Isaiah 6 tells us that in the presence of a holy God, the angels try to hide themselves both from God and from seeing God. Isaiah, without the advantage of three sets of wings, is simply overwhelmed, and his agonized utterance is personal, negative, and intense.
What he says is personal: “Woe is me.” “I am lost,” “I,” “I,” in the midst of all the people, “I.” There is no hiding in the presence of God. Anyone rushed into the presence of a holy God, as Isaiah is in this vision, and as we all will be on the day of our death, will be very conscious not only of who God is, but of who we are. Here in this vision all the attention is on God, and yet in God’s presence, Isaiah feels the dizziness of the stage and the heat of the spotlights.
What he says is negative: who knows what the prophet thought of himself and his good deeds and his qualifications prior to having this vision. But places in the presence of a holy God, he can not help but to start using words like “woe” and “lost.” It is not that God was saying anything about him. The point, as you can see by looking at the end of verse 5, is not that God is seeing Isaiah for who he is. The point is that Isaiah suddenly has a new and negative assessment of himself. He calls himself unclean, he sees everyone around him as unclean. And for some reason he is especially conscious of his words.
Have you ever been around someone who truly impressed you, someone you looked up to, and found yourself conscious of your words? Your ordinary speech suddenly didn’t seem right; it didn’t feel good enough. Usually this feeling is not justified. If we can spend more time with “the great one” we discover that there ample reason to relax. But it’s not like that in the presence of God. Isaiah is not exaggerating about himself or anyone around him.
What the prophet says is also intense: this vision has a huge impression on Isaiah. The torrent of his words, summarized in verse 5, is nothing short of anguished. He is undone by this vision, just as he ought to be.
But what is so wonderful is the immediate response of God, through his angel. I confess that I am not quite sure about the exact significance of a burning coal. But the basic idea, like a parable with a main point, is clear enough to almost everyone: contact with the altar and what it symbolized is what Isaiah most needed. An altar is a symbol of substitution. An altar is where a sacrifice of the innocent is made in place of the guilty. The prophet could not remain unholy in God’s presence. And God was the one who did something about it. Isaiah, like every one of us, needed an altar, he needed atonement; something needed to be done about his sin, and his sin needed to be forgiven, before he could remain in the presence of Holy God.
But what was done for Isaiah was done only symbolically. No mere animal, nor any hot coal from the altar, could truly take away sin. These were only symbols. A true substitute, a sufficiently substantial sacrifice is needed – one whose holiness could be substitute for our unholiness, or lostness, or uncleanness. There needed to be some true basis for atonement, and then for forgiveness.
The astonishing story of the Christian gospel – a story not too good to be true – is that the one whom Isaiah saw, the one before whom the angels cried “Holy, Holy, Holy,” not only provided salvation in a symbol, but in reality. The Scriptures tell us that the one that Isaiah saw in this prophetic vision stepped from off his throne, and came for thirty-three years to an unholy world, where he gave himself as an atoning sacrifice on the altar of the cross, so that all who looked ahead to his coming, or back to his finished work, would be granted forgiveness.
Perhaps it is Isaiah 6 that explains why the angels of heaven filled the skies with praises at Jesus’ birth. For how could they who had only known his holiness, not be moved by the sight of his humility. No wonder they announced with joy the day of his resurrection. For who better than they could understand the honor he truly deserved. But like Isaiah 6, the New Testament does not end there. Just as Jesus brought the salvation of God, so too he will bring the judgment of God. Then too, we are told, he will be accompanied by angels, who will see in the end, the holiness of God reflected in his judgment.
As a seminary community, I trust that long before that time we will see for ourselves the holiness of God, and come to understand the uncleanness of our own lips. But will you pray with me, that not only we, but also countless others, will put these truths together as Isaiah did, and turn to Jesus to have our guilt taken away, and our every sin atoned for?
Dr. Chad B. Van Dixhoorn
Chancellor's Professor of Historical Theology, Associate Professor of Church History
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.