RPM, Volume 20, Number 39, September 23 to September 29, 2018

Lecture Notes on Isaiah 6

By David H. Linden

The Call of Isaiah to the Ministry of Speaking the Word of God

Before giving the occasion of his call to become a prophet of God, Isaiah showed how dark the situation was for Judah and Israel. They were under the judgment of God (chapter 5). Isaiah did not prophesy the words of chapters 1-5 before he was commissioned to do so. After showing the environment of his time with its darkness and danger, he then reported his call to speak for the Lord. The sin all around was sin in him too. The Lord's salvation was brought to this man as an individual, who then spoke of salvation and judgment to his people. Chapters 1-5 were the background. He saw what few have seen, yet what he saw was a vision. He did not see God directly nor His glory in its fullness. That is something no man may see and live. "No man has ever seen God…" (John 1:18). (See also Exodus 33:18-20.) Even holy angels, higher beings than humans, cover their faces in the presence of the Lord (6:2). This chapter opens with a dead king and ends with a dead tree. Isaiah 6 has the personal salvation of Isaiah, his commission to speak and his encounter with the Presence of the Lord. Chapter 12 reiterates the personal salvation which becomes corporate, with the saved group proclaiming the Lord Who is present among them. In this way Isaiah shows that chapters 6-12 are a unit.

6:1 — No other prophet dated his call to service by the death of a king. You would expect, "… in the 52nd year of Uzziah's reign." That king was a son of David. Isaiah did not know at that moment of his vision that the majestic Lord he was seeing would, in seven centuries time, become a man in the line of David. After His death, Jesus the Son of David would live forever, without any successor to replace Him. The death of Uzziah from leprosy was the judgment of God (2 Chronicles 26). Because of his sin and its consequence he was excluded from the Temple of the Lord (2 Chronicles 26:21). Now before that same Temple and before that same holy God, Isaiah stood. He too was a sinner who would be forbidden access.

This vision did not happen inside the Temple in Jerusalem. Standing back, Isaiah could see that only the train of the Lord's long robe filled the Temple. This means that the Lord touched the earth in the exact place, the only place, where He was resident among His people. This shows the unique privilege of Israel that God would be among them (Deuteronomy 12:5-18).

6:2,3 — The word seraph means a flame (Note Hebrews 1:7). Fire indicates God's wrath in 1:31; 29:6; 66:24; Numbers 11:1-3; Genesis 3:24; Exodus 3:2-6; 19:18-25; and three times in Deuteronomy 4. To this we may add the multiple ways the Lord Jesus and His apostles spoke of fire as an instrument of wrath. Thus the seraphs were agents of God in reacting to sin. His holiness made them cover their faces but not the ears by which they received God's instruction. With feet we go our own way. They covered theirs in subjection to the Lord.

Holy is the Bible's most frequent description of God. In fact it is used more than all other descriptions combined. The Hebrew language emphasizes by repetition. Only here do we find holy, holy, holy, a triple description of God. God's holiness is what He is in Himself, and His glory is the manifestation of it to us. The seraphs were repeating this feature of God to each other, perhaps to prevent it from fading in their own consciousness. Because of the holiness of the Lord, they would be called upon to strike to consume whatever is contrary to God's moral character. The earth that is full of sin is also full of the glory of God. It is always His earth (Psalm 24:1). The Lord is going to lay waste the earth (Isaiah 24:1), so His Spirit of Judgment cleanses in retribution and cleanses His people in purification (4:4). It is the glory of God to punish the wicked. It is also the glory of God to redeem in His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:6). As holy angels delighted in an earth full of God's glory, so we should enjoy with gratitude His creation, both old and new.

When the angels said "holy, holy, holy" they added that the whole earth is full of His glory. This is truly amazing when we realize from chapter one that the land of Judah was overrun by those who would strip it bare, that murder was in the city, and that they had forsaken the Lord. How does this show His glory? God in justice reacts to sin. If sin had no divine reaction, the angels could not say the earth was full of His glory. The earth being full of God's glory in this respect, does not preclude His saving grace, with the result that the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (11:9). Then it will be equally true that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord. Israel's rampant sin did not frustrate God from keeping His promises to Abraham.

6:4-6 — The presence of God made the entrance into the Temple shake violently, so Isaiah could not enter. The holiness of God was an active barrier at the threshold, holding him out. He was denied access to the Lord. Smoke filled the Temple, so Isaiah could not even see in. Sin and holiness are incompatible, and Isaiah was a sinner.

In God's kindness Isaiah was made to realize this. Made aware of his sin, his famous Woe is me was a proper reaction. What else can a sinner say when exposed to God's holiness? Those unaware of their sin have no sense of God's holiness. Let all who hope in their own righteousness for acceptance by God repent and tremble before Him. The man clothed in his own righteousness is naked! He has no cover; no atonement for sin. We need forgiveness and perfect righteousness; in the gospel both are a gift to the one who believes in Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Romans 5:15-19). Isaiah's woe meant he knew he deserved judgment. In chapter 5, a woe is a prelude to death deserved.

Then Isaiah the sinner saw a seraph approaching!! Isaiah had heard what the seraphs said of God's holiness. What they praised was what Isaiah feared. God's holiness is a mortal danger to sinners.

6:5-7 — Isaiah's first sense of sin was the sin of his lips, yet it was those very lips he would use to speak as a prophet of God. He confessed that he was just like his people who also had unclean lips. Poor King Uzziah received his leprosy for entering the temple in contempt of God's law; he died with the uncleanness of this disease still upon him (2 Chronicles 26:16-23). Faced with God's holiness, Isaiah pronounced himself unclean. The Lord did not contradict his confession. Isaiah's guilt was not removed by confession, for confession is not atonement. Sinners in hell can say, "I'm sorry" forever (they won't, according to Revelation 9:20,21 & 16; 9,11), but words cannot atone.

God had an answer. The angelic sin-hater / holiness-lover carried a coal from the altar to Isaiah's sinful lips. On that altar a substitutionary sacrifice had been offered. It was by sacrifice for sin (not confession) that his guilt was removed. This fits Isaiah's call to be a prophet and the message of salvation he would later give, one consistent in all of Scripture, "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22). Isaiah too was saved by an atoning sacrifice. Isaiah and his people needed the same thing. The angel did not act on His own, for these living flames of fire were servants who act only on God's orders (Hebrews 1:7). Note the message is not forgiveness by God dropping charges against him. It was forgiveness because of atonement. When we believe we are forgiven because of the blood of Christ. Faith is the means, and His blood is the basis. God has accepted Jesus' offering as our punishment and as His reason to forgive us. Your anger is turned away (12:1) by the action of God, so that God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid (12:2).

Three Identical Markers in Isaiah 6

The Hebrew for "and I said" is the same in verses 5, 8, & 11. The translators of the King James Version use the same translation each time, repeating "then said I" in each place. It helps to follow Isaiah's deliberate repetitions. If we must choose between readability and clarity, clarity is primary. Each "and I said" was a response to something Isaiah heard:

1. Hearing holy, holy, holy — And I said, "Woe is me… "

2. Hearing God's desire of someone to speak for Him — And I said, "Here am I, send me".

3. Hearing of the terrible rejection of his message — And I said, "How long, O Lord?"

6:8 — Isaiah the sinner was barred from entering the Temple. When the atoning sacrifice was applied to his sin, he must have been able to draw closer to the Lord. Thus he heard the Lord musing, "Who will go for us?" Note it is, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" God is one and may speak with a singular pronoun. He usually does. Yet God is three and may speak with the plural. They rarely do.

Isaiah overheard the divine Persons talking, and so he volunteered to serve. Of course his commissioning was God's plan. He did not appoint himself. That his response seems so unilateral does not preclude that it was the Lord calling him. We should not take our observations as if they might be the entire picture. God had a willing servant, cleansed from sin, to speak of the salvation of the Lord to a nation in need.

6:9-10 — The tough assignment

In my fallible memory, I have heard only one sermon on Isaiah 6 that did not divide the passage inappropriately. The central theme of Isaiah 6 is Isaiah's call to the ministry. That commission included God's revelation that his message would be rejected. Why do preachers omit it? Had it said, "I send you to proclaim my love to sinners and my great patience with them, and my longing that they should return." If Isaiah 6 had said that, the words would be written on the walls of many churches and fill a million sermons. My blunt assessment is that these words are omitted because we do not like what they say. It is idolatry to prefer a revised God above the Lord who has revealed Himself as He is in the Bible, and so this word of God is widely ignored.

This simply shows how far we may stray from a Biblical emphasis. Except for similarities in the vision found in Revelation 4 & 5, the only New Testament reference to the early verses of Isaiah 6 is in John 12. However, the strong words of Isaiah 6:9,10 are quoted in all four gospels and the Book of Acts (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; 19:42, an allusion; John 12:40; Acts 28:26,27). These verses are a divine commentary on the rejection of the gospel by covenant people. Using Isaiah 6, the Lord Jesus showed that the rejection of Him in His day on earth came from the same kind of hardness of heart that Isaiah encountered. The heathen Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, a prophet who did not even care for them! (Jonah 3 & 4) It is painful to see that in every case in the NT above, it was the people of God who had been hardened by hearing and rejecting the Word that alone can save them! This mystery should receive proper attention (Romans 11:25).

As John 6:60 would show us, Isaiah 6:9,10 may be referred to as a 'hard saying'. The Holy Spirit may use strong language. The message is sobering. The Word of God gives life, (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). Yet the same message of the gospel is to one the smell of death and to another the fragrance of life! (2 Corinthians 2:16). There is such a thing as God rewarding sin by making people hard and blind to his truth (Romans 11:7-10;25; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). Pharaoh abused Israel, and God punished him by hardening his heart so that he could not repent (Romans 9:17,18). As a result, with dire experience of God fulfilling His threats, Pharaoh with no fear of God, still took his army into the sea and perished. (See also 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12; refusing truth is punished by delusion.)

The Lord Jesus used parables to illustrate truth to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time He used the same parables to blind those who willfully rejected truth. Those who receive the Word of God will receive more, but those who willfully reject will have taken from them even what they have (Matthew 13:10-17). In Matthew 21:45,46 it is clear that parables were being understood in some way, yet with the result that Christ was rejected by increasingly hard hearts. We serve the Lord in a situation where we are to give the gospel to all people. But God has the right to open eyes and hearts as He wills and to blind the reprobate. He simply leaves some to their sinful choices. This is up to Him. Not all will believe. God does not give sight to all; to rejecters He gives blindness. Some will become harder through hearing the same message of truth that brings life to his neighbor. This is part of the message of the parables in Matthew 13, which the Lord Jesus linked to Isaiah 6.

Isaiah was not sent out on a mission that would be judged successful by the world. Many today think if the church is full, then God is blessing. Yet faithful preaching of the word might affect the unregenerate so much that attendance would drop off! That could be an indicator that the ministry is relevant. We must not judge by mere appearances (John 7:24). Some day all ministries will be put to the fire to see what quality it really was. A lot will go up in flames, but only what was built on the foundation of Christ will survive (1 Corinthians 3:5-15).

6:11-13 — How long?

Isaiah knew when he began that he would not have the pleasure of people welcoming his message. How many would hear? The revelation was in terms of time and then numbers. Though the question was about time, God did not reveal a number of years. Remember that God almost always withholds dates from us. Isaiah learned that Israel's hardness of heart would continue till the nation was destroyed, brought down like a tree to the level of a stump. That is how long, a reply not in number of years but until a certain thing is finished. In 586 BC the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem. Notice the text speaks in v.12 of people going into exile, which is what happened c. 150 years later.

I am not sure if the nine tenths is the reduction from the Assyrian invasion and then even that number is cut down further under Babylon when the nation was down to a stump — the great kingdom of David and Solomon reduced to a stump! But before one gets depressed, this brief note is added, the stump is not a dead stump. There is a holy seed, God's remnant, such as Daniel and others who had been given new hearts in exile (Jeremiah 24:4-7). The stump would have a shoot come from it, and the shoot in the fallen tree of Israel is the Lord Jesus (11:1). Again in 53:2 the tender shoot is Christ. So horror was ahead for the wayward people of God, but a holy seed would be preserved. In His time, God would bring His servant out of this unimpressive stump and through Him bless all nations (2:2-4) until the whole earth would be filled with His glory (11:9).

Appendix B: Whose Glory Did Isaiah See?

Isaiah said, "I saw the Lord," v.1, and "the King, the LORD Almighty," v.5. Verse 5 uses Yahweh LORD and vv. 1 & 11 use Adonai (Lord). We never doubt that when we read of the LORD, that it has reference to the Father. But we must remember that the LORD is the common Name of all persons of the Trinity. In Isaiah 8:13 and 45:21-25 the Name of the LORD is taken by New Testament writers and applied to Christ in 1 Peter 3:14,15 and Philippians 2:9-11.

Christ is God Who became man. He is as much God as the Father and the Holy Spirit. In John 1 and Colossians 1, the New Testament will insist on His divine participation in creation, but there is another strong affirmation of Christ as Yahweh:

For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn — and I would heal them." Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke about him. (John 12:39-41)

We must not miss how explicit John 12 is. In quoting Isaiah 6:9,10, the Apostle John tells us that Isaiah saw Jesus' glory. We should read Isaiah 6 this way and conclude that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus that day in the temple centuries before His incarnation. The seraphs covered their faces and feet in the presence of Christ and cried out "holy, holy, holy". The Lord God Who sent Isaiah was also Christ, the One sent by the Father to come here, and He in turn has sent His servants in their work (John 20:21). Furthermore, according to Acts 28:25-27 the LORD Who spoke to Isaiah in 6:9,10 was the Lord, the Holy Spirit!

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