Holy, Holy, Holy - Reflection on Isaiah 6:1-13

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, May 20, 2024

Holy, Holy, Holy

Isaiah 6:1-13

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          It must be the very quintessence of allegory to connect Is.6 with Trinity Sunday, but, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying, “So it goes.” When those loud and rather spooky seraphim (or “burning ones,” since the word appears to derive from something to do with fire) fly around the vast figure of YHWH in the Jerusalem temple, as witnessed by an awestruck 8th century BCE Isaiah, something other than the Christian idea of the Trinity is certainly in the author’s mind. We cannot discern just how many of the creatures there were, but we are told that each of them had six wings, two for face coverings, two to cover their "feet” (perhaps private parts, as the word clearly means on occasion), and two with which to fly. During flight, each calls out to the other, “Holy, holy, holy is YHWH of the armies; the entire earth is filled with YHWH’s glory” (Is.6:3). And because of this “Trisagion” (the three-times mentioned “holy”), early Christians, not to mention modern collectors of the lectionary, apparently heard echoes of the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine not found clearly in the scriptures, but one that very early divided Christian believers into several camps, none of which was too fond of the other. In fact, several creeds found their origins in these trinitarian doctrinal fights: was Jesus “begotten not made?;” Was Jesus both God and human?; Did Jesus only seem to be human?; was God one or three, or both at the same time? and on and on.

          I must admit freely that I find the doctrine of the Trinity faintly ludicrous, however much many through the centuries have found in that notion much food for deep reflection, not to say much rancor and bitterness toward those, like me, who are not willing to join in that reflection and ultimate acceptance. I say that God is God; Jesus is a full human, the adopted child of God, and the Spirit is God’s other name when found in divine activity. That may be just as ridiculous as the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, but there it is for me.

          Now if those who hold with the idea of the Trinity are willing to move beyond mere intellectual debate about it and attempt to understand just what belief in the idea could mean for the living of one’s days, then I am more than willing to join the discussion. Because for Isaiah, contemplating and experiencing the awesome YHWH, as well as witnessing those terrifying seraphim flying about and screaming “holy,” the encounter with YHWH is no intellectual event, but an event that alters his understanding of his role as YHWH’s prophet, a role that appears to him to be one of enormous difficulty, not to mention one rife with scary implications. But one can only see those implications if one reads the final verses 9-13, which are invariably, but quite wrongly, omitted from the lectionary’s choice.

          Upon seeing YHWH and the seraphim, the prophet first recognizes his complete unworthiness to be in YHWH’s presence—“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips living amongst others with unclean lips! (Is.6:5), and wonders just what the mighty YHWH might do to such a filthy rag as he. Immediately, one of the seraphs flies down toward him with a pair of tongs containing burning coal from the altar with which the seraph proceeds to touch his mouth. In a quite hilarious understatement, the seraph then announces to Isaiah, “This has touched your lips” (Is.6:7). No kidding! I doubt very much that the prophet needs that reminder of what has just happened. But the seraph continues to announce that the prophet’s sins have been burned away, whereupon YHWH thunders a call directly from the great throne of the temple: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” employing that mysterious plural from Genesis 1, another allegorical possibility that has led countless commentators to conclude that God is speaking to the Son and the Spirit at this point. Why not to the seraphim, say I? They are the only ones other than God and Isaiah who are present in the literary scene.

          Isaiah quickly replies to the call, “Here am I; send me” (Is.6:8), which has been the source of no shortage of hymns, songs, and fervent interest in divine service. However, once the eager Isaiah finds out what his call entails, his fervency is severely blunted. He is told by YHWH in vs.9 that his call is to preach to a people that will not understand what he is saying, because his words will result in stopped ears, blind eyes, and dull minds (Is.6:9-10). Now he cries out not “Here am I,” but rather “How long, YHWH?” (Is.6:11). When YHWH answers that he must keep up his preaching “Until cities lie waste, without inhabitants, houses without people, and an utterly desolate land” (Is.6:11), the formerly eager Isaiah is completely silent.

          No modern reader should use Is.6 as a statement, either covertly or overtly, of the doctrine of the Trinity, but rather a bold proclamation of the extreme danger of hearing and following the call of God. “A prophet has no honor in his own land,” said another prophet nearly 800 years later; and the lives of most real prophets are quite short. Perhaps rather than argue about the Trinity, we all ought to contemplate what it finally means to follow God in a world that shows very little interest. Each time we sing that familiar hymn, “Hear I am, Lord,” we should always remind ourselves what finally we are signing up for; it is at the last no pleasant stroll in the park, but a hard journey on the way to justice and righteousness for all God’s people. Isaiah learned that lesson all too well in his subsequent decades of prophetic ministry.

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