At the outset of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, God appears to him in the Temple. When the prophet confesses that he is a “man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5), one of the Lord’s winged seraphim touches a burning coal to his lips in order to purge away his sin (6:6-7). In this way, God prepares Isaiah for his upcoming prophetic work. While Isaiah’s visionary inauguration may seem strange or esoteric, Scripture provides a precedent for this event in the prophetic life of Elijah; the combination of the divine touch and burning coals prepares the prophets for the tough job of speaking for God.

Isaiah recounts that during his Temple-vision “one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal (רצפה; ritspah) in his hand… and touched (נגע; naga’) my mouth, saying, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is purged away’” (6:6-7). Since “seraphim” (שׂרפים) comes from a Hebrew verb that means “to burn” (שׂרף; saraph), it is fitting that one of these divine beings should touch Isaiah with a burning coal. After this visionary interaction, God sends Isaiah to his people as a divine mouthpiece.

The biblical text actually prepares the reader to expect that God would employ burning coals in a tactile encounter with the prophet. In 1 Kings 19, when Ahab and Jezebel kill the prophets of Israel a fearful Elijah flees into the wilderness (19:3-4). Despairing to the point of wanting to die (19:4), Elijah falls asleep and an angel touches him just as the seraphim had done to Isaiah: “Behold, an angel touched (נגע; naga’) [Elijah] and said to him, ‘Arise and eat’” (19:5). When Elijah wakes, he sees before him burning coals: “And he looked, and behold, at his head was a cake baked on burning coals (רצפים; retsaphim) and a jug of water” (19:6). The angelic touch and food on burning coals provide Elijah with the energy to travel forty days and nights to Horeb (19:8) for another divine encounter that reinforces the prophet’s mission. Both Elijah and Isaiah receive heavenly encouragement by way of burning coals in order to fulfill their respective prophetic calls.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Could this also then be applied to Paul’s instruction to be kind to your enemies and in doing so heap burning coals on their heads? I guess I’ve always taken that to mean a sort of revenge. But perhaps in being kind to your enemies you are delivering heavenly encouragement?

  2. I would love join the Bible institute also cause I love God he’s in my life I cannot do nothing without my Abba Father Jesus.

  3. Jesus meeting with the disciples after his resurrection with fish cooked on burning coals might have reminded the Apostles of their prophetic call.

  4. I really like Tim Mackie’s (of the Bible Project’s) insight and thought provoking commentary on the hot coal removing the “tamei” of Isaiah’s lips; a polar contrast to “tamei status” usually being transferrable to others untilJesus, like the hot coal, instead transferred His “tahor” status to those who were otherwise unclean.

    Jesus’ touch brought life and purity to those considered dead and unclean, much like the prophetic vision of Isaiah saw the hot coal making him clean by touching his lips. It certainly preaches well as Dr Eli would say anyways haha

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