Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand that he had taken from the altar with tongs.
And he touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and now your iniquity is removed and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah was having a vision of the thrice-holy LORD of hosts, seated upon his throne, high and lifted up. Seeing the great King, realizing that His judgment was about to fall upon the land, and knowing that he himself, like his fellow Israelites, was a man of unclean lips, he cried out, “Woe to me; I am undone!”
Today’s text pictures God’s response to the anguish of a man awakening to his sins and his sinfulness. But, knowing that all OT texts testify of Christ, we know that this one pictures something more—something solemn, yet profoundly encouraging.
Isaiah pictures God’s elect children, spiritually removed from their Creator and King, but seeing Him at last, and also for the first time, and so under deep conviction of sin.
The seraph, created to be a messenger of God, pictures Christ’s Church, and each individual member thereof, sent into all the earth with the message of the Gospel.
The burning coal symbolizes the mighty gospel itself, the power of God for forgiveness, salvation, and restoration to all who believe (Luke 24:46-47, Rom. 1).
And the comforting words of absolution, spoken by the angel sent to Isaiah, sweetly foreshadow the words that Christ Himself puts into the mouth of all his evangelists when they see the signs of genuine repentance and faith in those to whom they are sent; for He told us all, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (John 20:23).
But with all this in mind, note something fascinating about our text: It tells us that the seraph took the burning coal from the altar with tongs. Why exactly did he do that? Why did the angel not take up the coal with his hand? The answer, it would appear, is that it was too hot to handle!
I am not sufficient to explain all the meaning hidden here. Perhaps the Spirit is telling us that angels were never meant to carry the gospel to sinners, but that Christ’s people are. Perhaps He is telling us that in OT times no living creature—whether man or angel—was ready to carry the coal of the Gospel to sinful men.
But of these two things I AM sure.
First, it is the glory of the Church that She should carry, with joy and power and confidence, the coal of the Gospel to all nations; that She is not meant to take it up with tongs of timidity, or intellectualism, or moralism, but to lay hands on it boldly and to experience deep within Herself the fire of God’s truth pouring into her body, equipping her for her mission.
But secondly, even in our day—and perhaps especially in the deep darkness of these last days—the Gospel is still indeed a coal too hot to handle. That is, we must not, and we cannot, handle it in the flesh. If it is to perform its work; if it is to produce true conviction of sin; if we are to have the joy of speaking tender words of divine absolution to trembling sinners, then we had best have hand and heart fully clothed with the Holy Spirit before taking up the Word of the Gospel and taking it out to the world.
Here is the great thing about seraphim: They get to live in the presence of the glory of God, hear His voice, and know, with full assurance, the people to whom they are sent and the message they are charged to bring to them. This is our birthright as well, yes and moreso; for unlike the seraphim in our text, we are not a people who cover ourselves in the presence of God, but a people who are called to live with Him face to face (2 Cor. 3:18).
So then, as we read this text, let us remember our birthright: First, to dwell in His presence face to face; second, to take up the coal of the Gospel only at His bidding; and third, to take it faithfully in the power of the Spirit to those to whom we are sent.
Then—and then only—the Gospel will not be too hot to handle. Indeed, then it will be too beautiful and powerful to resist or lay down, filling not only our hands but our whole bodies with light and life and warmth for a world that increasingly trembles before the Holy One of Israel and the High King of Heaven and Earth.