It is one of the most extraordinary visions of (1) the presence of Divinity and (2) prophetic calling to be found anywhere in the Bible:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” –Isaiah 6:1-8 NRSV
There’s plenty of smoke and fire, which are often in the vicinity when God is present (recall both the burning bush for Moses and how Solomon was forced out of the Jerusalem Temple on its dedication day). Add in some six-winged seraphim (the only place you’ll find them in the Bible, by the way) flying around and chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the very throne of God–all in all, it’s quite a sight.
Isaiah hadn’t expected any of that, of course, when he showed up for his regular duty in the Temple that morning. Some days it’s worth showing up for work. And he certainly felt unworthy of playing even a minor, supporting role in such a grand affair: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” But, no doubt much to his surprise, his sins were forgiven and guilt blotted out by the touch of burning coals to his lips.
As dramatic and incredible as this entire scenario was (keeping in mind, of course, that none of this should be understood literally–it’s a vision, after all!), there was a clear purpose, and it was neither for spectacle nor entertainment: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
*Adapted from the 2012 ForeWords archive