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 30:6; compare Numbers 21:6, Numbers 21:8; Deuteronomy 8:15). Notice Numbers 21:6 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 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), described as a "flame of fire" (Hebrews 1:7). 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 12:9). 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 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). 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; compare Revelation 5:8). 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 9:6-14).
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; compare Matthew 13:14-15; John 12:37-41; Acts 28:24-29), it is to be a message God knows they will not heed. Indeed, He pronounces utter devastation and national captivity (Isaiah 6:11-12). 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).
Isaiah 6:13 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, 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, 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), 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). 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.