The King on His Throne
Have you ever seen something that was so amazing that you could barely describe it to others? You best attempts fell flat because you know that, apart from actually being there and seeing it yourself, you just couldn’t fully get it?
I wonder if that’s what today’s passage was like for Isaiah. Isaiah received a vision of God in His throne room that changed him for the rest of his life. And today’s passage is simply his description of what that vision was and how it affected him.
And I tremble before a passage like this because I know that my words about Isaiah’s words will never come even close to giving us that experience Isaiah had. And I so wish they could. I so wish we could see what he saw.
But nevertheless, Isaiah did write these words down. And as he did that, he wrote exactly what God wanted him to say. These are God’s words. And as we lean into these words, seeking to understand them and wrap our heads and our hearts around them, God can meet us in these words and change us, too.
And that’s my prayer this morning. Not just that we understand this passage, but that we encounter God in His word and walk away changed.
Let’s start by considering the setting of this passage. You’ll remember that Isaiah chapters 1-5 contain a series of three messages, most likely coming from different points throughout Isaiah’s ministry, but which together give a picture of the overall situation of what things were like as Isaiah was prophesying. And with Isaiah chapter 6, the book itself begins with what is best understood as Isaiah’s call to ministry.
And this passage opens with a marker of historical setting. Verse 1 tells us that this call to ministry happened “in the year that King Uzziah died.” King Uzziah had been one of the better kings of Judah, and his 52-year long reign had been full of prosperity and expansion.
But at the height of his power, he had grown proud, and went into the temple to burn incense as if he were one of the priests. He got angry when the priests died to stop him, and in response God struck him with leprosy. So he spent the last several years of his life living in a separate house, with his son ruling as the public face of the monarchy for him. You can read all about that in 2 Chronicles 26.
And it’s at the very end of this time that Isaiah’s ministry begins. Once more, the people had seen a good king not finish well. Once more, there was uncertainly about the future. Once more, it looked like sin and judgement were ruling the day.
And it’s in the year that Uzziah died, right around 740 BC, that God, the king who does not die, calls Isaiah.
The Description of God’s Majesty
And Isaiah’s call happened through this vision of God’s majesty. Isaiah 1:1 told us that this book was a “vision,” and that’s the best way to understand chapter 6 here. God caused Isaiah to see a vision, something similar to a dream in which he saw spiritual realities portrayed in a visual way.
And that helps us understand how he can actually see God and not die. “Man shall not see me and live,” said God to Moses in Exodus 33:20. And while it’s noteworthy that Isaiah didn’t see God’s face in this vision, it is best to understand this as a vision. In other words, it’s not like Isaiah was actually plucked up and brought to the throne room of heaven. Instead, similar to a dream, God caused him to see spiritual realities portrayed in a visual way.
And what did Isaiah see? He saw the Lord sitting up on a throne. A throne is a symbol of authority. God is the eternal king, ruling with absolute sovereignty. Uzziah was about to die, but God is alive, and ruling over all other rulers.
Isaiah says that He is high and lifted up. He rules over all other rulers. There is no throne above Him; everybody is beneath Him. He is exalted over all.
Isaiah says that the train of the Lord’s robe filled the temple. The robe once again points to kingly majesty. The train or the fringe of the robe is the part that touches the ground, and if just the train of God’s robe fills the temple, that suggests Isaiah’s vision of God is immense. God cannot be contained by the temple if even his robe fills it. God is great beyond anything Isaiah can imagine.
The Response to God’s Majesty
Now what is very important about our passage is that this is the extent to which Isaiah describes God directly. Isaiah does not go on to describe what He saw of God any further.
But instead, what we find in the rest of the passage is how those around God react or respond to God’s majesty.
It’s like in a movie, when something either good or bad is happening, and instead of showing us that thing, the camera instead shows us the face of one of the actors. And their reaction tells us everything we need to know about what they are seeing.
That’s kind of what’s happening here. Isaiah cannot describe God, but he can tell us what is going on around God. And he does this in three ways. He starts with the seraphim, and then he speaks about the building itself, and then he speaks about himself and his reaction to what He saw.
In a similar way, Isaiah begins with the seraphim. Seraphim, a plural of seraph, are angelic beings in God’s presence, and we learn much about God as we see how they respond to God.
But before we get there, we need to ask, what are seraphim? The word “seraph” itself has to do with “flame” or “fiery one.” But what’s very interesting is that every other time the word “seraph” is used in the Bible, it refers to “fiery serpents.” Five other times this word shows up in the Old Testament and all five times, ESV translates it as “fiery serpent.” (Numbers 21:6, 8, Deuteronomy 8:15, Isaiah 14:29, 30:6.)
The main place where this happens is in numbers 21, where God sent “fiery serpents” in among the people, and Moses made a bronze “fiery serpent” and put it up on a pole for the people to see and be saved by. That word for “fiery serpent” is seraph.
And we know from 2 Kings 18 that this bronze “seraph” was being kept in the temple during Isaiah’s time as an object of worship. Archeology has also uncovered Hebrew seals where the symbol was a winged snake. And so while it sounds weird to us, an original Hebrew reader of Scripture would have read this description of “seraphs” in Isaiah 6 and most likely thought of winged, fire-breathing serpents. This was common imagery for the people of Israel and Judah.1Peter Gentry, “No One Holy Like the Lord,” Midwestern Journal of Theology 12:1 (2013), p. 29-31l Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Is 6:2.
Now many of us recoil at that idea because when we think about winged fiery serpents, we think about dragons, and we associate dragons with evil because Satan is called the “dragon, the ancient serpent” in Revelation 20:2. But many interpreters of the Bible understand that Satan was an angel before he fell. And when Satan showed up in the garden as a serpent, Eve didn’t freak out and run away. She had a conversation with him.
So should we be too surprise to see what we would call dragons surrounding the throne, praising God?
And here’s why this is important. The angels worshipping God in heaven are not pretty babies floating on clouds lazily strumming harps. They are terrifying, powerful creatures. When one of them speaks, it makes the foundations of the temple shake (v. 4).
I just heard a pilot this week talk about buzzing the tower in an SR-71 blackbird, making the windows shake with the roar of his engines. That’s what it’s like when these seraphim talk.
And yet look at this creatures in God’s presence. They are the ones covering their faces. They are covering their feet, almost as if they are cowering and trying to protect themselves, and they are calling to each other, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (v. 3).
If these creatures are in fearful awe of God’s presence, how much more should we be?
So that’s one reason why the seraphim are important to consider. There’s a second reason, which is that they point us back to that account in Numbers 21:6, where God sent fiery serpents among the people.
And why did He do that? Because the people were complaining—again—and were speaking out against God, saying that He was not going to finish what He started. Numbers 21:5 says that “the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food’” (Numbers 21:5).
They people were basically saying that God wasn’t going to finish what He started. He wasn’t going to carry through on what He promised. He had brought His people into the wilderness and was just going to dump them there to die.
And this is important because the people in Isaiah’s day were saying basically the same thing. Back in chapter 5, verses 18-19 tell us people were saying “Let him be quick, let him speed his work that we may see it; let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel draw near and let it come, that we may know it!”
That’s basically a sarcastic way of saying, “What’s God up to, anyways? Why doesn’t He hurry up? Where’s that judgement He talked about? Where is He?” It’s a very similar attitude to the people in Moses’ day.
In Moses’ day they were worried about starving. In Isaiah’s day they were worried about the Assyrians. But both of them were basically questioning whether God was ever going to finish what He started. They thought that God had brought them up to a certain spot in history and then just walked away.
And that’s why the words of the seraphim are so important. Because the seraphim remind Isaiah and his listeners about those events in the wilderness. They remind God’s people about how seriously God takes it when He is slandered like this.
And with that in mind, consider what the seraphim themselves say. They have two messages on their lips, and the first is, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3).
I don’t know if you remember my very first Sunday here, back in October of 2017. I preached on Philippians 1:1 and we talked about this idea of holiness. And we saw that many people have looked at the Hebrew word for “holy” and seen how it looks similar to the word for “cut,” and so they’ve argued that the word “holy” means separated, or “totally other.”
Or, connected to that, many think that the word holy refers to being morally pure. It means there isn’t a speck of sin in God. He’s completely perfect.
And that second idea is certainly true. God is absolutely perfect. But in recent years, scholars have been taking a closer look at this word. They’ve recognized that just because the Hebrew for “holy” has the word “cut” in it, it doesn’t mean that they mean the same thing. Just like the words “pulpit” and “pulp” have very little to do with each other.
And then when we look at how the word “holy” was actually used in the Bible and by the other peoples alongside of the Hebrews, we see that the word “holy” actually has the basic meaning of “devoted.” As in, devoted to God and His purposes.
Holy bread in the temple was bread devoted to God. Ordinary people couldn’t pick it up and eat it because it was devoted to God’s purposes. Holy ground was ground that had been devoted to the purpose of meeting with God. Israel was a holy nation because they had been devoted to God’s purposes. They couldn’t do whatever they wanted and be like the nations around them. They were devoted to God. They were holy.
Back in Numbers 21, the people questioned whether God was holy—whether He was completely devoted to the mission of taking His people out of Egypt and bringing them all the way into the Promised Land. They questioned whether he was 100% committed to the job [Gentry, 32].
And the people of Isaiah’s day were questioning the same thing. “Where is God? What’s He up to?” In other words, “Is he really holy?” And the answer is yes. Chapter 5 gave us that answer in verse 16, right in the middle of the chapter, which said, “But the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16).
God is devoted to Himself and His purposes. He will show justice and righteousness.
Later on in Isaiah, in 48:9-11, we read these words: “For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:9–11).
That is holiness. God, completely devoted to His own glory, and because of that, devoted to keeping His promises and saving His covenant people despite what they deserve. He will do whatever is necessary to overcome sin and and keep His promises and triumph by His grace.
God is holy. But not just holy. The seraphim proclaim that God is holy, holy, holy.
That is so important, because in the Hebrew language, repeating something twice is how you say that it is totally true. So, in ancient Hebrew, if you want to say that something is pure gold, you’d say “gold, gold” (2 Kings 25:15). Or if a land was full of pits, you’d say that the land was “pits, pits” (Genesis 14:10).
So we might expect the seraphim to say that God is holy, holy. But they go one step further. He is holy, holy, holy. From the wilderness of Moses’ day to the chaos of Isaiah’s day, God is absolutely, completely dedicated to His glory, and His purposes, and to His covenant with His people, and nothing—nothing—will get in the way of Him keeping His promises.
So that is the first message on the lips of the seraphim. The second message is that the “whole earth is full of His glory.” In other words, the whole earth is filled with something. And that something is His glory.
I hope you know that the earth if full of glory. Think of the glory of creation, the glory of a sunrise or a beautiful crop growing. The glory of a mountain range or a newborn baby or a herd of elk galloping across the prairie. The glory of an athlete setting a new world record. The glory of a symphony playing a moving piece of music.
The earth is full of glory, and that glory belongs to God. It’s all his because He made all of this, and He made us in His image, so anything glorious what we do simply reflects back to Him.
So, those people in Isaiah’s day saying “Where’s God? What’s He up do?” And the seraphim’s answer basically says, just look around you. The whole earth is full of the glory of the Holy One.
So that is the response of the seraphim. That is how they respond to God’s majesty—with floor-shaking worship. Our next stop is verse 4, which shows us how God’s majesty impacts the building, the space, that Isaiah sees himself in.
We know it’s the temple. We don’t know if Isaiah is seeing this vision in terms of the earthly temple in Jerusalem, or if this is a vision of the heavenly temple itself. But we do know that the “foundations of the thresholds”—the massive stones underneath the doorways—shake at the voice of the seraphim. And the temple was filled with smoke.
This smoke is a symbol, throughout the Bible, of God’s presence. Smoke surrounded Mt. Sinai when God met with the people there (Exodus 19:18). Smoke fills the heavenly temple in Revelation 15:8. And a cloud filled Solomon’s temple when it was dedicated (1 Kings 8:10). The smoke means that Isaiah can’t see very much, but He knows what’s in there—the manifest presence of God himself. The building, the physical space, shows us something of the majesty of God.
Finally, verse 5 shows us Isaiah’s reaction to God’s majesty. Here is how Isaiah himself responds and react to this vision of the majesty of God?
Verse 5: “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 6:5).
Isaiah’s exposure to the majesty of God causes him to make a prophetic pronouncement of “woe,” but on who? On himself. “Woe is me! For I am lost!”
That word for “lost” comes from a word with the basic meaning of “destroyed.” That’s why the NIV translates it “ruined.” And the King James says “undone.” Isaiah sees God, and rather than joining in the choir of the seraphim, he pronounces doom on himself.
Why? Because in the presence of God, he sees himself truly. He knows that, unlike the seraphim who are only speaking the truth about God, he is a “man of unclean lips,” and he dwells “in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
He’s got a dirty mouth, and so does everyone around him. And I don’t think this means that Isaiah curses like a sailor. I just think it means that, in the presence of God, his eyes having seen the real king, he understands just how sinful his everyday language has been.
Have you ever had an experience when you’ve sent a text or an email to the wrong person and you’ve totally embarrassed yourself? Or said something about someone only to turn around and see them standing right there? There’s so many things we say which we don’t think are a big deal until we realize that someone else has heard all of that, and then we feel terrible. We feel like we wish we could crawl in a hole and die.
Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36–37).
And in this vision, Isaiah experiences the presence of God and knows that his mouth has not been devoted to God and His praise. Instead of ah holy mouth, like the seraphim, he has a dirty mouth. And in the presence of this majestic God, he feels like his doom has come.
This is just like Peter in the boat, when he first begins to realize the power of Jesus. He “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8).
When we get a glimpse of God’s majesty, we see ourselves truly, and we know that we don’t belong in the presence of such purity and majesty and glory and holiness. And Isaiah, having seen the real king, the Lord of angel armies, knows his mouth is dirty and calls out doom upon himself.
The Response of Grace
And what comes next is so important. Because what comes next is not someone saying to Isaiah, “Don’t worry, and don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re not that bad. Other people are worse than you.”
Nobody corrects Isaiah for what he says here. And that’ because Isaiah has seen himself very accurately. And like we considered here on Good Friday, grace does not downplay our sin. Grace atones for our sin.
And that’s what happens here in verse 6. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar” (Isaiah 6:6). One of the burning ones comes with a coal from the altar—the altar where animals were sacrificed to pay and atone for the sins of the people. Where blood was shed to bring peace between man and God.
And, verse 7, “he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’” (Isaiah 6:7).
We don’t know how much Isaiah experienced in this vision, but in real life this would have been an incredibly painful experience. The seraphim needed tongs to hold this coal, but he touches it right to Isaiah’s mouth, one of the most sensitive parts on the body. And then he pronounces that Isaiah has been forgiven. His guilt is gone, his sin atoned for.
Don’t miss this: the God of majesty and glory and holiness has responded to Isaiah’s repentance not by downplaying his uncleanness, but by atoning for it. And being now clean, and forgiven, and atoned for, Isaiah is ready to respond to the call, which we’ll be considering in the second half of this chapter next week.
Isaiah and Us, Changed Forever
But what we can say at this point is that, from that moment on, Isaiah was never the same. This vision of the majesty and authority and the holiness of God left a mark on him that was never erased.
One of Isaiah’s favourite titles for God is the “Holy One” or “the Holy One of Israel.” 29 times he uses that title, compared too just seven times in all of the other prophets combined.
Isaiah was never the same after encountering the Holy One. He never forgot who God was and what it meant for him to be holy.
And I wonder if you and I need to be reminded this morning of the same truths we see in this passage. Like Isaiah, you and I live in a day where we’ve been let down by many of our leaders and we don’t have much trust for those in authority over us.
Like in Isaiah’s day, our world is rocked by major upheavals, with superpowers mowing over countries and threatening our safety, natural disasters bringing death and destruction, and causing people to ask, “where is God? What’s He doing?”
And like Isaiah, and the people of His day, don’t we need to be reminded that, above all of the seeming chaos of this world, there reigns a king, upon a throne, high and lifted up, alive and big and majestic beyond anything we can fathom, with armies of angels at his disposal?
And this is a king who is not to be trifled with. This is king who makes dragons cover their faces and cower. This is the king whose glory fills the earth and who is not just holy, not just holier, but the holiest being in the universe.
He is absolutely devoted to Himself and His glory and His purposes, and therefore He is devoted to keeping His promises to the covenant people upon whom He has set His love.
And that is good news for us. Because it means that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. It means that nothing can stop God from finishing what He started. It means that He will do what He set out to do.
And isn’t the resurrection of Jesus such a perfect illustration of that? Nothing, not even death, could stop Him from saving us through Christ. He would send His son to atone for our sin and take away our guilt, and He would bring Jesus back from the dead to give us eternal life, and nothing could stop him.
He is holy, holy, holy, and we are saved. And so this passage points us to the cross and the resurrection and a holy God whose grace will triumph over all.
It’s just like we’re going to sing here in a moment, “Who else could rescue me from my failing? Who else would offer His only Son? Who else invites me to call Him Father? Only a Holy God.”2Jonny Robinson, Rich Thompson, Dustin Smith, and Michael Farren, © 2016 Farren Love And War Publishing (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (IMI)), Integrity's Alleluia! Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (IMI)), Integrity's Praise! Music (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing (IMI)), and CityAlight Music
So this is where we’re ending here today—by simply inviting you to worship this holy God. To join the seraphim in proclaiming who He is. And not just with this song, but with a life that, like Isaiah, has been touched by a deep awareness of who we are apart from Him, and who we now are in Him, and who understands that the holiness of God means everything.
We can walk by faith, we can obey, we can take risks in His service, because He is never going to leave us dangling. He is never going to dump us half-way. He is holy, holy, holy.