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One of the more arresting and perhaps even terrifying stories of the Old Testament is the account of the prophet Isaiah's encounter with the holiness of God.That experience is found the sixth chapter of the book bearing that prophet’s name .

Isaiah, whose name means "The Lord Saves," began his ministry in 740 B.C., the year King Uzziah died, v. 1, and prophesied to the southern kingdom of Judah. His message consisted of a warning from Israel's God that her sin would result in captivity at the hands of the Babylonians. Although Jerusalem would not fall to Babylon until 587/6B. C., Isaiah brought the certainty of the fullness of God's judgment to bear upon his blind and deaf people, vv. 9-10; 42:7. However, after His judgment upon sinful people, the Lord would redeem them from captivity after the manner in which He had delivered them from Egypt, 35:1-10; 5 1:9-11; cf. 11:15-16. How did the Lord prepare this prophet for such a rigorous ministry, one that would not be characterized by dazzling spiritual feats characterizing contemporary revivalism, but one that, according to modern- day standards, would be a failure for Isaiah’s proclamation would render the already calloused people, “dull of heart, heavy of ears, blind of eyes lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts and turn and be healed." v. 10.? The Lord God prepared his prophet for such a taxing ministry by granting him a vision of His holiness.


The opening words of this chapter tell us that it Isaiah’s experience was very traumatic. So often we tend to overlook the introductory words: "In the year that King Uzziah died, .." Yes, this statement is an objective, historical marker but more importantly, it sets the tone and the theme for the rest of our passage. The significance is to be found in the reason that King Uzziah died. According to 2 Chron 26:16-23, the prideful King Uzziah usurped the authority of the priests by insisting on burning incense to the Lord on the altar. In return for stubbornly rejecting the warnings of Azariah the chief priest and the other priests present, the Lord struck him with leprosy at the very scene of his crime. He remained in this leprous state, in separate housing, until the day he died. It was on this day, the day of his ignominious death, a death that was caused by his foolish refusal to acknowledge the holiness of God, that the prophet Isaiah was given, in circumstances of encouragement and not judgment (as in the case of Uzziah), a vision of the holiness of God. Since Uzziah recognized God's holiness but arrogantly rejected it, how would Isaiah receive it? Since Uzziah understood the implications of the holiness of God but refused to let them take root in the depths of his heart in order to bring forth a life of genuine consecration to God, especially in the realm of worship, how would Isaiah respond to this very phenomenon? Since Uzziah disregarded God and His holiness and as a result of his gross sin, forfeited his kingship, then how would this prophet react to these truths? Those are the questions confronting us at this time. God’s holiness brought death to Uzziah but would Isaiah find life? 

In the first place, note the terrifying view that disrupted Isaiah’s life – it was the view of ".. the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew." vv. 1-2. It was the revelation of the holy God up close and personal, as stated in the opening to ABC's “Wide World of Sports” television program a few decades ago, an engaging but also a challenging and threatening sight, with which this prophet was overwhelmed. The Holy One of Israel is shown in his majestic omnipotence, highly exalted upon his throne with His glory filling the temple and above him were the seraphim, literally, the burning ones, indicating their purity, but whose sinlessness is completely devastated by God's holiness – they cover their feet with which they serve Him and their faces because they dare not look upon Him. Their purity was as the most wretched depravity in the presence of a holy God. So irresistible is the Lord's holiness that they break out in antiphony, that is, in a call and response pattern, proclaiming "holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!" v. 3. When confronted with the holiness of God, they respond in total humility, anticipating the response of Isaiah, by singing what is known as the trisagion, meaning thrice holy price, "holy, holy, holy."


What really did Isaiah see? He saw that the fiery ones who were were perpetually in the divine Presence and whose duty was to minister to God, could not even look gaze upon his face, could not make eye contact with Him. And this was only the beginning; this was merely an introduction that the prophet was given. The major portion and the most profound instruction of the revelation were still to come.


What do we learn from this? From this we learn that having a heart for God above all, means that God is holy and that we are not. Indeed, so holy is He that we dare not look upon His face; we cannot stand in His Presence. This is utterly devastating – – but at the same time, when properly understood, the holiness of God prompts us to repent of our sins. Genuine repentance causes us to examine ourselves in the light of God's blazing holiness.


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  We continue our study of the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with the holy God in chapter 6 of the book written by him. Note the seraphim's exclamation in the second part of v. 3, "the whole earth is full of his glory." This is similar to the expression, "the train of his robe filled the temple" in the first verse, but far from being a mere repetition, it is anexpansion. How? Because in verse 3 the scene shifts from the heavenly temple that is filled with the royalty and the majesty of the high and exalted God to the cosmic scene in which all of creation is filled with his glory. In other words, the divine glory overflows from the heavenly temple into all of creation. When we recall the first part of this verse in which the angelic beings cry "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;” we can safely say that God's holiness or his transcendent otherness from his creation, is a defining aspect of his glory. This was the divine glory of which the Seraphim could not stop singing. They only had one song, one melody, one stanza as well as one chorus: "Holy, holy, holy." They did not tire of it nor could they because, as John Calvin so insightfully says in his commentary, "the holiness of God supplies us with inexhaustible reasons" for singing (the same) praises to him.

Yes, it is true that the Lord God is transcendent but the fact that his glory covers the universe also demonstrates that he is immanent or present with his people. He delights in sharing his glorious presence with his unholy creatures, but his presence constrains them to make a response. In other words, God's presence among us requires us to acknowledge him as the Lord God Almighty, as the only true God apart from whom there is no God, 45:5. "I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols." 42:8. This truth reaches its climax in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ,the eternal son of God, who declares that anyone who has seen him has indeed seen God the Father, Jn 14:9 and also that whoever receives him, receives the Father who sent him, 13:20.

The impact of the glory of the Lord God is shown in two ways. Firstly,on the physical creation itself. Verse 4 tells us that at the sound of the one calling out, the foundations of the threshold shook and the temple was filled with smoke. Whose voice? Most likely the voice of the Lord God for as we have seen at Mt. Sinai, when, upon seeing "the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking," and upon hearing the voice of the Lord, the children of Israel were terrified and trembled, pleading with Moses to not let God speak to them for fear of death, Ex 20:18-19. Here the threshold, i.e., the massive stones upon which the doorposts of the temple stood, rattled as did Sinai on which Yahweh appeared, 19:18, in a demonstration of the power of God's presence.

Secondly, on the prophet himself; this is by far the more devastating of the two. When confronted with the glory of the Lord, Isaiah invokes a cry of self-condemnation: ""Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"" 6:5. The vision of God's holiness, majesty and glory reinforce in him the gruesome reality of his own sinful condition. The very one who had been boldly pronouncing judgment against God's people for theirsins, 5:8-23, now helplessly identifies himself as being under the same judgment as the rest of the covenant community. He is no different from them; they're all guilty sinners standing before the bar of God's holy justice. ""Woe is me!"" is both a cry and a confession of utter despair.Similar responses were made by Job, Job 42:5-6; Peter, Lk 5:8; and John, Rev 1:17, when they were confronted with the divine holiness.

In seeing the glory of God, Isaiah resigns that his life is just about over; he is lost, that is, his life is about to come to a violent end; his destruction is imminent. In saying that he has unclean lips he admits that he could not stand even in the company of the seraphim who continually use their sinless lips to sing praises to the Lord. As a prophet he is required to use his lips in proclamation but after this ravaging encounter with the holy God, he dared not utter a word. Remember that the Old Testament saints believed that to see the Lord was to encounter death-as the Lord himself told Moses, Ex 33:20 and as Samson's father told his wife, Jdg 13:22. Thus, it is no wonder that, out of a deep awareness of the terrifying holiness of God, he later writes, "The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: "Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?" 33:14. When sinners stand face-to-face with the holiness of God, they confess and experience him to be a consuming fire. In the mirror of God's holiness, we see ourselves as we truly are and cry out to him in humble confession of our sins.Has this been your experience?

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 As we continue our study of Isaiah's encounter with a holy God, one of the chief principles [if not the main one] we learn is that such a confrontation causes us to reject our inbred inclination towards self-justification and self-glorification. When we come face-to-face with God's holiness, the first aspect about ourselves that is exposed is our inherent sinful condition. Like the prophet Isaiah, our immediate response is "Woe is me!" and not “Wow! Look at me!" God's holiness immediately strips us of all self-deluding notions of being naturally good. God's holiness completely disrobes us of all pretenses and claims to inherent self-worth. At this time, we say like the apostle Paul, there's nothing good that dwells within me.

Having a frontal encounter with the holiness of God is equivalent to entering into God's courtroom and standing before the bar of His justice where the enormity as well as the gravity of our sins is revealed in high definition color. Our lips are sealed and our mouths are shut. We can make no excuse; no alibi is acceptable. Here, we are overwhelmingly aware that we are in the presence of One who is "of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, .." Hab 1:13. So what can we do? Indeed, what must we do? We respond like the prophet Isaiah: we openly and honestly confess our sins, acknowledge that we deserve His just judgment –the wages of sin is death, Rom 6:23 –and cry out to him for mercy.

In this regard, we are to be the very opposite of the Pharisees who possessed and displayed a stubborn inclination towards self-exaltation. They thought of themselves more highly than they ought and from their haughty, self-inflated perspective, sought to make themselves look good to others. So deceived and so blind were they that when confronted with the holy God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, they thought Him to be an agent of the devil, Mt 12:24; etc. They refused to recognize "his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." Jn 1:14, and evensought to kill Him, "a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God." 8:40. Thus, instead of bowing before the Holy Messiah, confessing their sins and pledging their allegiance to Him, and instead of recoiling at his holiness and exclaiming likePeter, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Lk 5:8, they were more steeled in their self-glorying. To their own self-destruction, they rejected Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God, Mk 1:24; see also Jn 6:69, who later rightly denounced them as hypocrites, Mt 23:13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29; children of hell, v. 15; blind guides, fools, Pharisees and men, vv. 16-17, 19, 24; unclean graves, 27; and vile snakes, v. 33. Thus, "Gentle Jesus meek and mild," who extendsloving, tender care to the little children whom He urged to be brought to Him, reserves His most strident criticism for those that made an idol of preserving their reputation, that cherished and clung to their sins, and that refused to acknowledge Him as Lord.

Another principle we learn from Isaiah's encounter with God is that divine cleansing sin prepares us for (further) use by God. This is the account of Isa 6:6-7: "Then one of theseraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

Here we find the symbolic action of the prophet’s cleansing. One of the seraphim takes the hot coal from either the altar of burnt offering or the altar of incense and applies it to his lips [note here the inseparable connection between the thing signified –cleansing, and the symbol –burning or purifying coal, a union that we find in all of God's covenants] and in so doing pronounces that his guilt is turned aside, a term that is used in reference to Israel's apostasy, Ex 32:8, "They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them.. " Not only is Isaiah’s guilt expiated but also his sin is atoned for; the Lord Himself has made atonement for it. Note: in His sovereign mercy, the Lord intervenes in the lives of sinners, turns towards them and removes their sin by the blood of Jesus Christ, and thus prevents them from fatally turningaway from Him. By grace alone are we saved. What we are witnessing here is therefore a picture of the God’s sovereign purging of sin in which He alone is the actor; the recipient, Isaiah, is silent and passive and contributesnothing to his cleansing.

After hiscleansing Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here I am! Send me." v. 8. "Us" has been understood to represent either the seraphim, the Trinity or the Lord God and the members of his heavenly counsel. Though different, none of these interpretations detract from the most important meaning of the sentence which is that, having experienced the divine cleansing, the prophet now understands that he has been qualified for ministry, in other words he recognizes as Paul says, that his "sufficiency is from God" 2 Cor 3:5. Thus, he immediately volunteers for the office of proclaiming God's Word to "a people who are of unclean lips" just like he wasand whose only hope is to receive a similar cleansing from God. Those whom the Lord delivers from their iniquity should be the first bearers of the good news of what He has done for them,to their former allies .