Isa 6:5-7

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Home > The Old Testament > Isaiah > Chapter 6 > Verses 6:5-7
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  • Isa 6:5: I am undone. The Hebrew word dmh (undone) is also used in Isa 15:1 to mean "brought to silence" by the armies of Moab. Up to this point in the theophany, Isaiah has indeed been silent. This silence on the part of Isaiah may be a result of the glory of the vision of the Lord having an overwhelming effect on Isaiah. (See discussion of the "overflowing waters" in Isa 28:2 for more on this theme in Isaiah.)
  • Isa 6:5: Tension build-up. The above comments set up the situation and the context as suggested by Isaiah's first four verses here. Isaiah finds himself suddenly in the presence of God while attempting to perform the early portion of the Day of Atonement ritual. More still, he finds himself caught between the silence of the commanding presence of God and the chatty, if theological, discussion amongst those at a remove from God. This second, even added situation reinterprets the first: Isaiah is not only struck by the sheer visibility of the Lord who sits on the throne, but he is called by that appearing into a sort of tension with the seraphim. In other words, because he witnesses the silence of God, he is called to respond to that silence with his voice, alongside the crying angels. At the same time, Isaiah remains, unquestionably, a man. The appearance of God, then, calls Isaiah into a terrible tension: he is at once joined to the angels and kept at a distance from them. Not only would he expect total annihilation (having seen God without the cloud of incense and at the wrong point of the ritual), but he would likely feel expected to respond to that absolute shock of appearance, would likely feel expected to speak forth as the angels do.
This summary of the foregoing sets up the present verse. Isaiah responds to the expectation he feels imposed upon him (to speak in response to the silent call) by giving voice to the expectation he has of—would impose upon—God (death, instantaneous and immediate death). To bear this out, some analysis of the Hebrew text will prove worthwhile.
  • Isa 6:5: Then said I. The text describes Isaiah's response as a "saying," `mr. The verb in Hebrew implies communication (not, for example, poetic speech, which might be for purposes other than mere communication): while the angels summoned others, whether or not they were interested in communicating anything with them, Isaiah summons no one, but more simply publishes his absolute concern.
  • Isa 6:5: Woe is me. The prophet's first word, `wy ("woe"), is inarticulate, a word common enough in Hebrew, but one without roots or derivation. It is simply an inarticulate (though quite meaningful) word, expressing here the fact that even as Isaiah approaches the speech he is apparently expected to provide, he only stumbles toward it tremblingly.
  • Isa 6:5: For. Moving from inarticulate to articulate speech, Isaiah goes on to offer a sort of interpretation of his inarticulate speech, marked by the English "for" and the Hebrew ky. The same word appears almost immediately again, translated the second time "because" in the KJV: Isaiah offers (publishes) his inability to speak by speaking inarticulately, communicating a world of meaning that he then goes on to interpret twice, first by pointing out his being "undone," and then by describing at greater length what it is that renders him inarticulate.
  • Isa 6:5: I am undone. The word translated "undone" in the KJV is ambiguous in the Hebrew; it could, in other words, be derived from two different roots, and so might well be translated in two ways. Likely, Isaiah carefully selected a word with a double meaning. On the one hand, ndmyty might be translated "I am destroyed violently"; on the other hand, it might be translated "I am silenced." The ambiguity is rich: the word can be interpreted in terms, on the one hand, of the expectation Isaiah has of God (immediate destruction for having seen God inappropriately), or in terms, on the other hand, of God's apparent expectation of Isaiah (the silence of God has frozen Isaiah's tongue, and he is rendered silent). Both meanings are ultimately ironic: Isaiah is neither struck down, nor does he remain silent. His communication, in fact, cancels both interpretations: Isaiah, precisely in saying ndmyty, ceases to be silent and wards off his impending destruction. His words cancel the most threatening silence of all. This "for I am undone," then, is a wonderfully rich interpretation Isaiah offers of his own inarticulate `wy ("woe"): unable to speak, yet dead if one does not, Isaiah blurts out the first inarticulate sound that comes off his tongue.
  • Isa 6:5: Tension between eyes and lips. In his second interpretation of his own inarticulate speech, Isaiah draws into relation his lips and his eyes. Rather, he makes explicit a tension inscribed in his own flesh, a tension between his eyes and his lips, a tension between his untimely vision and his all-too-timely "word." This tension is marked further by a textual structure:
  I am a man of unclean lips
     and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips
  for mine eyes have seen the King
     the LORD of hosts.
The structure suggests a parallel between Isaiah's lips (line 1) and his eyes (line 3). But the structure accomplishes a great deal more as well. For example, the repetition of "lips" in line 2 would suggest a repetition of "eyes" in line 4. That it does not occur is suggestive and might be interpreted in a number of ways. Moreover, the structure embodies Isaiah's experience of meeting up with God: line 2 sets Isaiah in the midst of the likewise unclean, while line 4 parallelistically sets the Lord in the midst of the likewise holy (the hosts).
  • Isa 6:5: Lips. The Hebrew text at work beneath this English text draws attention to Isaiah's discussion of his lips. The word translated "lips," shph`, is often translated "language" in the OT. It is, in fact, one of two words translated as language, the other being lshwn, "tongue." While this distinction is itself fascinating, Isaiah's use of the word here suggests that his language is what is in question--even if that language is, in perfect Hebrew style, to be located within his flesh. He describes his lips (and those of his people) as unclean, using the word for ritual uncleanness. (Isaiah might be making a play on words here, as there is some evidence that the Hebrew word was related to an earlier semitic word that meant "to flow over." Does Isaiah hint at the fact that what he saw overflows his lips, that it is too much to swallow, that his very lips cannot close around what wants to come forth from him? It is interesting, also, that `wy is pronounced entirely with the tongue, and not with the lips.) The uncleanness of course marks the experience yet again as tied to the Day of Atonement, as it was the purpose of the Day of Atonement to return the holy to the holy by taking from it its uncleanness (a ritual uncleanness that is overcome ritually, in the Day of Atonement ritual). In other words, Isaiah's explicit interpretation of his inarticulate ejaculation suggests that his word is in part a result of the timing: atonement has not yet been completed at such an early stage of the ritual.
  • Isa 6:5: Unclean. More significantly, Isaiah marks even his inarticulate call--a sort of covenant with death--as unclean, as fallen, as separate from the holiness of the appearing One. He articulately cancels his inarticulate communication. But, just as it was spoken in the first place by unclean lips, the cancellation is performed by unclean lips. Isaiah's linguistic thrust--expected and expecting--marks his distance from the Lord enthroned. And this distance marked is a distance markedly more distant from the throne than the distance at which the angels hover. Isaiah's communication, interesting, will prove only to draw the attention of the angels in verse 6. Isaiah, speaking, finds himself at a second remove from the visible throne: the angels speak articulately of God, while Isaiah only speaks articulately of his own inarticulateness.
  • Isa 6:5: Articulate narration of inarticulateness. Again, it must never be missed that all of this is communicated to the reader through articulate language, that Isaiah is doubling all of this narrative by telling it amongst others as the angels praise the holiness of the Lord among themselves. Isaiah's own description of his inarticulateness marks the collective inarticulateness he mentions by saying that he dwells among those of unclean lips. All without the language to speak the silence of God, men collectively require the rites of atonement, and all fall short of the angelic tongue. This dilemma sets up the action of the next two verses.
  • Isa 6:6: The angel's approach: Following Isaiah's double articulation of his inarticulateness (see commentary at Isa 6:5), the seraphim respond--not God. This seems to follow a pattern, with both angels and Isaiah speaking to each other, rather than directly to the Lord enthroned. The angels who receive Isaiah's words hover at some distance from the Silent One. The seraph responds to Isaiah by moving "unto" him, emphasizing again the implied distance between Isaiah and the angels. By moving towards Isaiah, the angelic chorus is drawing Isaiah into their midst. In other words, the angels in the next two verses seem to perform a sort of rite of atonement meant to include the soon-to-be-prophet into their council. Both the narrative and the direct address of these two verses must be understood in these terms. the verses underscore that the atonement at work on this Day of Atonement is one of initiation, even of apotheosis. Isaiah does not describe a lone seraph flying towards him, but rather "one of the seraphim." This seems to indicate that the "one" represents the entire angelic company. Again, the text makes it evident that the approach of the angel signifies a rite of atonement, of initiation: Isaiah is to become, as it were, an angel, and join the council/chorus.
  • Isa 6:6: The live coal. The approaching seraph is described as having "a live coal" in his hand. The Hebrew word translated as "a live coal" is rtzph, which is generally assumed to have this meaning only here and in one other text, a similar passage (see 1 Kgs 19:6) centering on Elijah's experience of the shocking silence of God. The word as it appears in most texts, however, just means something like "pavement." It is generally suggested, then, that the word be translated here "hot rock" (even "molten rock"?). In other words, an angel, with the purpose of initiating him into the angelic circle, approaches Isaiah with a glowing stone. For Latter-day Saints, this may call to mind D&C 130:11, where the Prophet Joseph explains that "a white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word." If the "live coal" the angel brings to Isaiah might be understood to be connected with this text, then the angel brings him a "new name" by which he is to be initiated into the "celestial kingdom," the angelic chorus.
  • Isa 6:6: Altar. Isaiah notes that the angel had taken the stone "from off the altar." While its tempting to see this as altar as the altar of sacrifice, there is at least one major difficulty facing such an interpretation: all of the action of Isaiah's narrative takes place within the two rooms of the temple, at the very point, in fact, of contact between those two rooms (at the veil). The only altar that stood within the temple was the altar of incense that stood precisely where Isaiah himself is standing as all of this takes place. As these events transpire, Isaiah is at the precise moment of the Day of Atonement ritual in which he uses the altar of incense to fill the Holy of Holies with a cloud of smoke. It would appear that the stone which purifies Isaiah's lips, and possibly provides him with a new name, comes from the altar that stands immediately before the veil/presence of the Lord. If Rev 8:4 can be read in connection with the present passage, then the incense altar itself may be a token of prayer offered before the veil. If the altar itself is to be understood as a token of a truer order of prayer, then Isaiah's reception (onto his mouth) of a glowing coal (with a new name) taken from that altar might represent Isaiah's introduction to that order of prayer. Isaiah is being initiated into a truer order of prayer apparently enjoyed by the angels.
  • Isa 6:6: In summary. Through poetic imagery, Isaiah describes a ritual that unites him with a company of angels. First, one of the seraphim bridges the gap between Isaiah and the angels and apparently performs an atonement for Isaiah which initiates him into the angelic order. The angel who comes to perform the task retrieves from the altar of incense a glowing coal or stone, which might well represent the stone with the new name mentioned in D&C 130:11. By placing the stone on Isaiah's mouth, perhaps allowing him to speak the new name, the angel initiates him into a truer order of prayer, the unison praising of the LORD which Isaiah had interrupted in verse 3. All of this, of course, opens onto the following verse, where the narrative continues.
Another note on the Seriph's are they were created by God to worship God. These were never created as humans or to be humans, but as worshipers before God. They were fly above Him calling out "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory." The Lord here is Jehovah: self-existant One. Jehovah Alighty is holy.
  • Isa 6:7: The angel speaks. That the angel speaks to Isaiah while placing the stone on his mouth is highly significant. Thus far in the narrative, speech has indicated a distance from the Lord, as well as a boundary between the angels and Isaiah. By addressing Isaiah, the angel crosses that boundary--again confirming the initiatory character of offering the stone. The verb used to describe the angel's speech is of note: it is the one used to describe Isaiah's blurting out--not the one used to describe the summons of the seraphim. In other words, not only does the angel speak to Isaiah, he speaks to him as Isaiah had spoken of himself. The subject of the angel's words is, of course, also Isaiah: the angel breaks off praising the Lord to speak to Isaiah. In doing so, the angel descends to Isaiah's level. Just as Isaiah had spoken of himself, the angel speaks of him--to him, to be sure, but of him as well. And with that movement, Isaiah becomes part of the angelic throng.
  • Isa 6:7: What the angel says. Echoing Isaiah's inarticulate speech, the angel addresses Isaiah with an inarticulate word of his own (hnh), here translated "Lo". The word means something like "behold" (its most common translation) or "here" (as in, "here, take this"), but it, like `wy, has no derivation or etymology. However, as with Isaiah's blurted word, "Lo" has a meaning, and the difference between the meaning of this word and the meaning of the word Isaiah spoke marks the distance between the two--a distance crossed by the angel with the stone. Isaiah's `wy is an ejaculation of one at a complete loss, meaningful precisely because it marks the dissolution of all meaning, of orientation. As Isaiah sees God he loses his bearings and expects to be destroyed so thoroughly, that all he can say is `wy. On the other hand, the angel's hnh is inarticulate in a completely different manner. The angel's hnh is inarticulate because it stands outside the system of articulation and points to that very system of articulation, saying in effect "take a look here at this thing and what I'm saying". Put side by side: `wy is inarticulate because it marks the breakdown of articulation; hnh is inarticulate because it precedes articulation, because it points to the possibility of articulation. Isaiah's word might better be called anti-articulate, and the angel's non-(in)articulate. The exchange between the two (Isaiah first, the angel in response) might well be read as the dissolution of articulation, followed by the reassembly of articulation: the angel restores to Isaiah what he has lost in theophany.
  • Isa 6:7: The restoration of speech. In addition to the use of the inarticulate hnh, the angel reestablishes the possibility of speech through a specific "thing": "this hath touched thy lips...." The angel's hnh has reference to the rock, to the stone that bears the new name. In other words, a name beyond names re-introduces to Isaiah the possibility of articulation. If a vision of God destroys all possibility of speech, precisely because God outstrips all articulate language, then a name that comes, as it were, from another world, from another language (the "tongue of angels"), might well return to his tongue the possibility of speech. In fact, that the angel proceeds from his inarticulate hnh to perfectly articulate speech (and articulate speech that does not--this is vital--merely interpret the inarticulate word with which he begins) shows that the stone itself, as absolute reference for this restorative speech, makes possible the restoration of speech. If the angels can praise the Lord (by their trisagion, etc.), then it is in the language of this new name that they can do it. The name on the stone provides a foundation, a proper name that makes language possible in an angelic tongue. Isaiah's reception of the stone is his reception of the tongue of angels.
  • Isa 6:7: Lips are purged. The words of the speaking seraph makes this reception explicit. Though Isaiah previously mentions his "mouth," the angel focuses on the prophet's "lips," his "language" (see the commentary for Isa 6:5). In other words, whereas Isaiah had emphasized the source of his voice ("mouth"), the angel focuses on the articulation of that sound in language ("lips"). With the touch ("stroke") of the rock, Isaiah's iniquity (literally a question of guilt) is "turned away." There may be a connection between this verse and Isa 53:6, where the same words are used in a rather different manner. Here, an angel opens the mouth of Isaiah by striking it--translated "touched," but meaning "struck"--and thereby turning from him his iniquity. In the fourth "servant song," the one who "openeth not his mouth" is "struck with the iniquity of us all." At any rate, here the angel emphasizes this "turning away" by adding the phrase "thy sin [is] purged." The word translated here as "sin" is the Hebrew kht`, literally "miss" as in "to miss a target." The word is understood to have reference to "inadvertent" sins, the simple (unavoidable?) ritual uncleanness that results from life. Before looking at the word translated "purged," it might be well to note that both terms here ("iniquity" and "sin") are key terms in Lev 16:1ff, the chapter that describes the proceedings of the Day of Atonement. The atonement is performed precisely to deal with these sins and iniquities. It is all the more significant, then, that the word translated here as "purged" is kphr or literally "atonement." It is the very word translated as "atonement" in the phrase "Day of Atonement."
  • Isa 6:7: Atonement. The meaning of atonement in the OT is a difficult subject, one grappled with by the best (and worst) scholars in the tradition. Without pretending to plumb those depths, a working understanding of OT atonement might be offered: atonement is understood in the Old Testament as a question of repairing the broken covenant through ritual sacrifice (as Margaret Barker has argued). It is often pointed out that kphr means "to cover," but this is not quite accurate: kphr would mean less to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve in providing them coats of skins in the Garden than to repair those coats of skins when they have worn through and so become defiled. Atonement is a return to a previous covenantal status. In other words, through the rites of atonement, the covenant (in this case perhaps the Abrahamic covenant) is restored, the land is returned to the people of the promise, and the commission to promulgate the message of the benevolent YHWH is again issued (as will happen to Isaiah in verse 8). If the Arabic cognate to kphr is of any help, atonement might also be understood in terms of a binding together by embrace (as Hugh Nibley has argued): in a ritual double robing, two figures were made one in an ancient Arabic rite also called "atonement." Either way, the meaning of atonement seems broadly to be the process of restoring a covenant relationship, a literal at-one-ment.
  • Isa 6:7: Initiation provides atonement. That Isaiah receives at-one-ment through receiving the stone is highly significant. It seems to point to his initiation into the order of the angels, his ability to speak their tongue. He becomes at-one with the angelic chorus and speaks alongside them. It seems also to point to Isaiah's covenant relationship--just beginning--with the Lord Himself, as Isaiah is about to answer the call to become a prophet--one with the spirit of prophecy who has the gift to speak the angelic tongue. It must always be kept in mind that these words are spoken to Isaiah by the seraph bearing the stone. Isaiah's first step in approaching the Lord is marked by his initiation into the angelic order, by his joining the angels in their noisy celebration of their God. The angel's speech introduces Isaiah into the articulate tongue of angels by bestowing upon him the (new) proper name necessary to that tongue, and by telling him explicitly that by receiving it he is atoned. It might even, then, be argued that this chapter marks a sort of disruption of the OT understanding of the Day of Atonement: the purpose of the rites was not primarily for the people, but for the high priest, so that he might stand before God in the prophetic office. The heavenly rite interrupts the earthly rite to initiate Isaiah into the company and tongue of angels.

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