Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8
It is telling that the prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6:1-8 starts with a death.
The death of King Uzziah discloses that this is a traumatic time in which the prophet Isaiah is called to perform his prophetic duties. The chapters immediately preceding and following this week’s lectionary text yield further insight into the context of trauma that informs this prophetic call narrative. The political power plays informing the Syro-Ephraimitic war, set against the backdrop of the reign of terror inflicted by the Assyrian Empire, would have caused great anguish for the initial audience. Also, in terms of the final form of the book Isaiah, the cataclysmic events associated with the destruction of the capital city Jerusalem by the Babylonian Empire contribute to the sense of foreboding permeating this week’s lectionary reading.
Reading the classic prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6 as a response to the multiple layers of trauma shaping the different parts of the book of Isaiah generates insights that may help us consider the nature of prophetic leadership amidst the trying times that are facing communities all around the world. First, the prophet’s vision of a Holy God breaking into the turmoil of this world offers a stern warning to the doers of injustice, but also a word of hope to those who have been weighed down by the desperate geopolitical situation of their time.
In Isaiah’s vision, God is shown to be sitting on a grand throne, attended by seraphs singing God’s praises: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (verse 3). God is portrayed in this vision as the Eternal King, the Lord of Hosts, whose reign offers a sharp contrast to the transience of the earthly kings and their wheeling-and-dealings. Indeed, even the mighty Assyrian empire which instilled so much fear and trembling in the hearts of not only King Ahaz, but every inhabitant of Judah who heard about what the Assyrians did to Lachish and other towns in the path of destruction, will not rule forever. Empires rise and empires fall. But God’s reign is forever. Isaiah’s otherworldly vision offers a striking counter-reality to the manifold earthly kings and emperors who have been responsible for this tumultuous time.
Second, Isaiah’s vision in Isaiah 6:1-8 with its elements of the classic theophany (fire and smoke), similar to David Garber’s description of the vision of the divine presence in Ezekiel, is “aesthetically and perceptively overwhelming … overpower[ing] the prophet … [by] taking possession of him.” Regarding the prophet Ezekiel, Garber cites the work of Cathy Caruth who argues that as a “traumatized witness … [t]he prophet could be characterized as one whose self is radically altered” in the theophanic vision, being utterly possessed or “haunted by his experience of God.”1
The prophetic call narrative has the function of establishing the authority of the prophet and the prophetic book. It is therefore noteworthy that, as in the case of prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, Isaiah’s call narrative is closely connected to the trauma the prophet himself experienced. Serving as a witness to the political turmoil associated with imperial invasion and exile was surely a heavy burden to carry for the prophet, demonstrating how the prophetic vocation itself is also a source of anguish. Even though the prophetic book had been compiled by the community around the prophet Isaiah, it is revealed in the section following the lectionary selection how the prophet’s words will fall upon deaf ears, and how the people will be blind to the truth (Isaiah 6:9-10).
And yet, despite the reality and the risk of suffering associated with the prophetic calling, the prophet Isaiah nevertheless responds with the words: “Here am I, send me.” Inspired by the vision of God’s presence, the prophet remains faithful to his calling, serving as a channel for God’s word amidst trying times.
Third, the prophet’s admission in Isaiah 6:5 that he is unworthy or unclean is typical of trauma victims who engage in acts of self-blame to explain travesty like that which had befallen the people of Judah. In solidarity with his people’s attempts to make sense of their trauma, the prophet exclaims: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
In response to the prophet’s confession in Isaiah 6:6, one of the seraphs enacts a purifying ritual of placing a hot coal on the prophet’s lips, signifying absolution through the lifting of the heavy burden of guilt from the prophet and by implication, the people. The idea of flaming hot coals touching the prophet’s lips continues the theme of pain and suffering that marks the prophet’s present and future reality as well as the people’s. This act of absolving the prophet as well as the community speaks also of the significance of releasing and relieving trauma victims from the extra burdens they put on themselves.
For contemporary believers who, as evident from the events of these past months and years, are doing their best to survive in a dark world which seems to be becoming darker by the day, the prophetic call narrative in Isaiah 6 may speak anew, calling upon contemporary prophets and ordinary believers to continue to proclaim words of justice and righteousness. Not exempt from pain and suffering that comes from speaking truth to power, the prophetic call narrative itself serves as a sign of hope as it shows how a prophet like Isaiah, and also his counterparts Jeremiah and Ezekiel, fully immersed themselves in the darkness and continued under difficult circumstances to speak words of judgment and hope that have the potential of saving those who hear this prophetic word from themselves and their worst inclinations.
- David G. Garber, “‘I Went in Bitterness’: Theological Implications of a Trauma Theory Reading of Ezekiel”, Review and Expositor 111/4 (2014): 354.