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Background on Isaiah 6:1-13~Because the book’s superscription (Isa 1:1) places the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry during the reign of King Uzziah, and because chapter 6 which narrates an event which took place “in the year king Uzziah died” has the appearance of a prophetic call narrative, many scholars hold that Isaiah 6:1-13 is an account of the prophet’s inaugural vision and call to prophecy (see Jer 1; Ezekiel 1:1-3:15). The fact that this alleged call narrative comes so far into the book does raise some obvious problems, most notably the fact that it’s not found at the book’s beginning. It is possible that what one gets in chapter 6 is a throne vision, similar to that experienced by Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22:19-21 (he was, apparently, already a prophet). It may be that the account in Isaiah 6 is not an inaugural call to prophecy but, rather, the call of an established prophet to a specific function or reorientation of ministry (see next paragraph).
The people have shown themselves degenerate and dismissive of the Lord, and this willfully (Isa 1:2-4). They have been like a recalcitrant servant (Isa 1:5-6). In spite of this, repeated appeals have been made for the people’s return (Isa 1:18-19), and threats issued against the obstinate (Isa 1:21-25). But most of the people have become defiant in their unbelief. Their sins have become a burden to them because of the Lord’s punishment, yet they still persist in acting sinfully, like weak men trying to drag heavy loads with low grade twine, or mothers knitting yarn: Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood, who draw sin as with cart ropes (Isa 5:18 RSV). They refuse to recognize the very burdens and punishment they are under, mocking a God they think can do nothing: (woe to those who say) “let him (God) make haste, and let his work come quickly, that we may see it: and let the counsel of the Holy One of Israel come, that we may know it” (Isa 5:19. See Matt 27:41-43; Mark 15:31-32; Luke 23:36-37). But this God who they think can do nothing can in fact confirm them in their pretensions. Those who mockingly asked to see God’s work and hear his counsel that they might know, were doomed to hear the prophet’s words: Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive, for God had decreed to the prophet: Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. Blind the heart of this people, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes: lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted and I heal them (Isa 6:9-10). God gave them what they craved.
Isa 6:1 In the year that king Ozias (Uzziah) died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple. DRV
In the year king Ozias (Uzziah) died. The dating of the king’s death is somewhat difficult, but most scholars place it as 742 BC. Uzziah’s death brought to an end a very long reign which was politically stable, militarily successful and economically vibrant; but also spiritually and morally bankrupt. The fact that the Lord is in kingly garments (his train), surround by throne attendants (angels in verse 2), and is sitting upon a throne high and elevated is a reminder of who the people of God’s ultimate ruler is, and it contrasts with the impending fate of sinners, be they the ruling class, the moneyed class, or the Joe six-pack class: hell hath enlarged her soul, and opened her mouth without any bounds, and their strong ones, and their people, and their high and glorious ones shall go down into it (Isa 5:14).
Isa 6:2 And above stood the seraphims: one had six wings, and the other had six wings: with two each covered his face, and with two each covered his feet, and with two they flew. DRV modified
And above stood the seraphims. The word “stood” used in both the Greek and Hebrew versions has a wide range of meaning and need not imply a stationary, upright position, e.g., and above were located (or employed) the seraphim. That their position was not stationary is indicated by the fact that an imperfect verb is used to describe the fact that they flew (implying continuous action). While the above translation suggests just two attendants (“one had…and the other had”), most modern translations are somewhat ambiguous and could be taken as suggesting a multitude (see 1 Kings 22:19). It appears we are to infer that two groups of seraphim as indicated.
Seraphim. The Catholic Encyclopedia: “The name, a Hebrew masculine plural form, designates a special class of heavenly attendants of Yahweh’s court. In Holy Writ these angelic beings are distinctly mentioned only in Isaias’s description of his call to the prophetical office (Isaiah 6:2 sqq.). In a vision of deep spiritual import, granted him in the Temple, Isaias beheld the invisible realities symbolized by the outward forms of Yahweh’s dwelling place, of its altar, its ministers, etc. While he stood gazing before the priest’s court, there arose before him an august vision of Yahweh sitting on the throne of His glory. On each side of the throne stood mysterious guardians, each supplied with six wings: two to bear them up, two veiling their faces, and two covering their feet, now naked, as became priestly service in the presence of the Almighty. His highest servants, they were there to minister to Him and proclaim His glory, each calling to the other: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Yahweh of hosts; all the earth is full of His glory.’ These were seraphim, one of which flew towards Isaias bearing a live coal which he had taken from the altar, and with which he touched and purified the Prophet’s lips, that henceforth these might be consecrated to the utterances of inspiration. Such, in substance, is Isaias’s symbolical vision from which may be inferred all that Sacred Scripture discloses concerning the seraphim. Although described under a human form, with faces, hands, and feet (Isaiah 6:2, Isa 6:6), they are undoubtedly existing spiritual beings corresponding to their name, and not mere symbolic representations as is often asserted by advanced Protestant scholars.” The Anglican scholar A.S. Herbert suggested that the vision of the seraphs may be connected to the fact that the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses to counteract the the bite of the seraph serpents was kept in the temple (see Num 21:4-9, 2 Kings 18:4). Nothing here indicates that the form of the seraphim was serpentine; in factthe reference to face and feet in the current verse, and “hands” in verse 6, probably implies human-like forms. The fact that these heavenly spiritual beings cover themselves indicates God’s transcending holiness which the beings enunciate (see next verse)
Isa 6:3 And they cried one to another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of hosts, all the earth is full of his glory,
Holy, holy, holy. The Hebrew language does not possess many superlatives, consequently repetition is employed. The threefold repetition of holy indicates that God is the source of holiness, and that all other things that might be considered holy, including the temple and the seraphim, are such only in virtue of Him. While holiness can have a meaning of moral perfection, the primary emphasis (especially in reference to God) is on transcendence, separateness. Being set apart by God (i.e., sanctified, made holy) is to be set apart from what is profane and oriented away from God, and it is here that the connection with morality comes into play.
Lord God of hosts. From the Catholic Encyclopedia: “(In Hebrew, plural form of “host” or “army”). The word is used almost exclusively in conjunction with the Divine name as a title of majesty: “the Lord of Hosts”, or “the Lord God of Hosts”. The origins and precise signification of the title are matters of more or less plausible conjecture. According to some scholars the “hosts” represent, at least primitively, the armies of Israel over whom Jehovah exercised a protecting influence. Others opine that the word refers to the hosts of heaven, the angels, and by metaphor to the stars and entire universe (cf. Genesis 2:1). In favour of the latter view is the fact that the title does not occur in the Pentateuch or Josue though the armies of Israel are often mentioned, while it is quite common in the prophetic writings where it would naturally have the more exalted and universal meaning.” The word could however be taken to mean a fulness of power or might. However one takes it, it should be seen in reference to the previous military imagery (God as warrior, but also as protector and shepherd-warrior).
All the earth is full of his glory. The glory the people of the earth, including God’s people, have rejected for idols: For thou hast rejected thy people, the house of Jacob, because they are full of diviners from the east and of soothsayers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with foreigners. Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made. So man is humbled, and men are brought low — forgive them not! Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from before the terror of the LORD, and from the glory of his majesty (Isa 2:6-10 RSV). And they shall go into the holes of rocks, and into the caves of the earth from the face of the fear of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he shall rise up to strike the earth. In that day a man shall cast away his idols of silver, and his idols of gold, which he had made for himself to adore, moles and bats. And he shall go into the clefts of rocks, and into the holes of stones from the face of the fear of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty, when he shall rise up to strike the earth. (Isa 2:19-21). It is the glory that will one day protect his repentant people (Isa 4:2-6).
Isa 6:4 And the lintels of the doors were moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
The voice of the seraphim cause the temple doors to move (shake, tremble) and smoke fills the sanctuary. This may be intended to recall the smoke that descended upon Mount Sinai which was trembling when the divine theophany occurred (Exodus 19:18-19).
Isa 6:5 And I said: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people that hath unclean lips, and I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of hosts.
And I said: Woe is me because I have held my peace. The Hebrew word אוי (‘ôy) is often used (as is the case here) to introduce a lament. It was previously used to introduce a cause for lament, i.e., impending punishment: The shew of their countenance hath answered them: and they have proclaimed abroad their sin as Sodom, and they have not hid it: woe to their souls, for evils are rendered to them. Say to the just man that it is well, for he shall eat the fruit of his doings. Woe to the wicked unto evil: for the reward of his hands shall be given him (Isa 3:9-11).
I have held my peace. The RSV has “I am lost.” Other translation read “I am undone, doomed, ruined,” etc. It is disputed how best to translate the Hebrew word דּמה (dâmâh) because it could come from two different roots. See the footnote to 6:5 in the NABRE which suggests a possible meaning for both doomed and silence (“held my peace”), and suggests that both senses were intended by the prophet. Note the structure of the prophets words: Woe is me, because I have held my peace; because I am a man of unclean lips. The prophet is unable to praise God (“held my peace”) as the seraphim do because God’s holiness is so transcendent. Man’s approach to the Holy One must originate from the Holy One.
I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. There may here be an allusion to Isaiah 3:8 which speaks of the tongue (or speech) rather than lips: For Jerusalem is ruined, and Juda is fallen: because their tongue, and their devices are against the Lord, to provoke the eyes of his majesty. The transcendent holiness of God, sung of by the seraphim is at the root of Isaiah’s lament: “The vision of God foreboded death in the OT. Here moreover God’s holiness reminded Isaias of his sins and the sins of his people. He cannot join in the Angels’ praises for his lips are unclean. Their cleansing is also necessary in view of his mission” (A Cath. Comm. on Holy Scripture).
John Cassian: How all the saints have confessed with truth that they were unclean and sinful. “And therefore with daily sighs all the saints grieve over this weakness of their nature and while they search into their shifting thoughts and the secrets and inmost recesses of their conscience, cry out in entreaty: “Enter not into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified;” and this: “Who will boast that he hath a chaste heart? or who will have confidence that he is pure from sin?” and again: “There is not a righteous man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not;” and this also: “Who knoweth his faults?” (Ps 143:2; Prov 20:9; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Ps 19:13) And so they have recognized that man’s righteousness is weak and imperfect and always needs God’s mercy, so that one of those whose iniquities and sins God purged away with the live coal of His word sent from the altar, after that marvellous vision of God, after his view of the Seraphim on high and the revelation of heavenly mysteries, said: “Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5) And I fancy that perhaps even then he would not have felt the uncleanness of his lips, unless it had been given him to recognize the true and complete purity of perfection by the vision of God, at the sight of Whom he suddenly became aware of his own uncleanness, of which he had previously been ignorant. For when he says: “Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips,” he shows that his confession that follows refers to his own lips, and not to the uncleanness of the people: “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”” (Spiritual Conference 23:17).
I have seen with my eyes the King the Lord of hosts. Note the dual dilemma of Isaiah; on the one hand, because he lacks essential holiness, he cannot praise God as the seraphim do, and on the other hand, he has seen God, something even the seraphim do not experience (they covered their faces with their wings, Isa 6:2).
St John Chrysostom: Did not Christ say, No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the Bosom of the Father, he hath declared him (Jn 1:18), and elsewhere: Not that any man hath seen the Father: but he who is of God, he hath seen the Father? (Jn 6:46). Was not Moses told by God that no man shall see me and live? (Exodus 33:20). How is it then that Isaiah can claim to have seen the Lord? We do not have a contradiction here. Christ was speaking about apprehending God in all his fulness which no human being can do….This fulness Isaiah did not behold, nor Moses, nor any human being, a fact indicated here by the statement that he saw God sitting on a throne. God, however, does not sit, having no bodily form; nor is he limited or restricted, but everywhere, filling everything, and not circumscribed to a throne (Comm. on Isaiah)
Isa 6:6 And one of the seraphims flew to me, and in his hand was a live coal, which he had taken with the tongs off the altar.
Isa 6:7 And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquities shall be taken away, and thy sin shall be cleansed.
Isa 6:8 And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send? and who shall go for us? And I said: Lo, here am I, send me.
Isaiah lamented that he was not worthy of offering praise to God with his lips as the seraphim do, but now, having his lips cleansed by a seraph, purging his sins (6, 7), he will be sent to his people of unclean lips (5) in order to speak to them things they do not want to hear (Isa 6:8-9).