Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple is well-known, and is often used in connection with the “send me” narrative adopted for and by missionaries. And while this is a worthy note to glean from this vision, what is often lost is the profound theological statement that the vision is making in light of Israel’s understanding of God and their purity laws. What Isaiah’s vision, in effect does, is challenge the purity laws of the day, as well as claim a new revelation concerning God’s approachability. This vision is nothing short of revolutionary in theological thinking.
The purity laws of the Hebrew Bible are often misunderstood, because, let’s be honest, who wants to sit and read through them? They can be found in all those “fly-over” books of the Bible (Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, etc.) and consist of a lot of “do this” and “don’t do that” sentences that wrack up to what feels like a mass of arbitrary dietary, sexual, and dead-stuff related rules. But the purity code, as those statements are broadly referred to, can be distilled down into a basic concept: There are things in this world that are unclean, and by coming into contact with these unclean things they will make you unclean. And no unclean thing can come into the presence of God. Therefore, remain clean (pure) because you are God’s people, so you can be in fellowship with God. That’s why there are also rigorous rituals in place in case you do accidently touch or come into contact with something unclean, so you can make yourself clean again in due time.
In other words, the purity code states that clean things will be made unclean by coming into contact with the unclean. And the formula cannot be reversed; never will a clean thing make an unclean thing clean by coming into contact with it.
This purity code mechanism is clearly laid out by the author of Psalm 5, who states emphatically that evil cannot sojourn with God (v. 4) and that God will destroy all those who do evil (v. 5). In fact, the psalmist states clearly that the evildoer cannot stand before God (v. 4). The psalmist, who was surely an Israelite, is fairly confident that, because they have remained clean (unlike those unclean heathens), they will be welcomed into the presence of God (v. 7).
Isaiah has a vision where he finds himself suddenly in the Holy of Holies in the Temple, literally the last place on the earth he is supposed to be. Isaiah knows immediately that he is in trouble. He has not purified himself beforehand, and because he is currently unclean, he will surely be consumed by a God who cannot “sojourn with evil.” In other words, according to the purity code, Isaiah is as good as dead.
Sidebar: Is it not interesting that Isaiah is the one who mentions judgment in the vision, and not God? A Malawian brother recently mentioned this, while reflecting on the passage. At no point in the vision does God mention Isaiah’s uncleanliness, nor does God bring judgment against Isaiah. Rather it is Isaiah who condemns himself in the presence of the Almighty.
In any case, Isaiah condemns himself. In verse 5 he cries out, “I’m lost! I am a man of UNCLEAN lips, and I come from a people of UNCLEAN lips.” But then something strange happens, that is fully and completely unexpected. A seraph flies to Isaiah with a burning coal, and touching the coal to Isaiah’s lips, makes Isaiah clean (pure).
By coming into contact with God (clean), Isaiah (unclean) is made clean (pure). This upends everything, and challenges the purity code that has been in place since Moses. According to the purity code, Isaiah should have made the Temple unclean by coming into contact with it, yet Isaiah leaves the Temple clean precisely because of his contact with it. The purity (cleanliness) of God, overflows from the Temple, and wherever it comes into contact with creation, it purifies and cleans it.
This is the same picture John of Patmos receives at the end of his revelation of Jesus. In his vision he glimpses a “river of life” that flows out of the Temple, and it touches everything, bringing healing to the nations. God’s purity cannot stay contained in the “clean” places. God’s purity overflows out into the “unclean” places, and once it is found there, everything is changed. This is the gospel of Isaiah’s vision. And it is good news indeed.