Isaiah felt crushed by the weight of a world of wicked and worthless words pressing down upon him. Seeing God and hearing the flaming voices, singular in purpose of praise, exposed Isaiah’s own life of unclean speech. In that room, profane and purposeless talk held no place. But this did not end his story. He judged himself worthy of death, but God had more grace to give, as he does with us.
Some people have written bestsellers documenting their entrance into heaven. They claim to have died and returned to tell us what they saw. Suffice it to say, their accounts rarely match accounts of similar events recorded in Scripture. Those taken into the throne room — like Isaiah, for example — do not tell us about seeing their favorite loved ones or eating their favorite snacks.
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne” (Isaiah 6:1), Isaiah begins. He details how the end of this King’s robe filled the entire temple. He documents mighty beings lit on fire, flying around the King’s throne, shouting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of armies.” The foundations tremble at the sound of their thunderous voices (Isaiah 6:1–4).
Isaiah does not sigh with relief, or whistle for his long-lost dog. Eyes from the throne pierce him like sword thrusts. The prophet, in response, calls down a curse upon himself: “Woe is me! For I am lost” (Isaiah 6:5).
Isaiah unravels before the Holy One who knows him completely: every sin, every twisted motive, every secret deed. He throws the gavel down upon himself and immediately pleads guilty. Did he even know what sin was before this moment?
And as Isaiah sees what I take to be the preincarnate Son upon the throne (John 12:41), he smites himself for, of all things, the use of his tongue.
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 armies! (Isaiah 6:5)
His eyes see the Holy King of Israel, the God of armies, and he does not run to sit on his lap, but falls to his face, confessing the evil, not only of his tongue, but of the tongues he lived among on earth. Here he did not lament that he dwelled among a people of sexual immorality, murder, or idolatry. What he said, and what the people said — their conversation — horrified him before the Righteous One.
The Sin of Careless Speech
If we each saw the Lord today, we would dread how unclean our mouths have been. Take inventory of yourself: hasty words, cursing words, violent words, lustful words, blaspheming words, false words, lying words, gossiping words, flattering words, harsh and belittling words. Just how many rats have proceeded from that sewer?
Paul, in bringing all humanity under condemnation before God, quotes the Psalms to indict us:
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (Romans 3:13–14)
But this is the Old Testament, we may think. Isaiah and the psalmists didn’t know Christ as we do. Their God, all lightning and thunder, had not yet fully revealed his merciful side.