Woe is me!
Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Isaiah 6
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1–5)
Yesterday we saw how Isaiah’s vision of God demonstrated the utter holiness of God. The prophet saw into the very throne-room of God as the seraphim cried out “holy, holy, holy”. (We even read that Isaiah “saw the Lord”, but we’ll come back to that on Saturday). This vision was profound for Isaiah, but it did not fill him with the joy or exuberance you might suspect. No, his response was one of despair:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
The reality is this: when we view the utter holiness of God we look rather shabby in comparison. All our self-justification melts away when we see what true holiness is like. What other response could Isaiah have had? In contrast with the God who defines holy, what we might call “righteous” is brought into the light. No wonder that Isaiah, much later, states: “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6)
So was the point of all this to humble Isaiah, to put him in his place? Well, yes. And no. It was important that Isaiah gained a proper perspective on himself, but not so that he might sit in despair. A proper diagnoses was needed so that Isaiah might then throw himself on the mercy of God. Calvin’s justly famous Institutes of the Christian Religion begins with the phrase: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves”.
To see ourselves in the light of God is humbling, but it is also glorious when we then realise that nonetheless God loves us, calls us and forgives us. This is the “Amazing Grace” of which Newton wrote, the grace which God shows even when we are shabby.