Isaiah 6 Merciful and Mighty

Sun, 11/10/2015 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

There are two kinds of religion in the world.

Some think of God as distant. He’s all-powerful, he’s far above us mere mortals. And so he’s impersonal, and he cannot be truly known. This is the classic Muslim view of God, although many modern Muslims are rewriting that part of their religion.

Other religions think of God as domestic. He can be known, so much so that you could almost become best friends. Have him in your home. Here’s an excerpt from the magazine, Hinduism Today: “A unique aspect of Hinduism is that everyone can be a priest and be in charge of one's own temple. That temple is your home shrine, which you can spiritualize or turn into a mini-temple through conducting daily puja.”

Which is he? Remote or near? Distant or domestic?

When it comes to the Christian God, plenty of people, including many Christians, think he’s one or the other. To some, he’s an austere heavenly figure, and to others God wants to become your best friend.

The prophet Isaiah met God one day. He never forgot the vision he had, the day he got to meet God. He recorded the experience, so that Israel in his day, and we in ours, can meet God too.

Let’s do so. I’ve got three headings as we look at this chapter, as we ping from God, to us, and back to God again.

Formidable God

First, the formidable God. The formidable God.

Isaiah’s vision is a vision of God. This is not a chapter about Isaiah, or about Israel, or about us. This is about God. He literally fills Isaiah’s vision.

Isaiah sees three aspects of God’s character.

First, God is king. God is king. This vision came in the year that King Uzziah died. We’ve just celebrated Queen Elizabeth being the longest reigning monarch of England. Uzziah reigned for 52 years. Life expectancy was low back then, so that’s forever. He wasn’t a perfect king. But his death was still massive. The end of an era.

And in that year, Isaiah saw “the Lord”. That’s not “Lord” in capital letters, which is God’s name. It’s his title. He’s the true ruler. Isaiah sees him on a throne. And what a throne. Isaiah is in the temple, and just the train of God’s robe fills the whole temple. So God himself is much, much bigger, as Isaiah says, “high and exalted”. As he says in verse 5: “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Israel had some great kings and some not so great ones. We have a great queen, and political rulers good and bad. But Isaiah saw the one true king, the king – of kings. The Lord Almighty. God the king.

Second, God is holy. Holy. The king is attended by his courtiers. Flying angelic beings called seraphim. The name means “burning ones” – they looked like they were made of flame. God is so majestic that they cannot even look at God – they used two of their wings to cover their eyes. But it’s what they call that echoed around Isaiah’s vision, and burnt into his memory: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty”.

The word “holy” means “other”. God is not like anyone else, certainly not like us. He’s in a league of his own.

God is holy three times. Holy, holy, holy. That’s worth unpacking a little. The Hebrew language has no way to form what we call a superlative. You could be big, or you could be the biggest. Hebrew would say “big, big”. You could be strong, or you could be the strongest. Hebrew would day “strong, strong”. So God is not just “holy”. He is “holy, holy”. He is the most holy thing you’d ever find anywhere. Except he’s not just the holiest. He’s not just “holy, holy”. That would not do him justice. The Seraphim have to invent a clumsy phrase, that’s not quite right. God is “holy, holy, holy”. Totally other.

God is holy.

And then, third, God is a God of glory. Glory. That’s the second half of the Seraphim’s echo: “the whole earth is full of his glory.” If holiness is about separation, other-ness, glory is about gravity. God is the Great One. More than that, he is greatness itself. When God enters a room, you never miss it. But God hasn’t just entered one room. The whole earth is full of God’s glory. The whole world is designed to show just what a great and awesome God there is.

That’s the God Isaiah saw. He’s not small or tin-pot. He’s the reverse. He’s weighty, holy, unlike anyone you’ve ever met, the true king.

I’m sure we’ve all known the feeling of being intimidated by being in the presence of a great one. Someone you really respect, have looked forward to meeting. Then you get to meet them, and your mouth goes dry, you can’t think of anything useful to say.

Well the God of Isaiah 6 towers over every other great one you’ve ever met or wished to meet. He dwarfs the lot of them. He’s certainly not to be domesticated.

Isaiah’s vision, of a formidable God.

Filthy People

Our second heading brings this back to us. Isaiah is struck by the massive gulf between him and the God he’s just glimpsed. So, secondly, a filthy people. Filthy people.

One of the notes of God’s holiness is his moral purity. He’s unlike anyone else because only God is totally good, flawless, perfect.

So as Isaiah enters God’s presence, he immediately thinks of all the things he’s said that he shouldn’t have. And of all the things he’s done that means he has no right to say anything. In the presence of a king, you don’t speak unless you are invited to do so. Isaiah realises he’s disqualified himself many times over. His lips are unclean. The seraphim are soaring overhead, praising God’s glory, and Isaiah cannot join in.

Part of this feeling of immense guilt comes from his neighbours. Isaiah lives among the people of Israel, and he’s catalogued their sins in the chapters that came before this one. But he knows it’s not just them. It’s him too. He’s lived in startlingly similar ways.

If you’ve ever tried cleaning anything after dark, you’ll know it’s very hard to do it properly. You think the windows are clean, the dust is gone, the sink is clean. But next morning, the sun is up and you open the curtain. And all the smears, grime and finger marks are there to see.

It’s not difficult to think your life is pretty decent. But when Isaiah is transported into God’s presence, the blazing light of God’s purity, his dazzling white holiness, is turned on at full blast. And then the dirt shows up. “Woe to me, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

He’s ruined. Undone.

And then, once Isaiah is commissioned to speak for God, his message shows that Israel is also ruined as well. Verses 8 to 12 tell how Israel will refuse to listen to Isaiah, and be confirmed in their hard-heartedness. God’s judgement will fall. Yes, a remnant will be left behind, but then God’s judgement will sweep through a second time, until everything is gone. Cities. People. Houses. Fields. Land.

Don’t ever use water to put out an oil fire. Oil and water don’t mix. But if the oil is hot, hotter than water boils, then it is no help to add cold water. It will be vaporised instantly, and thrown back in your face. Or take a blazing hot coal fire, and put a bit of straw even close to the flames. It will burn up in a flash.

We do not mix with a holy God, even more than oil and water do not mix. If you or I tried to go into the presence of God, we’d burn up before we even got close. Isaiah only saw this once God turned the lights on full beam in his vision, but it’s true.

Thank God we’ve never had the experience of being brought into God’s presence. One day we will do. But Isaiah records his vision so that we might know what happens. God’s penetrating light shines on every single flaw, and we realise we cannot join in the praise of heaven, we cannot even speak. Like Israel, like Isaiah, we’re ruined.

Filthy people.

Forgiving God

But there’s a third heading. It’s time to bounce back to God again. Formidable God. Filthy people. And third: Forgiving God. Forgiving God.

In the temple, there was an altar where a fire was always kept burning. Various animal sacrifices took place in the temple. We human beings deserve to die in the presence of God, but God allows an animal to be killed instead. And so the fire, never allowed to go out, symbolised that sacrificial system.

Verse 6: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it, he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Those animals really did the trick. One coal from that fire, and Isaiah’s sin is gone. Taken away. Forever.

And remember that Isaiah identified with the rest of Israel. If this can deal with Isaiah’s sin, then this is the key for the rest of Israel, too. God is a forgiving God. He’s provided sacrifices that really work, that deal with the problem of our sin, that make us clean for God’s presence.

The passage ends with another note of hope. Again, we see how good God is. Israel won’t listen to Isaiah. They’ll be wiped out, and even the remnant will get destroyed. But that’s not quite the end. Verse 13: “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

If you’ve been to Knole Park, you’ll see lots of dead trees lying on their sides. In the hurricane of 1987, many trees there were blown down. Many were left where they fell, and here’s the surprising thing. A good number started to grow again. Although the tree should be dead, and would normally be cleared, some new growth began to appear.

God is just, and he judges his people when they turn from him. But that’s not the end. God’s people might be cut down, but his plan to save the world cannot be. God says that the stump will become the seed. We’ll come back to that in chapter 9. Our rebellion cannot kill off God’s purposes.

It’s the same today. Today, just as then, God has provided a way for sinful people to be forgiven. It’s no longer the sacrifice of animals, and it’s not symbolised by a fire in the temple. Those things pointed to Jesus’ perfect sacrifice, when he gave up his own life that we might be forgiven.

And God’s purpose to bless his people continues, even though we often fail, and even though this world is under judgement for its rebellion against God. We can trust that God’s promises and good purposes will win out, because he’s already begun to fulfil them in the person of Jesus.

A forgiving God.


Let’s meet the real God, through Isaiah’s eyes.

What kind of God is he? Is he distant and unknowable? Is he our best friend? The answer is that he’s neither and he’s both.

Don’t mistake God for a domestic deity who can be approached lightly. God is a God of awesome majesty. He’s so holy it needs saying three times. His glory, his weightiness, his gravity, fills the whole earth. He towers over every other great one, and leaves us wilting in the shade. None of us is adequate even to approach him, let alone to speak. God is not tame. He is not domesticated.

But neither is he distant, unknowable, aloof. This awesome God is the Father of the Lord Jesus, who sent his own son to die so that we might know him. Who has created an amazing plan to rescue his people, that we might have our sin removed, that we might know him, that we might enjoy his blessing and not suffer his judgement.

This is our God. Come, know him, and be blessed!

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