Who or What Were the “Seraphim”?
“Who or what are the ‘seraphim’ mentioned in Isaiah 6:2,6?”
The English word “seraphim” is a transliteration of the Hebrew term serapim, a plural form of the root, saraph, which signifies “to burn.” The root appears some 120 times in the Old Testament in various contexts in which different objects are described as burning (e.g., sacrifices, cities, etc.). This plural form, “seraphim,” is found only in the Isaiah context sited above.
In Isaiah’s description, the scene is set in the year that king Uzziah died (c. 744 B.C.). The prophet was permitted, by way of a vision, to look into the very sanctuary of the Lord, whom he saw sitting upon an exalted throne. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings. With two of the wings the face was covered, with two the feet were covered, and with the remaining two each creature was able to fly.
The seraphim praised God saying: “Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.” Compare these utterances with similar language in the final book of the New Testament (Rev. 4:8). Many early writers interpreted this triple use of “holy” as an allusion to the Trinity. Though that conclusion could not be drawn based upon Isaiah 6:3 alone, the fuller revelation of the New Testament at least suggests that possibility.
The foundations of the place were shaken by this loud proclamation and the house was filled with smoke (perhaps signifying the very presence of God – cf. Psa. 104:32). In the aftermath of such an awesome experience, Isaiah felt a sense of his own sinfulness. He thus cried:
“Woe is me! For I am undone; because 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, Jehovah of hosts” (v. 5).
It is interesting to reflect upon the similar response of Peter in the presence of the miracle-working Christ (Lk. 5:8).
It is worthy of note that John, an inspired apostle, cites this passage from Isaiah, and identifies the Being on the throne as the preincarnate Christ (Jn. 12:37-41). This is certainly a powerful argument for the deity of Jesus.
Following Isaiah’s confession of sin, on behalf of himself and his people, one of the seraphim brought a “live coal” from the sacred altar. He touched the prophet’s mouth with it and pledged that his sins were forgiven. Some see the reference to “live coal” as actually a “hot stone” from the altar of incense (E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965, I, p. 250), while others view the object as a burning coal from the sacrificial altar (G.W. Grogan, “Isaiah,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986, p. 56).
The imagery may show:
- the connection between the shedding of blood and forgiveness;
- the need for forgiveness as a prelude to acceptable worship.
The question then is this: who were these seraphim? The most obvious answer is that they were some sort of heavenly attendants, serving the Godhead. The “burning” aspect of the creatures may suggest either a fiery, brilliant countenance, or perhaps there is some association with their act of purification by fire from the divine altar. These ideas, from the very nature of the case, are speculation.
The Scriptures simply mention the seraphim, with no detailed explanation. One may reasonably surmise that they represented an order of created beings facilitating the will of Deity.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.