Isaiah 6:6
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:
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(6) Then flew one of the seraphims.—In presenting the vision to our mind’s eye we have to think of the bright seraph form, glowing as with fire, and with wings like the lightning-flash, leaving his station above the throne, and coming to where the prophet stood in speechless terror. The altar from which he took the “live coal “—literally, stone, and interpreted by some critics of the stones of which the altar was constructed—is commonly thought of as belonging, like that of Revelation 8:5; Revelation 9:13, to the heavenly Temple which was opened to the prophet’s view. There seems, however, a deeper meaning in the symbolism if we think of the seraph as descending from the height above the throne to the altar of incense, near which Isaiah actually stood. It was from that altar that the glowing charcoal was taken. What had seemed part of the material of a formal worship became quickened with a living power. The symbol became sacramental. So in Psalm 51:7, the prayer of the penitent is “Purge me with hyssop”—i.e., make the symbol a reality. Fire, it need hardly be said, is throughout the Bible the symbol at once of the wrath and the love of God, destroying the evil and purifying the good (Numbers 31:23; Malachi 3:2; Matthew 3:11; 1Corinthians 3:15; Hebrews 12:29; 1Peter 1:7). Isaiah passed, as it were, through the purgatory of an instantaneous agony.

Isaiah

VISION AND SERVICE

Isaiah 6:1 - Isaiah 6:13
.

WE may deal with this text as falling into three parts: the vision, its effect on the prophet, and his commission.

I. The Vision.-’In the year that King Uzziah died’ is more than a date for chronological accuracy. It tells not only when, but why, the vision was given. The throne of David was empty.

God never empties places in our homes and hearts, or in the nation or the Church, without being ready to fill them. He sometimes empties them that He may fill them. Sorrow and loss are meant to prepare us for the vision of God, and their effect should be to purge the inward eye, that it may see Him. When the leaves drop from the forest trees we can see the blue sky which their dense abundance hid. Well for us if the passing of all that can pass drives us to Him who cannot pass, if the unchanging God stands out more clear, more near, more dear, because of change.

As to the substance of this vision, we need not discuss whether, if we had been there, we should have seen anything. It was doubtless related to Isaiah’s thoughts, for God does not send visions which have no point of contact in the recipient. However communicated, it was a divine communication, and a temporary unveiling of an eternal reality. The form was transient, but Isaiah then saw for a moment ‘the things which are’ and always are.

The essential point of the vision is the revelation of Jehovah as king of Judah. That relation guaranteed defence and demanded obedience. It was a sure basis of hope, but also a stringent motive to loyalty, and it had its side of terror as well as of joyfulness. ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.’ The place of vision is the heavenly sanctuary of which the temple was a prophecy. Eminently significant and characteristic of the whole genius of the Old Testament is the absence of any description of the divine appearance. The prophet saw things ‘which it is not lawful for a man to utter,’ and his silence is not only reverent, but more eloquent than any attempt to put the Ineffable into words. Even in this act of manifestation God was veiled, and ‘there was the hiding of His power.’ The train of His robe can be spoken of, but not the form which it concealed even in revealing it. Nature is the robe of God. It hides while it discloses, and discloses while it hides.

The hovering seraphim were in the attitude of service. They are probably represented as fiery forms, but are spoken of nowhere else in Scripture. The significance of their attitude has been well given by Jewish commentators, who say, ‘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 we may add, ‘with two he stood ready for service, by flight whithersoever the King would send.’ Such awe-stricken reverence, such humble hiding of self, such alacrity for swift obedience, such flaming ardours of love and devotion, should be ours. Their song celebrated the holiness and the glory of Jehovah of hosts. We must ever remember that the root-meaning of ‘holiness’ is separation, and that the popular meaning of moral purity is secondary and derivative. What is rapturously sung in the threefold invocation of the seraphs is the infinite exaltation of Jehovah above all creatural conditions, limitations, and, we may add, conceptions. That separation, of course, includes purity, as may be seen from the immediate effect of the vision on the prophet, but the conception is much wider than that. Very beautifully does the second line of the song re-knit the connection between Jehovah and this world, so far beneath Him, which the burst of praise of His holiness seems to sever. The high heaven is a bending arch; its inaccessible heights ray down sunshine and drop down rain, and, as in the physical world, every plant grows by Heaven’s gift, so in the world of humanity all wisdom, goodness, and joy are from the Father of lights. God’s ‘glory’ is the flashing lustre of His manifested holiness, which fills the earth as the train of the robe filled the temple. The vibrations of that mighty hymn shook the ‘foundations of the threshold’ {Rev. Ver.} with its thunderous harmonies. ‘The house was filled with smoke’ which, since it was an effect of the seraph’s praise, is best explained as referring to the fragrant smoke of incense which, as we know, symbolised ‘the prayers of saints.’

II. The effect of the vision on the prophet.-The vision kindled as with a flash Isaiah’s consciousness of sin. He expressed it in regard to his words rather than his works, partly because in one aspect speech is even more accurately than act a cast, as it were, of character, and partly because he could not but feel the difference between the mighty music that burst from these pure and burning lips and the words that flowed from and soiled his own. Not only the consciousness of sin, but the dread of personal evil consequences from the vision of the holy God, oppressed his heart. We see ourselves when we see God. Once flash on a heart the thought of God’s holiness, and, like an electric searchlight, it discloses flaws which pass unnoticed in dimmer light. The easy-going Christianity, which is the apology for religion with so many of us, has no deep sense of sin, because it has no clear vision of God. ‘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.’

The next stage in Isaiah’s experience is that sin recognised and confessed is burned away. Cleansing rather than forgiveness is here emphasised. The latter is, of course, included, but the main point is the removal of impurity. It is mediated by one of the seraphim, who is the messenger of God, which is just a symbolical way of saying that God makes penitents ‘partakers of His holiness,’ and that nothing less than a divine communication will make cleansing possible. It is effected by a live coal. Fire is purifying, and the New Testament has taught us that the true cleansing fire is that of the Holy Spirit. But that live coal was taken from the altar. The atoning sacrifice has been offered there, and our cleansing depends on the efficacy of that sacrifice being applied to us.

The third stage in the prophet’s experience is the readiness for service which springs up in his purged heart. God seeks for volunteers. There are no pressed men in His army. The previous experiences made Isaiah quick to hear God’s call, and willing to respond to it by personal consecration. Take the motive-power of redemption from sin out of Christianity, and you break its mainspring, so that the clock will only tick when it is shaken. It is the Christ who died for our sins to whom men say, ‘Command what Thou wilt, and I obey.’

III. The prophet’s commission.-He was not sent on his work with any illusions as to its success, but, on the contrary, he had a clear premonition that its effect would be to deepen the spiritual deafness and blindness of the nation. We must remember that in Scripture the certain effect of divine acts is uniformly regarded as a divine design. Israel was so sunk in spiritual deadness that the issue of the prophet’s work would only be to immerse the mass of ‘this people’ farther in it. To some more susceptible souls his message would be a true divine voice, rousing them like a trumpet, and that effect was what God desired; but to the greater number it would deepen their torpor and increase their condemnation. If men love darkness rather than light, the coming of the light works only judgment.

Isaiah recoils from the dreary prospect, and feels that this dreadful hardening cannot be God’s ultimate purpose for the nation. So he humbly and wistfully asks how long it is to last. The answer is twofold, heavy with a weight of apparently utter ruin in its first part, but disclosing a faint, far-off gleam of hope on its second. Complete destruction, and the casting of Israel out from the land, are to come. But as, though a goodly tree is felled, a stump remains which has vital force {or substance} in it, so, even in the utmost apparent desperateness of Israel’s state, there will be in it ‘the holy seed,’ the ‘remnant,’ the true Israel, from which again the life shall spring, and stem and branches and waving foliage once more grow up.

Isaiah 6:6-7. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me — By God’s command; having a live coal in his hand — Both a token and an instrument of purification, as the next verse explains it; which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar — Of burnt-offering, which stood in the court of the priests, where the prophet appeared to himself to be during the vision. The seraph took it from the altar, to show that men are to expect the expiation of sin, and purification from it, only by such means as God hath appointed, and particularly by the mediation of Christ, whom that altar manifestly represented, and by that purifying and refining grace of the Holy Spirit, which was signified by this live coal, and is conferred on none except through the merit of Christ’s sacrifice; see Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 13:10. And he laid it upon my mouth — So as only to touch my lips, and not to burn them. This was done to signify, not only that all the gifts and graces that purify the mind, and fit us for the discharge of any particular duty or function, come from God; but that there must be a real application and communication of them to our souls. It is not sufficient that we hear, think, and speak of them; or even that we desire them, and believe them to be attainable; but we must really receive and possess them. Observe this, reader. It is of infinite consequence to thy salvation. Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquity is taken away — This is a sign that the guilt of thy sin is removed by pardoning mercy, and thy corrupt disposition and inclination to sin, by renewing grace; and, therefore, nothing can hinder thee from being accepted of God, as a worshipper, in concert with the holy angels; or from being employed for God, as a messenger to the children of men. Those only, who are thus purged from an evil conscience, are prepared to serve the living God, Hebrews 9:14. The taking away of sin is necessary, in order to our speaking with confidence and comfort, either to God in prayer, or from God in preaching. Nor are any so fit to display to others the riches and power of gospel grace, as those who have themselves tasted the sweetness, and felt the influence of that grace.

6:1-8 In this figurative vision, the temple is thrown open to view, even to the most holy place. The prophet, standing outside the temple, sees the Divine Presence seated on the mercy-seat, raised over the ark of the covenant, between the cherubim and seraphim, and the Divine glory filled the whole temple. See God upon his throne. This vision is explained, Joh 12:41, that Isaiah now saw Christ's glory, and spake of Him, which is a full proof that our Saviour is God. In Christ Jesus, God is seated on a throne of grace; and through him the way into the holiest is laid open. See God's temple, his church on earth, filled with his glory. His train, the skirts of his robes, filled the temple, the whole world, for it is all God's temple. And yet he dwells in every contrite heart. See the blessed attendants by whom his government is served. Above the throne stood the holy angels, called seraphim, which means burners; they burn in love to God, and zeal for his glory against sin. The seraphim showing their faces veiled, declares that they are ready to yield obedience to all God's commands, though they do not understand the secret reasons of his counsels, government, or promises. All vain-glory, ambition, ignorance, and pride, would be done away by one view of Christ in his glory. This awful vision of the Divine Majesty overwhelmed the prophet with a sense of his own vileness. We are undone if there is not a Mediator between us and this holy God. A glimpse of heavenly glory is enough to convince us that all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. Nor is there a man that would dare to speak to the Lord, if he saw the justice, holiness, and majesty of God, without discerning his glorious mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. The live coal may denote the assurance given to the prophet, of pardon, and acceptance in his work, through the atonement of Christ. Nothing is powerful to cleanse and comfort the soul, but what is taken from Christ's satisfaction and intercession. The taking away sin is necessary to our speaking with confidence and comfort, either to God in prayer, or from God in preaching; and those shall have their sin taken away who complain of it as a burden, and see themselves in danger of being undone by it. It is great comfort to those whom God sends, that they go for God, and may therefore speak in his name, assured that he will bear them out.Then flew - Isaiah is represented as standing out of the temple; the seraphim as in it.

Having a live coal - The Vulgate renders this, 'A stone.' This is, probably, the original meaning of the word; see 1 Kings 19:6. It at first denoted a hot stone which was used to roast meat upon. It may also mean a coal, from its resemblance to such a stone.

From off the altar - The altar of burnt-offering. This stood in the court of the priests, in front of the temple; see the notes at Matthew 21:12. The fire on this altar was at first kindled by the Lord, Leviticus 9:24, and was kept continually burning; Leviticus 6:12-13.

6. unto me—The seraph had been in the temple, Isaiah outside of it.

live coal—literally, "a hot stone," used, as in some countries in our days, to roast meat with, for example, the meat of the sacrifices. Fire was a symbol of purification, as it takes the dross out of metals (Mal 3:2, 3).

the altar—of burnt offering, in the court of the priests before the temple. The fire on it was at first kindled by God (Le 9:24), and was kept continually burning.

Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, by God’s command, having a live coal; both a token and an instrument of purification, as the next verse explains it.

From off the altar of burnt-offering, which stood in the court of the priests near the porch, and which had always coals of fire upon it, Leviticus 6:12,13. Hence he took it, to show that men are to expect purification and expiation of sin only by such means as God hath appointed, and particularly by Christ, whom that altar did manifestly represent, Hebrews 13:10.

Then flew one of the seraphim unto me,.... When the prophet had confessed his sin; for upon that follows the application of pardon; and when the seraph, or minister of the Gospel, had an order from the Lord to publish the doctrine of it: it is God's act alone to forgive sin; it is the work of his ministers to preach forgiveness of sin, and that to sensible sinners; who when they are made sensible of sin, and distressed with it, the Lord takes notice of them, and sends messengers to them, to comfort them, by acquainting them that their iniquity is forgiven; who go on such an errand cheerfully and swiftly; and though they do not know the particular person, yet the Lord directs their ministration to him, and makes it effectual.

Having a live coal in his hand: by which is meant the word of God, comparable to fire, and to a burning coal of fire, Jeremiah 23:29 for the light and heat which it gives both to saints and sinners, and for its purity and purifying nature:

which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar; of burnt offering, where the fire was always burning; which was a type of Christ, and his sacrifice; and this shows what particular doctrine of the word it was the seraph or Gospel minister took, and delivered in this visionary way; it was the doctrine of pardon, founded upon the sacrifice and satisfaction of Christ. To this sense of the words the Targum agrees, which paraphrases them thus,

"and there flew to me one of the ministers, and in his mouth a word which he received from his Shechinah, upon the throne of glory, in the highest heavens, above the altar,''

See Revelation 14:6.

Then one of the seraphims flew to me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the {m} altar:

(m) Of the burnt offerings where the fire never went out.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
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.

Verse 6. - A live coal; or, a glowing stone, as Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Knobel, and Mr. Cheyne understand (comp. 1 Kings 19:6, where a cognate word is used). The tongs... the altar. The presence of an altar in the heavenly dwelling, with the usual appurtenances, is assumed (comp. Revelation 6:9; Revelation 8:3). The altar is, no doubt, an altar of incense, and of gold, not of stone; but the incense is burnt upon stones heated to a glow, and it is one of these stones which the angel takes with the golden tongs of the sanctuary (Exodus 25:38). Isaiah 6:6This confession was followed by the forgiveness of his sins, of which he received an attestation through a heavenly sacrament, and which was conveyed to him through the medium of a seraphic absolution. "And one of the seraphim flew to me with a red-hot coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said, Behold, this hath touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away; and so thy sin is expiated." One of the beings hovering round the Lord (there were, therefore, a large and indefinite number) flew to the altar of incense - the heavenly original of the altar of incense in the earthly temple, which was reckoned as belonging to the Most Holy Place - and took from this altar a ritzpâh, i.e., either a red-hot stone (Vulg. Calculum, Ar. radfe or radafe), or, according to the prevailing tradition, a red-hot coal (vid., râtzēph -râshaph, to scatter sparks, sparkle, or glow: syn. gacheleth), and that with a pair of tongs, because even a seraph's hand cannot touch the vessels consecrated to God, or the sacrifices that belong to Him. With this red-hot coal he flew to Isaiah, and having touched his mouth with it, i.e., that member of his body of whose uncleanness he had more especially complained (cf., Jeremiah 1:9, where the prophet's mouth is touched by Jehovah's hand, and made eloquent in consequence), he assured him of the forgiveness of his sins, which coincided with the application of this sacramental sign. The Vav connects together what is affirmed by nâga‛ (hath touched) and sâr (a taker away) as being simultaneous; the zeh (this) points as a neuter to the red-hot coal. The future tecuppâr is a future consec., separated by Vav conversive for the purpose of bringing the subject into greater prominence; as it is practically impossible that the removal of guilt should be thought of as immediate and momentary, and the expiation as occurring gradually. The fact that the guilt was taken away was the very proof that the expiation was complete. Cipper, with the "sin" in the accusative, or governed by על, signifies to cover it up, extinguish, or destroy it (for the primary meaning, vid., Isaiah 28:18), so that it has no existence in relation to the penal justice of God. All sinful uncleanness was burned away from the prophet's mouth. The seraph, therefore, did here what his name denotes: he burned up or burned away (Comburit). He did this, however, not by virtue of his own fiery nature, but by means of the divine fire which he had taken from the heavenly altar. As the smoke which filled the house came from the altar, and arose in consequence of the adoration offered to the Lord by the seraphim, not only must the incense-offering upon the altar and this adoration be closely connected; but the fire, which revealed itself in the smoke and consumed the incense-offering, and which must necessarily have been divine because of its expiatory power, was an effect of the love of God with which He reciprocated the offerings of the seraphim. A fiery look from God, and that a fiery look of pure love as the seraphim were sinless, had kindled the sacrifice. Now, if the fact that a seraph absolved the seer by means of this fire of love is to be taken as an illustrative example of the historical calling of the seraphim, they were the vehicles and media of the fire of divine love, just as the cherubim in Ezekiel are vehicles and media of the fire of divine wrath. For just as, in the case before us, a seraph takes the fire of love from the altar; so there, in Ezekiel 10:6-7, a cherub takes the fire of wrath from the throne-chariot. Consequently the cherubim appear as the vehicles and media of the wrath which destroys sinners, or rather of the divine doxa, with its fiery side turned towards the world; and the seraphim as the vehicles and media of the love which destroys sin, or of the same divine doxa with its light side towards the world.

(Note: Seraphic love is the expression used in the language of the church to denote the ne plus ultra of holy love in the creature. The Syriac fathers regarded the burning coal as the symbol of the incarnate Son of God, who is often designated in poetry as the "live or burning coal" (Kemurto denuro): DMZ. 1860, pp. 679, 681.)

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