This is Isaiah. We don’t know exactly who he was, but it is likely that he was a priest, since he was approaching the temple.
This is Solomon’s temple. I like to show it in the context of an American football field to help us understand its size. I think Isaiah was standing outside the temple when he had the vision, for two reasons. 1. The temple was a footstool for God’s throne. 2. The seraph took a burning coal from the altar, which is outside the temple. That’s the object from which the flames are rising.
“Uzziah is generally supposed to have died in 739. This is a critical juncture in history. In 740–738 Assyrian king Tiglath- Pileser III made his first campaign into the west. This is the beginning of a serious military threat that will eventually bring about the downfall of the northern kingdom, Israel, the destruction of the capital city of Samaria (along with many other cities of Israel and Judah) and the deportation of large segments of the population. The Assyrians are on the brink of establishing the empire that will dominate the ancient Near East for over a century.”1
I find it interesting how God positions the temple in this vision. It is the footstool of God’s throne. Remember what God said about Solomon’s beautiful temple 1 Kings 9:1-14. God basically said, “nice building. I’ll bless it, but if you turn from me, I’m out.” In other words, God’s presence is not about the temple building.
Mystical creatures, called the Seraph (or seraphim, in the plural form), swarmed around God’s throne. The seraph was a fiery serpent and many ancient cultures depicted them as protectors of the gods. These seraphim, however, were protecting themselves from the glory of God. That is why they were covering their eyes and their genitals (the real meaning of “feet”). They cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” The three-part repetition means “beyond the ultimate.”
I read this text within the context of a month in our congregation where we are focused on the spiritual practice of service. So, I choose to frame this text around how Isaiah’s encounter with the divine shaped him into a servant of God. We see three qualities. The first is that an authentic encounter with the divine humbles us, because it exposes the complete and utter truth about who we are. This is a terrifying experience.
The beauty and miracle of this story is that Isaiah is not obliterated in the presence of God’s holiness. Rather, Isaiah is forgiven and cleansed by God’s grace. This is essential to understanding God’s ongoing promise for creation.
The response to this amazing grace of God is to be transformed into a spirit of openness to God, to the other, and to a new possibility for creation.
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- Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Is 6:1. [↩]