A Spiritual Autobiography
One day while Isaiah was carrying out his responsibilities as high priest at the temple in Jerusalem, God appeared above the ark in the Holy of Holies. At a later stage in his life, Isaiah wrote about it. In a brief spiritual autobiography, he described how God’s dramatic appearance altered his understanding of himself and his role in Israel.
The presence of a spiritual autobiography is unusual in prophetic literature. Prophets were intercessors, and in this role they normally moved between God and the people. The “I” of prophetic speech was the “I” of God, and the “we” was the “we” of the people. However, the “I” in this brief autobiography was Isaiah speaking for himself. What we have in Isaiah 6 is not a matter of “Thus says the Lord,” but rather “Thus says Isaiah.”
Any experience, especially a momentous experience, is beyond words. It is difficult to find words to describe the experience of God. Words can only go so far, like a trail that suddenly disappears in a dense forest. This is not to disparage Isaiah’s words, but to appreciate how bold the undertaking is and how precious the words are. Of all the words available to him, these are the ones he chose, the ones that he felt were best.
The Holiness of God’s Being
Isaiah draws a sharp contrast between God’s being and human being. God’s being is holy. Holiness is a notoriously difficult reality for modern Christians to grasp. We use the word constantly in our hymnody and in our theologies, but we are hard pressed to define what we mean by it. For the people of Israel, holiness was a life-generating force. It was pure, powerful, and abundant. Jesus announced his holiness when he said, “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Holiness radiated from God and filled the earth. The seraphim put it this way: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; his glory fills the whole earth.”
In this refrain, holiness and glory are intimately related. Holiness identifies God’s essential nature (holy is the Lord); glory identifies the holiness of God once removed (his glory fills the earth). Glory is the holiness of God in a form that sustains the world without consuming it. God’s glory was ubiquitous; it not only filled the earth, it also shone from the tabernacle and temple, expressed itself in the course of history, and imbued particular people with power to lead and protect the people of God.
This vision of the glory of God at the foot of the ark in the Holy of Holies awakened in Isaiah a new vision of himself and his role among the people. He clearly saw that the very institutions that Israel had established to manifest glory in the world had been compromised. Despite the pomp and circumstance of royal pageantry, despite the temple’s shimmering gold, despite the anointing of the priests, despite the antiquity and sophistication of the Mosaic Law, these institutions had been compromised. With eyes gazing on the glory of God’s being, Isaiah saw the vainglory of human being. In this spiritual autobiography, Isaiah cataloged the vainglory of the king, the temple, and the priests.
The Vainglory of the King
It would be hard to understate how important the king was to the people of Israel. They saw the king as glory-filled, anointed with power from God. This power included wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and fear of the Lord (cf. Isaiah 11: 1-2), and it was passed from male child to male child through the years. At the birth of an heir apparent, the people of Israel would sing:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9: 6).
“Mighty God,” in reference to a mere human being is startling to us. But it should not be when we consider the meaning of anointing among the people of Israel. Anointing was a ritual in which power was transferred from God to humans. So elevated was the anointed king and so near to God, the people understood him to be a son of God:
“I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, “You are my son: today I have begotten you.
Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage,
And the ends of the earth your possession (Psalm 2: 7-8).
As the son of God, Israel’s king spoke for the Lord, and his words gave the kingdom the power to prosper and endure:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor” (Psalm 72: 1-4).
This intimate connection between the earthly king and divine King informed Isaiah’s opening remarks in his autobiography: “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” (6:1). While the people sang hymns at the birth of a king’s son and celebrated him as a Mighty God and Everlasting Father, the fact was that kings were not almighty and everlasting. They died, and their thrones at times stood empty. The death of a king sent shock waves, for the connection of the two thrones was severed. The death of a king ushered in a time of vulnerability, a time of waiting until succession was secured.
Some of us are old enough to remember where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was in eighth grade science class. On that fateful day, the class was interrupted, and we were told to go back to our homeroom. There, our homeroom teacher, Mr. Mulder, an ex-Marine who always marched around with his shoulders thrown back and his chest pushed forward, told us what had happened and sent us home. We were unnerved by the news, but equally unnerved by the bearing of the ex-Marine. His shoulders were stooped and his chest fallen, and he did not seem so powerful anymore. When I got home, my mother was weeping, slumped in a chair, watching television. I remember feeling sad, but I remember more clearly feeling anxious. My world was unraveling and I did not understand it. The President was dead, the ex-Marine was stooped, and my mom was slumped over. The authority figures of my world were strangely interconnected and strangely vulnerable.
Isaiah had similar feelings when King Uzziah died. We want to believe that powerful leaders enjoy God’s favor and can save us. We want to bask in their glory; but their glory is vainglory. They make bad decisions; they lie to us; they die. We raise them to the level of gods only to tear them down when they inevitably disappoint us. But the Uzziahs of this world do not eventually determine the course of history. Isaiah had a vision of thrones. The palace throne was vacated, but the temple throne was occupied. The world was not lost; kings came and went but God abided. Isaiah said, “My eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:5) The Eternal King’s self-disclosure reminded Isaiah of the true source of power and established the standard by which all kings must be critiqued.
The Vainglory of the Temple
Isaiah began his spiritual autobiography this way: “I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” The people of Israel understood the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies to be the throne of God. For Isaiah this ark now rose high above the Holy of Holies to receive God, who was of immense proportions: “the hem of his robe filled the temple.” We in the United States have no monarchs, no thrones, no robes, and no royal pageantry. But we have seen it occasionally when the royal family of Great Britain celebrates an enthronement or a marriage. Flowing robes are signs of the power that flows from royalty to the world. The people of Israel understood the robe of the Lord to be the glory of the Lord. (cf. Psalm 93:1). Isaiah had a vision of God in a glorious robe, but God was so large and God’s robe was so full and overflowing that only the hem or fringe of it filled the temple. Ironically, the house of God was too small to accommodate God.
In this vision, Isaiah saw certain things, but he also heard certain things. All his senses were involved in God’s self-disclosure. The seraphim were singing a song, apparently in antiphonal chant: “And one called to another and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; his glory fills the whole earth.’” Isaiah had just experienced the glorious robe of the King filling the temple, and now the seraphim proclaimed that the glory of the King filled the whole world. As it was with the temple, so it was with the world. The temple was a microcosm.
After hearing the seraphim, Isaiah wrote: “The pivots on the threshold (doorposts) shook at the voices of those who called.” The architecture of the temple expressed the theology of the people of Israel, in the same way that the architecture of the medieval cathedrals expressed the theology of the people of Europe. The building catechized. The materials, the colors, the proportions, the implements, all came together to teach the worshippers who God was and how God related to them. The temple was God’s house; the ark was God’s throne; the altar was God’s grill (the place where the meat was prepared); the festivals were God’s banquet, and worship was God’s embrace, welcoming the children home.
The temple was the place where Israel met God, a life-line in the chaotic sea of life. Yet when God appeared to Isaiah, the temple was completely inadequate. Not only was it too small, it was too fragile—the pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called. The song of the priests had reverberated off its walls with no structural problems, but the song of the seraphim threatened to bring those walls down.
The temple with its gold and silver, its liturgies and pageantry, its trumpets and cymbals, was glorious to the people. The Holy One of Israel appeared and exposed it as vainglorious. God’s self-disclosure gave Isaiah a vision of holiness and generated within him a capacity to critique the liturgies and the temple grounds he had once thought sacred. The vision inspired these words:
“When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1: 12-15)
The theme of the temple shaking with the coming of God is carried forward in the gospels. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus challenges the liturgical practices of the scribes and the Pharisees and their interpretation of the law, and this challenge comes to a climax:
“And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables on the money changers, and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (Mark 11: 15-16).
The Vainglory of Priests
The people of Israel believed that visions could come when one was close to a holy place, what medieval Christians called a “thin place.” In such a place, the line between heaven and earth was attenuated, and communication between the realms was possible. An obvious example of this is Jacob’s vision of a stairway to heaven in Genesis 28. The vision came because he slept unawares at what turned out to be a gateway between heaven and earth. He marked the place with the stone upon which he had slept, and there the temple of Bethel was eventually constructed. Another example is Zechariah’s vision of the angel Gabriel in Matthew 1, who appeared to him while he was serving as a priest in the sanctuary. The temple was a place where people were likely to have visions, and Isaiah makes a specific reference to the ark (I saw the Lord sitting on a throne) and to the altar (a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs) in his autobiography. The reference to the ark suggests that Isaiah may have been the high priest and that the vision may have come on the Day of Atonement, for that was the only day the high priest entered the Holy of Holies.
As a priest these words of the seraphim would have resonated deeply with Isaiah: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” God was holy as we have described earlier, and Isaiah could only approach God in a state of holiness: “They shall be holy to their God, and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s offerings by fire, the food of their God; therefore they shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:6). Priests went to great lengths to maintain their holiness.
Priests also bore the responsibility of maintaining the holiness of the people. Holiness moved from the center out, from God to the priests, to the nation, and eventually to the world. Maintaining holiness was Israel’s way of both receiving the life-giving power of God and refracting that power to the world. God desired that the whole world would be made holy, or, as the seraphim put it, that God’s glory would fill the whole earth. Priests maintained the holiness of the people in two fundamental ways: teaching the laws that God had revealed and officiating in the various cleansing rituals. A concise summary of the role of a priest is found in Leviticus 10:10: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the clean and the unclean; and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.”
There was a tension between the holy and profane, between clean and unclean. Holiness was fragile. As a priest, Isaiah maintained holiness. Yet in the presence of the glory of God, he saw himself in a new light: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” (6:5). In the presence of God, Isaiah found himself on the other side of the line that he had been drawing between the clean and the unclean. He found himself among the lepers, and the bleeding, teeming masses. He lost his privileged place, and his new awareness then expands beyond himself: “And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” God’s self-disclosure established a standard of holiness by which all were critiqued and all fell short. God’s self-disclosure created an “egalitarian” society; all were unclean.
Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related in Isaiah’s spiritual autobiography. Most of us develop our self-knowledge by comparing ourselves to other human beings. We learn how intelligent we are by the grades we received in school. We decide how attractive we are by measuring ourselves against the standards of beauty advanced in advertising. We decide how well off we are by comparing ourselves to the proverbial “Joneses.” We feel we know ourselves when we know our place in the various pecking orders. But is this any knowledge at all? Isaiah’s knowledge of himself begins with his knowledge of God. Despite his elevated place in the Israelite pecking order, Isaiah says: “Woe is me!” I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” God’s holiness reveals Isaiah’s frailty and dependency.
John Calvin began the Institutes of the Christian Religion with the same theme found in Isaiah’s autobiography. He compared God’s presence in the world to a spring soaking an oasis with life giving water. He said God’s gifts fall “like dew from heaven upon us” and by them “we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Living in this God-soaked world, people become aware of the surpassing glory of God, and this awareness quickens within them a process of self-examination. “As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods.” But standing in the presence of God, we see that it was all a masquerade and what we thought was perfection in us “corresponds ill to the purity of God.”
The Burning Coal
Having seen the King, the Lord of hosts, Isaiah came to realize that even his best words were laced with impurities. Words have power, yet power corrupts. Those connected with power and its trappings are beguiled by it and tempted to use it to enhance their own lives rather than the lives of others. Eventually whole systems develop that have the aura of sanctity but in reality divert the flow of life-giving power from the many to the few.
A corrupt leader is a cancer cell in the body of a people. Corruption begins small, grows exponentially, saps the vital energy, and eventually kills the body. Isaiah saw this in himself when he said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” God’s self-disclosure is chemotherapy, a consuming fire that burns clean. The burning presence of the Lord first filled and purified the temple, as is clear from the reference to smoke (6:4); then the coal touched Isaiah’s lips and burned away his uncleanness:
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of thongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (6-7).
Isaiah became a leader when the Lord appeared to him. The glorious holiness of the Lord was a light by which he could see his life more clearly and a standard by which he could judge the effectiveness of his ministry. Applying this standard, he looked within himself, but he did not find the resources there to make him a more effective leader. He found instead the resistances that made him an ineffective one. He saw his uncleanness and his powerlessness to help himself. He depended on the same Lord who appeared to him to purify him.
Knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately related. The capacity for self-examination is one of the gifts of the self-disclosure of God. Humility is the mark of a true leader.
These are difficult times for many churches, particularly the Reformed Church in America. We are in decline and many would-be leaders have arisen. They are confident that they know the reasons for our decline and are quick to draw the line between the clean and the unclean and to call for the banishment of the latter. They are asking the remnant of our once proud church to follow them. As we struggle to move forward and wonder whom to follow, we need to remember that line between the clean and the unclean is not so easily drawn. Those who have stood in the presence of God demonstrate humility and the capacity for self-examination. If leaders cannot say with Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a ‘man’ of unclean lips,” and do not act accordingly, then they are not worth following.
Adapted from a forthcoming festschrift honoring the ministry of James V. Brownson.