16. The Three “Thens” Of Isaiah’s Temple Vision. Isaiah 6:1-8

Only A Prayer Meeting by C. H. Spurgeon

“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and His train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. 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, saving, Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us? THEN said I, Here am I; send me” – Isaiah vi. i-8.

In this passage, we have the record of a vision granted to the favoured prophet Isaiah,- a vision of so grand a character, and exercising so great an influence over its beholder, that he records the exact date of it, –  “In the year that king Uzziah died.” Transcendently glorious manifestations come not every day, and therefore it is well to note their occurrence with a red letter. Perhaps the date was better fixed on his memory by a thought of contrast: Judah’s king was dead, and then the prophet saw the living King sitting upon His throne. That dead king had intruded into the temple; but the eternal King reigns there, and fills the holy place with His train.

Our one point just now is to mark the three “THENS.” The prophet commences his narrative by a note of time, and he makes his time-bell ring again, and again, and again,- striking then, then, THEN.

The first “THEN” occurs thus: – the prophet was led to feel his own uncleanness, and the uncleanness of those among whom he dwelt. When was that? For it is important for us to feel the same conviction, and we may do so by the same means. Was it when he had been looking into his own heart, and seeing its dire deceitfulness, and the black streams of actual transgression which welled up from that inward fountain of depravity? He might certainly have said, “Woe is me!” if he had been looking there; but he was not doing so on this occasion. Had he been considering the law of God, had he observed how exceeding broad it is, how it touches the thoughts and intents of the heart, and condemns us because we do not meet its demands of perfect obedience? Assuredly, if he had been looking into that pure and holy law, he might well have bewailed his guilt, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. Or had he been turning over the pages of memory, and noting his own shortcomings, and the sins of his fellows? Had he noted his own failures in prayer, or in service, or in patience? Had he watched himself in private and in public, and did the record of the past bring a consciousness of sin upon him? If so, he might well enough have lamented before the Lord, and cried, “Woe is me! for I am undone.” I might even say, had he been carrying out self-examination for a single day of his life, and had that day been the Sabbath, and had he been acting as the preacher, or had he been sitting under the most stirring ministry, and had he been at the holy feasts of the Lord, he might have found reason for confession. I will not judge all of my brethren, but I will make this confession for myself, that if I examine the best day I have ever spent, and the holiest hour I have ever lived, I can see, even with my poor, weak eyes, enough of sin in my holiest things to make me cry, “Woe is me! for I am undone.” The best sermon I have ever preached is a sure proof to me that my lips are unclean; for, when I come to examine it with care, I discover in it a thousand defects.

But none of these things are mentioned here as the occasion for Isaiah’s humbling cry. When was it, then, that he had such an overpowering sense of his own unworthiness, and of the sinfulness of the people among whom he dwelt? It was “THEN,” – when he had seen the Lord. He had been permitted, in vision, to gaze upon the great King upon His throne; he had seen Him in His infinite sovereignty; he had beheld His glory filling the temple, till the house was filled with smoke to veil the matchless splendour; he had heard, in vision, those sinless beings, the seraphim, using their lips to cry in ecstasy, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts;” and he had carefully observed that, when they drew near to the awful majesty, each one of them used his wings as a fourfold veil with which to hide himself: “with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet.” Even they did not dare to look upon God’s glory, or to stand before Him without a covering. What with their cry of “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory,” and their lowly posture while adoring, the prophet was humbled by their reverence, and wondered how or in what language he should ever speak with God.

John, in his Gospel, tells us that Isaiah saw the glory of God in the person of the Lord Jesus. The posts of the door moved and trembled at the presence of the Lord of the whole earth, under the stress of those adoring cries which rose from an innumerable company of angels, of whom the seraphim may be regarded as representatives. It was the sight of the thrice-holy God which made the prophet say, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.”

O my dear brethren and sisters, if you have never seen God, if you have never had a faith’s view of Him, you have not really seen yourselves! You will never know how black you are till you have seen how bright He is; and inasmuch as you will never know all His brightness, so you will never know all your own blackness. Learn, however, this lesson, that for you to turn your face away from God in order to repent of sin, is a great mistake; it is a sight of God in Christ Jesus which will breed humiliation and lowly confession of sin. Dream not that you are to stay away from Christ till you sufficiently lament your sin; it is a grave error and a grievous folly, for nothing makes sin to appear so exceeding sinful as a view of the glory of God in Christ Jesus. No, your face must be towards your Father’s house, and you must hopefully resolve to arise and go to your Father, or you will never cry, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in Thy sight.” Yes, and I will venture to say that, the nearer the prodigal came to his father, the more he repented; and when his face was hidden in his father’s bosom, and kiss after kiss saluted him, then his repentance was deepest of all. O poor hearts, if you cannot come to Christ with repentance, come to Him for repentance! If you want to feel, “Woe is me!” come and see the glory of Jesus, and the holiness of the great God; and then will your knee bow, and your heart tremble. There is no road to repentance so short and sure as to remember your God, and enter spiritually into His presence.

“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . . . THEN said I, Woe is me!” Now, is there any man here who says, “I have had intimate communion with God”? Brother, we will listen to your speech, and judge of your pretensions. Did I hear you say, “I am a man who lives very near to God. I walk in the light as God is in the light, and enjoy a higher life than other Christians”? Brother, your speech is as sounding brass and as a tinkling cymbal, for no man, who has come fresh from God, ever speaks in tones of self-congratulation. What said Job?” Behold I am vile; what shall I answer Thee? 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” (Job xlii. 5, 6). This was the experience of a perfect and an upright man, one that feared God, and eschewed evil; and if you have really entered into communion with the Lord, the same humble emotions will fill your breast. No man has seen the Lord, high and lifted up, if he exalts himself. When we are favoured to know the Lord, we are humbled then, and not till then.

You see the prophet trembling: in himself unclean, and conscious of it, and surrounded by a people as unclean as himself, and it is while he stands in that condition that we meet with our second “THEN.” “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 is purged.” “Then,” that is, not when this man was full of joy and rejoicing, but when he said, “Woe is me!” – not when he was living in the sublimities of boastful self-consciousness, but when he was crying, “I am undone;” “then flew one of the seraphims.” When he was consciously unfit, the Lord commissioned him; when he felt his uncleanness, when he owned the ruin of his nature, and the sad estate of his people, then it was that the seraphic messenger touched him with the living altar coal.

Brethren, do you so much feel your sinfulness that you are afraid that the Lord will never use you in the conversion of sinners? I am glad of it. Are you conscious that your lips are not worthy to speak for the holy God? Then I know you feel that, if ever God should save a soul by you, He must have all the glory of it. You feel that it is a wonder of grace that you are saved yourself, and if ever others are saved through your means, you confess that it will be a miracle of Divine power. In all this I rejoice, for your hour of acceptable service has begun. I have noted, in my own experience, that whenever I have been most blessed in the winning of souls, it has generally been just after I have endured a thorough stripping in my own heart, or when by soul trouble I have been brayed as in a mortar among wheat with a pestle till I seemed ground into dust. Trial has preceded triumph. A wider field has been opened to me by the breaking down of my hedges. I have shrunk into self-oblivion, and then the Lord has moved me to speak in a burning manner to His glory.

I remember a foolish person coming to me once after I had been preaching, and he said to me, “You said you were a sinner when you were preaching.” I replied, “Yes, I did, and I meant it.” His answer was, “What right had you to preach if you are a sinner?” “Well,” I replied, “my right to preach lies in the Lord’s command, ‘Let him that heareth say, Come,’ but I think little of right, for I preach because I cannot help it, and I preach to sinners because I am a sinner myself, and feel a sympathy with them. If any man needs to be daily saved by Christ, I am that man, and therefore I delight to describe the salvation which is so dear to me. Sometimes, when I have been myself in bondage, I have preached in chains to men in chains, but made music with my fetters, by commending Christ when I could not have said a good word for myself.” Why, methinks that a man, who has taken medicine, and has recovered, is the very man to extol it to others; yea, and if he still feels that, in some measure, the disease is upon him though its deadly power is taken away, and if he feels that every day he must drink the healing draught, and wash in the healing bath, he is the very man continually to tell of the abiding power of that ever precious heal-all which meets his case. Even when we walk in the light with God, still the precious blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, and still we declare from our own experience its gracious power.

My dear brethren and sisters, I want this to encourage you, if you feel unhappy in your work for the Lord. If you feel very much cast down, and are crying, “Woe is me!” do not, therefore, cease from your service. If you did not get on last Sunday, when you tried to preach; if you blunder every day with those unclean lips of yours; if you have been unsuccessful in working among the people with whom you dwell, or if you have not succeeded with the children in your class, or with your own children at home, now is the time to seek the blessing, now is the time to pray for it in hope. “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.” The seraph does not come with live coals from off the altar to men of pure lips who never were undone, for such are exceedingly satisfied without altar coals; but when the chosen servant of the Lord is deeply conscious of his unworthiness, then shall the Lord inspire him from above. It is His delight to fill empty vessels, and to put His treasure into caskets which contain nothing of their own.

Very briefly, let us now speak of the third “THEN.” “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.” Hear ye not, to-night, the voice which never ceases to cry in the Church, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Oh, that we may be ready to respond to it! Alas! We feel reluctant to answer, “Send me,” because we feel that we are undone, and our lips are unclean; but, beloved, if while we are sitting here, the angel shall bring the live coal from off the altar,- one of those coals wherewith our great Sacrifice was consumed,- and touch each lip with it, and say, “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged,” then we shall leap to our feet, and cry, “Here am I; send me.” Knowing that we are now clean in the sight of God, through that altar which sanctifies all that it touches, we shall have all our fears removed, and then will grateful love burst out into the cry of full surrender and complete consecration, “Here am I; send me.” Here is a man full of leprosy, and there is a healing bath. Jehovah Rophi cries, “Who will go and publish the news of healing, sure and effectual?” He makes no answer because he is himself still full of disease; but the moment he stepped in, and perceives that he is cleansed, he shouts, “Eureka, I have found it,” and begins at once to publish the joyful tidings. He longs for opportunities to tell his story. He rests not day nor night, but incessantly publishes the glad tidings of salvation.

“Then I will teach the world Thy ways;
Sinners shall learn Thy sovereign grace;
I’ll lead them to my Saviour’s blood,
And they shall praise a pardoning God.”

“Here am I; send me.” Who among you will say this in reference to missions abroad, or holy works at home? I expect to hear it come from those who love much because they have had much forgiven. The coal which purges will also fire your lip, and burn the bonds which restrain your tongue. “The love of Christ constraineth us.” How can we be silent? The beam out of the roof and the timber from the wall would cry out against us if we did not witness for our Lord. Others may be able to be silent; as for us, we must cry out, “Here am I; send me.” I could most heartily wish that more of you deeply felt your unworthiness till it filled you with anguish, and that you felt anew the altar’s purifying flame, for then would you be fired with fervour and enthusiasm, and a great work would be done for my Lord. Fresh from a sense of sin, you would pity careless sinners; newly blessed with a sense of sacrificial cleansing, you would earnestly point men to the Saviour, and the fire which kindled your life would communicate itself to many other hearts.

These are the three “thens”: “then,” when I had seen God, I said, “I am undone;” “then,” when I felt I was undone, the seraph brought the burning coal, and touched my lip; and when that lip was touched, and I was purged, “then” I said, “Here am I; send me.” May this be a word in season to many! Then will they be blessed, then will we rejoice together, and then will God be glorified.

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