A Man of Unclean Lips

Matthew McClister

In my last article, we saw how Isaiah’s vision of God was the first step in bringing an unclean world back to holiness. A holy foundation must be laid before the remaining holy pieces can fit in place. We begin to see the spread of God’s holiness into the world with Isaiah himself. Upon seeing God’s holiness, Isaiah immediately recognizes his own impurity: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Isa. 6:5).

Sometimes we can’t see how ugly we are unless we see something truly beautiful. Our own disordered lives often don’t seem so bad to us when we see the others who look the same. We all look fine in the mirror until Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts walk by. Their beauty highlights our flaws. Now imagine that on a much grander scale and you’ll have a sliver of an idea as to why Isaiah crumbles upon seeing God enthroned above the temple. He and everyone he knows have just been exposed for the ugly, disfigured creatures they are. Our relative holiness to one another is put to shame when exposed by the complete holiness and purity of God.

The good news, however, is that Isaiah doesn’t have to stay that way. His ugly impurities can be taken away, and he can be made into a holy piece of God’s creation that extends from the holiness of God himself. God cleanses Isaiah in a way that is strange to modern eyes, but would have been recognizable to someone from the ancient near East: the purifying of the mouth.

Part of the reason for the purification of Isaiah’s lips is certainly connected to the fact that he is going to be speaking for God, and so the organ of speech must be made pure. We are familiar with the notion of a parent making a child wash his mouth with soap after saying “dirty” words or lies, and this is part of the picture here. Imagine that a vulgar comedian was converted and wanted to preach God’s word, and in preparation for his ministry he symbolically washed his mouth with Listerine. But it goes beyond just Isaiah’s lips.

There were several ceremonial procedures in the ancient near East in which a person was sanctified in order to perform their duties on behalf of the gods. These ceremonies began with mouth washing, then progressed to other aspects like shaving, and bathing, etc. The purification of the mouth ceremony, therefore, represented the purification of the entire person. The person who has gone through this sanctification ritual is fit to stand in the presence of the gods, and even share in their nature. To become a priest to Enlil, one had to undergo complete purification. In one text describing the ritual for purification, we find this statement: “May they purify my mouth! May my hands be pure! May my feet be clean! May my body glisten!”

The text itself clearly implies that the purification of Isaiah’s lips represent the purification of Isaiah as a whole: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”” (Isa. 6:6-7).

Isaiah’s mouth, however, is not purified through water, but through fire. This change in the ancient Near Eastern pattern is noteworthy. As we noted in the previous article, God’s purifying presence at Mt. Sinai is manifested in fire. God’s original method of purification was through water (i.e. the flood, the Red Sea), but the second purification is through fire. Israel and the world have already been cleansed through the waters of the flood, so in Isaiah 6, God is turning to his second step in the purification process – fire. God comes with his “fiery ones” (seraphim), and purifies Isaiah with fire. This fiery purification will relate to Isaiah’s message later in the chapter as well.

Our own purification comes through our lips as well. It burns up the fleshly side of us to confess that Jesus is Lord and we are not. In addition to washing away the old man of sin, we must also burn him out. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Pet. 4:12). When we come to Christ, we are signing up for the same type of purification that Isaiah underwent. When we are touched by the fire of God, we are transformed into a holy piece of his creation that is beautiful and built on the centerpiece of God’s own holiness, and we are prepared to do God’s work in the world. In the next article, we will examine what that work is.