As part of my preparation for preaching on Isaiah 6:1–13 next Sunday, I was reading Luther’s lectures on Isaiah. I was intrigued that the translation (presumably Vulgate) he was using rendered Isa 6:5 as, “Woe is me! For I was silent”, rather than the usual “I am lost”. Well, some digging around ensued, with the following discovery: the Hebrew word normally rendered `I am lost’ (niphal of DMH) can mean (1) be brought to/obliged to be silent; (2) be destroyed; (3) be ruined or undone. Well, I never!
No doubt the almost universal translation “I am lost” is the best translation of the Hebrew. However, I’m prepared to wager a pair of cotton socks that the Hebrew is also a pun: “Woe to me, for I am lost—and so I am silenced.” A prophet who is perishing because of his unclean lips—and rendered speechless because of his unclean lips.
But when the seraph touches his lips with a burning coal from the altar, his lips are cleansed. His guilt is taken away, his sins atoned for—and his mouth opened to proclaim God’s word.
Which is precisely what happens to us, especially in the Divine Service. Our lips are touched, not with a burning coal but with the body and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our lips are cleansed, our guilt taken away, our sins atoned for—and our mouths are opened by the Lord to declare His praise to one another and to the whole world.
This is why I think Luther was so spot-on in switching the place of the Sanctus in the Liturgy of the Sacrament, so that it came after the Words of Institution, and not in the Preface (even though this move is almost universally condemned as amateurish, ignorant and cackhanded). The song of the seraphim was a spontaneous reaction to the presence of the Lord of hosts in the Temple. With the Consecration, the Lord of hosts, Jesus Christ, becomes truly and bodily present in the Temple of His Church—so what better way to confess that than to join in the song of the angels, the archangels and all the company of heaven!
Having been cleansed, the Church is saved from sin and rescued from silence, to proclaim the wonderful deeds of Him who saved her.
Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini
I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.