A Personal, Initially Painful, but Ultimately Pleasing Encounter with the Holiness of God (3)
In the previous article we took note of his reaction when Isaiah first saw God and then the angels that surrounded the throne. Today we look at the third thing Isaiah saw: himself (Isaiah 6:5-8).
Seeing God does not produce rapture or giddiness or religious flippancy. It produces terror and self-loathing. Isaiah does not respond with pride or elitism, boasting that he alone has experienced this wonderful privilege. He is undone! He sees himself as insufferably unrighteous compared to the resplendent purity and transcendence of the King. We arrogantly measure sin solely in terms of its effects both within the created order and upon us. Isaiah, on the other hand, measures it by the majesty and purity of the One against whom it is perpetrated.
In other words, we don’t feel especially sinful because we tend always to look at ourselves in comparison with other sinners. “Hey, I’m sinful, but not nearly as sinful as Susie/Steve.” Isaiah, on the other hand, doesn’t compare himself with others in Israel, but looks at himself in the light of who God is.
Isaiah's experience is instructive in another respect. This man was already aware of his sinfulness and had made great strides in his growth in spiritual things. But now, in the unmediated presence of the Holy God, he sees himself as filthier than ever before. So intensely aware is he of his sin that he, in effect, calls down the curse of God on his own head. “Woe is me” (v. 5) is a cry of judgment. It is a cry of anathema. Prophets would often call down the judgment and wrath of God on others, but here Isaiah calls it down upon himself.
This is no small twinge of a hyper-sensitive conscience. Isaiah cries out: “I am lost,” better translated, “I am ruined,” i.e., “I am coming apart at the seams! I am unraveling. I am experiencing personal disintegration!” Contrast this with the modern obsession with “personal wholeness,” “having it all together,” and being “integrated.” Says Sproul:
“If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah Ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a Holy God. In that single moment all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed – morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed” (43-4).
Surprisingly, his sudden sense of sinfulness and personal ruin were linked to his lips. He cried out, in essence, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I've got a dirty mouth!” Why the focus on his mouth? I don't think there is any reason to conclude that Isaiah was guilty of profanity or told dirty jokes! Instead, there are two reasons for this conviction on his part. First, mention is made of his mouth because what we say betrays what we are. The mouth is like an old-fashioned phonograph speaker, it simply manifests what is impressed on the record of the heart (see Matt. 15:11,18 and James 3:2,6-12).
But more important still is the fact that the one area in his life which Isaiah thought he had under control, in which he no doubt prided himself, because of which the people honored and respected him, because of which he was highly esteemed, because of which he had position and prestige was the power of his mouth. He was a prophet! If there was one arena in his life of which he had no fear or concern, related to which he felt God's most overt approval, which he regarded as his greatest strength and that which was above reproach and beyond falling or failure . . . was his tongue! His speech! His mouth! His verbal ministry! He was God's mouthpiece, for heaven’s sake! He was God's voice, his spokesman on the earth! Yet the first thing he felt was the sinfulness of his speech!
I am reminded of a statement by Oswald Chambers to the effect that “An unguarded strength is a double weakness.” Beware of that in your life which you regard as invulnerable to attack, failure, or demonic assault. What you regard as inviolable may well prove to be your greatest enemy.
At this point Isaiah must have felt hopeless. Every nerve and muscle and ligament in his body was trembling. He was groveling in the dirt. All he wanted to do was hide from the Holy One of Israel. Perhaps he hoped that the rocks would cover him or the ceiling of the temple would fall upon him. He couldn’t hide and he had nothing with which to cover his spiritual and moral nakedness. This is what one commentator has called “pure moral anguish, the kind that rips out the heart of a man and tears his soul to pieces.” All he could see was his sin. All he could feel was his guilt.
If you have ever felt that way, and I often do, here is the good news of the gospel: The infinitely holy God is also a gracious and merciful God! This God of mercy immediately provides cleansing and forgiveness. Isaiah's wound was being cauterized. The dirt in his mouth was washed away as the corruption of his heart was forgiven. He was refined by holy fire. The fact that the coal was placed on his lips points to the principle that “God ministers to the sinner at the point of confessed need” (Motyer, 78).
One more thing. Did you see what is missing in the response of Isaiah? Although the reality of his sin and guilt is indescribably painful, he does not cry out in anguish when a red-hot burning coal is placed on his lips. Conviction hurts. But forgiveness does not! What was initially painful, now turns to pleasure, as Isaiah undoubtedly rejoices in knowing that his guilt has been cleansed.