“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said: “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:6, 7)
One question to which we all want an answer is: “How do we start afresh? How can we wipe out our sin and the guilt of our past?
This is a pressing issue for anyone who wants to begin anew. Deep down all of us would like the opportunity to write the story of our lives on a clean page. This was certainly how Isaiah felt. His encounter with God in the temple had left him shattered. He felt as though he was coming apart, spiritually disintegrating – or, in his own words, “ruined”, as a result of this deepened awareness of his sin. The revelation of God’s holiness had brought him to an end of himself and he confessed his unworthiness and shame.
But as they say, “Our extremity is God’s opportunity.” The Lord did not leave Isaiah in his sin and misery. Although the prophet couldn’t extricate himself from his predicament, the vision that God gave him reminds us that “salvation is from the Lord”. God is never content to leave us languishing in our guilt and sin. In His mercy He delivers us.
Here in this scene God commanded one of His seraphim to take a burning coal from the altar and apply it to the lips of the prophet. The mention of the altar is significant. It was on the altar that sacrificial victims were slain, their blood sprinkled on the mercy-seat, and then their bodies consumed in the fire. The altar was the place where God’s wrath was poured out on the sacrifice. It was where atonement was made for sinners. So, when the angel came with a burning coal from the altar, Isaiah realized that his sin had been taken away through the offering of a blood sacrifice.
The power of the sacrifice to cleanse our souls is emphasized by the fact that the angel placed the searing coal on Isaiah’s lips. It was a severe mercy but it reminded him that God’s plan is to consume and destroy every last vestige of sin in our being. God wants us to be pure and holy in every aspect of our lives, including our greatest gifts and talents. For Isaiah, this meant that God wanted to purify his heart and speech.
In this vision of the burning coal upon his lips, Isaiah reminds us that forgiveness is not cheap. In his case, it was exquisitely painful. God’s healing came through the agony of his confession and his act of heart-felt repentance.