The English word “seraphim” is a transliteration of the Hebrew term
seraphim, 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 cited above.
Isaiah’s Vision of the Seraphim
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 Jehovah 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 named Jehovah who was sitting on the throne as the pre-incarnate 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 (Young 1965, p. 250). Others view the object as a lump of burning coal from the sacrificial altar (Grogan 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.
Who Are the Seraphim?
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 represent an order of created beings facilitating the will of Deity.