Isaiah 6. Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
6 In the year of King ‘Uziyahu’s death I saw The Lord sitting on a high, lofty throne! The hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 S’rafim stood over him, each with six wings — two for covering his face, two for covering his feet and two for flying. 3 They were crying out to each other,
“Holy, holy holy
is The Lord of armies!
The whole earth is filled
with his glory!”
4 The doorposts shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 Then I said,
“Misfortune for me! I am doomed! —
because I, a man with unclean lips,
living among a people with unclean lips,
have seen with my own eyes
the King, The Lord of Armies!”
6 One of the s’rafim flew to me with a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said,
“Here! This has touched your lips.
Your iniquity is gone,
your sin is atoned for.”
8 Then I heard the voice of Adonai saying,
“Whom should I send?
Who will go for us?”
I answered, “I’m here, send me!”
9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
‘Yes, you hear, but you don’t understand.
You certainly see, but you don’t get the point!’
10 “Make the heart of this people fat,
stop up their ears, and shut their eyes.
Otherwise, seeing with their eyes,
and hearing with their ears,
and understanding with their hearts,
they might repent and be healed!”
11 I asked, “Lord,how long?” and he answered,
“Until cities become uninhabited ruins,
houses without human presence,
the land utterly wasted;
12 until the Lord drives the people far away,
and the land is one vast desolation.
13 If even a tenth remain,
it will again be devoured.
“But like a pistachio tree or an oak,
whose trunk remains alive
after its leaves fall off,
the holy seed will be its trunk.”
Uzziah had been a good and successful king of Judah, so his death would have been a challenging moment for a prophet who believed that God worked through the royal line of David. At this juncture, in the temple, the prophet has a vision of God who occupies the throne of the universe. Earthly rule is subject to time and happenstance, but God’s rule is certain.
The heavens are depicted as a court with the “flaming creatures” (s’rafim) as courtiers. They are wonderfully mobile in their active praise of God as holy, that is, as separate, removed, altogether different from humanity and the world. This praise is antiphonal, one creature echoing the praise of another. In this way the created universe acknowledges its creator. This is the kind of praise envisaged by St. Francis is his Canticle of the Creatures, “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with is sing, Alleluia!” The Hebrew is more vivid than this translation in depicting each individual creature, “one called to another..”
The shaking of the doorposts, inanimate as they are, emphasises the shaking of the human witness who responds with terror. The One whom human beings cannot see and live, has been seen by the prophet who expects his death. It’s easy to dismiss this as a sort of piety, but no, the words speak of genuine terror; the prophet’s vision is real to him.
Instead of death, the prophet is subjected to a divine cleansing, which is directed to his mouth, the organ of speach, which is touched with a burning coal from God’s altar. The text does not describe the pain, relying on the reader’s imagination. This intimate contact with holiness cleanses the sinful person and “covers over” his sin. The holiness of God is transferable without ceasing to belong to God.
The cleansed prophet is now privy to God’s concern, and able to respond as a member of God’s court: here I am; send me. This is no general mission but specifically to Judah, the prophet’s people. Ironically he is called to confirm the refusal of the people to listen to their God. His message makes them deaf and unresponsive! His preaching shuts them off from repentance and healing. This terrible mission does not frighten the prophet who nevertheless asks how long his unrewarding task will last, and receives a pitiless reply: until the cities become uninhabited ruins…the only comfort is the image of the treestump which will be fruitful. After disaster there may be hope.
As an account of the prophet’s calling, this emphasises Isaiah’s love of God’s holiness, which simultaneously judges his people and cleanses them to serve God’s purpose.