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In Isaiah’s vision of the temple, we read in Isaiah 6:2,
2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
The word seraph (plural, seraphim) means “to burn, consume.” When God appeared to Israel on the Mount, He manifested Himself only as a consuming fire (Exodus 24:17). Were the Israelites seeing the Seraphim? It appears that the Seraphim are an angelic order that represent God in His aspect as a consuming fire and all that this encompasses.
Others see the word saraph as having its root in the word sar, “prince.” Hence, the Seraphim were perhaps princely or heavenly princes, denoting a high rank—perhaps even higher than angels and archangels. We are not told how many Seraphim the prophet saw, but there were at least three, because the im is an indefinite Hebrew plural, whereas ayim means precisely two.
The Message of the Seraphim
These proclaimed a message in Isaiah 6:3,
3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.”
The Seraphim, which manifested God’s consuming fire, proclaimed also His glory, because the fire is His glory. So we read in Exodus 24:16, 17 that the glory of God on the Mount appeared to the Israelites as a consuming fire.
16 The glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. 17 And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the mountain top.
God’s consuming fire, of course, struck fear in the hearts of most of the Israelites, and this stopped their ears from hearing the rest of the law (Exodus 20:18, 19, 20). Their fear continues to manifest in the church to this day whenever it is said that God’s consuming fire is a “hell” that must be avoided. Such do not understand the difference between “hell” and the fire which manifests His glory.
To understand the difference between Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, and the lake of fire, see The Judgments of the Divine Law.
The consuming fire, or glory, will fill “the whole earth,” say the Seraphim, not to destroy it by fire. The fire consumes the iniquity in the earth and all that is not of God. It purifies the earth so that it becomes “Holy, Holy, Holy,” even as God Himself is holy. When the glory of God fills the whole earth, creation will be restored to its original purity and holiness, so that it will be able to fulfill the purpose for which it was created.
The message of the Seraphim has often been missed, because theologians tend to focus on the “Holy, Holy, Holy” part of it, seeing this as support for Trinitarian doctrine. It may indeed suggest three Beings, but it says nothing about an equal relationship. Jesus never claimed equality with His Father but confessed that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). Their unity was not a unity of being but a unity of will and purpose. In the end, when God’s glory fills the earth, the Son will be subject to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:27, 28).
The main message of the Seraphim was that the glory of God was to fill the whole earth. This message was first revealed to Moses in Numbers 14:21,
21 but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.
This revelation came in the context of Israel’s unbelief and refusal to enter the Promised Land when the twelve spies gave their report. God threatened to kill them all, disinherit them, and start over with Moses and his family (Numbers 14:12). Moses objected, because if God were to do this, the nations would say that He “could not bring this people into the land, which he promised them by oath” (Numbers 14:15, 16).
God had sworn an oath to bring them into the land, and whoever makes an oath is the one responsible to fulfill it. God could not claim that the people were too stubborn and rebellious, for God’s oath was one-sided and depended fully upon His own ability to turn their hearts. If men could make it impossible for God to fulfill His oaths, then He ought not to make such oaths.
Moses recognized this and reminded God that the nations would then know that God was not sovereign after all and that man’s will was stronger than God’s will. God’s response was to make another oath, swearing upon Himself in the divine court, “as I live.” He swore an oath that “all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord.”
Few Christians really understand and appreciate the oaths, vows, and promises of God, which are all based on the New Covenant. Bringing people into the “Promised Land” was much more than just settling them in the land of Canaan. It was about making good on His promises and winning the dispute between His perfect will and man’s rebellious will.
In other words, the stubbornness of the Israelites did not present God with an unsolvable problem. In fact, God’s promises included the whole earth, and He vowed to bring all men and all nations into the glory of His Kingdom.
This message of Universal Reconciliation was the foundation of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:27, 28, where the whole earth is subjected to the Son and God is ultimately “all in all.”
God’s oath in Numbers 14:21, which was repeated in the message of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3, was restated in slightly different forms in three other places:
Isaiah 11:9 says,
9 … For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
At the end of the Exodus Book of Psalms (Psalm 42-72), the doxology in Psalm 72:19 reads,
19 And blessed be His glorious name forever; and may the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.
Finally, in Habakkuk 2:14 the prophet gives us the most complete form of God’s oath, saying,
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
The waters cover the sea approximately 100 percent; hence, the glory of God will cover the earth in the same proportion.
The Problem of Unclean Lips
The voice of the Seraph shook the foundations of the temple. Isaiah 6:4 says,
4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filled with smoke.
So also the voice coming from the consuming fire on the Mount also shook the earth (Exodus 19:18; Hebrews 12:26). The message of the Seraphim declaring the ultimate success of God in spite of man’s rebellion continues to shake the temple and the whole earth. The purpose of such shaking is to cast down everything that stands in opposition to the Kingdom of God and its principles, truth, holiness, and glory (Hebrews 12:27, 28).
The holiness of God stood in dire contrast with the condition of man. Hence, when the prophet saw God’s holiness, he immediately despaired over his own condition, for in spite of his calling as a prophet, he saw his fleshly heart and unclean lips in the backdrop of God’s glory. So his reaction is seen in Isaiah 6:5,
5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Such is the cry of despair for all who have seen the glory of God and who compare and contrast it with the greatest righteousness that the flesh can produce. Isaiah was not being converted here; he was receiving the revelation of the glory of God and seeing himself in its light. But in spite of the condition of the flesh, God has provided the way to impute righteousness to us, calling what is not as though it were (Romans 4:17 KJV).
Isaiah 6:6 continues,
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”
Isaiah was not suddenly perfected. He was imputed righteous, as Paul explains in Romans 4:6-8,
6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. 8 Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Abraham, too, “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3). To impute is to reckon as if it were so. It is a legal act that gives us a positional righteousness. It does not convert the flesh from unrighteous to righteous. Rather, as Paul explains, faith is the setting by which we are begotten by God, and this “new self” (NASB) allows us to transfer our identity from the old man of imperfect flesh to the new sinless man in Christ.
So also, Isaiah’s old self did not change appreciably. Instead, he was cleansed and forgiven, though the actual legal process is not explained. The explanation is given mostly through the Apostle Paul in Romans 4, the great chapter on the doctrine of imputation of righteousness.
The fact is, when we are justified by faith, a new man is begotten, and our identity is transferred to that new self, which has the righteousness of Christ in its very nature. We are then admonished to live according to the mind and will of that new nature, denying the mind and will of the old man of flesh.
The bottom line is that as believers we need not wallow in perpetual guilt. Those who do so are still identifying themselves with the old man and are horrified by what they see. But that old man of flesh is not you any longer, for you are now a begotten son of God. Isaiah, too, was able to take comfort in this, and this awareness prepared him for the ministry that lay ahead.