These are some of my notes for Sunday, Mar 8, 2009 in the Lifeway Explore the Bible quarterly series.
Books referenced here include:
1.) Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Intervarsity Press, 2000
2.) J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), IVP Academic, 1999
3. ) Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Gleason Archer, R. Laird Harris, Bruce Waltke, 1980 link
4.) Gary V. Smith, NAC: Isaiah:1-39, B& H Publishers, 2007
5.)Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
death of Uzziah: Uzziah’s reign is generally dated 792-740 BC. Scholars suspect he had co-regencies with his father Amaziah (796-767BC) and his son Jotham (750-732BC). He was a contemporary of Jeroboam II (782-753), Zechariah (753), Shallum (752), Menahem 752-742), Pekahiah (742740), and Pekah (740-732) of Israel. Assyrian rulers of the period included Adad- Nirari III (811-783), Shalmaneser IV(783-773), Ashur-Dan III (773-755), Ashur-Nirari V(755-745) and Tiglath-Pileser III(755-727). Assyria’s weakness at the time allowed for the peace and posterity of Israel and Judah, but with Tiglath-Pileser III’s ascension Assyria became aggressive and began the path to an empire that would rule the Near East for about a century. Tiglath-Pileser first campaigned to the West about 740-38 BC, right at the end of Uzziah’s reign. Thus Uzziah’s death was a historical benchmark for Judah. (BBCOT, Vos, Wiki)
One can see the whole chapter as a special gift from God to Isaiah, to prepare him for the prophethood spoken of in the rest of Isaiah. The question of whether this is a second special calling to a new task for Isaiah, and thus the first six chapters of Isaiah are in actual chronological order (the traditional interpretation), or this is the first calling of Isaiah placed after chapters 1-5, which serve as a explanatory preface for Isaiah’s call (popular scholarly interpretation), si a difficult one, but on the whole I fall in with the traditional interpretation. Smith gives several reasons to think this a special call:
1. No other prophet commissioned to harden people’s hearts, though Ezekiel comes close.
2. Isaiah plainly acting as prophet in chapters 2-5 while Uzziah still alive.
3. Isaiah’s message changes after chapter 6 to more political commentary and consequences of disobeying.(Smith)
I saw the Lord: Though it is impossible to see God (Gen 32:30; Ex 19:21, 33:20; Jud 13:22, Jn 1:18) God can manifest Himself in visible ways (Gen 16:9-13, 28:13-15; Ex 24:9-11, 34:5-10; 1 Kg 22:19). It is simply impossible to see the full reality of God. Isaiah’s sighting was either a manifestation within the actual temple or a vision.(Smith)
throne: The Holy of Holies within the temple is seen as God’s throne room, the ark of the covenant as His throne’s footstool.(BBCOT)
high and lofty: This is often taken to refer to the throne, which was presumably atop a flight of steps. Others see it as a description of God, His character.
train of His robe: Hems of robes were symbols of status in the ANE, typically highly embroidered with long tassels. Deities and semi-deities were typically portrayed as huge in ancient cultures.
Seraphs: This is the only mention of seraphs in the Bible. Like many supernatural creatures they are described as composite beings, making picturing them difficult. Seraph is also used to describe snakes (Num 21:8; Deu 8:15) and since Isaiah refers to flying (darting) serpents (Is 14:29, 30:6), there is evidence this refers to flying serpents, though again they have faces, feet, and hands. In Egypt the serpent was a symbol of royalty, and sometimes pictured with wings. There have been seals excavated from this period in ancient Israel with winged serpents on them, so it seems the seraph was a known image of Isaiah’s day.(BBCOT, Smith)
Why do seraphs cover faces and feet?
1. Shame or guilt?
2. Inability to look at God, because of #1 or simply God’s overwhelming greatness is too much even for angels to behold?
3. Humility in God’s presence
#3 seems the best answer. Alec Motyer suggests the covering of feet is symbolic of direction of life (Ps 18:33; Pr 1:15-16, 4:27), thus angels await God’s order for what they will do. (Smith, Motyer)
Repetition in Hebrew is a means of expressing superlatives (2 Kg 25:15; Gen 14:10). Typically something is said twice, but here “holy” is repeated three times, expressing God’s utter apartness, His complete unique, apartness from all His creations. Qadas “holy” can refer to “brightness” or “separatedness”, uniqueness.
“Whole earth is full of His glory”: This is a puzzling statement. Some see it as referring to Nature as revealing God’s supremeness. Others see it as implying that God is ruler of the whole world, the universe. Smith suggests this text is related to Ps 72:19, where the prayer asks that the whole earth be filled with God’s glory. Since there is no verb in the seraph’s hymn, Smith suggests translating “whole earth will be full of his glory”.(Smith, Motyer, Childs)
Shaking temple, filling with smoke: Is the shaking a side effect of the unearthly voices of the seraphs, or more likely, part of the response of our poor physical reality to the overwhelming presence of God? The smoke is a typical part of God’s appearances, both announcing His presence and masking what He is. (Motyer, Smith)
Ruined: The translation here depends on which of two roots you see the Hebrew coming from. Dama means “ruined, destroyed”, while domi means “rest, silence”. Isaiah is decrying his unworthiness here, the typical reaction of any being coming in the presence of God, but what does that do to him? Do he feel he must be destroyed, or simply think he is out of place, unable to speak or take part in the seraphs praise of God?
unclean lips: Tame, “unclean”, at its most basic represents ceremonial uncleanness, ritual impurity, and is not necessarily based on any action (sin) of a person. Objects can be impure as well, and certain illnesses made one unclean. On the other hand, uncleanness becomes a metaphor in the Prophets for moral faults (Hag 2:13-14; Eze 23:7,13, 17; 24:13; 36:17; 43:7; Hos 5:3, 6:10; Jer 2:23, 13:27; Mic 2:1-7, 10; Is 64:6). Thus while one might reason Isaiah merely felt ritually unclean to be in the presence of God or to join the praise of the seraphs (unclean lips), as ANE stories of human/divine encounters indicate, it seems more likely that Isaiah is speaking of his sinfulness in presence of a sinless God.( Here unclean lips metaphorically stand for the whole person). (Motyer, Smith, TWOT)
people of unclean lips: Why mention the people? Likely it is an identification with the people, as fellow sinner and as a prophet. It also supplies a forthcoming hint of the answer to the people’s sin. (Smith)
Once Isaiah confesses his sin, God acts through a seraph, who explains to Isaiah the significance of the coal to the lips. Depending on the exact location of the vision, the coal might be from the sacrificial altar, the incense altar, or even from beneath the throne of God, as in Eze 10:2. (Smith)
purification of lips: Mesopotamian rituals often feature purification of the lips as symbolic of purification of the whole person. It is seen as a necessary step, especially before divine priests can report to divine councils. (BBCOT)
atonement: Fire is commonly seen as a purifying element, and many scholars now think “atonement” is more accurately described as “purification”, maintaining ritual sanctity so holy God can remain among the people, or will not abandon His temple.(BBCOT)
The Hebrew here is sur “removed, turned away” for “evil” Hebrew awon and kapar “atone by substitution” for “sin” Hebrew het. One might see the actions here as implying simply ritual impurity in the presence of God, but the vocabulary strongly implies genuine sin. Hebrew being as it is, the words for sin not only connote the sin act but the necessary punishment for it.(TWOT)
This cleansing prepares Isaiah for the next phase of the vision, a special gift of encouragement to him by God.
It is common in ancient religion to depict “heaven” as including a council of gods. In Judaism the gods of the council are replaced by God and his angels. The image here very much resembles that of 1 Kg 22:19 -22. The “us” used here by God might imply: (1) God speaking to His heavenly court, (2) God using a plural of majesty, a royal “we” (3) Hint of the Trinity. The single word is too little to hang much on, so it seems wiser to go with #1.(BBCOT, Smith)
While we tend to see the descriptions of blind eyes, deaf ears, and hard hearts as signs of spiritual sickness, in ancient times these same symptoms were seen as signs of fear, which would also match the context of the increasingly scary times Isaiah predicts. That the people had not heard God and were now expected not to hear, and thus be condemned, seems the context of these verses, whether one sees the blindness and deafness as actively created by God or not. (BBCOT)
These two verses are an example of “divine hardening”, a very hard concept for believers in a just and loving God. Isaiah’s charge here to continually speak to a people who will not only ignore him but become even less repentant resembles what Ezekiel was told (Eze 2:1- 3:9). The Greek OT and a Dead Seas Scrolls version of this text both change the meaning of this text, the Greek making the people harden their own hearts, the DSS Isaiah turning the words completely around into an encouragement to repent.
Divine hardening is a permanent mystery for us. As the alterations in the ancient manuscripts show, it is a controversial theological idea repudiated by some Jewish and Christian theologies while accepted by others. But the Bible demonstrates something like this to be God’s standard operating procedure (Rom 1:18-32). He seeks repentance to a point, then He punishes people by giving them over to their sin, in essence punishing them by giving them what they think they want. And there is plenty of evidence of the people’s sin before this point: 2 Kg 16; 2 Chr 28; Is 2-5. The same can be said of Pharaoh, who hardened his own heart before God hardens it (Ex 7:3, 9:12; 10:12,27, 11:10). Evil spirits are sent by God onto the people of Shechem (Jud 9:23) and King Saul (1 Sam 16:4; 18:10; 19:9), rebels and sinners before the spirits come. God’s hardening of King Ahab (1 Kg 22:19- 23) surely surprises no one, as he was notoriously not a follower of Israel’s God. No, many people’s seeming problem with hardening is that there IS a point of no return with God. (Smith)
There is also something to be learned from Amo 3:1-2 HCSB Listen to this message that the LORD has spoken against you, Israelites, against the entire clan that I brought from the land of Egypt: (2) I have known only you out of all the clans of the earth; therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities.
Those whom God favors, He judges the more harshly, because they should know better.(Smith, Childs)
“How long” seems to be a mixture of lament and a hope for the future, that thre must be an end to the punishment and a return to grace.
God’s answer is that the land must be destroyed and the people exiled, and that God Himself will see that this happens.
Verse 13 has a tangled textual history. The Greek OT lacks “holy seed is its stump” completely, leaving out any note of hope. The Dead Seas Scrolls copies read much differently from the traditional Hebrew text, hinting at the destruction of pagan worship sites, and thus blaming apostasy for Israel’s destruction and exile. It is best to stick with the traditional text, which speaks of a dead tree still holding seed. Here a note of hope is added at the last. The “holy seed” might refer to the Davidic line which will give the world the Messiah, or it might refer to the remnant of Israel.
It is appropriate to add here that God’s hardening of the people’s hearts is not necessarily universal. Think of 1 Kg 19:14 and 19:18 where Elijah believes all the people apostates, while God counts seven thousand true believers. Hezekiah is an example of a king who is faithful to God even during the hardening (Is 37). Thus one must see the hardening of the people of Judah and Israel as indicating a majority of the people, but by no means all. And it is for this reason then, that one sees Isaiah continuing to speak of repentance and trust in God later in the book .(7:9; 12:2; 26:3; 28:16; 30:15; 31:1-6; 35:3-10; 37:10; 50:10) (Smith, Childs)