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Temple Themes in Isaiah 6

Chapter five relates the famous parable of the vineyard (5:1-10, compare Jacob 5),

condemns the sins of Israel (5:11-25), for which Yahweh raises of an ensign to summon the

armies of Assyria to punish wicked Israel (5:26-30). There are no significant temple motifs in

this chapter, but it is important to note the symbolism of the raising of the ensign (5:26).1 In

some cases, as here, Yahweh raises his banner to summon foreign armies to punish Israel (5:26,

13:2, 30:17). On the other hand, anti-typically, the raising of the banner can also summon Israel

and the nations to gather Jerusalem for the millennial Great Pilgrimage to the temple (11:10-12,

49:22, 62:10). I will discuss this theme in greater detail later.

Chapter 6 is one of the most important temple-texts in Isaiah, and indeed the entire Bible.

It introduces two important concepts of temple symbolism in the Bible: the “throne theophany,”

and the “divine council.”2 A throne theophany is when a visionary sees God enthroned; the

divine council is a body of celestial beings who surround the throne of God, counseling and

serving him.3 In many ways the divine throne and council are heavenly parallels to the earthly

royal throne and court, or--from the ancient perspective--the royal throne and court of a mortal

1 Nes is a ensign, flag, standard or banner.

2Min Suc Kee, “The Heavenly Council and its Type-scene,” Journal for the Study of the Old
Testament, 31/3 (2007)
3For contextualization within the broader context of biblical theophanies, George W. Savran,
Encountering the Divine: Theophany in Biblical Narrative (New York: T&T Clark International,
king were organized in conscious in imitation of God’s celestial throne and court. There are a

number of examples of both types of visions in the Bible and related literatures. 4

Isaiah’s vision begins in the last year of the reign of king Uzziah (733 BCE). There is no

precise context given in the text, but many scholars believe this was Isaiah’s first visionary call

to be a prophet. It is thus, in fact, chronologically the very beginning of his ministry. Isaiah sees

“the Lord/adonāy” seated on a magnificent elevated throne in “the temple (haykāl).” Haykāl in

Hebrew can mean either the palace of a mortal king, the “holy place” or main room of the

temple, and, by extension the temple as a whole. The ordinary word for temple in Hebrew is

merely house/bet, such as the “house of Yahweh” or the “house of God.” Paralleling this, haykāl

is simply a big house, or palace. So, where, precisely, is Isaiah having his vision? Is it the

earthly temple, or the celestial temple? The ambiguity may be intentional, since the earthly

temple is thought to have been an imitation of the celestial temple, which is God’s dwelling place

in heaven.5

When Isaiah sees Yahweh seated on his throne in the temple, he is surrounded by

extraordinary Seraphim (śerafīm). 6 These are often understood by modern readers to be angels,

but are never explicitly so called in the Old Testament. (Only in the New Testament is God’s

41 Kgs 22.19-23; Isaiah 6; Job 1 and 2; Psalm 82; Zechariah 3, and Dan. 7.9-14; Mt 19:28,
25:31; Heb 8:1, 12:2; the entire book of Revelation is in a sense an extended throne theophany
on the Day of Atonement. For LDS insights, B Ostler, “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic
Commission in 1 Nephi: a Form-Critical Analysis” BYU Studies 26/4 (Fall 1986).
5Ex 15:17; 1 Kgs 22:19; Ps 11:4, 18:6, 102:19, 150:1; Rev: 7:15; 11:19; 14:15-17; 15:5-6, 8;
16:1, 17, Laws, 1.66; C. Fletcher-Louis, “God’s Image, His Cosmic Temple and the High Priest,”
D. Alexander and S Gathercole (eds), Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology,
(Paternoster, 2004) 81-99; Parry, J. and D. Parry, “The Temple in Heaven: Its Description and
Significance,” TAW 515-32. V. Aptowitzer, The Celestial Temple as Viewed in the Aggadah.
Jerusalem, 1980.
6 Is 14:29, 30:6, Num 21:6-8, Dt 8:5, 15;
throne said to be surrounded by angels.) The Hebrew word śeraf means “fiery” and may well be

an adjective rather than a proper name--the Fiery Ones. In the Old Testament context, these

Fiery Ones should probably be equated with the

“sons of God,” part of the divine council or

assembly of the gods. Later medieval theology

see the seraphim as a distinct class of angelic

being, different from the cherubim, but in Isaiah

it may well be that it is simply an adjective

describing cherubim. We know that images of

Cherubim were carved on the temple walls, and

made into statues in the Holy of Holies (1 Kgs

6:29, 32, 35, 7:29, 36, 8:6). Likewise, an image

of Seraphim were kept in the temple. In Num

21:6-9 Moses made bronze images of seraphim

“fiery serpents” and placed them on a pole to

heal his people from snake bites. This pole,

known as the Nechustan, was kept in the temple until A bronze serpent found in a 12th century
Midianite tabernacle shrine in Timnah in
the days of Hezekiah, when it was destroyed during south Israel, probably paralleling the
Nechustan of Moses kept in the temple
his reforms (2 Kg 18:4). Thus, images of seraphim until the days of Hezekiah. It is only a
few inches long (WJH).
were in the temple in the lifetime of Isaiah.

Be that as it may, from the perspective of temple theology, the Seraphim are clearly

serving as priests in Yahweh’s celestial temple. They are singing hymns of praise to Yahweh
(6:3), and serving at the incense altar before his throne (6:6), precisely as human priests do in the

earthly temple. Isaiah hears Seraphim are chanting this hymn of praise:

Holy (qādōš), holy, holy is Yahweh of Armies

All the land is filled with his glory! (6:3)

This liturgical temple hymn, sung by the angels, has widespread impact on both Jewish, Catholic

and Orthodox liturgies. In Judaism it is the basis for the Kedusha prayer, in Catholicism for the

sanctus, and in Greek Orthodoxy the Trisagion, or “thrice-holy.” Throughout history millions

have recited this temple hymn in harmony with the Seraphim. Isaiah calls Yahweh the “Holy

One of Israel” (qedōš yesrā’el) thirty times, (a title used only six times in the rest of Old

Testament). It may be that Isaiah’s near unique use of this phrase derived from this vision, and is

thus his temple-title for Yahweh--The Seraphim call Yahweh Holy, and he is thus the Holy One

[of the Temple]. Note, also, that here “all the land,” (alternatively “the whole earth”) is filled

with the glory of Yahweh, not just the temple.

In Isaiah’s vision the temple is filled with smoke from the burning incense altar (6:4),

creating an artificial cloud to mask the glory of Yahweh from profane eyes--thus, in effect,

creating a cloud theophany (Isa 4:5, 30:27; Ex 19:18; Ps 18:8). But Isaiah apparently

inadvertently sees the sacred proceedings and fears for his life: “Woe is me, for I am lost!” (6:5).

Why is Isaiah terrified to be in the presence of Yahweh in the temple? His first concern is his

“unclean lips,” his second is that he has “seen the King, Yahweh of Armies” (6:5). In other

words he has entered the temple in an impure state, and he has looked upon the face ofYahweh.

The Seraphim piously cover their eyes with their wings so they will not gaze upon Yahweh
(6:2a) because entering into the presence of Yahweh in the temple in an impure state can bring

death (Ex 28:35, 30:20; Lev 8:35, 10:6, 16:2, 13. 22:9).

A related unstated fear might be that Isaiah was not a priest, and therefore should not be

in the temple at all. It is worth noting in this regard that king Uzziah had personally entered the

temple to offer incense, usurping the role of the priests, and was struck with leprosy because of it

(2 Chr 26:16-23), which rendered him perpetually ritually unfit to participate in any temple

ritual. In a sense, Uzziah profaned the temple and was perpetually cast out by Yahweh.

Undoubtedly this event fueled Isaiah’s fear. But, while king Uzziah was cast from the presence

of Yahweh by the infliction of leprosy, Isaiah is purified by Yahweh and permitted to worship in

the temple with the Seraphim, a role ideally restricted to priests. One of the Seraphim takes a

burning coal from the incense altar, which stood before the veil of the temple, and touched

Isaiah’s lips with the coal, thus burning away his sins and impurities (6:6-7). “Behold,” says the

Seraph, “this has touched your lips; your guilt is turned aside, and your sins atoned for” (6:8).

In this purified state, Isaiah can now stand in the presence of Yahweh, and becomes one

of his celestial council. He is allowed not only to remain in the temple, but participate in divine

deliberations. Yahweh is trying to choose which of his Seraphim will be sent as his messenger to

Israel. “Whom shall I send?” asked Yahweh, “who will go for us?”--us here meaning for the

assembled council of the gods. Isaiah volunteers to go--”Here I am, send me”--without actually

knowing the mission (6:8). He is thus called as Yahweh’s prophet to Israel, and is given a

specific message to relay. The book of Isaiah is an elaboration on this message.

Isaiah has, in a sense, become a surrogate High Priest, entering the celestial temple on the

Day of Atonement in the place of the apostate High Priest of the profaned earthly temple. There
Isaiah first receives atonement for his own sins (6:7)--just as the High Priest does on the Day of

Atonement (Lev 16:11)--but cannot receive it for Israel as a whole, who will not “repent and be

healed” (6:10b). As surrogate High Priest Isaiah intervenes on behalf of his people: “How long,

O Lord” will the divine curse remain upon Israel (6:11)? But Israel is given only a slight

reprieve: cities will be laid waste and the whole land made desolate, left like the burned stump of

a felled oak (6:11-13). But there is the one promise of hope, for “the holy seed is in the [ruined]

stump” (6:13). This, then is the foundation of the promise of the remnant and the Branch

discussed in 4:2-6, and elsewhere.

Throughout the book Isaiah’s dual message of desolation and restoration is an expansion

of the details of this original throne theophany in the temple. Presumably the destruction

described in this vision (6:9-13) has reference to the Assyrian conquest of Israel and Samaria in

721, and the subsequent invasion of Judea by Sennacherib in 701 BCE in which all of Judea was

devastated save the city of Jerusalem alone. Jerusalem, its temple, and Hezekiah’s Davidic line

are thus the stump in which the Holy Seed survives, and out of which the Branch will grow.