Commentary on Isa 6:1-8
On the last day of this week we begin readings from the prophet Isaiah and they will continue until Friday of next week inclusive.
Isaiah was one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament who appeared at a critical period in the history of Israel. The Northern Kingdom (also called Israel, Ephraim or Samaria) had collapsed under attacks from the Assyrians, then Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Previous to this, in the year 742 BC, when Uzziah, king of Judah died, Isaiah was called to be a prophet in the Temple of Jerusalem. His mission covered three periods during the reigns of Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.
The Book of Isaiah, as we have it in our Bibles today, is divided into three parts:
The first part (chapters 1-39) are attributed to Isaiah and some of his disciples;
The second part (chapters 40-55), also known as Deutero-Isaiah (Second Isaiah) are thought to have been written by an anonymous poet who wrote much later, towards the end of the exile in Babylon. The passages from Isaiah we read in Holy Week, e.g. about the Suffering Servant, come from this part
The third part (chapters 55-66) consists of oracles from a later period and composed by disciples who wrote in the spirit of Isaiah.
We will just be taking selected passages from the first part. Other parts of Isaiah are read at other times of the year, especially during Advent and Lent.
But before we start at the beginning of the book, in chapter 1, on Monday, we read today Isaiah’s solemn call by God to be a prophet. This is not recorded until chapter 6 where it fittingly introduces the “Book of Immanuel”, which consists of a series of oracles relating to the war between Syria and Ephraim (the Northern Israelite Kingdom).
Isaiah’s commission as a prophet probably preceded his preaching ministry but the account was postponed to serve as a climax to the opening series of oracles and to provide a warrant for the shocking announcements of judgement they contain. The people had mocked the “Holy One of Israel” (5:19), and now Yahweh has commissioned Isaiah to call them to account. This passage is generally accepted as being a truly majestic piece of high literary quality.
The experience took place in the year King Uzziah died. This happened in the year 740, at the end of an 11-year reign. Uzziah, also known as Azariah, had been a good and powerful king. But when he insisted on burning incense in the temple, he was struck with leprosy (or some other chronic skin ailment) which lasted till his death.
Isaiah begins by saying that he saw the Lord on a high and lofty throne. It is understood to be an internal vision which probably took place in the Temple, though it could refer to the heavenly temple. The train of the Lord’s robe, a long, flowing garment almost filled the holy place. This was the sanctuary, the Hekal, the chamber leading into the Debir or ‘Holy of Holies’
Looking down on God’s throne are six-winged seraphim. Isaiah is the first to introduce these beings to the Hebrew Testament. The Hebrew root underlying the word means “burn”, perhaps indicating their purity as God’s ministers. They may also correspond to the cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant. With one pair of wings they cover their faces in reverence so that they will not look directly at God; with another pair they modestly veil their feet and this is understood to refer euphemistically to their sexual organs; with the third pair they remained hovered in flight, indicating their eagerness to be in God’s service.
They all sing in chorus, “Holy, holy, holy, All the earth is filled with his glory”. Words which have been transposed into our Eucharistic liturgy. The triple “Holy” emphasises the unique holiness of God, whose outer manifestation is his glory. It is a favourite epithet of Isaiah who frequently refers to God as “the Holy One of Israel”. This divine sanctity requires man himself to be sanctified i.e. separated from everything profane, purified from sin, sharing in the ‘justice’ of God. “Full of his glory”: elsewhere in the Hebrew Testament the worldwide glory of God is linked with his miraculous signs:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous deeds.
And blessed forever be his glorious name;
may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen. Amen. (Ps 72:18-19)
As they sing, the doorframe shakes and the building is filled with smoke, a sure sign of God’s presence, reminiscent of Mount Sinai in the past and of Pentecost later on. And as the power of God’s voice terrified the Israelites at Mt Sinai, when the mountain was covered with smoke, so Isaiah is understandably overcome with fear and trepidation.
“Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” Fully aware of his sinfulness, he has come face to face with Yahweh. It was universally believed by the Israelites that anyone who saw God face to face would immediately die. “No man sees me and still lives,” says Exodus (33:20). Jacob was a privileged exception when he struggled with the angel at Peniel: “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared” (Gen 32:31). As was Moses: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exod 33:11). The Transfiguration, in which Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, was a similar theophany (Matt 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:2-36).
At that moment, one of the seraphim took a burning ember from the altar and touched Isaiah’s mouth with it, signifying his mandate to speak on Yahweh’s behalf. The live coal is holy because Yahweh has sanctified the altar from which it is taken. Coals of fire were taken inside the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement, when sacrifice was made to atone for sin. Fire, too, is normally associated with Yahweh in the theophanies of Sinai. But that was a destroying fire (“The glory of the Lord was seen as a consuming fire on the mountaintop”); here it is purifying, as in the case of Jesus of whom John the Baptist says: “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11). Fire too will accompany the Israelites at night as they wander through the desert and tongues of fire will symbolise the presence of the Spirit on Jesus’ disciples.
Now the fiery coal fire removes Isaiah’s sin and makes him fit to be the Lord’s spokesman. “See,” says the seraph, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”
Then follows the question which is also an invitation and a call: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” To which Isaiah responds at once: “Here I am, send me!”
The readiness of Isaiah recalls the faith of Abraham, Gen 12:1-4, and is in contrast to the hesitation of Moses, Ex 4:10-12, and especially of Jeremiah. We think too of the invitation which was given to Mary to be the Mother of the Messiah and the Son of God. Her response was as ready as that of Isaiah: “See the slave girl of the Lord; let it happen to me as you have said.” A ‘Yes’ that was never revoked, even in the most trying times.
Each one of us, too, has been called by God through our baptism and perhaps by some later experiences, although probably not as dramatic as that of Isaiah. The important thing is my response. As the advertisement used to ask: “Have you said ‘Yes’ yet?” Let me say it today with all my heart: “Lord, here I am; send me.”