Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8
Is faith in God an escape from reality?
Does the prophet offer “opium” for a dispirited people? Might Isaiah simply seek to distract Judeans from facing their problems by concocting an otherworldly scene up above the clouds? Do preachers have something substantive to offer to 21st century Christians in the midst of political turmoil, cynicism, corruption, and constant fear of explosive violence? These few verses from Isaiah raise the question of how we discern “reality.” Do the crushing problems we face define reality, or does faith offer a reality beyond what we can see and detect with our senses? When the church responds to God’s call to do ministry in a “post-truth” world, can we claim the powerful God of Isaiah’s vision? This text deals with these very questions.
The first five chapters of Isaiah lay out the spiritual problem of the Judeans. They have forgotten and forsaken the Lord (1:4); their worship is futile (1:11-17); corruption marks their leadership (1:23). Greed has led to injustice (5:8). Isaiah 6:1 then describes the political crisis: the long-serving king who brought stability has died. We should not look for chronological order in the early chapters of Isaiah, but a comprehensive picture of the situation within which Isaiah sees his vision.
One can fruitfully read this vision by imagining the scene Isaiah evokes. Scholars typically label this text a “vision report,” but Isaiah’s words involve many senses. He sees God sitting on a throne; he hears the calling of the seraphs; he smells the smoke; he feels the shaking of the temple; he tastes the live coal. Isaiah does not simply dream, with seeing and hearing. His experience reveals things not available to one’s normal senses, but his experience draws him in by all of his senses.
Isaiah describes a scene both powerful and awe-inspiring, if not downright frightening. The Lord sits on an elevated throne. The words suggest that Isaiah can see the deity only from the waist down, so that Isaiah does not see God’s face. Nevertheless, Isaiah can see the seraphs above the deity, so his perspective creates some confusion.
The Lord’s robes — from the waist down — fill the heavenly “temple.” This detail indicates that Isaiah sees a massive God, evoking a sense of power and strength. Like the seraphs are flying serpents, with six pairs of wings. One pair covers their eyes, so that they cannot see the divine face. Scholars typically consider the term “feet” as a euphemism for genitals, so that they do not expose their “naughty bits” to the divine eyes. Smoke billows out; the whole temple shakes. The cries of the seraphs lift up God’s holiness and glory. The scene conveys no hint of weakness. God is strong, holy and glorious.
When I preached on his passage in my churches, I often threatened to bring live charcoal briquettes for the next prayer of confession. Most of the time, the congregation understood the humor. Nevertheless, the scene in our text communicates an important truth. Isaiah recognizes his sinfulness and undergoes an act of intense pain to gain forgiveness (remember, this is a vision!). The live coal represents the cleansing fire. Isaiah’s sinful lips must be burned. This passage, when not taken literally, communicates the seriousness of sin. We do not think that sin originates in our lips, but our words often betray our sinfulness.
This passage raises important questions for the contemporary church. Can we, through our sermons, ministry, and proclamation of all kinds communicate the reality of God’s power, glory, and holiness to a world that considers the church irrelevant and/or corrupt? What does it mean for us that Isaiah paints a picture of God so large and imposing that the lower half of the divine robe filled the heavenly temple? Is that vision more real than the problems of the world and the infighting of the church itself?
Does an imposing God both empower us and chasten us? As we battle the evil of the world, does a powerful God stand behind us, and if so, in what way? Does a powerful God act as a disciplinarian to the church for our pettiness, selfishness, and worldliness? What does this image of a powerful, imposing God do to our assumptions about God as our friend, therapist, and problem-solving assistant? We need not fear the overwhelming problems of the world, because God is high, lifted up, and surrounded by flying snakes. We should also respect God for the same reason.
The Revised Common Lectionary cuts this passage off at a convenient place, right as the prophet responds to the call to go on behalf of this imposing God. God sends the prophet into an uncertain, sinful, unstable situation. The verses that come after verse 8 raise even more interesting issues. God specifically tells Isaiah that his preaching and ministry will not “work,” in the sense of positive response. The people will not listen. Isaiah’s words will even create the dullness. The church confronts the reality that true proclamation will not necessarily lead to “church growth,” especially in a numerical sense. The passage offers hope in the form of a God strong enough for the evil in the world. Nevertheless, Isaiah’s ministry and preaching will not necessarily motivate the people to listen or to buy into the vision.
The passage, within the context of the whole chapter, does not excuse sloppy work in the church, but it does not promise outward success either. The vision does not excuse self-righteousness if the people do not respond. Isaiah recognized his own sinfulness. The church does not present this vision simplistically, but the church accepts the challenge of the vision. The passage calls the church, clergy first, into ministry with integrity. That ministry holds out Isaiah’s fantastic vision as more real than reality. The church, despite the response of the world, claims that vision, gains power from that vision and draws hope from that vision.