The Lord of Armies on his throne (Part 1)

With the Book of Isaiah, we enter a new phase in the angel of the LORD’s appearances. Having mostly visited covenant partners like Abraham and Jacob, national leaders like Moses and Joshua, and deliverers like Gideon, the divine messenger now reveals himself to prophets at key points in the history of Israel and Judah. 

We begin in Isaiah, with a spectacular view into the throne room of heaven, where the LORD sits enthroned and the angel is implied but not identified. Later in Isaiah, the angel of the LORD is named as the warrior who sweeps through the Assyrian camp and slaughters 185,000 soldiers. As our study progresses, we watch the angel blaze across the sky in a chariot of fire (Ezekiel), approach the Ancient of Days to receive his kingdom (Daniel), and stand among the myrtle trees to counsel his spokesman (Zechariah). 

These appearances are some of the many ways God expresses his presence in the books of the prophets (Isaiah to Malachi). According to Vern Poythress, theophanies recorded in the writings of the prophets most often occur in four contexts. First, the LORD comes to commission a prophet. Second, he announces divine judgment, either on Israel or its enemies. Third, he declares salvation and deliverance for his people. And fourth, he reminds the people of God’s redemptive work in the past.

Isaiah’s ministry spans more than fifty years, from the reign of King Uzziah (c. 740 BC) into the kingship of Hezekiah (c. 686 BC). It is a time of national crisis, including the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria (722 BC) and the miraculous but short-lived deliverance of Jerusalem from her enemies. 

Meanwhile, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel live during the last days of Judah and witness the incremental fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 605 BC (Daniel), 597 BC (Ezekiel), and 586 BC (Jeremiah). Jerusalem is vanquished, the temple is destroyed, the royal line of the house of David is removed, and the Jews are deported to Babylon.

Isaiah, whose name means “Yahweh is salvation,” is a prominent citizen in Jerusalem. He may be King Uzziah’s cousin. With access to the royal court, he serves as an advisor to Judah’s kings. He marries a prophetess and fathers at least two children, whose names serve as prophetic signs validating his ministry. One son is Shear-Jashub, meaning “A Remnant Shall Return,” and the other is Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, meaning “Swift to Plunder, Swift to the Spoil.” Tradition states that evil King Manasseh forces Isaiah into a hollow log and then saws it – and him – in half.

The LORD commissions Isaiah as a prophet in the year of King Uzziah’s death, which marks a transition from an era of peace to tumultuous days at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. Isaiah captures these times with vivid poetry, stirring sermons, and captivating narratives – so much so, he is called the “Shakespeare of Israel” and the “Prince of the Prophets.” For our purposes, we pick up his story at the beginning of Isaiah 6.

Isaiah 6:1-13

Of all the theophanies in the Book of Isaiah, none compares with the spectacular vision the prophet receives of Yahweh on his throne in Isaiah 6:1-13. This is a court theophany, with God seated in sovereign authority over heaven and earth. Some expositors believe Isaiah is recounting his call to prophetic ministry from years earlier, while others see this scene as a recommissioning for the difficult days of ministry ahead. In either case, this is an awe-inspiring scene. We begin with the first five verses:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord [Adonai] seated on a high and lofty throne, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphim were standing above him; they each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of Armies [Yahweh Sabaoth]; his glory fills the whole earth.

The foundations of the doorways shook at the sound of their voices, and the temple was filled with smoke.

Then I said:

Woe is me for I am ruined because I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and because my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Armies.

Isaiah 6:1-5

In these verses, Isaiah describes the one seated on the throne as “the Lord” (Adonai), “the LORD of Armies” (Yahweh Sabaoth), and “the King.” The seraphim stand or hover above the throne and proclaim the holiness of God, using the triple exaltation, “Holy, holy, holy.” 

While some commentators say the repetition of “holy” is an acknowledgment of the Trinity, it is more likely an exceptional reference to the ultimate otherness of Yahweh. To say something twice in ancient Hebrew culture is a call for listeners to pay attention. Jesus often tells his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you” (e.g., John 5:24; 6:47 NASB). But to repeat a word three times – “Holy, holy, holy” – draws unmistakable attention to what is being said. At the very least, the seraphim announce to all creatures that the sovereign one on the throne is the purest being they are privileged to behold.

No doubt, this is God seated in splendor on his throne. Isaiah at first calls him “Lord” (Adonai) in verse 1, and then LORD (Yahweh) in verse 5. But what does Isaiah’s vision have to do with the angel of the LORD, if anything? The New Testament provides a possible answer. After Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his prediction of crucifixion (John 12:12-36), John points us back to the prophecies of Isaiah that Jesus is fulfilling. We pick up the narrative in John 12:37-41:

Even though he [Jesus] had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet, who said:

Lord, who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? [Isa. 53:1]

This is why they were unable to believe, because Isaiah also said:

He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so that they would not see with their eyes or understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them. [Isa. 6:10]

Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke about him.

John 12:37-41

The apostle John is stunned at the unbelief of those who hear Jesus’ teaching and witness his miracles. He likens these people to the rebellious Israelites in Isaiah’s day (Isa. 53:1). Just as many Jews rejected Isaiah’s passionate call to repentance, many of John’s contemporaries turn their backs on the one who fulfills messianic prophecies before their very eyes. 

John then quotes from Isaiah 6:10 to further illustrate the blindness of those who refuse to see Jesus as God in human flesh. The passage in Isaiah is not strictly a prophetic prediction, much less a prediction about Jesus. But Jews recognized typological as well as predictive prophecy. As the CSB Apologetics Study Bible explains:

Typology is the repetition of a significant pattern of God’s activity in redemptive history that can properly be ascribed only to him. Isaiah did make predictions about the Messiah on numerous occasions, and the context [of Isaiah 6] looked beyond the present, evil generation of Isaiah, so it is understandable why John would believe that Isaiah previewed Jesus’ glory.

CSB Apologetics Study Bible

What’s even more stunning are John’s words in John 12:41: “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke about him” (emphasis added). Clearly, this a reference to Jesus. John seems to be saying Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus and spoke about Jesus. If so, Isaiah is reporting a rare glimpse of the angel of the LORD on his glorious throne prior to the Incarnation. 

It’s possible John is speaking more broadly about all God revealed to Isaiah concerning the Messiah, rather than saying the prophet actually saw the preincarnate Christ on the throne. At the very least, however, John proclaims to the world that the glory of God as Isaiah described it is now revealed in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. John interprets this event as Isaiah seeing the glory of Jesus because he believes Jesus and God are one, and he explicitly says so elsewhere (e.g., John 1:1, 14).

The claim that Isaiah saw the Lord (6:1) does not contradict statements in other passages of Scripture that no one may see God and live (Gen. 32:30; Exod. 19:21; 33:20; Judg. 13:22). The Bible records many instances in which people see manifestations of God that reveal aspects of his glory (Gen. 16:7-13; 28:13-15; Exod. 24:9-11; 34:5-9; 1 Kings 22:19). Gary Smith notes:

Yet God is in reality an invisible Spirit of untold glory and majesty, so it is impossible for the human eye to behold the full manifestation of the essence of his divinity. This was a limited manifestation that was adapted to finite mental comprehension and human observation, probably in a vision.

“Burning ones” above an elevated throne

The central figure in Isaiah’s vision is God, who appears as a king sitting on a highly elevated royal throne. Details of Yahweh’s physical characteristics are conspicuously absent. We simply are told that he is seated in glory, with the hem of his robe filling the heavenly palace-temple. The enormous size of the edge of his royal garment testifies to the greatness of this king. This harkens back to Psalm 104:1-2, in which Yahweh is “very great … clothed with majesty and splendor. He wraps himself in light as it were a robe, spreading out the sky like a canopy …” 

That God is seated on “a high and lofty throne” (Isa. 6:1) reveals his unmatched glory and our contemptible smallness in his presence. As sovereign Lord of the universe, he sits enthroned as creator, sustainer, lawgiver, savior, commander in chief, and judge. Other Ancient Near East religions in Isaiah’s day depict their gods as kings, so the descriptive language of Yahweh’s prophet is widely understood. More than that, however, is Yahweh’s ultimate position as the sovereign one over all people and all gods. 

Standing or flying above the throne are seraphim, or “burning ones.” This makes it clear Isaiah’s vision is of the heavenly temple, not the earthly one in Jerusalem, although Isaiah may have been standing there when he received the vision. While golden cherubim spread their wings across the mercy seat in the earthly Holy of Holies, seraphim in heaven are very much alive and active. (Cherubim play active roles in service to God as well but should be distinguished from seraphim in appearance and activity.

The term seraph may refer to serpents (Num. 21:6, 8; Deut. 8:15; Isa. 14:29; 30:6), prompting some commentators to liken seraphim to the Egyptian winged cobra or uraeus that guarded the throne in Egypt. Perhaps Satan’s appearance as a serpent (nachash) to Adam and Eve has some connection with his original form as a being of light. Isaiah’s readers may relate to this serpentine analogy, but we should keep in mind that these seraphs have hands, wings, and voices, suggesting they may be more like the fiery angelic beings around God’s throne in Daniel 7:10.  

More important than their appearance, however, are their actions. They cover their faces with two wings – not in shame, but to shield themselves from the unvarnished radiance of their sovereign God. They cover their feet, or the lower parts of their bodies, with two wings, suggesting a natural tendency to bow in humble worship – a practice consistent with those in the presence of Eastern monarchs. With two wings they fly, always ready to respond to their creator’s commands. 

Most noticeable, however, are the seraphim’s words, forming a triple declaration: “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3). While only recorded once, there is every reason to believe the seraphim continuously utter these words of praise. Their declaration of God as the holiest of all beings draws attention to his uniqueness, separateness, and otherness. Yahweh is utterly distinct from his creatures – particularly humans who, though made in his image, are profaned through sin. 

The seraphim further proclaim, “[H]is glory fills the whole earth” (Isa. 6:3). This could be a reference to God’s self-revelation in creation (Ps. 8:1, 9; 19:1; 97:6). Or it could be drawn from Psalm 72:18-19, which looks to a future time when God’s kingdom is established and he dwells on earth with his people (cf. Isa. 2:2-4; 4:2-6). Regardless, Yahweh has designed a universe in which his majesty permeates the created order.

The thunderous praise of the seraphim shakes the heavenly temple’s foundation, and the temple fills with smoke. Often in Scripture, smoke, or a cloud, is a visible sign of God’s presence (Exod. 19:16-18; 1 Kings 8:10-11). It also conceals his radiant essence  from mortal eyes.

Isaiah’s response is to cry out, “Woe is me for I am ruined” (Isa. 6:5). In the blinding light of Yahweh’s presence, the prophet is driven to confess his sin, Judah’s unfaithfulness, and the mortal terror of seeing God face to face. He cannot join the seraphim in their anthem of praise because his sinful heart is not pure. Perhaps the psalm of David is on his mind: “LORD, who can dwell in your tent? Who can live on your holy mountain? The one who lives blamelessly, practices righteousness, and acknowledges the truth in his heart – who does not slander with his tongue …” (Ps. 15:1-3).

No doubt, Isaiah has always known Yahweh is holy, pure, and sovereign. What makes his confession so unique is a personal encounter with the King, the LORD of Armies. Gary Smith writes:

The shocking, life changing aspect of this vision was that Isaiah himself experienced a vivid and powerful personal meeting with God that allowed him to have a firsthand glimpse of the supernatural realm. Cultural imagery and religious platitudes about God were suddenly overpowered by the reality of the overwhelming experience of his awesome presence.

Gary Smith

Next: The Lord of Armies on his throne (Part 2)

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.