Saturday Series: Isaiah 6:1-13

Isaiah 6:1-13

After a hiatus for Holy Week, we pick up our Saturday Series studies, currently working in the Book of Isaiah. The past few studies were divided according to the specific areas of Biblical Criticism—textual criticism, historical criticism, source criticism, literary criticism. Here, in this study on Isa 6:1-13, we will be using an inductive, exegetical approach, touching upon the various areas of criticism as they are relevant in the context of each verse.

Isaiah 6:1

“In (the) year of (the) death of the king Yah-is-my-strength {Uzziyahu}, and (it was then) I saw the Lord sitting upon (His) seat (of honor), being high and lifted (up), and His (garment)s hanging (down) were filling (His) palace.” (v. 1)

This majestic statement establishes the vision-scene recorded in chapter 6. It is significant that, though the introduction to the book as a whole (1:1) refers to it as a µ¹zôn (literally something one looks/gazes at), actual visions in the book are quite rare. This is one of the few, and it is significant since it marks the beginning of the historical-biographical strand (involving the person and times of Isaiah himself) that runs through the first half of the book (chaps. 2-39).

Textually, this establishing verse is straightforward enough. The only significant variation is found in the Greek version (LXX), where the anthropomorphic detail of YHWH’s hanging garments (Heb. šûl, plur.) is translated more abstractly as dóxa (“honor, splendor”). It is, however, an essential detail, since it relates to the overall vision of God (YHWH) on his throne. The prophet sees Him sitting on his seat of honor (kiss¢°, i.e. throne), raised high above the floor. The locale is further identified as the palace (hêk¹l) of YHWH—that is, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, palace and temple were closely connected; indeed, the royal palace and the deity’s temple were often part of the same building complex. Moreover, the temple itself was envisioned as a divine palace, with the deity dwelling in it as a king or ruler. The sanctuary was the “throne room” for the deity, and people would approach God in the sanctuary just as one would the king on his throne. For a similar throne-vision of YHWH, see the vision of Micaiah in 2 Kings 22:19-23; it is a type of visionary genre that would last for centuries, down through generations of Jewish and Christian tradition.

From a form-critical standpoint, this is a vision-narrative (in prose), set within a biographical and historical context—that of the life and career of the prophet Isaiah. It marks the beginning of his prophetic career (cp. the “call-narratives” of Amos, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel), and certainly that which is central to chaps. 2-39, i.e. the Assyrian crises in the second half of the 8th century B.C. In the previous study, mention was made of the critical theory that the opening and closing sections of chapters 2-12 (chs. 2-4, 11-12) may have been composed at a later time (perhaps in the exilic or post-exilic periods), while including earlier (and authentic) material. There is no doubt, however, that the central chapters 6-8 belong to the time of Isaiah himself. This is clear from the opening words here in verse 1, where the vision is said to have occurred the year of Uzziah’s death (c. 740 B.C.). There is no reason, on objective grounds, to doubt the accuracy of this detail. Indeed, the prophetic narrative in chapters 6-8, in particular, derives from authentic historical tradition regarding the prophet Isaiah. Viewed source-critically, the detail in 8:1-2, 16ff allows for the (strong) possibility that these chapters have essentially been preserved from the circle (of disciples) around Isaiah.

Isaiah 6:2

“Burning (creature)s were standing from (the place) above Him, (with) six pairs of wings, six pairs of wings for each—(with) two it covered its face, and (with) two it covered its feet, and (with) two it soared (aloft).”

The main textual difficulty in verse 2 involves the precise meaning of the noun ´¹r¹¸ (here plural ´®r¹¸îm). The verbal root ´¹ra¸ means “burn” (as with fire); however, elsewhere in the Old Testament, the noun refers to a (venomous) snake, presumably with an ancient allusion to the burning/fiery effect of its poison (see Num 21:6-8; Deut 8:15). In Isa 14:29 and 30:6, the noun is parallel with other words used for a deadly snake (n¹µ¹š, ƒe¸a±, °e¸±eh), and clearly refers to a flying snake. Almost certainly that is the same image intended here in 6:2—a winged, flying serpentine figure. However offensive this might be to our modern sensibilities, especially with the traditional negative connotations of the serpent/snake motif, it would not have been nearly so problematic in Isaiah’s time. Hybrid creatures (with animal and human attributes) were frequently used in religious art and royal iconography throughout the ancient Near East, including Palestine and Syria, among the Israelites and related peoples.

The k§rû» (plural k®rû»îm) was a similar divine/heavenly being, which likely possessed both human and animal characteristics. Parallels in ancient Near Eastern iconography suggest a winged lion or bull with a human head. Such sphinx-like figures regularly flanked the throne, and the golden box (or ‘ark’) that served as the throne of YHWH, and placed in the sanctuary of the Tent-shrine (Tabernacle) and Jerusalem Temple, also had a pair of winged kerubs surrounding it. As for the image of a winged snake, it is well known from Egyptian royal and religious art (as on the throne of Tutankhamun, see below), and is also attested, for example, on a number of stamp-seals in Palestine, dating from the 8th and early 7th century (the very time of Isaiah). On this, see N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel Exploration Society; Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1997), nos. 11, 104, 127, 194, 206, 284, 381, 385; Roberts, p. 97. This detail would tend to confirm the historical authenticity of chapter 6. Mention could also be made of the tradition reflected in Num 21:6-9; 2 Kings 18:4, of a pole-mounted snake that served as a religious/cult object.

I have translated ´®r¹¸îm literally as “burning (creature)s”, though, as noted above, it is likely that winged serpentine figures (with human attributes) are being envisioned. They represent divine/heavenly beings who stand in the presence of YHWH and attend to him on His throne. The covering of their faces and “feet” (which can be a euphemism for the male genitals) indicates the awe and reverence they display before God, and anticipates Isaiah’s own response. In Egyptian iconography the (winged) snake or cobra serves a protective, guardian role; here, the sense is rather different, emphasizing instead the splendor and holiness of YHWH Himself.

Isaiah 6:3

“And this (one) called to that (one) and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy (is) YHWH of the (heavenly) armies! His weight/worth (is beyond the) fullness of all (the) earth!'”

Probably there are two flanking seraphs overhead, matching the two kerubs of YHWH’s throne, and they call out to each other. It is an overwhelmingly massive and majestic scene, the words uttered by the seraphs matching the visual in verse 1, of YHWH towering high, with his outhanging garments filling the entire Temple sanctuary. The adjective q¹¼ôš and noun k¹»ô¼ each reflect the attempt to express, however inadequately, the nature and character of YHWH. The root qdš fundamentally refers to the idea of purity, especially in the religious context of something that is consecrated or set apart. By contrast kbd carries the basic meaning of weight, with the religious and ethical connotation of the worth and value of something (as the weight of a precious metal, etc). The three-fold exclamation of God’s purity (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] has only a two-fold exclamation) indicates how different He is from the ordinary world of human life and existence. Similarly his “weight” far surpasses and transcends the full measure (“fullness”) of the entire world.

Isaiah 6:4

“And the ‘elbows’ of the (door)posts wavered from the voice of the (one) calling, and the (entire) house was filled with smoke.”

The imagery from the prior verses continues, blending theophany (manifestation of God) with the sacred space and ritual of the Temple sanctuary. In a sense, we are moving backward—from the throne of YHWH in the innermost shrine, out to the threshhold, and across into the outer sanctuary where the altar for burning incense stood. These last two details are reflected here in verse 4. The technical language can be difficult to render clearly in translation, with the expression “‘elbows’ [i.e. hinges, pivots] of the doorposts” referring to the threshhold of the inner shrine, and the “smoke” a reference to the burning of incense. The “house”, of course, is figurative for the Temple, either the entire building or the sanctuary specifically (here the latter is intended). On the image of the entire house being filled, one is reminded of the scene of the anointing of Jesus, in the Gospel of John: “and the house was filled out of the fragrance of the myrrh-ointment” (12:3). From an historical standpoint, this detailed use of Temple-imagery is interesting, since it is unlikely that Isaiah himself would have ever seen inside the sanctuary (on Hezekiah’s presence in the sanctuary, cf. 2 Kings 19:14-15ff).

Isaiah 6:5

“And I said: ‘Oh, (what this does) to me! For I have ceased (to be)! For I (am) a man of polluted lips, and I (am) sitting [i.e. dwelling] in the middle of a people of polluted lips! For my eyes have seen the King, YHWH of the (heavenly) armies!'”

This verse indicates Isaiah’s response to his great vision. He apparently sees himself positioned in the Temple, probably at the threshhold of the inner shrine. His initial exclamation may be rendered more concisely as “Woe to me!” or “Oh, for me!”, however in my expanded translation above I have sought to capture the proper sense of the effect this vision has on the prophet. From a literary-critical standpoint, it is worth considering the kind of wordplay (and play on images) that is being utilized in the narrative here, something that tends to be lost or obscured in most English translations.

For one thing, we have the contrast between YHWH sitting (yœš¢») on His throne (v. 1), with Isaiah who recognizes that he has been “sitting” (yôš¢», i.e. ‘dwelling’) in the midst of an unclean people. Here the uncleanness (‰m°) of the human condition is contrasted with the purity (qdš) of YHWH. The effect of this realization is expressed by another bit of wordplay (dual meaning) involving the verb d¹mâ. This root fundamentally refers to something ceasing or coming to an end; it can be understood either in an existential sense (i.e. ceasing to exist, being destroyed), or in terms of an action or ability that ceases. The latter sense can specifically refer to the action/ability of speaking—to cease speaking, i.e. be silent. For a prophet (n¹»î°), a spokesperson for God, who speaks on His behalf, the effect on one’s ability to speak is most significant. I have rendered d¹mâ rather literally above, more or less assuming that the existential sense is primary. This follows the basic religious-theological idea that a human being is unable to see God and still live (Exod 33:20, etc). At the same time, it expresses the awe the prophet feels, and so he is unable to speak; this is similar to the reaction of the seraphim in YHWH’s presence (covering their faces).

There is a similar play on the motif of one’s lips (š®¸¹¾ayim). It again relates to the idea of a person speaking, but it also serves as the focal point for the pollution that characterizes the populace. Here the ritual aspect (unclean food, etc, touching the lips) is used to express a religious and ethical point, well expressed, for example, in 29:13: “this people comes near with its mouth, and with its lips it gives weight [i.e. honor] to me, but its heart is wide (apart) [i.e. far away] from me”. The pollution of the people (their lips) has more to do with a false/corrupt religion and ethic, than it does with their ritual behavior, in spite of the cultic (Temple) setting of the vision.

Isaiah 6:6-7

“And he soared to me, one from (among) the burning (creature)s, and in his hand (was) a glowing (stone) (that) he took with a pair of (tool)s for taking (stones) from upon the place of sacrifice. And he touched (it) upon my mouth, and said, ‘See, this has touched upon your lips, and your crookedness is turned (aside), and your sin is wiped (away)’.”

The word mizb¢aµ literally means the place of ritual slaughter (i.e. the altar for sacrificial offerings); however, it came to be used regularly for other kinds of altars, such as those for offering incense. That is the altar referenced here—the incense altar located in the outer sanctuary. The smoke filling the room comes from the offerings of incense, and the hot (glowing rƒ¸) stones are the coals from the altar. Here again is another play on the seraphs as “burning” creatures; one of them picks up a burning/fiery coal from the altar. Now, however, the fire from the altar serves a different ritual purpose—namely, to purify the prophet, specifically his mouth (and lips). For the human prophet to survive in the presence of YHWH’s purity and holiness, his impurity has to be removed. From a ritual standpoint, this may be referred to as expiation. The danger of contact between human and deity is “turned aside” (vb sûr); sometimes this entails a turning away of the deity’s anger and intent to punish, etc, but it can also involve the removal of any possible evil or offense from the human participant. In the case of the prophet Isaiah, it also involves a specific kind of consecration—for a particular prophetic mission.

Isaiah 6:8

“And (then) I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘See, I (am here)! Send me!'”

YHWH’s throne room is the location of His royal court, such as in the pattern of human palaces. This court-setting is only faintly indicated here; a more detailed example is found in the earlier throne-vision of Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22, mentioned above). In that vision, YHWH asks of his servants and messengers, “Who will open (up) to Ahab, and (then) [i.e. so that] he will go up and will fall on the heights of Gil’ad?” (v. 20). One particular divine/heavenly being (“spirit”) comes forward and volunteers for the assignment (v. 21), much as Isaiah does here. The purpose of the mission in the Micaiah vision is to entice Ahab so that he will end up facing judgment (by military defeat) for his wickedness. Isaiah’s prophetic mission has a similar purpose. It is likely that the burning coal that touches Isaiah’s lips contains an allusion to the message of (fiery) judgment that the prophet must bring to the people of Judah (see a similar use of fire from the altar in Rev 8:3-5). This represents the dual-aspect of the burning/fire motif in the vision: the purity of YHWH effectively burns away (and destroys) all impurity—for the wicked this means destruction from God’s Judgment, while for the righteous, their sins (1QIsaa reads plur. “sins” in v. 7) are wiped away. This is part of the powerful imagery depicting YHWH as a “devouring fire” (33:14; cf. 10:17; 30:27-33; 31:9; Roberts, p. 100).

The nature and significance of the message of Judgment given to Isaiah is expressed in verses 9-13. While part of the same vision scene, these verses (esp. 9-10) are better known to many readers, from their use (generally out of context) in several key passages of the New Testament. This secondary application, along with certain theological questions that tend to be raised, makes a more detailed study of vv. 9-13 useful here. In next week’s study, we will focus both on the text itself, and on some of the wider issues of interpretation/application, as a way of demonstrating how a sound critical approach can help greatly in addressing such issues.

References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).

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