Summary: Isaiah receives a vision of the sacred Temple and blazing holiness of God and is forever changed and fully equipped to stand his ground.
The year Israel’s king died, Isaiah received a vision of the undying King of kings. Uzziah had reigned for 52 years, and his rule brought prosperity and national security. Uzziah’s death spelled the end of an era; his death weakened the nation, but the greatest King remained seated upon the throne of Heaven. The nation mourned also for their inevitable decline. The glory and national pride of Israel appeared to be coming to an end, but not the everlasting glory of God.
Isaiah went to the Temple to for pray for consolation in this time of national sorrow. He received far more comfort than he could’ve ever imagined, namely a heavenly vision of the supreme King. No one before Isaiah caught the impact of God’s holiness as vividly as he. No vision like this was granted to any other prophet. This was far more than a burning bush, and Isaiah was understandably overwhelmed.
Isaiah describes the sacred, heavenly Temple: detailing the throne, the attendants, the incense, the robes; but God is not described--He simply is. Words are altogether inadequate. Isaiah is overcome by the supreme glory and holiness of God. It is a scene of incomparable majesty. God’s train fills the Temple, and there is no place to stand. Fantastical beings called Seraphim render worship. They cry out to the Triune God, never tiring of offering praise and honor to the Lord of majesty. The very foundations of the threshold shake with their praise!
This class of angel is mentioned only in this chapter, nowhere else in Scripture. Their name means “to burn.” Some angels are messengers, some are warriors; these appear to be Heaven’s choir. They are engaged in the unceasing task of singing God’s praises. As a sign of reverence before God, this choir of Seraphim veil their faces and feet with their wings in humility before the Most High. And they sing: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory!”
We don’t need a heavenly chorus to tell us this. Evidence of God’s glory is all around us…if we have eyes to see. A young man went to see a rabbi. He asked this teacher to help him because he could not see God. The rabbi answered, “I don’t think I can; I can’t not see God.”
God is holy and glorious. Glory is the sacred radiance of God’s splendor, the shining forth of His character. Holiness is a quality of purity and sinless perfection that is possessed by God alone. He is separate, distinct from His creation. “Without His holiness, God is reduced to being kind, amiable, approachable, and harmless” (David Wells). God is beyond all imagining. We cannot limit God to our narrow experience or our partial understanding of Him. The unknowable nature of God causes a gulf between us and the glorious King of Majesty.
Isaiah is shattered by his awesome vision. He feels totally unworthy and out of place amid such sacred splendor, and cries out in verse 5, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” It’s been said, “No one ever caught a glimpse of God and walked away egotistical.” Bluntly put, Isaiah was confronted with a sober truth: “God is holy and I’m not!” He would’ve liked to join the seraphim in song but realized his lips were unfit to sing praises (CHS).
Perhaps Isaiah is thinking he’s been brought here to be judged. We don’t sin against rules, but against God: “Sin is not primarily a broken law but a broken relationship” (Kenneth Bailey). And we deserve punishment. Isaiah rightly felt undone and exposed under the piercing gaze of the thrice-holy Lord. The word “ruined” comes from a Hebrew word that implies he’s been rendered speechless, cut off, lost, doomed. He is all too aware of his corrupt nature. He rightly feels undeserving to stand in the glorious presence the Lord Most High.
The Apostle John writes, “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5). In contrast, Isaiah rightly senses the darkness of his soul. David writes in Psalm 24, “Who shall stand in God’s holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” Isaiah is undone by the awful realization of his uncleanness. As we learn the Scriptures we’re confronted with God’s righteous expectations; we read “Thou shall not” and we realize, “Woe is me, I have already!” The Seraphim praise God with pure lips, but Isaiah’s lips were unclean. R.C. Sproul points out, “For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. And the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.” Only when we see ourselves as defiled will we desire God’s pardon. Our only refuge, our only hope is God’s redeeming grace.