Chapter Three - Opening Prophecies: The Lord's Case Against Judah (1-6)
As a result of this chapter, you should be able to:
describe the contents of Isaiah 1-6 as it relates to the outline given in the commentary;
describe how these chapters relate to the theme of the whole book;
explain the significance of Isaiah's name at the beginning of the book;
explain the messianic references in this section; and
relate Isaiah's vision to the Person of Christ using in the New Testament.
This chapter is divided into the following eight parts:
heading of the whole book (1:1);
God's indictment (1:2-23);
God's vengeance (1:24-31);
Messiah's reign (2:1-4);
appeal and warning (2:5-3:26);
the branch of the Lord (4:1-6);
the song of the vineyard (5:1-30); and
Isaiah's call and commission (6:1-13).
The unity of chapters 1 through 6 is reinforced by the description of Isaiah's unusual experience of seeing the Lord (6:1-13) and by the additional time note in 7:1 that obviously begins a new section.
Judah's persistent and continuous hardening of heart is seen in these opening prophecies. It is first made evident by God's indictment in 1:2-23 and is further portrayed in the song of the Lord's vineyard in 5:1-30. In between those two statements assurance is given of future kingdom blessings in spite of the judgments that must inevitably come. Thus, even at the beginning, the eventual purpose of God in restoring His created order is realized.
This section can be outlined as follows:
PART ONE: THE JUDGMENT OF GOD (1:1-39:8)
1. Opening Prophecies (1:1-6:13)
1.1 God's Lament over Judah's Corruption (1:1-31)
1.1.1 Heading of the whole book (1:1)
1.1.2 God's indictment (1:2-23)
1.1.3 God's vengeance (1:24-31)
1.2 The Future Kingdom and Its Introductory Judgments (2:1-4:6)
1.2.1 Messiah's reign (2:1-4)
1.2.2 Appeal and warning (2:5-3:26)
1.2.3 The Branch of the Lord (4:1-6)
1.3 Judah's Sins and the Resultant Woes (5:1-30)
1.3.1 The song of the vineyard (5:1-6)
1.3.2 The meaning of the song (5:7-30)
1.4 Isaiah's Call and Commission (6:1-13)
1.4.1 The vision (6:1-4)
1.4.2 Confession and cleansing (6:5-7)
1.4.3 The prophet's commission (6:8-13)
1. HEADING OF THE WHOLE BOOK (1:1)
As is found in all the "Latter Prophets," Isaiah gives his name at the beginning of his book. Having an oral ministry of almost half a century, he undoubtedly was called on to speak much more for God than what is recorded. But this is the portion of his ministry that God was pleased to preserve for time and eternity in His inspired, inerrant Word.
In this case the name of the book is especially significant for at least two reasons:
The attacks on the unity and the authorship of the entire book. There is only one heading and only one name attached to the whole document. That has already been alluded to in the introduction where major arguments for the unity and genuineness of the whole book of Isaiah have been considered. There is no evidence of the book's ever having existed in any other form. The magnificent Isaiah scroll dated probably in the late second century B.C. is an ancient witness, as are the Septuagint and other pre-Christian translations. So also are the writings of the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, who stated that Cyrus read about himself in the book of Isaiah (Josephus Flavius, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, chapter 1).
The use made of the prophet's name in indicating the theme of the book. That will become increasingly apparent in the course of this commentary.
The fact that Isaiah's message is called a vision, with the further explanation that he saw it, informs us that the prophet was the instrument or channel, not the originator of the message. God showed it to him by supernatural perception, as He did to the other writers of Scripture. Much prophecy is apocalyptic in nature; that is, it is revealed by God to and through the prophet in pictorial form. God also gives the prophet supernaturally the words in which to set it down as a part of the Word of God. That is not a mechanical dictation; instead, God works through the personality of the human writer without doing violence to it. Compare Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Peter in 2 Peter 1:20-21, and the writer to the Hebrews in Hebrews 1:1.
The message primarily concerns Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and its capital city, Jerusalem. The judgment of God is even more definitely emphasized when one realizes that Judah had advantages that other nations and even Israel (the Northern Kingdom) did not have. Through its entire history Judah was ruled by descendants of David, with whom God had made a special covenant (2 Samuel 7). Furthermore, the Temple worship was located in Jerusalem, which accents the awfulness of the apostasy. God's indictment is detailed and precise. It shows both the actual and the potential evil of the nation. Since Isaiah was looking toward the Babylonian captivity, which came a century after his own time, he was permitted to see not only how corrupt his own country was in his day, but also the depth of the degradation as it developed in the intervening time before the exile.
It was customary in Old Testament times to date documents by the reigns of various kings. The four mentioned here included three who were assessed as good (referred to in the introduction) and Ahaz, who was outstandingly wicked. The heading of Hosea (Hosea 1:1) shows that prophet to have been a contemporary of Isaiah, and the heading of Micah (Micah 1:1) shows his ministry to have begun somewhat later than Isaiah. Amos evidently had brought his ministry to a close shortly before Isaiah began his (Amos 1:1).
In spite of the reforms under the godly King Hezekiah and similar reforms a century later under King Josiah (2 Kings 22:1-23:30), the kingdom of Judah was plunging headlong toward ruin, arrested somewhat in the two periods just mentioned. But as previously noted, it was going on inexorably toward its inevitable conclusion.
2. GOD'S INDICTMENT (1:2-23)
After the heading, God's indictment of Judah follows in solemn poetic language. It is viewed by many as an example of the lawsuit formula - a lawsuit against the nation for breaking the covenant.
The Hebrew term meaning lawsuit is not uncommon in the Scriptures. The root meaning of the word is "to strive" or "to contend." Because no courtroom can contain God, the whole created world is called upon to witness God's faithfulness to His people and the people's faithlessness to Him.
The call to heaven and earth to listen is reminiscent of Moses' prophetic song in Deuteronomy 32, where there is a like appeal to heaven and earth. The Lord is thus showing publicly His case against the sinful and rebellious kingdom.
"Sons I have reared and brought up" (v. 2). The relationship is expressed emphatically and affords a stark contrast with the conduct of the ox and the donkey, which are notorious for their stubbornness and stupidity. In spite of all the blessings that God had heaped on those people in a special relationship to Himself, they were persistently disobeying and rebelling. The Old Testament is very sparing in the use of the term sons in describing people's relationship to God, but here it is stressed to show the special quality of God's bounty on the people of Israel.
Note the use of the term Israel in verse 3. Although Isaiah was living in Judah and his message was addressed primarily to that kingdom, God is extending His judgment and His blessings to the totality of His chosen nation, because someday the breach will be healed and the division will be over forever. "My people do not understand" (v. 3). In human relations no one likes to be misunderstood. Certainly God should have been understood by the people for whom He had done so much.
The parallelism of the Hebrew poetry is very apparent even in translation. The "sinful nation" (v. 4) is described in three further ways that emphasize the corruptness of both their nature and their deeds (original and personal sin). Instead of going forward with their gracious God, they turned backward from Him.
The tone of the Lord's words in this passage is not censorious, but sorrowful and pleading. God is not pleased with the sinfulness of His people nor with the punishment that His justice requires. It is important to see in this opening accusation the first occurrence of the name "the Holy One of Israel" (v. 4). A holy God must condemn sin. Isaiah had come face to face with God's holiness; hence, he was able to present God's case to the sinful people who were ignoring the truth.
"Why will you be stricken again?" the Lord asks (v. 5), since the whole "body politic" is presented as being completely covered with wounds and bruises. "Why" (KJV) seems more accurate and appropriate than "Where" (NASB). The condition described in these verses is a beginning of the fulfillment of the curses pronounced on Israel for disobedience, as recorded in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28.
Although some of the commentators have regarded that as a description of a person in an advanced stage of leprosy, it seems more likely to refer to a body that has been covered with wounds from hard blows.
Verse 7 and following are taken by some as alluding to Isaiah's time, but it seems much more probable that the prophet is allowed by God to look ahead to the end result of the moral and spiritual corruption that was already so apparent in his day. The judgment is viewed as if it had already come and the vineyard is seen as stripped bare with only "a very small remnant" (v. 9, KJV) surviving. The doctrine of the remnant is prominent in Isaiah. God is not bringing complete destruction on the nation as He did on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:1-29), although its sins were enough to warrant it.
One is startled to hear the nation actually addressed as Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 10). Many in Judah undoubtedly protested that they did not deserve to be compared to those wicked cities.
An added evil of their corruption was that they were going through the forms of religious worship. They kept the outward requirements of the Mosaic ritual that God Himself had given. But God called their sacrifices "worthless offerings" (v. 13). They were only trampling God's courts, in effect wearing out the Temple pavement for no purpose whatever except outward, hypocritical show.
According to the Easton's Bible Dictionary, the meanings of the New Moon, Sabbath and Convocation are as follows:
New Moon - Special services were appointed for the commencement of a month (Numbers 28:11-15; 10:10). On the first of every month, present to the LORD a burnt offering of two young bulls, one ram and seven male lambs a year old, all without defect. With each bull there is to be a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil; with the ram, a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil; and with each lamb, a grain offering of a tenth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil. This is for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma, an offering made to the LORD by fire. With each bull there is to be a drink offering of half a hin of wine; with the ram, a third of a hin; and with each lamb, a quarter of a hin. This is the monthly burnt offering to be made at each new moon during the year. Besides the regular burnt offering with its drink offering, one male goat is to be presented to the LORD as a sin offering.
Sabbath (Hebrew verb shabbath, meaning to rest from labour) - It was the day of rest. It is first mentioned as having been instituted in Paradise, when man was in innocence (Genesis 2:2). The sabbath was made for man, as a day of rest and refreshment for the body and of blessing to the soul. It is next referred to in connection with the gift of manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23); and afterwards, when the law was given from Sinai (20:11), the people were solemnly charged to remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Thus it is spoken of as an institution already existing. In the Mosaic law strict regulations were laid down regarding its observance (Exodus 35:2-3; Leviticus 23:3; 26:34). These were peculiar to that dispensation. In the subsequent history of the Jews frequent references are made to the sanctity of the Sabbath (Isaiah 56:2, 4, 6, 7; 58:13, 14; Jeremiah 17:20-22; Nehemiah 13:19). In later times they perverted the Sabbath by their traditions. Our Lord Jesus rescued it from their perversions, and recalled to them its true nature and intent (Matthew 12:10-13; Mark 2:27; Luke 13:10-17).
Convocation - It was a meeting of a religious character as distinguished from congregation, which was more general, dealing with political and legal matters. Such convocations were the Sabbaths (Leviticus 23:2-3), the Passover (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:7-8; Numbers 28:25), Pentecost (Leviticus 23:21), the feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1), the feast of Weeks (Numbers 28:26), and the feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:35-36). The annual day of atonement was the holy convocation (Leviticus 23:27; Numbers 29:7).
The hands that they held out in supplication to God were stained with bloodshed (v. 15). They were oppressors and murderers.
God is always gracious, merciful, and long-suffering. He called on the people (v. 16) to cleanse themselves and to substitute righteousness for unrighteousness, but then in His grace He provided the cleansing they needed: "Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord, Though your sins are as scarlet, They will be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They will be like wool" (v. 18).
The general teaching of the Bible is clear that cleansing from sin is based on the substitutionary sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that is portrayed so graphically elsewhere in Isaiah (see especially chapter 53). Israel could give no defense, but God extended grace to her. However, when grace is refused there is nothing left but judgment (v. 20). In this verse is the first of the three occurrences of the expression "the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (see also 40:5 and 58:14).
The covenant relationship of God with His people is viewed a number of times in the Old Testament as analogous to the marriage relationship. In this section the city that once had been faithful to God is viewed as most unfaithful: "The faithful city has become a harlot" (v. 21). The corruption of Judah is pictured in practical ways, emphasizing justice in day-to-day relationships. The rulers are especially blamed because of their greater privileges and general influence on the people.
3. GOD'S VENGEANCE (1:24-31)
When God announced His vengeance on the wicked rulers and nation, He used a combination of names for Himself not found elsewhere in the book. First He called Himself Adonai (Lord), which has the idea of sovereign Master. In connection with that He used His special covenant name, Yahweh, and combined it with His control over the "hosts" or "armies" of heaven. Finally, as if that were not enough to emphasize His majesty and power, he called Himself the "Mighty One of Israel," the One who is able to do His will in spite of all opposition and rebellion. The names in combination assert God's omnipotence and show the absolute certainty of the judgment He will bring to pass.
The purpose of the judgment is not utter destruction, but eventual restoration (v. 26). God is faithful and has not forgotten His covenants with Abraham and David. The conditions of the Palestinian Covenant must be fulfilled as well, however, before the blessings of the other covenants can be realized.
The term Zion is used many times in Isaiah as a name for Jerusalem in its redeemed state, the dwelling place of God among His people.
4. MESSIAH'S REIGN (2:1-4)
Having seen the word of God concerning judg ment on Judah and Jerusalem, the prophet is then permitted to see a word that relieves the judg ment. It is as though God is seeking to reassure His people that out of the judgment—which is necessary and inevitable—must and will come fu ture blessing and glory. A knowledge of what the future holds in blessing will enable God's people to undergo the trials of the intervening time.
The expression the last days (v. 2) in Isaiah refers to messianic times. Here the prophecy leaps across the ages from Isaiah's day to the future millennial kingdom age. Many interpreters (amillennialists) who have sought to identify Israel with the church explain those outstanding promises to Israel about a future kingdom on the earth as not to be fulfilled literally, but to be fulfilled spiritually - in the church. The number and content of such passages preclude any denial of their literalness. And, of course, in literal interpretation there is room for figurative language.
Isaiah obviously did not know the time of that coming kingdom. It could have been near or distant. He knew nothing about the church age because it had not been revealed in his day. The kingdom could have come in his day, but only after a return from exile as is revealed in chapters 40-48.
In Scripture, a mountain is sometimes used to represent a kingdom. When the mountain of the Lord's house is established at the top of the mountains, it will be a time when Israel is exalted among the nations with those from all nations looking to Israel for guidance.
That represents a decided change from the prophet's day and from any day between his time and the present. For a long time Israel has been despised by many of the great ones of this world. In fulfillment of the prophetic words given through Moses, Israel is considered by many to be the "tail" and not the "head" (Deuteronomy 28:13). In the day described here the situation will be completely reversed.
A crucial question in determining anyone's eschatological position (his view of prophetic truth) is whether Israel as a nation has any future in God's plan. Isaiah contains a number of passages in which one either must acknowledge a future glory for Israel or retreat into allegory or "spiritualizing."
Here the prophet is allowed to look far ahead so that he and those whom he is addressing may not be overwhelmed by the weight of guilt on their people and the consequent judgment of God. Judgment must come and as noted previously, the first main part of Isaiah has judgment as its prominent theme. But it is as though God would make the judgment less unbearable by reminding that there is glory beyond the judgment. God's purpose for Israel will be fulfilled in the glorious earthly rule of the Messiah.
This passage is almost identical to the opening verses of Micah 4 (contrast Joel 3:10). It is useless to speculate which prophet made use of whose material. The most likely answer is that the Holy Spirit gave the same revelation to both.
This is a beautiful poetic (but nonetheless real and literal) description of the coming earthly kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. It should be compared not only with the parallel passage in Micah 4, but also with other kingdom passages such as Psalms 2 and 46.
There have always been yearnings for peace among nations. Almost all nations have professed to be "peaceloving." But there have always been the aggressor nations, such as Assyria in Isaiah's time and Babylon in Jeremiah's time.
The universal disarmament described here will now come about not by the goodwill of nations or blocs of nations, but by the absolute domination of the Lord Jesus Christ, who single handedly will bring about peace on earth (cf. Isaiah 9:6-7). With the Savior reigning, there can be disarmament because He will enforce righteousness on the earth. Men have talked about "benevolent despots," but no one has actually seen one. There will be One in the future day described here.
A further word needs to be added concerning the language of this prophecy. Some consider it a dilemma to talk about literal fulfillment in conjunction with the mention of ancient weapons no longer used in warfare, for example. Is it necessary to be speaking of literal swords and literal spears in order to have a literal fulfillment? The answer seems to be that the prophet must speak to his own time in language that his contemporaries can understand and yet speak to all times. Swords and spears are clearly understood in the passage as implements of warfare, just as plow shares and pruning hooks are tools of agriculture. All kinds of munitions and armaments will be converted to peaceful uses and processes. Military schools will then become unnecessary - "never again will they learn war" (v. 4).
Many passages in the Old Testament speak of that future kingdom age. To seek a "spiritual" explanation, as though the Holy Spirit were some how speaking of the blessings of the church now, is to lose touch with reality. This study guide will touch on other places in Isaiah where that future kingdom is prominent.
One would not deny that Christ gives peace now to the believing sinner, but one must not confuse peace on earth with what the Scripture calls "peace with God" (Romans 5:1) or "the peace of God" (Philippians 4:7). There is no real peace of any kind apart from the Lord Jesus Christ.
5. APPEAL AND WARNING (2:5-3:26)
It is clear that the kingdom cannot be set up before a time of judgment. Consequently, the appeal and warning in this passage are extremely relevant. We see here a mingling of conditions in the prophet's day with conditions of a future day of judgment, the Day of the Lord - called here a "day of reckoning" (v. 12). The expression the Day of the Lord, found often in the prophets, including Isaiah, is distinguished from the present time, which is "man's day" (the literal meaning of 1 Corinthians 4:3). God's dealings with the earth are being carried on indirectly now through His providence. In a future time He will intervene directly in judgment as He has done at times in the past, notably in the Noahic Flood. This future intervention, described in many Old Testament prophetical passages and in the New Testament book of Revelation, will be on a worldwide scale (as the Flood was) and will introduce the future kingdom age when the Lord Jesus Christ, returning personally, will rule over the earth. "He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth" (Psalm 46:9).
God's "day of reckoning" is against those who are "proud and lofty" (v. 12). Scripture has repeated statements about God's hatred of pride (see Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). His future judgment will bring down everything that is lifted up falsely.
This passage contains repetition of ideas, which is the genius of Hebrew poetry, and makes use of a refrain, characteristic of Isaiah (note vv. 7-8).
Some of the calamities mentioned in the passage obviously took place at the time of the Babylonian invasions and captivity, but much of the prophecy looks forward to "that day," a clear allusion to messianic times (v. 17). Idolatry, which figures so prominently in this book as the object of the prophet's satire, will ultimately be abolished (v. 18). Men's hiding themselves from "the terror of the Lord and the splendor of His majesty" (v. 21) is an end-time event, also mentioned in Revelation 6:15-17.
In His warning to the sinful nation God explains how He is going to remove the rulers and leaders and that He "will make mere lads their princes" (3:4). There is no doubt allusion to the troubled period of invasions. After the death of King Josiah from his wound at the battle of Megiddo, his descendants were mere puppets - Jehoahaz, of the king of Egypt; Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, of the king of Babylon. They were all lacking in ability to govern.
The underlying strain is that the people have brought the judgment on themselves through their sinfulness and rebellion (vv. 8-9). The leaders, as should be expected, have the strongest guilt (vv. 14-15), for they have abused their privileges and used their positions to their own advantage.
The women are not to escape the judgment of God any more than the men. The description of the luxurious fashions emphasizes the futility of trusting in outward adornment (note the contrast in 1 Peter 3:3-4).
The closing verses of chapter 3 speak of the tremendous depletion of the male population through warfare. The first verse of chapter 4 actually belongs with chapter 3. The women will be willing to give up their rights that they could claim under the Mosaic law in order to have husbands (Exodus 21:10). The reference to "that day" (Isaiah 4:1) must refer to the end of the Tribulation period, because the same expression is used in 4:2 for the beginning of the kingdom.
6. THE BRANCH OF THE LORD (4:2-6)
The "Branch of the Lord" mentioned in verse 2 can be no other than the Messiah (cf. Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). The mark of distinction in "that day" will not be position or prestige, but holiness (vv. 3-4).
In beautiful poetic language the Lord shows how His presence will abide with His peopIe (v. 5) as it did in earlier times during their wilderness journeys. God will be a shelter both from the burning sun and the destructive rainstorms (v. 6).
It is remarkable how many times in Isaiah the same sequence of events is covered; events connected with the future judgment of Israel and the kingdom age when the Lord Jesus Christ will reign over the earth.
7. THE SONG OF THE VINEYARD (5:1-30)
God now announces judgment in the form of a poetic parable. Its presentation as a "song" (v. 1) may serve to soften the severity of the prophecy. It shows the favored position that Israel enjoyed. The interpretation is clear because it is given in the passage itself (v. 7). There are other places in the Old Testament in which Israel is called a vine or a vineyard (cf. Psalm 80:8 and Hosea 10:1).
The parable of the vineyard given by the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 21:33-44) undoubtedly was designed as a parallel to this passage. The Pharisees and chief priests clearly perceived that the Lord directed His parable against them.
Since God Himself had planted the vineyard, He had a right to expect good results from it. In stead of justice, however, He found oppression; instead of righteousness, He found the cry of the oppressed (v. 7).
Some of the sins of Israel that bring this judgment are plainly enumerated. Grasping greediness will be punished by barren fields, indicative of extensive crop failure (vv. 8-10).
Drunkenness will be punished with captivity (vv. 11-13) and physical dead (v. 14).
God will see to it that men will be brought down and that He Himself will be exalted (vv. 15-17).
Woe is pronounced against those who are defiant and rebellious (vv. 18-19) and against those who confuse moral issues, failing to differentiate between right and wrong (v. 20) - a sin that is fully as prevalent today as in Isaiah's day.
Further, woe is pronounced against those who in their conceit depend on their own faulty human wisdom (v. 21), and against the drunken judges (vv. 22-23). The incidence of alcoholism in governmental circles in the twentieth century is terrifying, and is as widespread as it was in Judah when God announced that He would not excuse and would not spare.
In view of the apostate condition of Israel, God must surely intervene in judgment. His justice is invoked first in a general statement of their despising "the word of the Holy One of Israel" (v. 24). Next it is pictured as a blow from His hand (v. 25); finally it is seen as an invading army (vv. 26-30).
Having faithfully conveyed God's indictment to the sinful nation, the prophet completes the first section of the book by narrating his call from God to the prophetic office.
8. ISAIAH'S CALL AND COMMISSION (6:1-13)
8.1 The Connection of Isaiah 6 with the Lord Jesus Christ
Everywhere one looks in Isaiah one can find some intimation of the Messiah as the promised Redeemer and eventual King of Israel and the earth. In discerning Him, however, the careful student must not indulge his imagination, but must stand on the firm ground of Scripture's teaching.
The connection of Isaiah 6 with the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly stipulated in the New Testament. That could be known even apart from explicit statement, because the Lord Jesus was directly involved in every theophany, or appearance of God, in the Old Testament (see John 1:18). But there is explicit statement.
In accounting for the hardness of heart and the rejection of Christ by the religious leaders of His day, the apostle John quotes from two passages in Isaiah:
But though He had performed so may signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him; that the word of Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, "LORD, who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" (Isaiah 53:1).
For this cause they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, "He has blinded their eyes, and he Hardened their heart; lest they see with their eyes, and perceive with their heart, and be converted, and I heal them" (Isaiah 6:10).
These things Isaiah said, because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him (John 12:37-41).
"His glory" in this context can only mean Christ's glory; and of course the Old Testament context is obviously Isaiah 6, the description of Isaiah's own commissioning.
8.2 Questions about Chapter 6
Several questions confront one who looks at this chapter:
What is the time element? Does the experience of chapter 6 follow chronologically the opening prophecies of chapters 1-5? What is the relationship of Isaiah's experience to the life time of King Uzziah?
Where was Isaiah when he "saw the Lord" (v. 1)? Was Isaiah in the earthly Temple in Jerusalem or in a heavenly temple?
Was Isaiah a priest?
Who are the seraphim (v. 2)?
Why do the seraphim proclaim that holiness three times (v. 3)?
Those questions and others need to be considered.
8.2.1 What is the time element?
There are two possible interpretations:
A common interpretation asserts that Uzziah had already died and that the young Isaiah, who had perhaps put too much trust in the human ruler, now was able to get his eyes off the earthly king and see the heavenly King. That is reading into the passage something that is not necessarily there.
It seems possible, perhaps likely, that in rounding out the opening section of God's indictment of Judah and Jerusalem Isaiah went back in time to that vision of the Lord that was the foundation of his ministry. One objection to that lies in the words of the opening verse of the book (1:1), which says that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah and those of his three successors.
However, the "year of King Uzziah's death" does not necessarily mean that the experience took place after Uzziah had died. In fact, it is much more likely that the well-known king was still living, but to die within the year; for if he had been dead already the prophet would more likely have dated the experience in the first year of Jotham. In this connection, I think that the second view is correct.
8.2.2 Where was Isaiah when he "saw the Lord"?
The prophet's awareness of his own sinfulness in itself is not proof of that position. Was Isaiah in the earthly Temple in Jerusalem or in a heavenly temple? Good commentators are found on each side of that question. In my opinion, Isaiah saw the Lord in the earthly Temple in Jerusalem due to the following reasons:
the phrase "the whole earth is full of His glory" indicates that it was in the earthly scene (v. 3); and
the phrase "at the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook" implies that the doorposts and thresholds must be made of earthly materials otherwise it could not be shaken by the voices of the Seraphim (v. 4).
8.2.3 Was Isaiah a priest?
If he were in the earthly Temple, does that mean he was a priest? Some of the prophets who were also priests made that fact known, notably Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There does not seem to be any indication that Isaiah was a priest. It was possible that Isaiah went into the Temple court to worship, and while he was there God gave him that supernatural glimpse of Himself.
The Scripture is clear that no earthly building could possibly contain God (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 17:24). But in the theophanies God accommodated Himself in measure to the limitations of the beholders. Isaiah certainly could never forget that experience; he could never be in doubt about it; and would always remember when it occurred.
The overall impression conveyed by this vision is the glory and majesty of God as the exalted One. The sight of the throne emphasizes that God is the ruler and that He is in sovereign con trol. That is further emphasized by the word "Lord" (Adonai), which means the "sovereign Master." It is used again in verses 8 and 11. A different word - the name "Yahweh" - is used in verses 3, 5 and 12. It has already been pointed out that John refers to this experience as a view of Christ's glory. The Son of God is the revealer of God (John 1:18) before His incarnation as well as after. (Note: For further discussion on the pre-existence of the Lord Jesus Christ, please study the course, Systematic Theology, Chapter 17: The Pre-existence and Deity of Christ.)
The One whom Isaiah saw is the absolute Disposer of all events, the absolute Master of men. As so often in the Scriptures, His majesty and glory are set forth with a minimum of descriptive words, yet with a graphic power that causes us to see and to feel.
8.2.4 Who are the seraphim?
They seem to be mentioned only here in the Scripture, although they bear some resemblance to the cherubim whom Ezekiel saw in his vision by the Chebar River (Ezekiel 1:1-28 and 10:1-22), and to the four "living beings" John saw in his vision (Revelation 4:1-5:14). It is true that the same word is used for the fiery serpents in the experiences of Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 21:6). The root word evidently means "to burn." They must be heavenly or angelic beings of a very high order, for they are around the throne of God and engage in continual praise of Him. They help to express the intense holiness of God to our feeble powers of perception. This is the supreme attribute of God that He is separate from all that could defile. The Hebrew word for "holy" conveys the thought of absolute purity, of separation from all evil, of being set apart in His unique cleanness and effulgence.
Although the cherubim in Ezekiel and in Revelation (if they are the same as the four "living ones") are clearly specified as four in number, there is no indication here of how many seraphim there are. The Hebrew ending -im, of course, is the plural form. Those mighty creatures evidently burn in their ardor or zeal to honor and glorify God, who alone is worthy of praise. The covering of the faces seems to signify their reverence toward God. He had told Moses, "You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!" (Exodus 33:20). The brilliance of God's glory that would be too much for a man to gaze on may even overwhelm a seraph (a "burning one").
The covering of the feet may indicate humility in service. Even the ministry of a seraph, completely holy and in unbroken submission to God, is not sufficient for His deserving. Hence, the seraphim acknowledge God's transcendence. It seems most likely that the seraphim are among the highest ranks of heavenly beings, not merely manifestations of God's attributes. Some who take the latter view think that would help to explain the statement that the seraphim stood "above" God (v. 2). It certainly could not mean that any created being is superior to the Creator! It evidently means that the seraphim are around God's throne in proximity to Him as they proclaim His dominant attribute. The Scripture indicates that there are different ranks or orders of heavenly beings both among the unfallen and the fallen. A reference to "thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities" is found in Colossians 1:16, for example. (Note: For further discussion on the seraphim, please study the course, Systematic Theology, Chapter 23: Angels: Ministering Spirits.)
8.2.5 Why do the seraphim proclaim that holiness three times?
The antiphonal cry of the seraphim celebrates God's holiness. Although some commentators doubt that there is an intimation of the Trinity here (i.e. Holy Father, Holy Son, Holy Spirit), it seems to be the most likely explanation. The seraphim do not praise God as twice holy or four times holy, but three times holy. In the light of the plain teaching of the New Testament on the Trinity, why should there be a problem in seeing foreshadows in the Old Testament? One must acknowledge that the full-fledged doctrine is not found in the Old Testament, but once the doctrine is seen as explicitly stated in the New Testament some of the otherwise hidden allusions of the Old Testament become understandable.
8.3 Isaiah's Commission
"The whole earth is full of His glory" (v. 3) may be an expression of its potential. Even in its sin-cursed state the earth is very beautiful and is a visible evidence of its Creator's existence and power (Romans 1:20). Someday it will be completely delivered from the Adamic curse (Romans 8:19-22). Eventually, redeemed mankind will join the inanimate creation in giving all praise and glory to God and the "earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
The voice of the seraph shook the building. The filling of the Temple with smoke is reminiscent of other manifestations of God's glory, as when the Tabernacle was set up (Exodus 40:34-35) and at Solomon's dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Isaiah's whole prophetic ministry shows the effect of this experience. The expression "the Holy One of Israel," which is so much a characteristic of the book, arose from that event and was impressed indelibly on Isaiah's consciousness.
A vision of God gives a person a clear view of himself. It is very likely that Isaiah was an outstanding and exemplary young man, not a terrible sinner compared with other men. But it is often seen in the Scripture that those who are closest to God are the ones most aware of their own unworthiness. Today there seems to be an overemphasis on what is called a "good self-image." If that means that one denies his own sinfulness, then it is unscriptural, untrue, and unwholesome. If it means that one recognizes the grace of God which makes even the vilest sinner of infinite worth in God's sight (as evidenced by the death of the Lord Jesus), then we can accept the concept most gladly. There is absolutely no place for pride in the Christian's life (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Isaiah's experience was similar to that of others:
Job, whom God Himself called a "blameless and upright man" (Job 1:8), was overwhelmed with a sense of his own worthlessness when he saw God. He said: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6, KJV). Does that mean that Job's "friends" were right all along by calling him an outstanding sinner and a hypocrite? Of course not. It means that even one of the best men cannot compare himself with the infinitely holy God.
Daniel, who is called by the angel Gabriel a "man greatly beloved" (Daniel 10:11, KJV), was overwhelmed by the vision he had of the glory of God (Daniel 10:15-17). He was prostrate and without strength.
John, the "disciple whom Jesus loved" (John 21:20), when he saw the Lord Jesus in glorified appearance on the island of Patmos "fell at His feet as a dead man" (Revelation 1:17). All of those were exceptional men, among the best when compared with others.
Isaiah's experience was similar. "Woe is me," he cried out, "for I am ruined!" (v. 5). He was deeply conscious of the uncleanness of his person when compared with God's absolute holiness. He specifically mentioned his lips and the lips of the people among whom he lived, because they were not using their speech as the seraphim did to exalt and praise the "King, the Lord of hosts" (v. 5).
The words for "for I am ruined" (NIV) or "for I am undone" (KJV) translate the Hebrew verb meaning "I am silenced." Apparently, Isaiah was unable to speak until the seraphim touched his lips.
God had not brought Isaiah into this experience merely to let him despair. Isaiah's confession led to cleansing. It was only when he acknowledged his need that God met that need.
That is a principle in salvation. Many people never get to the place where they will admit they have need of God's grace. The Lord Jesus said that He came not "to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matthew 9:13, KJV). Similarly, Christians often find their lives barren and fruitless because they will not or do not confess their sins. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, KJV).
The live coal from the altar was the instrument of cleansing. Commentators differ about whether it is the altar of burnt offering or the golden altar of incense. In a number of places the Bible speaks of the cleansing effect of fire. The fire on the altar brings to mind the purifying judgment of God. Because the sacrificial system pointed forward to Christ, there is evidently a foreshadowing here of the cleansing that He provided by His death.
After the prophet's confession and cleansing came his commissioning by God. The coincidence of the King James Version helps one keep the order in memory: the "woe" of confession (v. 5) is followed by the "lo" of cleansing (v. 7), which leads to the "go" of commissioning (v. 9).
As previously indicated, this is probably not a recommissioning but the account of Isaiah's original call, and thus out of order chronologically with the preceding prophecies. God prefers willing messengers, although in His sovereignty He can use even an unwilling one, such as Balaam (Numbers 22:20). Consequently, God asked, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" (v. 8). Isaiah replied: "Here am I. Send me!"
The English version indicates that the prophet heard the voice of the Lord only as He was saying the divine commission, "Whom shall I send?" These words were uttered at the time when they were heard; there was only one "saying" or "utterance."
The Hebrew sentence structure represents a Hebrew perfect in a clause of result with a participle which refers to action that flows without interruption. Thus, in view of the Hebrew text, we may read: "As a result of the preceding cleansing of the prophet, he then suddenly heard the voice which had been saying over and over again, "Whom shall I send?" The participle "saying" indicates continuing, uninterrupted action. Thus, the Hebrew participle indicates that the voice of the Lord had been saying repeatedly to Isaiah, "Whom shall I send?" and Isaiah had not heard the voice. The prophet suddenly heard the voice after the seraphim had cleansed him of his sinful speech by laying on his lips a hot coal from the sacrifical altar. Then he said, "After I had been cleansed, I heard the voice that had been saying over and over again, 'Whom shall I send?'"
God does not always give the same commission. Isaiah obviously was not to have an easy ministry. He was told before he began that the multitudes would not listen to him and that judgment would have to come on his people. But the situation was not completely hopeless. There would always be a "tenth portion" (v. 13). God always has His remnant, as the seven thousand in Elijah's day (1 Kings 19:18). Similarly, the apostle Paul could rejoice in his own day: "Even so ... at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace" (Romans 11:5, KJV).
The comparatively small number who came back to the land with Zerubbabel after the Babylonian captivity could take comfort from that prophecy (Ezra 2:1-70).
9. REFERENCES AND RECOMMENDATION FOR FURTHER STUDY
An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books, Chapter 6, Moody Press: Chicago, 1986 Edition, by C. Hassell Bullock.
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