Biblical prophets regularly report call visions, and the narration of these visions takes on a recognizable literary form (see "The Prophetic Call" in Introductory Issues).
Isaiah dates his vision "in the year that King Uzziah died," about 738 B.C.E. In the temple, Isaiah sees the Lord--a figure so immense that just the hem of his garment fills the temple. As often the case, the prophet also is introduced to the heavenly realms, where angels serve God. The seraphs, probably winged snake-like creatures, modestly cover themselves in God's presence ("feet" [Hebrew regel] might be a euphemism for genitals here, as it sometimes is elsewhere in the Old Testament). They sing, for the first time in the Bible, the liturgical "Holy, holy, holy," which becomes the never-ceasing song of heaven in Revelation 4:8, and is taken from there into frequent use in the church's hymnody and liturgies.
Purging Isaiah's "unclean lips"--a symbol of his sinful self--with a coal from the altar is a form of sacrifice. In the sacrificial system, God graciously provides a means to burn away the sin and guilt of the worshipers so they may be restored whole to the presence of God.
Typically, those called to speak for God are commanded to "Go and say," as here, or "Go and tell." Getting the words right is essential for a messenger, but so also is getting the setting right, applying the words to the appropriate context. Both mark the work of the faithful messenger.
Isaiah's response, "Here am I" (Hebrew hinni or hinneni), is the response throughout the Old Testament of those addressed by God, from Abraham (Genesis 22:1) to Jacob (Genesis 31:11), to Moses (Exodus 3:4), to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:4). It is the obedient response to anyone who calls, when the one called is ready and willing to be of service (Genesis 22:7). The sense is something like saying, "Yes! I am at your disposal." We hear the sense most clearly when Mary repeats it in her response to the angel's annunciation of the coming birth of Jesus: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).
The message given to Isaiah to deliver is one of the most terrible words in the Bible. Israel's rebellion has now brought a judgment that cannot be averted. Things have gone too far and they cannot be called back--the Assyrian menace is at the gate, and God's word will continue to fall on deaf ears as it has done in the past. Indeed, God says, it must now be so: minds and ears and eyes must be closed so that God's judgment will be complete, producing a death of what now is, so that God can raise up something new (as God does in the second part of this book). There is no saving what is--things have gone too far--but God can and will make something new.
6In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
2Seraphs 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.
3And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
4The pivots* on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.
7The seraph* touched my mouth with it and said: Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.
8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said, Here am I; send me!
9And he said, Go and say to this people:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.
11 Then I said, How long, O Lord? And he said:
Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.*
The holy seed is its stump.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
10 February 2011