The following passage describes an impressive scene of holiness and humility. There is fire, heat, smoke, noise, and in the middle, one ruined, unclean, and frightened prophet:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings 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 Almighty;
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! 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.’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.'”
There is no shortage of things to talk about in this passage, but surrounding the prophet himself, there are three details that grab the exegete’s attention, four that open his heart.
The first detail is how Isaiah responds to being in the Lord’s presence. Of course, he wasn’t the first person in history to have this kind of close encounter with the living God. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles through the night with the angel of the Lord. In the morning he calls that place Peniel, which means face of God, because, he says, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” In Judges 13, Samson’s father Manoah realizes he has just seen the angel of the Lord, and says, “We are doomed to die! We have seen God!” And of course, the LORD himself says to Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
So when Isaiah speaks, we understand why he says, “Woe to me! I am ruined.” But it’s what follows that sets Isaiah’s response apart from that of others. He doesn’t say, “I am ruined, for no one may see God and live!” In that moment of being overwhelmed by what he’s seeing, the first thought that comes to his mind is not his own mortality. Rather, he says, “I am ruined, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Isaiah is not, at least primarily, conscious of the threat to his body, he is conscious instead of the pollution of his soul, and particularly that of his lips.
What provokes this response is the worship of the seraphim. With their lips they give glory and honour to God, emphasizing his holiness. No doubt Isaiah felt that holiness in a very physical way, and probably felt the urge to cry out with the angels. But his words demonstrate that although he understood that God was worthy of such praise, he himself was unworthy to give it. It was the angelic beings before him, and the purity of their praise that made Isaiah aware of the impurity of his own mouth. So when he does speak, he doesn’t address God or anyone in particular. He simply gives voice to the spiritual anguish he is experiencing.
The second detail is the response to Isaiah. The prophets Daniel and Jeremiah have similar experiences wherein they are confronted, in Daniel’s case, with an angelic being, and in Jeremiah’s case, with the LORD himself. Both prophets, too, suffer some sort of distress and both of them tell us what that distress is. Jeremiah has just been told by God that he was appointed before birth to be a prophet. In response he says, “Alas, Sovereign LORD, I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” Daniel, on the other hand, is overwhelmed by the sheer presence of his angelic visitor. He says, “I am overcome with anguish because of the vision, my lord, and I feel very weak. My strength is gone and I can hardly breathe.” Now all three prophets experience the same response. Their mouths are touched, and the distress is resolved. But what is different about Isaiah is that the touch is not direct. Both Daniel and Jeremiah record that the others reached out with their hands and touched them directly on the mouth. But Isaiah describes a unique scene: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth.” The LORD is present, just as he was for Jeremiah, but in this case he does not touch Isaiah. Rather, the touch is mediated, both through the seraphim and through the coal.
Which leads to the third detail, and that is what the touch does. In the cases of Jeremiah and Daniel, both prophets were afraid, but the touch strengthened them and gave them confidence. Strength, however, is not what Isaiah receives from the seraph. No doubt the prophet was afraid, and overwhelmed by what he was seeing. But it isn’t fear that he expresses, it’s guilt. Isaiah senses immediately that there is a profound wrongness in this picture, and that that wrongness is him. What the angel does, then, is purifies Isaiah’s unclean lips, resolving the wrong that Isaiah had identified. Or, more accurately, the angel brings a message of purification, speaking to him in the passive voice. Even though it was clearly the seraph who had touched Isaiah’s mouth, he does not acknowledge his own agency when he speaks: “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” He’s simply there to make an announcement, and then he disappears from the scene.
There is a clear parallel between Isaiah’s vision and the some of the high priestly rituals for the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement the high priest would have to take burning coals from the altar, put them in a censer, and carry them into the Most Holy Place. Inside he would sprinkle incense on the coals to create smoke, and this would shield his eyes from the ark and from God’s glory. After Isaiah is ushered into the presence of God, smoke fills the room. The passage says that the seraphim cover their eyes with their wings, which most commentators suggest is done in order to shield them from God’s glory. The smoke from the altar, then, just as it protected the high priest in the Most Holy Place, here protects Isaiah. Also, as far as I could tell, no other ritual involved carrying live coals from the altar, except for that on the Day of Atonement. And the link is made obvious when the angel pronounces atonement for Isaiah’s guilt.
The fourth detail is that the ritual here works for Isaiah. At the beginning of the vision God does not address the prophet at all. First Isaiah has to recognize his uncleanness, and then his uncleanness has to be taken away with the burning coal, and only after the angel’s pronouncement of atonement does God finally address Isaiah. So when I say that the ritual “worked,” what I mean is that it was acceptable to God. After the coal touched Isaiah’s lips, God accepted him as one worthy to stand in his holy presence. And this is important because it is a stark contrast to how God viewed Israel’s rituals.
In chapter 1, God says to Israel, “Your incense is detestable to me… I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being… Even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.” Clearly Israel was still worshiping God, and worshiping him, to some degree, as he had commanded them to. It’s likely, then, that they also observed the Day of Atonement and its particular rituals. Yet God utterly, with deep feeling, rejects everything that Israel offers to him. The rituals of the high priest on the Day of Atonement are meaningless and thus do nothing to atone for Israel’s sins.
So why would Isaiah be acceptable to God, but not the people? Isaiah says, “I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips,” identifying himself as a sinner among sinners. Why, then, can the burning coals of the altar atone for Isaiah’s uncleanness, but do nothing for Isaiah’s people?
Jesus gave us the answer in the sermon on the mount when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What Isaiah took into the presence of God that set him apart from the people of Israel, was poverty of spirit. Where Isaiah recognized his own uncleanness, Israel did not. In chapter 3 Isaiah prophesies of God’s people that “the look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves.” Isaiah pronounced woe on Israel for their sin, but he also had the humility to pronounce it upon himself for his sin. This is something Israel was far too proud to do.
Jesus tells us toward the end of the sermon on the mount that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” That narrow road is the road of poverty of spirit. Only those who know that they are unworthy because of their uncleanness, will ever be made worthy and be made clean. You can only receive life if you receive Christ; and you will only receive Christ if you know that you need him; and you will only know that you need Christ if you know that you are unworthy. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus said. It is only with a spirit of unworthiness that we can receive the things of God.
But it’s possible, as with Israel, to have the things of God, and to abuse them. It’s possible to have a form of godliness but deny its power. We can approach the Word of God with proud hearts, and so make all our theological training meaningless. But Augustine teaches that the training that matters above all else, the training apart from which the things of God will ever be distant, is to have hearts that are trained not only in faith, and hope, and love; but in humility, too. It means having a heart that is humble enough that when you are confronted with the truths of God’s Word, you are at the same time confronted with your own uncleanness. It is only in such a state that we can receive Christ’s atonement, and only in such a state that we can receive Christ’s Word. The path of the true exegete, of the one who is granted access to God’s presence through his Word, the path of the true exegete is poverty of spirit.
Chapel address, Monday, February 9, 2015