22 June 2019Isaiah 6:1-8
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. (v.3)
Psalm: Psalm 148
Today’s dramatic passage describes God’s calling of the prophet Isaiah. It is one of the best-known passages in the Old Testament. In the preceding five chapters of the book, we learn that Isaiah has been called by God to denounce the evil of his contemporary society: corruption (1:4), oppression of the poor (3:14-15), greed (5:8), and much more. God has called his people to be ‘holy’, as their creator is holy, but instead they have adopted the sinful ways of their neighbours and turned to the worship of other gods and cults (1:29, 2:6). Isaiah is called to deliver a hard message to his people, warning them of imminent destruction at the hands of a foreign enemy: first Assyria, and then Babylon (5:24-30). Their special status as God’s ‘chosen people’ will not save them (5:1-7). However, even here the message is tempered with the hope that God’s people will repent and return to God, beating their “swords into ploughshares” (2:4).
In chapter six, Isaiah is brought before God in a vision. This takes places in around 742-38 BC, when King Uzziah of Judah died (v. 1). The description of the heavenly court is similar to other descriptions of God seated upon his throne (eg 1 Kings 22:19-23, Ezekiel 1:4 – 2:1) and seems to draw upon contemporary Near Eastern imagery. For example, the “seraphs” or winged snakes, often found in ancient Egyptian art of deities (v. 2).
The whole scene emphasises one of the central themes of the book of Isaiah: that God alone is “high and lofty” (v. 1) and that anything that seems to rival God, be it human pride, other gods or ambitious empires, will be brought to destruction. Only through the painful symbolic action of having his lips cleansed by hot coals (v. 7) is Isaiah able to speak into a scene of such utter holiness. Isaiah will be brought back to this same place later in chapter 40, when he is called to bring a message of comfort to God’s people in exile. For now, though, the message is a hard one to deliver and to hear (6:9-13).
- What does ‘holiness’ mean to you?
- Isaiah’s vision of God seems to have been influenced by his contemporary world. Is the same true for us today?
- This passage is often used at commissioning services, for example at the ordination of ministers. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this passage at such services?