Early in his ministry, Isaiah was granted a vision of the heavenly temple and the Lord enthroned there. But when he describes in detail what he actually witnessed, it is not so much God he sees as the angelic beings who worshiped Him.
Beyond the strange appearance of the six-winged seraphim, it was their cry of worship that stuck with Isaiah. Here is how he recalls it in Isaiah 6:
Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered. One cried out to the other:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!
All the earth is filled with his glory!” (verses 2-3).
A number of commentators have noted the threefold character to their affirmation of God’s holiness. “No doubt men are accustomed to say three times what they wish to say in an exhaustive and satisfying manner; for three is the number of expanded unity, of satisfied and satisfying development, of the key-note extended into the chord,” say a pair of nineteenth century commentators.
Indeed, the number three does seem built into the structure of our minds. Old-school parents count to three before disciplining an unruly child. In baseball, you are out after three strikes. The same principle has been built into the penal code through three-strikes laws in several states and at the federal level. Three is company in a way that two friends are not.
The importance of three is also reflected in the physical world. A circle has three essential points: the center, the radius, and the circumference. Triangular structures are among the strongest. Space has three dimensions. In math, one of the most important numbers is Pi, which is 3.14. In the ancient world, three was, as the above commentators put it, the “number of expanded unity.” Three is a multiplicity but it is also a unity or a whole because it has a beginning, middle, and end, according to Aristotle and Augustine.
We might wonder: why is the number three so important?
Christian theology naturally would discern in the threefold character of created reality a reflection of the Trinity.
That connection is certainly relevant here as Isaiah has told us he saw God enthroned in heaven. Thus, we arrive at another question. Do we here have an early glimpse—however darkly in a mirror—of the Trinity in the Old Testament?
Of this much we can be sure: the cry uttered by the seraphim well represents the Trinity. They cry out one word: holy, but repeat it three times. This certainly imitates what we know about God: who is one in being yet also three persons. Just as each of the persons is fully God, so also each repetition of the word holy is fully the word holy.
But the nature of Isaiah’s vision reveals more about God. It does this paradoxically by what it does not show.
Go back to the beginning. In verse one Isaiah says he saw the “Lord seated on a high and lofty throne.” But the prophet never actually describes the face of God. Instead, the next detail he shares is that the throne was “high and lofty”—a repetition that reinforces its presumed remoteness from the standpoint of Isaiah. Next, Isaiah’s gaze moves downward: he reports that the “train of His garment” filled the heavenly temple.
And the center of the vision becomes the seraphim worshipping God. Truly it is extraordinary that even in this precious vision of the heavenly realm Isaiah still does not see God’s face. His gaze is consumed by what is around God, in particular, the worshipping angels. And not even they see God: one pair of their six wings covers their eyes. If those at the highest order of angels consider themselves unworthy to see God, how much more should we?
This reading of the account seems warranted by the operative word holy. We tend to think of holiness in terms of purity, and this is one legitimate meanings of the word. But on a deeper level holiness means what is set apart. Things in creation become holy and remain pure by being set apart from the rest of the world.
God, of course, is most holy because He is transcendentally above and beyond all creation.
Isaiah’s account then is a masterful exercise in what is sometimes called apophatic theology—understanding God by what He is not. Except in context here we might call it knowing God by knowing Him as one above and beyond us. Even in heaven, Isaiah does not see all and neither do the most elite angels. It is fitting here that we then have a faint reflection of the Trinity, which can be understood dimly but is ultimately outside of our comprehension.
It is another paradox that God’s remoteness is what draws us closer to Him. It spurs us to seek Him ever more. Consider how precious the sight of God must be if not even a prophet or the highest angels can gaze upon it? Does that not inspire us to yearn for it ever more?