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 6:5)
Upon experiencing the holy presence of the LORD, the Prophet Isaiah exclaimed, “Woe is me!” Was Isaiah being overly dramatic or was there a real weight of significance to what he said about, and to, himself? The fullness of his words must be examined within the historical context of the prophet’s main responsibility before God and before the people.
The prophet of God communicated a divine message. His sermons were not cleverly devised in his offices and in front of a computer. He did not wake up each morning wondering what he was going to say that would be creatively imaginative.
The prophet of God communicated a divine message from God. It was called an oracle. Oracles were announcements from God. God commanded the prophet to announce the oracle. He was not to change any word or dilute its full force.
Oracles could be in two forms. There were positive oracles, or oracles of good news. These were prefaced by the word blessed. However, there were also oracles of bad news or judgment. These oracles were prefaced by the word woe.”
Throughout the first five chapters of Isaiah, the oracle of woe is predominant in Isaiah’s messages from God to the people of Judah. However, in recalling God’s divine commission to the office of prophet, Isaiah does not announce an oracle of woe upon the nation but rather upon himself. The grammar in the Hebrew indicates that he did so repeatedly.
Isaiah’s continuous cry of woe is a passionate cry of grief or despair. He is in a condition of great sorrow. He not only feels this grief, but he is also aware of it in his mind and will. In other words, his soul is filled with remorse. He is lost or undone. He recognizes that he is in a ruinous condition. In the dazzling display of God’s holiness, Isaiah is ready to die.
Isaiah’s great sorrow is first and foremost not about the sins of the nation, but rather about his own personal sins. In particular, his speech. He is undone because of his polluted and impure words. He, who has the responsibility of communicating God’s holy Word, acknowledges that he is filled with his own sinful and polluted words. As one commentator explains, “His consciousness of having unclean lips, his tongue or speech, was in no doubt because “He had just heard holy lips sing perfect praise.”
Dr. John MacArthur writes, “If the lips are unclean, so is the heart. This vision of God’s holiness vividly reminded the prophet of his own unworthiness, which deserved judgment. Job (Job 42:6) and Peter (Luke 5:8) came to the same realization about themselves when confronted with the presence of the Lord (cf. Ezek. 1:28–2:7; Rev. 1:17).”
Isaiah’s statement is most striking because he was probably the most righteous man within the nation of Judah. Much like the Prophet Daniel (Daniel 9:1-21) Isaiah does not dismiss the nation’s sins, but first and foremost acknowledges his own sin. He is not comparing himself to other people, but rather to God. Isaiah is a broken man because he has seen the holy, holy, holy LORD.
Dr. R. C. Sproul writes, “Isaiah’s call to ministry is well known, and it is remarkable for what it says about Isaiah and all other human beings. Without a doubt, the prophet was one of the most righteous and holy men in all of Judah, for the prophets were generally known for their piety and devotion to our Creator. Consequently, one might expect Isaiah to be confident in the presence of God and for the Lord to praise His servant for His goodness. Yet that is not what happened when Isaiah met Yahweh “in the year that King Uzziah died” (Isa. 6:1). Confronted with a vision of God on His throne, Isaiah could only proclaim an oracle of woe upon himself (v. 5). An oracle of woe was the worst prophecy that could be given of a nation or an individuals, and here Isaiah applies it to himself for his uncleanness (v. 5). As holy as Isaiah might have been in comparison to the other Judahites in his day, he was absolutely filthy in comparison to the Lord God Almighty.”
The only way unholy people can be in the presence of the thrice holy LORD is to possess His holiness. This the believer in Christ has by grace alone, through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ alone. It is called justification (Romans 3:21-26). Take time today to thank the LORD for His gracious mercy in declaring sinners righteous in His sight on the basis of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement on the cross. This atonement will be vividly illustrated as the text of Isaiah 6 continues to unfold.
Soli deo Gloria!