The Lord of Glory Calls His Messenger
The Lord of Glory Calls His Messenger
And one called to another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth. (Isa 6:3)
Main Idea: God reveals Christ to Isaiah, convicts him of sin, purifies him, and calls him to preach.
- The Lord’s Holiness Exalted (6:1-4)
- The central reality of the universe: a King on a throne
- A glimpse into heavenly worship
- The Lord’s Messenger Purified (6:5-7)
- The Lord’s “ruined” messenger must be holy.
- The Lord’s messenger purified
- The Lord’s Messenger Recruited (6:8)
- A general invitation: “Who should I send?”
- A specific response: “Here I am. Send me.”
- The Lord’s Message Entrusted (6:9-10)
- A shocking message of hardness
- The answer to the question, Why did Israel reject Christ?
- The Lord’s People Humbled, Then Exalted (6:11-13)
- Israel hardened and judged
- The remnant: the stump in the land
- The Lord’s Identity Revealed (John 12:41)
- Israel’s rejection of Christ was predicted, effected, and removed.
- Isaiah saw Jesus’s glory.
The Lord’s Holiness Exalted
In Revelation 4:1-2 the apostle John had an extraordinary invitation from almighty God to ascend from earth through a doorway into the heavenly realms, to see things that are invisible and overwhelming. As John passed through that doorway, the first thing he saw was someone seated on it. That throne and the One seated on it are the central reality of the universe, for God created the universe, owns it, and actively rules over it. That throne is the very thing that sinners rebelled against, and it is in reconciliation with that throne that we find our salvation. Isaiah had a similar vision at the beginning of his service as a prophet. This vision shaped everything else Isaiah ever wrote. It came in the year of the death of King Uzziah (740 BC), a (mostly) godly king whose long and prosperous reign of fifty-two years was a gift of God’s grace to the people of Judah. Now he was dead, and questions of possible instability and anxieties about the future would naturally crowd into the hearts of the people. Isaiah had a vision of a throne that can never end, with someone seated on it whose glory will someday fill the new heaven and new earth.
Isaiah saw the Lord on a “high and lofty throne,” its elevation conveying its authority and superiority. The mere hem of the Lord’s robe majestically filled the temple. Surrounding the throne were seraphim (mentioned in the Bible only here, meaning “burning ones”). Each of these seraphim had six wings, and four of their six wings were devoted to covering themselves because of the unapproachable glory of the one they were flying to serve. They were continually crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Armies; his glory fills the whole earth.” What an awesome picture of heavenly worship this is! They see the Lord of glory, and they cry out to one another what they are seeing, as if they were saying, “Proclaim the Lord’s greatness with me; let us exalt his name together” (Ps 34:3). The topic of their heavenly worship is the indescribable holiness (separation) of the Lord; they can never stop crying aloud about it. What is amazing is that these beings are themselves holy in the sense of being perfectly pure from evil. But the Lord is holy because he is separate not only from evil but from them and from every other created being. A. W. Tozer captured that infinite gulf between the Lord and all creation:
We must not think of God as the highest in an ascending order of beings, starting with the single cell, and going on up from the fish to the bird to the animal to man to angel to cherub to God. God is as high above an archangel as above a caterpillar, for the gulf that separates the archangel from the caterpillar is but finite, while the gulf between God and the archangel is infinite. (Knowledge of the Holy, 70)
The seraphim say, “holy, holy, holy” to emphasize how overwhelming this attribute is. It is the attribute of God that we sinners most need to understand and be transformed by.
The seraphim also cry aloud that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isa 6:3). This is a vital concept. Romans 1:20 makes it plain that the creation reveals the existence and attributes of God, but sadly verse 25 says that people exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator. So the world is already filled with the glory of God right now, but we have become idolaters. Habakkuk 2:14 predicts that someday the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as water covers the sea. When the redeemed walk in resurrection bodies in a perfect universe radiant only with the glory of God through Christ, then this prediction will be fulfilled: we will no longer worship creation but the Creator based on the glory we will see.
The Lord’s Messenger Purified
At the sight of this holy Lord, Isaiah feels most painfully his own sinfulness, and he cries out against himself the same word of prophetic judgment (“Woe”) that dominated chapter 5. A true vision of God’s holiness always results in conviction of sin on the part of us sinners. Isaiah is rightly afraid that the fire of the Lord will lash out against him and purify that heavenly scene of his own uncleanness. He specifically feels the corruption of his tongue, the very instrument of his prophetic ministry, and he feels the corruption of his people as well.
But the Lord of glory is also the Lord of grace, and instead of killing the sinner as he deserves, he commands that Isaiah be purified. An angel flew to Isaiah with a live coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched Isaiah’s lips, cleansing him from his sins. Though God can speak through a donkey (Num 22:28) and even through a hate-filled enemy of Christ (John 11:51), he chooses ordinarily to speak through consecrated and holy messengers whose sins have been atoned for. The symbol of a live coal shows how the Lord maintains his status as a consuming fire while making a way to purify sinners like Isaiah.
The Lord’s Messenger Recruited
The next act in this heavenly drama changed Isaiah’s life forever. He heard the Lord calling, “Who should I send? Who will go for us?” The word us clearly has a trinitarian basis, for the dual question parallels “I” (“Who should I send?”) with “us” (“Who will go for us?”). Only the triune God can speak like this. The Lord has a mission, and he deliberates openly in the heavenly council. Daniel 7 pictured God enthroned, served by a hundred million angels (v. 10), any of whom would have been eager to serve the Lord’s purposes. But the Lord willed a human messenger to go on this mission to Israel. A compulsion overcame Isaiah, and he boldly presented himself for service: “Here I am. Send me” (6:8). What a beautiful sequence in this narrative: a vision of the enthroned Lord in his glory leads to overpowering heavenly worship, and it also leads to Isaiah’s awareness of his sinfulness, which leads to him crying out against himself, which leads to the atoning work for his sin, which leads to hearing the Lord call for a messenger, which leads to Isaiah presenting himself for service. In this sense, Isaiah 6 stands as a lasting paradigm for all who would enter the Lord’s service.
The Lord’s Message Entrusted
The message entrusted to Isaiah is shocking both to him and to the generations that followed him. It involves the Lord’s surprising work in hardening the hearts of the Israelites to refuse to listen to God’s word. The message itself is much like the live coal taken with tongs from the altar of God: it has a divine origin, it burns with searing power, and the messenger has no power to alter it in any way. The prophet must drop this live coal into the hearts of God’s people with its heavenly fire unquenched. The prophet may not be silent, for then would God’s word burn like a fire within his heart, within his very bones, and he would be unable to hold it in (Jer 20:8-9). God’s message through Isaiah is shocking because it seems that God is ordaining that he will harden the hearts of the Israelites against his word, with the outcome that they will refuse to repent and be healed of their sins. This judicial hardening from God confirms their pattern as a “stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears” (Acts 7:51). Scripture reveals that Satan blinds human eyes from the work of God (2 Cor 4:4), and many passages (like Acts 7:51) teach that the people harden their own hearts and blind their own eyes. But this passage clearly teaches the role of God in hardening hearts and blinding eyes against his word; the verbs are active and decisive, “do not understand, . . . do not perceive. Make the minds . . . dull; deafen their ears and blind their eyes.” These strong commands from God are designed to prevent the Israelites from seeing, hearing, understanding, turning, and being healed. It is troubling to people who think God always only acts to open blind eyes, soften hardened hearts, and work salvation in everyone to whom he sends a messenger. But clearly this passage teaches the opposite: sometimes God sends a messenger specifically to harden hearts and confirm the condemnation of people.
In the New Testament this passage is quoted four times to explain why Jesus used parables to teach the people. In effect, Jesus said he used parables so that the people will not understand and turn and be healed. It is a powerful weeding-out process. The elect hear Christ’s parables and, not understanding, humble themselves and come to Jesus for the explanation; then, by God’s sovereign grace through Christ, they are blessed with explanations leading to insight. The “outsiders” get everything in unexplained parables to confirm their hardening (Matt 13:10-17; Mark 4:11). This is the doctrine of sovereign grace—both for mercy and for hardening (Rom 9:18)—worked out in the actual pattern of the message. Isaiah 6:9-10 is also quoted in John 12:39-40 to explain how it could be possible for the Jews to see all of Jesus’s miracles and still not believe in him. John’s use of Isaiah 6 shows that God actively blinds eyes and hardens hearts resulting in unbelief when it comes to Christ. Salvation is from the Lord, and it only comes when he works to remove the blindness and hardness.
The Lord’s People Humbled, Then Exalted
Like Jesus who wept over Jerusalem and the apostle Paul who had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Rom 9:2) in his heart over unbelieving Jews, so Isaiah cries out, “Until when, Lord?” He is asking, How long will I preach only to harden hearts? And how long will the hardening last? God replies that his ministry must continue until the Lord has carried out the judgments he intends against Israel: the cities will lie in ruins, empty, desolate; the people will be driven into exile. That is the judgment of the holy God against such a sinful people, the very thing he warned he would do before they ever entered the promised land (Deut 28:49-52).
But amazingly, by the grace of God, the Lord will leave a remnant, and like a tree that is felled leaving a healthy root system, so the remnant will become the future of Israel. The “holy seed” is the remnant of survivors, and they will be the stump that will again flourish under God’s hand. The apostle Paul speaks of the Jewish nation, which has generally rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ, in similar terms: an olive tree with fruitless branches stripped off but with a holy root system (Rom 11:16). No matter how desolate the land will become, God is not finished with the Jewish nation. Paul means the people will be humbled to the dust then exalted to heaven at the end through faith in Christ (v. 26).
The Lord’s Identity Revealed
The final surprise of Isaiah 6 comes when the apostle John unveils the true identity of the enthroned Lord, the glorious ruler of the universe—before whom seraphim veil their faces, whose glory fills the whole earth. After citing Isaiah 6:9-10 to explain why the Jews were rejecting Christ despite his many miracles, in chapter 12 John says these astonishing words: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (v. 41). In the context of John 12 the “his” and “him” cannot refer to God the Father but only to Jesus. In verse 37 it speaks of the one who performed many miracles before their eyes, but they still wouldn’t believe in him. Verse 42 speaks of many who did believe in him but were unable to confess him freely so they wouldn’t be banned from the synagogue. So verse 41 is speaking of Jesus. The great God of glory, seated on a throne high and exalted, the one whom the seraphim cannot see fully and they veil their faces because of his glory—that one is Jesus! The mystery of the incarnation: Jesus of Nazareth is the God of heaven and earth, the creator of fiery archangels and of lowly caterpillars alike, the one who crafted and shaped the mountains and who spread the stars throughout space. This is the one whose blood provides the only sure purifying remedy for sin. Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! I am ruined by my sin!” The live coal taken from the altar represents Christ, his purifying ministry. Isaiah saw the glory of the preincarnate Christ and wrote about him. The glory of Jesus is infinite and will radiate throughout the new heaven and new earth forever. And Isaiah wrote about him so that we could see that glory by faith and turn and be healed.
This magnificent chapter calls us to a heavenly worship of the glorious Christ, to match the seraphim in their awe-filled cries before Jesus of “Holy, holy, holy!” It calls on us now, by faith, to understand that the universe is filled with his glory. It calls on us to understand the holiness of Jesus and how undone we are by the pollution of our sins. It calls on us to understand that the only atonement there can ever be for our sins is that which God works by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It calls on us to hear Jesus calling out, “Who should I send? Who will go for us to the ends of the earth to proclaim the gospel?” It calls on us to answer by faith with full consecration, “Here I am, Lord; send me!” And it calls on us to understand God’s mysterious plan for showing mercy to some and hardening others by the proclamation of the Word.
Reflect and Discuss
- How does the stability of the reign of King Jesus on his heavenly throne give us confidence, even in times of political instability (like when godly King Uzziah died)?
- Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne.” How can we “see” the Lord now by faith in his Word? How would such a spiritual vision of the Lord fuel our worship?
- What is the significance of the fact that the seraphim are sinless yet they still covered their faces before Jesus?
- What does holy mean? Why do the seraphim say it three times? Why would you say that holiness is the most important attribute of God for us sinners to embrace?
- What effect did this awesome heavenly scene have on Isaiah? How should a proper contemplation of the holiness of the Lord result in a humble awareness of our own sinfulness? Why is such an ongoing awareness both reasonable and necessary to our full and final salvation from sin?
- How does the burning coal from the altar represent Christ?
- In what way is the call of Isaiah unique, and in what way is it a pattern for all Christians to follow?
- Do you find the message of verses 9-10 difficult to swallow? How can we understand the intentions of God in purposely hardening hearts and blinding eyes against spiritual truth? How does that message relate to Christ’s use of parables and the explanation for why the Jews could not believe in Jesus despite his miracles (John 12:39-41)? How does it relate to Romans 9:18?
- How is the image of a stump as it relates to Israel both humbling and hopeful for them?
- How do you feel the message of Isaiah 6 speaking into your life right now? As a result, what do you think God wants you to understand or do differently?