Second Wednesday of Advent: God's cleansing fire
Having described Judah as tinder-dry and ready to go up in flames of judgment (5.24), Isaiah recounts, in vivid first-person narrative, a vision of Yahweh dominated by the image of burning. In the year of King Uzziah’s death, a year that saw the Assyrian empire grow stronger and extend its imperial reach over the ancient Near East, the prophet glimpses another king, enthroned over the entire earth (vv.2-3), to whom even Assyria is subject. The Temple, where this vision takes place, functions as a window on God’s throne room, but itself can contain only the hem of his robe (v.1)! The immensity of scale alone is staggering. But add to that the encircling seraphim, Yahweh’s six-winged blazing heavenly attendants (saraph means “to burn”), whose praise of the Lord of Hosts rocks the Temple to its foundations and fills it with smoke (v.4), and Isaiah is reduced to holy and abject terror.
“Woe is me!” he cries, in solidarity with the people over whom he has just proclaimed a series of woes (5,8,11,18,20-22). In stark contrast to the scribes and Pharisees who self-righteously accuse the woman taken in adultery (John 8.4-5), Isaiah admits that all—prophet and people alike—are unclean in the presence of the thrice-holy king, the Lord of hosts (v.5).
Then, with tongs, since it is hotter than even they can bear, one of the seraphim takes a live coal from the brazier on the alter (v.6) and sears the prophet’s lips with forgiveness and atonement, purifying him for the arduous message he is to give (v.7). Only one who knows his own sin could bring such an impossible message with integrity. Isaiah is to blind, deafen and harden the people, to confirm them in their sin, and thus in their judgment (vv.9-10). Presumably if Isaiah had known the point of the message, he would not have been so quick to volunteer (v.8). In this willingness he is perhaps unique among the prophets, for all from Moses to Jeremiah vigorously resisted their commissioning.
Isaiah’s resistance is limited to a poignant question, an agonized prayer of lament: “How long, O Lord?” (v.11). To which God answers: until the devastation is complete (v.11). Until the land is depopulated through exile “and vast is its emptiness” (v.12). But the judgment will fall not just upon Ephraim, the northern kingdom. Even the “tenth” (Judah) that initially escapes devastation, will finally be burned (v. 13), as if a forest fire that had bypassed a small copse of standing trees quickly turns with a change of wind to devour the last remaining patch of green. Until only a stump of that magnificent forest remains and the Lord’s vineyard is reduced to rubble.
But buried deep in this thicket of radical judgment is a brief sentence of hope: “The holy seed is its stump” (v.13). These cryptic words which close the vision, and the chapter, draw on the image of burning as purification (1.25; 4.3-4; 6.6-7). They also evoke the regenerative power of felled trees, especially oaks and terebinths, which in scripture are often associated with holy places and sacred groves (Gen 12.6; 35.4; Deut 11.30; Josh 24.26; Judg 9.6,37; Hos 4.13; Ezek 6.13). But beyond these associations, the text anticipates Isaiah’s messianic image in 11.1 (also 11.10 and 4.2) of a branch or shoot sprouting from the stump of Jesse (the Davidic line). In a bleak text, dominated by judgment, which realistically faces the fact of national destruction, we find tucked away a hopeful hint of the advent of a future king, born by God’s gracious purging of the Davidic line, to bring justice, healing and holiness, finally, to the devastated land.
Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.
From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.