“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.””
(Isaiah 6:1–8 ESV)
Our church is preaching through the book of John this year with an emphasis on the glory of God. I can’t think of a better book to display God’s manifold beauty, wisdom and power. Glory, however, is a difficult word to define – it is like beauty. Beauty is something that must be beheld to be fully understood. Like the beauty of a sunset, the grand canyon or a beautiful woman – you can try to describe it, but mere words do not do it justice. Glory is the same way, just describing glory falls short – to fully understand glory, you must behold something glorious; you must experience it, you must be in its presence. It is important for us to understand this or else we will spend countless hours trying to define or describe something that is best understood when it is experienced. John Piper helped me in understanding this in one of his “Ask Pastor John” podcasts (see the link and audio below).
Let’s walk through Isaiah 6 together because it is helpful in understanding how we experience glory and grace. Neither grace nor glory can be explained – they both must be experienced. In this passage, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple that is pretty spectacular because the train of His robe fills the entire temple and there are two heavenly creatures (Seraphim) that are crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.”
The Seraphim are fiery (the Hebrew means flames) heavenly beings that are super powerful. They have six wings and can talk. But even these powerful creatures cover their faces in the presence of the Almighty. They cry out, “Holy, holy, holy,” which means that God is in a class all His own. He is infinitely more perfect, good, worthy and powerful than anything else in all of creation; He is distinctly different and morally perfect. No improvement can be made on God. This is what Isaiah is experiencing as these creatures cry out, “holy, holy, holy is The Lord God Almighty.” We might expect them to say that the whole earth is full of God’s holiness, but that is not what they say. They say that the whole earth is full of His glory. Glory is related to seeing God’s holiness – glory is related to seeing and experiencing God for who He really is; glory is connected to being in the presence of the Almighty.
Glory is a technical term for God’s manifest presence with His covenant people. We see His presence (glory) in the cloud in the desert (Exodus 16:7 & 10), in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35) and also in the temple (1 Kings 8:11). Worshipers experience His glory (Ex. 29:43; Ps. 26:8; 63:2) and there is coming a day when the whole earth will be filled with His glory (Num. 14:21; Ps. 72:19; Hab. 2:14; cf. Isa. 11:9). A major theme in the book of Isaiah is the anticipation of a day when God’s glory increases and is manifest over the entire earth (11:10; 35:2; 40:5; 58:8; 59:19; 60:1–2; 66:18). The Seraphim seem to be longing for God’s glory to fill the earth because this passage can also be translated, “may his glory fill the whole earth.” This same glory was present with Jesus (John 1:14).
Glory is the manifest presence of God’s holiness and beauty. It is the sum total of who He is. God is glorified when we are able to get a glimpse of who He really is – to be in His presence. To glorify God involves seeing God in all of His “godness,” beauty and greatness.
Let’s keep going though. What we see in the passage is an experience in Isaiah that we all should long for. The presence of the immensity of God caused the foundations to shake and the temple to be filled with smoke. It is terrifying to be in the presence of the Almighty (see Exodus 19:16-20); the Israelites recognized this as they determined that the needed a mediator (Deuteronomy 5:24–27) because God’s glory & greatness is frightening to sinful humans.
Something beautiful happens when Isaiah encounters the Almighty in the temple – he cries out “woe to me.” Seeing God causes Isaiah to see things more clearly, he sees himself as an unclean man dwelling in midst of an unclean people. He is unfit to be in the presence of God – a stark contrast to the Seraphim who are in God’s presence. Experiencing the holiness and presence of the King seems to be a death sentence for sinners like you and me (Gen. 32:30; Ex. 33:20; Isa. 33:14) and Isaiah’s words verify that the prophet is feeling the same way.
We spend so much of our lives trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are ok, that we aren’t really that bad, that we are worthy. Isaiah was a prophet, which means that he was a lot “better” than those around Him – he was a holy man. But when Isaiah encounters God and all of His holiness and glory, he sees clearly. Seeing ourselves, and our condition clearly is the first step in walking in freedom – and it always involves seeing ourselves against the backdrop of who God is and knowing that we are woefully lacking.
Isaiah didn’t resolve to try harder or to deny His deficiencies. There was no ritual, resolve or sacrifice that Isaiah could offer that would remedy the situation. Grace was the only solution. God delivers grace via the Seraphim so that his lips would be clean. Isaiah’s sins have been atoned for by one simple touch from God. God’s grace is applied. In a moment Isaiah goes from unclean to clean, outsider to adopted son, enemy to friend.
Now Isaiah’s heart turns to living a life of mission. He longs to proclaim the glory and grace of God. He will go and proclaim God’s glorious grace, but the people will not receive it because their hearts were hard, ears were closed and eyes were blind. Isaiah was called to a very frustrating mission of proclaiming God’s glory and grace in which no one would respond.
We often times want to proclaim grace, but when grace is disconnected from who God really is it falls on deaf ears. Good people don’t need grace. The answer is not more grace, more grace more grace. The answer is that we need to see God more clearly; we need to be ushered into His presence so that we see His immensity and our smallness. We need to raise our gaze. When we experience His glory by being in His presence, we experiencing His grace by Him atoning for our sins and allowing us to boldly enter the throne room of grace – and live!
We experience God’s glory as we get glimpses of Him. We will be looking at ways to behold Him more clearly in coming posts!