In a terrifying vision, Isaiah finds himself standing in heaven’s throne room in the presence of God. The time is 740 BC, the year King Uzziah dies.
“It’s all over!” Isaiah says. “I am doomed, for I am a sinful man” (Isaiah 6:5). He knows God is holy and that sin can’t survive in God’s presence.
But instead of destroying Isaiah, God purifies him in a ritual somewhat similar to a ritual the Jewish high priest performs on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the national’s annual day of repentance. The priest brings into the Jerusalem temple’s most holy room an incense burner with burning coals taken from the temple altar. There, he sprinkles fragrant incense onto the coals, filling the room with a scented cloud.
In Isaiah’s vision, God’s throne room looks like a temple, too-a more wonderful version of the Jerusalem temple. In this heavenly temple, a mysterious angelic being called a seraphim uses tongs to pick up a piece of coal from the altar. Then he touches it to Isaiah’s lips in an apparently painless act, representing a cleansing by fire. Isaiah can now speak the holy words God has for the Jewish people.
Isaiah’s first message seems to describe the spiritual condition of the Jewish people. He’s to say to them: “Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing” (Isaiah 6:9). In more than two centuries as a nation, they still don’t understand what it means to be God’s people.
When Isaiah asks how long he has to keep delivering God’s message to the Jews, he gets a grim reply: “Until their tows are empty, their houses are deserted, and the whole country is a wasteland: until the LORD has sent everyone away, and the entire land of Israel lies deserted.