In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’
Isaiah has a vision of God. Never mind the angels – it is God that Isaiah sees. This is a privilege afforded to very few Old Testament characters. Seeing God is far more significant than seeing angels. God, however, is not easily described. Isaiah tells us that he is high and exalted, and wearing a very long robe. He is in his Temple, and there is a fiery altar.
He has words to describe the angels flying above the throne. They are there because God is there. Isaiah sees an unspecified number of seraphs flying above the throne of God. Did they look like budgerigars flitting around in an aviary, or did they float gently? We do not know, and it is important that we avoid creating fixed pictures in our heads about these things but rather keep an open mind.
Isaiah names them as seraphim. Like cherubim, the collective/plural ends in “im”. The seraphim Isaiah sees all look similar – six wings, two of which gave them flight. The other four will also have been working wings, but in God’s presence they were used to cover their faces and feet. That would be a lot of wings to manage!
I want you to imagine the sound that greeted Isaiah. Angels have voices, big voices, voices that shake the temple of heaven. You might think that God’s temple would be an immovable structure! Was the sound of the angels like that of a trained choir? It doesn’t say that they were singing. Were they calling out in an ordered way, or was each seraph voicing his worship individually? They certainly appeared to be using the same words.
It's too much for Isaiah. In the presence of God (not of the angels) he is convicted of his sin and uncleanliness. A seraph is appointed to perform a symbolic act of cleansing – I wouldn’t think that Isaiah went away with a burned mouth – and Isaiah is able to respond to the call of God.
How many seraphs would God require to be around his throne?
What do you think angel-wings are made of?
Father God, we may create little throne-rooms in the way we order and decorate our churches, and especially our cathedrals. Our stained-glass angels tend to stay still and quiet, and the smoke alarm might complain should you turn up. All the same, I pray that you shake me and my fellowship to our foundations with your presence. Amen.