33. Isaiah (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 33.  Isaiah (1)

Isa 6:1     In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

From the sublime to the ridiculous! Going from a love song to a mountain of prophecy in search for highlights is probably the definition of culture shock!  There is so much in this incredible mountain of prophecy that includes a short passage of history. Commentators often divide the book into

  • Part 1: The Book of Judgments (Ch.1-35) which also includes a heavenly vision and Isaiah’s calling,
  • Part 2: An historical interlude, which anchors Isaiah in the reign of Hezekiah (Ch.36-39), and
  • Part 3: The Book of Comforts (Ch.40-66),

the titles giving a sense of the overall themes found in these prophecies.

I was originally intending to move into looking at two different sorts of prophecy in Isaiah but as I think about it, the calling of some of these prophets is so dramatic that they must feature among the highlights of the Bible. In Jeremiah it comes in the first chapter, in Ezekiel it comes in the second chapter, but in Isaiah we have to wait until the sixth chapter before Isaiah’s calling is shown to us.

Uzziah reigned from 792 to 740 and in 1:1 we are told he saw visions in the reigns of four kings of Judah (the southern kingdom), starting with Uzziah, and so it is possible that he received the contents of chapters 1 to 5 before Uzziah died. We cannot be sure but if that was so, it shows us that prophets could receive words from God (and there a number in Old Testament history of whom this is true) without having that personal encounter that we find here and in Jeremiah. (We don’t hear of it, for example, of Daniel) So why does the Lord give Isaiah such a revelation? Perhaps the answer is in the historical context and what the vision reveals.

From the verses of chapters 1 to 5 (and, indeed, many subsequent chapters) the state of Judah was not spiritually good. However, there had been a period of stability under Uzziah who we can see from above ruled for over fifty years, yet in the last five years, Assyria had started expanding its power under Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727) and had started invading neighboring areas, which included Canaan in the north at least. And now Uzziah dies. I parallel this with the death of Queen Elizabeth II in the UK (which must happen one day!). She has presided as head of the UK, as at early 2017, for 65 years, the longest reigning monarch. As such she has been and remains a figure exuding stability. When she eventually dies, there will be an enormous psychological hole in the psyche of the United Kingdom. Such is how it would have been when Uzziah died after a similarly long reign – and especially as there was an air of uncertainty about the future with the rising power of Assyria. It is into this context that this revelation comes. So what does it reveal and how does that impact on this historical context?

Note how the vision starts off: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (v.1) In the vision (and so it is a mental and spiritual picture, not actual reality) he is shown God and the picture of God is of a mighty ruler. He is seated on a throne which historically is the place from which rulers make pronouncements but it is in a temple. He is robed as a king quite obviously and the train of this robe stretches out to fill this temple. Now this is difficult to comprehend but what it does say is that the size, magnitude or length of this train is so great that if there are any other occupants of this temple, they would have to be standing on it (have you ever thought that?). If that is so it signifies a closeness but also a submission to this king. Above this king there are angels (v.2) singing or at least declaring the truth about this king (v.3) that this king is “the I AM almighty” and He is holy, thrice holy emphasizing it, He is utterly different from any other being in existence, and His glory can be seen (by those with eyes to see) throughout the earth. As they speak, the place shakes, such is the power of the revelations they speak out.

The impact on Isaiah is immediate. He feels totally unworthy, unclean, doomed! (v.5). Now there is obviously an altar in this temple with fire upon it and one of the angels takes a red-hot coal from this altar and touches his mouth with it and declares, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (v.6,7) However we may interpret this it means that before anything else, Isaiah’s past human history – and by implication, guilt – is removed by an act of God. He is put at ease before the Lord.

What follows is intriguing. The Lord implies a task and in so doing presents it before Isaiah: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (v.8a)  The redeemed and cleansed Isaiah now feels able to be used by God and, “I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (v.8b) to which the Lord gives him marching orders for his future ministry. (v.9-)

Now what has all this said, this historical context and this vision? It says that naturally speaking Isaiah, no doubt like everyone else in the land, would be feeling uncertain about their future now the stability of Uzziah’s reign has gone and there are threatening noises from the north. They lacked a king, a protective ruler. And so Isaiah is given this revelation of God on high, God who is the I AM, the Eternal One first revealed like this to Moses, but also the Almighty One, the All-powerful One, the utterly different one who is THE king, the ruler over all things. Isaiah, through the experience, is transformed and knows that God has cleansed and equipped him, made him fit for the task.  Isaiah, through the revelation, has been transformed in his thinking, in his understanding for he has seen the Lord of the Universe; he has a king who is supreme, he knows the Lord and in that he will be utterly secure, in the face of his own people’s unbelief and in the face of invading unbelievers. Bring it on!

Now you may not have had a vision in this form but, as a Christian, a child of God, you have had and have received the revelation of the Son of God who has come and put you right with God. The more we know of this revelation the more we, like Isaiah, see we have a Lord who is Lord over all, who is in total, supreme and sovereign control, ruling (as Psa 100 prophetically says) in the midst of His enemies. He is working out His plans and purposes and no one will stop them coming to fruition at the appointed time. You and I can have the same sense of having been cleansed as Isaiah was. You and I can have the same sense of security through revelation that Isaiah had. You and I, like Isaiah, when we have a need presented before us by the Lord, can say with him, “Here am I lord, send me,” in the sure knowledge that He has done everything that has needed to be done to prepare and equip us for whatever He puts before us. Whatever He places before us, will not be too much for us, because He is with us and He has given us all we need to accomplish it. Hallelujah!

22. To Isaiah

“God turned up” Meditations: 22 :  To Isaiah

Isa 6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.

There are certain passages in Scripture, I believe, that stand out, and this is one of them, the time of Isaiah’s revelation of heaven. To be more precise it is his revelation of the Lord and those immediately around Him, for there is nothing else in it really. We aren’t told how this vision came to Isaiah, whether he was praying and waiting on the Lord or whether it just suddenly came. It is a year of crisis for the nation. The great king Uzziah has recently died. It is a time of change. (It is about 740BC)

And so it is that as one throne ceases, Isaiah is granted a vision of the throne that is unchanging and eternal, the throne of God in heaven. How simply he puts it: “I saw.” For him to have seen it means he was shown it for we see nothing of heaven unless God reveals it to us. So the Lord turns up and reveals something of what happens in heaven. There, the focus of the vision, is the Lord who is above all others and He has a robe, the train of which filled the temple.

The temple?  Hullo, I thought this was heaven? Well if it is, it is either a temple in heaven or heaven has come down and filled the temple in Jerusalem. Which ever it is, the temple was the meeting place of men and God. The Lord is in the place to meet with mankind and yet the sign of His majesty (his robe’s train) fills the temple so there appears no room for mankind – unless you walk on the train! For a moment, therefore, it almost seems a picture where the glory and sovereignty of God excludes mankind. We saw previously that when the glory of the Lord filled the finished temple of Solomon, it was impossible for men to serve there. God’s glorious sovereign presence precludes and excludes human activity! When He turns up in His glory we are brought to a halt!

But the Lord is not alone in the temple: “Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (v.2) There are angelic beings with six wings. Wings are usually the means of a creature flying, but in the case of these creatures four of their wings had additional uses. With two wings they covered their faces. They are there to serve God and therefore they do not go where they see but where the Lord sees. They cover their feet. They go where He indicates not where they determine to put their feet. The remaining two wings propel them forward to do their Lord’s will. But they have a further purpose.

“And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (v.3) These creatures proclaim the uniqueness of the Lord – He is perfect, utterly distinct from anything and anyone else and His glory or greatness is revealed throughout the earth. Note “the whole earth IS full of his glory.” We may not see it or comprehend it, but that is just because of our spiritual blindness. These creatures declare the reality of what is. They challenge the rest of us to see the truth. But there is an outworking of their loud voices: “At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” (v.4) When they declare the truth the entrance to the temple is shaken and the place is filled with smoke, both things being things that prohibit human entrance. Isaiah is granted no entry.

Isaiah’s response is automatic: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty. (v.5). The terrible presence of God makes Isaiah instantly aware of his own unholy state and the unholy state of the nation. He speaks things that are not perfect. His imperfection starts with words. There may be other actions that follow that make him unholy, but even his very speech separates him off from this heavenly vision. But God doesn’t leave him in that state: “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (v.6,7) The live coal comes from the altar which was the place for burning up and destroying the sacrifice that represents and carries the sin of the Offeror.  His sinful words are thus destroyed and his guilt removed.

But we aren’t just left there, cleansed beings: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go and tell this people…” (v.8,9) This is a time of encounter that concludes with Isaiah being sent to fulfil the will of God. Note that he isn’t commanded to go; he simply responds to the Lord’s enquiry. It is like the Lord leads him into an intimate encounter where he is allowed to chose the path ahead – and of course the Lord knows he will choose it and go for Him.

So we have here possibly the deepest encounter with God that we have seen so far in these meditations. In all other cases the Lord turns up and speaks. We haven’t ‘seen’ Him.  Isaiah sees and is transformed but the transformation comes about first by his own recognition of his own unworthiness and then by the act of God cleansing him. Then and only then is he ready to be used by God. There are some challenging lessons here.

12. A Holy God

(We resume our series in Isaiah that we started several weeks ago)

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.12

Isa 6:5 Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Part of our task, you may remember, in this set of meditations, is to see the same God in the Old Testament as is described in the New, especially in the light of the apostle John’s assertion that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). Now when we read Isaiah, chapter 6, you may think that is not immediately discernable, but I want to suggest otherwise. Come with me and see.

Isaiah 6 is one of the relatively few instances in the Bible when we are given a deeper insight into God or into heaven. It happened as a clear event at a particular point in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” (6:1a). Historians tell us that this was 740BC. In that year something very special happened to Isaiah: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (6:1b). Now we have to assume this was a vision because we are not told he was lifted up into heaven, but nevertheless it is very clear. We don’t need to go through the details of the vision here except to note that the emphasis that comes through the vision is God’s holiness.

Now the concept of ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ is unique to God. It has no meaning outside of God. God, the Bible tells us, IS holy. In respect of Him it suggests being utterly different, perfect, entirely without flaw in any way. When it is used in respect of a person or thing, it means given over to or dedicated to God so that it may take on His characteristic of perfection.

It is this idea of holiness that produces in Isaiah such a strong response: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (6:5). Something about the presence of the Lord, conveyed to Isaiah the Lord’s perfection and his own absence of perfection or, to put it another way, his uncleanness. Now this is a similar reaction to that which we find in Simon Peter when he realises something about Jesus in his boat (Lk 5), a sense of unworthiness to be in the presence of this One.

Now I don’t know if you ever watch adventure or sci-fi films but every now and then the hero finds himself (and it tends to be a man) before some great being, and the thing that is always conveyed is a sense of fear of what this great being might do to the hero. They have it in their power to, at the very least, kill the hero. That is quite a different experience from what we have here. Isaiah is filled with a sense of his own doom, certainly, but it is because of his own inadequacy, his own failures, his own sin – especially in the light of the perfection of the One before him. This guilt is what so many of us struggle with and, despite the protestations of atheists who don’t like this talk, it is the biggest problem that we wrestle with, as so many therapists or counsellors will testify.

So here is Isaiah with a problem. He is a sinner in the presence of a holy and perfect God and he realises that he is guilty of having said wrong things (his lips) which reveal what he is like on the inside. He is guilty. There is no question about it; justice demands his punishment, he feels. It is an instinctive response within him. He is doomed! But what do we find? “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (6:6,7). One of the angelic beings, who do the bidding of God, does something so that his guilt is taken away. Note that Isaiah didn’t do anything. It was done for him.

Now fire in the Old Testament has a double meaning. It is first the wrath of God that destroys sin but, second, it is also the work of God burning up and dealing with sin so that the sinner is freed. Thus we have in this vision a burning coal taken from the altar that was there, which is clearly a place of meeting with God where sin is dealt with. Thus the coal from this altar is taken to Isaiah and he is cleansed. An altar in the Old Testament is a place of sacrifice where a life is given up, a substitute for the sinner, and his or her sin is visually and graphically destroyed before their eyes. Thus Isaiah’s guilt is dealt with and he is freed from this feeling, so that now he can stand before God guiltless and is now available to be used by God to go and speak to His people, which is what follows.

Now of course in the Old Testament, there was no more explanation given than we have mentioned above, but the picture was very clear. Part of God’s design-rules (the Law) told the sinner who felt guilty how to deal with their sin. Take an offering and sacrifice it at the Tabernacle or Temple, as a substitute for their own life, and God would see it as a sign of their repentance and He would grant them forgiveness. It is only when we come to the New Testament that we see the eternal sacrifice offered for every person who wants to avail themselves of it, Jesus Christ the Son of God. He stood in as our substitute when he died on the Cross at Calvary. Only an eternal being could do that for the sin of every person who has existed and will existed, who want to avail themselves of this method of being freed from sin.

What do we have here in both Old and New Testaments? A picture of a loving God who realises, having given man free will and knowing man would exercise that free will wrongly, that man would be helpless to deal with his own guilt and for the sake of eternal justice, that guilt could only be taken by God Himself in the form of His Son. Thus we have possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) What we have here, is the God of love who is more concerned to reconcile sinners to Himself than He is to judge or destroy them. As He said through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32. THIS is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, a God who reaches out to remove our guilt and reconcile us to Himself, a God who seeks to draw us into relationship with Himself so that we can be re-established in His blessings to enjoy the life and the world He has provided for us to enjoy! Hallelujah!