Literary and Theological treatment of Isaiah 6

The Holiness of a Sovereign God

The Holy Lord upon His throne

Isaiah was able to peak into the throne of God! There is debate by scholars as to what temple Isaiah is referring to. Was Isaiah in an actual temple while this vision is occurring or is this literally the temple of God in Isaiah’s vision? If he was in a temple, does that mean he is already a priest before this episode? Also more questions come up. Is Uzziah’s death significant to the question of the temple and of Isaiah’s becoming a prophet? For example, Calvin explains that Isaiah was a prophet before this vision. In Isaiah 6 he is in an earthly temple, as prophets are allowed to be. Accordingly, the passage is not a call to ministry, rather Isaiah was so over-whelmed by this event he wrote about it.[1]

Other theories suggest that Isaiah was a ministering priest during Uzziah’s reign and that there was a ‘curse’ of sorts on Judah until his passing. Once Uzziah died, then Isaiah was more able to minister.[2] There are a lot of assumptions to these arguments and it may be best to use common sense when reading and interpreting this verse, instead of holding so many assumptions that do not have much evidence. The best most natural understanding is that Isaiah’s vision takes place in Heaven, not an earthly temple and that it is Isaiah’s call to ministry. If Isaiah is already in an earthly temple while this vision is occurring than that would add to the emphasis of the vision, but this is more unlikely.[3]

Peaking into the throne of Heaven, Isaiah sees some amazing and glorious things. The Hebrew word for Lord is “Adonay” which translates to “Sovereign Master.”[4] There are no English equivalents (or even Hebrew words) that suffice in explaining the word “glory” in verse three. It is almost impossible to imagine the splendor of the King on His throne! It is indescribable. The temple is trembling, the angels are worshiping, smoke is rising, and just the train or the hem of His [Almighty’s] robe fills the entire room with glory! Isaiah makes no mention of seeing anything else, no face or body part, but just the hem of His robe is so holy and glorious!

The Heavenly Seraphim around His throne

An interesting note about the differences between Seraphim (singular is ‘Seraph’) in Isaiah six and Cherubim mentioned in other places. The Seraphim serve as the caretakers of God's throne and continuously sing praises[5]: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. All the earth is filled with His Glory."[6] The term ‘Seraphim’ means "the burning ones." This is reflective of God’s glory. They have six wings. Two wings cover their face, two cover their feet, and two are used to fly. The Cherubim (singular "Cherub") are the guardians of light and of the stars.[7] They have four faces: one of each a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle. The ox-face is considered the "true face" in Ezekiel chapter ten[8]. Cherubim have four conjoined wings covered with eyes, and they have ox's feet.

It is quite necessary that the Seraphim cover their eyes and face. The glory and light of God’s glory is so bright, the angels are protecting themselves. They could not successfully see God if they tried. They are covering their legs and feet demonstrating humility and their proper place subordinate to God. The last two wings for flying are also necessary so that the angels can physically fly near God and worship Him.[9] The Seraphim were designed purposefully by God in this way.

The Seraphim describe God as “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This is the only attribute of God in the third degree. It is not a mere attribute of God, but rather it is the essence of God. He is Holy![10][11] He can have nothing to do with anything that is not Holy.[12] God desires to see Israel become holy again. This is why it is absolute that God punishes Israel. Also the awesome Holiness of God is what breaks Isaiah down immediately, “Woe is me.”

The depravity of a sinful man

The Unclean Lips of the Prophet

An interesting observation is noted that the first pronouncement Isaiah makes even before being commissioned as a prophet is not against any nation or even against Israel, but is against himself. In verse five, Isaiah, in the presence of the Lord realizes that he is a sinful man and unworthy. He cries out, “Woe is me.” Gill acknowledges that “There's no woe to a good man, all woes are to the wicked…”[13] Isaiah is admitting that he is nothing more than a sinful, imperfect man.

This is the first shift in the story. Isaiah had been writing about God and His holiness. Isaiah enters the vision and immediately compares himself to the holiness of God. Isaiah uses both repetition and cause and effect to make his point clear. First, “woe is me.” Second, “I am ruined.” Thirdly, “my lips are unclean!” The cause is “woe is me…I am unclean.” The effect, “woe is me…I am ruined!” I am in the sight of the Lord and I am unclean, this cannot be good! The key to this verse is that Isaiah admits his sin.

Some scholars contend that Isaiah’s continual mention of “lips” in particular is because he struggled with sins dealing with lips, like foul mouth, gossip, etc. It is best to assume that Isaiah is speaking of being “unholy” and “unclean” in a general sense. The context gives no further knowledge regarding the particular sins.[14]

The Unclean people around the prophet

Realize for a moment that Isaiah acknowledged his own uncleanness first. He did not blame others or even begin by mentioning how unclean the entire nation was, but instead he dealt with his own sin first. Second recognize that Isaiah groups himself in with the unclean people. He understood that he was not exempt or special, he belong with the other sinful people. Isaiah really molds the correct attitude and actions for Israel and the future remnant of Israel.[15] If any of these unclean people repent as Isaiah did, they shall be forgiven and cleansed as Isaiah also.

The purification of a penitent prophet

A Seraph then comes over to Isaiah, after he admits his sin, with a hot coal pulled with tongs from the alter. Next the act of touching the coal to Isaiah’s mouth and lips is the turning point of this story. This act is significant in many ways. First it is important to identify what this means. This act is a cleansing not a punishment. God has heard Isaiah’s repentance and not only forgives but cleanses him of his “unclean lips” and sins. The coal had come from the alter, a place of sacrifice and atonement and forgiveness. The Seraph used tongs to pick up the coal not only because it was hot, but it was a ‘holy thing.’[16] “It does not hurt him [Isaiah], it heals him."[17] God cleanses Isaiah.

Also this event is significant because it reveals the character of God. God heard Isaiah’s plea. Isaiah admitted his sin and God forgave. God desires to forgive. God wants to save and redeem His children and the rest of Israel. But also God is holy. God will forgive when Israel repents. If they do not repent they will be purged. God will cleanse them the “hard way.” Third, this event is the turning point of Isaiah and the story. He has been made right and clean, now he is ready to serve. Finally, in a way the purification of Isaiah foreshadows the purification of Israel. Although Israel could have been purified and cleansed like Isaiah the “easy way” had they repented. They did not repent. Just as God purified Isaiah, God will still purify and purge Israel. God is Holy.

The commission of a sanctified prophet

The Submission of the consecrated prophet

The final shift in Isaiah six is a dialogue between God and Isaiah. Isaiah saw God in His holiness and majesty in the first section. The second section Isaiah entered the story and was cleansed. In the last section Isaiah is given a task by God. God asks who He should send, Isaiah responds saying, “Here am I. Send me!” Then God explains the details of Isaiah’s task and Isaiah asks God how long must he preach. God then responds. There are many comparisons to Israel’s desolation and the cutting and burning of the oak tree. Also an interesting compare and contrast observation is noting that verse one starts the chapter referring to a death, while verse thirteen the last verse, ends with seed of life.

After Isaiah is cleansed, God asks “whom shall I send and who shall go for Us?” Isaiah replies, “Here am I. Send me!” Note the balance between God’s sovereignty and human will and choice. [18] God needs and will send someone, but that someone needed to be willing to go. Another example, Isaiah repented, but God did the cleansing. There is this constant balance between these two factors.

Another note from this verse is the use of repetition. God asks in two ways, “who shall I send” and again “who will go for Us?” Then Isaiah responds similarly, “Here am I” and “Send me.” The repetition stresses both the importance of God’s sovereignty in the call and man’s choice in response. Both the question and answer were serious and not fickle.

The use of singular and plural forms of God in verse eight brings up a curious question. Is this a verse proving the “”Trinity” or is God is referring to Himself and the “angelic host community?” Many scholars decide on the latter because Septuagint and Arabic versions for this verse read, “unto this people.” This phrase possibly refers to the “angelic” people.

Other scholars use this verse to support the Trinity. The singular speaker, God, refers to Himself in plural. Logically, that would seem to refer to the Trinity. The original writer, Isaiah, would not have been familiar with any Trinitarian concept. Although Isaiah did not originally directly give this meaning to this verse, upon further study of God in Genesis and with evidence of other “Trinitarian” scripture, it is still a valid second meaning.

The Message of the sent prophet

The rest of this section, God lays out the details of Isaiah’s mission. God tells Isaiah what he is to say and what will become of the people. God told Isaiah that the people would keep listening but not understand. They would keep looking but not perceive. God hardened their hearts in response to their own hardening of their hearts. Instead of repenting, like Isaiah, the people of Israel hardened their hearts. Isaiah was to preach until they would “return and be healed.” Although it is clear, this is not going to happen.

God was going to punish an unrepentant nation. Although God used other nations (Assyria, Babylon, and Rome) to do his work, He claims the work of punishment. A remnant would be saved through which the seed of salvation was to be brought into the world. As history proves, God would have mercy and bring some of the Jews in Diaspora (because of the Babylonian conquer)[19] back from their captivity to live in the land of promise again. This is the meaning of the Lord removing men far away in verse twelve.

Upon this depressing news, Isaiah asks, “how long [shall I preach]?” If it were already not bad enough, Isaiah receives the devastating answer that he must continue on his course until all the cities of Judah are laid waste without inhabitant. So in other words, Isaiah is to preach until the full judgment of God is completed. This leaves many questions about what God’s judgment looks like, why God would do such a thing, and about remnant theories especially in relation to the seed and hope of verse thirteen.

What will God’s judgment look like? It is clear that God will destroy all of Judah according to verse eleven. While some scholars want to change the meaning, it is not possible. God did not want to have anything to do with the survivors living in Judah after the Babylonian conquer. God wanted to bring back the captive, authentic Jews and save them.[20] They are God’s true remnant not the survivors in Jerusalem.

Why did God allow for this kind of punishment? Why did God allow for total destruction? Why is Isaiah to preach that Judah cannot believe? Is this productive to God’s purposes and will? The people of Judah refused God. They hardened their hearts. God is holy and cannot have anything to do with these sinful, stubborn people who refuse Him. Yes, this fits God’s plan and purposes. An observation of verse ten is the structure. It is in the form of a Jewish poem. The form for such a poem is A, B, C, C, B, A. A is for the heart, B is for the ears, and C is for the eyes.

Tree Metaphor

Finally, the chapter ends on the note of hope. What exactly is the “tenth” referring to? Some scholars originally thought this was referring to the number of kings (ten) before being completely destroyed and ruined by Babylon.[21] But upon further study of history, it is believed that literary only one out of ten Jews would return from Babylonian captivity. It is possible that only one out of ten would return from not only Babylonian captivity but Roman captivity (much later) in history. Although, Roman attack could also be the “burning.” In any case, there is still a remnant, a stump, this “holy seed” who will survive all the enemies.

The NIV translation is a much clearer reading, “And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” [22] The land will again be laid waste, by the Romans. The analogy is beautiful one because despite Babylonian and Roman conquers, God still allows a stump. The holy seed is the stump. Holy seed refers to the righteous Jewish offspring who remain faithful to God.[23] Isaiah continues talking about this future hope and judgments from both Babylon and Rome through-out the rest of Isaiah. Isaiah is able to see very far into the future as God provides him with prophecies.

[1] Steinmetz. John Calvin on Isaiah 6

[2] Ibid.

[3] Love. The Call of Isaiah

[4] Strong. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible

[5] Copeland. Ministering Spirits.

[6] Isaiah 6:3 NASB

[7] Copeland.

[8] Eze. 10: 12-19 NASB


[10] Lev. 11:44

[11] Love.

[12] Hab. 3:11

[13] Gill. exposition of the Bible

[14] Henry. Commentary on the Bible

[15] Harvey. On Seeing: Isaiah 6:1-12

[16] Ortlund. Isaiah: God Saves Sinners

[17] Ibid

[18] Constable. Notes on Isaiah.

[19] Longman. Pg. 311-314

[20] Ibid

[21] Gill.

[22] Isa. 6:13 NIV

[23] House.