Isa 6:1-4

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  • Isa 6:1: King Uzziah's death. The mention of the death of an earthly king followed by the description of the Lord sitting upon a throne forms a rich context to begin this chapter. Uzziah was a prosperous king (2 Chr 26:15 who started out as a righteous follower of God (2 Kgs 15:3; 2 Chr 26:4, 5) but later offended God by offering incense without priesthood authority (2 Chr 26:16-21). The mention of King Uzziah's death (presumably as the result of his God-sent leprosy) immediately following the ominous tone of judgment toward Judah and Israel in chapters 2-5 seems to establish the end of that section with theologically rich symbolism: those who do not walk in the ways of the Lord can expect an ignominious death like King Uzziah's. The death, however, also points toward the coronation/anointing of a new king and, symbolically, the new call/anointing that the prophet is about to receive (see references below on anointing). The mention of the king here also recalls the initial warnings that Samuel gave Israel when they first asked for a king in order to be like the other nations (cf. 1 Sam 8:5ff; 12:19).
  • Isa 6:1: The temple as palace. The Hebrew hychal, here translated temple, is an ambiguous term used to describe what are modernly called temples as well as what are modernly called palaces. The Hebrews do not seem to have made such a distinction. In other words, one should regard the temple as the palace of the Lord: the Lord is seen in this vision to be sitting upon a royal throne.
  • Isa 6:1: Temple, heaven and earth. As the meeting place of heaven and earth—and time and eternity—the temple setting established here at the commencement of the prophet's call underscores the importance and timeless nature of the calling. Moreover, the "high and lifted up" heavenly throne starkly contrasts with king Uzziah's ignominious death on earth. This contrast marks the distance between earthly and heavenly proceedings, yet also serves to establish a relation (a sort of atonement) between heaven and earth. With the prophet's vision of the Lord occurring in the temple—likely in the Holy of Holies—we might conjecture that these events are transpiring on the Day of Atonement, a conjecture which will be seen to yield interesting insights. Further, one might interpret Isaiah's prophetic call as a certain distraction from his office as high priest: his duties for an "earthly" cult (as high priest) are interrupted by the ritual proceeding in the "heavenly" cult (as prophet). Thus, in studying the writings of Isaiah, we should keep in mind that the author was familiar with both the duties of a high priest and a prophet.
  • Isa 6:1: The throne as covering. Working with the undifferentiated concept of palace/temple described above, the "throne" here is likely the "mercy seat" (kprt, better translated the "throne of atonement") atop the Ark of the Covenant. Interestingly, Isaiah's word here translated "throne" (ks) means literally "a covered seat." This theme of covering, continued with description of the royal robe in the phrase "his train [the hem of His garment] filled the temple," will be continued in verse 2.
  • Isa 6:2: Seraphims. Seraphim (technically this is already plural) are described here as heavenly beings with six wings. The same Hebrew word (saraph) is used in Num 21:6, Num 21:8, and Deut 8:15 in reference to the "fiery serpents" that bit the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert.
  • Isa 6:2. If the first verse is marked by a suddenness, this second verse is marked by an immediate retreat from the blinding reality of the vision of God (John will follow a similar logic of suddenness and subsequent retreat in Rev 4:2ff.). The two verses together suggest a sort of radical disorientation effected by the shocking appearance of God, following which Isaiah scrambles to gather together his--perhaps still shocking--surroundings. The "seraphims" (better would be "seraphim" or "seraphs") are described as "above" the throne, gathered about the Lord in a sort of throng (the same beings are described in D&C 109:79 as "around thy [God's] throne"). Translating the Hebrew seraph is difficult, as it means properly a "burning thing," used in Num 21:6 to describe the "fiery" serpents that afflicted the children of Israel in the desert. John the Revelator seems to have seen similar beings in his vision (beings with features reflecting Ezekiel's first vision as well--cf. Ezek 1:1ff.), describing them further has being "full of eyes before and behind" (Rev 4:6). D&C 77:3 suggests that these creatures were "actual" beasts, "actually" seen in vision--not merely prophetic attempts to figure an overwhelming experience. D&C 38:1, the first verse of a revelation the temple themes of which are readily apparent, connects seraphim to the "hosts of heaven," the angels gathered in council with God "before the world was made."
All of this suggests that Isaiah's passage into the Holy of Holies was a passage into the angelic council of God. In other words, this text seems to understand the "council in heaven" to be an event always at work beyond the veil (creation and council concerning creation being, apparently, an on-going work). This would accord well with other similar visions found in scripture: besides John's vision, already mentioned, Lehi's vision with which the Book of Mormon opens (in 1 Ne 1:8) is perhaps the most explicit, describing "God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God." Isaiah's (and others') understanding of the Holy of Holies (or even of heaven) as the locus of an on-going angelic council that is dedicated entirely to the proceedings on the earth establishes more fully the context in which the remainder of this chapter must be read. Isaiah, suddenly thrust into the midst of a chorus of heavenly beings, is to be invited--albeit in an odd manner--to join them as an angel. It should also be mentioned that this context doubles the context already suggested above: the Day of Atonement was apparently understood--at least among those with the prophetic gifts--as the day upon which the high priest had the opportunity to be among the angelic chorus, privy to the council and the counsels of God.
The seraphim are further described as having six wings, three pairs each separately dedicated to a different task. If these "wings are a representation of power, to move, to act, etc." (D&C 77:4), then Isaiah's description of the scene is doubly significant: only with two of six wings does each demonstrate its "power." Rather, in fact, each dedicates its other four wings--uses its "power" to act--to cover itself (doubly) in complete humility. Covering their faces, the seraphim apparently gather to their praise with a sort of veil. More difficult to interpret is the fact that they cover their "feet." While a more literal interpretation is possible, it is nonetheless obviously the case in the Hebrew bible that the word for "feet" is often used as a euphemism. In other words, this act of covering might well be parallel to Adam and Eve's apron's of fig leaves, made to cover their nakedness (see Gen 3:7). If this euphemism-view is accepted, then there might be another layer of humility being signified: the orifices from which things go out of the body would be symbolically covered (if the face covering were a veil, it wouldn't cover the ears by which sounds enter the body, but out of which nothing is generally thought to leave the body...). Covering their faces as if with a veil, covering their nakedness as if with fig leaves, the remaining two wings apparently represent their "power," even their power "to act." Collectively, it might be suggested, the six wings function as the seraphs' double presentation before God: in authority, yet in humility; with, perhaps, a priesthood, but always in subjection to their Lord.
That the seraphim are engaged in covering ties to the word Isaiah uses for "throne" in verse 1, as noted above. If the Lord's throne is understood as "covered," and the angels are understood as "coverers," then there seems to be some tie between the seraphim and the throne. Do the angels with their wings form a sort of canopy over the throne? There may be a connection implied between these seraphim and what are elsewhere called the cherubim, whose wings form a sort of cover for the Lord on the Ark of the Covenant. What is implied by this linguistic connection remains to be worked out.
  • Isa 6:3. The "action" finally gets underway with Isaiah's third verse. The angels/seraphim are described as crying to each other, rather than to the Lord enthroned in their midst. The word translated "cried" makes some sense of this: qr means to summon, to invite, or to call. It is the verb used throughout the Old Testament for the summons to ritual occasions (from which situation it developed another meaning in later Hebrew, "to read," since public readings were a part of the festal gatherings). The angels, then, are summoning each other, apparently to the ritual occasion, inviting each other to contemplate the enthroned Lord in the midst in ritual praise, calling each other's attention to the glory of their King. The communal cry at once confirms and overturns the logical shift of verse 2: the angels, turned from the Lord Himself to each other, confirm Isaiah's growing distance from the shocking first instance of theophany; however, the angels turn from the Lord precisely to issue a summons to others to consider Him, to turn to Him.
This communal praise, turned as it is from the Lord so as to call one to turn to Him, marks at this early point in this chapter the nature and character of language, which is to play a major part in the unfolding narrative of Isaiah's prophetic call. The exalted appearance described in verse 1 is surrounded by an aura of silence, noise and talk only entering the picture when Isaiah retreats to the surrounding gathering of angels. Though this central--even focal--silence will be overturned (in at least one sense) later on in the chapter, at this early point, the silence is overbearing and unmistakable. The silence of the enthroned One, over against the loud, even demanding voices of the angels, sets up the role that language plays in the text: the cry (call, summons, invitation) is at once a cancellation of the silence imposed by the appearance of the enthroned Lord and a summons to the most silent (silent because overawed) worship. In other words, the duplicity of the angels already mentioned (the authority and humility mentioned in v. 2) is doubled in the motif of language. (Regarding God's silence, consider also the "still small voice" in 1 Kgs 19:12, 1 Ne 17:45 and D&C 85:6; see also the related injunction "be still and know that I am God" in Ps 46:10 and D&C 101:16.)
The role of language in these first three verses ought immediately to be felt at another level of Isaiah's text: Isaiah himself only communicates (on this very page!) the theophany he experienced by doing something very similar to what the angels are here reported as doing. It is only by retreating, as it were, from the theophany itself that Isaiah can point others toward the same experience. In order to turn others toward that exalted vision, Isaiah must himself turn, for a moment, from it. Hence, even as the appearance of the Lord in verse 1 is shrouded in silence, it is proclaimed in as loud a voice as can be, the very voice of Isaiah. It is to a significant extent this very paradox of language that is in question throughout the rest of this chapter (where Isaiah will exchange an earthly language for a heavenly one, will hear the voice of God, will be given a specific message to preach when he turns from the Lord, etc.).
The exact words of exclamation on the angels' part is significant in a number of ways. The trisagion, or "thrice-holy" prayer, has a significant place in liturgical history, perhaps the most important moment of which for present considerations is to be found in the Book of Revelation. When John describes the "beasts" apparently similar or identical to the seraphim Isaiah describes, he reports their words as "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come" (Rev 4:8). The triple mention of holiness at the beginning of the hymn John records is matched by the triple mention of God's being at the close of the same, apparently linking the two (in an "inverted parallelism" or chiasm): the three mentions of God's holiness correspond to God's omnipresence, etc. Without getting here into the difficulties presented by John's revelation experience, it might simply be stated that the tradition understands Isaiah's three mentions of holiness to be tied to other aspects of God's nature. (Oddly the Isaiah scroll from Qumran has holy only twice. What that would mean for interpretation is not clear.)
Probing more deeply, however, the first phrase of the angelic prayer might be understood as paradoxical. The Hebrew for holy, qadowsh, means something set at a distance, something removed from other things, perhaps even something "transcendent" (though using this last word only loosely). The angels praise YHWH as the One who is removed to some distance from all else. On the other hand, they call Him the "LORD of hosts," or, in more contemporary language, "YHWH of armies" or "YHWH of the angelic contingents." Even as the angels set Him at [???] some remove from things--from themselves--they describe Him as intimately acquainted with them. In short, the first part of their praise regards YHWH as both distant and yet accessible at once, a paradox, but one not unfamiliar (distance always implies relation). This paradox is best embodied elsewhere in Old Testament tradition in the Day of Atonement, which has already been seen to have some of its themes present in this chapter. The ritual of the Day of Atonement at once accomplished the distance of God from Israel (only the high priest was to see God, and that only in a cloud of incense) and the nearness (through the ritual, the covenant of Abraham--and so of Moses--was renewed in a direct relation that made YHWH Israel's God and Israel YHWH's people). It has been suggested (especially by Margaret Barker) that on the Day of Atonement those involved directly with the ritual proceedings understood themselves to be angels, God's very hosts.
The second half of the angelic hymn also draws out themes from the Day of Atonement. The angels claim that "the whole earth is full of his glory." Just as the land (Hebrew: aretz) was promised to Abraham through his covenant, it was promised anew to Israel through the rites of the Day of Atonement, as the covenant was renewed. The earth (Hebrew: aretz), as mentioned here by the angels, returns on that holy day to the people claimed by YHWH. That it is filled with the glory of the LORD of hosts suggests that He Himself is claiming the land, preparing Himself to emerge from His temple to dwell with His people (as the ancient Israelites expected to see at the Day of Atonement when the Messiah came). In Lev 9:23, when Aaron performs for the first time the rites of the Day of Atonement, "the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people," exactly as the text here seems to describe. This appearance seems even to function as a sort of consecration of things: the Hebrew idiom for consecration (of priests, say) is to "fill the hand" (ml' yd), even as the whole earth is here "full [or filled] of his glory."
In short, the first words of Isaiah concerning the words of the angels (in turn concerning the Word as He sits on a throne) provide the reader with a two-part hymn that seems to confirm the Day of Atonement themes already present in the first two verses. The angels, in turning from the Lord to turn others toward Him, summon each other to a sort of Day of Atonement ritual at work in heaven, even as Isaiah attends to the Day of Atonement rites on earth. Perhaps most important in this verse, however, is the fact that the heavens themselves (or perhaps rather the Holy of Holies) are a silence surrounded by verbal invitations to contemplate that silence in silence. This interplay between silence and praise/invitation will be extended in verse 4 and then explored at great length in verses 5-8.
  • Isa 6:4. While the first part of this verse is rather obscure, the last phrase seems rather clear, and it might be best to begin there. The filling up of the "house" (bayt, another word used both for the temple and a palace) with smoke is perhaps the most explicit reference to the Day of Atonement in the whole of this chapter. Lev 16:12-13 seems to be the reference: "And he [Aaron] shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the LORD, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not." So that the high priest can, as part of the ceremony, enter into the Holy of Holies and converse with the appearing Lord, the Holy of Holies must first be filled with a cloud of smoke, so that the appearance of the Lord is obscured and so that the high priest "die not." (This smoke, covering the appearance of the Lord, might explain the odd language at, for example, 1 Ne 1:8, to which the present vision has already been compared: "he thought he saw....") That Isaiah here describes the temple as "filled with smoke" suggests that one can nail down the precise moment of the ritual during which this theophany occurs, and hence why it is so absolutely astounding.
Apparently, Isaiah, as high priest, is performing the word described in Leviticus 16:12-13 when the Lord appears. The appearance would therefore be premature: the placing of the incense so as to fill the Holy of Holies with smoke is early in the ritual, so that when the high priest later enters into the presence of God, there will be no chance of him seeing the Lord directly and so dying. Isaiah, performing the standard work of the Day of Atonement, seems to have been at work on this earlier part of the ritual--a point at which the Lord would not yet appear--when the Lord suddenly shows himself before the smoke has filled the Holy of Holies. In other words, Isaiah parts the veil just enough to let the smoke through, and the Lord is already visible, thus shocking Isaiah and filling him with the fear of death (the concern at the end of Leviticus 16:13 is echoed by verse 5). Only then does the smoke cover over the presence Isaiah has already seen, and it is for that reason too late for him, he is "undone," as he says in verse 5. The clear reference, then, at the end of this verse does a great deal for clarifying this chapter: the Lord, not Isaiah, breaks the rules of the ritual, appearing to the soon-to-be-called prophet out of order, ultimately threatening him with utter destruction.
This much clear, the first part of this verse might be approached. To begin with, the translation is problematic (although, see 2 Ne 16:4, where Joseph Smith translates this verse identically in the Book of Mormon "Isaiah chapters"; it should also be noted, however, that where the translations of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon match up with the KJV might be variously explained: there are certainly other explanations for this than simply that the KJV is a flawless translation). The word "posts" is a good example. The word translated "posts" here is `mwt, not mzwzwt (which means "posts"). Translators are generally baffled with what to do with this word in the Hebrew text. If taken literally, then it either should be translated "mothers," "cubits," or even "tribes." Oddly, the word translated "door" is plural, and is more often translated "posts" in the OT than `mwt! Actually, the word in Hebrew here, sph, means, quite simply, "threshold." The phrase, `mwt sphym might be translated: "the mothers of the threshold," "the cubits of the threshold," or "the tribes of the threshold." Because none of these makes any immediate sense, the KJV translators went their own direction.
But what is to be made of such a wording? The verb in question might provide a clue. nw' means to move back and forth, as in Hannah's lips when she is seen praying (1 Sam 1:13) or the trees by the wind (Isa 7:2). Interestingly, the verb is used several times in the OT in connection with wandering peoples, tribes who "move about" (see Lam 4:15, Amos 8:12, Gen 4:12). This common pairing of this verb with "tribes" might suggest that "tribes" is the best translation of `mwt. In other words, one might translate the phrase: "and the tribes of the gate moved at the voice of the summons...." One might suggest that the "tribes of the gate" are the angels gathering in the Holy of Holies (the gate being the veil), or that the "tribes of the gate" are the peoples from all over the land gathering to the Day of Atonement celebration outside the temple as the angels praise the holiness of God. At any rate, one of these meanings seems to make more sense than "the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried." If these alternate translations are justified at all, they might serve as a confirmation of the prematurity of YHWH's appearance: the people/angels are still gathering, yet YHWH appears--too early, out of time, and with what can only be assumed to be dreadful consequences.

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  • Isa 6:1. Why is the prophetic call placed here, in chapter 6, instead of at the beginning at the book of Isaiah (cf. Jereiah's call in Jer 1:1-10)?
  • Isa 6:4: At the voice. Whose voice are the "posts of the door" moving in response to? This seems to be referring to the voice of the seraph in verse 3. If this is the case, why does the door move in response to the voice of the seraph rather than as a more direct consequence of the Lord's presence? If this is not the case, how should it be interpreted?


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