Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8
In the World War II movie Fury, Shia LaBeouf’s character, appropriately nicknamed as “Bible,” because of his penchant for quoting biblical verses, sits at the gunner position of a Sherman tank during the final weeks of World War II.
As the crew awaits near-certain death from an approaching German battalion, “Bible” quotes to the crew:
“There’s a Bible verse I think about sometimes; many times; it goes, ‘Then I heard the voice of the LORD, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ (Troubled, LaBeouf’s character pauses and clears his throat). And I said, ‘Here am I; send me.’”
World War II is not a bad parallel for director/screenwriter David Ayer. The context of Isaiah 6 is dire as introduced by the death of King Uzziah, who had a remarkable reign of five decades. His death naturally evokes questions regarding stability and royal succession. The Judeans face threatening encroachment from the Assyrian Empire. And the tale of the tape between the Assyrian army and Jerusalem is not promising for God’s people. At the time of Isaiah 6, the Assyrians were the most formidable army of all time with advanced weaponry, massive economic support, and a penchant for psychological warfare. In contrast, Jerusalem was a city with hastily erected defenses filled with refugees from the countryside and other captured cities.
The opening verse brings comfort in that although the earthly kingship is under transition, the heavenly kingship is secure with the Lord sitting on a throne described as “high and lofty” (Isaiah 6:1). This throne is flanked by seraphs, likely some sort of winged serpent (see also Numbers 21:6; Deuteronomy 8:15; Isaiah 14:29; 30:6.)
Isaiah then moves to a puzzling image to address this military crisis. The passage emphasizes the holiness of God, and not his might. The seraphs, or angels, flank the Lord, and declare to each other:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts;
The whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3).
Isaiah uses the appropriate title of the Lord of Hosts, drawing on the theme of YHWH as our warrior, fighting for us. But such fighting does not depend on traditional military categories of weaponry, troops, or strategies. The Assyrians were vastly superior to Judah in all of these categories. Rather, Isaiah chooses to emphasize the grand holiness of God, expansive to the ends of the earth. Together, the passage makes two assumptions: (1) holiness, and not military might, will protect the people; (2) the glory of the Lord goes far beyond the borders of the vast Assyrian empire.
The holiness of God then confronts Isaiah to look at his own lack. For although God is great and holy, the prophet realizes his meagerness. He justly worries over his presence before the grandeur of the Lord (Exodus 33:20).
He expresses his own despair in that he is “lost” and that both him and his people have “unclean lips.” The verbal declarations of praise did not match the heart of unfaithfulness. It is remarkable that Isaiah would be called to a spoken prophetic ministry with such lips.
But at this point, the seraph approaches with a live coal. Apparently, the coal was too hot to touch even for a seraph so Isaiah 6:6 mentions a “pair of tongs.” Imagine the biting pain placing such coal on the lips of Isaiah. Fire has a cleansing, atoning purpose, but the pain must have been brutal. The cleansing of sin is not easy. But the touching of the coal to the lips cleanses the prophet, and prepares him for a life of prophecy. As it turns out, the sanctioned words of a fierce prophet prove more powerful and enduring than any military leader. Isaiah’s ministry pushes God’s people to lives of holiness, that they may be set apart from the other nations.
From Isaiah 6:8, the Lord asks the question and the prophet delivers a powerful response, “Here am I, send me.” I wishfully would like to think that Shia LaBeouf delivered these lines after consulting some Isaiah commentaries. I can imagine the response as tormented, yet subsumed within a peaceful acceptance of God’s calling.
Both the World War II tank gunner and the 8th century prophet were in the midst of precarious situations. It was this crisis that allows for complete dedication and awareness of their place. The voice continues to ask us. In a broken world, with injustice all over the world, and brokenness in our own homes, who will speak for the Lord. God asks, what will we say? By ourselves, we are so inadequate. We literally deserve death in the presence of God.
But through God’s grace, we may stand and be his lips, confident on his power (not ours) that we too can express, “Here am I. Send Me.”
[Author’s Note: I write this commentary in July during the 2016 Republican National Convention. By the time of publication, the USA will have presumably elected a new president, and await the implementation of promises regarding foreign military policy as well as domestic terrorism. When crafting your sermons, please remember that analogies between the USA and ancient Judah are limited, as Judah was a relatively small polity, caught in the orbit of the enormous Assyrian Empire. Perhaps a better analogy would be a community of faith, struggling against all odds, to fight for justice and healing to spread in this world.]
PRAYER OF THE DAY
King of heaven and earth,
As you cleansed Isaiah with a coal of fire to prepare him for proclaiming your word to the world, prepare us, so that we may know your bidding and carry out our callings with eagerness and urgency. Show the world greatness that cannot be contained any more than smoke or fire can be caught, in the name of the one who sacrificed everything to carry out your commands, Jesus Christ our sanctifier. Amen.
We wait for thy loving kindness, O God, William McKie