(1) In the year that king Uzziah died.—Probably before his death. Had it been after it, the first year of king Jotham would have been the more natural formula. The chapter gives us the narrative of the solemn call of Isaiah to the office of a prophet. It does not follow that it was written at that time, and we may even believe that, if the prophet were the editor of his own discourses, he may have designedly placed the narrative in this position that men might see what he himself saw, that all that was found in the preceding chapters was but the development of what he had then heard, and yet, at the same time, a representation of the evils which made the judgments he was commissioned to declare necessary. On the relation of the call to the prophet’s previous life, see Introduction.
The date is obviously given as important, and we are led to connect it with the crisis in the prophet’s life of which it tells. He had lived through the last twenty years or so of Uzziah’s reign. There was the show of outward material prosperity. There was the reality of much inward corruption. The king who had profaned the holiness of the Temple had either just died or was dragging out the dregs of his leprous life in seclusion (2 Chronicles 26:21). The question, What was to be the future of his people? must have been much in the prophet’s thoughts. The earthquake that had terrified Jerusalem had left on his mind a vague sense of impending judgment. It is significant that Isaiah’s first work as a writer was to write the history of Uzziah’s reign (2 Chronicles 26:22). (See Introduction.)
I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne.—Isaiah had found himself in ‘the court of the Temple, probably in that of the priests. He had seen the incense-clouds rising from the censer of the priest, and had heard the hymns and hallelujahs of the Levites. Suddenly he passes, as St. Paul afterwards passed, under the influence of like surroundings (Acts 22:17), into a state of ecstatic trance, and as though the veil of the Temple was withdrawn, he saw the vision of the glory of the Lord, as Moses (Exodus 24:10) and Micaiah of old had seen it (1 Kings 22:19), as in more recent times it had appeared to Amos (9:1). The King of kings was seated on His throne, and on the right hand and on the left were the angel-armies of the host of heaven, chanting their hymns of praise.
His train filled the temple.—The word for “temple” is that which expresses its character as the palace of the great King. (Comp. Psalm 11:4; Psalm 29:9; Habakkuk 2:20.) The “train” answers to the skirts of the glory of the Lord, who clothes Himself with light as with a garment (Exodus 33:22-23). It is noticeable (1) that the versions (LXX., Targum, Vulg.) suppress the train, apparently as being too anthropomorphic, and (2) that to the mind of St. John this was a vision of the glory of the Christ (John 12:41).
Each one had six wings.—The thought seems to be that the human form was clothed as it were with six wings. One pair of wings covered the face in token of adoring homage (Ezekiel 1:11); a second, the feet, including the whole lower part of the human form, while with the third they hovered as in the firmament of heaven above the skirts of the glory of the Divine Throne. It is noticeable that the monuments of Persepolis represent the Amshashpands (or ministers of God) as having six wings, two of which cover the feet.
The house was filled with smoke.—The vision had its prototype in “the smoke as of a furnace” on Sinai (Exodus 19:18), in the glory-cloud of 1 Kings 8:10, and possibly in its lurid fire-lit darkness represented the wrath of Jehovah, as the clear brightness of the throne did His love. So in Revelation 15:8, the “smoke from the glory of God” precedes the outpouring of the seven vials of wrath’. The parallelism of the clouds of incense-smoke as the symbol of adoring prayer (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:4) suggests an alternative interpretation as possible; but in that case mention would probably have been made of the censers from which it rose. The incense-clouds of the Temple may in either case have been the starting-point of the mystic vision.
I am a man of unclean lips.—The prophet’s words present at once a parallel and a contrast to those of Moses in Exodus 4:10. The Lawgiver feels only, or chiefly, his want of the gift of utterance which was needed for his work. With Isaiah the dominant thought is that his lips have been defiled by past sins of speech. How can he join in the praises of the seraphim with those lips from which have so often come bitter and hasty words, formal and ceremonial prayers? (Comp. James 3:2; James 3:9). His lips are “unclean” like those of one stricken, as Uzziah had been, by leprosy (Leviticus 13:45). He finds no comfort in the thought that others are as bad as he is, that he “dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Were it otherwise, there might be some hope that influence from without might work his purification. As it is, he and his people seem certain to sink into the abyss. To “have seen the King, the Lord of hosts,” was in such a case simply overwhelming (Exodus 33:20).
Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.—The clauses express the two elements of the great change which men, according to their varying systems, have called Conversion, the New Birth, Regeneration; but which is at all times a necessary stage in the perfecting of the saints of God. Pardon and purity are the conditions alike of the prophet’s work and of the completeness of his own spiritual life.
Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?—The union of the singular and plural in the same sentence is significant. The latter does not admit of being explained as a pluralis majestatis, for the great kings of Assyria, and Babylon, and Persia always spoke of themselves in the singular (Records of the Past, passim), and the “plural of majesty” was an invention of the servility of the Byzantine court. A partial explanation is found in the fact that here, as elsewhere (1 Kings 22:19 : Job 1:6; Job 2:1; and perhaps Genesis 1:26; Genesis 11:7), Jehovah is represented as a king in council. Christian thought has, however, scarcely erred in believing that the words were as a dim foreshadowing of the truth, afterwards to be revealed, of a plurality within the Unity. (See Note on Isaiah 6:3.) Psalm 110:1, which Isaiah may have known, suggested at least a duality. The question reveals to the prophet that there is a work to be done for Jehovah, that He needs an instrument for that work. It is implied that no angel out of the whole host, no man out of the whole nation, offers to undertake it. (Comp. Isaiah 63:3; Isaiah 63:5.) The prophet, with the ardour for work which follows on the sense of pardon, volunteers for it before he knows what it is. He reaches in one moment the supreme height of the faith which went forth, not knowing whither it went (Hebrews 11:8).
Shut their eyes.—Literally, as in Isaiah 29:10, daub, or besmear. Possibly the phrase refers to the barbarous practice, not unknown in the East, of thus closing the eyes as a punishment. Burder (Oriental Customs, i. 98) mentions a son of the Great Mogul who was thus punished by his father. For the ethical fact, as well as for the phrase, we may (with Cheyne) compare Shakespeare—
“For when we in our viciousness grow hard,
Oh, misery on’t, the wise gods seal our eyes.”
Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant.—The words answer the immediate question of the prophet within its horizon. They suggest an answer to all analogous questions. Stroke after stroke must come, judgment after judgment, till the sin has been adequately punished; but the darkness of the prospect, terrible as it is, does not exclude the glimmer of an eternal hope for the far-off future.
And there be a great forsaking.—Better, great shall be the deserted space. (Comp. Isaiah 5:9; Isaiah 7:22-23.) The words may have connected themselves in Isaiah’s thoughts with what he had heard before from the lips of Micah (Jeremiah 26:18; Micah 3:12).
As a teil tree.—Better, terebinth; and for “when they cast their leaves” read, when they are cut down. The “teil tree” of the Authorised Version is probably meant for the “lime” (tilier, tilleul). The thought of this verse is that embodied in the name of his son Shear-jashub (see Note on Isaiah 7:3), and constantly reappears (Isaiah 1:27; Isaiah 4:2-3; Isaiah 10:20; Isaiah 29:17; Isaiah 30:15, &c). The tree might be stripped of its leaves, and its branches lopped off, and nothing but the stump left; but from that seemingly dead and decayed stock, pruned by the chastisements of God (John 15:2), a young shoot should spring, holy, as consecrated to Jehovah, and carry on the continuity of the nation’s life. The same thought is dominant in St. Paul’s hope for his people. At first the “remnant,” and then “all Israel,” should be saved (Romans 11:5; Romans 11:26). In Isaiah 10:33 to Isaiah 11:1 the same image is specially applied to the house of David, and becomes, therefore, essentially Messianic.