Are You Worried Yet?

  • Nathan Schneider
Old throne
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Sovereign One sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

No more life-changing a moment has ever come upon a human being than what Isaiah described in the opening words of chapter 6 of his written prophecies. Isaiah found himself in the presence of Yahweh himself. The God of the universe—the God who spoke light into existence, who created the sun, moon, and stars, who slew the firstborn of everyone in Egypt and stopped up the waters of the Red Sea to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt, who halted the sun’s course in the sky so that Joshua could complete his victory over his enemies—he was in the presence of that God.

His description says it all.  Yahweh sits on a throne—the use of the participle implying that this is what God is always doing. He is always on his throne, always in sovereign command. His throne is elevated and lifted high above everything else, fixed atop a summit of ascending stairs. There is no one that matches his status, his power, his authority, or his sovereignty. He is above all and rules over all. His presence is described in the image of a royal robe with a train so long and majestic and spectacular that it fills the entire temple. He is matchless in his perfection and his majesty, as Psalm 104:1 describes him as “clothed with splendor and majesty.” His royal palace is “the temple,” a reference not to the earthly temple in Jerusalem but to what that earthly temple replicates—the throne room of God in heaven. God says, after all, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). He doesn’t live in man-made houses. He’s not like earthly kings. He is God. He is the Lord. He is Yahweh.

Surrounding him are his many heavenly attendants. He has an angelic entourage. Seraphs—burning ones—the only place where they are mentioned in the Bible, are described as six-winged creatures, a pair of wings to cover their faces and another pair their feet in humility and obeisance to God, all while using the last pair to dart about in mid-air and calling antiphonally to each other in proclamation of the superlative essence of his nature. He is not just holy, but thrice-holy, the holiest of the holy, separate from everything and completely other from everything else. He is the “I Am that I Am,” the self-existence one, who was before there was anything and who is and who will always be. At the resounding chorus of the seraphs, the entire temple shook at its thresholds, and the complex filled with smoke, obscuring the majesty and devastating glory of Yahweh from the eyes of those who would be disintegrated by his holiness in a moment.

I can guarantee you that Isaiah had never seen anything like it. No one had. It was a vision of a King unlike any other, and it came at a time when Israel as a people and Isaiah in particular needed to be reminded of just who their king really was.

King Uzziah had been king of Judah for fifty-two years. That was a long stretch in the timeline of kings in Judah, let alone the Ancient Near East. That kind of tenure brings stability and security. His father Amaziah had brought Israel’s military to one of its lowest points since the days of Solomon. There was a constant threat of warfare with Israel to the north, as well as from other regional powers. At one point, Israel invaded Judah, plundered Jerusalem, and took Amaziah captive. This plunged Uzziah into kingship where he remained in leadership most likely even after his father was released and later assassinated.

As a political and military leader, Uzziah was perhaps the most able of all of Judah’s kings after Solomon. He developed long-term economic policies which brought considerable prosperity to the kingdom. This in turn enabled him to build up his military machine so that under his leadership he exacted major blows to surrounding powers. Judah’s growing military control of the region opened up commercial influence, which then benefited the nation. Thus, it was an incredibly stable time for Judah in an era inherently fraught with instability. Under his leadership, the people could relax. There was a general sense of ease, of contentment, of hope for the future.

Yet Uzziah was not without his faults. His success fostered an arrogance which led him to transcend the most important line of demarcation in the kingdom—the line between king and priest. As a king, he enjoyed his success in part through the counsel of a prophet named Zechariah (2 Chron. 26:5). But he eventually grew bold enough to take upon himself the priestly privilege of burning incense in the temple (2 Chron. 26:16), a privilege unique to the Aaronic priesthood (cf. Lev. 8–10). This move was met with strong resistance by a contingent of eighty men under the leadership of Azariah the priest, who withstood him. But Uzziah persisted in his plot and Yahweh struck him with leprosy, a condition which cost him his throne and his influence. He was relegated to seclusion, and his son Jotham ruled in his stead until his death.

Nevertheless, Uzziah’s death was quite literally the end of an era. From the time of his ascendence to the throne as co-regent during his father’s capture to his isolation as a leper when he still ruled de jure alongside his son Jotham, the era of Uzziah was an era of peace, stability, and prosperity that lasted some fifty-two years. As citizens of a nation which elects its chief leader every four years, we really can’t understand what it was like for a nation to live under the leadership of an effective, productive king for half a century. And therefore we have an even harder time understanding how devastating and destabilizing it would be to the citizens of that nation when that leader finally died. They would inevitably be asking the most important of questions. What does this mean for us? What’s next? What’s going to happen now? There’s no recourse for them. They don’t know what kind of a king Jotham is going to be. He could be another Uzziah. He could also be another Amaziah. There’s no Congress or Parliament to balance out the king’s power. There’s no recall vote that can dethrone the next leader should he prove to undo all the successes and developments of the previous administration. This is a kingdom led by a human king; you never know what kind of king you have until they lead, and the history of Judah from beginning to end produced only four godly kings throughout its four-hundred-plus year history. Human leadership is messy. It can bring out the best in people. We’ve seen incredible leaders forged in the greatest of crises. We’ve also seen leaders we thought would be great drive their nations into the ground because of ineptitude, pride, and selfish ambition. If there’s one thing we know about human leaders, it’s that nothing is guaranteed.

The year that king Uzziah died was one of the most unstable times in Judah’s history to that point. Everything was on the table. The future was in question. Anxieties ran high. All the peace and prosperity the nation had enjoyed was all at risk. A people that had been satisfied for so long were now wondering if the end was near.

That’s what Isaiah’s vision was all about. The people are afraid. The world is unstable. But the real King of Judah is on his exalted throne, very much in command. There is no emergency in the heavenly throne room. Angelic attendants aren’t seen sleeping in their offices, working into the midnight hours collecting intel and giving strategy briefs to a commander who’s just trying to figure out what to do in the wake of disaster. The Lord—the Sovereign One—sits on his throne where he always sits, continuing to rule as he always rules. He has never lost his rule or his sovereignty and he never will. This is the picture that Judah’s prophet needs to see. The one who is to take the message of God to the people needs to understand that behind the curtain of human affairs and international catastrophe sits a God who is always in command and who is always in control. There is no one like him. If there is any hope of Judah, it’s not to be found in another Uzziah but in the one who has always been Judah’s king, the one who is enthroned above the cherubim—Yahweh of hosts.

Is it any wonder that the apostle John wrote that when Isaiah saw his vision of Yahweh, he was in fact seeing a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 12:41)? He saw sitting on the heavenly throne the one who would become flesh and is to rule on the earthly throne of David, in the very line from which Solomon, Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham all descended. And his rule will be the rule every citizen of Judah had hoped for. He would fulfill all the great expectations of the prophets of old (cf. Ps. 72).

If we are to have any kind of impact in this world, at a time of continual instability, it’s because we have the same hope and the same confidence that the Lord gave to Isaiah in his day. Ours are the days of pandemics, of violent protests, of war. Ours are the days when “the kings of the earth set themselves and the rules take counsel together against Yahweh and against his Messiah.” (Ps. 2:2). But we’re ambassadors of another world, another kingdom. Our King is on the throne. He has always been on the throne. He was on the throne when the world was created by him and through him (Col 1:16). He was on the throne and in complete control when humans rebelled against him. He was on the throne all the while during Judah’s rollercoaster history. He was on the throne when Judah executed her own God and Savior (Acts 2:23). He is on the throne even now. Jesus is our King, and he is the stabilizing focus amidst the continual mess of human history. And the gospel is the stabilizing message that makes sense that continual mess. Are you worried yet? Is your soul anxious?

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” —Psalm 42:11