“And it shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem, shall be called holy, even every one that is written among the living in Jerusalem: When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:3-4).
“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” (Isaiah 6:6-7).
“The king is dead; long live the King.” Such would be a fitting paraphrase of the opening line of the Evangelical Prophet’s hallowed and harrowing vision. “In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the LORD sitting upon the throne, high and lifted up…” (Is. 6:1). Judah’s monarch lay cold in his tomb, but the throne of power was not vacant. Whereas the dead regent had transgressed the boundaries of his station by intruding into the temple; Israel’s King eternally reigns there, filling the earth with unchecked glory from His lofty seat.
In that tumultuous moment, Isaiah came face to face with the revelation of Christ’s invasive and pervasive holiness (Jn. 12:41). He learned the fearsome reality of grace on fire. All of his epistemological and ethical concerns for Israel melted in the blazing light of this theological vision. The salvation of his people, yea, even the salvation of his own never-dying soul, depended wholly upon direct knowledge of the Holy.
Undoubtedly, it is the prayer of every faithful minister that the sheep of his pasture be presented to the Great Shepherd having neither spot or blemish. In answer to this prayer, our Lord provides for us the fuel for a transformed and transformative ministry: a vision of God that purifies and vivifies by virtue of its own inherent radiance.
Earlier, in the fifth chapter, Isaiah denounced the numerous sins of his people. “Woe unto you,” ran the prophetic refrain. But the denunciation of darkness alone does not open the window to the Light of Life. Especially if the light that is in you is darkness; how great is that darkness. Though sin must surely be destroyed, the sinner should not be left to make his grave with it. The letter killeth. It is the Spirit alone who slays in order to make alive. This is the ministration of righteousness—a glimpse of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Israel’s saving grace was Isaiah’s majestic vision of Israel’s God. He saw the Lord upon His throne, high and lifted up. The train of His robes, pressed into every corner of the sanctuary; those mighty wings enfolding His people in health and healing. He heard the otherworldly chorus on angelic tongues. “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” That antiphonal Sanctus breaking upon the earthen plane caused the post of the doors to quake. And the prophet could not but follow their trembling example.
This is the eucatastrophic vision we so desperately need. A keen awareness of unmanageable holiness, undomesticated glory. Let us have done with lesser things. Away with the insipid moralism of therapeutic deism! Away with the thinly painted veneer of soul-sucking legalism! Lift your eyes instead to the ivory throne of Christ from whom the heavens and the earth have sense enough to flee. Look beyond the hills, and see the Untamed Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Learn the life-altering truth that Holiness is neither safe nor sweet. Holiness is not represented by a Precious Moments figurine. Holiness is not smarmy. Holiness is not unctuous.
Such an understanding of God is exemplified in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Aslan, the author’s famous Christ-figure, is described to a young girl:
‘He is a lion, the lion, the Great Lion…’
‘Is he safe?’
‘Of course he isn’t safe, He’s a lion. But he is good.’
Holiness is fierce, wild, impolite. Holiness is three tornadoes in a row. Holiness is a series of black thunderheads coming in off the bay. Holiness is hesed ablaze. Holiness is red-hot incendiary Love. Holiness melts the world. Holiness is a consuming fire. But its flame consumes only the dross; dispersing the inveterate darkness; warming the chill of death.
If we bypass this vision of who God actually is, the necessary result will be a prissy moralism, and not the robust morality of the Christian faith. The distance between moralism and true morality is vast, and the thing that creates this distance is the knowledge of the Holy. Those who content themselves with petty rules spend all their time fussing about with hemlines, hair lengths, curfews, and cocktails. But those who see this particular folly and go off in their own little libertine direction are no better. The former act as though their moralism is grounded on the dictates of a gremlin-like god who lives in their attic, but his word is law. The latter say that this is stupid, and end up becoming gremlins themselves.
Struck by such a sight of the Invisible God dwelling in Unapproachable Light, Isaiah turned his sibylline pronunciations inward. “Woe is me! I am undone! I am unclean!” Then one of the seraphim, those mighty “burning ones,” approached the glowing altar. He took a live coal with a pair of tongs, and pressed it to the prophet’s mouth. “Lo, this hath touched thy lips! Thy sin is taken away and thine iniquity is purged” (Is. 6:5-7).
Seraphim are fearsome, fiery creatures. Indeed, God “makes his angels spirits and his ministers a flame of fire” (Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:7). Holy Love is a flame of such grand design that these blazing messengers cannot touch it, and yet a mortal man can kiss the blood-red embers. Is this not the mystery of the Gospel; that which the angels desire to look into but cannot comprehend? Is not this the redemption of flesh by Flesh that only Adam’s kin can know? Is this not the coal forged from the wood of Calvary’s tree, too hot for angels to handle?
If we envision a god who only does fluffy kittens and pussy willows, we will end in despair. Cast your eyes upon the God of the jagged edge, the God whose holiness is never palatable but always powerful. The result of such a vision is deep gladness. “A fire goeth before him…Zion heard, and was glad; and the daughters of Jerusalem rejoiced” (Ps. 97:3,8). Such gladness does not make us parade about with noses high in the wind, or speak with lots of rotund vowels, or strut with a sanctimonious air. Rather, this is a deeply settled joy that produces a quiet confidence in the ferocity of grace. The God of the whirlwind is the calm in the tempest. He is the “I” of the storm. The safest place to be is not at the circumference of His fierce glory, but rather right at the center—near the heart. It is there that He says, “It is I; be not afraid.”
Isaiah’s vision is open to all of us. The clearest portrait of that searing Holiness, so hotly kindled against sin, so ardently stoked in irrepressible love, is Calvary’s cross. There on yonder tree the fiery heart of God is on full display. Under the Old Covenant, the flames of judgment descended to consume the lamb upon the altar; on Golgotha, the Lamb swallowed the whole infernal conflagration. All that is left for those who look to Jesus is the life-giving ember of Holy Love.
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.