The third vision, corresponding with the third book, Leviticus. Isaiah beholds the glory of God;
These things spake Jesus, and departed, and did hide Himself from them. But though He had done so many miracles 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? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias when he saw His glory and spake of Him.Well may we approach with reverence, and with earnest desire that our eyes may be anointed with that eye-salve that He sells only to those who are so poor that they can pay Him nothing for it (Rev. 3:17, 18), except the full confidence of their hearts in days of stress, which is to Him of more worth than gold. So peradventure may we, too, "see His glory," and in our limited way, "speak of Him."
It is the third vision, the third introduction to the main contents of the book, and as a third again bears prominently upon it the significance of that number; and more evidently so in this case, since it has been put in the third place out of its natural order. For thus far, Isaiah has received no formal commission; we have it here. One would, naturally, have expected it to begin the book, but had it done so, its position would no longer have told of His glory fully manifested—for that, we remember, is the very meaning of "three."
Just as the third book of the Bible, Leviticus, takes us into the Sanctuary where the glories of Christ pass before us in its types, so in our book, we are now coming into the Sanctuary that we may there "behold His glory."
The scene, then, is laid in the Sanctuary, "the holiest of all"; but while the temple on earth may supply the figures, it would not suffice, in its physical limitations, to exhaust the grandeur of this scene.
The chapter is very strongly marked by three divisions which are themselves thrice divided, thus:
1: Verses 1-4: The glory, and this too in three parts—(a) the throne; (b) the seraphim; (c) their cry.
Three is everywhere marked on this singularly glorious scripture. God in Christ is in very deed manifested.
The time of the vision is "the year that King Uzziah died," a significant epoch. For fifty-two years has this king reigned, and the nation has been blessed with every token of divine favor. Philistines, Arabians, Ammonites, have all been brought into subjection (2 Chron. 26), and now Uzziah is to die—and to die a leper! "The national glory of Israel died out, too, with King Uzziah, and has never recovered to this day,"[Delitzsch] and thus we may say that its king's death figured that of the nation; for the nation, too, has died—a leper! There is, thus, a sad harmony between the time of the vision and its burden.
Nor may we pass over the very name of this king as being without value. Uzziah means "the power of Jehovah." The power of Jehovah to approve, bless, save the nation, under the covenant of law, has been evidenced as abortive, as the vision shall show. In this typical sense, too, then Uzziah passes away, and many centuries must run their course before we hear one who had seen a brighter vision, joyfully crying, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God (i.e., 'Uzziah') unto salvation to every one that believeth," not then confined to the Jew, for He is also the God of the Gentile, and by that power every one, leper though he may be, may be healed, and given a deathless life.
In this chapter the prophet drops all that is in the least artificial; now we hear no poetry, no rhythmic chant. The occasion is too solemn for any other than the simplest form of speech—it is simply prose.
He, like John in Patmos, becomes "in the Spirit," and sees Adohn (the name of God as the supreme Lord of all; and here, as in Romans 9:5, "Christ who is over all, God, blessed for ever") with every accompaniment of majestic splendor, sitting on a Throne, which is itself "high and exalted," for "His Throne ruleth over all"; yet, while sitting on this lofty Throne the hem of His raiment fills that glorious temple.
Seraphim hover on one pair of outstretched wings, while with another they cover their faces, as not able to see that dazzling glory, and with the third they cover their feet, as not desiring to be seen.
Incidentally we may note for our comfort, that there are never any personal introductions in heaven, or the sanctuary. In that light of God, Isaiah knows the seraphim at once, in so far as to give them that name; as, long after this, Peter knew Moses and Elias, in the same light, also without any introduction. So, I gather, we shall need no introduction even to those whom we have never known here, how much less to those whom we have! That clear and holy light fully reveals everyone, and they are well known: "Not one shall seem a stranger, though never seen before," as we sometimes happily sing.
We are not told the number of the seraphim—it is not of importance. Nor does the word seraphim, so applied, appear elsewhere in Scripture, but its force is quite clear from the frequent occurrence of the root, saraph, "to burn," but not to burn-as-incense, not as a sweet savor, not as expressive of acceptance and delight—the word for that is bahtar—but "to consume," as in holy judgment. The word saraph is never used for the offerings of sweet-savor, always of the offerings that speak of sin put away in judgment. Burnt-offering, peace-offering, meat-offering, are kahtared, or burnt-as-sweet-savor; but as soon as we come to the sin-offering, it is sahraphed, or consumed without the camp. This will give us the significance of these seraphim as far as the profit for us goes; they express symbolically the active, searching, burning holiness of God, and the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews tells out the truth that the seraphim express when he says, "Our God also is a consuming fire." All can see the accord of such a term with this scene.
Cherubim are another order—similar, yet somewhat distinct; for a difference in name speaks a difference in order. These are expressive, in living forms, of the various perfections of the righteousness of God's government, ever protecting His Throne; for over it they bend with protecting wing (Exodus 25:20), forbidding the approach or acceptance of any sinner unrighteously. It was the cherubim that kept the way of the tree of life, that sinful man might not return, and eating of that tree, live in sorrow and separation from God, the source of all blessedness, forever. If the cherub has wings, these are not for flight, as are the seraph's, but for protecting care.
For while the seraph searches, the cherub protects: the seraph speaks of burning holiness, the cherub of inflexible righteousness: the seraph active, the cherub passive; yet we find, both in Ezekiel and in Revelation, living creatures that combine the characteristics of both seraph and cherub. One is therefore inclined to believe that we get the intent of the Holy Spirit when in both we see symbolic personifications of divine qualities, rather than actual personalities.
3: And one cried to the other, and said (and here there does intervene a cadence, thus:)Thus may we learn that in that scene heart responds to heart. There is no discordant discussion, no difference, "All the mind in heaven is one." Nor are any of them occupied with each other's beauty, far less with their own; for, "In His temple doth everyone speak of His glory" (Psalm 29:9). Oh, that we could learn that language here, for it is to be our mother-tongue forever.Holy, holy, holy, Jehovah Tzebaoth!
In this threefold ascription we may again see "God manifested"; and as we remember the still clearer revelation of Matt. 28:19, we hear in this antiphonal cry not a mere repetition for emphasis, but the recognition of a trinity of Divine Persons, each of whom is hymned as holy; and at the same time, in view of John 12, we must remember that it is Jesus' glory on which Isaiah looks, and this threefold ascription only says that "in Him dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). Oh, the depths of God in Christ! (1 Cor. 2:10).
Further, let us note, and I trust not without some delight, that the atmosphere of heaven is very clear. As in our earth we sometimes say, "How near in this clear light those far-off hills appear, that yesterday in the mist, we could not see at all"; so, in the sanctuary, so clear is the atmosphere, so bright the light, that the happy dwellers there see afar. Though weary ages may intervene, and we poor short-sighted creatures who live in the murky atmosphere of this sinful world, may not be able to see that coming scene of glory at all, or very dimly "as through a glass darkly," to these sanctuary-dwellers all intervening ages are as though they were not, and to them the "glory" ever fills the earth, as it eventually shall.
Let us at least learn that when God has purposed anything, so sure is its accomplishment that those who hear and believe speak of it as though it were so already, for so these seraphim cry, "The whole earth is full of His glory."
But not yet! No, not yet! The groans of suffering, the tears of the bereaved, the wails of the oppressed, the quivers of anxiety—these still fill the earth; but these do not tell His glory; far, far from it. But the present conditions do not end His ways. That end shall see the earth, in every part, witnessing to the perfections of its true King. "He shall judge the poor of the people, He shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor." Then shall "the whole earth be full of His glory."
4: And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of them that cried, and the house became full of smoke.Everything was moved, for in contrast with this earth, nothing is insensate in that scene. To the prophet's awe-struck sight, the very foundations are swaying in responsive awe to His glory. This was their antiphon to the uttered ascription of the Intelligences of Heaven. So praise ever spreads; it is beautifully contagious, as that later Seer heard the ever-widening circles, till "every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, 'Blessing, and honor and glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.'" Again I say, Oh, that we were quicker students to learn and to communicate that language—our mother-tongue.
Now we turn to the second section, in which we shall see the Lord preparing a vessel unto honor for His use; and, as I believe it to be a pattern case, it will be well to mark the steps.
5: Then said I, Woe to me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I am dwelling among a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah Tzebaoth.The first step, then, is that he is brought into that holy light in which he sees everything clearly, exactly as it is; and at once he cries out in dread alarm, "I am lost!" O unhappy man! do you say? No, for that is the path in which every one is led whom God intends to use. The light that He causes to shine ever reveals, in us all as at first, that all is a chaos, "waste and desolate" (Genesis 1:2), yet that light is always "good." So it was with Job (chapter 42), so with Daniel (chapter 10), so with Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9), so with John in Patmos (Rev. 1), and so with Isaiah. Saint, sinner; Jew, Gentile; king, peasant—all humbled to the same level of the dust in that Light.
Isaiah instantly recognizes that it is his own lips that are unclean, not merely those of his neighbors. He is of the same "clay lump" as all the rest (Romans 9:21). In the light of that glory there is "no difference, for all have sinned and come short" of it. He is no better, any more than that one thief on Calvary was better than the other; he was no less a thief. The publican in the temple was not "better" than the Pharisee. The only difference was that these confessed that there was no difference. But that is of so vast a difference as to bring a blessing instead of a curse, a kiss instead of a blow, heaven instead of hell. This is invariably, in greater or less degree, the necessary precursor to all blessing or usefulness.
6, 7: And one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand a glowing coal, taken with tongs from off the altar. And he touched my mouth with it and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips, thine iniquity is gone—thy sin is expiated.Here, if I err not, we may indeed, see "His glory," even in this "glowing coal," for look a little more carefully at it, as that Seraph, or "burning" one, brings it. It is also burning; the fire from which it is taken is active in it still. It is, we may say, still suffering the judgment of the fire. Let this touch the unclean lips ever so lightly, and at once all iniquity is taken away. We must bear in mind, however, that the very word used for "touched" forbids the thought of its being a casual, inoperative contact. The word conveys the same significance exactly as its Greek equivalent in Luke 8:45, when the Lord felt that light finger-tip and asked, "Who touched Me?" In that touch there is always an effect—a communication of virtue.
The "glowing coal," then, is our Lord Jesus Christ, but not on the "Throne high and lifted up," but lifted up upon the cross. Here we see in one complete scene, what historically took place in two actions, on and after the final entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19. Then, too, He came to sit upon His Throne. "Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass," but His people were not ready for Him as their King, but sorely needed Him in other guise. His love must meet this need. So He steps, as it were, from off the throne, and laying Himself on the altar, becomes the paschal Lamb—the "glowing coal."
In view of this, can there be any question as to which of the altars this coal came from? There are two: the golden altar, standing in the "Holy Place," called the altar of incense, and the brazen altar, standing at the very entrance of the court, and called the altar of burnt offering, and since the glowing coal clearly speaks of the means by which sin was put away, that fact is quite out of harmony with the altar of incense, which was provided for the worship of those whose sins had already been put away. The fire by which that coal glowed must then have been the fire, not of complacency and delight, of which the sweet incense speaks, but of judgment. The burning in that coal was "sahraph," not "kahtar," and the altar was the brazen, not the golden.
But this must be much more than on our "lips" today. It was quite in accord with the character of the dispensation, in which everything was external, that Isaiah's lips should be touched, for the lips are the external manifestation of what we really are (Matt. 12:37), but it is the inner man that must now be affected or "touched" by that "coal," for it is our Lord Jesus suffering, burning, being consumed for our heart-uncleanness. Let that touch the heart, and sin is both taken away before God, and utterly abhorred by him thus affected, and then the lip may make joyful confession unto salvation, and be used for service.
It is not at all necessary to look upon the prophet Isaiah here as taking the place of an unforgiven sinner: far from it; he was surely a saint long before this. It is not his regeneration that is here figured, but his being made meet for the Master's use, in accord with the context that follows. Just as it is not an unregenerate sinner that we hear in Romans 7 also crying, "Woe is me!" or "Wretched man that I am!" but a saint learning a deeper lesson. Nor does it mean that you and I are unregenerate because we, too, are learning the same painful, humbling, yet wholesome lesson of holiness, in the utter corruption of all that is in us, that is, in our flesh. For it is thus that we, too, turn to Jesus our Lord, learn of His infinite grace in being made the "glowing coal," and we are made "meet for the Master's use" in the way of making that grace known.
However, we must not confuse two truths; there is a cleansing that is accomplished at once by divine grace, as with Isaiah here, and also one that is progressive, the responsibility of which is pressed upon us in 2 Timothy 2, "If a man purge himself from these" (that is, all that is "wood and earth"); but the same principle or Person is the Agent of holiness in both cases, it is the "glowing coal," Christ suffering for, and as, sin. Again, see it in that "Seraph," or "burning one,"* lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, for the sin of a people who (we may well note) had not just come out of Egypt; but who were just about to enter their inheritance. This may lead some of my readers, who may also be drawing near the end of their pilgrimage, to question whether they may not have something to learn still from that brazen serpent. Let us "consider" these things, and the Lord shall give us "understanding in all things" (2 Tim. 2:7).
Thus the vessel to honor is prepared for the Master's use; now follows the commission, every step in which is filled with interest and profit.
8: And I heard the voice of the Lord (Adonai) saying, Whom shall I send and who will go for Us? Then I said, Here am I; send me.The question is not addressed to the hosts of unfallen creatures of heaven, or there would have been a chorus of volunteers from among those angelic ranks crying, "Send me! Send me!" But no; they are silent. No seraph now responds, no cherub offers himself, since there is a man who is not only "a vessel to honor," but who, being "purged," has been thus "sanctified" and is "meet for the Master's use." None of the "ministers who did His will" could now be sent on this mission to sinful men: a man whose lips have been unclean alone can go to a people of unclean lips. May not that be why you and I are left here?
9, 10: And He said, Go, say to this people, Hearing, hear, but understand not. Seeing, see, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and their eyes plaster over, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and they be converted and be healed.It is a strange and sad errand on which the prophet is sent, to blind, to deafen, and to harden. Yet we may safely say at once that God never harden hearts that would otherwise be soft, and that owe their hardness to His interposition. He does not blind the eyes of those that would fain see, and apart from His interposition, would see. It is but the foolish blasphemy of men in their enmity to God that thus argues. Let us seek for illustrations both from nature and from Scripture that shall help us.
Have any of my readers ever carried a bright light into a dark barn on a dark night? At once all the unclean creatures of darkness, the rats and the mice to whom darkness is alone congenial, flee from the light and scatter to their kindred darkness, but the birds, the creatures that are of the light, fly to the light. The lantern comes into the darkness for judgment, and exposes the true state of all—what they really are, and what must be their natural place according to that nature. But the light of the lantern did not alter any of the creatures—it only revealed them. It did not turn what was otherwise clean into unclean. So the Gospel in the same way results in the same discrimination.
The same genial beam of the sun which hardens the clay melts the wax: so grace rejected is what hardens. It is not wrath now, but "the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering," that would fain lead to repentance; which, being despised by the heart, hardens that heart and results in increased "wrath in the day of wrath" (Rom. 2:4, 5).
So, wherever Christ is proclaimed as filling all the need of sinful men, there is always a sweet savor unto God; but not only in those who receive it—it cannot be without effect on any who hear—for to those who reject, the savor of Christ is "of death unto death"—it hardens! (2 Cor. 2:15).
It is Jesus who is the full display of all God's glory, "the glory of an only begotten with a father, full of"—what? Wrath? Nay, "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). It is He, who coming—the very Light—into this dark world simply manifests everyone; but by what means? By strokes of active judgment? Was it thus He made blind those who did see in John 9:39? Far from it! It was by manifesting the works of God in mercy, "going about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil," and finally being lifted up on the cross of shame. When all such love is rejected, what can He do? He "hides Himself from them" (John 12:36). He, Adonai, Lord of all, rejects the nation that has rejected Him; yet, even then, leaves it with a cry to every weary one to come to Him and He will give rest; nor will He by any means cast out a single one who does come.
The poor nation of Israel has been blinded as a nation now for "many days" (Hosea 3:4); Jesus has "hidden Himself from them." They read Moses, but "a veil is over their heart unto this day." Nor until it shall turn to the Lord shall that veil be taken away (2 Cor. 3:15).
But what has now hardened the nations of Christendom? Twenty centuries of longsuffering, and the grace of the gospel sounding through those centuries. It is this grace despised, this love rejected that has brought the hardened Gentile very near to the same place of utter rejection as the hardened Jew—both are hardened by the very warmth of the goodness they have despised. It is a fearful, yes, a fatal thing to trifle with divine Love.
11, 12: Then I said, O Adonai, how long? And He said: Until cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses are without a man (in them) and the ground be utterly wasted, and Jehovah shall put men far away, and great shall be the solitude in the midst of the land.Here then is the future of Israel revealed to the prophet in answer to his submissive yet mournful inquiry: "How long?"—an inquiry, that in itself, speaks eloquently of faith, for it recognizes that there must be a limit to Jehovah's judgments on a people who have promises still unfulfilled. To leave them thus Would be quite impossible; Jehovah hath spoken; the only question then is "how long" before His word is made good? We, too, may learn of the prophet, for we also have a promise still unfulfilled: "I will come again, and receive you unto Myself"—Lord, how long?
But that limit will only be reached by that beloved elect nation after its towns are in ruins, and utter desolation reigns in the land once called for its beauty "the glory of all lands" (Ezek. 20:6).So has Palestine lain for many days, but Jehovah, the covenant-keeping God, could never allow such an end as that. To leave what He once made fair thus "without form and void"— that were impossible, whether it be the original material creation of Genesis 1, or Palestine, or this earth as it is today, or these bodies of our humiliation: all must, at the end, be "full of His glory," and none of these do, as yet, witness to that glory in their present conditions. Lazarus in the sepulchre did not witness to the glory of God; but Lazarus raised therefrom did do so very clearly (John 11:40).
13: And yet in it shall be a tenth; and this shall return; this also again is given up to destruction; as the terebinth and as the oak, which, when they are felled, the rooted-stump remains, thus the holy seed is the rooted-stump.Like their father Jacob, whose history foreshadows their own, a conflict awaits them too on their way back to "Bethel," the House of God, and this is called "the great tribulation," or "the time of Jacob's trouble" (Jer. 30:7); or, in the words of our prophecy, "they shall be given up to destruction."
So as to "Judah and Jerusalem" a tenth part shall return; not, of course, an exact literal tenth, but a tithe, expressive of the claim that Jehovah still makes on the nation. Jehovah shall have His tithe, which shall come back from their burial among the nations, and thus be a nation raised from the dead, "some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). For even after their return to their land, their sorrows are not ended. In accord with the whole principle of divine prophecy there has already been a foreshadowing of that return, in the remnant that came back from Babylon in the day of Ezra; but the prophecy was by no means exhausted by that very partial and shadowy fulfilment. God gives a prophecy, and then, to make it the "more sure," that is, more clear (2 Peter 1:19), He gives a preliminary fulfilment as an illustration, but this illustration must never be counted as exhausting the prophecy.
So "Judah" shall return, and every sign of that return is prominent today, for never shall Israel perish utterly, any more than a living seed perishes when buried in the earth; the life-germ within it causes it to survive the dissolution of its outward frame, and even through that dissolution—for it is "not quickened except it die"—there springs up a new plant in new life and beauty. Or, to keep to the figure of the scripture we are considering, any more than an oak that has been cut down perishes finally when it has life in its roots; a fresh sprout springs up, and in that sprout the tree continues to live. All depends upon the life-principle being still in the rooted-stump. So, other nations may pass away altogether, Philistine may cease, and Amorite may be forgotten, for they lack that divine life-germ, but as to Israel, "the holy seed" (that is, "the remnant according to the election of grace" and with which Christ identifies Himself) secures the perpetuity of the nation, and that in holy blessedness; for it is the life-germ of the rooted-stump.
Wonderful and beautiful shadow is all this of what is true in a wider, and yet a more personal, sphere. It is on exactly the same principle of divine grace that every believer in Jesus has eternal life, and the dissolution of the body—the cutting down of the tree—cannot destroy that life-germ, for it is "the holy seed," as it is written: "His seed remaineth in him" (1 John 3:9), and makes sure a "resurrection of life."These chapters then, give a foreview of Israel's course: in chapter 5, the people, "alienated and enemies by wicked works" which are specified, are given up to the Gentiles. In chapter 6 it is the appearing of the glory of Jehovah—that is, Christ—that results in the same rejection. For the people are not in a state to take in that glory, and its display at His coming, as of the only-begotten of the Father, proved that, not only by what they had done, but by nature, what they were, they were at enmity with God. Yet grace will still linger over them, and sends a message which they still, as a nation, reject; and, rejecting, are confirmed in hardening, till the return from their scattering to their land, where again they shall suffer; yet, through all, there shall be divine life, preserved in the holy seed, which becomes the new nation, nevermore to be separated from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus their Messiah.