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Isaiah’s Commission

In the year of King Uzziah’s death,[a] I saw the Lord[b] seated on a high, elevated throne. The hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs[c] stood over him; each one had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet,[d] and they used the remaining two to fly. They called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy[e] is the Lord of Heaven’s Armies![f] His majestic splendor fills the entire earth!” The sound of their voices shook the door frames,[g] and the temple was filled with smoke.

I said, “Woe to me! I am destroyed,[h] for my lips are contaminated by sin,[i] and I live among people whose lips are contaminated by sin.[j] My eyes have seen the king, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.”[k] But then one of the seraphs flew toward me. In his hand was a hot coal he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Look, this coal has touched your lips. Your evil is removed; your sin is forgiven.”[l] I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Whom will I send? Who will go on our behalf?”[m] I answered, “Here I am, send me!” He said, “Go and tell these people:

“‘Listen continually, but don’t understand.
Look continually, but don’t perceive.’
10 Make the hearts of these people calloused;
make their ears deaf and their eyes blind.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
their hearts might understand and they might repent and be healed.”[n]
11 I replied, “How long, Lord?” He said,
“Until cities are in ruins and unpopulated,
and houses are uninhabited,
and the land is ruined and devastated,
12 and the Lord has sent the people off to a distant place,
and the very heart of the land is completely abandoned.[o]
13 Even if only a tenth of the people remain in the land,
it will again be destroyed,[p]
like one of the large sacred trees[q] or an Asherah pole,[r]
when a sacred pillar[s] on a high place[t] is thrown down.[u]
That sacred pillar symbolizes the special chosen family.”[v]


  1. Isaiah 6:1 sn That is, approximately 740 b.c.
  2. Isaiah 6:1 tn The Hebrew term translated “Lord” here and in vv. 8, 11 is אֲדֹנָי (ʾadonay).
  3. Isaiah 6:2 tn Hebrew שָׂרָף (saraf, “seraph”) literally means “burning one,” perhaps suggesting that these creatures had a fiery appearance (cf. TEV, CEV “flaming creatures”; NCV “heavenly creatures of fire”). Elsewhere in the OT the word “seraph” refers to poisonous snakes (Num 21:6; Deut 8:15; Isa 14:29; 30:6). Perhaps they were called “burning ones” because of their appearance or the effect of their venomous bites, which would cause a victim to burn up with fever. It is possible that the seraphs seen by Isaiah were at least partially serpentine in appearance. Though it might seem strange for a snake-like creature to have wings, two of the texts where “seraphs” are snakes describe them as “flying” (Isa 14:29; 30:6), perhaps referring to their darting movements. See the note at 14:29.
  4. Isaiah 6:2 sn Some understand “feet” here as a euphemistic reference to the genitals.
  5. Isaiah 6:3 tn Some have seen a reference to the Trinity in the seraphs’ threefold declaration, “holy, holy, holy.” This proposal has no linguistic or contextual basis and should be dismissed as allegorical. Hebrew sometimes uses repetition for emphasis. (See IBHS 233-34 §12.5a; and GKC 431-32 §133.k.) By repeating the word “holy,” the seraphs emphasize the degree of the Lord’s holiness. For another example of threefold repetition for emphasis, see Ezek 21:27 (Heb. v. 32). (Perhaps Jer 22:29 provides another example.)sn Or “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies has absolute sovereign authority!” The basic sense of the word “holy” is “set apart from that which is commonplace, special, unique.” In this context the Lord’s holiness is first and foremost his transcendent sovereignty as the ruler of the world. He is “set apart” from the world over which he rules. Note the emphasis on the elevated position of his throne in v. 1 and his designation as “the king” in v. 5. At the same time his holiness encompasses his moral authority, which derives from his royal position. As king he has the right to dictate to his subjects how they are to live; indeed his very own character sets the standard for proper behavior. He is “set apart” from his subjects in a moral sense as well. He sets the standard; they fall short of it. Note that in v. 5 Isaiah laments that he is morally unworthy to be in the king’s presence.
  6. Isaiah 6:3 tn Perhaps in this context, the title has a less militaristic connotation and pictures the Lord as the ruler of the heavenly assembly. See the note at 1:9.
  7. Isaiah 6:4 tn On the phrase אַמּוֹת הַסִּפִּים (ʾammot hassippim, “pivots of the frames”) see HALOT 763 s.v. סַף.
  8. Isaiah 6:5 tn Isaiah uses the suffixed (perfect) form of the verb for rhetorical purposes. In this way his destruction is described as occurring or as already completed. Rather than understanding the verb as derived from דָּמַה (damah, “be destroyed”), some take it from a proposed homonymic root דמה, which would mean “be silent.” In this case, one might translate, “I must be silent.”
  9. Isaiah 6:5 tn Heb “a man unclean of lips am I.” Isaiah is not qualified to praise the king. His lips (the instruments of praise) are “unclean” because he has been contaminated by sin.
  10. Isaiah 6:5 tn Heb “and among a nation unclean of lips I live.”
  11. Isaiah 6:5 tn Perhaps in this context, the title has a less militaristic connotation and pictures the Lord as the ruler of the heavenly assembly. See the note at 1:9.
  12. Isaiah 6:7 tn Or “ritually cleansed,” or “atoned for” (NIV).
  13. Isaiah 6:8 tn Heb “for us.” The plural pronoun refers to the Lord, the seraphs, and the rest of the heavenly assembly.
  14. Isaiah 6:10 sn Do we take this commission at face value? Does the Lord really want to prevent his people from understanding, repenting, and being healed? Verse 9, which ostensibly records the content of Isaiah’s message, is clearly ironic. As far as we know, Isaiah did not literally proclaim these exact words. The Hebrew imperatival forms are employed rhetorically and anticipate the response Isaiah will receive. When all is said and done, Isaiah might as well preface and conclude every message with these ironic words, which, though imperatival in form, might be paraphrased as follows: “You continually hear, but don’t understand; you continually see, but don’t perceive.” Isaiah might as well command them to be spiritually insensitive, because, as the preceding and following chapters make clear, the people are bent on that anyway. (This ironic command is comparable to saying to a particularly recalcitrant individual, “Go ahead, be stubborn!”) Verse 10b is also clearly sarcastic. On the surface it seems to indicate Isaiah’s hardening ministry will prevent genuine repentance. But, as the surrounding chapters clearly reveal, the people were hardly ready or willing to repent. Therefore, Isaiah’s preaching was not needed to prevent repentance! Verse 10b reflects the people’s attitude and might be paraphrased accordingly: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their mind, repent, and be restored, and they certainly wouldn’t want that, would they?” Of course, this sarcastic statement may also reveal that the Lord himself is now bent on judgment, not reconciliation. Just as Pharaoh’s rejection of Yahweh’s ultimatum ignited judgment and foreclosed, at least temporarily, any opportunity for repentance, so the Lord may have come to the point where he has decreed to bring judgment before opening the door for repentance once more. The sarcastic statement in verse 10b would be an emphatic way of making this clear. (Perhaps we could expand our paraphrase: “Otherwise they might…repent, and be restored, and they certainly wouldn’t want that, would they? Besides, it’s too late for that!”) Within this sarcastic framework, verse 10a must also be seen as ironic. As in verse 9 the imperatival forms should be taken as rhetorical and as anticipating the people’s response. One might paraphrase: “Your preaching will desensitize the minds of these people, make their hearing dull, and blind their eyes.” From the outset the Lord might as well command Isaiah to harden the people, because his preaching will end up having that effect. Despite the use of irony, we should still view this as a genuine, albeit indirect, act of divine hardening. After all, God did not have to send Isaiah. By sending him, he drives the sinful people further from him, for Isaiah’s preaching, which focuses on the Lord’s covenantal demands and impending judgment upon covenantal rebellion, forces the people to confront their sin and then continues to desensitize them as they respond negatively to the message. As in the case of Pharaoh, Yahweh’s hardening is not arbitrarily imposed on a righteous or even morally neutral object. Rather his hardening is an element of his righteous judgment on recalcitrant sinners. Ironically, Israel’s rejection of prophetic preaching in turn expedites disciplinary punishment, and brings the battered people to a point where they might be ready for reconciliation. The prophesied judgment (cf. 6:11-13) was fulfilled by 701 b.c. when the Assyrians devastated the land (a situation presupposed by Isa 1:2-20; see especially vv. 4-9). At that time the divine hardening had run its course and Isaiah is able to issue an ultimatum (1:19-20), one which Hezekiah apparently took to heart, resulting in the sparing of Jerusalem (see Isa 36-39 and cf. Jer 26:18-19 with Mic 3:12).This interpretation, which holds in balance both Israel’s moral responsibility and the Lord’s sovereign work among his people, is consistent with other pertinent texts both within and outside the Book of Isaiah. Isa 3:9 declares that the people of Judah “have brought disaster upon themselves,” but Isa 29:9-10 indicates that the Lord was involved to some degree in desensitizing the people. Zech 7:11-12 looks back to the pre-exilic era (cf. v. 7) and observes that the earlier generations stubbornly hardened their hearts, but Ps 81:11-12, recalling this same period, states that the Lord “gave them over to their stubborn hearts.”
  15. Isaiah 6:12 tn Heb “and great is the abandonment in the midst of the land.”
  16. Isaiah 6:13 tn Or “be burned” (NRSV); NIV “laid waste.”
  17. Isaiah 6:13 tn By the time of Mishnaic Hebrew the terms כָּאֵלָה וְכָאַלּוֹן (kaʾelah vekaʾallon) meant “like a terebinth or like an oak.” They may have originally been generic terms for large trees, “like a massive tree or like a big tree.” See HALOT 52, s.v. I אֵלָה and 54, s.v. I אֵלוֹן. These two trees were often part of cultic worship and this significance is prioritized in the translation.
  18. Isaiah 6:13 tc The translation accepts the emendation in BHS, reading אֲשֵׁרָה (ʾasherah) rather than אֲשֶׁר (ʾasher, “which”). The term אֲשֵׁרָה may refer to the goddess Asherah or a sacred pole which presumably represented the goddess at worship sites. The translation also treats the Asherah as the third in a series of items, as if וְכַאֲשֵׁרָה (vekaʾasherah, “and like an Asherah”). But it may just as well be modifying the previous noun so that the whole phrase reads “like a terebinth and like the oak of an Asherah.” See J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (WBC), 101, 103.
  19. Isaiah 6:13 tn The noun מַצֶּבֶת (matsevet) occurs only 4 times, twice in 2 Sam 18:18 and twice here. Most translations render it as “stump” (NASB, NIV, NRSV, ESV). HALOT identifies it as a memorial stone in 2 Sam 18:18 and says for Isa 6:13 that “the earlier translation ‘root-stock’ is questionable” (HALOT 621 s.v.).
  20. Isaiah 6:13 tc The MT reads בָּם (bam, “in them”) while the Qumran scroll 1QIsaa reads במה (bamah, “high place”). The syntax of בָּם is difficult in context and only translated by the KJV, “as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.” The KJV’s reference to casting leaves assumes other emendations, or misinterprets or guesses at another meaning for the rare term שַׁלֶּכֶת (shalleket, “felled”). The other major translations omit rendering בָּם into English. The LXX has omitted this among several words lost to haplography.
  21. Isaiah 6:13 tc The MT reads בְּשַׁלֶּכֶת (beshalleket, “in felling”) as part of “like a terebinth or like an oak, which in felling a pillar in them holy seed her pillar.” The Qumran scroll 1QIsaa has משׁלכת which appears to be a Hophal feminine participle from שָׁלַך (shalakh) meaning “[being] thrown down.” Though the text is difficult, the references to sacred trees and a sacred pillar suggest that the destruction of a high place is in view, an apt metaphor for the judgment of idolatrous Judah.
  22. Isaiah 6:13 tn Heb “a holy offspring [is] its sacred pillar.” The text is difficult, leaving its meaning and its application unclear. If מַצֶּבֶת (matsevet) is taken as “stump,” one can see in this statement a brief glimpse of hope. The tree (the nation) is chopped down, but the stump (a righteous remnant) remains from which God can restore the nation. However, if מַצֶּבֶת is taken as “sacred pillar” (מַצֶּבָה, matsevah; see the previous note), it is much more difficult to take the final statement in a positive sense. In this case “holy offspring” alludes to God’s ideal for his covenant people, the offspring of the patriarchs. Ironically that “holy” nation is more like a “sacred pillar” and it will be thrown down like a sacred pillar from a high place and its land destroyed like the sacred trees located at such shrines. Understood in this way, the ironic statement is entirely negative in tone, just like the rest of the preceding announcement of judgment. It also reminds the people of their failure; they did not oppose pagan religion, instead they embraced it. Now they will be destroyed in the same way they should have destroyed paganism. Another approach (see J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, [WBC], 101, 109) is to take v. 12 and the beginning of 13 as the prophet asking a question, essentially “will it be destroyed?” Then the Lord answers beginning with the analogy, “Like one of the large sacred trees.” If מַצֶּבָה is to be taken as a memorial, then the holy seed would serve as a reminder of their failure. But the question and answer would address a relevant question anticipated for the audience.