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. 2 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.3 And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.4 And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 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.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:7 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.8 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.
— Isaiah 6:1-8
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see God? What would that sight be like? There was a song on the radio a few years ago called “I Can Only Imagine” that was based on that idea. It talked about all the different reactions a believer might have when face to face with God. It was a pretty good song. We have some descriptions in the Bible from those who were fortunate enough to be given visions of God or to get to see Him – Moses, Ezekiel, the apostle John, among others – but even what they’ve left for us hardly seems to help us understand, as we’ll see in a moment.
Today it’s Isaiah who gets to see into the throne room of heaven, and it is impressive. He saw the Lord, high and exalted, sitting on His throne, with the train of His robe filling the temple. He saw seraphs, angels, flying around Him, worshipping Him, singing His praises. They sing a majestic hymn – “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty! The whole earth is full of His glory!” No wonder we still sing their song as part of our Communion liturgy, right before the Words of Institution. We’re in the Triune God’s presence then, just as Isaiah was. That threefold holy is a subtle but unmistakable teaching of the Trinity. God is three persons in one God, that’s why the seraphim sing what they do. Their praises are so loud that the ground underneath the temple is shaking. It’s a supernaturally strong, powerful shaking that seems to go right down to the earth’s core. The smoke that always hid God’s glory fills the temple, and Isaiah can’t even see the Lord.
So how does Isaiah react to this vision? Does he stand up, lift up his hands, and burst into a praise song? Does he start singing joyfully about how he just wants to praise God, He is worthy, He is holy, He is mighty, He is powerful, all those sorts of things? Does Isaiah close his eyes and wave his hands in the air? Hardly. He cries out, “Woe is me! I’m about to die! I’ve said many things I never should have about God, I’ve blasphemed His holy name, and the people that I live among have blasphemed Him too, and now I’m looking at Him as He sits on His throne! I’m sinful and deserve to die! I’m not going to survive this!” Isaiah is abjectly terrified because of his sin. He instantly realizes what sin is: a personal offense against the mightiest being in all creation, the Holy One of Israel. That’s who he has offended. That’s who he deserves to be punished by.
Do we have that same consciousness of sin? Do we perceive that our sins stink in the nostrils of the Almighty God and we deserve nothing but eternal death and punishment from Him? Are we sorry for our sins? Or do we deny that we even have sin – do we excuse it or even defend it? Would we react that way if we saw what Isaiah saw?
We don’t always think about God in that way. All of God’s attributes really are one, because God is one. He has no parts. We’re used to piecing and parceling out His various attributes – His love, His mercy, His holiness, and so on – and only thinking about a few of them or one of them at a time, but that’s not what God’s attributes are like in action, when you see Him in person. The thing about true holiness – the real deal, the genuine article, not the counterfeit kind we’re fond of – is that it burns. It destroys everything that isn’t as holy as itself, unless the Holy One actively wills it not to be so.
We have an example of this in the book of 2 Chronicles, chapter 26. King Uzziah was a godly king – in fact, it says, “As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (v.5). But he became unfaithful. He thought that he should be able to offer incense at the altar, just like the priests did, even though God had not called him to do that. God had called him to be a king, but not a priest. Uzziah’s pride and arrogance led him to trespass into God’s presence. He attempted to offer incense at the altar in the temple, and the priests, the sons of Aaron, attempted to dissuade him. He became angry at them, and as he shouted at them, leprosy broke out on his forehead and quickly spread over all his skin. Appalled, he rushed out of the house of the Lord and never set foot in it ever again. King Uzziah found out the hard way that God’s holiness is not to be taken lightly.
We have each received what Isaiah did. The word of absolution – Jesus’ personal guarantee through His minister that your sins are forgiven – is the burning coal that touches our filthy mouths. It burns away the impurity of our lips. Its heat sears our foul, corrupt lips and burns away everything wrong, everything false, everything untrue to Him. We all need to have our lips touched by the coal – to have the sins of our mouths atoned for. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of [us.]” Our mouths do not always sound like the mouths of Christians. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” Our lips are not worthy to speak of the wonders of God, and yet – oh wonder of wonders! – He forgives us! He atoned for the sins of our lips, because “never man spoke like this Man did.” Jesus always spoke faithfully about God. He proclaimed God’s kingdom unflinchingly – warmly, honestly, and directly, at times almost adversarial, yet never without love.
Now He has sent His ministers into all the world to proclaim forgiveness for these sins of the tongue – this lying, cursing, anger, dishonesty, the violence of our words and our hearts – and that forgiveness comes through the holy absolution. The announcement of Jesus’ forgiveness to the sinner is the loosing key that takes away your sins. It is the glowing coal that touches your lips and purifies them, even as it stings and sears. It’s painful and scorching to hear from God’s Word that you’re a sinner, but that same Word has a healing and a purifying heat. God’s law condemns our sins and it condemns us. It stings and burns as it sounds the death sentence over us, but His gospel also burns away the uncleanness and the impurity. It burns away all the guilt, the liability to punishment that we inherited and that we exercise every day. It leaves us with holy burns, the scars where our sin was. We are forgiven and healed. Nothing is hidden from its heat, because nothing has been left undone by Christ. He leaves no sin unsearched for or unforgiven in your heart by His Word. All is right now between you and God again, and we can call on Him as our heavenly Father once more.
Once I got poked in the eye playing basketball. It hurt a little at first, but later that day it really started to hurt. I went to the eye doctor, who took one look at my eye and pronounced it infected. He gave me some drops to put in it a few times per day. Those drops burned and stung my infected eye like nobody’s business! But it was a glad stinging and burning, because I could tell the eye drops were getting rid of the infection. I felt a rush of relief every time those eye drops began to sting and burn in my eye, because I knew it was a sign they were working and my eye was healing. So it is with God’s Word. Its message of law burns and stings when it’s applied to us. Nobody ever wants to hear exactly how they’ve sinned. Yet that harsh stinging message of law is part of the cure for sin when it’s followed by the gospel, which cleanses and absolves and heals us. The stinging law and the healing gospel are God’s way of bringing sinners back – of restoring them for service to the Triune God. Or think of it this way: Imagine taking a charcoal briquette that’s glowing cherry red out of your grill, and then holding that on your lips, which are among the most sensitive parts of your body. Ouch. That would not be pleasant, but for Isaiah here, and for us, it’s very necessary.
Isaiah doesn’t see the Lord’s form even then. He only hears a voice. This is consistent with Scripture’s teaching that no one has seen God in His open glory here on earth. (Even Moses only got to see God’s back.) If you want to see God walking on earth, look at Jesus Christ. The full vision of God’s glory is reserved for heaven, where “we will see Him as He is.”
This voice, this speaking of God, which Isaiah heard directly and which we hear through His Word, asks, “Whom will I send? And who will go for Us?” This is again a subtle but unmistakable teaching of the Trinity. These verses testify that there is more than one person in the one true God.
Note that God doesn’t order Isaiah to go. He doesn’t put on a frowny face as He sits on His sapphire throne and command the prophet, “Go, get going! People are dying everywhere, and you have the saving message! Only you can prevent people from heedlessly running into hell, and if they do go there it’s your fault! Time is wasting, move it! You don’t want to be the reason someone isn’t saved – do you??” The Father never speaks that way. People do, synods do, but never the Triune God. That’s not His way.
Instead, the Triune God looks at His redeemed, His chosen, His saved, His very own – you and me! along with Isaiah – and He asks for volunteers. He does this because He knows that His troops will be willing on the day of battle, as Psalm 110 teaches. God doesn’t have to force us, because we want to serve Him. We all cry out joyfully, “Pick me, Lord! Pick me! Here am I – send me!”
The Triune God needs bold confessors in a fallen world, especially in these grey and latter days, where literally anything goes and the only sin is to say that you have the truth and someone else might not. St. Anthony of Egypt, an early Christian teacher, once observed, “The time is coming when people will be insane, and when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person, saying: You are insane, because you are not like us.” That time is coming, and has now come. The world is sickeningly comfortable with a multiplicity of truths, a myriad of gods, a plethora of things to worship and serve – but never the true God. The Triune God is the only thing they can’t abide. His messengers and His Word are the one thing they can’t leave alone. They feel driven to lash out at the Trinity, to thumb their noses at Him, to flaunt their unbelief and to attack Him – yet He is the one thing they need. They can’t survive eternally without Him.
It will not be easy, pleasant, welcome, or always fun to witness to the Triune God. But it will be pleasing to Him, the Lord of heaven and earth who has sent us, and it will be saving for a few who will hear and believe – that’s His promise, and it’s far better than being liked or admired.
Look at Isaiah’s own ministry. The Lord commissions him in this grand and glorious vision, then He sends Isaiah to go and tell His people, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah asks, “How long, Lord?” And the Lord answers, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remain in the land, it will again be laid waste.” The Lord basically calls Isaiah to a mission that, by human standards, is destined to fail! Yet the Lord does not take back His promise of a Savior: “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy Seed will be the stump in the land.” That same Savior is who we proclaim to an indifferent and hostile world, and He is the one who will take us to be with Him forever in the endless joys of heaven.
So speak up. Testify to the true God, the Triune God – who He is, what He says about sin and judgment and forgiveness. Speak of what you have seen and heard in the throne room of God Almighty. Rebuke sin openly, frankly, and without fear when it crosses your path – because it will, and heaven knows there’s enough of it these days. Endure opposition from sinful men and always hold fast to the truths of God, because this is what saves us and our hearers. Remember what you’ve witnessed in the throne room of the Triune God. His burning coal has touched your lips. Do not be afraid to speak all that He tells you. Amen.