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Isaiah 6:1-8

Old Testament: Isaiah 6:1- 8

Background to the Book of Isaiah

Historical: The following table gives an indication when the prophet Isaiah was preaching. It is worth noting that Hosea in the Northern kingdom of Israel and Micah in the Southern kingdom of Judah were in the same period.

Kings Israel

Kings of Judah


Kings of Assyria

Menahem 748 - 737

Uzziah 769 – 736

Jotham 756 - 741

Hosea 745 Israel

Isaiah 742 Judah

Micah 735 Judah


745 - 727

Pekahiah 737 - 736

Pekah 735 - 732

Hoshea 731 - 723

Ahaz 741 - 715

Isaiah 742 - 701


727 - 722

Fall of Samaria


Hezekiah 715 - 687

Isaiah 742 - 701

Sargon 722 - 705

(The above dates are approximate because you will find slight variation among the scholars)

Isaiah, a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah, had four major periods of prophecy between the years 742 -701 BCE. One of these times was when Ahaz was king of Judah and the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser had initiated a campaign from the north into Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel (738 BCE). In order to combat the Assyrian army Israel had formed a coalition with Syria against Assyria. However, Judah refused to join that coalition having the benefit of some distance from the direct challenge of Assyria. The kings of Syria (Rezin) and Israel (Pekah) sought to replace by force the Judean king, Ahaz, in the city of Jerusalem. Isaiah, sharing with Ahaz the words he heard from Yahweh, made clear that Ahaz was to trust in God alone and not to go down the path of forming coalitions with other countries whether, Syria, Israel or Assyria.

Isaiah was alive when the Assyrians over ran the Northern kingdom of Israel and deported the majority of the ten tribes of Israel to countries which Assyria had defeated and who were in vassaldom to Assyria. There is some reference to this event, but not as much comment as one would expect for such a devastating occurrence. Isaiah prophesied that Jerusalem was safe because the Lord dwelt there in the temple. This was affirmed when the Assyrians were besieging Jerusalem and the people were becoming desperate when suddenly the Assyrians departed in a hurry leaving Jerusalem safe for another 114 years. The Book of Isaiah records this as a miracle of the Lord (Isa 37:36-38).

Literary Background to the Book: The whole book of Isaiah has been divided up into three main sections which appear to reflect preaching from different historical periods. Chapters 1-39 are often referred to as the prophecies from Isaiah of Jerusalem and cover the periods shown in the above table. Chapters 40-55 speak to the exiles, offering forgiveness and a strong encouragement to move back to Jerusalem. It contains some of the most beautiful language and a comprehensive theology of God as creator and redeemer. The remaining chapters 56-66 speak to a later post-exilic situation addressing quite different concerns to those expressed in Isa 40-55.

Isaiah 1-39 has some distinct sections within it. Isa 1 has a collection of oracles which appear to come from different periods of Isaiah's ministry. Isa 2-12 contains a collection of oracles mainly about Judah and Jerusalem, covering the threat from the Israel/Syria Coalition and the section ends with a psalm of deliverance. As each of the major prophets have a section with oracles against foreign nations so Isa 13-23 covers this topic. There are oracles against Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Assyrian crisis and Tyre. We then find in Isa 24-27 a collection of oracles which are called the Isaiah Apocalypse and is reminiscent of material from a much later period in Israel's history. The remaining oracles cover further oracles on the Assyrian crisis and this section finishes with narratives about Isaiah. Isa 36-38 are almost identical with 2 Kings 18-19.

The Isaiah Scroll which was found at Qumran in the caves there (1948) and came from a time (250-68 BCE) before the Massoretes added vowels to the language is almost an exact copy of the Hebrew Text from which we work today. This testifies to the ability of the scribes who copied the Hebrew texts

Context of Isa 6:1-8: In the chapters leading up to the call of Isaiah we have oracles which consist mainly of judgement and condemnation although Isaiah 2:1 - 4 speaks of the future as one of peace. We see in these earlier chapters two "Introductions" in Isaiah 1:1 and Isaiah 2:1 and it appears that we have additions and reworking of the Isaiah material. The condemnations are focussed on the unjust behaviour of the people towards others in society and their abandonment of following in the ways of Yahweh. For these sins, the judgement is going be particularly harsh and the people will be overrun by a foreign nation.

Quite suddenly, we are into Isaiah 6 with its picture of mystery and awe describing the call of Isaiah. The narratives that follow (Isaiah 7 - 8) illustrate the prophet's confrontation with Ahaz during the intrigue of the Syro-Ephraimite war. Isaiah offers words of reassurance to Ahaz and the prophecies concentrate on the fall of Israel. Warnings are given that no one is to consult with the spirits of the dead.

We ask the question: is there a particular reason the call of Isaiah is in chapter 6 and not in chapter one? Are we given this picture of the people's disloyalty and appalling treatment of the poor in order to see the necessity for Isaiah's call? We already know that there will be a hard path for the prophet because of the seriousness of the people's waywardness. Indeed, the effect of the hardening of heart spoken of in Isaiah 6:9 - 10 is demonstrated in Isaiah 7 - 8.

Insights/Message of Isa 6:1-8: Literary: The text places the call quite squarely in the reign of King Uzziah (v.1) and from what we know of Isaiah's period of prophecies, prior to Ahaz's ascension to the throne. The call of the prophet is placed within an historical setting, as Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the creed, to set a turning point in God's dealing with Israel (Childs 2001, 54). The call comes at the beginning of the Assyrian threat.

The heavenly scene set in vv 1-3 is a visual picture using words which bring mystery and awe to mind: the seraphim cover their faces in the presence of the Lord, the throne symbolises majesty and power, the voices cause pillars to shake, the presence of smoke which is an Old Testament symbol for the presence of God and within the picture is the voice of the seraph acknowledging the holiness of God and his presence is through out the whole earth. The picture with its symbolic language and actions leaves us in no doubt that this vision takes place within a setting in which God is Lord of all. The word "glory" is used in the priestly writings to mean the presence of God, a bit like the Holy Spirit. Because the seraphim speak, we are caught up in it in a way that would be different if it was third party speech and consequently we have to pay attention. The words are almost a parallel of words we say in the communion service which means for some people an immediate association with a special holy time and the presence of God in our communion service.

Within this heavenly image of holiness and power is set the human agendas of the kingdoms of Judah, Israel, Assyria and Syria (Isaiah 6-8).

Isaiah speaks using a very emotive word, "woe" which carries the sense of being undone, someone in deep stress almost into despair. In response to being in the presence of God Isaiah declares his unworthiness. The last part of his speech would have alerted the readers of that time to a knowledge they there have been occasions when anyone who saw Yahweh face to face would die (Exodus 20:19).

Instead of that happening to Isaiah we read that one of the Seraphim flies with a live coal and touching his mouth symbolises that Isaiah is now clean. The words of vv 6-7 remind people of the Day of Atonement when the priests made atonement for themselves and the people of Israel and all this takes places in the inner sanctuary (Leviticus 16). In Isaiah 6, instead of the priests, we have Isaiah who is a prophet in direct contact with God.

This scene reminds that there is no separation between the heavenly realms and the earth. The throne and the altar represent the two realms with no division between them.

Isaiah responds immediately to the voice of the Lord with an eagerness that is absent from, either the call of Moses, or Jeremiah. Isaiah has moved from his initial fear before the cleansing took place to a response which accepts the invitation from the Lord to go on behalf "of us" (v.8) without any hesitation. Notice the use of the first person plural. There is a plurality of heavenly beings and Isaiah is going on behalf of them all. We rarely use plural forms in the sense here that includes the heavenly beings. We might refer to the Trinity in plural form, but this not what is intended here.

This call narrative is similar in pattern to a number of the call narratives of the Major Prophets, that is, it begins with:

1. Divine confrontation - this can occur in auditory or vision form

2. Introductory word - here it includes seraphim and the Lord

3. Commission - there is usually some indication of what the Lord requires of the person

4. Objection - while this is quite common and can be seen in the initial response of Isaiah he responds to the presence, but after God actually asks "Who shall we send?", Isaiah is very eager in his response.

5. Reassurance - the reassurance takes various forms eg., eating a scroll in Ezekiel but is not really present in Isaiah.

6. Sign - in Jeremiah there were visions, in Isaiah the sign is the word of the Lord saying there will be hardness and judgement


As we can see from Isaiah 6:1-8 doesn't follow the pattern exactly set out above and I think it is appropriate to see similarities but to try and argue for either exact parallels or some deviation is not a helpful practice. It is helpful to say there are differences and ask what they mean theologically or there are similarities and what does this say about the experiences and writers of the Old Testament.

Message: How do we set pictures for those people who do not resonate easily with long sermons? Can pictures be painted in order that people can imagine the scene and the conversation that is about to happen?

God is present in the temple, the place of worship, it is reminder that God is present with us. For some people this is where a call can happen. I can remember when I was a very new member of the church the Principal of Parkin-Wesley College came and preached in Angaston Church. It was a challenge and call which came through the preaching and was instrumental in my eventual ordination to be a Minister of the Word. Many people are unwilling to see their response to situations are indeed a call by God on their lives. Sometimes it is helpful for someone to share their call and journey.

In this call of Isaiah repentance and forgiveness are offered and given, but this element is not always present in every call experience. The eagerness to serve after this occurs is a reality in many people's lives. It is when we see ourselves in all truth before God we realise our sinfulness and humanity. This is confronted by the love of God who constantly wants to be in relationship with us.

A call upon a person's life is often unexpected and can come in many different ways and situations. Sometimes we try to ignore it especially when we see the action required as too difficult, but the spirit of God will keep on reminding and prodding us. Like Isaiah some people are called to speak about situations which cause others to harden their hearts against change.

It is interesting to note the role of prophets in the Old Testament is diverse and they cannot be classified under one category. However, when we look at the great prophets they all end up confronting society, leaders as well as lay people, and do not have a comfortable place within the religious community. The role of prophecy is quite different as portrayed in Paul's writings and not one that stands out against the community challenging its loss of faith. The New Testament prophet is much more an individual who stands up and makes a prophecy within a worship service.

Resources/Worship for Isa 6:1-8: Worship: The story needs setting in context and this can be done quite briefly. Again, use could be made of the Dramatised Bible. You could do a David Kossov and speak about the story as though you had been there and witnessed the event.


The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.

The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Barton, J. Isaiah 1-39. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995.

Childs, Brevard. Isaiah. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Clements,R.E. Isaiah 1 - 39. NCB. Grand Rapids: Wm.Eerdmans, , 1980.

Hayes, J.H. & Isaiah, His Times and His Preaching, Abingdon,

Kaiser,O. Isaiah 1-12 (2nd ed), OTL, transl. J.Bowden, London: SCM Press, 1983.

Oswalt,J.N. The Book of Isaiah 1-39, Wm.Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1986.

Seitz,C.R. Isaiah 1-39, Interpretation, John Knox, Louisville, 1993.

Sweeney,M.A., Isaiah 1-39, FOTL, Wm.Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1996.

Tucker, Gene. 'The Book of Isaiah 1-39'. NIB. Vol VI. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Watts,J.D.W. Isaiah1-33, Isaiah 34-66, WBC, Word Book, Waco, 1985, 1987.

Wildberger,H. Isaiah 1-12, transl.T.H.Trapp, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1991


The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:


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