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poetry

The Incense

This sonnet is based on Isaiah 6:1-8, and is part of a new series on Isaiah titled, Full of His Glory.

I have always been brought up a bit short by the coal touching Isaiah’s lips and his subsequent eagerness to be sent. I can’t get over how painful I imagine it.

Much is made in my circles of the atonement made for Isaiah’s sin and the conviction that the coal must have come from the altar of sacrifice in the Temple’s courtyard. But Isaiah’s explicit mentioning of Uzziah at the beginning leads me to believe that the altar of incense inside the Sanctuary is what he has mind. Though I hold firmly to justification by faith, it seems that there is more going on than the battles of atonement theories.

In Isaiah more generally, but here too, the all too often malady of giving lip service to God while having a heart that is far from him seems to be more at hand. Even here, Isaiah’s preaching will fall on ears that cannot understand and be set before eyes which cannot perceive. Judah’s problem is in the heart. So this brings me back to Isaiah and his lips, and mine if I’m honest.

Burning coals and lips do not go together, but what if the image is not one of atonement but of sanctification. What if Isaiah is the incense who when ignited by God’s Spirit sends up the offering of prayer and praise –rising to heaven and suffusing everything around with the fragrant message of God’s word? What if Isaiah’s heart has been ignited in holiness and zeal and love? That he would rush forward and say, Send Me! Send Me! makes much more sense. So, here’s to Isaiah and hearts set aflame to make lips smoke with prayer and praise.

If it’s helpful, you may listen to me read the sonnet via the player below.

In the year that King Uzziah died I
Saw the Lord seated in His Temple high
Above where he speaks, makes the threshold shake
At the sound of his voice and glory’s weight.

And I shake too and break, for I am one
Who has seen the Holy. I am undone.
Unclean in heart my lips lie, lay claim
To the greedy loves of self, pride, and fame.

But from the altar where Uzziah sinned,
Comes heat and fire born on wings and wind.
I, the incense, the coal touches my lips,
Ignites his word, prayer smokes, calling grips
With grace. My heart aflame, he calls to me
To proclaim His favor, set captives free. 

© Randall Edwards 2020. This poem is for Christ’s church. If it is helpful, please feel free to copy or reprint in church bulletins, read aloud, or repost. I only ask that an attribution be cited to myself (Randall Edwards) and this blog (backwardmutters.com).

artwork: Marc Chagall, Le prophète Isaïe, 1968–1968.