A Perfect Vision of Ourselves

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord 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 the Lord 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.
And I said: “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 hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”  (Isaiah 6:1-8)

Isaiah lived about seven centuries before Christ.  His writings make up the largest book in the Old Testament.  We classify it as one of the Major Prophet books (Isaiah-Daniel; called so because of the size of the books; Hosea-Malachi, the Minor Prophets, are called such because their books are comparatively smaller in size).

In Isaiah 6, Isaiah was at Solomon’s temple in the year that Old Testament King Uzziah passed away, about 740 years before Christ was born.  During this period of history, the Assyrian empire was beginning to take notice of Israel.  A few years after these events, Assyria would begin to act very aggressively towards Israel.  By the year 722 B.C., just eighteen years after the events of Isaiah 6, Assyria would completely conquer the northern kingdom of Israel and obliterate ten of the twelve tribes of Israel.

In this vision, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne.  He is described as “high and lifted up.”  The train of the Lord’s robe filled the temple.  When David came up with the idea of building the temple, he wanted it to be a permanent home for the ark of the covenant, which he called “the footstool of our God” (1 Chr. 28:2).  Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that in Isaiah’s vision God might have been using the temple itself as his footstool.  That would be why the train of his robe filled the temple.

Isaiah saw seraphim standing above the Lord.  Seraphim is the plural form of the Hebrew word seraph, which literally means “fiery serpent.”  This same Hebrew word is used to describe actual serpents in the Old Testament, including the fiery serpents which killed many Israelites during Moses’ day and were the reason he made that bronze serpent for the people to look at and be healed.  These particular fiery serpents in Isaiah’s vision – the seraphim – were obviously celestial in nature.  Each of them had six wings, and they used two of them to cover their face, two to cover their feet, and two to fly.  They called out to each other and proclaimed the glory and holiness of the Lord.

How did Isaiah react to seeing this wondrous sight?  He thought he was done for, finished, ruined.  He was suddenly very much reminded of his own unclean lips, and the unclean lips of his fellow Jews.  Seeing the glory of the Lord first-hand only made him realize just how sinful he was. 

One of the seraphim touched his mouth with a burning coal which he had taken from the altar, informing him that his iniquity was taken away and his sin was forgiven.  And yet the vision was not done.  Isaiah then heard the voice of the Lord himself, asking for someone to be sent to the Jews by the Godhead.  Isaiah immediately volunteered himself:  “Here am I.  Send me!”  This is the attitude which all of us should have.

Yet there is another attitude Isaiah exhibited in this vision which is also worth our emulation: his immediate willingness to recognize just how sinful he truly was.  Here was a man who found himself in the presence of the unimaginable glory of God…and all it did was bring home to him exactly how sinful and unclean he really was, both him and his fellow man.

It’s interesting that he didn’t just point out how sinful and unclean his fellow Jews were.  That would have been easy for him to do, considering that he was a prophet of God who was very pious and godly compared to the extremely immoral and idolatrous society in which he lived at that time.  But Isaiah didn’t do that.  Instead, he decided to acknowledge his own sinfulness and his own uncleanness first.

Christians, do you and I do the same?  How do we view ourselves?  Do we tend to see the evil of others before we see our own sin?  Do we even truly understand how humanity really is?  The evidence suggests that we do not.

A few years ago, CNN published on their website a news article titled, “Breaking news alert: People are inherently good, nonviolent.”  From the article:

We are hard-wired for goodness.  It’s easier to recognize this fact when you think of children.  Without mitigating factors, their innate goodness would not erode with age.  But goodness is not the sole virtue of the young.  The vast majority of people, when faced with simple, clear ethical choices, choose good over bad and even good over neutral.

Imagine a stranger’s baby is about to fall off a chair next to you.  You would try to catch it, right?  Intuition tells you that you can count on nearly everyone else to try to catch that baby, too.  Empathy is an evolutionary gift, an instinct that extends in concentric circles from the self, to loved ones, to community to countries and, for the enlightened, all of humanity – a concept dating to the ancient Greek Stoic Hierocles.  Everyone is capable of widening one’s circle. 

Our innate sense of good over bad is where we all start.  Despite thousands of years of war, rape, homicide and other violence, we are all still, fundamentally, baby catchers.

And, concerning the question of how some are undoubtedly evil:

Putting aside religious arguments on the existence of evil, when we brand people with that label, we lose the opportunity to address the causes of their actions.

Remember, we start from a place of moral purity. But under certain circumstances, we are all capable of doing things to others that are painful and vicious. Some of these acts go beyond our capacity to immediately understand them, and we might label “evil” what is really illness, fear, desperation, hate or a combination.

Hate and desperation, in particular, have seeds in abuse, hopelessness, isolation, poverty and other injustices. Hate is also taught. But nonviolence and empathy can also be taught and put into action to eliminate these causes.

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed,” Victor Hugo wrote in “Les Miserables.” “The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness.”

The article proposes that we are all inherently good…in spite of humanity’s history of violence, selfishness, and cruelty.  People who are thought of as evil are really just scared, sick, desperate, or people who hate (as though hate is not itself inherently evil).  Those who sin are not guilty of wrongdoing themselves.  The fault lies with others, the ones who cause the darkness.  Yet, since the article makes sure to put aside any religious perspective, it is left a mystery as to who or what would actually cause the darkness.

The article was published in December, 2018.  Two years later during 2020 and 2021, this country was left reeling from repeated riots in cities all over our nation in which lots of people were killed, injured, and assaulted in heinous ways by other people.  Property was destroyed or stolen.  All of this was done by many, many people who reveled in doing it. 

This paints a very different picture of human nature from that presented by the article.  Especially when we remember that a lot of the people who openly and proudly committed these crimes were not career criminals.  A lot of them we would consider to be ordinary people just like you and me…and yet they still willingly participated in these heinous actions.

Author Christopher Browning wrote a non-fiction book about the Holocaust called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  It’s the true story of how many of the ones who perpetrated these extreme acts of violence and genocide were ordinary people coming from ordinary jobs with ordinary lives just like you and me.  Police officers.  Paramedics.  Firefighters.  The first time they were faced with the order of rounding up Jews and putting them in front of a firing squad (which was made up of themselves), the commander was very upset.  He asked if anyone wanted to back out.  Only one man asked to be excused, and then twelve more after they saw him step forward.  In the end, only 20% of them opted out.  The rest ended up killing over 1,000 people in one day.  As time went on, less and less of them wanted to opt out of participating in the genocide.  After just a short time, all of them were participating in it.  Most of them got used to the violence.  This one reserve police battalion – not members of the Nazi party, but just ordinary citizens – ended up being responsible for killing thousands and thousands of people.  Many other similar cases could be cited throughout Europe…and this was just a few decades ago.

In light of this, how can the above article – or anyone else – promote the idea that humanity is inherently good?  Here’s how.  Read this quote from Dr. Roger Landry:

We are conditioned from birth, it seems, to fight for our piece of the pie, defend ourselves, or at least convince people that our views are “right.”  We do it with our families, at school, at work, and at social gatherings.  If we’re “proved wrong,” we feel somehow lessened, defeated, or humiliated.  In some cases, being proved wrong can upset our entire worldview, leaving us unanchored.”

He’s right.  We view ourselves as right and if anyone is wrong, it’s someone else.  We’ve been doing that ever since Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8-13). 

What’s the reality?  What’s the truth?  Well, to find that out we have to go to the place where the CNN article and most of the world does not want to go: God’s Word (John 17:17; Ps. 119:160):

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight… (Prov. 16:2a)

Every man’s way is right in his own eyes… (Prov. 21:2a)

There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.  (Prov. 14:12)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes… (Prov. 12:15a)

Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.  (Prov. 3:7)

Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?  There is more hope for a fool than for him.  (Prov. 26:12)

The common human condition is for us to think of ourselves as right (Prov. 16:2a; 21:2a).  Yet when we do that, it takes us in the wrong way, on the wrong path to death and hell (Prov. 14:12).  That’s why God says that foolish people consider their ways to always be right (Prov. 12:15).  So we should fear the Lord and turn away from sin and evil instead of thinking ourselves to be wise and right (Prov. 3:7).  If we don’t do that and continue to think of ourselves as always right and wise, we are worse than a fool (Prov. 26:12).

Read the final few chapters of the book of Judges (really, the whole book…but especially those last few chapters) and you’ll see how depraved and terrible society can be when it’s filled with people who do “what is right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25b).  When you do what is right in your own eyes, you are never wrong.  No one wants to think of themselves as wrong.  So if you’re never wrong, you can justify anything and everything.  That’s why ordinary people can find themselves justifying their participation in a holocaust, or their involvement in violence, theft, rioting, and arson.

Instead, we need to “not think more highly of (ourselves) than (we) ought to think” (Rom. 12:3).  Like Isaiah did when he found himself in the presence of the unimaginable glory of God.  That brought home to him exactly how sinful and unclean he was, as well as his fellow man.  He didn’t think more highly of himself than he ought to have thought. 

He started by acknowledging his own sinfulness.  We must do the same. 

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