Isaiah’s Experience of the Numinous

In 1917, theologian Rudolf Otto coined the term ‘numinous’ to express an individual’s encounter with something ‘wholly other’, something beyond himself and even beyond the created order. It is a good and fitting term to describe Isaiah’s encounter with God recorded in Isaiah 6. Have you ever considered the pattern of Isaiah’s experience of the numinous? Notice these steps:

1. Isaiah sees the LORD in all His Glory, and observes the worship rendered to Him constantly. Though he had experienced something of the worship of God in Jerusalem’s Temple, he had never known anything like this before. It was ‘wholly other.’ The worship in Jerusalem was largely hypocritical–the worship in the LORD’s throne room was genuine.

2. Overwhelmed because of a sudden understanding of the majesty of God and his own nothingness, he falls down with a confession of his own sinfulness. Encounters with God can do nothing else–unless mediated through Jesus Christ our Lord. R.C. Sproul called this Isaiah’s ‘dis-integration.’ The glory of God caused him to come apart. Not only is the creature in the presence of the Creator, but he is piercingly aware of his own sinful creatureliness.

3. Isaiah receives forgiveness through the action and word of the Seraphim. We must notice that this act and pronouncement of forgiveness is of divine initiation. It involves cleansing of a painful kind, but immediately the prophet’s sins are forgiven. He now stands before God in a new light-pardoned and welcome.

4. Now the holy man hears the voice of the Lord. Isaiah was brought into the presence of the Lord to receive and to hear. Forgiveness has been granted, now come the inquiry: “Who will go for us?”

5. Glad for the opportunity to serve this majestic and forgiving God, he offers himself in response to the query–“Here am I, send me.” This was his best response. Now Isaiah was to be a living sacrifice–a prophet of God to a sinful covenant nation.

6. Finally, a commission is given. Now Isaiah knows the words he is to speak as the Lord’s messenger. Isn’t it curious how different his message was to that of the Seraphim. The one brought a message of cleansing and forgiveness; the other received a message of condemnation.

Isaiah’s experience progressed from sight to hearing. The experience of seeing God was enough to humble him immediately, and it wasn’t until he had been granted forgiveness that he was prepared to serve God. Initially, Isaiah was overwhelmed by what he saw, and repulsed by himself. Afterwards, he was prepared to offer himself in service to this gracious God. This was an encounter with the numinous!