Here Isaiah goes back over the years and tells us how he was brought into the knowledge of cleansing from sin and how he heard and responded to the call of God to be His messenger to a rebellious and gainsaying people.
It is always interesting to hear a personal and intimate account of the revelation of God to a human soul. In Isaiah 6 the prophet tells us the secret of his wonderful power and how he was equipped for service. He takes us into the sanctuary, shows us how the Lord was revealed to him, and lets us know the circumstances of his call to the prophetic office. This was the real starting point of his effective ministry.
We know from 1:1 that Isaiah began to witness for God in the days of King Uzziah. Since the experience recorded in Isaiah 6 took place in the year Uzziah died, it may be that that experience was subsequent to the prophetic testimony recorded in chapters 1-5. But, as suggested before, there seems to be no proof of this. Isaiah may have begun his ministry during the last year of Uzziah’s life and it may be that in chapter 6 he told us of his original call to the prophetic office.
Yet, many servants of God have preached to others before having a clear, definite experience with the Lord for themselves. John Wesley is a case in point. He told us in his journal that while in Georgia he learned that he who had come to America to convert the Indians had never been converted himself. In later years he doubted whether he had diagnosed his own case correctly, but he certainly preached to others for several years before he had that heartwarming experience in London when he definitely knew that he was born of God. D. L. Moody is another who began to preach before having a clear understanding of salvation by grace and the enduement of the Holy Spirit.
So while it seems unlikely, there is the possibility that the stirring prophecy of chapters 1-5 was proclaimed before Isaiah received the revelation recorded in chapter 6. However, it seems more probable that after he had written the preceding chapters, he then decided to tell the story of his own meeting with God and his divine commission as God’s messenger to the people of his day.
This revelation of the holiness of God and the corruption of his own heart was not, as some would say, Isaiah’s “second blessing.” It was rather a part of God’s dealings with him in order that he might be prepared—by encountering the reality of God for himself—to give out the Word to others.
Isaiah told us, “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” That word “also” is significant. Was it a sight of God that brought the leprosy out on Uzziah’s forehead? The same God revealed Himself to Isaiah while he was attending a service in the temple at Jerusalem; however, it was not in judgment, but in grace that He showed Himself as the infinitely holy One.
Others may have thronged the temple courts at this time, but only Isaiah saw the glorious vision. In an ecstatic state he became blind to all about him; his awakened intelligence was fully occupied with the glory that had been revealed to him.
Above the throne he saw the seraphim, an order of angels apparently, each with six wings. We may drop the s from the word “seraphims” as the im is the Hebrew plural. These glorious beings seem to be messengers of grace, as distinguished from the cherubim, who speak rather of righteousness and judgment.
The seraphim cried one to another, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Their words are an ascription of praise and adoration to the triune God, whose glory is displayed in all creation. As the song of worship resounded, the very posts of the doors were moved and the temple was filled with the fragrant smoke of burning incense. Strange that inanimate pillars should be moved while the hearts of men remained obdurate and motionless! But there was one man who did respond—and in a very definite way.
Isaiah cried, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” The effect of beholding God is to make one realize one’s own un-worthiness. Isaiah realized the corruption of his own heart when he saw himself in the light of Jehovah’s infinite holiness. Such is the case whenever man is brought consciously into the presence of God. When Job saw the Lord, he cried, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). When Simon Peter recognized in Jesus the Creator of the fish of the sea, he fell at His feet and cried, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Likewise when our prophet saw himself in the light of the holiness of God, he at once acknowledged his own sinfulness. Moreover he recognized the fact that he was surrounded by men who, like himself, were “of unclean lips,” for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34).
Isaiah wrote that after his confession, “then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand.” The creature had taken the live coal “with the tongs from off the altar.” It was the altar of sacrifice, which prefigured the cross. That live coal symbolized the fire of judgment that had burned itself out on the offering. The seraphim, representatives of the grace of God to needy men, flew swiftly to tell of His saving favor based on the atoning sacrifice. With two of their wings the seraphim hid their faces as they worshipped the infinitely holy One. With two they covered their beautiful feet, and with two they hurried to do loving service.
As previously mentioned, the cherubim seem to speak of judgment. (The “living creatures” of Ezekiel 1 are identified as the “cherubim” in Ezekiel 10). They are said to have four wings. May not the six wings of the seraphim then tell us how “mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (James 2:13)?
As the coal touched his lips, Isaiah heard the comforting words, “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” The divinely-sent messenger proclaimed to Isaiah the good news of redemption and purification from sin through Him whose one offering was pictured in the sacrifice of the altar.
I would re-emphasize the fact that the coal was taken from the altar of burnt offering, not from the golden altar, where only incense was burned. That live coal represented the fire, ever burning, that was never to go out (Leviticus 6:13). It constantly foreshadowed the work of the cross. Through that sacrifice alone could iniquity be purged and sin be put away (Hebrews 9:13-14).
Following the assurance of forgiveness and cleansing came the call for service. Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord crying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” In response Isaiah exclaimed, “Here am I; send me.”
Who will go? It has pleased God to commit the declaration of His truth to men rather than to angels. He is still calling for consecrated men and women to carry the offer of salvation and the warning of judgment to a lost world. Such messengers must know for themselves the cleansing power of the blood of Christ if they are to give effective testimony to those who are still in their sins.
The prophet was commissioned to “go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.” Even though the Word seemed to have no other effect than to harden them in their sins and rebellion, Isaiah was to proclaim the message faithfully.
The servant of God is responsible to God. Having received his commission, he is to go forth in the name of the One who sends him, declaring the message committed to him. The results must be left with God. Whether men hear or whether they refuse to listen, he who has proclaimed the Word faithfully has delivered his own soul (Ezekiel 2:3-5; 3:19-21). The apostle Paul said, “We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish” (2 Corinthians 2:15). God is honored when His truth is preached, no matter what attitude the hearers take toward it. His Word will not return to Him void; it will accomplish the divine purpose (Isaiah 55:11).
Faced with the solemn responsibility of proclaiming an unpopular message, Isaiah cried, “Lord, how long?” (6:11) It takes special faith and obedience to continue to preach to an unheeding people who are only hardened by the Word instead of being softened by it. The Lord’s answer was that the message must be proclaimed until there is no one left to hear it.