RPM, Volume 15, Number 47, November 17 to November 23, 2013

Isaiah's Atonement

Isaiah 6:1-7

By D. Marion Clark


Our text is one of the most famous in Scripture, certainly one of the most dramatic — Isaiah's vision of God in the temple. Such texts as this one is quite daunting for a minister to preach. With the previous texts, you can pleasantly surprise your hearers with insights that makes the text more interesting and positive than they had expected. With such a text as this, the best you can hope for is to do it enough justice so as to come close to expectation. It is so dramatic and inspiring that commentary tends to lessen its impact, rather than aid its force.

My intent this evening is to simply help us understand what is actually taking place. What does this vision of God and Isaiah's role in it signify?

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. This is one of the few places in Isaiah where we can date, if not the actual writing, then at least the time of the event. King Uzziah died in around 740 B.C. He had reigned in Judah for 52 years and had reigned well. He had restored Judah to both a prosperous and righteous era, in which he reclaimed land and encouraged the true worship of God. And yet, in his older years when he had reached his full measure of power, he fell. As the chronicler records: 16 But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. 17 Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the LORD followed him in. 18 They confronted him and said, "It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the LORD God." 19 Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the LORD's temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. 20 When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the LORD had afflicted him (2 Chronicles 26:16-20).

Now, let's consider the actual vision. I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Note, that though Isaiah speaks of seeing the Lord, he actually does not describe God himself; rather, he speaks of elements connected to the Lord. Note what they are: he sits on a throne; he is high and exalted, i.e. he sits above all others; and he wears a robe whose train fills the temple. This is the image of a majestic king; indeed, of the Sovereign King. The Hebrew term for "Lord" is Adonai, the term often translated "sovereign," or "master." Isaiah beholds the King of the universe; the Sovereign Lord who reigns over all creation.

The Lord is the only king. The train of his robe fills the temple. There is no room for anyone else. As God would say elsewhere in Isaiah:
6 "This is what the LORD says—
Israel's King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty:
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God.
7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and lay out before me
what has happened since I established my ancient people,
and what is yet to come—
yes, let him foretell what will come.
8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid.
Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?
You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me?
No, there is no other Rock; I know not one" (Isaiah 44:6-8).

Now, Isaiah speaks of the temple. For this reason, most commentators have assumed that Isaiah was worshipping in the temple when he received the vision. But this is not necessary. Isaiah is reporting a vision which could have taken place anywhere. What matters is not where Isaiah was, but the place God is said to be. The temple is God's dwelling place. Though the earth and the heavens cannot contain God, yet the temple represents his fullness.

I'm not sure, by the way, if by the temple Isaiah means the one in Jerusalem. We are told in Hebrews 9 that the Jerusalem temple is but a copy of the heavenly one. I would think that is the more likely location for this vision, especially with the description of God being high and exalted.

What we have next is a description of the angels who wait upon the Lord. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. The term, seraph, means "burning one." These "burning ones" appear in the presence of the God who is "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29).

What are we to make of their wings? The first set which covers their faces seem understandable. Surely their cover their faces in the presence of God because of his pure glory that is too great to look upon. Even the angels cannot gaze on the shining glory of the Lord.

It's not clear why they cover their feet. Calvin thinks it is to hide themselves from the gaze of men, because their own glory is too great for us. Others think it is to protect their feet from touching the earth and risking defilement. I don't know. That they are described as flying suggests their activity of service to God.

3 And they were calling to one another:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

This is very significant: what is the attribute of God which they proclaim? It is his holiness. This too is what the temple signifies. God, however, is not holy because he dwells within the temple; rather, the temple is holy because it is the dwelling place of God. That is why its inner room is called the Holy of Holies.

We cannot underplay the importance of the concept of God's holiness. Any understanding of Scripture and the history of Israel is founded on this. God is holy. Thus Moses must remove his sandals before the burning bush because he stands on holy ground. The Israelites cannot come on to Mount Sinai because God descends upon the mountain and makes it holy. All the laws and the sacrificial systems are predicated on the concept that God is holy and must be worshipped and served in a holy manner. "Be holy because I am holy" is the central principle of the Law.

The whole earth is full of his glory. Inextricably connected with God's holiness is his glory. It fills the earth because the holy God fills the earth. The bond of holiness and glory prevents us from making two mistakes. One is to view God as remote in his holiness. The term means "to be separated" and it would be easy then to view God as separated in a remote place far from his unholy creation. But no, his holiness is intended to be displayed for all of creation to worship.

The other mistake is to view glory as being ostentatious. Glory is not merely being spectacular. To see God's glory is not like seeing a glorious creature that makes say, "Wow." It calls forth acclamations of God's holiness. The glory of God is weighty, not light.

To continue, the sound, not of God, but of the angels is so great as to shake the temple. 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. This certainly would make one pause, that God's might would be so greatly manifested through his creatures. Remember that John wanted to bow before an angel in his Revelation because of his greatness. What would have Isaiah experienced if God had spoken directly?

The temple then fills with smoke. What is happening? The glory and holiness of God are filling the temple. The quaking and the smoke prevent Isaiah and any other human creature from entering. They form the veil that prevents man from coming before the presence of God.

Then Isaiah finally speaks. 5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." Why such a cry of despair? Shouldn't he have felt honored to see God? Isn't that the dream of everyone? Why such dread?

Because he knew the consequence of a sinful man entering the presence of the holy God. It is ruin. Holiness and sin cannot mix.

Now, I don't think this was a matter of Isaiah's reasoning. That is, Isaiah doesn't see the vision, then check his theology and recall that holiness and sin are not a good mix. Isaiah responds naturally as a sinner in the presence of holiness. "Woe is me." He is but a sinful man, and not merely because of his personal sins, but by the very nature of being a man, he shares in man's sinful state. He is ruined, and he knows it.

Then what takes place is wondrous. 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

It is not difficult to understand what happens. The live coal from the altar burns away Isaiah's guilt. Because it is from the temple's altar, it is a heavenly tool of cleansing. Because it comes from the burning seraph, it remains pure as it comes to Isaiah. It is an act of grace. Isaiah does not go and take the coal. He doesn't even presume to ask for it. It is given freely to him.

It touches his lips, which represents his confession of sin. There where sin is confessed, the cleansing comes. Is guilt is taken away and sin atoned. This is not a washing one's mouth out with soap as recompense for sin. It is the thorough removing of guilt and ransom from sin. Isaiah is redeemed, atoned.


What are we to understand? That if we desire to see God, know that means we are to see his holiness. We think about his being loving, which he is; that he is gracious, which he is; or that he is merciful, which he is. But all of these are to be known within his holiness.

All the more wondrous then that he is compassionate and gracious. Wondrous that he would be those things, but more wondrous their cost. Because God is holy, he cannot excuse sin. The seraph did not say to Isaiah, "Don't worry. God knows you are only human. He will excuse you." No, the seraph does not overlook Isaiah's guilt; he removes it.

So God does with us. He does not say let bygones be bygones. He removes the very guilt of our sins. And how? Not through a coal on an altar, but through the sacrifice of the holy Son of God.

As wondrous as Isaiah's vision was, understand that it cannot compare with the knowledge we possess, that the Holy One of God would die on a cross to atone for our and for Isaiah's sins. That is the way that God chose to reveal his glory to us.

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