It was 74 BCE, the year Isaiah’s cousin, King Uzziah, had died. Uzziah had conducted a long and illustrious career as king, reigning fifty-two years. However, the past eleven years he had spent in seclusion, having been struck down in judgment by God with leprosy. His son Jotham had reigned in his stead as co-regent, and already Judah’s moral and spiritual decline had become evident to the young prophet and priest Isaiah.
God met Isaiah in his sorrow and in that moment of personal bereavement and spiritual concern, gave the young prophet of a Christophany—vision of Christ.
As he gazed in awed reverence at the magnificent vision of the Lord seated upon his throne, Isaiah noticed the Seraphim, which means burning ones.
Seraphs were in attendance above him;
each had six wings:
– with two they covered their faces,
– and with two they covered their feet,
– and with two they flew.Isaiah 6:2 (NRSV)
These beings are only mentioned here in scripture, but it is possible the apostle John saw the same kind of scene when he, too, was transported to the throne room of God in heaven. Gleaning from this one depiction, and deducing from the scene that followed, the Seraphim appear to be the closest attendants to God, royal and holy, surrounding God in God’s glory, intuitively knowing and carrying out God’s desires without need for command.
Crying Holy, Holy, Holy
These bright shining ones were so filled with reverent awe, they covered over their own fire, from head to toe, in humility before the greater brilliance and glory of God. There were no words to describe the transcendent majesty of God, in Whose presence they stood, and yet these heavenly beings cried out.
And one called to another and said,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;Isaiah 6:3 (NRSV)
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Think of a time when you experienced the reality of God’s nearness. It is a reality invisible to our physical eyes, but which can be sensed physically—and for some, experienced with our eyes and ears, as happened with Prophet Isaiah.
The awesome transcendence of sovereign, holy God is not remote, aloof from creation.
Far from it!
God’s presence fills the cosmos. The Lord is not just out there in the heavens somewhere (imagine me waving my hand vaguely in the air above me).
God is also here, with us.
Rulers and leaders come and go, but God actively reigns forever over all that is. The Lord is stable, constant, always here.
Imagine how bright it was in that room, the golden throne of God, the radiance of God’s glory, the fire of the Seraphim!
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.Isaiah 6:4 (NRSV)
The sound of these mighty spiritual beings’ praises was so loud that it was like an earthquake. God’s glory was so real and so present that the entire temple was filled.
To get the full impact of this experience for Isaiah, it helps to know that when God gave Moses the plans for building the tabernacle, back in Exodus, the instructions were very detailed. Each detail was scrupulously copied, just on a grander scale, when the temple was built by Solomon. These details corresponded to the real throne room of God in heaven, described by the writer of Hebrews. (Hebrews 9 and 10 give the full scope of how meaningful this imagery is.)
On both occasions, when the tabernacle was finished, and when the temple was finished, God caused God’s own presence to be made visible as a pillar of cloud descending and filling the entire place.
One particular detail was going to be very important for Isaiah.
God’s Throne Guarded by Cherabim
God’s throne in the tabernacle, and later in the temple, was said to be the mercy seat, or atonement cover, on the ark of the covenant.
This place of mercy was watched over by two magnificent Cherabim, made of pure gold, their wings outstretched. In the scriptures, there are a number of occasions when heavenly beings described as Cherubim (actually pronounced Kerubim in Hebrew) acted on behalf of God as guardians.
- It was Cherubim with their flaming, wheeling swords, who day and night guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden, preventing access to the Tree of Life.
- Golden Cherubim were crafted to stand in symbolic sentry over the mercy seat of the ark. It was here God was said to be enthroned.
- Images of Cherubim were woven into the veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Later, Solomon had olivewood Cherubim fifteen feel tall crafted as silent reminders within the temple of God’s presence.
- In poetry, God was spoken of as riding the wind on Cherubim.
- Cherubim featured in Ezekiel’s visions of God, involving fire, flight, and wheels.
From Genesis, Cherubim seem to be as warriors wielding flaming swords.
From Exodus, Cherubim have massive wings.
But the only detailed description of Cherubim in the scriptures comes from Ezekiel’s visions,
The cherubim rose up. These were the living creatures that I saw by the river Chebar.Ezekiel 10:14 (NRSV)
Once a year, the high priest would enter that most holy of rooms with a bowl filled with coals from the altar of sacrifice. He would sprinkle enough incense on the coals to fill the room with smoke. And then he would sprinkle the blood of the atonement sacrifice on the mercy seat.
He shall take
– a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord
– and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense,
and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may shroud the cover that is upon the covenant, or he will die.
He shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the cover, and before the cover he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times.Leviticus 16:12-14 (NRSV)
Hold onto that thought for what comes next!
God’s people need to see God as God truly is
Isaiah certainly understood the significance of what he was seeing, for he knew what was kept behind the thickly brocaded curtain in the Holy Place. He understood why depictions of Seraphim and Cherabim had been woven with precious golden thread into that gorgeous drape. He knew the Holy of Holies was as God’s earthly throne room, and that God’s Shekinah was said to have dwelt above the Ark of the Covenant in the days of Moses and Solomon.
Standing in the physical temple, the smoke of incense—aroma of God’s glory as well as the sweet odor of prayer—swirled about him. Through its haze, against the backdrop of the physical curtain, it was as though Isaiah’s eyes could see through to the Holiest Place, where heaven and earth intersected, and Almighty God was revealed.
It was a moment that would change Isaiah’s life forever.
Who or what might be preventing us from seeing the full splendor and majesty of the Lord?
A recent poll asked people to describe their personality traits and then to describe God’s personality. Again and again, people ended up confessing they were sure God’s personality and tendencies were just like their own.
But God alone is God.
The Lord’s holiness is the Lord’s God-ness, in all the Lord’s attributes, works and ways. The Lord is not like you and me, just bigger and nicer. God is in a completely different category than even these fiery heavenly beings who worshipped God.
Isaiah was left with the lasting impression of God as sacred and set apart, glorious beyond measure, pure beyond imagining, calling God the Holy One of Israel more than any other writer in the Bible.