‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’
We are considering the holiness of God, in other words, his radical difference, literally his separation from human beings. In him we are meeting a being vastly different from anyone or anything within this universe. He is apart from us because he is our Creator, but also he is also the Sovereign Omnipotent Lord, of whom, from whom and to whom are all things. The only limitation confronting him in anything he chooses to do is his own will. He controls all things, men, angels and demons, things physical and those powers that are invisible. They all live and move and have their being in him, and he exercises his authority over them all – from atoms to galaxies. His capacity and right to do what he will with what he has made arouses our reverent awe and wonder.
We have considered this great scene in Isaiah chapter 6, the revelation of the holy God to Isaiah in the temple, and we have considered the various strands of his righteousness. What then are the consequences of this for ourselves? You will remember how simply the fundamental consequence of that was stated by God when he called his people to himself as his chosen people. He said to them, “Be holy, because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). You remember that Peter picked this up in his first letter and he said to his readers, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be ye holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (I Pet. 1:15&16). You cannot whittle it away and plead, ‘Well, I’ll try to be like him most of the time. I’ll aim for that as far as it is practical in a fallen world.” No, we have been recreated in God’s image to live like him with power from himself to be our enabling. We have no choice in the matter, and no excuse. Christians are the light of the world; their calling is to shine forth to the world the holiness of God. So how shall we approach this?
- THE RESPONSE OF THE SERAPHS TO GOD’S HOLINESS.
I love to read what John Donne wrote about them. He says that they don’t have bodies of flesh but they are like vapour or froth or a sigh. Yet they are so mighty that “with a touch they shall moulder a rock into less atoms than the sand it stands upon. They can moulder a millstone into smaller flour than it grinds – with a touch . . . they are six thousand years old, and yet they don’t have a single wrinkle of age on their faces, or one sob of weariness in their lungs.” So how do they react to the divine holiness? They are overwhelmed with awe. That is important for this reason that we are so inclined to imagine that it is only our sin that creates that distance and otherness that exists between ourselves and God. Now of course our sin does profoundly modify the relationship; it does intensify the sense of distance and it does widen the gulf. Yet these mighty sinless ones gasp. They utterly obeisant in God’s presence.
Francis Schaefer famously said that when man comes before God he must bow twice. First he bows as a creature before his Creator, and then he bows as a sinner before the Holy One. But let’s not imagine for a moment that it is out of the fact of sin that a sense of the otherness of God comes. Let’s not imagine that if there were no sin then there’d be no sense of this otherness. Let’s not think that when there is no sense of sin – and eventually there will be no sin at the last – that then there will be no sense of the otherness of God! The great answer to that is to look at the seraphs. They have never sinned. They are the great burning ones themselves. They are the mighty symbols of the flaming purity and majesty of God, and yet, you see them in the presence of God. Created holiness is confronted by uncreated, unorganised Holiness.
Now we are told this, that they were covering not only their faces from the awesome purity before them but also covering their feet. How pathetic and unworthy they are. Some of you may remember how John Milton wrote in his Ode to the Nativity how nature was covering itself with snow at Christmas “confounded that her Maker’s eyes should look so near upon her foul deformities.” The holy child Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, held by his mother looked about him at a groaning and ruined world. Was that a mirror reaction of the reality in the seraphs crying ‘Holy’ in the temple. These angels have no deformity and no foulness, not one atom, but there is yet a tremendous sense of creaturely inferiority in the presence of the Almighty. They’ve never sinned. There are no guilt feelings whatsoever in their psychology, and yet the seraphim are covering their faces and feet, and they are crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” They are so profoundly conscious of the otherness of God.
And it’s not inappropriate that they are saying those words to one another. They are talking together and telling each other, “What holiness! Can you see how holy he is?” You appreciate that holiness is not a negative virtue. It’s not merely the absence of sin. It is the positive presence of all that is good and true and pure and righteous. “Look at God. Consider him in his glory. Survey him. Never take your eyes off him . . . Holy, holy, holy!” they are crying this out. And we might well say, “Well surely all these seraphim, surely they know that. They have known it from the day of their creation. They don’t need to exhort one another. Why are they telling one another of the perfections of God?” Well, think of it like this, that in many phases of their activities they have to deal with us in a sin-dominated world. They have to home in on imperfect Christians like us as we limp along to glory. They are sent by God to help and assist the heirs of salvation, seeing the muddles we are in, bearing us up and supporting us on our pilgrimage as we wrestle with the sin and fallenness and trials of this world. When they are involved in all of that then we get their full attention. They will help us. They love us as they love themselves. But there are times when their duties are over, and then their blessing is to focus again on their Master and Maker, Jehovah God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and always they are overwhelmed at the sight. They can sing our song . . .
Father of Jesus, love’s reward
What rapture it will be
Prostrate to lie before Thy throne
And gaze and gaze on Thee.
The seraphs never grow weary of that; they are never accustomed to it; every glance is like their first glance. Since their creation they’ve never become blasé at the sight of God’s endless wisdom, boundless might and awful purity. And in spite of what a hymnist write, the spirits that surround his throne can’t bear that burning bliss. They shield their eyes from that sight with their wings – as we put on sunglasses. Always they’re overwhelmed by God’s holiness, intrigued by it always, captivated by it, and enthralled with the otherness of the Almighty – so much so that they turn to one another as we do at exceptional experiences we have, when we view a sunset or a waterfall and we look at our friends and we sigh, “That’s wonderful . . . that’s so beautiful isn’t it!”
So it seems to me that if the seraphs cover their faces what should we be doing? Don’t you think that we ought to be more focused in reinforcing one another’s discipleship? How better can we do this than by making much of God and his attributes? We should be laying more emphasis on reminding one another of the holiness of the Saviour.
- THE RESPONSE OF THE PROPHET TO GOD’S HOLINESS.
i] That response is so graphically stated in the fifth verse, “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined!” He has seen the King. Maybe there’d been many a day when he’d longed to see the King. Many a day he’d prayed for it. Many a time he’d thought of the day when such a sight of the King would be given to him. It would, he imagined, be a time of surpassing joy and glory. How great he would feel, how inspiring, how exhilarating! Then the day dawns, and Isaiah sees the King and he cries out, “Woe to me. I am ruined.” It is a common fallacy that the divine presence always makes us feel great and if we feel great in a meting then it must be because of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet God came as his people were bowing before him and worshiping him, and God shook the building they were in – I mean really shook it, reaching number 10 on the Richter scale – so that every door comes off its hinges. Then you do not find that the man in charge of the building was dancing for joy. In fact he wants to kill himself. If revival came to the land this week then it’s fallacious to think we’d all feel on top of the world. It’s a delusion to imagine that if a church were to be renewed by a great work of the Holy Spirit that the congregation would be overflowing with excitement. Remember how it was with Jacob, that when God came to him then his reaction was, “This is a dreadful place.” And as long as sin is a reality in the life of the Christian and in the congregation then the possible presence of God drawing near makes us feel wretched. The people at Pentecost were not lying on the floor laughing, they were cut to their hearts and terribly convicted of their wickedness. Indeed if that element has almost vanished from our lives then it’s because we’ve lost sight of the grandeur of God, the weight of the glory of the Saviour has become a featherweight. So at the most elementary level the vision makes the prophet Isaiah feel wretched. “Woe to me!” is his response; not “Praise the Lord!” and “Hallelujah!” And I fear that that is a rare response to God today.
“Woe is me!” speaks of a sense of a ruined life, ruined for ever. At the very heart of the idea of holiness there is the perception of the tremendousness of God. Let’s take that in its literal etymological sense, that God is a being before whom the prescribed natural response is that we tremble. God is tremendous, and I go weak at the knees when I meet him; the apostle John on Patmos loses all his strength and he collapses to the ground when he sees the Lord. Now that is not the whole biblical picture. God is not exclusively tremendous. God is fascinating, enthralling, winsome, gracious, but here you have what we may call the ‘radical creature feeling’ as a sinner stands before God, the naked flames of his holiness reaching out to him. He feels a destroyed man. He feels so combustible. He feels threatened and vulnerable and at risk. He feels overwhelmed. How often is that a component of biblical conversion? Before some sinners came to assurance of mercy and pardon they were first led by God into this depth of ruination, “Woe is me!”
I am saying that that is a dimension to our experience that we should never lose, even in our assurance. Remember how our Lord himself spoke in John 17, how he invoked the name of God thus, “Holy Father!” Now I realise that Isaiah is in a different case from Christ. He is a sinful man, and he is right down here living among a people of unclean lips, and here is God and he is very, very near. What an extraordinary privilege, having an audience with the Almighty, and yet if the prophet were interviewed as he left the Temple and asked, “How do you feel? What was it like?” He’d say, “Terrible. My life is ruined.” If you asked him why, then he’d say, “Because I’ve seen the Holy One and I’m undone.”
Now there is no word in the Old Testament for ‘religion.’ There is only “the fear of Jehovah.” That is where true religion begins, and it is an inalienable element of all true godliness. And if the reporter and camera crew were to ask Isaiah further why he felt so insecure then he would tell him, “I feel I am utterly unclean . . . I’m defiled.” And what Christian is not like that? If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. What I am saying is this; suppose today in the most intimate sense God drew near. The real holy Lord homed in on us and drew very close to us and we experienced his presence, then we would feel our uncleanness, and there would be awe and fear in our hearts. We would be cut to our hearts at the nearness of the Ancient of Days.
ii] Isaiah was most aware of this sense of uncleanness in his speech, on his lips. “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (v.5). It was his words and the words he heard all around him that cut him down. We suggest a couple of reasons why this was so.
A] Was it because he wishes he could do what the seraphs did. They were crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” Isaiah envied them their lips. How clean were their lips! How fit they were for that kind of vocation. He by contrast felt how dirty was his tongue and his mouth; “Alas, my lips are unclean.” That is one reason, but I think there is something even deeper than that.
B] Isaiah’s lips were the best thing about the prophet. His eloquence, his poetry, his creativity were unrivalled in the Old Testament, perhaps in the whole compass of human literature. Those lips, from one point of view, were his greatest blessing, the point where God had most conspicuously granted him charismata, the very point of his most eminent and patent ability, the thing he did the best, but this is where he felt his uncleanness. That is the most humbling thing about Christian discipleship, that our righteousnesses are as filthy rags, that at the point of our greatest strength and most consummate aptitudes, there, so often, we fail the Lord. Then there is another angle from which the holiness of God impinges upon the prophet . . .
iii] Isaiah is also concerned about the population amongst whom he lived his daily life. “I live among a people of unclean lips” (v.5). It was a careless nation, who laced their speech with foul language, the children, the women, the old folk. They spoke angry words, and lustful words, and cold, hurting words and blasphemous words. They were everywhere; there seemed no escape from worldly language and emotions, and Isaiah didn’t think, “Well I don’t swear, and I don’t lie, and I don’t say cruel and hurtful words to those who love me. It is well with my own soul.” The prophet didn’t say that he had no conviction of badmouthing. He lived in solidarity with the nation and the people that he loved. And maybe we are too individualistic, we are not concerned about the children surrounding us in our school, and the students in the university, and the men and women we work with, and our neighbours, and the crowds walking the main street and on the prom and the language we hear on television. James is right; “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8), and Isaiah lived in the vortex of that restless evil. Don’t we have compassion on the ruined lives of our fellow citizens, and what inescapably lies before them? Isaiah felt crushed because of the state that Israel was in.
3. THE HOLY ONE’S PROVISION FOR CONVICTED SINNERS.
Suppose today we had this vision of God’s holiness and this overwhelming sense of vulnerability, then what is the remedy? The remedy is that our guilt be removed. One of the angels takes a live glowing coal from the temple altar and he touches Isaiah’s lips “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (v.7). He symbolically deals with Isaiah’s sins and he takes them away. It was a sign of what this Lord, when he is incarnate is going to do one day. In other words, before Isaiah can speak meaningfully for God, before he can be delivered from the terrible sense of vulnerability and insecurity, he must himself get cleansing and atonement. So it is, before we ever speak and before we venture to tell others that God is holy, holy, holy then we must be assured that our own iniquity has been dealt with and removed by the application of a coal from the altar. Isaiah cannot clean himself, but God is kind to him and he prepares him for his lifetime’s work.
It is a reminder to us that it’s no use that we merely hold on to the notion that there are live coals on the altar of sacrifice. One of those coals must touch our lips. True religion’s more than notion; something must be known and felt. If I were to express it theologically, then it is no use knowing of the accomplishment of redemption by the Son of God unless that redemption is applied personally to me or to you. It is not sufficient to believe that God is great and God is merciful. The devils believe that. I may still be lost. It is not enough that Christ died; I may be undone still. I must put my trust in who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for sinners like me. I must lay my hand on that dear head of his. I must come to him I must appropriate the proffered forgiveness. I must submit to God’s way of salvation. Only in that way am I going to know an effective dealing with my own sin. So Isaiah the prophet stands there overwhelmed with a sense of sin, and yet feeling – when a live coal has touched his lips – that sin itself has been dealt with by God’s provision in atonement. The holiness of God that creates such a distance between us also now – by his holy action – joins us to him in the most intimate fellowship. The same heat that touches our lips was then multiplied by infinity and consumed Christ on the altar. Our God is a consuming fire. Our God is love.
The best book by far on this subject of holiness is still J.C.Ryle’s Holiness. Hear him as he closes the chapter in the book on that theme. “Would you be holy? Would you become a new creature? Then you must begin with Christ. You will do just nothing at all, and make no progress till you feel your sin and weakness, and flee to Him. He is the root and beginning of all holiness, and the way to be holy is to come to Him by faith and be joined to Him. Christ is not wisdom and righteousness only to His people, but sanctification also. Men sometimes try to make themselves holy first of all, and sad work they make of it. They toil and labour, and turn over new leaves, and make many changes; and yet, like the woman with the issue of blood before she came to Christ, they feel ‘nothing bettered, but rather worse.’ (Mark 5:6) They run in vain, and labour in vain; and, little wonder, for they are beginning at the wrong end. They are building up a wall of sand; their work runs down as fast as they throw it up. They are baling water out of a leaky vessel: the leak gains on them, not they on the leak. Other foundation of holiness can no man lay than that which Paul laid, even Christ Jesus. Without Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). It is a strong but true saying of Traill’s, ‘Wisdom out of Christ is damning folly; righteousness out of Christ is guilt and condemnation; sanctification out of Christ is filth and sin; redemption out of Christ is bondage and slavery.’ Do you want to attain holiness? Do you feel this day a real hearty desire to be holy? Should you be a partaker of the Divine nature? Then go to Christ. Wait for nothing. Wait for nobody. Linger not. Think not to make yourself ready, Go and say to Him, in the words of that beautiful hymn-
“Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked flee to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace.”
Then that begins the subsequent dialogue between God and Isaiah.
- THE HOLY GOD’S COMMISSION AND THE PROPHET’S RESPONSE.
i] The question heard. The prophet then hears another voice, and it is saying these words. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (v.8). You see the rationale of this, that before Isaiah is sent and starts to preach that he has to be sure that he is called. He gets a vision of God, and a sight of Jehovah’s holiness, and he is convicted of his own sin. Isaiah has what every preacher called by God must have, a conscious, experiential, personal knowledge of cleansing and forgiveness. All of these are indispensable elements in any evangelistic commission. Then there is something else; there is God’s voice coming, not as an unambiguous imperative – “Go!” – but as a challenging question, “Who will go for us?” It is not that God is at a loss, but that he is a God who chooses to use those who know him and his character, and know themselves, and know their need of their lips being touched by the live coal from the altar, and then in the joy of sins forgiven they freely volunteer themselves. It is quite astonishing because of the risk of enlisting in the service of such a demanding God, one who is so awesome, by a volunteer who is conscious that he’s been a sinner who also is and will always be a creature. Yet he says in all humility, “I will go.”
Now the question is, “Who will go for us?” Is the ‘us’ the Lord standing in solidarity with his elect people whom he loves? That is a possibility, or is this another Trinitarian marker as you find in back Genesis 2 “Let us make man in our image.” That is so fascinating, but Isaiah hears the question and he is made conscious that he is not going in his own interest, or in the interest of the college of prophets, or in order to gain from the experience of being a mouthpiece of God. He is going purely for God. “Send me,” he says to God. “Here am I,” volunteering, offering himself. “Send me.” What an honour! What a privilege! Imagine being called and used by God and for his glory. Have we brought our secret desires to God? The fields are white unto harvest, and so are all of us seriously thinking, “Would you be sending me, even me, to labour in your harvest?” Is this a seed thought in our minds, unshared with anyone here, or have we begun to talk with the Lord about it? None of us is going to do God any favours in labouring for him. When we have done our best we are unprofitable servants. We are what we are by the grace of God. Our best work needs forgiveness.
ii] The commission issued. Then the terrible verses of Isaiah’s commission that follow reveal what the Lord wants his prophet’s message to be. Remember that he is the prophet of the vision. All of us can only tell others what we have seen and known. Isaiah can only tell what he has viewed of the holiness of God. No prophet before had ever seen the holiness of God so clearly and as few others have ever seen since. And that was Isaiah’s distinctive contribution to the history of revelation at the point of theology proper. His great name for God, that name unique to Isaiah, is ‘the Holy one of Israel.” Isaiah came to the men of his own day with that message of the holiness of God. He told them what he had seen, and that is what we find so often in the apostles. They are the apostles of their own vision. Yet, despite the glory of the message which Isaiah preached, the people who heard it were uncomprehending. They neither perceived it nor understood it. The message had a hardening and not a softening affect on the nation. “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (vv. 9&10). Now will some of you say, “Woe is me. I am ruined”? I have been hearing the preaching here for years and I am still unwashed, guilty and defiled. Still the burning coal has not touched my lips. Break my heart. Give me understanding. Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things out of thy law. Take the scales away. Remove the heart of stone. Cut away the callouses that cover my heart. Heal me Saviour or I die!
I don’t suggest that an initial hardening is always God’s way or even that it is often God’s way, but there are situations in which the gospel is spoken authentically with integrity and sincerity and yet the effect is to harden. It must be borne in mind that the totality of Isaiah’s message as it continues relevantly on and on to our own day, preached over 27 centuries and taken to every part of the world, has been to win to God many a convert. It has brought to the church of God much consolation. Nevertheless this great man was to see little encouragement in his short term ministry. He was to see only rejection. Isaiah knew the Lord. Isaiah had a calling from the Lord. Isaiah had charismata from the Lord, and yet there was a withholding of God’s power. Now sometimes that may be so. We have no right to question a man’s calling simply because the public response is largely one of indifference.
iii] The response given. What really intrigues me and what I think we ought to fasten onto is Isaiah’s unique response to God’s commission. He asks God a question; “For how long, O Lord?” (v.11). This man did not feel sorry for himself; there is no hint of frustration. He was a man with a pastor’s heart, and an evangelist’s heart and he was told that his word was not going to be blest. There would be few conversions so that he would say, “Lord, who has believed our report?” He had been prepared for barrenness, that the withholding of divine power was precisely within God’s predisposition. Yet we do not find a calm, cold, logical, abstract acquiescence in the will of God. There is rather this cry of anguish, “For how long, O Lord?”
And we really never have the right – with our much more limited insight into the ways of God and the mysteries of providence – we have no right simply to invoke predestination and reprobation as truths that in themselves are the total and comforting answers to the absence of an awakening ministry. We know most clearly that while we have to sow, and while we must water, that it is God alone who gives the increase. So let us have confidence in the means God gives us. We have seen the holiness of God; a live coal has touched our lips; we have the word from God; we are in the appointed place declaring his word; we are communicating in a lucid way so that the congregation can understand, and yet there seems no converting power. The ministry seems to be hardening many of our hearers while softening some. We remember the words of the apostle to the Corinthians; “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Cors. 2:15&16). And often we feel quite inadequate, and then the question we are permitted to ask is this, “For how long O Lord?” The withholding of power, and the absence of converts, and the barrenness in mission is always accompanied by pain and anguish and sorrow. If there’s no distress, then there can’t have been an emotional commitment to the work, and that it is not what it should be. We’re not evangelizing simply to show others how orthodox or eloquent or contemporary we can be, and that other watching churches and ministers also ought to be. We are not evangelizing simply to get the undone duty off our consciences. We are certainly not evangelizing because we see people as conversion fodder. We are evangelizing because at one level God has commanded us to cry, “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” and at another level because we care for men. So if we are compassionate people then there is no principle – even of the most elevated theology – that is going to silence those cries, “For how long, O Lord?” We cannot shrug our shoulders and say, “Barrenness is the will of God,” even when we know that giving the increase is God’s prerogative. We too have had the prophetic vision, and so we also must speak the prophet’s response, “For how long, O Lord?” And then go on, being steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord.
25th May 2014 GEOFF THOMAS