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Holy, Holy, Holy The Call of Isaiah - Isaiah 6:1-8

The true prophets of Israel were a unique bunch.  None had to dust off their resumes and apply for the job.  They were specially called by God.  Once called, a prophet would serve for life, without the option to resign, as Jonah, Jeremiah and others discovered.  God employed different methods to call and commission a prophet, and probably none was as dramatic as the call of Isaiah; however, the primary theme of the story is the "holiness of God".

Written April 2009.

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Historical Background

The year was 740 BC, a very turbulent year in history of Judah (Israel’s southern kingdom).  Uzziah, one of Judah’s good kings who "did right in the eyes of the Lord" had ruled for over 50 years.  His time is power was characterized by a prosperous economy and a military almost as powerful as during the days of King David.  Unfortunately, near the end of his reign, his pride got the better of him and he was struck with leprosy for burning incense in the temple, a duty reserved for the priests.  Despite this misstep, Uzziah was very popular with the people being, for most of them, the only ruler they had ever known.

Unlike most prophets who came from modest backgrounds such as farmer or shepherd, Isaiah was a nobleman who rubbed elbows with kings and princes.  He was not only very close to Uzziah, but probably to the entire royal family.  So, as our text begins, Isaiah had likely gone to the temple to mourn a personal loss, but as the old saying goes, he got much more than he bargained for.  Isaiah went to the temple to mourn the loss of Judah’s human king, but in a vision, came face to face with the true King of Israel, the eternal King of the entire universe.

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Bible Text - Isaiah 6:1-8

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.  2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.  3 And they were calling to one another:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of His glory."

4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

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The Encounter

In verse one, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord on a throne, high and exalted.  The author first identifies God by the title Lord (Hebrew Adonia meaning "Sovereign One").  In verse two, we are introduced to the seraphs, a special class of angels who constantly worship around the throne of God.  We see that even though they are spiritual beings without a sinful nature, they are still creatures and must cover their face and feet in the presence of the Holy God.  The covering of the feet reminds us of Moses at the Burning Bush (Ex 3), when he was instructed to remove his sandals while standing on holy ground.  We must note that this space around the Theophany of God is not intrinsically holy, but extrinsically holy due to the presence of the Lord.  In most cases, it is also time sensitive, that is, when the manifested Presence departs, it reverts back to regular ground.  That said, most folks who have been to the Holy Land will attest to the overwhelming presence of the holy that is felt in walking where Jesus walked.  The Israelites often placed marker to commemorate special holy events, and many churches later built over certain locations.

Holy, Holy, Holy

In verse three, we come to the crux of our text, when the angels ere calling "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory."  In modern English writings, we use certain techniques to indicate emphasis or importance of a saying.  This was done in Hebrew by using repetition.  Thus, we would interpret the phrase "holy, holy" to mean "very holy".  When we encounter "holy, holy, holy" however, this means extremely holy, or holy to the nth degree.  This is the perfect holiness of God, and is the only attribute of God given this three-fold emphasis.

We have yet to define the word "holy", so we should do so before proceeding any further.  It is actually a very difficult word to precisely define, taking on several meanings.  The primary Biblical meaning of holy is separate, or set apart, usually for a specific purpose.  Generally, when the Bible speaks of the Holiness of God, it refers to his transcendence as exceeding the limits of our experiences or knowledge, or being wholly other, completely separate and transcended far above His creation (Ps 97:9, 108:5).  It also refers to His sovereignty, majesty, purity, integrity, righteousness and other associated attributes.  God’s holiness should not be thought of as just another of His attributes, but in relationship with each of His attributes.  For example, His love is a holy love, and His justice is holy justice etc.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, He began with “Our Father in heaven, hallowed [holy] be your name” (Mt 6:9).  Notice He didn’t say “hallowed is your name”, but “hallowed be your name”.  Jesus was saying that we should pray that God’s name be kept holy.  God’s name was once considered as holy in our country, but this is becoming extremely rare in our modern times.  So, like the angels, we are to regard God as being holy, but in addition, we should pray that others do likewise.

The Paradox

An important point that we must make is that, even though God is infinitely transcendent above us, He is not remote to us, that is, He is not separated from us in a geographic sense.  Returning to verse 3, we read that "the whole world is full of His glory".  This phrase testifies to God’s immanence, which refers to God being within or near in relation to His creation while still being distinct from it.  This attribute is closely related to God’s omnipresence, in that He is always present within the universe, and not bound by space or time (Jer 23:23-24).

So we see a magnificent paradox in this verse, that of the transcendence and immanence of God in perfect harmony, and it is critical that we affirm both.  If we deny His immanence, we fall into Deism, the belief that God created the universe, set the natural laws in place, and then consigned Himself to a spectator’s role while these laws governed a self-sustaining world.  This belief was particularly prevalent after the Enlightenment in Western Europe, reaching a high point in America during the late 18th century about the time of our independence.  It is relatively rare in modern times since conservative theologians reject it on the basis that it denies the Biblical view that God is the sustaining cause within the universe.  Liberals reject it because it affirms God as the Creator rather than the religion of evolution.  Though Deism no longer widely exists as a religion, some of its effects are still seen today.  In particular, many modern Christians do not believe God is actively involved in every aspect of our lives.  Some see God as a micromanager, on caring about the major or overall picture, while leaving the small stuff to us.  I can assure you that, if a sparrow can’t fall to the ground apart from His will, the God who numbers the very hairs on our heads is intimately interested in each of us (Mt 10:29-31).

On the other hand, to deny God’s transcendence results in Pantheism (from the Greek words pan (all) and theism (God), meaning that "all is God", that is, all things contain divinity.  We see this in the New Age beliefs that God is the sum of all things and all peoples, so consequently, everyone and everything is God.  Pantheism is also the underlying belief behind many other modern cults such as various "mother nature" worshipers, extreme environmentalism, various unification movements (Moonies etc), and to some extent, Buddhism and Hinduism.

So, we must affirm this paradox and the full and perfect attributes of God.  Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians that the one God and Father of all, is "is over all and through all and in all" (Eph 4:6).

Doorposts and Thresholds

Moving on to verse four, we see that at the sound of the angel’s voices worshipping the Lord, the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.  This begs the question that, if the doorposts and thresholds shook in the presence of God being worshiped, how do millions of people sit in church each week and leave unchanged.  Are these inanimate wooden objects more intelligent than the people who are now the temple of God and having this same God living in us?  Pollster George Barna reports that the most common reason given by people who leave the church is that "they are bored".  How can anyone be bored in the presence of Almighty God?  To answer this requires a separate writing, so we’ll just mention a couple of possibilities here.  The first case would involve God not actually "being there", not to deny his omnipresence, but in the sense that He withdraws His blessing from a particular church.  God promises that whenever we are together "in His Name", He will be in our midst, but all churches do not proclaim the Name of the true God.  The other case involves the person attending to be entertained rather than to worship.  Many modern churches cater to this crowd by playing to their "feelings" rather than trying to reach their minds with the truth of the Word.  This results in a temporary "fix" without any foundation on which to grow.

In Luke 19, we witness Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the people worshiping Him and shouting praises to God.  The Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke the crowd, but Jesus replied, "I tell you.  If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out".  We saw an initial fulfillment of this in Matthew 27, when Jesus gave up his Spirit on the cross and the temple curtain was split, the earth shook and the rocks split (v51).  I believe we’re seeing an additional fulfillment of this in our own times.  During the past century, as the church has become more liberal and watered down the truth of God’s Word, there has been an explosion of scientific breakthroughs in the field of archeology substantiating these truths.  In a time that God’s people are becoming ever more silent, the inanimate rocks and stones are increasingly crying out.

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The Oracle of Woe

Next, in verse five, we observe Isaiah’s reaction to being in the presence of the holy God.  To fully understand this, we must note a few things about the character of Isaiah.  He was a great man of integrity, widely considered by his fellow Jews as one, if not the most righteous man of his time.  Most of us are spiritual insects in comparison, although we can still have a lofty self-image when comparing ourselves to others.  Yet this man, who was a model of virtue and morality, got a brief glimpse of the absolute standard of holiness and immediately cried out "Woe is me!" Isaiah understood that we are to measure our morality and purity not against others, but against a perfectly holy God.  God is the One who is offended by our sins.  God’s laws are not just some arbitrary rules that He thought up for us, but are based on who He is.  So, when we sin, we launch an attack on the very character and nature of God.

John Calvin wrote in Book 1 of his Institutes, that a person can’t achieve "a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself".  He then went on to say that we deem ourselves wise and holy due to our pride, and won’t be convinced of our own unrighteousness until we look to the Lord, "who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured".  Calvin concludes that man can never truly be "touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state, until he has compared himself with God's majesty".

In the language of the prophets, "woe" is considered an oracle, frequently of doom and destruction.  The Hebrew prophets would typically proclaimed oracles of judgments on evil doers, kings, countries etc, but Isaiah calls this one down on himself, and we should follow his example.  Before we start judging others, we should take a good look at ourselves in the light of the Holy God (Ps 139:23).  Paul wrote that we should judge ourselves so that we will not by judged by God (for a Christian, Paul is referring to a judgment of discipline, not condemnation – 1Cor 11:31-32).  Jesus was always firm, but gentle and loving with sinners, saving his harshest condemnations for hypocritical religious leaders who talked the talk, but weren't walking the walk.  In Ezekiel 9, evil had spread throughout the land of Israel (similar to our country today), so God sends a man (probably an angel) with a marking pen to place a mark on the forehead of all those who are grieving and lamenting over the "detestable things" happening in Jerusalem.  He then orders His avenging angels to go throughout the city killing all those who do not have the mark.  Now, we would think that the most logical place to start would be the bars and bordellos (or Hollywood and Washington DC in our days), but God directs the angels to "begin at my sanctuary" (Ez 9:6, see also 1Pe 4:17).  Isaiah understood that all reforms must begin with the man in the mirror.

After Isaiah cries "woe is me", he then wails "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…".  The Hebrew for "ruined" is translated "undone" in older versions, and literally means "coming apart at the seams".  We as Christians might expect that seeing God would produce a giddy excitement, but Isaiah responds with fear and self-loathing.  This is consistent with the pattern of many encounters between man and God in the Bible.  Both the Father and Son would often have to remind the prophet or apostle to "fear not".  For example, after the miraculous catch of fish, Peter exclaimed to Jesus "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" (Lk 5).

Sigmund Freud, considered by many to be the father of modern psychiatry, claimed that man invented religion out of a fear of nature in order to have a god who might protect us from storms or illness.  Many of the Bible narratives, however, clearly refute this theory.  In many cases, men’s fears increased after witnessing God’s power over these forces.  After Jesus calmed the sea, we see that the disciples were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mk 4:41).  They were more in fear and awe of Jesus than with the stormy seas.  This begs the question to Freud that, if man invented God as protection from the storms of life, why would he invent a God whose holiness was more frightening than nature’s threats?  After listening to the Jonathan Edwards sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, would we rather face a natural disaster, or a holy and just God.

We also might wonder why the focus on the lips.  I don’t have a definitive answer, but we can mention a possibility.  We know that Jesus stated that, whatever comes out of the mouth is from the heart and makes a man unclean (Mt 15:11,18), and His brother James wrote extensively about man’s inability to tame the tongue in his epistle.  These teaching, however would not have been available to Isaiah since they were written some 700 years afterward.  I doubt that Isaiah was guilty of profanity or malicious gossip, but he was probably very sensitive about his speech because, as a prophet, his mouth was the mouthpiece of the Lord.  Whatever the reason, we see that Isaiah’s shattered image leads him to confession and repentance.

Forgiven, Reconciled and Commissioned

Our holy and just God is also full of mercy and grace, so immediately after Isaiah's confession, he is cleansed by holy fire in verses six and seven.  Someone once stated that the significance of the coal being placed on his lips points to God ministering to us at the point of our need according to our confession.  Finally, in verse eight, we arrive at the call and commission of Isaiah.  God puts the same questions to Isaiah that, at one time or another, He asks of each of us, that is “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?”  Anyone who has had a glimpse of the holiness of God should have nothing else to say but “Here am I, send me!”

We see a certain pattern or sequence at work that is common to personal.  As we come to an awareness of who God is, we are convicted and awakened to the dreadfulness of our true nature apart from Him.  Until we see ourselves as we are, God will do nothing for us.  Jesus came to call the spiritually sick, not the self-righteous.  Next, immediately upon Isaiah’s confession, God forgives, heals and reconciles him.  The Biblical connotation for reconcile is to reunite, or to bring two parties together to patch up their differences.  Another use of the word in the original language was to denote a peace treaty.  We were previously at war with God until He, through Christ, made peace with us.  He also counts us as being righteous in Christ, that is, we are now acceptable in position to Him (see 2Cor 5:11-21).  God then calls us to participate in His workings, and we should respond by living in a manner worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1).

In Isaiah’s case, this calling was a commission to take His Word to the people of Israel.  At this point, he was already a prophet, previously experiencing visions and proclaiming oracles, but now, after being faithful with a little, God takes him to a new level.  He would later be considered the most important of the latter Hebrew prophets, foretelling many events in the life of the coming Messiah, including His birth, many aspects of His ministry, and His sacrificial death, and it began with Isaiah’s recognition of the holiness of God.

Let us fast forward approximately 2200 years to another encounter and commissioning of sorts.  We arrive in Erfurt, Germany in the year 1507 AD, where a young monk named Martin Luther is preparing to conduct his first Mass.  The rite of Mass commemorated the supper which Jesus instituted with his disciples on the night before he was crucified, a supper previously celebrated annually as the Jewish Passover.

At this point in his career, although Luther had not yet distinguished himself as a dynamic public speaker, he was already well known for his confidence in his theology, which can be ascertained from his various polemic correspondences with his critics.  He began the ceremony with great poise and composure, but when he came to the Canon of the mass, the Prayer of Consecration in which Luther was to exercise his priestly authority for the first time to evoke the power of God to perform what is believed by the Roman Catholic Church to be the great miracle of transubstantiation (the changing of the elements of bread and wine to the real body and blood of Christ), Luther hesitated.

What happened next is the subject of some debate.  Theologian RC Sproul states that Luther could not continue, so he returned to the table where his father and the family guests were seated.  He ruined the mass and disgraced himself and his father Hans, who had finally accepted Martin’s decision to give up a lucrative law career to enter the priesthood.  Hans had just made a generous contribution to the monastery and now felt humiliated in the very place he came to witness his son’s honor.  Other historians however, recall that Luther’s paralysis lasted only long enough to concern the Prior who was at the alter assisting him, but then Martin composed himself and, though sweating and shaken, safely continued and completed the procedure without alarming the congregation.

Despite, the varying accounts of the final outcome of the ceremony, all are in agreement concerning Luther’s temporary paralysis.  When he began the prayer, “Te igitur, clementissime Pater” (Therefore, oh most merciful Father), he was suddenly overtaken by an overwhelming identity crisis and he froze at the altar.  He questioned, how dare he actually speak to God?  This concept was totally unthinkable to him that he was to address a holy God.  Years later, Luther would write the following concerning this experience.

At these words I was utterly stupefied and terror-stricken.  I thought to myself, “With what tongue shall I address such majesty, seeing that all men ought to tremble in the presence of even an earthly prince?  Who am I, that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine Majesty?  The angels surround him.  At his nod the earth trembles.  And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say ‘I want this, I ask for that’?  For I am dust and ashes and full of sin and I am speaking to the living, eternal and the true God.

Isaiah and Luther were both in a state of reverence and awe when addressing the holy and true God… and in the words of Charles Dickens, "May that be truly said of all of us".

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