Isaiah 6

ISAIAH 6:1-13:

AN ANALYSIS OF GENRE AND THEME IN RELATION TO EXEGESIS

Taylor E. Terzek

INTRODUCTION

The vision of the prophet Isaiah illustrated in ch. 6 of his prophetic book naturally had incalculable effects on his ministry. Once one has purely tasted and seen God in all His majesty, one cannot revere anything above such great worth again. In turn, observing the awesomeness of God unaffected consequently stirs him to abhor all that treat Him with apathy. Such a response can only be accounted for in the exegesis and applications reserved in the study of Isaiah ch. 6.

GENRE AND SUBGENRE

Primarily, a student must seriously search out the genre, context and structure of the book of Isaiah with specific focus on ch. 6, as to provide the means of full comprehension. One must first conclude that Isaiah 6 is a narrative type, however, not historical narrative as chs. 36-39 of Isaiah; the pericope is a vocational type narrative (cf. to Amos 7). It is not apocalyptic (cf. Isaiah 24-27; Daniel 11; Zechariah; Ezekiel 1-2; Revelation) or a vision, yet it has its linguistic similarities to both. Isaiah ch. 6 describes the prophet’s vision of the throne of God, and therefore it is forced to use apocalyptic and vision type language. Conclusively, one must resolve to categorize the genre outside the exclusive analysis of its verbiage, while not negating it completely, and in the context of its placement and function.

The genre has often been deemed a “call narrative”.[1] Yet, one must decipher as to which type of ‘prophetic calling’ is found in Isaiah 6. W. Zimmerli has discovered two basic categories of ‘the calling of the prophet’ in the Bible.[2] The first category is exemplified through the characters of Moses, Saul, Jeremiah, and Gideon. These men met the calling with disinclination and lists of reasons for their disservice. Hence the reoccurring phrase, ‘Do not be afraid’ (cf. Isaiah 7:4). For the purpose of the study, one may title this category, ‘compulsory callings.’ The second category concerns visions of much more aesthetic value, and are valuable events in and of themselves. For example, 1 Kings 22:19 opens with ‘I saw YHWH,’ just as Isaiah 6 begins. The book of Acts, and Paul’s road to Damascus, may have credence to fall into such a category. Nonetheless, the distinctive lies in the power and impact of the vision itself – i.e., it is a source of authentication for the one viewing. This second category fits the type of calling and vision Isaiah is describing in ch. 6, and for the purpose of the study, one may title this category as ‘aesthetic callings.’ He is being drawn into the presence of God upon His throne – whether perceptively or actually, no doubt experientially – and Isaiah is radically affected by the vision itself. More importantly, Isaiah receives a message of judgment. God’s deliverance of a message of condemnation is typical of such ‘aesthetic callings’ (cf. Noah in Genesis 6:11-21; Abraham in Genesis 18:17-21). However, there has been a return to the discussion of the chapter’s genre in light of the discovery that it contains “a unique combination of forms” and subgenres.[3] This finding does not negate the alleged broad classification of ch. 6 being an ‘aesthetic call narrative,’ but it does reveal that there are a series of easily noted subgenres within that noted comprehensive genre. For example, the mention of a throne room in heaven can easily fall into the subgenre of narrative theophany. Another instance is that of when Isaiah inquires of God with “a tone of protest like that of Abraham’s questions (Genesis 18:23-25) or of Moses (Exodus 32:11-19) or of Amos (7:2 and 5)” which is “an element from another genre altogether.”[4] Therefore the student must not cling close to one exclusive category of genre, but reasonably consolidate all subgenres into a comprehendible larger genre of the ‘aesthetic call narrative.’

CONTEXTUAL PLACEMENT

A similar type of ‘aesthetic call narrative’ is seen in Ezekiel 1, but Isaiah’s distinctive is its placement after five chapters of content. Yet, this has heavy implications, and beckons one to search out other structural explanations. Watts claims that the chapter does not mark a beginning, but rather marks an end. ‘In the year of Uzziah’s death’ (Isaiah 6:1) naturally takes a reader back to Isaiah 1:1, “making it a closing scene,” not an introduction.[5] Purposely, death generates an opportunity for God’s dealings with Israel to change. Neither would it be right to assume that this was Isaiah’s first prophetic experience. This was not a vision to summon Isaiah into the ministry; it must have had another intention. Blenkinsopp sustains this thought, in that, although the vision is “often referred to as the call of Isaiah to prophetic ministry… its position in the book” makes its “clear that this was at least not the view of the editors who arranged the material.”[6] However, Oswalt righty asserts, “The experience described in the chapter is of such power and immediacy that it is hard to imagine it as anything other than inaugural.”[7]

If this vision indeed marked the inauguration of Isaiah, the fundamental question is still left unanswered: why does the vision not appear at the beginning of the book? Oswalt elucidates the general scholastic resolution for such perplexity:

“The suggestion was made that the call narrative appeared at the beginning of a scroll including 7:1-9:5 [Eng. 6] and that the later compiler[s] did not wish to tear it [figuratively] from that context and put it before the materials which they had arranged [the present chs. 1-5] as introductory to the book.”[8]

However, this view is unsatisfactory considering the placement of ch. 6 in regards to the chronological congruity of chs. 7-8. For it is more true that the passage was arranged theologically, not chronologically.[9] Thus, one must establish proper theological reasoning for the passage’s current placement. One theory proposed by P. R. Ackroyd notes that chs. 1-12 “form an intentional arrangement of Isaiah’s twin messages of certain doom and certain salvation,” and ch. 6 then “functions like a hinge, containing…words of utter doom and yet…the prophet’s own cleansing and the concluding note of hope.”[10] Simply noted, not exclusively seen in Ackroyd’s theory, ch. 6 appropriately concludes chs. 1-5 and introduces chs. 7-11. The placement is not extremely improbable or that elusive.[11]

Moving on, the identification of the genre and contextual placement has generated proper boundaries for exegesis and application.

EXEGESIS

The Pericope’s Division

If division is needed for the sake of analysis, the pericope accurately ought to be split in two parts: the vision (6:1-8) and the commission (6:9-13). The first half projects the causation of the latter half, and both point to the centralized theme of Isaiah’s inaugural call. There are several side paths within this theme, but considering the placement of the chapter in Isaiah, the investiture of the prophet is nonetheless the overarching intention of the passage. The first portion emphatically portrays the aspects of the vision, and the latter portion emphasizes the purpose of such vision: the commission of the prophet. A major portion of Isaiah’s commission is the manifestation of God’s execution and loyalty to His covenant with Israel, but it does not overcome the greater intention of the prophet’s inaugural call; it is a needed faction of the whole, not the whole itself. The exegesis below will contain some analysis where the focal theme is not directly considered, but it all stems to elucidate each phrase of the passage as to bring a complete picture of the context and thematic depiction into clear view.

The Vision (6:1-8)

“In the year of King Uzziah’s death” (6:1a); Isaiah begins with historical relevance, and the purpose must be theological rather than chronological. “Judah had known no king like Uzziah since the time of Solomon. He had been an efficient administrator and an able military leader.”[12] He was a great King, and it was indefinitely a time of great prosperity for Judah (2 Kings 15:1-7; 2 Chronicles 26:1-15). Nevertheless, he had died; he was mortal and limited after all.[13] Surely if one had placed their hope in such a King, it was vanquished with his last leprous breath. Hence, enter Isaiah’s introduction of ‘the Lord’ on an exalted throne; YHWH is the King that has not died. In regards to emphasis, “The glory of the prophecy of Isaiah is that, in the grace of God, it was the latter that took place. ‘In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord.’”[14] Furthermore, “no other prophet dates an event by a death” and Isaiah does this twice, both times with utmost connotation (cf. Isaiah 14:28).[15] “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted” (6:1b); the narrator is presumably Isaiah, the writer of the book, but could just as easily not be.[16]  Principally, one can delve that the person is not as important as the events that transpired. The author must have purposely left his persona out of the narrative to illuminate the true worth of the events. Moreover, it looks as if the initial setting is one of God in a throne room – most likely in the heavens, not on earth. In regards to the vision’s veracity “it seems needless to inquire whether the Prophet saw this sight with his bodily eyes, or in a dream, or in an ecstasy, since the effect upon his own mind must have been the same in either case.”[17] Oswalt affirms the same principal thought: such “attempts to determine the nature of the vision are bootless. Whether it was ecstatic or mystical or ‘actual’ has no bearing upon the reality of this event for Isaiah’s ministry.”[18] Nevertheless, how one sees God is not as important as whether one sees God, and further, what one’s response to such a sight is – this is the emphasis of Isaiah in the passage. Yet, as stated, Isaiah does mention a historic time to place the vision. Such analysis provides the greatest means to assuming the vision to be literal and actual. Theologically, a Bible student will note that God is often mentioned as being unable to be seen with human eyes (cf. John 1:18). Thus, the reader sees an inconsistency with Isaiah’s account of ‘seeing God’, but a distinction will assist this apparent contradiction. Simply, it is better reasoned that Isaiah was not viewing God as one might typically consider; he was viewing God in a clothe of His nature. God is spirit in “His essential being”, and therefore unable to be seen (Isaiah 31:3; John 4:24).[19] Even more, the apostle John mentions that His vision of God on the throne happened ‘once’ he ‘was in the Spirit’ (Revelation 4:2). Herein is the truth seeking to be unfolded in the mention of man’s inability to look on God: the Lord is not a man; He is not in the flesh or limited by space and time.

“With the train of His robe filling the temple” (6:1c); this is undoubtedly a use of hyperbole. Isaiah constructs an image of immense immeasurability to convey an unmatched awe to the reader. J. A. Alexander also proposes that this was a Hebraic idiom, but the linguistic weight does not drive the passage further than its hyperbolic use as mentioned.[20] Thus the scene is set for the Lord in His splendor, whose clothes even stretch far beyond normative measure.

“Seraphim stood above Him” (6:2a); here is the only explicit mention of such creatures in scripture. It is true that “etymologically the term seraphim would mean ‘burning ones,’” and that term is indeed used elsewhere referencing “a poisonous snake whose bite stings and burns (Numbers 21:6, 8; Deuteronomy 8:15)… equipped for flight.”[21] However, the fact that the serpents and the seraphim share the two common characteristics of ‘flight’ and ‘burning’ ought to be there only correlation.[22] The seraphim were “angels of fire…holy ministers.”[23] To attempt and bring any earthly correlation to these creatures would only be the result of Isaiah’s transposition of what he saw, not in actuality. The prophet may be claiming the beings to be snake-like, but this would still render no such change to the essence of their function. They were to be proclaiming the holiness and greatness of the One on the throne. “Each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew” (6:2b). As to the description of what these ‘burning ones’ were doing, Isaiah first states the action of their three pairs of wings. The first two wings are covering their face, which can be easily understood as sign of reverence to God. Interestingly, they did not cover their ears, but their eyes; “for their task was to receive what the Lord would say, not pry into what He is like” (cf. Deuteronomy 29:29).[24] Herein is the first hint of the seraphim’s supposed missional focus: the will of the One enthroned.[25] Secondly, they covered what has been translated ‘feet’. Alexander applies the application that they did so as to “conceal” themselves “from mortal view”.[26] However, this understanding seems quite empty and leaves the student wanting. Others, like Blenkinsopp view the Hebrew word raglav, ‘feet’, as a euphemism for the genitals (cf. Exodus 4:25; Isaiah 7:20).[27] What difference would the implications of such a euphemism be? One may subscribe to the idea of sexuality and shame. Adam and Eve were unashamed and naked in the garden; once they sinned, they clothed themselves for the sake of guilt and shame. By the same principle, the seraphim cover their face as well as cover their genitals to uphold one, that God cannot be seen face-to-face, and two, that God’s holiness is so eminent that shame is consequence to all below Him. It seems to provide some rationale, whereas ‘feet’ may be hard to theologically purpose. Still, Motyer subscribes to the idea that the euphemism is “an inappropriate attribution of sexuality to these heavenly beings” and claims the use of feet to be used “metaphorically” as the “organ of activity and of life’s direction.”[28] Thus it seems that ‘feet’ better fit with the seraphim’s primary function regarding the will of God. However, raglav, ‘feet’ as a euphemistic term for ‘genitals’ better adjusts to the seraphim’s primary function regarding proclaiming the holiness of God. One must use the context of the passage to determine the intention of such beings. Moving to the third pair of wings may elucidate a proper formulation regarding the first structure – in that; the seraphim were flying with their other two wings as to show their readiness to execute God’s desires. Yet, the construct of exulting God’s holiness is not nullified; it could just as easily be asserted that the seraphim remain in flight as to not impede the holy ground, which is filled with the train of the Lord’s robe. Therefore, both structures of the seraphim’s function remain according to the text, and is left to be concluded in the proceeding context. To be blunt, it prevails that the holiness of God and the seraphim’s proclamation of it is of their primary purpose – at least in regards to the text at hand.[29]

“And one called out to another and said” (6:3a); some use the phrase ‘one called out to another’ to claim the passage is only mentioning two seraphim. However, it would be limiting to the exegesis to claim that this phrase ‘one called out to another’ reduces the number of seraphim to only two. Further, there is simply no need to do so within the passage. The belief of such limitations normally stemmed from Origen’s teachings, which were dangerously askew. The Hebrew may be better translated ‘this to this’, which is a phrase used “elsewhere… in reference to a greater number” (Exodus 14:20; 36:10; Jeremiah 46:16).[30] A close linguistic parallel is seen in Revelation 4:8 where ‘four living creatures’ are mentioned, thus the limitation does nothing to console a contradiction with the Scriptures. The number of seraphim is simply a side note too much observed; the aim of the passage is what they are proclaiming, not how many are doing so. “‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts” (6:3b); Holiness is deepened in the nature of God, and in His presence, there is no escape from it. Hence the seraphim’s incessant calling and praising of God as ‘Holy’.[31] The use of ‘Holy’ here is in its essentiality a reference to the absolute separation between God and His creation and creatures; it is the “divine perfection” (Hosea 11:9).[32] God is sanctified completely, and this is the proper and extensive use of holiness in all of the Old Testament. Moreover, here the seraphim’s proclamation of God’s holiness is further cemented as the proper context and structure in regards to their observed primary function. “The whole earth is full of His glory’” (6:3c); conversely, God’s ‘glory’ can function distinctively from His holiness in that it is manifested in the world.[33] While God’s holiness is an aspect of His nature, His glory “describes the appearance of His being”.[34] The text seems to portray hints of a hyperbolic understanding, but seems to be more idiomatic in the whole of scriptures (Numbers 14:21-22; Psalms 72:19). The truth remains despite the linguistic value: God’s glory is manifested throughout the whole world by the simple truth that His craft was its very existence.

“And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out” (6:4a). Noted now is the consequence effects of God’s full encompassing glory and holiness. In some scholar’s translations, ‘foundations of the threshold’ is accordingly concentrated as ‘door sockets’. Likewise, the Vulgate also speaks, in reference to this passage, of ‘hinges’. Therefore, the ‘foundations of the thresholds’ may rightly speak of a ‘door’, and not the very ground floor of temple. Herein one may find a vivid picture of Isaiah noting a door, simply because, he still stood at its entrance and looked through. Indeed being probable, this gives a picture of Isaiah statically yet disengaged, perhaps in awe of the holiness of God, peering through the door into the temple.

“While the temple was filling with smoke” (6:4b).[35]  As to the meaning of the smoke, there have been several interpretations. Some conclude that the smoke was the very cloud or vapor “showing the presence of Jehovah.”[36] Others understand the smoke as an allusion to the mercy seat described in Leviticus 16:13 where ‘the cloud of incense’ is mentioned. Both interpretations are likely, and even non-contradictory, but both aim at the intention of the passage: to generate a sincere wonder in the eye of the beholder. An interesting scriptural parallel is found in Revelation 15:8, where ‘the sanctuary’ is described as ‘being filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power’. The beneficial correlation is that one may then correctly resolve that smoke arouse from the mentioned glory of God – the manifestation of his holy nature.

“Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined!’” (6:5a). ‘Woe’ implies a threat to the very existence of the narrator. Isaiah feels, truly and affectionately, that he is on the verge of imminent death. Most certainly this is a phrase of unadulterated lament and apprehension in response to overwhelming glory and holiness of God. Moreover, ‘ruined’ or ‘lost’ ought to be translated ‘silent’.[37] Silent renders a much easier context to understand and follow. For now the seraphim’s rite of cleansing Isaiah’s lips, mentioned in the proceeding verse, permit him to speak openly amongst a Holy God. Paul institutes a similar example when speaking of man being judged by a perfectly holy God, that ‘every mouth will be closed’ (Romans 3:19; cf. Proverbs 17:28). Continuing in flow of speech, the mouth, and lips, Isaiah constitutes his condition and purpose of woe. “‘Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips;’” (6:5b).[38] It is no nebulous concept in the book of Proverbs that the words and tongue of a man carry great weight into judging the condition of his soul (Proverbs 15:4; 18:21; 21:23). Further, Isaiah pronounces the ‘iniquity’ of Judah through the mention of their ‘lips’ having ‘spoken lies’ and the ‘wickedness’ of their ‘tongue’ (Isaiah 59:3). More interestingly, however, Isaiah’s identity is formulated in both a personal and communal sphere. The people of Israel are both individually and corporately corrupt. From this, one is able to view the following experience of the cleansed individual – Isaiah – as probable for the corporate nation of Israel. It is indeed wrong to assume “that ch. 6 speaks of cleansing for Isaiah but doom for the nation.”[39] Hope is interlaced for Israel as it was for Isaiah; despite the outcome of actuality, there is without a doubt an opportunity of hope. Additionally, Isaiah purposely does not distinguish his introspective agony without its causative exterior inspection of the holy King. “‘For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts’” (6:5c). The prophet is not merely woeful for observing God, but for observing the stark contrast in his immorality and the perfect morality of the King. Naturally, the reader is directed to back to verse one of the chapter by the word ‘King’ and consequently reminded on God’s superior and immutable kingship. The title ‘the Lord of hosts’ was quite commonplace, but the interesting analysis is found in its combination with the title ‘King’.[40] Elsewhere in Isaiah the terms are shared in reference to the judgment of the prophet’s people. Therefore the suggestion is confirmed once again in regards to the individual and corporate correlation – “what Isaiah pronounces upon his people has been made terrifyingly real is own experience.”[41]

“Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs” (6:6). Yet, in Isaiah’s distress and woe, the Lord quickly provides the instance of repentance with forgiveness. Various scholars attribute this vision to the ‘altar with the golden censer’ found in Revelation 8:3. Here again, most importantly, one views imagery taken from the earthly temple. It appears that Isaiah’s vision adheres “to the precise situation and dimensions of the earthly temple” as to “furnish the scenery of the majestic vision.”[42] This allusion may be necessary, for there would be no other way for Isaiah to express what he saw but by simply reciting typical temple language. Nevertheless, the scene is painted with such imagery and still incredibly useful to the understanding of the text. Resolved by simplistic necessity, there was a temple and it had an altar.

The call narrative thus continues, “He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips;’” (6:7a). Certainly, one must ask: why had the seraphim specifically touched Isaiah’s lips? – Why not his hands, or feet, or head, or chest? Observing some parallel passages may direct one’s attention back to the inauguration of prophetic inspiration. One sees an identical example presented with supposed prophetic inauguration of Jeremiah, whereby ‘the Lord… touched’ his ‘mouth’ and declared that the prophet now had ‘[the Lord’s] words in [his] mouth’ (Jeremiah 1:9). Another very similar experience to that of the prophet Isaiah is mentioned by Daniel (Daniel 10:16). Therefore, it is correct to conclude that the specificity of the ‘lips’ being ‘touched’ was no necessary mechanism of rite, but rather a symbol both alluding back to the claim of Isaiah’s unclean lips, as well as his future prophetic ministry.[43] “And your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’”(6:7b). Significantly noted, ‘taken away’ is often interpreted lit., ‘your iniquity has withdrawn’ or ‘your sin has been covered up’.[44] Correspondingly, ‘forgiven’ is regularly rendered lit., ‘atoned for’. It may be best to submit that this is repetitious – part of a possible synthetical parallel – and that the covering up of iniquity and atonement of sin do not distinctly provide separate connotations.[45]

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’” (6:8a). A great aesthetic acquaintance to this verse is found in Ezekiel 10:5, where ‘the voice of God Almighty’ is compared through simile to ‘the sound of the wings of the cherubim’.  Notice Ezekiel states that hearing the voice of God is like hearing the sound of thunderous wings clasping in the air. What a sound! – It is the sound of power, of flight. The poetic aesthetic vibrates the text, and must have certainly shaken Isaiah in his skin. Therein that powerful declaration is astonishingly met with a willing and vocal servant. “Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” (6:8b). Normally, the messenger of God would be an angelic being, but Isaiah poses a unique opportunity to be God’s herald. Herein the focal exegesis reveals the theological principle that forgiveness naturally instills a desire to do God’s will. However, more so, it is the revealed genesis of the ministerial responsibility of Isaiah. The prophet had offered himself to the work of the divine hand; therefore, his prophecy is deduced as a natural response to such willingness and determination.

In summation of the first section of ch. 6, three concepts appear to rule the exegetical reading. First, is that of the utter holiness of God and its effects; second is the correlation of the earthly temple to the heavenly temple as a place of healing; third is the prescribed correspondence of individual and corporate corruption. In relation to the focal theme of Isaiah’s inauguration, all of these concepts are necessary. God’s holiness must be provided as to constitute the rationale of the prophet’s ministry, the temple must be accentuated to express the dispensational means of the proclaimed desired atonement, and the individual healing of the prophet provides the corporate possibility of redemption.

The Commission (6:9-13)

Before proceeding, it is important to state, “the commission of the prophet presupposes some sort of encounter between YHWH and the prophet.”[46] Therefore the latter half of the pericope necessitates the former half.

“He said, “‘Go, and tell this people:’” (6:9a). Who are ‘this people’ that God instructs Isaiah to give the message to? Watts appropriately concludes, “The references appear without exception to refer to Israel” and are correctly used “for the covenant people”; covenant is a necessary context in traversing this text.[47] With the established subject, one must analyze the content of the message: “‘keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand’” (6:9b). Therein, in reality, how awkward it must seem to be equipped with forgiveness to deliver such a condemning message. Isaiah’s commission is therefore set that his labors will be fruitless. In essence, he is commanded to deliver an ironic command – that the results are manufactured only by the opposite of the mentioned means. This is not an easy portion of the passage to digest or unpack. The views regarding the message of Isaiah presented in the following verses have been grounds for much theological debate. However, one must attempt to analyze the content apart from a theological system as to truly incorporate and exhaust all possibilities. Firstly, this message is “a part of a motif that runs through the length of the Vision from [Isaiah] 1:3 through 42:16-20” and is an idiomatic repetition.[48] Secondly, Israel was continually referred to as ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’ (Isaiah 43:8).[49] Yes, Israel was judicially blind, and in this case, there was no possibility of reversal. Therefore, Isaiah’s prophesying had the possibility of only one result: hardening. The best resolution necessitates an accentuation on both human responsibility and divine sovereignty. The hardening of Israel’s heart “is not a one-sided action” and the fact that “YHWH has made it so must be spoken in a dialectical balance.”[50] Therefore, the prophet is commanded to become an integral faction of this mysterious ‘dialectical balance’, whereby his deliverance of the message will in turn manifest the human response that corresponds to the determined divine will. As previously mentioned, the balance of divine agency and human agency is grounds for much debate, but that theological implication is not the aim of the exegesis of this pericope. Rather, the passage seeks to equip Isaiah with a message, which latter culminates in its fulfillment as God had spoken it to be. The message is a means for Isaiah to understand the sovereign work of God, as well as His covenantal promise to Israel.

“‘Render the hearts of this people insensitive’” (6:10a). The term ‘insensitive’ ought to be translated lit., “fat” (Deuteronomy 31:20; 32:15) or “gross” or “callous”. Therefore, the very affections of the people are to be deemed ‘gross’, ‘insensitive’, ‘calloused’, or ‘fat’; they are misaligned at the very essence of their being. For it is said, that the man with a gentle, sensitive, meek, and soft heart is one who is moved by God for His divine purposes. Thus these people are rendered ruined, and this is the perspective the prophet must carry in delivering his message. It would be impossible to deliver such a message, and its promised rejection, without first reducing that their hearts are indeed ‘callous’ and ‘fat’. If their hearts were not in such a condition, then there would remain an inkling of hope for their repentance. More, Isaiah must render “‘their ears dull, and their eyes dim’” (6:10b). Interestingly, ‘dull’ is more translated lit., “heavy” (cf. Isaiah 59:1) and ‘their eyes dim’ is frequently interpreted lit., “besmeared” or “glue their eyes shut”.[51] “‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, and return and be healed’” (6:10c).[52] Why does it appear that God does not wish for His people to return and be healed? Does this not carry much weight in attacking one’s view of a loving and all-merciful God? Of primary issue, one’s understanding of the love of God must be realigned to regard His covenantal loyalty, not His emotive care for humanity. The latter is impossible regarding an immutable and transcendent God. Therefore, it must be posed: does this oppose God’s loyalty to the covenant? It must be noted that God never breaks His covenant. The covenant was conditioned on human agency and Israel’s loyalty. Consequently, God’s punishment and condemnation of Israel is the very sign to Israel that God is keeping His covenant. If Israel was not punished for their disloyalty, the covenant would render spoiled, and God would be deemed unrighteous. Herein, again, it is resolved that the purpose of the passage is not to alleviate the mystery of human responsibility and divine sovereignty, but rather affirm the covenant and loyalty of the Lord.

The prophet replies with a question, “then I said, ‘Lord, how long?’” (6:11a). He is inquiring as to ‘how long’ God will ‘abandon [His] people’ (Isaiah 2:6) and ‘hide His face’ (Isaiah 8:17).[53] The essential idea is that Isaiah recognizes the temporality of such character from God. The Lord will not forsake His people forever. The question of ‘how long’ references a measurement of time, which exposes the belief that there will be an end to the specified period. “And He answered, ‘Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people and the land is utterly desolate’” (6:11b). It is evident that Israel will be placated with an external destruction to symbolize their internal spiritual ruin (cf. Leviticus 26:31; Isaiah 1:7; Isaiah 3:8, 26). Further, it will not be until the judgment is complete that it will come to an end – there will be no partial justice. “‘The Lord has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.’” (6:12). It is nebulous, but the land, society and politics, will be destroyed – not necessarily God’s people in regards to being God’s people. There is no insistence of permanency throughout God’s answer thus far, no threat to the covenant by God, but the effects seem to be at least temporally quite devastating.

“‘Yet there will be a tenth portion in it’” (6:13a). ‘Yet’ must provide a great relief as it implies some possible merciful recantation. Indeed, this ‘tenth portion’ has been interpreted as to imply a remnant. However, the instance of hope is quickly contextualized in another instance of judgment. “‘And it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump’” (6:13b). Correctly said, “The prophecy closes with a promise and a threatening both in one.”[54] Firstly the hope of a remnant is affirmed, but conversely, this same spared remnant will again be ‘subject to burning’ – a repetition of the first observed judgment.

The abstract of the latter half of the passage contains one glorious verity as the key to its exegesis: the loyalty of God to His covenant with His people. Inasmuch as it is the solution to understanding these few verses, it is even more vital to the cynosure theme of Isaiah’s inauguration in the entirety of ch. 6. God’s desire to deliver this message to His people is the sole purpose for the prophet’s consecration.

APPLICATIONS

Though the theme focally concerns the inaugural call of Isaiah, there are several theological implications throughout the call narrative that give viable application to its readers. Truly, practical obedience is not produced by mimicking the action or reactions of Isaiah as depicted in the passage. The pericope is not some plea for Christ followers to act in a certain way, rather, application stems from glorious and powerful theology. A truthful and encompassing view of God naturally stirs application. Therefore, one notices grand statements of who God is in Isaiah 6. He is holy; hence the necessitated act of humility and repentance by those in His unadulterated presence. He is gracious; hence the great healing power that lay in one’s dependence upon Him. He is mysterious; hence the comfort of relying on a God who is transcendent and sovereign. Moreover, it is true that “Isaiah is the Paul of the Old Testament in his teaching that faith in God’s promises is the single most important reality for the Lord’s people.”[55] The greatest application is that of trusting God. For the Lord is one that is forever faithful, and will always uphold His covenant. As it was exposed, the essence of Isaiah’s commission was to proclaim the specificity of how God was going to uphold his loyalty to the covenant – through condemning those who broke it. In light of this theological insight, the greatest response can be the application of one’s faith in God.

CONCLUSION

For the sake succinctness and evading vexatious reiteration, the theme of Isaiah’s prophetic investiture dominates, purposes, and guides the pericope. The placement of the passage, its contextual importance, and its content – i.e., the holiness of God, the atonement of those who are humble, the servitude of the cleansed, the balance of human agency with divine sovereignty, and the loyalty of God to His covenant – all submit without negation to the encompassing presentation of the prophet Isaiah’s inauguration.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alexander, Joseph Addison. Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953.

Beuken, Willem A. M. “The Manifestation of Yahweh and the Commission of Isaiah: Isaiah 6 Read Against the Background of Isaiah 1.” Calvin Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (2004): 72-87.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Isaiah 1-39. The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Love, Julian P. “Call of Isaiah: Exposition of Isaiah 6.” Interpretation 11, no. 3 (1957): 282-296.

Motyer, J. Alec. Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Nottingham, England: IVP Academic, 2009.

________. The Prophecy of Isaiah: an Introduction & Commentary. Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39. New International Commentary On the Old Testament. Wheaton, Ill.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986.

Watts, John D.W. Isaiah 1-33. Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 24. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.


[1] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 24 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 70.

[2] For further explanation of the system see Zimmerli cited in Watts’ summation, 71.

[3] Watts, Isaiah, 73.

[4] Ibid., 73.

[5] Ibid., 70.

[6] Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 1-39, The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 223.

[7] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, New International Commentary On the Old Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 172. As to spare the reader a rehashing of the entire structural and contextual argument regarding Isaiah 6, the analysis of Oswalt’s structural view is quite sufficient. If one desires to compare the views of some other commentators, see: J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Nottingham, England.: IVP Academic, 2009), 17-18, 47-75. Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), 144. Watts, 70-73. Blenkinsopp, 223.

[8] Oswalt, Isaiah, 172.

[9] See Oswalt’s exhaustive defense of this argument, 172-173.

[10] Ibid., 173.

[11] Regarding ch. 6 and its conclusion to chs. 1-5, Oswalt states: “without the lived-out truth which ch. 6 presents, chs. 1-5 present an irreconcilable contradiction. This could well be the reason, then, why an inaugural vision is placed six chapters into the book it inaugurates.” Further regarding ch. 6 and its introductory function to chs. 7-11: “chs. 6-8 have a common autobiographical thread” and “chs. 7-12 are a fulfillment and an explication of the word given to Isaiah in his call.” Oswalt’s explanation of the later point can be read as well regarding 6:11-12 and its correlation to 8:6-8; 6:13 and its correlation to 10:33-34; and 6:13 and its correlation to 11:1-12. 175.

[12] Ibid., 177.

[13] One cannot precisely calculate the time of Uzziah’s death, but it is certainly no earlier than 736 B.C. Alexander submits King Uzziah died around 758 BC; Bright, 742 BC; Motyer and others 740 BC; Donner and Blenkinsopp at 736; but see Blenkinsopp p. 224. This rendering leads one to assume the date of the writing to be around 736-734 B.C.

[14] Julian P. Love, “Call of Isaiah: Exposition of Isaiah 6.” Interpretation 11, no. 3 (1957): 284.

[15] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 75.

[16] Although this is a topic of debate, most scholars are certain that Isaiah at least scribed this section. The strongest argument may be John’s mention of Isaiah as the narrator of the vision in John 12:41.

[17] Joseph Addison Alexander, Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953), 145.

[18] Oswalt, Isaiah, 176.

[19] Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 76.

[20] Alexander, Isaiah, 146.

[21] Ibid., 146.

[22] Motyer aids in the distinction: “The use of seraphim in connection with snakes has led some to think of serpent guardians of the holy presence. Seraphim has, however, no necessary connection with serpents and… the seraphim have nothing in common with serpents except the name. In the [Massoretic Text] there is no definite article; ‘burning ones’ is a description, not a title.” 76.

[23] Alexander, Isaiah, 146.

[24] Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 76.

[25] Origen supposed an obscure, but not improbable, idea there were only be two seraphim – that of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Hence, they were covering the face and feet of the Father, as to show that “they conceal the beginning and the end of his eternity.” The church father Jerome latter tackles Origen’s exegesis, and renders it irreverent. Alexander notes the history of this exegetical debate. 147.

[26] Alexander, Isaiah, 146.

[27] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah, 223.

[28] Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 76. “In covering their feet they disavowed any intention to choose their own path; their intent was to go only as the Lord commanded.”

[29] A simple resolution may be to adhering to the system that both the seraphim’s execution of God’s will and exultation of God’s holiness are primary functions. The first may easily incorporate the latter. However, in the specificity of this passage, it should be analyzed with the context of ch. 6 and Isaiah’s supposed intention.

[30] Alexander, Isaiah, 147.

[31] Many have used this thrice repetition as an allusion to the trinity. As lovely as that would be, it is insufficient – as similar reiterations are merely used for emphasis elsewhere (Jeremiah 7:4; 22:9; Ezekiel 21:27). To construct or support an extravagant theology from a simple literary technique would be shameful, especially since there are much greater passages to prove the doctrine of the trinity.

[32] Alexander, Isaiah, 147.

[33] Lit., ‘the fullness of the whole earth is His glory’

[34] Watts, Isaiah, 74.  Emphasis added.

[35] “Temple” is often translated, lit., ‘house’.

[36] Alexander, Isaiah, 148.

[37] Watts, Isaiah, 75. See Zeron, TZ 33 [1977] 65-68, where he relates this to the leprosy of King Uzziah.

[38] A few scholars attempt, whether correctly or not, to compare the call and vision of Isaiah to the call of Moses. In doing so, they often cite a similar response of Moses whereby he claims to be ‘of uncircumcised lips’ (Exodus 6:12, 30). As to how far the correlation ought to be taken, one can only speculate.

[39] Oswalt, Isaiah, 175.

[40] The title ‘Lord of hosts’ is used quite frequently in Isaiah, as well as Jeremiah (Isaiah 47:4; 48:2; Jeremiah 46:18a; 48:15; 51:57).

[41] Oswalt, Isaiah, 184.

[42] Alexander, Isaiah, 149.

[43] Further, the excessive description of the ‘burning coal’ as means of cleansing may denote the equipping of the Spirit’s power now invested in the lips of Isaiah, but this is merely speculative and hopeful. One should rather see the ‘burning coal’ as helpful to the cause of deteriorating Isaiah’s iniquity, not some gifting of the Holy Spirit – for this conclusion only stems from one’s foreseen allusion to the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

[44] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah, 223.

[45] ‘Iniquity’ and its atonement is a familiar concept in Isaiah, especially the famous ch. 53 (Isaiah 40:2; 53:5-6, 11).

[46] Willem A. M. Beuken, “The Manifestation of Yahweh and the Commission of Isaiah: Isaiah 6 Read Against the Background of Isaiah 1.” Calvin Theological Journal 39, no. 1 (2004): 73.

[47] Watts, Isaiah, 75.

[48] Ibid., 75.

[49] There are several New Testament correlations and parallels to this concept (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-2; Romans 11:8).

[50] Watts, Isaiah, 75.

[51] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah, 223. First the people’s essential condition is addressed, then their perceptive abilities.

[52] This passage, along with its preceding concept, is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 13:15For the heart of this people has become dull, With their ears they scarcely hear, And they have closed their eyes, Otherwise they would see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, And understand with their heart and return, And I would heal them.’”

[53] The question of ‘how long’ reverberates continually through the Scriptures (cf. Psalm 13:1; 79:5; 80:4; 89:46). Remarkably, God has been occasioned for asking the same question to Israel regarding their disobedience (Exodus 10:3; 16:28; Numbers 14:11, 27; 1 Samuel 16:1).

[54] Alexander, Isaiah, 144.

[55] Motyer, Isaiah, 21. This truth “is the heart of chs. 1-37” of the book of Isaiah.

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