Isaiah’s Four Looks
A. E. Long, Nutley
Isaiah tells us that his great vision of ‘the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up’, took place in the year of king Uzziah’s death. The peculiar relevance of the vision is to be understood in the light of that melancholy event and especially the circumstances which led to it. Uzziah was one of the outstanding kings of Judah. The beginning of his long reign of fifty-two years augured well, for ‘he did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘set himself to seek God’. His reign, however, was marked by great material prosperity and temporal success, rather than by spiritual progress. Nonetheless, such success as he achieved was by God’s enablement, for it is said that ‘God helped him’. Because of this, he was victorious over the Philistines and the Arabians. He fortified Jerusalem and raised and equipped a great army, beside inventing great engines of war. In his later years, however, success seems to have turned his head. Of this defection there seems to have been some hint in the divine comment on his earlier zeal for God, ‘as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper’. Likewise, it was later said ‘he was marvellously helped, till he was strong’. As in the case of Solomon who, after a promising youthful start, lapsed into spiritual decline when he was old, Uzziah also did not fulfil the expectations of his youth. Middle age and old age have their peculiar temptations, as youth, and these are salutary examples for our warning. Uzziah’s fancied strength proved his undoing, for ‘when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction, and he trespassed against the Lord his God’. Not content with the prerogatives of kingship, he sought also to arrogate to himself the exclusive privilege of priesthood, in that he attempted to burn incense in the temple. Despite the urgent remonstrances of eighty faithful priests, he was not to be turned from his impiety, but was rather angered by their intervention. For his persistence in this act of sacrilege, God smote Uzziah with leprosy, even as he stood beside the altar of incense. Significantly, the leprosy ‘brake forth in his forehead’, as though to indicate the source of his transgression. God’s judgement upon the king was irremediable, for he remained a leper until he died, and dwelt in a separate house, his son acting as regent. After such a promising start, Uzziah’s sad defection and God’s unremitted judgement upon him, terminating a life of such usefulness, doutless came as a great shock and sense of personal loss to Isaiah. Isaiah probably felt that Uzziah could never be adequately replaced in the national life, although in the event Jotham his son was to prove himself a worthy successor. In his vision of ‘a throne, high and lifted up’, on which sat ‘the King, the Lord of hosts’, God reminded Isaiah that, however much earthly monarchs and thrones might fail, the sovereign Disposer of kings and thrones remained constant and dependable - ‘the Lord sitteth as king for ever’. When the apostle John was transported to heaven, the first object to catch his eye was ‘a throne set in heaven, and one sitting upon the throne’. Throughout the cataclysms revealed in the book of the Revelation, the world-shaking events brought about by divine judgements, the throne of deity remains undisturbed and serene to the end. Uzziah’s sacrilege was that he flouted the holiness of God. The point of Isaiah’s vision, in the year of the king’s death, was to underscore it in Isaiah’s conception of God. There are four looks to be remarked in the vision.
I. The Upward Look
Isaiah 6. 1-4 ‘I saw the Lord . . . high and lifted up’. The upward look, in the first instance, is essential to right perspective. Moses’ initial mistake, in seeking to defend an oppressed Israelite was that ‘he looked this way and that way’, instead of first looking up to God for guidance. For his error, he was compelled to flee from Egypt and to spend forty years in obscurity. Isaiah’s upward look took account of three things.
First, that God’s ‘skirts filled the temple’. Such was God’s greatness that merely His skirts were sufficient to fill the earthly sanctuary. God said of Himself, ‘the heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what manner of house will ye build unto me?’. Solomon said of God, in relation to the temple, ‘behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee: how much less this house that I have builded?’. The greatness of God eclipses all earthly sanctuaries.
Second, that ‘the foundations of the thresholds were moved at the voice’ of the seraphim. Uzziah had impiously crossed the threshold of God’s house in his attempt to burn incense. God would, therefore, remind Isaiah that circumspection was necessary in entering His house. Moses was bidden ‘put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground’, at the revelation of God to him at the burning bush. Joshua was similarly commanded, by the Captain of the Lord’s host, before Jericho. None may enter God’s presence presumptuously, without hurt to themselves. Solomon exhorts ‘keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God’. It were foolish to go hot-foot into the divine presence and ‘to give the sacrifice of fools’. God required of the priests that they washed both hands and feet at the laver before ministering before Him in the sanctuary, under pain of death. All these provisions emphasize the need for caution in regard to entering God’s house.
Third, that God was ‘thrice holy’, for the seraphim cried ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts’. There is probably a hint at the Holy Trinity in this threefold ascription of holiness to deity (cf. ‘who will go for us?’ v. 8). The more obvious emphasis, however, is on the essential holiness of God. He is ‘thrice holy’ (cf. Ps. 99. 3, 5 and 9). God says of Himself, ‘thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy: I dwell in the high and holy place’. In Psalm in, we read ‘holy and reverend is His name’. Jesus, in giving His disciples a pattern form of prayer, told them to address God in the words ‘Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name’. He Himself addressed God as ‘Holy Father’. Dare we think otherwise of God?
2. The Inward Look
v. 5 ‘Then said I, woe is me for I am undone: because I am a man of unclean lips . . .’, v. 5. The inward look always follows the upward look, in spiritual experience. One cannot take account of the holiness of God, without a corresponding sense of personal sinnership. Many scriptures testify to this fact. At the burning bush, ‘Moses hid his face: for he was afraid to look upon God’. Before the Captain of the Lord’s host, ‘Joshua fell on his face to the earth’. At the appearance of the glory of the Lord, Ezekiel says ‘I fell upon my face’. Daniel says ‘there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption’, at his vision of Christ. Peter after the miraculous draught of fishes, exclaimed to Jesus ‘Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord’. Saul of Tarsus, struck by a blinding flash of light from the face of Jesus Christ in heaven, ‘fell upon the earth’. John at Patmos, in the presence of the glorious Lord, says ‘I fell at his feet as one dead.’ Isaiah’s words ‘Woe is me, for I am undone’, could, therefore, be said to sum up the experience of them all. In the fifth chapter of Isaiah, six ‘woes’ are pronounced by God - against those greedy of accumulating possessions, drunkards, arrogant sinners, perverts, the worldly-wise, and those responsible for the miscarriage of justice, vv. 8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22. Isaiah adds a seventh ‘woe, but upon himself- Woe is me. There is hope for such a man. The Lord pronounced six ‘woes’ against the Pharisees, Matt. 23. He also told a parable concerning a Pharisee and a publican. Against the Pharisee His six woes might well have been proclaimed. Contrariwise, the publican proclaimed ‘woe’ against himself- ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. He had been impressed by the holiness of God and a realization of his own utter lack. Nonetheless, he was ‘justified ‘, in that he took the only possible ground of acceptance before God, as an ‘undone’ sinner. Isaiah’s uncleanness was symbolic of the people he represented - ‘I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’. His ‘unclean lips’ were also significant of" the deeper malady of ‘iniquity’ and ‘sin’, for the seraphim who touched Isaiah’s mouth with the live coal from off the altar said ‘this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin expiated’, R.V. margin.
The inward look is the necessary result of the upward look, but it were wrong to stop there. Excessive introspection, undue preoccupation with one’s sinnership, to the exclusion of occupation with God’s remedy for sin, were not only undesirable but foolish.
3. The Altar Look
w. 6, 7 The action of the seraphim was symbolic. Uzziah had taken live coals from off the altar to burn incense, in the manner commanded the priests, Lev. 16. 12, 13. That was his sin. Symbolically, the remedy for Isaiah’s uncleanness and, indeed, the nation’s uncleanness, was the right application of the live coal from off the altar. Doubtless, the ‘live coal’ typifies the cross, applied to our spiritual uncleanness and ‘undone’ state. The cross meets our unfitness as sinners for the presence of the thrice-holy God. The seraphim said to Isaiah, ‘thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged’. By ‘purged’, atonement is meant, i.e., to be covered, pardoned. David wrote ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered’. Atonement is an Old Testament word, not a New Testament one, where it only occurs once, and even in that instance were more correctly rendered ‘reconciliation’, Rom. 5. 11. The cross altogether disposes of sin - Christ ‘put away sin by his sacrifice’, Heb. 9.26, r.v. margin. In Old Testament times, the animal sacrifices offered under Moses’ law merely covered sins for the time being - they could never ‘take away sins’. The publican of the parable took the altar look when he prayed ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. By ‘mercy’, the publican meant propitiation. His prayer could be paraphrased ‘God, be propitiated toward me a sinner’. He looked to the mercy seat, sprinkled with the blood of sacrifice, Lev. 16. Christ is ‘the propitiation for our sins’, 1 John 2. 2; 4. 10 (cf. Rom. 3. 25) and ‘faith in his blood’ rids us of our spiritual uncleanness and fits us for the holy presence of God.
4. The Outward Look
w. 8-9-‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’, vv. 8, 9, to which Isaiah responded ‘Here am I, send me’. The outward look must follow the altar look. The meeting of our personal need as sinners must create in us an exercise of heart toward those whose need is as yet unrealized and unmet. Only those who have had this experience are qualified to intervene with those who lack it. But all such service for God must have commission. Paul rightly asks ‘how shall they preach, except they be sent?’. And God does not commandeer men to preach. They must freely acknowledge His commission. When God asked ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’, Isaiah willingly responded ‘Here am I; send me’.
When God manifested Himself to individuals, it was generally with a view to commissioning them. Moses, Joshua, Ezekiel, Peter, Saul of Tarsus and John were all commissioned as a result of a revelation granted to them. They were ‘sent’ and, broadly speaking, their commission was to ‘go and tell’. God’s direction to Isaiah was ‘Go, and tell this people’. The demoniac of Gadara, from whom Jesus exorcised a legion of demons, was commissioned by Him ‘Go to thy house unto thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee’. The erstwhile demoniac acknowledged this commission, although he would have preferred to have remained with Jesus. How well he acknowledged it is seen in that ‘he went his way, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel’. We, too, have an obligation to ‘go and tell’. The early Christians so understood their commission, for when persecution dispersed the members of the church at Jerusalem, ‘they . .. that were scattered abroad went about preaching the Word’. They had been commissioned by Christ to do so. How well they responded is seen in the growth of Christianity and the increase in the number of local churches, in those early years of the Christian era.