In this passage Isaiah has a vision of God. And what he sees is God’s glorious, awesome, mind-blowing holiness. He sees God’s Holiness. What does it mean that God is Holy and why would seeing His holiness so profoundly affect Isaiah? We struggle with the concept of holiness for a couple of reasons. One, its a hard concept. It means separate, other, distinct, unique. And yet it has a quality of moral and spiritual goodness and perfection. It is hard to understand because by definition it is unique and hard to grasp- otherwise it would be common.
The other reason that we struggle with the concept of God’s Holiness is because we assume that means that he is like us only better. He is like the best, most morally upright person we know, only better.
However, this passage shows that God is not fundamentally like us- He is Holy- He is fundamentally not like us at all. We are made in His image, so we are like him in some ways. But, God’s Holiness makes him utterly unique and magnificently glorious and worthy of your worship and your life.
What does Isaiah see?
1. He is sitting upon a throne: This God reigns.
This is not a little throne that he reigns on over his little group of religious people. No. This represents his sovereign rule and reign over the universe. "For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne” (Psalm 47:7-8).
Even over the earthy kingdoms and nations of this world this God reigns. “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it whoever he will" (Proverbs 21:1).
He rules the universe. “He determines the number of stars; he gives to all of them their names" (Psalm 147:4). We don’t even know how many stars are in the universe. To answer that question we have to narrow it to what we can observe- the estimation is that there are maybe as many as 100 billion galaxies in the universe. 100 billion. And our galaxy- the milky way- has an estimated 300 billion stars. And he knows them each by name and they rotate and burn and move at his bidding. He tells them what to do. His throne is a holy throne, a unique throne, a throne like no other. He has absolute sovereignty and rule.
2. Isaiah sees that the train of his robe, the hem of his robe, fills the temple.
The greater a King’s robe, the greater the King’s majesty. Just the hem, the very edge of the robe has filled the entire temple. He is majestic. This is no mere red carpet event- this is the most majestic and glorious being in the universe.
3. And he is surrounded by Seraphim, angels, glorious angels.
Seraphim means fiery ones. I think that the angel knick knack industry has done more damage to our view of angels then we know. When we think of angels in America we think of sweet precious moments or little chubby babies with wings, or maybe beautiful women who protect and comfort. Angels certainly comfort, but, when an angel shows up people don’t go ooh- thats cute- they shut their mouths in terror. These are glorious and terrifying creatures. Set ablaze with the glory of God. With six wings- flying with two, covering his feet and his face with the others. Even Angels with their moral perfection cannot see God. They cannot stand to look upon his holiness. And they cover their feet because they are in a holy place. And they are constantly calling out to one another: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” To repeat something in Hebrew is like underlining it, or bolding it, or italicizing it, or putting an exclamation. This has an exclamation and its repeated three times. That is the strongest you can say it. Its like bold, underlined, italicized, and an increased font, something that would drive your english professor crazy. The angels cannot emphasize enough- this is God- He is holy- He is glorious- behold him! And their voice is shaking the temple- the voice of creatures that are not high and Holy enough to view God are shaking the very foundations of the temple in which God is dwelling. What must the voice of God be like.
4. This scene is filled with the Holiness of God.
The beauty and majesty of his rule, his reign, his character, his perfection, his manifold glory. It is blindingly brilliant. Its like the sun. You cannot look directly into it because you could not bear it, but it provides the glory to all of creation by its light and if it could be viewed directly it would be such a glorious experience.
There is only one possible response for Isaiah in encountering this Holy God in this way.
“And I said Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Isaiah is undone. This is not a “woe is me- life is hard- whining. This is a woe is me because I am looking upon the face of almighty God and I do not measure up. I am lost. I will be wiped out by his holiness. This woe is a term of judgement. He is pronouncing that he will be judged and condemned. This is what you would feel if you approached the sun. Thats it. I’m dead. He is lost. He is lost because he is confronted with true holiness. Isaiah has a relative amount of holiness. When compared to others he is relatively holy. He is not a pagan idolater or a murderous man. There is no indication that he is a sex addict, or a man who cusses like a sailor. If we were to examine Isaiah’s life in the midst of all other men we would not conclude that he is lost.
But, here is the issue. The ultimate court to be tried in is not how you measure up to other people but how you measure up when God shows up. Because he has seen the Lord, Isaiah realizes how far gone he truly is. For all his relative goodness, he has a problem. He is human. And since the fall of man into sin, when our first parents represented us (and did so quite well I might add- given human history- we would have done the same thing) and when they rebelled against God they plunged the whole of the human race into sin. Sin is rebellion against God, both in active disobedience to what he says, and in passive indifference to him and what he commands. Isaiah sees before him the Holy one, the pure undefiled radiant glory of God and that exposes the depths of his sin and wickedness. Its like being in a college men’s dorm room or house. It looks relatively clean until you compare it to a higher standard and then you realize how gross and dirty and smelly it really is. And so he cries out I am unclean.
But this is not just Isaiah’s problem- it's everyone's problem.
Our sin is not just restricted to our actions, but our motives, our thoughts, our feelings towards things. It is pervasive like a cancer that has spread and infected every single part of our lives. Our wills are messed up so we choose the wrong things. Our minds are messed up so we think evil things about others, questioning their motives, judging them at a standard we could not and don’t keep. We lust after things we can’t have. People we can’t have, objectifying those made in the image of God for our pleasure rather than his. And our hearts are messed up. We give them to everything but God.
If your response is not to see your sin like this and cry out woe is me than you know nothing of God’s holiness.
But, thankfully it doesn’t end there, not for Isaiah and not for us.
In verses 6 and 7 we see God’s glory and holiness extend even further and in more manifold glory.
If what we just said about Isaiah and us is true. Than because of our sin and the blinding perfection of God, what should God do to Isaiah? Confirm the very woe that Isaiah called upon himself. But, this God is glorious and holy in all his ways. He is far above and perfect in every single attribute. That means he has holy wrath, holy justice, holy knowledge, holy power, and holy steadfast faithful love and mercy. His mercy and love is not like ours. We love what is lovely and lovable.
God loves what is unlovable and makes it lovely.
Thats what he does with Isaiah with this burring coal to his lips cleansing him by fire and atoning for his sin. Atonement means the removal of punishment and wrath against his sin and reconciling the parties so that they are at one. This happens to Isaiah through this coal.
How does this happen for us. The heart is where our problem lies. How will God do business with our heart? And how will he atone for our sins?
The bible tells us in Romans chapter 8 that God did “what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
God sent his Son to atone for our sins.
To stand in our place. To take on our flesh. To bear the burning hot holy wrath of God against sin. To bear the full weight of it. To be condemned. To face God’s woe. So that any and all who trust in him would not have to bear it. And not only that, but then be credited with Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law, his perfect moral holiness credited to your account. So that you can stand before God and not have to pronounce woe- but look him full in the face.
It is one thing to know God’s glorious holiness in his judgment upon sin. But to then know it in his loving kindness towards you. This is a glory that we can hardly speak of.
So, what is Isaiah's response to this?
God says that we need something done. And before he even knows what it is- Isaiah jumps up and says, "Here am I! Send me! Oh God please let me go and represent you! Oh please let me go." There isn’t a question of whether or not he will do it. And what is this job. Preaching judgement, not the most fun job. And, most likely Isaiah was sawn in two for doing it. But even when he found out what it was and what it would cost him, he still did it. Why? Because that’s what happens when you understand who God is and what he has done for you in atoning for your sins.
This radical grace demands radical obedience.
If it was just sort of good than its no big deal to pick and choose what you want to do. But this is radical grace. Its extravagant. And the only response is send me God.
Just as we haven’t truly known God’s holiness unless we cry woe is me. We haven’t truly known God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ unless we cry send me.
This does not mean that every Christian should become a missionary or pastor. However, are you going to live your life following Jesus? Taking what he says seriously. Are you willing to risk all and sacrifice your life goals and dreams for God’s and say, "Here am I! Send me. What would you have me do?" Have you ever asked God that question? Have you ever prayed about it, thought about it, talked with others about, read the bible and said, "God show me what you want me to do. What do you want God? What do you value God? How could my life make you look beautiful and display to the world how glorious and awesome and holy you are?"
This only happens when we gaze upon the holiness and beauty of God, admit and repent from our sins, trust in Jesus, and repeat. Constantly gazing upon the glorious holy beauty of God almighty. It will only happen if we lean into the good news of Jesus by the power of His spirit and through his word.