ life’s mission. He accomplishes this through his Spirit using a variety of means according to his will.

What did Isaiah see?

Isaiah 6:1-2 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.

In the year that King Uzziah died. The reign of King Uzziah (aka Azariah) is described in 2 Chronicles 26:1-23 and in 2 Kings 15:1-7. Uzziah became king when he was only 16 years old and reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years (2 Chron. 26:1). In the first part of his reign, he did what was right in the sight of the LORD (2 Chron. 26:5). God made him prosper. At the turning of the walls, he built towers (2 Chron. 26:9-10) which were broken down in his father’s time (2 Chron. 25:23). He built a huge skillful army (2 Chron. 26:11-15). He was a powerful king whose fame spread abroad to other nations (2 Chron. 26:6-8).

Uzziah represents a tragic conclusion to a promising life. Later in his reign, his heart was lifted up in pride (2 Chron. 26:16). He sinned by entering the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense and was judged for it (2 Chron. 26:17-21). He died as a cursed unclean leper (2 Chron. 26:22-23; cf. Lev. 13:1-46).

A great king died justly but also tragically because of sin. It’s rather depressing to meditate upon. Where was the LORD in all this?

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. God was on his throne. Evidence abounds that there is a throne in heaven. David mentions it (Psa. 9:4, 7; 11:4), as does the prophet Michaiah (1 Kings 22:19), Job (Job 26:9, NKJV), the Sons of Korah (Psa. 45:6; 47:8), Ethan the Ezrahite (Psa. 89:14), Jeremiah (Lam. 5:19), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:26; 10:1), Daniel (Dan. 7:9), and the Apostle John (Rev. 4:2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10). One day all of us will stand before the great white throne (Rev. 20:11).

A throne is much more than a chair or stool. It is the seat of state of a potentate or high dignitary. A throne is where someone with authority sits, rules and judges. Throughout history, God, the great sovereign King of kings, sits upon his throne ruling over all creation.

Uzziah had died and was no longer upon his throne, but Isaiah could take heart that the sovereign LORD of all was still on his — and always will be. He is high and lifted up. He is exalted.

And the train of his robe filled the temple. The length of the robe implies the importance, honor and dignity of this King. By comparison, in 1953 Queen Elizabeth II wore a robe that was only 18 feet long for her coronation that could be carried by six maids of honor. [1] The Lord’s robe filled the temple!

Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. Surrounding the throne of God are angels called seraphim (cf. Psa. 80:1; Isa. 37:16; Ezek. 10:3). Vern Poythress states, “The four living creatures in Revelation [Rev. 4:6-11] are reminiscent of the living creatures or cherubim in Ezekiel 1 and 10 and the seraphim in Isaiah 6.” [2] (see, Ezek. 1:13; 10:15). They each had six wings (cf. Rev. 4:8). Two to cover their faces so they don’t directly behold the Lord of hosts (cf. Exod. 33:20), two to cover their feet to reveal their humility before the throne, and two with which to fly or serve the living God. Charles Spurgeon puts it rather eloquently:

With twain he covered his feet,” or his body, or his lower parts, for the seraph remembers that even though sinless he is yet a creature, and therefore he conceals himself in token of his nothingness and unworthiness in the presence of the thrice Holy One. The middle pair of wings was used for flight, for mere bashfulness and humility cannot offer complete adoration, there must be active obedience and readiness of heart for service. Thus they have four wings for adoration and two for active energy; four to conceal themselves, and two with which to occupy themselves in-service; and we may learn from them that we shall serve God best when we are most deeply reverend and humbled in his presence. Veneration must be in larger proportion than vigour, adoration must exceed activity. As Mary at Jesus’ feet was preferred to Martha and her much serving, so must sacred reverence take the first place, and energetic service follow in due course. [3]

What did Isaiah hear?

Isaiah 6:3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The seraphim proclaim the glorious nature and character of God. The word “holy” is mentioned three times as the Trinity is in view (note the plural “us” in Isa. 6:8). The word means set apart. In context, holy means that God is set apart from his creation (the seraphim, Isaiah, the earth, etc.). God is not a created being, but rather self-existent. He is above all. His holiness is part and parcel of everything he is and does.

The whole earth is full of God’s glory. Everything which God has made on the earth expresses his glory. God’s wisdom, knowledge, understanding, goodness, power, influence and holiness, are seen everywhere. Every star, mountain, sea, stream, tree, flower animal, granule of sand, and individual lay the foundation of his praise (Psa. 19:1l cf. Psa. 8:1; 50:6; 89:5; 97:6; 145:10). “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!” (Psa. 150:6).

What did Isaiah feel?

Isaiah 6:4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called. The seraphim are breathtaking majestic beings. They give forth passionate praises. The seraphim worship God in truth and honor him with the glory that is due to him. When they speak, an earthquake-type sound vibrates the very foundation of the throne room. While the towers in Jerusalem had to be rebuilt during King Uzziah’s time, the foundations of the throne room forever stand firm.

The house was filled with smoke. This reminds us of the “pillar of cloud” and “pillar of fire” in the wilderness (Exod. 13:21-22), the “smoke" on Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:18), and the "cloud of glory" that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10-12). This is the glory of the Lord that fills the throne room riding upon the pomp and splendor of his magnificent robe (cf. Ezek. 1:4-28).

What did Isaiah sense?

Isaiah 6:5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for 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, the Lord of hosts!”

Woe is me! For I am lost. Conviction is a gift of God. The vision of the Lord, his glory, holiness, throne, seraphim, and the majesty of the voices tore the inside of Isaiah to pieces and lead him to declare this woe. He saw, heard, and felt more than his mortal being could even imagine, much less tolerate. He understood and realized more fully that he’s more unlike God than he ever dreamed. Every part of his being was dripping with the conviction of his sin. As Adam Clark once commented, “There is something exceedingly affecting in this complaint. I am a man of unclean lips; I cannot say, Holy, holy, holy! which the seraphs exclaim. They are holy; I am not so: they see God, and live; I have seen him, and must die, because I am unholy.” [4] Isaiah had a deep sense of his depravity, as did others when they saw the Lord (cf. Job 42:5-6; Dan.10:15-17; Luke 5:8; Rev. 1:17).

For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. Though we sin with every part of our being, in this event Isaiah saw his depravity primarily in terms of sinful speech. (Please see “The Importance of Words” below.) All types of corrupt communication proceed from our lips (Psa. 12:2; 31:18; 34:13; 59:7; 140:3). This wasn’t Isaiah’s only sin, nor is it ours. But it served as a ready example of his terminal condition — being dead in trespasses and sin (Eph. 2:1-3). He was shaken to his core.

For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! Isaiah knew as he stood before the throne of God that he was nothing. His being melted in the presence of God’s holiness and glory. As he writes later, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isa. 64:6).

Every part of Isaiah’s being was under conviction — what he saw, heard, felt, and sensed brought him to his end. And yet, as we shall see below, it was a new beginning as well.

Cleansing of a Servant (Isa. 6:6-7)

The Cleansing Coal from Without

Isaiah 6:6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.

Then one of the seraphim flew to me. Isaiah had just been convicted of his sin. He was totally depraved and he knew it. He was worthy of death. A seraphim flying to Isaiah had to be frightening. He was likely thinking, "I’m a sinner and deserve to die. Woe is me! What’s this angel going to do to me? Why does he have that coal in his hand?"

Having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. This was a lump of live, hot coal. It was so hot — and holy — that even the seraphim didn't touch it and had to use tongs. The altar is reminiscent of the altar of incense in the holy of holies (Exod. 30:1-6). The altar is in God’s presence.

This coal did not originate from within Isaiah, but rather from without — in fact, from the very altar before God. Isaiah wasn’t in control of the moment, God in all his majesty was. Isaiah’s atonement would not be his own work. It would come from outside of himself.

This is similar to Adam and Eve’s atonement because theirs also came from outside of themselves. Their self-made fig leaf coverings weren’t sufficient (Gen. 3:7). God had to both fashion their clothing and then clothe them (Gen. 3:21; John 1:29; 1 Pet. 1:19-20; Rev. 5:9, 12). Their clothing wasn’t designed by Christian Dior, but by Christ the King. No wonder Isaiah later wrote, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isa. 61:10).

The Cleansing Coal Works Within

Isaiah 6:7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And he touched my mouth. God did an internal work in Isaiah. The judgment of sin is described by such words as “fire,” “hell,” and “weeping” (Matt. 13:50; 18:8; 25:41). The coal is red hot, but when his mouth was touched, the text doesn’t record that Isaiah experienced any pain. Why? Because when Jesus was upon the cross, he bore all his children’s eternal pain, grief and sorrow (Isa. 53:3-5). This was a transforming, cleansing, purifying coal.

Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. As symbolized by the coal, Isaiah's sin was atoned for in Christ. All of God's judgment for God’s people's sins was placed upon Jesus, the one who “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25; cf. Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24). Atonement is made possible only by a place of sacrifice. Spurgeon again beautifully amplifies this:

The effect of that live coal will be to fire the lips with heavenly flame. “Oh,” says one man, “a flaming coal will burn the lips so that the man cannot speak at all.” That is just how God works with us—it is by consuming the fleshly power that He inspires the heavenly might. Oh let the lips be burnt, let the fleshly power of eloquence be destroyed—but oh for that live coal to make the tongue eloquent with Heaven's flame—the true Divine power which urged the Apostles forward and made them conquerors of the whole world! [5]

Isaiah was forgiven and could now be an acceptable minister of God’s message.

Commissioning of a Servant (Isa. 6:8)

There are many that claim to be pastors, missionaries, and the like. But not all commissioning for such roles is the same. Some are simply commissioned by man, but true minsters are commissioned by God, which may be affirmed by men.

Who will go?

Isaiah 6:8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” …”

Earlier we considered the glory of the Trinity. Isaiah's stunned eyes saw the Lord, high and lifted up, the Lord in his lofty, heavenly place and seated upon his holy throne. The throne room shook with glory. Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness. He understood that he was not worthy to stand in the presence of such holiness. And now Isaiah hears a very distinctive voice.

The Lord saying. In Isaiah 6, the Trinity speaks as One — the pre-incarnate Jesus. (See the discussion of Isaiah 6:10 below.)

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? The "us" of the Godhead could have shared this thought among just themselves and without Isaiah hearing. But they didn’t. Isaiah was meant to hear it, and now we get to read it. Isaiah was a chosen bystander overhearing the Godhead’s question. It's not said where the emissary was to go, nor what the messenger is to do. Isaiah is not asked to volunteer. This tells us no matter the who, what, when, or where, God’s people must be made willing (Psa. 110:3, KJV) to serve in every circumstance (cf. 2 Cor. 11:21-29).

I will go!

Isaiah 6:8 … Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Isaiah answered God's call. Unlike some others that were called (Exod. 3:11; 4:10; Judg. 6:15; Jer. 1:6), he didn’t hesitate. As soon as the pre-incarnate Jesus spoke, Isaiah answered.

God makes the ordinary extraordinary! If we think about men like Moses, Elijah or David or women like Sarah, Ruth or Esther, there's nothing particularly extraordinary about them, at least in and of themselves. James makes this perfectly clear when he says, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). Isaiah was a human being just like we are. Like us, he was subject to sins, including other weaknesses and temptations, etc. However, like many others (Heb. 11:1-40), he was faithful to do what God asked him to do. Isaiah now knew more about himself and God than ever before.

According to John Calvin:

Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Inst. I.1.i).
Indeed, what Calvin meant here was that we must know ourselves in order to know God, but what we must know about ourselves is our own utter depravity. He later wrote:

From the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and — what is more — depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to Him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves… Accordingly, the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find Him. (Inst. I.1.i).

Isaiah was in the presence of God. He had a deep sense of his own sinfulness. He was cleansed from his sin. Before, while in his sin, he said, “Woe is me! For I am lost,” but now he says, “Here I am! Send me.” The great gulf between these two statements can only be spanned by one great bridge — Jesus Christ!

The Message of God (Isa. 6:9-13)

God has a voice and a message. How often we see, "And God said … " in Scripture. Still today God speaks to his people by his Spirit and through his Word. [6] But are we trembling? Are we even listening?

Go, and say this.

Isaiah 6:9-10 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”

Go, and say to this people. The first eight verses of Isaiah 6 tell of the messenger, now verses 9-13 tell of the message. Isaiah was not only to “go,” he was to “go and say.” God had a specific word for Isaiah to give to a particular people. And the message wouldn't be a pleasant one.

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears…” The words “dull,” “heavy,” and “blind” are very negative terms (cf. Isa. 44:18; Lam. 3:65; Matt. 13:15; John 12:40; Acts 28:27, etc.). It was God’s message to his people at this time in redemptive history. It was a message of judgment. It was not politically correct. It certainly wasn’t a message that would have ensured a pastor’s job security. But it's a message that needs to be heard even today, but unfortunately, it’s not one we hear often enough.

It’s important to note that the people of Judah had heard this message before. Isaiah said earlier in Isaiah 5:12-13: “They do not regard the deeds of the LORD, or see the work of his hands. Therefore my people go into exile for lack of knowledge.” This lack of understanding stems from people's fattened hearts. Richard Pratt explains this by saying, “both Israel and Judah had fallen so far from the ideals of the covenant that God commanded Isaiah to prophesy in order to harden the people's hearts so that the judgment of exile might not be averted.” [7]

And understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. Though God’s message was firm and judgmental, it was meant to bring his people to repentance; a gift of God (Acts 11:18; Rom. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2:25). The Puritan Thomas Watson (ca. 1620-1686) wrote, “Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed.” [8] Genuine repentance is a “grace of God’s Spirit.” God’s goal through his message was to open eyes, ears, and hearts.

Of special notice here is when Isaiah saw the LORD, with whom was he speaking? He spoke to the Second Person of the Trinity. It was Jesus before his incarnation. We understand this because John quotes Isaiah 6:10 in John 12:40 and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, adds “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). Elsewhere he included Jesus' own words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; cf. Exod. 3:14).

How long, O Lord?

Isaiah 6:11-13 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.

How long, O Lord? Certainly it is reasonable for anyone who is given such a challenging commission to ask how long this blindness, hardness, and impenitence will remain with these people? (2 Cor. 3:14-16). Lord, how long do I have to preach this gloom and doom? God’s answer at first doesn’t seem very comforting because tells Isaiah to preach until destruction comes — “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant …”.

The holy seed

The holy seed is its stump. So, the message appears rather dismal. However, there is a hopeful twist. While everything is to be destroyed (waste, desolate) and then re-destroyed (burned again), life will emerge. Hope amidst charred wreckage, a stump of a fallen tree. A holy seed that will survive to carry on the Lord’s holy work. This is alluding to a "remnant," which is an idea found throughout the Old and New Testament. When the world was destroyed by water, God chose the remnant of Noah and his family (1 Pet. 3:20). Many died on the journey to the Promised Land, but God protected a faithful few. This concept appears throughout the book of Isaiah. (Isa. 10:19-22; 11:11, 16; 28:5; 37:4, 31; 46:3). And it carries forward into the New Testament (Matt. 7:14; Rom. 9:25-26 [Hos. 1:10; 2:23]; Rom. 9:27-29; 11:2-5, 7; Rev. 12:17).

This segment of God's word in Isaiah describes Isaiah's call and mission, but it's also God’s message to be delivered by Isaiah. And it’s just as important today as yesterday because “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Footnote

[1] Her Majesty’s robe followed the strict design guidelines of previous coronations: “A six yard train in best quality handmade purple silk velvet, trimmed with best quality Canadian ermine 5” on top and underside and fully lined with pure silk English Satin, complete with ermine cape and all being tailed ermine in the traditional manner, and including embroidery by the Royal School of Needlework.” It took 3500 hours to make. Ede & Ravenscroft. (https://www.edeandravenscroft.com/ceremonial-dress/royal-robes/). Last Accessed 21 October 2020.

[2] Vern Sheridan Poythress. The Returning King: A Guide to the Book of Revelation. (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2000).

[3] Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Sermon: “The Divine Call for Missionaries” from Isaiah 6:8. Delivered: April 22, 1877. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 23.

[4] Adam Clarke. Commentary on Isaiah. Isa. 6:5. (https://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Bible.show/sVerseID/17775/eVerseID/17775/RTD/clarke/version/RSV). Last Accessed 21 October 2020.

[5] Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Sermon: “Messengers Wanted” from Isaiah 6:8. Delivered: April 22, 1866. Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Volume 12.

[6] I haven’t ever literally heard the voice of Jesus. He has never stood transfigured before me at the foot of my bed and told me what to do. So, how does God speak today? God speaks to us by his Son (Heb. 1:1-4) through his Spirit in the Scriptures. In the past, God spoke, but today he continues to speak in even a better and greater way than before — through his Son. Hebrews 3:7 states, “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice” which is quoting Psalm 95:7. “Says,” not “Said,” “Hear,” not “Have Heard.” The Holy Spirit hasn’t only spoken in the past, here he is seen as still speaking the same message a thousand years later. The Bible still speaks today. It’s not new revelation, it's old revelation reapplied to our lives.

[7] Richard Pratt. Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Zondervan, 2003). “Overview of the Book of Isaiah.” (https://thirdmill.org/answers/answer.asp/file/41801). Last Accessed 22 October 2020.

[8] Thomas Watson. Doctrine of Repentance. (Banner of Truth, 1988).

Related Topics

The Importance of Words
Overview of the Book of Isaiah

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).