Q. What did Isaiah mean when he said, “In the year King Uzaiah died, I saw the Lord“?
Here is what I say about that in my study guide to the book of Isaiah. You can read the guide online or download it at this link.
Even though the account in which Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the temple does not come right at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, it actually relates the earliest event recorded in the book: Isaiah’s call from God to be a prophet.
This episode in Isaiah’s life took place about six years before Israel and Aram invaded Judah. King Uzziah had ruled the country for fifty-two years. During his reign it had been prosperous, stable, and secure. Now this great king was being succeeded by his son Jotham, who had been his co-regent for the previous ten years. Jotham would only reign another five or six years himself before dying and leaving the people in the untested hands of his twenty-year-old son Ahaz. Meanwhile, the Assyrian empire was growing in strength and size and threatening the entire region. So along with the whole nation of Judah, a young man named Isaiah was facing an uncertain and fearful future as he went into Jerusalem’s temple one day to try to find hope and reassurance by worshiping God.
As the Scriptures say, Isaiah has a remarkable vision in the temple that reveals that Israel’s true king, the Lord Almighty, the God who has called the people into a special relationship with himself, is established on his throne above the whole world. Whatever earthly kings and their armies might attempt, it is God who ultimately determines the destinies of nations. Isaiah will never forget this vital truth throughout his career, as he continually calls the people to trust in their God rather than in the strategies they might devise or the alliances they might form.
But this glimpse of God’s power and presence also leads Isaiah to an awful realization about himself. The seraphs (a special kind of angel) proclaim that the Lord is “holy, holy, holy,” and that the whole earth is full of his glory. This means that every living being is continually confronted with the reality of God’s purity and radiance. In response, Isaiah can only acknowledge that he is “unclean.” Within the ceremonial life of the nation’s covenant with the Lord, this means that he is impaired, polluted, defective, and so unfit to be used in any way connected with God.
Isaiah describes himself specifically as “a man of unclean lips.” Interpreters have different ideas about why he chooses this particular part of the body (rather than, for example, his heart or mind) to represent his spiritual state. It may be because the lips express, and thus make evident, a person’s innermost thoughts and intentions. Or Isaiah may be saying that he can tell he isn’t pure because his lips, unlike those of the seraphs, aren’t continually praising God for his holiness and glory.
Because God wants Isaiah to be available for his service, one of the seraphs flies to him with a live coal from the altar (where sacrifices for sin were offered) and touches his lips with it. The seraph announces, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah has admitted his need for cleansing and forgiveness, and these are applied to the very place he used to symbolize that need.