Read: Isaiah 6:1-8, Isaiah 1:14-17
Do you know everything you need to know about God? Why not listen to what the great prophet Isaiah tells us about him.
We live in a Bible-ignorant age. There have never been as many versions and translations of the Bible available as there are today. There are Bibles for children, Bibles for students, Bibles for women, Bibles for men; old translations, new translations; Bibles with maps and charts, Bibles with pictures, Bibles with study notes and indexes; large-print Bibles and pocket testaments; inexpensive paper-backs and fine, leather-bound editions. But despite the Bible’s widespread availability, more people seem to know less about God than ever before. Throughout the western world the Bible is a perennial best-seller, out-selling all other books. But though more Bibles are bought, fewer are being read, and ignorance about the contents and basic teaching of Scripture increases at an alarming rate.
The Holy One
This is particularly true with respect to the Bible’s teaching about God. Let me ask you to do something. Stop right now for just a second and think of three words that describe God. Was one of them the word “holy”? For most of us, that’s not what springs immediately to mind when we think about God. And yet, the fundamental truth the Bible teaches about God is that he is the Holy One. Holiness is not merely one quality of God among many. It is the defining characteristic of his nature. The holiness of God is what makes his love and mercy so stunning. You can’t really grasp the wonder of God’s grace unless you know the truth about his absolute holiness.
Perhaps one reason so many have missed the Bible’s teaching about the holiness of God is that they aren’t reading enough in the Old Testament, especially the Old Testament prophets. In this series of messages about men who spoke for God we come to the prophet Isaiah, who in many respects is the greatest of them all. Nowhere is the majestic, awe-inspiring holiness of God better described than in the book of Isaiah. Consider the famous vision Isaiah had in the temple in Jerusalem, when he saw the Lord enthroned in all his glory:
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. 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 to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4, NIV)
Yet in his vision Isaiah did not exactly see the Lord, either. As in other accounts of visionary encounters with God in Scripture, when the writer comes to describe what he saw, he focuses on the details around the edges of the picture. The central figure of God himself remains hidden in dazzling light. For example, Isaiah mentions God’s throne, the noise and smoke, the train of the robe that filled the temple. He tells us that the massive doors of the temple shook as if in an earthquake. He describes the seraphs, those mysterious angels covered with wings who flew around the throne singing the praises of the Most Holy God. But Isaiah doesn’t tell us what even the seraphs actually looked like – don’t we wish we had a picture of them! And that is as close as we come to a description of God himself.
Was God actually there in the temple, wearing a long robe and sitting on a king’s throne? Well, yes, and no. Yes, God was actually there; he appeared to Isaiah in this magnificent scene. But no, that doesn’t mean that God has a body, that he dresses in human clothes, or uses human furniture. Isaiah’s vision was intended to give him a keen awareness of the living presence of God, and to convey a vivid sense of God’s power, greatness, majesty, and, supremely, of God’s holiness. It was a mystical experience, lifting the prophet into the very presence of God. It transcended rational explanation or verbal description.
The whole point of the vision is to impress upon us this one thing: the absolute holiness of the living God. In the biblical world, the way to emphasize something is to repeat the same word over. For example, if a Scripture writer wanted to say that a woman was very beautiful, he would say she was a “beauty of beauties.” Or if he wanted to emphasize the truthfulness of a statement, he would introduce it with the words, “Truly, truly I tell you” (as Jesus did so often). Notice the word that is repeated over and over in Isaiah’s vision. It is the word holy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.”
Yet how many people, if you asked them what God was like, would give as their first answer, “God is holy“? Most people now no longer think of God (that is, when they think of him at all!) in this way. But this is who he really is! God’s own understanding of himself, and the first thing he wants us to know, is that he is an infinitely holy Being. Think of the model prayer Jesus taught us to say. The very first petition in that Lord’s Prayer asks, “Hallowed be your Name.” When we pray that, what we are saying is, “Father, may your Name be increasingly made holy and held to be holy. May every creature in the universe come to know and acknowledge the holiness of your nature.”
The Meaning of Holiness
But what exactly does the holiness of God mean? Let me suggest three things. God’s holiness means that he is different from us, that he is greater than us, and that he is better than us.
First of all, to say God is holy is to stress his difference. In its most fundamental sense God’s holiness is his “otherness.” The root meaning of the biblical word is to be “separate” or “set apart.” God isn’t like us; he is the infinite God and we are finite (limited) mortals. That is why people are so often uncomfortable in the presence of God, or even talking about God. When people actually met the living, holy God in the Bible, they trembled or hid or fell down before him, like Isaiah here, or Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), or Peter with Jesus (Luke 5:8).
God’s holiness also refers to his greatness, or transcendence, to use the theological term. The Bible often uses the analogy of distance to express this truth about God. That’s what it means when it describes God as being above us or as “high and exalted” (v. 1). To transcend means “to climb across” or “go beyond,” and God goes far beyond us in every imaginable way (and some ways we can’t imagine!). God exists on an altogether different level from us.
One of the Bible’s finest descriptions of God’s transcendence is in 1 Timothy 6:15-16, which say that God is “the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” This passage shows that God’s transcendence includes his sovereignty, or rule. He alone controls the universe and everything in it. He is infinitely superior to every other power. It includes his immortality. God alone is self-existing. Everything else derives its existence from him. God simply is, and always has been. And his transcendence includes his unapproachableness. God is so great that no creature can look upon him or know him in his inmost being. In Isaiah’s vision, even the seraphs, the highest angels, shield their faces from his immediate presence with two of their wings. They know they are not worthy to look directly upon the living God.
Finally, and supremely, the holiness of God refers to his infinite goodness . Israel’s Canaanite neighbors believed their gods were great; the problem was, they weren’t very good. In the religions of the ancient world the many gods and goddesses were all morally flawed. The pagan myths told of deities who were just like humans, only more powerful. They lied and cheated and quarreled, they bullied people and played favorites and took advantage of the weak. But when the real God spoke in the Bible to the people of Israel, he revealed himself as a God of absolute moral purity. The central insight of Old Testament prophetic religion is that God’s holiness embraces his righteousness. It means his goodness as much as his greatness. Therefore God expects a similar kind of holiness from his people. To the God of the Bible, moral purity is more important than ceremonial correctness. Because God is holy, he is more interested in personal righteousness in us than proper ritual from us. Thus the great call sounded by Isaiah and the other prophets:
Your . . . festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. . . Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. . . Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:14-17)
Reaction and Response
In Isaiah’s vision we have a genuine picture that communicates the nature of the living God. In Isaiah’s reaction to that vision we see the authentic response of a man who actually has come in contact with this God. “Woe to me!” He cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King. . . “ (v. 5). Isaiah’s initial response to seeing God was not joy, gladness, confidence, love. It was brokenness. His first words weren’t praise. They were a confession of his sin. I can’t really love a holy God until I have learned to hate what’s wrong in my own life. When we see God for who he truly is, we can’t help but see ourselves for what we truly are. And that appears to leave us without hope.
But God is gracious! One of the angels flies to Isaiah with a symbolic gesture of cleansing and forgiveness.
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (vv. 6-7)
The full reality of forgiveness comes only with Jesus Christ, whose blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Because God is gracious to us through Christ, the impossible someday will happen for those who believe in him. We will be united with God in perfect love and communion. We will even be able to look upon the holy Lord God without fear and without guilt. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
There’s one more significant point about Isaiah’s vision. At the end of it, God himself speaks. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (v. 8). Whenever God calls people to know him and experience his forgiveness and grace, he also calls them to serve him. He does that by asking for volunteers, as he did with Isaiah. If you have seen something of God’s holiness and glory, if you have been touched by his grace, there’s one further question for you to answer. Will you go and tell others about him?