OT Encounters: Isaiah 6:1-8 – Triune Forgiveness

By Jeff Pulse

Our text for Holy Trinity Sunday is from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 6:1-8. The reason this text is chosen for Holy Trinity is the rare triad in verse 3: “Holy, holy, holy.” The Early Church considered this to be a Trinitarian formula (and I would agree). However, during the Arian Controversy, they stepped away from that use as Arias used this text against them as he supported his heretical position. It took a while, but the Church has returned to that Trinitarian interpretation, and thus it is in the pericopal system for Holy Trinity Sunday.

Since this text sets up the call/sending of Isaiah the prophet, it is curious why it takes place so late in the book. A lot of information and even prophecy has preceded Isaiah’s call, and this has caused a great deal of discussion among Old Testament exegetes. Some would suggest that there is a lack of chronological order. Others have posited that there was a “pre-call” ministry for Isaiah. Still others see chapter 6 as a renewal of Isaiah’s call. My personal opinion on this is that we, the reader/hearer, are being brought into the context or situation into which Isaiah is being called. Judah is experiencing one of its most peaceful and prosperous times since Solomon. However, this calm situation has dulled the hearts and adversely affected the faithfulness of the people. They are going through the motions, but their hearts have drifted from the LORD. Chapters 1-5 give us a clear picture of this reality. Therefore, when Isaiah receives his sending (call) to be the LORD’s prophet, His mouthpiece to the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, we can already see the challenge of what and who he is sent to.  Regardless of the reason, we should see the position of this text as being original and intentional to the Book of Isaiah.

Another interesting discussion point concerning this text is the location. Verse one uses the word hecal, “temple”, but the question often discussed is, WHICH TEMPLE? Does Isaiah find himself in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem, or is this taking place in the Heavenly Temple? Perhaps we might even say the answer is “yes.” In the understanding of a Hebrew, the two are inseparable—one does not think of them as unrelated realities. This would be my personal understanding, and certainly the more important reality described in this text is that Isaiah finds himself in the presence of the living God—the Holy One. This is a terrifying situation because Isaiah knows full well that the unholy cannot endure the presence of the Holy. We will look at this more closely as we progress through the text.

6:1 bishnath—moth “in the year (he) died” Isaiah is the only prophet to date an event by a death, and he does it twice. First, here in 6:1 it is the death of King Uzziah, and again in 14:28 with the death of King Ahaz. It could be that Isaiah sees King Uzziah’s death as an indictment or as a symbol of the nation of Judah and their unfaithfulness. (see Uzziah’s unfaithfulness in II Kings 15:5 and II Chronicles 26:16ff)

waereh eth-edonay yoshev “I saw the LORD sitting” yoshev is a participle form. At first, we would think that Isaiah is seeing the pre-incarnate Christ because man cannot look upon the face of God and live. However, the three-fold qadosh of the seraphim could suggest the presence of the entire Godhead, the Holy Trinity. Therefore, Isaiah should be in terror. This would not be the first time the LORD God broke the “face to face” rule. Think of Moses and also the elders in Exodus 24.

kise “throne” hahecal “the temple.” As mentioned before, location is a big topic of discussion. The two terms of throne and temple do nothing to answer the question. The Mercy Seat is considered the Throne, and the Holy of Holies is the Throne room of God in the earthly Jerusalem Temple. The language also fits the depiction of Heaven.

weshulaw from shul “seam; skirt” Generally translated in this context as “robe” or “train of robe.”

6:2 seraphim omdim “seraphim (burning ones) standing” The covering of the face and feet with a pair of wings, each while flying with a third pair of wings, is interesting in that the pronoun does not identify whose face and feet the wings cover. It could be the seraphims’ (usual thought), or it could be the face and feet of the Holy One. This may be how Isaiah “survives” his encounter—his face to face meeting—with the LORD God.

yeopheph—oot: uph—polel: “to fly; to fly back and forth”

6:3 weqara zeh el-zeh—literally: “This called to this” So, “One called to another.”

qadosh qadosh qadosh “Holy, holy, holy” As previously mentioned, an unusual triad.

melo kalhaarrets kevodo “all the earth is full of His glory” or “may His glory fill all the earth.” Both are acceptable translations. It is interesting to see “His glory” in the immediate context of Temple and the Smoke of verse 4. This should bring to mind the “Glory Cloud.”

6:4 wayanuu—root: nu—qal: “to tremble; shake; quake”

hasiphiym—root: saph “threshold; sill; stone under the door frame” “and the thresholds (foundations) shook.”

“from the voice of the One who called” Note that this is singular and does not seem to focus on the seraphim, but rather on the voice of God.

ashan “smoke” The two items of “shaking” and “smoke” are often paired in eschatological settings and contexts. Amos speaks of earthquakes and smoke and thick darkness on the day of the LORD. We also see this in Habbakuk 3 and Haggai 2. All point to the presence of God, and, in Haggai, the day when “the Glory of the LORD fills the Temple.” Thus, at the cross on Good Friday when Christ declares, “It is finished,” the world goes dark, the earth shakes, rocks split, and the Temple curtain is torn in two as Christ (the Glory) returns to the Holy of Holies to place His blood as the final sacrifice.

6:5 ory “Woe! Alas!” nidmeythi—root: damah—niphal: “to be brought to silence; to be ruined; to be lost.”

tame “unclean” To be unclean makes one unworthy to go in to the Temple; cleansing is required before one can be in the presence of God. Isaiah knows his uncleanness as well as that of the people among whom he dwells—nothing good can come of this face to face meeting! We see the same reaction in the Gospels when Peter is confronted by the miraculous calming of the storm and realizes that he is in the boat with the Holy One!

6:6 wayaaph—qal: “to fly”

ritspah “glowing coal; hot ember; hot stone”

bemelqachayim “tongs” Note that this is a dual form because tongs have two parts.

hamizbeach “the altar” Where the burning coal comes from is of extreme importance. Fire from the “altar” purifies and cleanses the faithful. Otherwise fire is symbolic of the wrath of God and brings destruction.

6:7 The coal/fire is touched to the lips of Isaiah. Thus, his mouth is cleansed/atoned and prepared to speak the words from God. We see the mouth of the prophets being focused upon in the sendings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well.

6:8 eshlach—root: shalach “to send” umiy yelek—lanu “who will go FOR US?”

Again, the plurality of “for us” coupled with the triad of “holy” recommends a Trinitarian reading. One does wonder if Isaiah knows what he is getting into when he volunteers! Would he have been so eager if he heard the job description in verses 9-13 first?