Isaiah’s account of his great temple vision began with a specific time note, ‘the year that King Uzziah died’, Isa. 6. 1. This was more than a mere date. It was loaded with significance.
The fullest account of Uzziah’s life is provided in 2 Chronicles 26. We learn from verse 22 that Isaiah wrote Uzziah’s biography. Isaiah would therefore have known that Uzziah’s reign had been distinguished by at least four features. First, it had been distinguished as an era of great prosperity, when the nation of Judah had occupied more territory than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. Second, it had been distinguished as being the longest reign to date in either the kingdoms of Israel or Judah. Allowing for some overlapping with both his father and his son, Uzziah reigned in all for 52 years. But now Uzziah was dead – or, just possibly, was soon to die, Isa. 6. 1. It was a time of great uncertainty; a time of potential upheaval and change. The people could be excused any feelings of apprehension and nervousness. It is now that Isaiah sees the One he calls ‘the King’, v. 5 – as if to remind himself and us that, though earthly thrones may topple, earthly kingdoms crumble, earthly monarchs and rulers die, He, the Lord, ever remains the same.
Third, Uzziah’s reign had been distinguished by the power of his army. He boasted a ‘host of fighting men’, 2 Chron. 26. 11. This army numbered 310,000 and ‘made war with mighty power to help the king against the enemy’, v. 13. But now Isaiah sees ‘The Lord of hosts’, Isa. 6. 3. This is His distinctly royal title. It is not found in Scripture until the first book of Samuel, which records the introduction of a monarchy into Israel. We note Jeremiah’s refrain, ‘saith the King, whose name is the Lord of hosts’, Jer. 46. 18; 48. 15; 51. 57. The main reference is to the heavenly (angelic) hosts. When Jacob saw the angels of God at Mahanaim, he exclaimed, ‘This is God’s host’, Gen. 32. 1-2. Angels possess great power: ‘Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength’, Ps. 103. 20; ‘angels, which are greater in power and might’, 2 Pet. 2. 11. One angel alone put paid to 185,000 Assyrian troops in a single night, 2 Kgs. 19. 35. In comparison then to that of the heavenly hosts, the ‘mighty power’ of Uzziah’s army was as nothing. And the One Isaiah sees is the Lord of those hosts.
Finally, the days of Uzziah had been distinguished by the circumstances of his later reign and death 'in a several (separate) house, being a leper’, 2 Chron. 26. 21. More than any other it was this sad fact which coloured the narrative of Isaiah 6. Uzziah had been smitten because he had presumed to enter the earthly ‘temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense’, 26. 16, and in so doing to usurp the prerogative of the priests. Azariah, the chief priest, together with eighty valiant priests, had withstood him with the rebuke, ‘It appertaineth not unto thee, Uzziah, to burn incense unto the Lord’, 26. 16-18. We note that, although he would have been entitled to his title ‘king Uzziah’ anywhere else, in the house of God his title counted for nothing; there he was plain ‘Uzziah’. And, while angry with the priests, leprosy rose in his forehead. The priests immediately expelled him from the temple; indeed he was quick to make his exit, 26. 20.
In the vision of Isaiah 6, God pulled back the curtain on the other – the heavenly – world. Isaiah is transported into the holy sanctuary above. This is no earthly shadow; this is the real thing – the heavenly temple itself. And there Isaiah confronts a greater altar than that before which Uzziah had transgressed. Indeed, given that the smoke fills the celestial temple, it is likely that the heavenly incense altar is in view, vv. 4, 6. It is hardly possible to miss the significance of Isaiah’s double cry ‘unclean … unclean’, v. 5. We recall, not only that Uzziah had been smitten with leprosy, but that, according to the law, the leper was to be pronounced unclean and ‘his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare … and (he) shall cry, Unclean, unclean’, Lev.13. 45. With his double ‘unclean’ the prophet is, in effect, confessing himself to be a spiritual leper. His double reference to ‘unclean lips’ may well have been prompted by the fact that, for the first time, he is hearing praise and adoration from pure and sinless lips, v. 3. ‘I am undone’, he cries, v. 5 – literally translated, ‘I am cut off’. We remember that, as a leper, Uzziah had been ‘cut off’ (a synonym for the word used in Isaiah 6) from the house of the Lord, 2 Chron. 26. 21.
But if Isaiah takes his place before the Lord as a spiritual leper, that is by no means the end of the story. One of the seraphim touched his mouth (his defiled lips) with a live coal from the altar, v. 6. ‘This hath touched thy lips … thy sin (is) purged’, the seraph announced, v. 7. The word translated ‘touched’, is the very same as that translated ‘smitten’ when we were told, that Uzziah ‘hasted to go out, because the Lord had smitten him’, 2 Chron. 26. 20. That is, the same divine ‘touch’ which inflicted physical leprosy on the king removed spiritual leprosy from the prophet. And when the seraph pronounced ‘thy sin (is) purged’, we discover that he uses a word closely akin to that translated ‘make an atonement’ on six occasions in Leviticus 14. 18-31 (the law for the cleansed leper). How compassionate of the Lord, to send a seraph to assure Isaiah that his confessed spiritual leprosy had been cleansed.
THE VISION ITSELF
Isaiah opens by telling us ‘I saw the Lord’; the sovereign, absolute ruler, that is. And, quite naturally, such a Sovereign has His throne, v. 1. We can assume that, as thrones go, the throne of Uzziah must have been impressive and imposing. His were days of prosperity unrivalled since the days of Solomon. As a direct descendant of Solomon, it may well be that Uzziah’s throne, if not actually that of Solomon himself, was patterned on his magnificent throne. If so, it was a great throne of ivory, overlaid with the very best gold; ‘there was not the like made in any kingdom’, 1 Kgs. 10. 18-20. This throne was reached at the summit of six steps, v. 19. It was, that is, high and lifted up. But not as ‘high and lifted up’ as the throne before which Isaiah now trembles. For Isaiah sees the throne of none less than the sovereign Lord of all !
Nor is he the first or last prophet to see that throne. Over a hundred years before, Micaiah had told the kings Ahab and Jehoshaphat, ‘I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left’, 1 Kgs. 22. 19. And well over a hundred years after Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel would record respectively, ‘above the firmament that was over their heads (i.e. of the living creatures – the cherubim) was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone’, and ‘the Ancient of days did sit … his throne was like the fiery flame … ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him’, Ezek. 1. 26; Daniel 7. 9-10. We gather from these references that the throne of God is central to all – with seraphim above, Isa. 6, cherubim beneath, Ezek. 1, a million angels standing before it, Dan. 7, and the host of heaven also to the right and left, 1 Kgs. 22. It is from this throne that the prophets take their bearings. It is here at this throne that they derive their unshakeable confidence that all is secure – that all is certain and guaranteed. The apostle John tells of the trumpet voice which said, ‘Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter’. He continues, ‘And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne’, Rev. 4. 2.
It was said of Uzziah, ‘when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction’, 2 Chron. 26. 16. But, if it was the heart of the earthly king which was ‘lifted up’, it is the throne of the heavenly King which is ‘lifted up’, Isa. 6. 1.
The seraphim put their six wings to constant use. Four wings were employed in covering (i) their faces, so that they were not able to see – to shield their eyes in reverence and awe from the glory of the Throne-sitter, and (ii) their feet, for they had no desire to be seen. They employed their remaining two wings in hovering, flying suspended over the King’s robe, the border of which filled the whole floor area of the heavenly temple. They (whose name signifies ‘the burning ones’) cry out their ‘Holy, holy, holy’ as they ponder both the transcendence and uniqueness, and the stainless, unspotted purity of the Lord of hosts, v. 3. Their chant appears to have made a deep impression on Isaiah, for his favourite divine title became ‘the holy one of Israel’, used by him no less than 29 times in the course of his book. But Isaiah learnt something else from the seraphim. ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’, they added. What a wonder! – to learn that, out of the vast universe, heaven’s attention is directed to our tiny planet earth. But, courtesy of the apostle John we discover something far, far more wonderful.
John reported, ‘though he (the Lord Jesus) had done so many miracles (signs) before them, yet they believed not on him: that the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? (quoting Isaiah 53. 1). Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes … (quoting Isaiah 6. 10). These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him’, John 12. 37-41. John was clear – the ‘Lord of hosts’ of Isaiah 6 was none other than the Lord Jesus. We cannot fail to note that John, by the two quotations he made from Isaiah’s prophecy, linked together chapters 6 and 53. That is, the One who is the subject of chapter 53 was the subject of chapter 6 also. And what a series of staggering contrasts that combination suggests!
With awe and wonder we consider that:
And it was all for me! The Lord of Hosts, the King, did it all for me! I am responsible for having changed His riches to poverty – His glory to shame – His bliss to suffering – His throne to a cross. For ‘the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me’, Gal. 2. 20. Well do we sing, ‘My Lord, what love is this that pays so dearly, that I, the guilty one may go free’, GRAHAM KENDRICK.