Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Isaiah’s Inaugural Vision
It is now universally acknowledged that this chapter records Isaiah’s initiation into the office of a prophet. The opinion of many older commentators that it represents a renewal or recovery of the prophetic consciousness after several years of public activity, was based on the erroneous assumption that the order of the book is in the main chronological and that the previous chapters contain prophecies from the reign of Uzziah (see also on Isaiah 6:5, below). Everything in the narrative itself suggests that it is an inaugural vision, a record of the experience by which Isaiah was made a prophet. The consciousness of standing in a peculiar relation to God, of personal reconciliation to Him, of being in His council, and bearing a definite commission straight from Himself, dates from the moment when in an ecstasy he “saw the Lord.” The vision is undoubtedly an actual experience, not the mere embodiment of an idea; it occurred in the death-year of Uzziah, as the prophet, looking back after some lapse of time, distinctly recalls. Then Isaiah saw God, not indeed with his bodily eyes, but in a prophetic trance, in which the ordinary operations of the mind were suspended and spiritual realities assumed concrete and visible forms. That the publication of the vision belongs to a more advanced stage of the prophet’s ministry seems implied by the note of time in Isaiah 6:1, and is probable on other grounds. Its place in the book is best explained by the supposition that it was written as the prologue to a short collection of oracles (7–9:7, see General Introd. p. lxxii) giving a summary of Isaiah’s teaching in the early part of the reign of Ahaz. But we have no right to imagine that the prophet, from his subsequent experience, read into his original commission elements which it did not convey to his mind at the time. To suppose that he could not have carried on his work under the depressing conviction (expressed in Isaiah 6:9-13) that he would only harden the people in unbelief is to mistake the prophet’s attitude to his work. If there were any force in the argument, it would prove too much, for it would be necessary to suppose that the chapter was written after Isaiah’s life-work was over. But Isaiah, like his predecessors Amos and Hosea and his successors Jeremiah and Ezekiel, spoke the word of God under an inward constraint, and his writings contain no sign that he ever cherished any expectations of success beyond what the vision allows.
The chapter stands unrivalled in the Old Testament both for grandeur of conception and the majestic simplicity of its style. The narrative is in prose: the speeches are rhythmical. There are strictly no divisions, but for convenience of exposition we may distinguish three stages in the process of initiation:—
i. Isaiah 6:1-4. The vision of Jehovah in His glory, and the splendours of His court.
ii. Isaiah 6:5-8. The impression produced by this sight on the mind of the prophet: at first a crushing sense of imperfection and guilt, which is transformed by a symbolic act denoting forgiveness into glad self-surrender to the service of the King.
iii. Isaiah 6:9-13. His commission to declare the word of God to the people, with an announcement of its twofold effect: (1) to increase the spiritual insensibility of the mass of the nation (Isaiah 6:9-10), and (2) to lay waste the land by a succession of exterminating judgments, which shall leave only a remnant to form the nucleus of the future people of God (11–13).
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.1. In the year that king Uzziah died] i.e. about 740 b.c.; see Chronological Note, pp. lxxv f. Whether the event happened before or after the king’s death cannot be determined. It lends an additional interest to the vision if we adopt the latter view, and regard this as the divine answer to the anxious foreboding thoughts which naturally arose in a susceptible mind at the death of a strong and successful ruler. The earthly king has passed away, and now Isaiah sees the true King in His glory.
I saw also the Lord] Many codices read here Jehovah, but the name in the received text is Adonai, the Sovereign (see on ch. Isaiah 1:24). The word “also” answers to nothing in the original. The words high and lofty apply to the throne, not to Jehovah Himself, as in ch. Isaiah 57:15.
his train filled the temple] The skirts of His vesture fill the whole space, and on these alone, not on the person of Jehovah, Isaiah allows his eyes to rest.
1–4. Jehovah appears to the prophet in human form, and as a King, seated on a throne, surrounded by ministering servants who sing His praise (cf. 1 Kings 22:19 ff.). The scene is the Temple (Isaiah 6:1), where Isaiah probably was when the vision occurred. There is no occasion to suppose that a “heavenly palace” is meant. What the prophet sees is the spiritual reality of which the Temple was a symbol, Jehovah’s presence as King in the midst of His people. Cf. ch. Isaiah 8:18.
Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.2. Above it … seraphims] better, Seraphim were standing over Him, i.e. in the attitude of service. One standing in the presence of another who is seated is always said to be over him, whatever their mutual relations may be: 1 Kings 22:19; Genesis 18:2; Genesis 18:8; Exodus 18:13, &c. The Seraphim (probably “fiery beings”) are mentioned nowhere else in Scripture as angelic beings. Their function in this vision is purely symbolical. They are the attendants of Jehovah’s court or the ministers of the invisible sanctuary; they reflect the glory of God, and by their presence and actions suggest new and fuller conceptions of His ineffable majesty. The basis of the symbol is obscure. The serpents with which the Israelites were plagued in the desert are called Seraphim (sing. Sârâph: Numbers 21:6-9; Deuteronomy 8:15), and some connexion between the two uses of the word is probable. An intermediate link would be supplied by the “flying Saraph” of ch. Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 30:6,—apparently an allusion to a widely diffused mythological notion; see Herodotus II. 75 on the winged serpents of Arabia. It is also worthy of notice that the brazen Saraph (Numbers 21:8) made by Moses must have been a conspicuous object in the temple at the time of Isaiah’s call (2 Kings 18:4). On the other hand the analogy of the Cherubim has led to the theory that both are personifications of the phenomena of the thunder-storm, the Cherubim representing the dark cloud and the Seraphim the serpent-like lightning (see Cheyne, Comm., and art. ‘Cherubim’ in Encyc. Brit.). Different elements, in fact, seem to be combined in the conception of the Saraph; but whether it had been already incorporated in the religion of Israel, or whether Isaiah was the first who lifted it into the sphere of pure spiritual ideas it is quite impossible to say. Isaiah’s Seraphim are winged creatures, but certainly not serpentine in form, probably human, or at least partly human, like the Cherubim (Ezekiel 1:5-14).
with twain he covered his face …] The sense is well expressed by the Targum: “With two he covered his face that he might not see; and with two he covered his body that he might not be seen.”
And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.3. And one cried unto another] (frequentat. impf.). Cf. Revelation 4:8.
Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of Hosts:
That which fills the whole earth is His glory.
The word “holy,” thrice repeated as if it struck the chord to which the whole nature of these pure beings vibrated (the ancient church found here an allusion to the mystery of the Trinity) sums up the meaning of the vision in so far as it is a revelation of God. The general notion of holiness is too complex to be analysed here. The root idea appears to be that of distance or separation. As a predicate of deity it expresses first of all the awful contrast between the divine and the human, and then those positive attributes of God which constitute true divinity, and call for the religious emotions of awe, reverence and adoration. What Isaiah here receives, therefore, is a new and overpowering impression of the Supreme Godhead of Jehovah; the whole impact of the vision on his mind is concentrated in the word which he hears from the lips of the seraphim. Although the idea of holiness in the O.T. is never to be identified with that of moral purity, it is clear from Isaiah’s immediate sense of guilt that ethical perfection is included among the attributes which make up the holiness or Godhead of Jehovah (see Robertson Smith, Prophets, pp. 224 ff.).
The second line of the Trisagion celebrates the “glory” of Jehovah, His manifestation of Himself in nature,—one of the leading thoughts of the second part of this book (ch. 40 ff.). The seraphim contemplate the universal diffusion of this “glory” (sub specie aeternitatis) as a present fact; elsewhere it is an ideal yet to be realised: Numbers 14:21; Habakkuk 2:14.
And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.4. the posts of the door moved] the foundations of the thresholds shook (R.V.).
was filled (began to fill) with smoke] The smoke symbolises the “dark side of Jehovah’s self-manifestation” (Revelation 15:8), the reaction of His holy nature against sin. It answers to the rising consciousness of alienation and impurity in the prophet’s mind, expressed in the next verse.
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.5. Isaiah is overwhelmed with the sense of his own unworthiness; he feels himself cut off by a spiritual defect from participation in the solemn mystery which he, alone of mortals, has been privileged to behold; his eyes have seen, but his lips are impure.
I am undone] The Vulgate and other ancient versions give the impossible rendering, “I have been silent” (tacui). Jerome’s paraphrase is interesting as explaining the genesis of a curious legend, that Isaiah had already been a prophet, but had lost the gift of inspiration through his unfaithfulness: “quia tacui et non audacter Osiam regem corripui, ideo labia mea immunda sunt.”
a man of unclean lips] “A pure lip” is required for the worship of Jehovah (Zephaniah 3:9); Isaiah would fain join in the praises of the Seraphim, but the impulse is checked by the uncleanness of his lips, which is the impurity of his whole nature concentrated, as it were, in the organs of expression. Isaiah is not yet a prophet; but in this profound sense of the necessity for a consecration of the faculty of speech we must surely recognise an unconscious preparation for the task of speaking the word of God.
a people of unclean lips] Cf. ch. Isaiah 3:8. The vision of God which has brought his own sin to light, reveals to him also the sinfulness of the people among whom he dwells. They too are unfit to take the holy name of Jehovah on their lips; their whole worship of Him is profane. And this comes home to him as an aggravation of his guilt, that his mind is saturated with the atmosphere of ungodliness in which he lives and moves and has his being.
for mine eyes have seen the King] A second ground for the ejaculation “I am undone!” That the sight of God brings death to men is an idea frequently expressed in the O.T. (Exodus 19:21; Exodus 30:20; Jdg 13:22); the preceding clauses shew that to Isaiah’s consciousness the danger springs from sin, and not from mere creaturely frailty.
Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:6, 7. The ceremony of purification is in many respects unique, and seems to involve several ideas: (1) It shews that contact with the fire of the divine holiness is not necessarily destructive even to man. It is possible to “dwell with devouring fire” (ch. Isaiah 33:14). (2) It signifies the removal from the prophet of all in him which is incompatible with the holiness of Jehovah. Fire is both a symbol of holiness and an agent of purification (Numbers 31:23; Malachi 3:2). “As earthly fire burns away external impurity, so the heavenly fire burns away the defilement of sin, first from the lips, but through them from the whole man” (Dillmann). (3) It is not without significance that the fire is taken “from off the altar.” The hot stone (A. V. live coal) was an implement used in common life for transferring heat from the hearth to where it was required. The meaning of the Seraph’s act is that the atoning efficacy of the altar is conveyed to the person of Isaiah, to his lips in particular, because there the sin of his nature had seemed to be concentrated.
And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.7. and thine iniquity … purged] and thy guilt passes away and thy sin is atoned for. The last word is the technical term for the expiatory effect of the sacrificial ritual.
Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.8. Now for the first time Isaiah hears the voice of God, the purification of his lips having fitted him for personal converse with Jehovah and spiritual sympathy with His purposes.
who will go for us?] The plural is not that of majesty, but includes the “council of the holy ones” (Psalm 89:7), or the angelic “hosts of heaven” (1 Kings 22:19 f.).
Here am I; send me] The spontaneity and self-abandonment of this response are characteristic of Isaiah. He is as yet ignorant of the nature of his commission, yet he freely accepts it; and throughout life he never felt his message to be a grievous burden, as Jeremiah often did.
And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.9. this people] A contemptuous designation of Israel, peculiar to Isaiah: cf. ch. Isaiah 8:6; Isaiah 8:12, Isaiah 9:16, Isaiah 28:11; Isaiah 28:14, Isaiah 29:13 f.
Hear ye indeed …] Rather:
Hear ye continually, but perceive not
And see ye continually, but understand not.
The verbs, of course, are imperatives. On the force of the inf. abs. see Davidson, Synt. § 86 c (where, however, a different view of this particular passage is taken).
9, 10. The first effect of Isaiah’s prophetic work: to increase the spiritual insensibility of the people. The prophet’s words will go hand in hand with the “work of Jehovah,” the development of His purpose in history (Isaiah 6:12, cf. Amos 3:7); the people shall hear the one and see the other, but neither will bring them to true insight.
Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.10. Make the heart … fat] i.e. callous, unfeeling, Psalm 119:70. In Hebrew idiom, the “heart” includes the understanding. shut (lit. smear) its eyes] cf. Isaiah 29:10, Isaiah 44:18, Isaiah 42:19 f.
The difficulties created in our minds by this startling, and even harsh, statement of a great law of the spiritual world, are partly due to the tendency of Scripture writers to refer all things immediately to the will of God. To the Hebrew mind what we call secondary causes scarcely exist, at least in the sphere of religion. That which, in given circumstances, is the inevitable result of God’s providential dispensations is viewed absolutely, apart from its conditions, as a distinct divine purpose. The truth revealed to Isaiah is that the unbelief of his countrymen amounts to an incapacity for divine things, which can only be intensified by the further disclosure of the truth of God. And this, which is the inevitable issue of his own prophetic mission, is represented to him as Jehovah’s intention in sending him. Isaiah realises the profound truth that the most decisive and searching judgment to which men are subjected lies in the abundance of the revelations of God vouchsafed to them. It is a principle often appealed to in the New Testament, and frequently in the very words of our prophet (Matthew 13:14 f. and parallels; Acts 16:26 f.; Romans 11:8). “This is the judgment that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (John 3:19).
Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate,11. Lord, how long?] The prophet feels that in the divine counsels there must be a limit to this process of judicial hardening, that it must reach a crisis with a day of hope beyond it. But the answer is “Not till the existing Israel has been annihilated.”
Until the cities … without man] (Omit the.) Cf. ch. Isaiah 5:9.
and the land be utterly desolate] lit. “be wasted to desolation.” LXX., changing a letter, reads “and the land be left a desolation.”
11–13. The hardening of the people in unbelief is to be accompanied by a series of external judgments, culminating in the utter ruin of the nation.
And the LORD have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.12. and there be a great forsaking … land] Better, and great be the vacancy in the midst of the land. The word “vacancy” (deserted place) is used in Isaiah 17:9 : for the thought cf. ch. Isaiah 5:9, Isaiah 7:16 ff.
But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.13. The verse reads:
And should there still be in it a tenth,
It must again pass through the fire,
Like the terebinth and like the oak,
To which a stump (remains) when they are felled;
A holy seed is the stump thereof.
The last clause is wanting in the LXX., and with its omission it undoubtedly becomes possible to understand the figure of the verse as a sentence of final rejection; not only will the tree be cut down, but its stump will be destroyed by fire. The usual interpretation (which there is no reason to abandon) is: As the terebinth and oak when cut down retain the principle of vitality in their roots, which will again spring up into a great tree (cf. Job 14:7 ff.), so the ruined Israel contains the indestructible germ of the future kingdom of God, the “holy seed” is wrapped up in it. The difference is not material, since in any view Isaiah speaks of an extermination of the actually existing people: but the first explanation excludes Isaiah’s characteristic doctrine of the Remnant, which we should certainly expect to find in his inaugural vision. It must have been shortly after this time that he gave a significant expression to that doctrine in the name of his son Shear-jashub (see on next chapter).
a tenth] Perhaps an allusion to Amos 5:3.
A symbolical representation of the idea of this verse is given in Ezekiel 5:1-4. Cf. also Zechariah 13:8.