What does it mean to say that God is holy? Most people think of moral rectitude or righteousness or goodness, and that is certainly true. To be holy is to be characterized by purity and blamelessness and integrity, both in terms of one’s essence and one’s activity. In this sense, God’s holiness and his righteousness are somewhat synonymous. He is described in the OT as “too pure to behold evil” and intolerant of evil (Hab. 1:12-13). But this is only a secondary way in which God is said to be holy. We need to understand the primary thrust of the word.
- The Biblical evidence
God is regularly identified in Scripture as “the Holy One“. See Job 6:10; Isa. 40:25; 43:15; Ezek. 39:7; Hosea 11:9; Hab. 1:12; 3:3. He is also called “the Holy One of Israel” in 2 Kings 19:22; Isa. 1:4; 43:3 (a total of 25x in Isaiah alone); Jer. 50:29; 51:5; and elsewhere. In Isa. 57:15 God is described as “the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.” God’s holiness is often associated with his majesty, sovereignty, and awesome power (Ex. 15:11-12; 19:10-25; Is. 6:1-4).
Holiness is so much the essence of who God is that Amos speaks of him as swearing “by his holiness” (4:2). This is simply another way of saying that “the Lord God has sworn by himself” (6:8). In fact, God’s name is qualified by the adjective “holy” in the OT more often than all other qualities or attributes combined!
The root meaning of the Hebrew noun “holiness” (qodes) and the adjective “holy” (qados) comes from a word that means “to cut” or “to separate,” and thus to be distinct from and set apart. That the term did not originally refer to ethical purity is seen from its use in describing prostitutes(!) who were “set apart” or “devoted” to pagan deities such as Baal and Asherah (see Gen. 38:21; Hosea 4:14). Bloesch points out that “in Israel’s history holiness could be applied to nonpersonal things, places and even pagan gods (cf. Dan. 4:8,9; 5:11). The ground around the burning bush is holy (Ex. 3:5) as are the temple (Is. 64:11; Jon. 2:4; Hab. 2:20), days (Ex. 20:8; Deut. 5:12; Is. 58:13), utensils (1 Chron. 9:29), garments (Ex. 29:21; Lev. 16:4), food (1 Sam. 21:4; Neh. 7:65), oil (Ex. 30:25,31; Num. 35:25; Ps. 89:20) and offerings (2 Chron. 35:13; Ezek. 42:13)” (God the Almighty, 138).
The Greek equivalent is hagios and its derivatives. The point is that God is separate from everyone and everything else. He alone is Creator. He is altogether and wholly other, both in his character and his deeds. He is transcendently different from and greater than all his creatures in every conceivable respect. To put it in common terms, “God is in a class all by himself.”
We often speak of something that is outstanding or has superior excellence as being “a cut above” the rest. That is what God is. As R. C. Sproul put it, “He is an infinite cut above everything else” (The Holiness of God, 55). Holiness, then, is not primarily a reference to moral or ethical purity. It is a reference to transcendence. So where does the concept of purity come from? Sproul explains:
“We are so accustomed to equating holiness with purity or ethical perfection that we look for the idea when the word holy appears. When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simply apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is a transcendent purity” (57; emphasis mine).
Holiness, then, is that in virtue of which God alone is God alone. Holiness is moral majesty. This unmistakable biblical emphasis on the transcendent inviolability of God runs counter to the tendency in some theological circles to merge God with his creation. But God’s immanence is relational and redemptive, not ontological. God cannot be identified with his creation, whether it be in the unfolding purpose of history or the religious and psychological experience of people. “His immanence,” notes Bloesch, “is an act of his freedom, not a quality of his being. Just as he freely relates to his creation, so he is also free to withdraw himself from his creation” (God the Almighty, 24).
This tension between divine transcendence and immanence is seen in an interesting paradox in the title for God, “Holy One of Israel.” The words “Holy One” point to God’s otherness, his “set-apartness”, so to speak. As we shall see, to be holy is to transcendently above the creation. Yet, he is the Holy One “of Israel“! He has given himself to a people: they are his people and he is their God. Although transcendent and lofty, he is also immanent and loving. His eternal distinctiveness as God does not prohibit or inhibit him from drawing near in grace and mercy to those with whom he is in covenant relationship.
“For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite'” (Isa. 57:15).
“Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where then is a house you could build for me’ . . . But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:1-2).
- Holiness as the “mysterium tremendum”
Earlier this century, German scholar Rudolph Otto wrote a book titled The Idea of the Holy in which he described the concept of the holy as the mysterium tremendum, or the “awful mystery”. Holiness, said Otto, is something which evokes awe and amazement. It draws us, yet frightens us. There is both dread (think of Isaiah’s experience) and curiosity (think of Moses’ desire to “see God’s glory”) when one encounters the holy. He writes:
“The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering. It has its crude barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures” (pp. 12-13).
See Luke 5:1-8 . . .
- An Encounter with the Holiness of God
The encounter that Isaiah the prophet had with the majestic holiness of God is more instructive than any in Scripture.
- Isaiah sees the Lord (v. 1) – King Uzziah, one of the more godly kings who ruled Judah, died in @ 740 b.c. (see 2 Kings 15:1-7; 2 Chron. 26). He ascended the throne at the age of 16 and ruled for fifty-two years.
One king was dead, but Isaiah was about to make contact with the King who never dies. One king had lost his power. Another never will. One king has seen his authority pass to the next generation. Another will rule from generation to generation. An earthly nation mourns the passing of its monarch. A heavenly nation praises the perpetuity of its monarch’s reign. Uzziah’s power was limited and fleeting. God’s power is limitless and forever. Needless to say, the contrasts in v. 1 are striking. Oswalt elaborates on this point:
“Judah had known no king like Uzziah since the time of Solomon. He had been an efficient administrator and an able military leader. Under his leadership Judah had grown in every way (2 Chr. 26:1-15). He had been a true king. How easy it must have been to focus one’s hopes and trust upon a king like that. What will happen, then, when such a king dies, and coupled with that death there comes the recognition that a resurgent Assyria is pushing nearer and nearer? In moments like that it is easy to see the futility of any hope but an ultimate one. No earthly king could help Judah in that hour. In the context of such a crisis, God can more easily make himself known to us than when times are good and we are self-confidently complacent” (177).
One day, most likely while in the temple, Isaiah “saw the Lord.” Lord here is usually printed in our Bibles as “Lord” as over against “LORD”. The former is a translation of the word Adonai which means “the sovereign one.” The latter is a translation of Yahweh which is the most sacred name of God, the name by which he reveals himself to his covenant people.
The name Jehovah is not technically a biblical one It comes from the consonants in Yahweh and the vowels in Adonai. For example, we read in Ps. 8:1 – “O LORD [Yahweh] our Lord [Adonai], how excellent is thy name in all the earth.” LORD is the name of God while Lord is his title.
- Isaiah sees the angels (vv. 2-4) – This is the only place in Scripture where the seraphim are mentioned. The word literally means “burning ones” and is applied elsewhere to serpents (Num. 21:6; Isa. 14:29; 30:6).
- their posture (v. 2) – They covered their faces/eyes, for even among the angels it is forbidden to gaze directly at the glory of God. As Motyer put it, “They covered their eyes, not their ears, for their task was to receive what the Lord would say, not to pry into what he is like” (76). They cover their feet, perhaps an allusion to Moses’ experience of being on “holy ground.” Others have suggested it points to their humility. Still others argue that since it is our feet that connect us to the earth, they are symbolic of our creatureliness. Although angels are not earthbound or human, they acknowledge their status as mere creatures in the presence of the Creator. According to Motyer, “in covering their feet they disavowed any intention to choose their own path; their intent was to go only as the Lord commanded” (76).
In the OT, “feet” is sometimes used as a euphemism for genitalia (cf. Ruth 3:4,7,8). The suggestion has been made that “as the creature should not look upon the Creator, so the created should not be displayed in the sight of the Creator” (Oswalt, 179). However, it seems unlikely that “angelic” beings who do not reproduce should be portrayed as having reproductive organs.
- their praise (vv. 3-4) – Holiness is the only “attribute” of God raised to the third power! Some have argued that it implies triunity, one “holy” for each person of the Godhead. Most likely the Trisagion, as it has come to be known, is simply an example of a Hebrew literary device in which repetition is used for the sake of great emphasis (cf. Gen. 14:10; 2 Kings 25:15). Note several things:
First, he is the Lord of “hosts,” a reference to his military role. God is the warrior who engages the enemies of his people. He stands at the head of a mighty heavenly host, an army of angelic powers against whom no one can stand.
Second, although God is holy and therefore transcendent, he is not remote. The infinite loftiness of God, implied by the reference to his holiness, does not entail his aloofness. God is great but he is not geographically distant. Observe the three-fold emphasis on “fulness” or God’s “filling” the temple and the earth (vv. 1,3,4). This thrice-holy God is intimately near those who love him.
Third, the impact is shattering! There is trembling (cf. Ex. 19:18; Acts 4:31) and the presence of smoke (Isa. 4:5; Ex. 33:9). The latter may be the smoke of incense, “in which case smell is added to sight and sound as the sensory elements of the experience” (Oswalt, 182). R. C. Sproul comments:
“A recent survey of ex-church members revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church was that they found it boring. It is difficult for many people to find worship a thrilling and moving experience. We note here, when God appeared in the temple, the doors and the thresholds were moved. The inert matter of doorposts, the inanimate thresholds, the wood and metal that could neither hear nor speak had the good sense to be moved by the presence of God” (40-41).
What is important to remember is that we are now the temple of God! If the inanimate structure of the old covenant trembled and shook at God’s presence, what is our response, we in whom this same glorious and holy God now lives? How can there be the slightest indifference or coldness or routine or mere ritual or mindless habit in our worship when this same God lives and abides in us?
- Isaiah sees himself (vv. 5-7) – Seeing God does not produce rapture or giddiness or religious flippancy. It produces terror and self-loathing. Isaiah does not respond with pride or elitism, boasting that he alone has experienced this wonderful privilege. Rather he is undone! He sees himself as insufferably unrighteous compared to the resplendent purity and transcendence of the King. As someone has rightly said,
“We, in our arrogance, measure sin by its effects within the created order and upon us. Isaiah sees more clearly: sin is to be measured by the majesty and purity of the One against Whom it is necessarily perpetrated” (F. Seay).
Isaiah’s experience is instructive in another respect. This man was already aware of his sinfulness and had made great strides in his growth in spiritual things. But now, in the unmediated presence of the Holy God, he sees himself as filthier than ever before.
So intensely aware is he of his sin that he, in effect, calls down the curse of God on his own head. “Woe is me” is a cry of judgment. It is a cry of anathema. “It is one thing for a prophet to curse another person in the name of God [as Isaiah had done in 5:8,11,18,20,21]; it was quite another for a prophet to put that curse upon himself” (Sproul, 43). This no small twinge of a sensitive conscience. Isaiah cries out: “I am ruined,” i.e., “I am coming apart at the seams! I am unraveling. I am experiencing personal disintegration!”
“If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah Ben Amoz. He was a whole man, a together type of a fellow. He was considered by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a Holy God. In that single moment all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed – morally and spiritual annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed” (Sproul, 43-44).
His sudden sense of sinfulness and personal ruin was linked to his lips. He cried out, in essence, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I’ve got a dirty mouth!” Why the focus on his “mouth”? I don’t think there is any reason to conclude that Isaiah was guilty of profanity or told dirty jokes! Instead, there are two reasons for this conviction on his part. First, mention is made of his mouth because what we say betrays what we are. The mouth is like a phonograph speaker, it simply manifests what is impressed on the record of the heart (see Mt. 15:11,18 and James 3:2,6-12).
But more important still is the fact that the one area in his life which Isaiah thought he had under control, in which he no doubt prided himself, because of which the people honored and respected him, because of which he was highly esteemed, because of which he had position and prestige was the power of his mouth. He was a prophet! If there was one arena in his life of which he had no fear or concern, related to which he felt God’s most overt approval, which he regarded as his greatest strength and that which was above reproach and beyond falling or failure . . . was his tongue! His speech! His mouth! His verbal ministry! He was God’s mouthpiece! He was God’s voice, His spokesman on the earth! Yet the first thing he felt was the sinfulness of his speech!
Oswald Chambers once wrote that “An unguarded strength is a double weakness.” Beware of that in your life which you regard as invulnerable to attack, failure, or demonic assault. At this point Isaiah must have felt hopeless. He
“was groveling on the floor. Every nerve fiber in his body was trembling. He was looking for a place to hide, praying that somehow the earth would cover him or the roof of the temple would fall upon him, anything to get him out from under the holy gaze of God. But there was nowhere to hide. He was naked and alone before God. He had no Eve to comfort him, no fig leaves to conceal him. His was pure moral anguish, the kind that rips out the heart of a man and tears his soul to pieces. Guilt, guilt, guilt. Relentless guilt screamed from his every pore” (Sproul, p. 46).
But here is the good news of the gospel: The infinitely holy God is also a gracious and merciful God! This God of mercy immediately provides cleansing and forgiveness. Isaiah’s wound was being cauterized. The dirt in his mouth was washed away as the corruption of his heart was forgiven. He was refined by holy fire. The fact that the coal was placed on his lips points to the principle that “God ministers to the sinner at the point of confessed need.’
The fact that the coal was placed on his lips points to the principle that “God ministers to the sinner at the point of confessed need” (Motyer, 78).
It should also be noted that “Isaiah does not plead for mercy, nor does he make great vows if God will but deliver him. All of the evidence makes it appear that he considers his case hopeless. Yet out of the smoke comes a seraph with a purifying coal. God does not reveal himself to destroy us, but rather to redeem us” (Oswalt, 184). In other words, Isaiah is redeemed and forgiven at God’s initiative, not his own.
- Isaiah sees his mission (vv. 8-13) – “Having believed with certainty that he was about to be crushed into non-existence by the very holiness of God and having received an unsought for, and unmerited, complete cleansing, what else would he rather do than hurl himself into God’s service?” (Oswalt, 186).
The practical implications of this vision of divine holiness are immense. Personal transformation is the product, not so much of seeing the ugliness of sin as seeing the beauty of the Savior. Isaiah was awakened to the horror of his sin only because he saw the holiness of his God. Nothing on earth in the course of what must have been a full and fascinating life had ever awakened Isaiah to the presence and depth of his sin the way this experience did. No teaching he had received, no exhortation from parent or friend or colleague, no warning about verbal sins, . . . nothing had brought him the quality of conviction that truly transforms. It was only when he saw the indescribably surpassing and incomparable character of God that his heart was stung with the anguish of conviction. Personal holiness thus begins with an awareness of who God is. Perhaps that’s why so few people are or care to be holy: they’ve never “seen” God, they know little if anything of the magnitude of his holy majesty, his infinite, uncreated righteousness.
Awareness of who God is leads inevitably to an awareness of who we are. Self-image, the concept we have of ourselves, must begin not by looking in the mirror but by looking into the face of God. Few have expressed this more cogently than John Calvin (1509-64), who insisted that no one ever achieves
“a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy — this pride is innate in all of us [even in Isaiah, I might add] —unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured” (Institutes, Book One I:2).
Calvin concludes that man is never sufficiently “touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state, until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (I:3).
This self-awareness in turn inevitably leads to brokenness and pain, followed by confession and repentance. One need only reflect on the emotional spiritual anguish of Isaiah. His physical agony was but a portrait of his spiritual discomfiture. True knowledge of God always leads to repentance. This in turn leads to cleansing and forgiveness. The holiness of God that first hurts, then heals. Finally, cleansing leads to commissioning. Mercy leads to ministry. Having seen God, what else is there to say but: “Here am I [Lord]. Send me” (Isa. 6:8).