Read: Isaiah 6:1-8
The prophecy of Isaiah belongs on anyone’s shortlist of the Bible’s greatest books. Unsurpassed for beauty, Isaiah’s writing also reveals more of God’s saving purpose than almost anywhere else in scripture—so much so, that it has sometimes been called “the fifth gospel.” We are exploring the treasures of Isaiah in this series of programs based on the book’s most important prophecies.
There have never been as many versions 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; inexpensive paper-backs and fine, leather-bound editions. But though more Bibles are bought, fewer are being read, and the result is widespread ignorance about the most basic contents of Scripture.
The Holy One
This is particularly true with respect to the Bible’s teaching about God. What words come immediately to your mind when I ask you to describe God? Was one of them the word “holy”? Today that’s not the first thing most people think about when they think about God, but the most fundamental truth the Bible teaches us about God is not that he is gracious or loving or angry or just. The most fundamental truth is that he is the Holy One. Holiness is not merely one quality of God among many. It’s 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 beginning today on the book of Isaiah, whose perhaps the greatest of all the prophets, I want to start by focusing on Isaiah’s great vision of the majestic, awe-inspiring holiness of God. This vision is described in the first part of Isaiah 6:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:1-4)
“In the year that King Uzziah died,” says the prophet, “I saw the Lord.” Yet in his vision Isaiah did not exactly see the Lord, either. He describes the details around the edges of the picture. He mentions God’s throne, and the noise and the smoke that filled the temple, and the train of his robe spilling down into the room. He tells us that the massive temple doors shook as if in an earthquake. He describes the seraphim, those mysterious angels covered with wings who flew around the throne singing the praises of the Thrice Holy God. But Isaiah doesn’t tell us what even the seraphim actually looked like—” and don’t we wish we had a picture of them! But that is as close as we come to a description of God himself.
The whole point of the prophet’s vision is to impress upon us this single thing: the absolute holiness of the true and 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 very beautiful, he would say something like, “She’s 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 so often did). Did you notice the word that’s repeated over and over in Isaiah’s vision of God? It’s the word holy: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts.”
Most people today no longer think of God (that is, when they think of him at all!) in this way. But this is who God really is! God’s own understanding of himself, the first thing he wants us to know about himself, is that he is an infinitely holy Being. Think of the model prayer Jesus taught us to say. Do you remember the very first petition in that Lord’s Prayer? It’s “Hallowed be Thy Name.” When we pray that, what we are saying is, “Father, may your Name be increasingly known and held to be holy. May every creature in the universe come to know and acknowledge the holiness that is your nature.”
The Meaning of Holiness
But what exactly does that mean? What is the holiness of God? Let me suggest three things about it. First of all, to say that God is holy is to stress his difference from us. In its most fundamental sense God’s holiness is his “otherness.” In fact, the root of the biblical word for “holy” means to be “separate” or “set apart.” When we say that God is holy, in other words, we mean that he isn’t like us; he’s the infinite God and we are finite (limited) mortals. I think that’s one reason why God makes so many people so uncomfortable. When people actually met the living, holy God in the Bible, they either trembled or hid or fell down before him as dead, like Isaiah here in chapter 6, or Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), or Peter with Jesus at the shore of Galilee (Luke 5:8), or John in the opening chapter of the book of Revelation.
Secondly, God’s holiness refers to his greatness, or transcendence, to use the theological term. In fact, the Bible often uses the analogy of distance to express this truth about God. That’s why it says that God is being above us or “high and exalted” (v. 1). To transcend means “to climb across” literally or “go beyond,” and God goes far beyond us in every imaginable way (and in some ways we can’t even begin to imagine!). To say that God is holy is to say that he exists on an altogether different level from us.
One of the Bible’s finest descriptions of God’s transcendence comes in 1 Timothy 6:15-16, where it says 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.” God is infinitely superior to every other power or being in the universe. God alone is self-existing. Everything else derives its existence from him. But God simply is, and always has been and always will be. 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 seraphim, the highest angels, shield their faces from his immediate presence with two of their wings. They know that even they are not able to look directly upon the living God.
Finally, 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. But when the real God spoke in the Bible to the people of Israel, he revealed himself not just as a transcendent God, a God holy other, a God far beyond any of them but as a God of absolute moral purity. The central insight, in fact, 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, we too must be holy. God’s more interested in personal righteousness in us than proper ritual from us. Thus the great call sounded by Isaiah:
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)
That is the characteristic notes of Israel’s prophets.
Reaction and Response
In Isaiah’s great vision we have a genuine revelation of the nature of the living God. In Isaiah’s personal reaction to that vision we see the authentic response of a man who actually has come in contact with God. “Woe is me!,” he cries, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (v. 5). Isaiah’s initial response to God was brokenness. His first words weren’t praise but rather a confession of his sin. 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! Isaiah tells how one of the seraphim flew and touched him with a coal from the altar and said: “Behold . . . your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for”(vv. 6-7).
The full reality of forgiveness comes to us only through Jesus Christ, whose blood it is that atones for our sin and takes our guilt away. And because God is gracious to us through Christ, the impossible someday is going to happen for those who believe in him. We will see God. We will be united with him in perfect love and communion. “Now,” says the apostle, “we see . . . as in a mirror dimly; but then we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
There’s one last significant point about Isaiah’s vision. At the very end of it, God himself speaks, and what he says is to ask, “Who will go for me?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!” (v. 8). You see, whenever God offers people his mercy and forgiveness, he also calls them to serve him. And he does that by asking for volunteers. If you have seen something of God’s holiness and glory, if you have been touched by his grace, will you say to him today, “Here am I, Lord, send me”?