Isaiah Sees the Lord and His Seraphim
Here we read the story of Isaiah’s calling in the year Uzziah died. As with Ezekiel some years later (see Ezekiel 1; 10), Isaiah sees a vision of God on a throne, attended by spirit beings, at the heavenly temple. These angelic spirits, identified as seraphim, could be a different class or type of angel from the cherubim in Ezekiel. The seraphim are not described extensively, except that they have six wings instead of Ezekiel’s four. However, these beings may not be so different after all.
The word seraph has been left untranslated here. It literally means “burning one.” Yet it is rendered elsewhere in Scriptures as “fiery serpent,” indeed with another word later in the book of Isaiah as “fiery flying serpent” (Isaiah 14:29 Isaiah 14:29Rejoice not you, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote you is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.
American King James Version×; Isaiah 30:6 Isaiah 30:6The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from where come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches on the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures on the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.
American King James Version×; compare Numbers 21:6 Numbers 21:6And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
American King James Version×, Numbers 21:8 Numbers 21:8And the LORD said to Moses, Make you a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looks on it, shall live.
American King James Version×; Deuteronomy 8:15 Deuteronomy 8:15Who led you through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought you forth water out of the rock of flint;
American King James Version×). Notice Numbers 21:6 Numbers 21:6And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
American King James Version×in the Tanakh, the newer Jewish Publication Society translation of the Holy Scriptures: “The Lord sent seraph serpents against the people.” It is commonly thought that fiery (i.e., burning) serpents connotes the sting of their bites. Yet it may actually refer to the reflective quality of their glassy scales, by which they are shiny. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for serpent, nachash, literally means “shining one.” Indeed, a literal translation of Numbers 21:6 Numbers 21:6And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.
American King James Version×would be: “And sent Yahweh among the people the shining ones, the burning ones, and they bit the people.” And notice verse 8 in the Tanakh: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a seraphfigure and mount it on a standard.’” And Moses made a bronze nachash or serpent (verse 9). In fact, the word for bronze is another form of nachash, apparently because of its shiny quality. In any case, it appears that seraph and nachash are interchangeable terms (see also E.W. Bulinger, The Companion Bible, Appendix 19).
What then of the seraphim Isaiah sees? According to Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, ”it may imply either a serpentine form (albeit with wings, human hands, and voices) or beings that have a ‘glowing’ quality about them” (1985, Old Testament Section, “To Burn”). Of course, every angel, it should be noted, is a shining being of light (compare Revelation 10:1 Revelation 10:1And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was on his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:
American King James Version×), described as a “flame of fire” (Hebrews 1:7 Hebrews 1:7And of the angels he said, Who makes his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.
American King James Version×). All of this is rather interesting when we consider that Satan is referred to in Scripture as a serpent and even a “fiery red dragon” (Revelation 12:4 Revelation 12:4And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
American King James Version×, Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
American King James Version×). This seems too much like “fiery flying serpent” (i.e., seraph) to be mere coincidence. And yet Satan is distinctly referred to in Ezekiel 28:14-16 Ezekiel 28:14-16  You are the anointed cherub that covers; and I have set you so: you were on the holy mountain of God; you have walked up and down in the middle of the stones of fire.  You were perfect in your ways from the day that you were created, till iniquity was found in you.  By the multitude of your merchandise they have filled the middle of you with violence, and you have sinned: therefore I will cast you as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy you, O covering cherub, from the middle of the stones of fire.
American King James Version×as a cherub. Perhaps, then, a cherub and a seraph are the same thing. Granted, there do appear to be a few minor differences between the creatures Isaiah and Ezekiel saw—and later the apostle John (compare Revelation 4:6-8 Revelation 4:6-8  And before the throne there was a sea of glass like to crystal: and in the middle of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind.  And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle.  And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.
American King James Version×). In that case, perhaps cherubim are a class of seraphim, yet different from the class Isaiah saw. However, it could be that Ezekiel’s cherubim were actually the same creatures Isaiah saw, but viewed in a different activity so that Ezekiel did not see the extra pair of wings Isaiah and John did. Or perhaps these creatures are capable of shape shifting even in the spirit realm—sometimes having six wings and sometimes four, sometimes having four faces and sometimes one. Though we may not be able to ascertain a reason for this, we should not suppose it out of the question—since righteous angels are even able to appear to us as human beings, which is not their natural form.
In any case, the main focus of Isaiah’s vision was not the seraphim. It was the One they praised—the King, the Eternal God of Hosts. Hearing such wonderful praise for God, Isaiah knew painfully well that he was the only one there who did not, and had not his whole life, uttered such praise. He knew that he was a sinner whose life had not honored God. His speech had no doubt been wrong and impure on many an occasion. But with a coal from the altar, Isaiah was symbolically cleansed, illustrating that God forgave his sins. This should remind us that all sin is forgiven only through sacrifice—indeed, through one sacrifice—for the sacrifices on the temple altar pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, only with a censer of burning coals from the altar could Israel’s high priest enter the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement—using it to burn holy incense, producing a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke representing the prayers of God’s people (Leviticus 16:12-13 Leviticus 16:12-13  And he 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 veil:
 And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the testimony, that he die not:
American King James Version×; compare Revelation 5:8 Revelation 5:8And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.
American King James Version×). Thus, God seems to have granted Isaiah a personal atonement or reconciliation with Him, in which the prophet appeared, through vision and prayer of cleansed lips, in God’s very throne room. And like Isaiah, we too can, through repentance and prayer, “come boldly before the throne of grace” by the same sacrifice (Hebrews 4:16 Hebrews 4:16Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
American King James Version×; Hebrews 9:6-14 Hebrews 9:6-14  Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God.  But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people:  The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing:  Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;  Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.  But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;  Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.  For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh:  How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
American King James Version×).
Isaiah is then permitted to participate in the heavenly court. God is looking for a “volunteer” to carry His message to Judah, and Isaiah is willing after God cleanses him. But in a warning cited several times in the New Testament (Isaiah 6:9-10 Isaiah 6:9-10  And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear you indeed, but understand not; and see you indeed, but perceive not.
 Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
American King James Version×; compare Matthew 13:14-15 Matthew 13:14-15  And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which said, By hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and shall not perceive:  For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
American King James Version×; John 12:37-41 John 12:37-41  But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him:  That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spoke, Lord, who has believed our report? and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again,  He has blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.  These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spoke of him.
American King James Version×; Acts 28:24-29 Acts 28:24-29  And some believed the things which were spoken, and some believed not.  And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spoke the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet to our fathers,  Saying, Go to this people, and say, Hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing you shall see, and not perceive:  For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.  Be it known therefore to you, that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it.  And when he had said these words, the Jews departed, and had great reasoning among themselves.
American King James Version×), it is to be a message God knows they will not heed. Indeed, He pronounces utter devastation and national captivity (Isaiah 6:11-12 Isaiah 6:11-12  Then said I, Lord, how long? And he answered, Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate,  And the LORD have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the middle of the land.
American King James Version×). Yet, while ancient Israel and Judah were invaded and the people taken captive, their cities were not, for the most part, utterly devastated (save for Jerusalem eventually and a few other major settlements)—and the people still today have not truly heeded Isaiah’s words—indicating that this prophecy is primarily a reference to coming end-time devastation (compare Ezekiel 6:6 Ezekiel 6:6In all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, and the high places shall be desolate; that your altars may be laid waste and made desolate, and your idols may be broken and cease, and your images may be cut down, and your works may be abolished.
American King James Version×).
Isaiah 6:13 Isaiah 6:13But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.
American King James Version×is translated awkwardly in the New King James Version. It is easier to follow in the Living Bible’s paraphrase: “Yet a tenth—a remnant—will survive [following the captivity of the previous verse]; and though Israel is invaded again and again and destroyed, yet Israel will be like a tree cut down, whose stump still lives to grow again.” This parallels Amos 5:3 Amos 5:3For thus said the Lord GOD; The city that went out by a thousand shall leave an hundred, and that which went forth by an hundred shall leave ten, to the house of Israel.
American King James Version×, which is addressed to the house of Israel. While two thirds of the modern descendants of Israel and Judah apparently will die initially from war and famine in the end time, another third will evidently be taken into captivity (compare Ezekiel 5:12 Ezekiel 5:12A third part of you shall die with the pestilence, and with famine shall they be consumed in the middle of you: and a third part shall fall by the sword round about you; and I will scatter a third part into all the winds, and I will draw out a sword after them.
American King James Version×, which we will examine in more detail when we come to it in our reading). And of that last third, these verses seem to say that only a tenth will remain to flourish anew and multiply under the rule of Jesus Christ.
Monarchies in Transition
As mentioned above, Isaiah was called the same year that Uzziah (or Azariah) of Judah died (ca. 740 B.C.). Uzziah’s son Jotham then became chief ruler (his son Ahaz apparently assisting him as coregent)—although Jotham had already been functioning as king for 12 years while his father Uzziah remained in seclusion with his leprosy. Furthermore, this was the same year that Pekahiah of Israel was replaced, in yet another northern kingdom coup, by Pekah. This usurper reigned over Israel from around 740 B.C. until his death around 732 B.C. But since a reign of 20 years is attributed to him (2 Kings 15:27 2 Kings 15:27In the two and fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah Pekah the son of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and reigned twenty years.
American King James Version×), it is evident that he must have reigned as king for 12 years prior “in his own district during the unsettled days of Shallum, Menahem, and Pekahiah (752-740 B.C.)” (Nelson Study Bible, note on 2 Kings 15:27 2 Kings 15:27In the two and fiftieth year of Azariah king of Judah Pekah the son of Remaliah began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and reigned twenty years.
American King James Version×). Pekah will cause some grief to Judah, as we will soon see. But more importantly, it is his reign that will witness the beginning of the end for Israel.
Supplementary Reading: “Isaiah—A Prophet for Then and Now”, Good News Magazine, Sept.—Oct. 2002, pp. 26-28.