A Sinner Before a Holy God: “Woohoo!” or “Woe!”

Isaiah 6:1-13 (text); Matthew 13:10-17; Revelation 4:1-11
May 15, 2011

An angel touching Isaiah's lips with a coal, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1726-29)

An angel touching Isaiah's lips with a coal, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1726-29) (click to enlarge)

Biblical history is full of messengers of bad news, especially the bad news of God’s judgment on wicked man. These messengers were often mocked, persecuted and worse, martyred: Noah before the great flood, Moses before the Pharaoh, the prophets before the people and powerful kings. John the Baptizer came preaching, “Repent, for the wrath of God is coming!” When Jesus and his apostles came, they brought much bad news, often talking about condemnation, judgment and hell. The prompt response was a cruel crucifixion for Jesus and martyrdom for John the Baptizer and almost all of the apostles. Today, if a minister in a megachurch preached a message, “Repent, for judgment is at hand!” he would most likely be reprimanded or even asked to leave. All that the congregation wants to hear is God’s message of love and blessings of health and wealth.

This is also one of the reasons why Reformed churches are not very popular among evangelicals. We have the unattractive reputation of being “bad news messengers,” always criticizing other churches for their false gospels, always calling for a return to the historic, biblical doctrine, worship and practice of the early church and the Reformation.

One of these bad news messengers was the prophet Isaiah. After preparing his readers in the first five chapters to a realization of their wickedness and God’s coming judgment, he tells of his vision of God and how God had commissioned him to preach bad news to God’s own people. It is not merely a by-the-way detail that he tells us that he had his beatific vision in 740 B.C., “the year that King Uzziah died.” Uzziah was one of the last few good kings, presiding over a “golden age” of his kingdom, “and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chron 26:5).

But he made a terrible mistake in usurping the role of a priest for himself, and thereby becoming a leper for the rest of his life. Although his son Jotham was godly, he allowed idolatry to continue, and Jotham’s son Ahaz did everything that God hated. The kingdom soon declined both materially and spiritually. It was as if the last hope of the kingdom has died with King Uzziah, and God was just about done with his patient call for them to turn back from their idolatry and injustice, and serve the true God alone.

Our text is the whole of Isaiah Chapter 6, all 13 verses. A casual search of sermons on Isaiah Chapter 6 would yield many sermons ending in verse 8, where God asks the prophet, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah answers, “Here am I! Send me.” This is because the rest of the chapter, from verses 9-13, is almost totally bad news that no one wanted to hear then—and now.

Isaiah tells of his terror before God’s glorious holiness in verses 1-5. Then in verses 6-7, God was merciful and gracious in atoning for his sin, enabling him to accept God’s call for a volun­teer preacher. Isaiah responds with the proverbial “Here am I! Send me,” not knowing what kind of sermon God wanted him to preach. Surely, God wanted him to preach a message of repentance because of his love for his people, wanting them to turn back and be healed of their sin.

But what is God’s message to the people? It’s a shocker: “You have ears, but you will be deaf. You have eyes, but you would be blind. You have hearts, but they would be hardened.” How long must Isaiah preach this unwelcome message? It’s even worse: till the cities of Judah are laid waste and the people destroyed! What an awfully negative message. If our generation heard a message like this, they would condemn Isaiah as being judgmental, narrow-minded, and would be sawn alive, “If you don’t have anything good and positive to say, just keep your mouth shut!” Does anyone think that a pastor would risk his job and popularity by preaching such a message of condemnation?

To be sure, Isaiah has a doom-and-gloom warning. But note that earlier, I said that verses 9-13 is “almost totally” bad news, because there is a tinge, a speck of good news—two words—in the last verse.

Terror Before God’s Holiness

Isaiah’s encounter with God is unlike that of most evangelicals—unbridled irreverence in sensual hip-swaying, discordant and noisy music, woohooing, shouting and clapping. For Isaiah, a direct encounter with God meant death and judgment. Why would an encounter with God evoke such terror? What did Isaiah see and hear?

In contrast to King Uzziah who has died, the eternal Lord is seen by Isaiah “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train [or hem] of his robe filled the temple.” But how can a human being survive a vision of God, since the Bible says that seeing God means death, such as when the Lord told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live?” (Exod 33:20; cf Gen 32:30) To be sure, a few Biblical characters were said to have seen God, but those were “theophanies” or appearances of God to human beings in different forms, such as fire (Exod 3:2), cloud (Exod 40:34), or even as a man called the “Angel of the Lord” (Judg 13:21-22). Since Christ is the only mediator between God and man and is the only Person of the Trinity with a human nature, then God’s appearances in the Old Testament as a man is usually called a Christophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. God is Spirit, and so he has no literal throne or robe or form visible to man. In those days when there was yet no written Word of God, appearing as a visible thing was the only way that God could reveal himself to his creatures.

Isaiah knew that the One who sat on a throne is the Sovereign King who has absolute power over him and the whole universe. Moreover, the Lord’s throne is “high and lifted up,” a desig­nation that Isaiah uses frequently (Isa 52:13; 57:15). The Lord is so glorious that just the train or hem of his robe already filled the temple of Jerusalem. How big is a robe that fills the whole temple? If his robe is so huge, how immense is the Lord who wears this robe? What Isaiah saw was an indescribably immense and glorious God!
Surrounding the throne of this immense God were angelic beings known as seraphim, which the Bible does not say much about. The word seraphim means “burning ones,” and it is the same word used to describe the fiery serpents that God sent as judgment against rebellious, grumbling Israelites in the wilderness
(Num 21:6). Unlike the cherubim—angels who serve as God’s royal guards—seraphim seem to render worship to God at all times.

Isaiah says each seraph has three pairs of wings: one pair for covering its face, another for covering its feet, and another for flying. Why do they have to cover their faces and feet? This is because even sinless angels cannot survive God’s blinding and flaming glory and holiness.

God’s holiness is not to be trifled with. Absolute moral purity belongs only to him, and he is utterly distinct from his creation, even from sinless angels who are higher beings than humans. So the seraphim never cease worshiping him, “Holy, holy, holy!” In Scripture, a threefold repetition means perfection and completion, so a thrice-holy God is an absolutely holy God. All the angels form a heavenly army surrounding the Almighty King of Creation, “the Lord of Hosts.” John also saw the same vision of the seraphim that Isaiah saw, “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings … and day and night they never cease to say,Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev 4:8).

Illustration of Isaiah's vision from Luther's Bible

Illustration of Isaiah's vision from Luther's Bible (click to enlarge)

This host of angelic beings also praise God because “the whole earth is full of his glory!” Whenever God is, there his glory is seen as blinding light, a burning fire, or an overshadowing cloud. All of these were seen by Israel during their wilderness wanderings (Ex. 16:7, 10), in the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–35), and in the temple
(1 Kings 8:11). How can the whole earth be full of God’s glory when evil, disasters and sufferings are all around us? To be sure, sin has corrupted God’s glorious creation, but even now, we still have a glimpse of his glory in the wonders of heaven at night and in the natural world of majestic mountains, valleys, rivers and oceans.

But Isaiah still looked forward to the perfection of this world, when God’s glory will abso­lutely fill the whole earth, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa 40:5). Isaiah also seems to be quoting the psalmist in this anticipation, “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (Psa 72:19) We too look forward to that day when the whole earth will become his glorious temple in the new heaven and the new earth, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … for the glory of God gives it light” (Rev 21:22-23).

As Isaiah looked, the foundations of the temple shook because of the voice of the Lord, and the temple was filled with smoke. His vision is the same terrifying sight that Israel saw when they worshiped God at Mount Sinai, with fire, darkness, tempest, and an earthquake. The presence of God made them all tremble with fear (Exod 19:18; Heb 12:18-21). David also saw that “clouds and thick darkness are all around him” (Psa 97:2). After King Solomon completed the building of the Temple, “a cloud filled the house of the Lord,” and this is why he said, “[the Lord] would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:10-12).

Why would God appear in darkness to man? It is as if God is telling man that he is incom­prehensible—hidden things belong only to God, and it is in vain that man inquires of things that God does not reveal
(Deut 29:29). Also, darkness is one way of instilling the fear of God in man.

Because he knew that seeing God in his glory and holiness is equal to a death sentence, Isaiah mourned, “Woe is me!” God’s absolute holiness and purity will consume him who is utterly sinful and corrupt. “Unclean lips” says it all, for the words that come out of man’s lips and mouths tell everything about his nature—he is unclean and filthy, qualities that makes him unfit to go before God’s throne. Not only is he himself sinful; the people around him are also unclean. Therefore, all of them will be destroyed if they appeared before a holy Judge. If sinless angelic beings have to protect themselves from God’s glory and holiness, how much more will death and destruction await all human beings if they appear before God in their sinful state?

Jesus himself says of man’s sinful nature, not just lips and mouths, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt 15:18-19). Thus, if anyone comes before God’s throne in this condition, he should also realize that what Isaiah thought is also true for him—“Woe is me!”

Why then do pastors encourage people to come to God “as they are,” unclean and filthy? Why then do people appear presumptuously before God’s throne celebrating, clapping, dancing, and shouting in merrymaking, “Woohoo!”? This is because many evangelicals think that the Old Testament God, a cruel, whimsical God, is irrelevant in contrast to the loving, compassionate Christ of the New Testament. They have unwittingly become followers of Marcion, the second century heretic who first taught this false dilemma.

They should instead exclaim like Isaiah, “Alas! I am ruined and destroyed by God’s holiness! For I am sinful!” They should instead bow their knees, fall down on their faces, and hide themselves from before the holiness of God! The apostles Peter, James and John had the same reaction before the glory of Christ, “they fell on their faces and were terrified” (Matt 17:6). When Peter realized that Jesus was a divine being after Jesus brought more than enough fish to sink their boat, he worshiped Jesus and was terrified, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8) Paul fell to the ground (Acts 9:3-4), and John “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev 1:7) at the sight of the glorified Christ.

How then are you able to appear before God’s throne today in our worship service without being destroyed by God’s glory and holiness?

A Strange Mission: Harden Hearts

Isaiah's lips are touched with a living coal by Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's "Treasures of the Bible," 1894

Isaiah's lips are touched with a living coal by Illustrator of Henry Davenport Northrop's "Treasures of the Bible," 1894 (click to enlarge)

Isaiah was terrified of God’s holiness, so he mourned and repented of his sin. How did God respond to his cry of repentance? He made provision for the forgiveness of his sins. How? The seraph took a coal from the altar, where the Temple sacrifices for sin were made, and touched Isaiah’s unclean lips with it. He was therefore cleansed and purified of his pollution by God’s grace. But in the same way that sacraments themselves do not remove sin, the coal itself did not remove Isaiah’s sin. It is merely a sign and seal of God’s forgiveness, accompanied by the declaration of absolution by the seraph, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” This is also an example of the principle that the sacraments must always be accompanied by God’s Word.

This step illustrates well the process of regeneration, justification and sanctification. The coal instantly changed or regenerated Isaiah’s lips from unclean to clean. His guilt was removed because his sin was atoned for, declaring him to be justified before God. His lips were now set apart (sanctified) and fit for the ministry of proclaiming God’s word to the people. God also equipped both Jeremiah and Daniel for their prophetic role by the same process of touching their lips, not with a coal, but with his own hand, or the hand of an angel (Jer 1:9; Dan 10:16).

After his lips were cauterized, Isaiah now hears the voice of the Lord, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (1 Kgs 22:19–20; Jer 23:18, 22) Notice that God was asking for a volunteer to be sent as his messenger to the people; Isaiah is the only prophet who was not commissioned directly by God. Declared clean, Isaiah promptly responds, Here am I! Send me.” And this verse is where most sermons on this text would end, commonly used during missions emphasis Sundays, when a call is made to be involved in missions. But what many churches miss is that Isaiah’s call here is not to preach the gospel of salvation; God wanted him to preach something that would make any missionary cringe in fear and grumble in displeasure. Isaiah did not know what he was getting into. What would God’s message be?

The message is in verses 9 and 10: Tell the people they have ears but are deaf, they have eyes but are blind, and they have hearts but are hardhearted! Since they worship idols who are blind, deaf and without under­standing, the people would be condemned to be just like their idols, “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them” (Psa 115:4-8). How can God commission a prophet to preach to a people whom he knew would harden their hearts, a fruitless mission? Would a missionary today go to a people knowing that his labor will produce no fruits? What a strange message, but these two verses are the most often-quoted Old Testament prophecy in the New Testament, with all four Gospels, Acts and Romans quoting them (Matt 13:14–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–40; Acts 28:26–27; Rom 11:8).

Part of Jesus’s mission was to do the same thing: to make the Jews blind, deaf, and hard of heart. The reason why he taught in parables, quoting verses 9 and 10 of our text, is that God has pre-ordained who will see, hear and obey, and who will not, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matt 13:11). John said that this prophecy was fulfilled, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him” (John 12:37). The Jews saw Jesus’s mighty works and heard him speak God’s words, but they did not believe, and are therefore responsible for their actions. It must have been a shock to the disciples that Jesus knew of this hardening of hearts. Paul understood this when he affirmed, “So then [God] has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom 9:18).

Why would God harden the hearts of some, and give repentance to others? Did God really predestine most of the Jews to unbelief? Who are the elect, and who are the reprobate? This is one of those dark, hidden things of God that we are not enjoined to inquire about. A Christian’s only duty is to proclaim God’s salvation to everyone in the hearing of God’s Word, and those who would repent and believe in Christ will be saved.

Yet, preaching judgment is also God’s way of purifying his people. He purifies them like an earthly father who loves but disciplines his children, so they will endure when trials and suffer­ings come (Heb 12:6-7). The Lord also separates his people from the ungodly like a goldsmith who purifies the precious metal by fire. Only the pure will be able to endure Judgment Day (Mal 3:2-3). With discipline and judgment against Israel, God would uphold his holiness and show his glory to all of Israel’s neighbors. They will see that Israel’s God is a holy and righteous King.

This is why the Word of God is a two-edged sword. Together with church discipline, it is a key to open or close the kingdom of heaven. With the preaching of the Word, some will see, hear and obey the gospel, and heaven will be opened to them. But to others, like the Jews in Isaiah’s prophecy and in the time of Christ, it will be the key to locking them outside of heaven when they see and hear the gospel, but then reject it (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 83 and 84).

Would a message like this be welcome in churches today? Would pastors be willing to preach God’s condemnation on sin? Paul is correct when he says that in the last days, many in the church “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). They will lust only for the false gospel of health, wealth, and self-esteem.

Isaiah finally asks the Lord, “How long will I preach this message?” The answer was even more shocking: till the cities, their homes, and their fields are laid waste, and the people are destroyed so that not even a tenth of the people remain! He will preach his message until God’s judgment is completed.

Is there any hope left for God’s people?

An Unexpected Hope: A Single Stump

Yes, there is hope, a very faint, flickering light from a burned-out forest. After God is done dealing with their rebellion, all Israel will be like a burned-out forest, with not even stumps remaining except for one. And this stump is called “the holy seed.”

What is this “holy seed”? It may be referring to Christ. He is the Seed of the woman who will crush Satan’s head. He is the shoot, stump and branch, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isa 11:1; 4:2). This Branch will be the Son of David who would be king over God’s people. In his life, death and resurrec­tion, he has “dealt wisely” with them, and has “executed justice and righteousness,” so that his people will not be unfaithful and rebellious like their forefathers
(Jer 23:5). And when he returns to judge the world, he will again wisely execute justice and righteousness.

Christ is the Shoot who sprouted from the Lord, and his rule continues to spread over the world. His beginnings were humble—just a stump, a little shoot, a small branch from a burned-out forest. His kingdom had the smallest of beginnings, like a small mustard seed that grows into a tree so big that its branches have become nests of believers from all nations who would give him glory and praise (Matt 13:31-32). This is why John says that he saw the glory of this Holy Seed in Christ (John 1:14), and what Isaiah saw in the temple was the glory of Christ, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41).

The “holy seed” may also refer to the descendants of Abraham. There was a remnant of Israel that was saved from God’s judgment then. And there will be a remnant of the Jews and Gentiles that will be saved from the coming judgment. All who belong to Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, are Abraham’s seed who will inherit God’s promises (Gal 3:28-29).

Conclusion

Like Isaiah and the apostles, you also have seen Christ’s glory, because you belong to Christ by faith. “We see him” (Heb 2:9), but our seeing is by faith, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). When you saw him the first time, you saw your sinfulness and you trembled in fear of being destroyed by his glory and holiness.

This is why our worship is not funny and entertaining. We regard the holiness of God seriously and with reverence and fear. We do not come before God’s presence as we are, but prepare ourselves before we come to our Lord’s Day worship by examining ourselves and repenting of our sins. And you are assured that God is gracious and merciful in Christ, who has removed your guilt and atoned for your sin, so you can now appear with confidence before his throne of grace and righteousness.

You have been declared pure and righteous in God’s sight because you have been united to Christ by faith. You are not wholly pure in heart now, but you will be when he comes. You see Christ’s glory now dimly, but when he comes, you will see him in his complete majestic glory, face to face.

And when Christ appears, you yourselves “shall be like him, because you shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Reflect on that indescribable future: “I shall be like him, radiant, shining, bright as the sun. And I shall be able to perfectly obey his command, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’

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