I have arrived at The Wharf, where D.C. meets the Potomac, in mid-afternoon, and the sun is brilliant above. On the surface of the dark river below, its reflection shimmers and shifts, too piercingly bright to look at directly. I imagine that this play of the light is actually alive, that a being of purest energy pulses before me. The thought is both fascinating and a bit terrifying.
Isaiah needed no such imagining in Isaiah 6. He had the real thing.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:1–3)
In this vision, God revealed himself in a form that Isaiah could process – since no one can see God and live – but just barely. Even in this toned-down vision of glory, the prophet is nearly overwhelmed. And it’s easy to see why.
The word used for the angelic beings, seraphim, is not a title. It is a description. Literally, they are the burning ones. And as frightening as those hovering fire-creatures might have been, they are the lesser lights in this scene.
For they cry out that God is holy. I read in my commentary that holiness may mean “brightness” or “separatedness” – “his unapproachable and unique moral majesty.” (Motyer) How great is the brightness of his purity?
When Scripture uses a word twice, it is intended to convey great emphasis or emotion. It is very rare for a word to be used thrice. In fact, this is the only time in the Old Testament the device is used. It is meant to make us go to the edge of our imaginations. And then way beyond.
I sketched this to help convey the idea of this super over-abundance.
Compare a campfire to a forest fire. And then compare those to the surface of the sun. That expansive leap is what the seraphim are telling the cosmos about God’s brilliant purity.
Isaiah, understandably, cries out, “Woe is me! I am undone!” Who among us could stand before such greatness?
As I walk out a long jetty, I pass an emergency phone. The prophet knew he needed help. He couldn’t save himself. Miraculously, salvation came.
For this vision was of the heavenly temple. And in the temple was another fire. On that fire was a sacrifice. A coal from that altar was brought by one of the seraphim and touched to Isaiah’s lips, purifying him.
I find myself, as the sun is sinking, in front of a bonfire sculpture. It is a dramatic reminder of the sacrifice that saves and purifies me: the spotless Lamb of God, slain in my place – bearing my sins into the terrifying flames of God’s holiness.
And because of Jesus, I need not fear God’s glory. I can welcome it. Receive it. And find it ever-present around me – a visible reminder of how much he loves me.
Great Father of Glory, pure Father of Light
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render, O help us to see:
'Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee.
Reader: Tell me a story of the brightest, most overwhelming light you’ve seen.