by Vijay Chandra
It is a simple, statistical fact that ‘holy’ is the epithet applied to God more frequently in the Scripture than any other. Jesus calls him ‘Holy Father’ and teaches us to pray as our first request in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be your name’ (Matthew 6:9).
Definition of the word ‘Holiness’ ‘Holy’
The word ‘holy’ comes from the Hebrew word ‘radish’, which means, ‘separated, marked off’, ‘placed apart’, or withdrawn from common use. With regard to God, the word has two important meanings. God is transcendent above His creation and above His creation’s corruption.
God is transcendent above His creation.
The word ‘transcendent’ comes from the Latin verb ‘transcend-ere’ [trans-over-to climb] which means ‘to go beyond, rise above, or exceed’. As a creator, God is above His creation and totally distinct from every created being. The distinction between God and the rest of His creation is not merely quantitative [the same, but greater], but qualitative [God is completely different Being]. Regardless of their splendor, all other beings on earth and in heaven are mere creatures. God alone is God—separate, transcendent, and unapproachable. Other gods and goodness cannot match His holiness. Holiness is the preeminent attribute of God and the greatest truth that we can ever learn about Him. The triune nature of God is an expression of His holiness: is there any created being so incomprehensible, mysterious and wonderful? To say that God is spirit is to express another aspect of His holiness: is there any created being so free and unhindered? Most of the pagan gods and goddesses are a hindrance to each other. God’s perfection, eternal nature, self-existence, immutably, omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience are all expressions of His holiness. The holiness of God means that He transcends the moral corruption of His creation and is separated from all that is profane and sinful. God cannot sin, cannot take pleasure in sin, and cannot have fellowship with sin and sinners. It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of His holiness. What we understand about this attribute will influence every aspect of our relationship with God.
Yet God’s holiness is one of the most difficult concepts of all for us to understand. [Different religions have different ideas of ‘holiness’ and they have a subjective view of holiness]. But the Bible tells us more about holiness, and how it is applied to our God. This is partly because of uncertainty—even the most accomplished linguists have it—about the derivation of the biblical word for ‘holy’. It is also because holiness relates to God’s very being. This is so much the case that has been rightly said that to say that God is holy is just to say that God is God. Holiness belongs to the very essence of God’s character. But, of course, the thing that makes it most difficult for us to conceptualize that holiness of God is that holiness relates to his distinctiveness. It is what makes God different from us. And it is because we are so remote from him in his holiness that we find it difficult to conceptualize this attribute. Of all God’s attributes, we can say ‘holiness’ is the mother of all God’s attributes. One should realize that we have the same problem in conceptualizing a perfectly holy God as we have in conceptualizing a wholly evil devil. It is because in both extremes we find that we are unable to conceptualize what is ultimate. In the case of God’s character, we find it impossible to conceptualize his ‘infinite holiness’ for the simple reason that we are sinners (Romans 3:23).
Nowhere is the meaning of holiness in God more fully expounded than in the teaching and preaching of Isaiah, and nowhere is Isaiah’s prophecy more helpful in this regard than in the great sixth chapter. Here, at the very outset of his ministry, Isaiah encounters God as the One whose essential nature is ‘holiness’.
There are two things that this passage sets before us:
A Revelation of God’s Holiness.
A Response to God’s Holiness.
A REVELATION OF GOD’S HOLINESS. THERE ARE THINGS ABOUT THE REVELATION OF GOD’S HOLINESS THAT DEMAND OUR ATTENTION.
First, the timing. It is obvious, isn’t it, that for some reason Isaiah wanted to locate this vision in time. We are told at the beginning of chapter 6 ‘In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the LORD’. Isaiah is describing the exact period of the time in which this occurred so this must be of significance. Uzziah’s reign had been singularly beneficial to Judah. There had seldom been a king who sought the well-being of his people and did good for them, as Uzziah did. He was probably the greatest king since the days of Solomon. Yet in 2 Chronicles 26, we find that near the end of his reign Uzziah disparaged the glory of God by disobeying God’s Word and counsel. Because of that, the glory of God broke in upon him and he ended his days a leper. Uzziah has been called the king ‘with that glorious reign with the ghastly end’. He became a great warning to others. He ended his life separated, cut off from the temple rather than being separated for it.
Significantly, it was in the year of the death of this man that Isaiah said he saw the LORD seated on a throne, high and exalted, the year when those who had put their trust in princes were finding their confidence shattered. By the very timing of the event, therefore, Isaiah highlights the vast distance between the greatest earthly monarch and the Holy One of Israel.
Second, the description. It is not really clear whether Isaiah is describing the earthly or the heavenly temple in this vision. But the important thing is that he is seeing beyond the earthly temple to the heavenly one, noting that the glory of the Lord is filling it and dominating it. What dominates the temple, as Isaiah’s vision begins, is the glory and presence of the Lord: ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne high, and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple’.
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty’
Notice that the seraphim used the word ‘holy’ three times in succession: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty.’ That needs explanation because it is not repetition for the mere sake of rhythm or meter. ‘The Hebrew language has no word for ‘very’. Indeed, it has no forms corresponding to our English superlatives, like greatest, best, deepest, and so on. So the Hebrew language repeats the word to express the superlative. Thus, when we find the Lord saying in the Aramaic language (which is related to Hebrew), ‘Truly, truly I say to you’, this is a way of emphasizing that what he is saying is especially true and important. The repetition is a linguistic device to stress it. This is the only context in Scripture where a word is repeated three times. And it occurs only twice here in Isaiah 6 and in Revelation 4:8, where the heavenly beings cry aloud to God in precisely this language, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come’.
The emphasis teaches us that if there is one thing about God that is supremely important, it is his holiness: his moral glory, his distinctiveness from everything in his creation, and the perfection and beauty of his character. The seraphim raise the word ‘holy’ to the power of three, as it were, in order to press its significance upon us. The other important word used by the seraphim is ‘glory’. Do you and I notice the parallels? ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory’. There is a balance of thought as well as a balance of language. It is between God’s holiness and God’s glory. That is an important thing because the glory of God is really the outshining of all he is. The root meaning of the word ‘glory’ is ‘weight’ or ‘heaviness’. Since the weight of something frequently reflects its worth, ‘glory’ came to mean that which gave something or someone honor or made him or it worthy of respect. That idea in the human realm, multiplied infinitely, gives some notion of what the glory of God is. It is all that makes him worthy of praise in heaven as well as on earth.
The key word, ‘holy’, probably means ‘separate’, ‘set apart’, ‘distinctive’, so, as it is applied to God, it denotes everything that is distinctive in God and which distinguishes God from his creatures. The Old Testament concept of God’s holiness, which is carried over into the New Testament, has to do essentially with God’s moral glory and distinctiveness. It is important for us to grasp this because the words ‘holy’ and ‘ holiness’ are not in themselves specifically Christian, religious, or even Judaic. Holy in Semitic usage refers simply to distinctiveness, even objects became holy by belonging to God. But in biblical terms, the holiness of God is the distinctiveness that belongs to his moral glory. Therefore, it is an ethical concept.
‘The whole earth is full of His glory’ (Isaiah 6:1, 2)
‘Above him were seraphs, each with six wings. with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling one another’.
Third, the language: notice how God is described by the seraphic creatures we see in verses 2 and 5.
Ezekiel had the same problem. He begins to describe the glory of God, but he says, ‘It was like unto the likeness of something He finds it impossible to grasp’. God can’t be described by finite mind. He is a Holy One. In this vision we are at the edge of an infinity of impossibility in understanding what the transcendent glory and holiness of God really is—so much does God’s holiness separate him even from our imagination. John N. Oswald says, ‘There is a barrier beyond which the simply curious cannot penetrate’.
It is significant that, in the same way, in Exodus 24:10, when the elders of Israel saw God, all they have recorded is that the pavement under his feet was sapphire blue. They too found it impossible to describe God.
But then, do you notice that when Isaiah begins to describe what he sees, his description of God goes no further than the train of his robe? ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.’ That is a significant thing because here Isaiah is discovering the very thing that we noted earlier: human language is an insufficient vehicle to describe God’s holiness. So all Isaiah is able to say, ‘the train of his robe filled the temple’. It was, of course, the presence and glory of God which filled the temple, but Isaiah sees no further than the robe.
The word that is used for the ‘Lord’ literally means ‘the sovereign One’. This sovereign One is seated on a throne. Isaiah describes that throne as ‘high and exalted’. In fact, by a peculiar combination to the Hebrew language, the words, ‘high’ and ‘exalted’, may qualify either ‘sovereign Lord’ or ‘throne’ or both. In Isaiah 57:13 God is shown as ‘the high and lofty One—whose name is holy’ who lives ‘in a high and holy place’. But the picture here is of an exalted figure, the glorious king of the ages, whose holiness is manifested by his glory filling the temple. And it is, of course, God’s holiness which exalts him above all he has made. He is transcendent, lifted up, separate from sinners, exalted.