The first five chapters of Isaiah depict the unholiness of Israel. Image after image displays a broken Israel far from the well-ordered, healthy Israel God had created them to become. They are rebellious children (1:2) – a disordered version of what a child should be. They are broken and bruised (1:5-6) – an unhealthy version of what humanity should be. They are a desolate wilderness (1:7-8), when they should be a thriving metropolis. They have become an adulteress (1:21) – an unholy version of what a wife is supposed to be. Instead of pure silver, they are so mixed with alloys that they cannot serve the beautiful purpose they were made for (1:22). By piling up these images of dissonance, God is telling Israel that they are unholy. Yet by the end of Isaiah, God promises to take this unholy, broken version of Jerusalem, and transform it into the glorious, flourishing city it was always intended to be (Isa. 66:10-14).
The brokenness of Israel is representative of disordered humanity in general. When we brought sin into the world, we polluted not only ourselves, but all of God’s good creation. We were the lynchpin, the mediator through which God intended to rule the earth. As such, man and the earth were inextricably connected. Our sin, therefore, contaminated the very world we were made to live in. We messed up our bed, and now we have to sleep in it. Because Israel’s unholiness is a reflection of mankind’s unholiness, we can see from Isaiah not only what God is doing with an unholy Israel, but what he is doing with the unholy world – bringing it back to holiness. So how is God going to make mankind holy again, along with the world they have polluted? Isaiah 6 tells us.
The first step to making a pure creation is for God to retake his rightful place in the order of things. That is how Isaiah’s vision appropriately begins: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (Isa. 6:1). The fact that Isaiah sees God in his temple is a sign that God is where he is supposed to dwell. The temple itself is a miniature version of God’s creation. It is the place where heaven and earth meet. Originally, all of the cosmos was intended to be a place where God and man, heaven and earth lived together in harmony. When man sinned, God could no longer dwell in his creation as he intended. He couldn’t live in a contaminated place any more than light can exist in darkness. But Isaiah sees God taking his place in the cosmos again. God’s enthronement in the temple is representative of his enthronement in the cosmos – sitting in heaven, connected to the earth.
If God is going to come back to dwell in his creation, then the rest of creation must become rightly ordered and unpolluted. The rest of the passage shows how God intends to purify the contaminated world, and we can see that he has come with his cosmic cleansers: fire, smoke, and earthquake. The seraphim (literally “fiery ones”) are possibly embodied versions of lightning. Shaking and burning are still ways that we cleanse today. We shake out rugs, and boil water to clean. God coming with fire and earthquake is meant to clue us in to what’s happening in Isaiah’s vision.
Compare Isaiah’s vision with God’s coming at Sinai to make a pure people: “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.” (Ex. 19:16-18).
God comes to purify a people through burning and shaking at Sinai, and that image is repeated in Isaiah when we see God entering into an unholy cosmos: “the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” (Isa. 6:4). The unholy temple, and by extension the cosmos, will not stay unclean. The first step to a holy world has been taken in the initial verses of Isaiah 6, and the rest of the chapter flows out from it. Holiness, God shows Isaiah, is important on a cosmic scale, not just for individual human beings. The scope of holiness covers all of creation.
The seraphim declare, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3). God is not just holy. He is holy to the third power, which means he’s utterly holy. God is the center of holiness. This means that holiness for us begins with God being in his rightful place in our minds and hearts – the center. God is taking his place in the cosmos, and that means he must take that same place in our lives. Isaiah’s recognition of God’s holiness will lead to his own purification, and that’s what we will explore in the next article.