"Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips: and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." — Isaiah 6:5-8.
It is very blessed to trace, in the Old Testament Scriptures, the gracious way in which God has ever been ready to meet man as a sinner, and to contemplate that way which has always been through the sacrificial work of His beloved Son. When our first parents had garments presented to them to cover their nakedness, they were formed of coats of skins, to show us that blessing could only flow from God to man through sacrifice. When Abel obtained witness that he was righteous, it was because of the excellency of the sacrifice which he offered. The whole ritual of the last dispensation teaches us that God can only be approached by man through the sacrifice of a life. Hence it is that there is so much in the ancient Scriptures about dealing with God through the death of the sacrifice; all intended to show forth that in due time God would provide an all-sufficient sacrifice for man as a sinner. But it is here that people so mistake; and Christ crucified is to many still a stumbling-stone and rock of offence. Man's thought in general, if he think of God at all, is about his sacrificing for God; thus vainly hoping to appease God, and procure rest for his conscience by some works of self-denial; but God meets such a false thought at once by saying, "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice." This entails the most perfect self-sacrifice, because it lays on man the absolute necessity of setting self aside entirely, to confess the utter unworthiness of all self-righteousness, as well as of self altogether, and to rest only in Divine mercy, and on that sacrifice which God has so graciously provided. This has always been the teaching of God; and the same prophet, whose experience in the Lord's presence we are about to contemplate, afterwards published the solemn declaration, that "all flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever." Thus we find that the Spirit of God in olden time taught men that they were sinners, and that their most goodly things were perishing and passing away; and gave them the unalterable word of the Lord, as an immoveable rock for their souls to stay upon. And so it is now.
The chapter before us begins very abruptly. It tells us that the prophet had this vision of glory "in the year that king Uzziah died." But why is Uzziah thus introduced? May it not be, among other things, to remind us that the very best man on earth, the highest potentate of Judah's kingdom, the most honoured man in the world, stands in widest contrast with THE KING, THE LORD OF HOSTS? King Uzziah was a leper, and dwelt outside the camp; which shows us that sinful man, however high in office and dignity, is unfit for the presence of God; that man has no resources at all for cleansing the leprosy of sin, and that except God undertake to meet him with healing mercy, he must still remain unclean, and unfit for association with the God of holiness. Hence, on referring to the king's history, as recorded in 2 Chron. 26, we are told, that "Uzziah the king was a leper unto the day of his death, and dwelt in a several house, being a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord." Thus we find, on the very threshold of our subject, the humbling intimation of man's real character of uncleanness and distance from God, though he stand in the highest position of society, and hold the most exalted office, and that even among the most highly favoured people on earth.
In considering this very instructive portion of the Holy Scripture, we shall notice: 1. The prophet's vision of glory. 2. The effect of it upon himself. 3. The assurance of forgiveness he obtained. 4. His willing obedience.
1. The Prophet's Vision of Glory. "I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple." There, in spirit, before God, the prophet took his place. There he saw the seraphims, the servants of the most High God, His ministers that do His pleasure. He beheld them taking the place of profoundest reverence, covering their faces with two of their wings. He saw also that each of them covered his feet, to show that, while they had always walked obediently, they did not glory in their service, but with greatest humility gloried only in the Lord. He saw them also with outstretched wings, to signify their delight in doing God's will, and that they held themselves in readiness to fly swiftly at His bidding. he heard also the words uttered before the throne; he listened to the converse of creatures there, and found it was "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;" and "at the voice of him that cried, the posts of the door moved, and the house was filled with smoke." These things the prophet saw and heard. It was indeed an infinitely holy place. No unclean word was heard there; nothing impure escaped the lips of any; no irreverent action was seen; no presumptuous ways, no angry passions, no foolish actions, no indolent habits, no self-willed manners, were beheld there; for God is holy, and nothing unclean can abide His presence. The prophet was in the light, for God is light. He was beside the balance of the sanctuary, and all was love, and holiness, and truth.
2. The Effect of the Vision. Deeply serious and personal reflections occupied the prophet's mind. Man never rightly learns what he is, except in God's presence. It is a well-known fact among men, that if we would understand the true qualities of anything, we must bring it to the light. So it is as regards things spiritual. We may compare ourselves with our fellow-men, and arrive at most erroneous conclusions; thus, the temperate man, measuring himself with a drunkard, believes himself righteous: and the chaste flatter themselves with thoughts of superiority over the licentious; while all may be equally guilty of covetousness, and other uncleanness, in the sight of God. It is therefore not wise to compare ourselves with our neighbours, but, coming into the light of God's holy presence, we shall be truly made manifest. When Isaiah considered the peace, love, humility, holiness, purity, and truth that characterized all those who dwelt in Jehovah's glorious presence, what could the prophet's reflections be? How could he fail to ask himself such questions as, "Am I truly humble before God? Do I serve Him with reverence? Do I delight to do the will of God? Has my conversation been holiness to the Lord?" Surely the prophet felt the light of God's presence to be a heart-searching region! It was enough to show him that he was "unclean! unclean!" that he had come short of God's standard. It was enough to make him feel that he stood "justly condemned" before God, and righteously exposed to His judgment and wrath. Hence he cried out, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips."
Now notice here, dear friends, that the prophet's intense distress was concerning himself: "Woe is ME! for I am undone; because I am unclean," etc. He did not say, Woe are we! we are undone. No; true Christianity is a personal thing — "The heart knoweth its own bitterness." Many a sentimental professor in our day may be found ready to say, We are all sinners; we are not what we should be. Such talk about our Saviour, our religion, our society, etc., thus casting themselves in with others in a lump. But this will not do for God. This is not as the Spirit teaches. He convinces each one of his own sin. He so makes the conscience sensible of its guilt as to cause it to cry out, What must I do to be saved? "God be merciful to ME a sinner." "If I may but touch His garment, I shall be whole." "Woe is ME! for I am undone."
But more than this, he felt he was unclean before God — a man of unclean lips. Those lips which ought to be, like the seraphim's, consecrated to His praises, had given utterance to the unclean thoughts and feelings of the heart; for "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Like another Job, he could say, "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee: wherefore I abhor MYSELF, and repent in dust and ashes." The light of God's holy presence made his uncleanness manifest; he felt its depths so great, its blackness so foul, its wounds so incurable, that he condemned himself as undone — hopelessly and helplessly unclean before God; ungodly, unholy, without strength, without any hope of recovery in himself. Having thus learnt himself in God's presence, he was then able to discern that the people by whom he was surrounded were unclean also.
Such were the lessons that the prophet was effectually taught in God's presence. And so, in measure, all learn now who are under Divine teaching; for though we may not be favoured with such a vision of glory as the prophet had, yet the Holy Spirit makes us feel that we have to do with God, and that every creature is manifest in His sight. Moreover, when we now think of the presence of God, we see by faith the risen, ascended, and glorified Man, Christ Jesus. We see there, besides the holy seraphims, one who was a Man of Sorrows in this world of sin, one who was exposed to Satan's temptations, man's deceivings, and the world's unholiness; but He always did the will of Hines that sent Him, and finished His work; yea, He delighted in it, however much suffering it entailed. He never uttered an unclean word, or cherished an unholy thought, but from first to last yielded an unblemished life of holy obedience, sealing it with His own blood. When our thoughts thus centre around Him, a Lamb as it had been slain, now in the midst of the throne of heaven, we are bound to exclaim, that "all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way!" and that all our best works are unclean before God. How is it that people are not sensible of their guilt? Because they do not fear God; they do not consider what they are in God's sight; they do not come into His holy presence, and weigh in the balance of truth. When men begin to fear God, they consider that it is to Him they are responsible, as His creatures; that to Him they must give account; that He is the Judge of all; and that the holiness of heaven is the only true standard. Then they feel that they are sinners, rebels, unworthy, and have justly merited banishment from His glorious presence. Then they are awakened to their real danger; they become deeply anxious about their eternal state; and feeling despair in self, they come to the throne of God, exclaiming, "Woe is me! for I am undone."
In this way only are we taught by the Spirit that we are lost and undone. Men may know that they are sinners by comparing themselves with others: thus 'the thief knows that he is a sinner, because he is surrounded by many who are honest; the unjust knows that he is a sinner, because he is acquainted with some who are upright, etc. In this way only can we account for so many persons who evince no soul-distress being so ready to say, "I know I am a sinner." But when we are brought to think of ourselves as in God's holy presence, then, whatever have been our previous conceptions of our fancied goodness, we are made to feel guilty before God, and exposed to His coming judgment and wrath. Then, I say, our cry is, "Woe is me! for I am undone."
3. Now let us consider The Assurance of Forgiveness the Prophet Obtained. God in Christ is a blessed refuge for a sin-troubled soul; for He will be merciful to our unrighteousness, as was beautifully expressed by Elihu to Job: "God looketh upon men, and if any say, I have sinned and perverted that which is right, and it profited me not, He will deliver his soul from going down to the pit, and his life shall see the light." He will say, "Deliver him from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom!" This seems to be the rule of the throne of grace, and was just what the prophet experienced; for while he stood thus consciously before the King, the Lord of Hosts, in a repentant mind, confessing his uncleanness, groaning over his sin, condemning himself, acknowledging his undone state, we are immediately told, "Then (mark, then!) flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar; and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged." This is very blessed. It shows us that God waiteth to be gracious. It is a striking instance of the mercy of God to sinful man, and manifests His readiness to pardon and accept those who take a right place before Him. The prophet had an unmistakable warrant for the fullest assurance of his sins being put away, and of standing in the favour and blessing of God.
This assurance was based on two things — the application of the live coal from off the altar, and the word of the Lord. By the altar we are to understand a place where the sacrifice was burnt and presented to God. The cross of Christ is the only altar of New Testament days, and the various altars of the Old Testament were only types of it; and the coals of fire which consumed the sacrifices, and caused their savour to ascend to God, were figurative of that condemnation of sin which fell on Jesus, when He was made sin and a curse for us upon the cross of Calvary. The application, therefore, of the "live coal" to the prophet's "unclean lips" teaches us that God has, in His grace, provided an all-cleansing remedy for sin; that that remedy is found only in the sufferings, blood-shedding, and death of the Son of God; and that the moment the sin-burdened conscience realizes the virtue of that blood, the soul is at once at peace with God. It is the blood of Christ which maketh atonement. It is the blood of Christ which has made peace between the sinner and God. It is "in Christ Jesus" and "through His blood" that the far-off sinner is brought nigh to God. It is the blood of Christ alone which cleanseth from all sin. It is only by the blood of Christ that any person has peace and confidence in God's presence.
The prophet knew that his uncleanness was purged by the application of the live coal from off the altar; and the sinner that believes in Christ Jesus for salvation knows also that he has peace through the blood of the cross. But the prophet had also the word of the Lord to assure him of his pardon and acceptance; and, blessed be God, so have we. Some will try to persuade us that no one can know his sins forgiven till after death, and therefore it is great presumption for any one to say so. But I reply, Who say; I am forgiven? God says so; and if God says, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," why need I fear, even if the whole world says it is not so? He tells us that Christ hath put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, and that my sins are forgiven, if I believe on the Lord Jesus; for "to Him give all the prophets witness, that through His name whosoever believeth in Him shall receive remission of sins." Let God then be true; for He who said to the prophet, "Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged," says also now to me, and to all that believe on the Lord Jesus, "Be of good cheer; thy sins are forgiven thee." We wait not for dreams, or visions, or some miraculous actings upon the senses; but we rest on the precious blood of Christ, and are assured by the unalterable word of the Lord that our sins are forgiven.
"Oh, how sweet to see the flowing
Of His soul-redeeming blood!
With Divine assurance knowing
That it made my peace with God."
But there are some who, though they do not deny the present knowledge of forgiveness of sins, yet often hesitate to confess that they are saved. They forget that the object of Christ's incarnation and death was to SAVE, that He came to SAVE the lost — not to help, but to save — every one that believeth on Him. Hence He told the weeping woman at His feet, "Thy faith hath SAVED thee!" And when Zaccheus received Him joyfully, Jesus said, "This day is SALVATION come to this house." The work of Christ saves, and the word of Christ says, You are saved by faith!
"But shall I after all be in glory?" exclaim some of the uninstructed and feeble-minded of the household of faith. "Though I now rest in Christ, and am at peace with God, may I not after all be lost?" No, no, dear child of God; for the blood of Christ that speaks before the throne on my behalf now, will speak there for thee for ever; and Christ, who is thy righteousness now, will be thy righteousness for ever; and the Holy spirit, who dwells in thee now, though grieved and quenched, will dwell in thee for ever; and Christ, who pleads for thee in heaven now, will continually intercede for thee. Jesus hath thee securely, and will never let thee go: none shall pluck thee out of His hand; for thus saith the word of the Lord, "He is able to save them to the uttermost (i.e. right on to the end) that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them."
"The work which His goodness began,
The arm of His strength shall complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
Nor all things below nor above,
Can make Him His purpose forego,
Or sever our souls from His love."
4. His Willing Obedience. Some may say, You should preach Christian duty. So say I, only put it in its right place. Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments;" for He loves the "willing heart," and the "cheerful giver." When we know peace with God, through the amazing sacrifice of His beloved Son, it constrains us to love and serve Him to whom we owe so much. And we see the prophet was much in this spirit; for after he had received an unmistakable assurance of pardon and peace with God, he had a willing, grateful desire to addict himself to the Lord's service. He says, "I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me." This surely is willing service, happy duty; it is like taking the yoke of Jesus, whose yoke is easy, and whose burden is light. The wondrous love of Christ constrains us to love Him, who has so loved us; it calls upon us to praise and glorify Him, who has washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father; to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Dear reader! let me affectionately ask if you have solemnly considered how matters stand between you and God? Does He now behold you as at peace with Him? Are you sure that God says of you, as He did of the prophet, "Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin is purged"? This is the ground of peace with God — peace through the blood of Jesus — peace in the confidence that your sins were transferred to Jesus, and borne by Him, and that you are made the righteousness of God in Him.
Oh, my reader, if you feel the burden of your sins, and have not peace, come to Jesus at once, just as you are!
"Come, ye weary, heavy laden,
Lost and ruined in the fall!
If you tarry till you're better,
You will never come at all:
Not the righteous,
Sinners Jesus came to call:"