|Fire From Heaven: An Advent Meditation|
|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Tuesday, 21 December 2010 14:04|
In the same year as King Uzziah’s death, Isaiah sees another King, a permanent and eternal King, the King behind the King, King Yahweh of Hosts (v. 5). Yahweh sits on His ark throne in the Most Holy Place, high and exalted, the mere hem of His robe filling the house. Smoke fills the temple, the smoke of incense on this Day of Atonement when the prophet-priest Isaiah enters before the throne. Smoke fills the temple, the smoke that manifested Yahweh’s presence to Abram in the terrors of the night (Genesis 15), the smoke that descended on Sinai (Exodus 19), the smoke that blasts from Yahweh’s nostrils (Psalm 18), the smoke that fills the sanctuary when angels are sent out with bowls to pour out on the harlot city (Revelation 15).
Yahweh’s glory fills the temple-palace as it filled the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle when the cloud descended from Sinai to be enthroned above the wings of the cherubim (Exodus 40), as glory filled the temple when Solomon dedicated it (1 Kings 8). When it was filled with Yahweh’s glory, all the attendants of the temple fled, but Isaiah doesn’t flee. Isaiah stands amid the swirling glory that fills the temple.
In Isaiah’s vision, Yahweh is attended by seraphim who “stand” as attendants to serve the purposes and obey the commands of the exalted King. “Seraph” means simply “burning one,” and elsewhere in Scripture seraphs are associated with serpents who spit fire, glisten like fire, or whose bites burn like fire. Yahweh’s advent is in a storm cloud that crashes with thunder, and flashes with lightning. The seraphim are lightning bolts, personified shimmering snakes of fire that crackle and flash from the cloud of Yahweh’s glory. Even the seraphim, the burning ones who stand and serve in the presence of the King and Priest on the throne, even these do homage before Yahweh, unworthy to look the King in the face or show their feet before Him.
As they fly, they sing continually, calling out to one another in voices so loud that they shake the temple threshold, in voices that harmonize into the single thunderous voice of Yahweh Himself (v. 4). They are lightning and their voices are thunder, the thunder of Yahweh Himself, the thunder of Yahweh’s advent. “Holy, Holy, Holy is Yahweh of hosts” is their triune refrain. This is Yahweh who shows His holiness by doing righteousness, Yahweh who displays His holiness by nurturing His vineyard to produce the wine of justice (Isaiah 5:7, 16).
Isaiah sees King Yahweh, and He is “silenced,” ruined, undone. He has nothing to say. He cannot even pray. He doesn’t play the role of prophet, member of the divine council. He doesn’t stand apart from Judah. He is an unclean man among an unclean people, and neither prophet nor people have any business trampling Yahweh’s courts, no business at all. He is the publican in the corner mumbling, “God by merciful to me a sinner.”
He can barely speak in Yahweh’s presence, cannot even communicate. His organ of communication, confession, praise – his lips – are unclean, and every breath that passes through them can only pollute the temple. He cannot join the seraphic song, cannot cry out concerning holiness and glory, because his lips are as unclean as the lips of the people among whom he stands.
Unbidden, uncommanded, in response to nothing more than a helpless cry of woe, one of the seraphim flies to the incense altar and takes a coal from the altar. The seraph is a burning one, personified lightning, but the coal is too hot for the seraph, who uses tongs to touch it to Isaiah’s lips.
This is the key to the whole vision, the key to Isaiah’s ministry, the key to Advent. What happens when a coal from the altar touches the prophet’s mouth? Most explicitly, Isaiah’s iniquity is removed and his sin is covered. For Isaiah, if not yet for Israel, this is a day of atonement, a day of coverings. Isaiah is thus distinguished from the people – no longer unclean, but covered, no longer polluted but pure. He takes the side of the angels, and so he can take up his proper prophetic role of speaking in the divine council. His tongue is loosed and he can join in the cries of the seraphim.
More implicitly, Isaiah is lit on fire. He becomes a burning one, and with ignited lips, becomes a fire-breather. The breath that earlier polluted the presence of Yahweh now becomes an agent of the Spirit of judgment and the Spirit of burning by which Yahweh is going to cleanse the people of Judah (Isaiah 4:4).
Daughter Jerusalem has turned harlot, and according to the law priests’ daughters that play the harlot are burned (Leviticus 21:9). Jerusalem has turned apostate, and according to the law, apostate cities were ignited with coals from the altar and offered as ascension offerings (Deuteronomy 13). Jerusalem has become a Sodom and Judah like Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10), and Isaiah is the fire that falls from heaven to consume the city of the mountain. A remnant will be left when the tree of Judah is felled, but even the remnant will be burned (Isaiah 6:13). No one will escape the prophet’s fire.
Why do you teach in parables? asked Jesus’ disciples, and He answered by quoting Isaiah 6: “Keep on hearing, but not understand. . . .” (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10). Ignited by His Father, burning with the oil of the Spirit, the Son comes to blind and harden. He comes as fire from heaven to burn filth and bloodshed, the dross of injustice and pride, greed and violence.
The good news of this Advent is that the Lord’s ultimate aim is renewal. Purged by fire, Isaiah becomes an agent for the purging of Judah and Jerusalem. He breathes fire and speaks lightning until the land is desolated, but when the tree is felled a seed will remain. Through the desolation, through the great tribulation, through purging fires, Yahweh sanctifies His people, the Holy God is making His people holy, the God who is exalted in righteousness and justice will bring justice and righteousness on earth. So too in the fullness of time: Through the coming of the Son, the Seraph from heaven, the holy God consecrates to Himself a holy seed, a seed sanctified through the Spirit’s fire.