A Few Notes on Isaiah 6:1-3
בִּשְׁנַת־מוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ עֻזִּיָּהוּ וָאֶרְאֶה אֶת־אֲדֹנָי יֹשֵׁב עַל־כִּסֵּא רָם וְנִשָּׂא וְשׁוּלָיו מְלֵאִים אֶת־הַהֵיכָל
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
(1.) Concerning Isaiah's call: Is this to be taken as Isaiah's "call" to prophetic ministry? Probably not. Many writers simply assume that this is the account of Isaiah's call to the prophetic ministry. But, is it? If it is, it is in conflict with the (scribal?) note at the beginning of the book which says that Isaiah's ministry began "in the days of Uzziah." Furthermore, there are literary reasons for thinking this is not a "call" narrative.
While the older commentaries did not necessarily argue that this is a "call" narrative either — the great Franz Delitzsch did. Numerous other commentators have simply followed him.
שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים מִמַּעַל לוֹ שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד בִּשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף
Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.
(2.) Concerning the "heavenly host": The word translated "seraphs" (שָׂרָף) is derived from a verb that means "to burn." This is the only passage in the Bible that speaks of these seraphim directly. I think the idea here is derived from the role that fire plays in purifying things. I get this idea from the subsequent context of the passage: the fire is used to purify the prophet’s lips.
I can't help but think of Hebrews 1:7 - "He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire." (NRSV).
Adam Clarke's commentary on Hebrews contains this quote from the rabbis:
The angel answered Manoah, ‘I know not in whose image I am made, for God changeth us every hour: sometimes he makes us fire, sometimes spirit, sometimes men, and at other times angels.’
There is another possibility here. The Hebrew word שָׂרָף can also mean “venomous snake.” Venomous snakes were thought of as being “fiery” because of the fiery effect of their bite. This recalls Numbers 21 where such venomous snakes bite the people of Israel; and where Moses places a bronze snake on a pole, so that they can be healed. Nevertheless, the emphasis (I think) needs to fall on the “fiery” nature of God’s attendants in this passage. Simply describing these as “serpentine attendants” may detract from the main emphasis here — the fire, the incense, the “fiery” attendants, and the fiery cleansing of the prophet’s lips.
And, yes, it’s a little difficult to imagine snake-like attendants having “feet.” But, it’s strange imagining flame-like attendants (the interpretation I prefer) having “feet” also.
Throne room visions of God like this generally do attempt to picture the "heavenly host" that attends upon the Lord God, but they use different terms and descriptions. In Genesis 3:24 they are "cherubim" (כְּרוּב). Elsewhere they are "spirits" or "messengers." In Job 1 they are "sons of God."
The seraphim cover their faces and their feet in humility and reverence. All the details here are designed to impress us with the awesome majesty of God — that is, God's holiness.
וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל־זֶה וְאָמַר קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל־הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
(3.) Concerning God's holiness: The word translated "holy" (קָדוֹשׁ) speaks of God's essential being. Thus, it can suggest separateness as in Hosea 11:9 - "... for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath." (NRSV). The word stresses the otherness and transcendence of God — this is the God of the Hebrews, a God not simply found in the inner self alone. This is the God of creation. This is the God who acts in human events. While the phrase "Wholly Other" may be going too far, nonetheless, it captures something of the idea here.
God is "holy" by definition.
Traditionally, Christian commentators have seen the repeated "Holy, holy, holy" as a foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity. And, no doubt this is why the text also comes up in the Lectionary on Trinity Sunday. Note also the "us" in verse 8.
But, God is known: "the whole earth is full of his glory." It is not just in "heaven" (or the "heavenly Temple" that some commentators believe is pictured here) that God's wondrous character is known — but on earth. While “holy” (קָדוֹשׁ) signifies God's essential nature, “glory" (כָּבוֹד) signifies God's appearance or reputation. The Hebrew word כָּבוֹד like the Greek word δόξα in the New Testament can mean: the external appearance or manifestation of God. It can also mean the honor or reputation of God.
Here I take it to mean that God's reputation is known throughout the earth through God's acts and God's providence. While God may be "Wholly Other" in some sense, God is not removed from the earth. God's glory is known and experienced in this world.
The holy threatens the profane world because God does not remain a totally otherworldly God but manifests his deity in the human world. This is why cultic times and places must be kept separate from the profane reality of life. The power of the holy, which is a threat to life in its destructive force, invades the human world in order to incorporate it into its own sphere.
God’s holiness is transforming.
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