“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5, NIV)
The doors of the temple were not the only things that were shaking. The thing that quaked the most in the building was the body of Isaiah. When he saw the living God, the reigning monarch of the universe displayed before his eyes in all of His holiness, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me!”
The cry of Isaiah sounds strange to the modern ear. It is rare that we hear people today use the word woe. Since this word is old-fashioned and archaic, some modern translators have preferred to substitute another word in its place. That is a serious mistake. The word woe is a crucial biblical word that we cannot afford to ignore. It has a special meaning.
When we think of woes we think of the troubles encountered in melodramas set in the old-time nickelodians. “The Perils of Pauline” showed the heroine wringing her hands in anguish as the heartless landlord came to foreclose on her mortgage. Or we think of Mighty Mouse flying from his cloud to streak to the rescue of his girlfriend, who is being tied to the railroad tracks by Oilcan Harry. She cries, “Woe is me!” Or we think of the favorite expression of the distraught Kingfish in “The Amos and Andy Show” who said, “Woe is me, Andy, what is I gonna do?”
The term woe has gone the way of other worn-out exclamations like alas or alack or forsooth. The only language that has kept the expression in current usage is Yiddish. The modern Jew still declares his frustrations by exclaiming “Oy vay!” which is a shortened version of the full expression oy vay ist mer. Oy vay is Yiddish for “Oh woe,” an abbreviation for the full expression, “Oh woe is me!”
The full force of Isaiah’s exclamation must be seen against the background of a special form of speech found in the Bible. When prophets announced their messages, the most frequent form the divine utterances took was the oracle. The oracles were announcements from God that could be good news, or bad news. The positive oracles were prefaced by the word blessed. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, He used the form of the oracle, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst.” His audience understood that He was using the formula of the prophet, the oracle that brought good tidings.
Jesus also used the negative form of the oracle. When He spoke out in angry denunciation of the Pharisees, He pronounced the judgment of God upon their heads by saying to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He said this so often that it began to sound like litany. On the lips of a prophet the word woe is an announcement of doom. In the Bible, cities are doomed, nations are doomed, individuals are doomed—all by uttering the oracle of woe.
Isaiah’s use of woe was extraordinary. When he saw the Lord, he pronounced the judgment of God upon himself. “Woe to me!” he cried, calling down the curse of God, the utter anathema of judgment and doom upon his own head. It was one thing for a prophet to curse another person in the name of God; it was quite another for a prophet to put that curse upon himself.
Immediately following the curse of doom, Isaiah cried, “I am ruined.” I prefer the older translation which read, “For I am undone.” We can readily see why more modern translations have made the change from undone to ruined. Nobody speaks today about being undone. But the word is more vivid in what it conveys than the word ruined.
To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as the experience of personal disintegration. To disintegrate means exactly what the word suggests, dis integrate. To integrate something is to put pieces together in a unified whole. When schools are integrated, children from two different races are placed together to form one student body. The word integrity comes from this root, suggesting a person whose life is whole or wholesome. In modern slang we say, “He’s got it all together.”
If ever there was a man of integrity it was Isaiah Ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. In that single moment all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.
The sudden realization of ruin was linked to Isaiah’s mouth. He cried, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Strange. We might have expected him to say, “I am a man of unclean habits,” or “I am a man of unclean thoughts.” Instead he called attention immediately to his mouth. In effect he said, “I have a dirty mouth.” Why this focus on his mouth?
Perhaps a clue to Isaiah’s utterance may be found in the words of Jesus when He said, “It’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles a man, it’s what comes out of his mouth that defiles him.” Or we could look to the discourse on the tongue written by St. James, the Lord’s brother:
The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:6–12, NIV)
The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. This was the realization of Isaiah. He recognized that he was not alone in his dilemma. He understood that the whole nation was infected with dirty mouths: “I live among a people of unclean lips.” In the flash of the moment Isaiah had a new and radical understanding of sin. He saw that it was pervasive, in himself and in everyone else.
We are fortunate in one respect: God does not appear to us in the way He appeared to Isaiah. Who could stand it? God normally reveals our sinfulness to us a bit at a time. We experience a gradual recognition of our own corruption. God showed Isaiah his corruption all at once. No wonder that he was ruined.
Isaiah explained it this way: “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5, NIV). He saw the holiness of God. For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.
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, NIV)
Isaiah was groveling on the floor. Every nerve fiber in his body was trembling. He was looking for a place to hide, praying that somehow the earth would cover him or the roof of the temple would fall upon him, anything to get him out from under the holy gaze of God. But there was nowhere to hide. He was naked and alone before God. He had no Eve to comfort him, no fig leaves to conceal him. His was pure moral anguish, the kind that rips out the heart of a man and tears his soul to pieces. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Relentless guilt screamed from his every pore.
The holy God is also a God of grace. He refused to allow his servant to continue on his belly without comfort. He took immediate steps to cleanse the man and restore his soul. He commanded one of the seraphim to jump into action. The angelic creature moved swiftly, flying to the altar with tongs. From the burning fire the seraph took a glowing coal, too hot to touch for even an angel, and flew to Isaiah.
The seraph pressed the white-hot coal to the lips of the prophet and seared them. The lips are one of the most sensitive parts of human flesh, the meeting point of the kiss. Here Isaiah felt the holy flame burning his mouth. The acrid smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils, but that sensation was dulled by the excruciating pain of the heat. This was a severe mercy, a painful act of cleansing. Isaiah’s wound was being cauterized, the dirt in his mouth was being burned away. He was refined by holy fire.
In this divine act of cleansing Isaiah experienced a forgiveness that went beyond the purification of his lips. He was cleansed throughout, forgiven to the core, but not without the awful pain of repentance. He went beyond cheap grace and the easy utterance, “I’m sorry.” He was in mourning for his sin, overcome with moral grief, and God sent an angel to heal him. His sin was taken away. His dignity remained intact. His guilt was removed, but his humanity was not insulted. The conviction of sin he felt was constructive. His was no cruel and unusual punishment. A second of burning flesh on the lips brought a healing that would extend to eternity. In a moment, the disintegrated prophet was whole again. His mouth was purged. He was clean.
R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993), 40–48.