These are tumultuous times. COVID-19, racial injustice, riots, an economic downturn, and a massive explosion in Beirut has left many feeling fearful, hopeless or numb. Similarly, Isaiah and the Israelites would have also felt fearful, hopeless and perhaps numb toward the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry.
Before Isaiah’s ministry began Jerusalem was in dire straits. Assyria was gaining power, expanding its territory by moving south and crushing every nation that rose against them. It seemed inescapable that Jerusalem would soon face the same fate. This would mean death, destruction and economic ruin. To make matters worse, the godly king Uzziah had just died leaving the Israelites feeling leaderless.
In the midst of this perilous outlook Isaiah sees a vision of the Lord that gives him a heavenly perspective that will shape the rest of his life and ministry. His vision is also comforting and instructive to us today.
A Vision of the Lord on His Throne
In 740 BC Isaiah walks into the temple and is shocked to find God there! God is seated on his throne surrounded by seraphim which shout to each other “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty; the whole earth is filled with his glory.” Their powerful voices shake the foundations of the massive temple.
Isaiah walks into the temple overcome by fear because of the power and might of the king of Assyria. He walks out in fear of a different king. God reveals to Isaiah and us today that even in the midst of chaos and seeming hopelessness he is on his heavenly throne.
Isaiah is undone at the sight of this incredible vision. Rather than joining the seraphim in praising the Lord, Isaiah shrinks back in horror and exclaims, “Woe is me! For I am ruined!” Robert Chisholm points out, “Though praise was the order of the day, Isaiah was not qualified to praise the king.” Isaiah rightly recognizes that he deserves to be judged for his sin. Encountering God’s holiness has exposed Isaiah’s sin making him very uncomfortable.
Even in times of suffering we should recognize where we have sinned rather than only pointing to external factors. No matter what we face in this life, our greatest problem is our sin against God. Isaiah models repentance for the Israelites in his day and for us today. Our sins may be many, but God’s mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22-23).
God has taken the initiative in everything toward Isaiah and now he takes initiative to cleanse him from his sin by sending a seraphim to touch Isaiah’s unclean lips with a burning coal from the altar. The seraphim needs to shield himself from the fire of God’s holy justice with tongs. However, Jesus the true Messiah was not shielded from God’s holy justice but consumed by it so that his people could be healed and cleansed. The cross heals our greatest problem: our sin against God. The cross also enables us to forgive others.
My friend who recently came to faith after growing up agnostic made a great observation about non-Christian culture. He said when you don’t have a doctrine of the atonement you must mercilessly make others atone for their sins. Keeping the cross in front of us not only assures us of forgiveness, but allows us to have grace with others since we know God has paid for our sins.
God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Though Isaiah confesses that his lips were unclean in God’s presence he suddenly finds himself speaking in God’s presence! Isaiah immediately responds to God’s question with, “Me! Send me!” Those who have seen a clear vision of the Lord and known God’s extravagant grace are eager to serve the Lord in any way he sees fit. The psalmist writes, “I will run in the path of your commandments for you have set my heart free” (Ps. 119:32). Only receiving grace can transform hardened sinners into agents of grace.
Why We Need Isaiah’s Vision Today
On cloudy days it’s hard to believe the sun is shining bright and beautiful above the clouds. When an airplane takes off in a rainstorm the passengers on board may feel dreary seeing the clouds and rain. Yet, as the plane breaks through the clouds the passengers are vividly reminded of the constancy of the sun’s shining as they feel its warmth on their faces.
The truth that God reigns over all the earth quickly fades from Christians’ minds when they see the evil and sin in this world. Yet, we should never forget that God is on his throne.
Just as the Lord revealed himself to Isaiah, God reveals himself to us today in many ways but namely in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. Beholding God should lead us to confess our sins and remember his rich mercy to us in Christ. Only then can we become agents of his grace in a world that desperately needs it.
 Robert B. Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002). 25.