Isaiah 6 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 6
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
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.—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influence of like surroundings (Acts 22:17), into a state of ecstatic trance, and as though the veil of the Temple was withdrawn, he saw the vision of the glory of the Lord, as Moses (Exodus 24:10) and Micaiah of old had seen it (1 Kings 22:19), as in more recent times it had appeared to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).

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 stood the seraphims . . .—It is noticeable that this is the only passage in which the seraphim are mentioned as part of the host of heaven. In Numbers 21:6, the word (the primary meaning of which is the burning ones) occurs as denoting the fiery serpents that attacked the people in the wilderness. Probably the brazen serpent which Hezekiah afterwards destroyed (2 Kings 18:4) had preserved the name and its significance as denoting the instruments of the fiery judgments of Jehovah. Here, however, there is no trace of the serpent form, nor again, as far as the description goes, of the animal forms of the cherubim of Ezekiel 1:5-11, and of the “living creaturesof Revelation 4:7-8. The “burning ones” are in the likeness of men, with the addition of the six wings. The patristic and mediaeval distinction between the seraphim that excel in love, and the cherubim that excel in knowledge, rests apparently on the etymology of the former word. The “living creatures” of Revelation 4:7-8, seem to unite the forms of the cherubim of Ezekiel with the six wings of the seraphim of this passage. Symbolically the seraphim would seem to be as transfigured cherubim, representing the “flaming fire” of the lightning, as the latter did the storm-winds and other elemental forces of nature (Psalm 104:4).

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.

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.—So in Psalm 29:9, which, as describing a thunderstorm, favours the suggestion that the lightnings were thought of as the symbols of the fiery seraphim, we read, “in his temple doth every one say, Glory.” The threefold repetition, familiar as the Trisagion of the Church’s worship, and reproduced in Revelation 4:8 (where “Lord God Almighty” appears as the equivalent of Jehovah Sabaoth), may represent either the mode of utterance, first antiphonal, and then in full chorus, or the Hebrew idiom of the emphasis of a three-fold iteration, as in Jeremiah 7:4; Jeremiah 22:29. Viewed from the standpoint of a later revelation, devout thinkers have naturally seen in it an allusive reference to the glory of Jehovah as seen alike in the past, the present, and the future, which seems the leading idea in Revelation 4:8, or even a faint foreshadowing of the Trinity of Persons in the Unity of the Godhead. Historically we cannot separate it from the name of the Holy One of Israel, which with “the Lord of hosts” was afterwards so prominent in Isaiah’s teaching.

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.—Better, the foundations of the threshold. The words seem to point to the prophet’s position as in front of the Holy of holies.

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.

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) Then said I, Woe is me.—The cry of the prophet expresses the normal result of man’s consciousness of contact with God. So Moses “hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6). So Job “abhorred himself and repented in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). So Peter fell down at his Lord’s feet, and cried, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Man at such a time feels his nothingness in the presence of the Eternal, his guilt in the presence of the All-holy. No man can see God and live. (Comp. also 1 Samuel 6:20.)

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).

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) 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; 1 Corinthians 3:15; Hebrews 12:29; 1 Peter 1:7). Isaiah passed, as it were, through the purgatory of an instantaneous agony.

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 he laid it upon my mouth.—So Jehovah “touched the mouth” of Isaiah’s great successor (Jeremiah 1:9); but not in that case with a “coal from the altar.” That prophet, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), had felt only or chiefly the want of power (“Alas! I cannot speak), and power was given him. Isaiah desired purity, and his prayer also was answered.

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.

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) Also I heard the voice of the Lord.—The work of cleansing has made the prophet one of the heavenly brotherhood. He is as an angel called to an angel’s work. (Comp. Judges 2:1; Judges 5:23; Malachi 3:1.) He had before seen the glory of Jehovah, and had been overwhelmed with terror. Now he hears His voice (John 10:4), and it rouses him to self-consecration and activity.

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).

And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.
(9) Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not.—No harder task, it may be, was ever given to man. Ardent dreams of reformation and revival, the nation renewing its strength like the eagle, were scattered to the winds; and he had to face the prospect of a fruitless labour, of feeling that he did but increase the evil against which he strove. It was the very opposite mission of that to which St. Paul was sent, to “open men’s eyes, and turn them from darkness to light” (Acts 26:18). It is significant that the words that followed were quoted both by the Christ (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12), by St. John (John 12:40), and by St. Paul (Acts 28:26-27), as finding their fulfilment in their own work and the analogous circumstances of their own time. History was repeating itself. To Isaiah, as with greater clearness to St. Paul (Romans 9-11), there was given the support of the thought that the failure which he saw was not total, that even then a “remnant should be saved;” that though his people had “stumbled,” they had not “fallen” irretrievably; that the ideal Israel should one day be realised. The words point at once to the guilt of “this people “—we note the touch of scorn (“populus iste”) in the manner in which they are mentioned (Isaiah 8:11; Isaiah 28:11; Isaiah 28:14; Matthew 9:3; Matthew 26:61)—and to its punishment. All was outward with them. Words did not enter into their minds (“heart,” i.e., “understanding,” rather than “feeling”). Events that were “signs of the times,” calls to repentance or to action, were taken as things of course. For such a state, after a certain stage, there is but one treatment. It must run its course and “dree its weird,” partly as a righteous retribution, partly as the only remedial process possible.

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 of this people fat.—The thought is the same as that of the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 8:19; Exodus 9:34, &c) and that of Sihon (Deuteronomy 2:30). It implies the reckless headstrong will which defies restraint and warnings. So the poets of Greece, in their thoughts as to the Divine government of the world, recognised the truth that there is a judicial blindness and, as it were, insanity of will that comes as the consequence of sinful deeds ( Æsch. Agam. 370-386). The mediaeval adage, “Quem Deus vult perdere prius dementat,” expresses one aspect of the same law; but the vult perdere is excluded by the clearer revelation of the Divine purpose (Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 2:9), as “not willing that any should perish.”

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.”

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 asks the question which is ever on the lips of those who are brought face to face with the problems of the world, with the great mystery of evil, sin permitted to work out fresh evil as its punishment, and yet remaining evil. How long shall all this last? So a later prophet, towards the close of the seventy years of exile, cried once again, “How long?” (Daniel 8:13). So the cry, “How long, O Lord, dost thou not judge?” came from the souls beneath the altar (Revelation 6:10).

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 the LORD have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.
(12) And the Lord have removed men far away.—The words point to the policy of deportation adopted by the Assyrian kings. From the first hour of Isaiah’s call the thought of an exile and a return from exile was the key-note of his teaching, and of that thought thus given in germ, his whole after-work was but a development, the horizon of his vision expanding and taking in the form of another empire than the Assyrian as the instrument of punishment.

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).

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) But yet in it shall be a tenth . . .—Better, And though there should be a tenth in it, yet this shall be again devoured (with fire). What the prophet is led to expect is a series of successive chastisements sifting the people, till the remnant of the chosen ones alone is left. (Comp. the same thought under a different imagery in Ezekiel 5:12 : Zechariah 13:8-9.) The “tenth” is taken, as in Leviticus 27:30, for an ideally consecrated portion.

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.

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