From: All God’s Angels
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. Seraph 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.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)
Isaiah’s experience in the Temple ranks with the vision in Ezekiel 1 and the book of Revelation as one of the most dramatic, colorful, and sensational angelic encounters in all of Judeo-Christian history. No set of reflections on angels would be complete without it. All the more so because while most meetings involve an angel temporarily entering the world – bringing Heaven to Earth as it were – in this case, the prophet is temporarily entering Heaven. Unsought, unforeseen, and certainly unnerving, Isaiah’s meeting takes place at the throne of the One who sends all angels and to whom all angels return. There, Isaiah sees what the angels are really up to!
These verses contain the only use of the word “seraphim” in the Hebrew Bible – though these dazzling creatures appear a number of times in the book of Enoch, an ancient Hebrew text not included in the Bible. Among the angels, the seraphim stand with the cherubim nearest to the throne of God and, like the “four living creatures” in Revelation 4, lead all of Heaven in its unceasing song to God: “Holy, holy, holy.”
The seraphim are the “burning ones,” as we saw also in the story of Moses and the burning bush. As they purify Isaiah’s mouth with fire in preparation for his prophetic ministry, they share their own passion for proclaiming the glory of God. In his study of the angelic order, On the Celestial Hierarchy, the sixth-century writer known as Pseudo-Dionysius cannot seem to find enough adjectives to describe the seraphim when he writes:
The name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant, and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness.
Thomas Aquinas identified their heat and energy as love. Their fire, he wrote, is due to an “excess of charity.” They burn with ardor, and with that same burning zeal they worship God continually and purify the lives of God’s people.
We are not angels and we never will be. Angels and human beings are entirely different creatures in the order of God’s handiwork. But still, we can learn a great deal from them. We have already seen the example of their instant obedience to God’s instructions, their resolute commitment to God’s purposes, and their unwavering dedication to the good of human beings. In the seraphim of Isaiah’s vision, we see another angelic attribute. Is it possible for our own lives to shine with charity? Can we too become burning lights?