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A Vision of God in the Temple


In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

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1. In the year that king Uzziah died. This is usually the beginning of the sixth chapter; but some think that it is the beginning of the book itself, and that in collecting the prophecies of Isaiah an error was committed. The reason which they assign is, that the Prophet here declines the office of a teacher, which he would not have refused if he had hitherto discharged it; that he appears to be a mere novice as yet unacquainted with his calling; and besides, that he declares that he has now seen the Lord, and that he has not seen him, before. But such arguments I consider, as I have already noticed, to be too feeble and unsatisfactory; and I reply that it ought not to be thought strange that he was so completely overpowered by this extraordinary vision as to forget that he was a prophet. For there was no feeling in him which was not overpowered by the presence of God, so that, like one who had lost his senses, he willingly plunged himself in darkness, or rather, like one who despaired of life, he of his own accord chose to die. And it is necessary that the godly should be affected in this manner, when the Lord gives them tokens of his presence, that they may be brought low and utterly confounded. Besides, in the person of his servant God intended to strike his rebellious people with alarm; and therefore we need not wonder if he offers an apology for himself under the overwhelming influence of fear, and likewise because he had not felt the weight of his office, as he now felt it, after having beheld an illustrious display of the majesty of God.

But why was not this vision exhibited to him at the beginning? I answer, it was necessary in regard to the time, that he might be more and more confirmed in the discharge of his office. We have an instance of this in the Apostles themselves; for at first they were sent out with an injunction not to pass beyond the limits of Judea, (Matthew 10:5;) but after that Christ had risen, he again set them apart in a new and solemn manner, breathed on them, bidding them receive the Holy Ghost, (John 20:21,22;) and not only so, but sending his Spirit from heaven in the forms of tongues of fire, invested them with extraordinary power. (Acts 2:3.) Thus, on account of the various changes of times and of kings, it was necessary that Isaiah should be encouraged and again attested by a new vision; that he might be excited to perseverance, and might afterwards proceed with greater cheerfulness in his course; and also that the Jews might perceive his ministry to be supported by heavenly authority.

This appears to me to be a sufficient reason why this vision was not exhibited to him at the very beginning, but after that he had for some time discharged the office of a teacher. That this was not the beginning of the prophecy is evident enough from the consideration that the preface, which we have already examined, is much better adapted for the commencement, and more appropriate than what is contained in this chapter; and every approach having been shut up by the hard-hearted obstinacy of the people, it was proper that he should burst forth in this vehement manner. Besides, it is probable that he had long performed the office of a teacher under King Uzziah, who, I think, was dead before this prediction was published. In short, the Prophet means that it was not till he had commenced his course that God appeared to him.

Some think that death here means leprosy, which undoubtedly was a civil death, when the king was compelled to withdraw from the society of men, and to lay down the reins of government, (2 Kings 15:5;) but I choose rather to take death in its literal sense. So then, I think that Isaiah uttered the former predictions during the reign of Uzziah, even after he had been struck with leprosy; and that when he had died, and Jotham had succeeded him, this vision was presented to Isaiah. We know what various commotions are produced by a change of kings, so that we need not wonder that Isaiah had his calling again sealed. But the prophecy itself, which follows, will sufficiently show that he had been a public teacher for some time before he saw the Lord; for it relates that the blinding of the people, whose obstinacy he had experienced to such an extent that he might have been induced to cease from his undertaking, for he saw that he was doing no good. The Lord, therefore, confirms him by this vision, that the opposition may not prevent him from boldly discharging his office, and performing what he undertook at the commandment of God.

I saw the Lord It is asked, How could Isaiah see God who is a Spirit, (John 4:24,) and, therefore, cannot be seen with bodily eyes? Nay, more, since the understandings of men cannot rise to his boundless height, how can he be seen in a visible shape? But we ought to be aware that, when God exhibited himself to the view of the Fathers, he never appeared such as he actually is, but such as the capacity of men could receive. Though men may be said to creep on the ground, or at least dwell far below the heavens, there is no absurdity in supposing that God comes down to them in such a manner as to cause some kind of mirror to reflect the rays of his glory. There was, therefore, exhibited to Isaiah such a form as enabled him, according to his capacity, to perceive the inconceivable majesty of God; and thus he attributes to God a throne, a robe, and a bodily appearance.

Hence we learn a profitable doctrine, that whenever God grants any token of his presence, he is undoubtedly present with us, for he does not amuse us by unmeaning shapes, as men wickedly disfigure him by their contrivances. since, therefore, that exhibition was no deceitful representation of the presence of God, Isaiah justly declares that he saw him. In like manner, when it is said that John

saw the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove, (John 1:32)

the name of the Holy Spirit is applied to the outward sign, because in the representation there was no deception; and yet he did not see the essence of the Spirit, but had a clear and undoubted proof, so that he could not doubt that the Spirit of God rested on Christ.

Secondly, it is asked, Who was that Lord? John tells us that it was Christ, (John 12:41,) and justly, for God never revealed himself to the Fathers but in his eternal Word and only begotten Son. Yet it is wrong, I think, to limit this, as some do, to the person of Christ; for it is indefinitely, on the contrary, that the Prophet calls him God. Nor do their views derive any support from the word אדוני, (adonai,) which seems particularly to apply to Christ; for it is often applied to God in an absolute and unrestricted manner. In this passage, therefore, God is mentioned indefinitely, and yet it is correctly said that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ, for at that very time he was the image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15.)

Sitting upon a throne. He could not have given a better description of God, in regard to place, than in the person of a Judge, that his majesty might strike greater terror into the Jews; for we shall afterwards see the dreadful judgment which the Lord pronounced from his judgment-seat. But lest we should suppose that the Prophet contrived the manner in which he would paint God, we ought to know that he faithfully describes the very form in which God was represented and exhibited to him. It may be questioned whether the Prophet was conducted into the temple, or saw this vision while he was asleep. Though many things are frequently adduced on both sides, which are fitted to leave the matter in doubt, yet it may be conjectured with some probability, that even if he had not been within the temple, this vision might have been presented to him, either in his own house or on a field, in the same manner as to other prophets.

And his remotest parts filled the temple. 9292     And his train filled the temple. [Or, the skirts thereof.] — Eng. Ver.
And the train of his robe filled the temple. — Lowth.
And his flowing train filled the temple. — Stock. That author adds in a note: “I add the epithet flowing, to distinguish the train of a robe from what the English word equally imports, a train of attendants; and שול is from של to loosen, to flow loosely.” — Ed
Almost all the commentators understand by this the fringes of his robe, though it may be understood to refer to the extremities of the judgment-seat, giving us to understand that its dimensions were so vast as to extend to every part of the temple. He intends to ascribe to God a venerable aspect, and far beyond any human form. There is great weight in the circumstance that he appeared in the temple; for he had promised that he would meet with his people there, and the people expected his answers from that place, as Solomon had expressly stated at the dedication of it. (1 Kings 8:30.) In order, therefore, that the people might understand that those things came from God, on whom they called every day, and on whom they relied with a vain confidence which puffed them up, this vision was exhibited to the Prophet in the temple. To the certainty of what was said it contributed not a little, that he openly proclaimed that the discourse was not pronounced to him by any mortal man, but was a heavenly oracle, uttered by that God whose name they were accustomed disdainfully to hold out as a pretense, whenever they wished to make any extravagant claims; for otherwise this prophecy would have been harsh and repulsive, and needed great confirmation. It was also not uncommon with the Prophets to say that the Lord spake to them from his temple, or from his sanctuary

2. And the seraphim stood upon it. Having declared that God appeared to him full of majesty and of glory, he adds, that God was attended by angels, whom the Prophet calls seraphim on account of their fervor. Though the etymology of this word is well known, yet various reasons are adduced. Some think that they are called seraphim because they burn with the love of God; others, because they are swift like fire; others, because they are bright. However that may be, this description holds out to us, as in sunbeams, the brightness of God’s infinite majesty, that we may learn by it to behold and adore his wonderful and overwhelming glory.

Many think that there were two seraphim, as there were two cherubim that encompassed the ark of the testimony. This opinion I willingly adopt, though I do not venture to make any assertion where Scripture is silent. As it is customary with the sacred writers to accommodate their descriptions of God to those outward signs which were commonly used and familiarly known among the godly, it is possible that the Prophet saw a representation of this kind. While I hold this to be a probable conjecture, I leave room for other interpretations which some may be disposed to prefer; for Daniel saw not two angels only, but thousands of thousands of angels. (Daniel 7:10.)

Each one had six wings. This representation is instructive; for those wings thus arranged contained some mystery which it was the will of the Lord should not remain wholly unknown. The two wings with which the angels fly mean nothing else than their ready and cheerful performance of the commandments of God. On this point the resemblance is so clear and manifest, that it will be at once admitted by all who do not take delight in controversy. The two wings with which they cover their face show plainly enough that even angels cannot endure God’s brightness, and that they are dazzled by it in the same manner as when we attempt to gaze upon the radiance of the sun. And if angels are overwhelmed by the majesty of God, how great will be the rashness of men if they venture to intrude so far! Let us, therefore, learn that our inquiries concerning God ought never to go beyond what is proper and lawful, that our knowledge may soberly and modestly taste what is far above our capacity. And yet the angels do not cover their face in such a manner as not to be favored with beholding God in some degree; for their flight is not at random. In like manner we too ought to look at God, but only so far as our capacity shall enable us.

As to the remaining two wings, which were placed lower, the difficulty is somewhat greater. Some think that the angels covered their feet, that they might not touch the earth, and contract any defilement from it, as human beings like ourselves are wont to do; for in walking we gather filth and dust, and accordingly, so long as we dwell on earth, we are always tainted by some kind of contagion. This reminds believers that they will have no intercourse with angels till they raise themselves high, and are no longer fastened to the earth.

Such is the interpretation given by some expositors. But I rather agree with those who think that the use of those wings was opposite to that of the upper wings; for, as by the upper wings they cover their face, that they may not be overpowered by God’s brightness, so they have also lower wings to conceal them from our view. Now, if it be true that we cannot behold the small and feeble rays of the Divine brightness without being altogether overpowered, how could we gaze upon that unspeakably bright and glorious majesty which lays prostrate all our faculties? Let men learn, therefore, that they are far distant from a perfect knowledge of God, since they cannot even reach to the angels. The latter appears to me to be the more correct exposition, but I do not disapprove of the former.

3. And they cried one to another. It was necessary that all these things should be presented to the Prophet in vision, in order to produce a stronger impression on the people, and on Isaiah himself; for the vision was not less necessary to him than to the whole nation, because sharp and painful struggles awaited him, and he could not have boldly announced those events if he had not been previously confirmed. The people also, being warned by this vision how great and how dreadful was the majesty of God, by whom this condemnation was pronounced, had good reason for being alarmed. He who now came forth to public view is God, at the sight of whom the very angels tremble, whose praises they continually and loudly utter, and whom, in a word, they serve and obey; but men, whom he had been pleased to adopt as his children, obstinately and rebelliously opposed him.

Now, when we are informed that the angels are employed in uttering the glory of God, let us know that their example is set before us for imitation; for the most holy service that we can render to him is, to be employed in praising his name. When he associates us with angels, it is in order that, while we sojourn on earth, we may resemble and be joined to the inhabitants of heaven. That the harmony between us and the angels may be in every respect complete, we must take care not only that the praises of God may be sounded by our tongues, but likewise that all the actions of our life may correspond to our professions; and this will only be done if the chief aim of our actions be the glory of God.

Holy, holy, holy, is Jehovah of hosts. The ancients quoted this passage when they wished to prove that there are three persons in one essence of the Godhead. I do not disagree with their opinion; but if I had to contend with heretics, I would rather choose to employ stronger proofs; for they become more obstinate, and assume an air of triumph, when inconclusive arguments are brought against them; and they might easily and readily maintain that, in this passage, as in other parts of Scripture, the number “three” denotes perfection. Although, therefore, I have no doubt that the angels here describe One God in Three Persons, (and, indeed, it is impossible to praise God without also uttering the praises of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit,) yet I think that it would be better to employ more conclusive passages, lest, in proving an article of our faith, we should expose ourselves to the scorn of heretics. And, indeed, this repetition rather points out unwearied perseverance, as if the Prophet had said, that the angels never cease from their melody in singing the praises of God, as the holiness of God supplies us with inexhaustible reasons for them.

The whole earth is full of his glory. Literally it is, the fullness of the whole earth, which might be understood to refer to the fruits, and animals, and manifold riches with which God has enriched the earth, and might convey this meaning, that in the ornaments and great variety of furniture of the world the glory of God shines, because they are so many proofs of a father’s love. But the more simple and natural interpretation is, that the glory of God fills the whole world, or is spread through every region of the earth. There is also, I think, an implied contrast, by which he puts down the foolish boasting of the Jews, who thought that the glory of God was nowhere to be seen but among themselves, and wished to have it shut up within their own temple. But Isaiah shows that it is so far from being confined to so narrow limits, that it fills the whole earth. And to this agrees the prophecy which immediately follows, (verse 10,) about the blinding of the Jews, which opened up for the Gentiles admission into the Church of God; for they occupied that place which the Jews had forsaken and left empty.