The Holiness of God
Isaiah 6 opens with one of the most amazing vision of God in all of Scripture. Verse 1 begins: “In the year that King Uzziah died”. Uzziah wasn’t Judah’s best king, but he also wasn’t their worst. Judah experienced relative peace and prosperity during his reign. Isaiah’s mind, however, wasn’t dwelling on the death of the king in that moment – he had bigger things to worry about.
Verse 1 continues: “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” What did Isaiah see? The majesty of God. Seated upon his throne God completely displaced any thought Isaiah had of Uzziah or the nation of Judah – here, in the throne room of heaven they were small by comparison. He saw the throne, which speaks of God’s authority. He saw the train of his robe, which displays his majesty. But most important of all, Isaiah heard...
What did he hear? The seraphim (six winged angels who served in God’s direct presence) proclaimed the praises of the One seated on the throne: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (v. 2-3). Such was their cry that the doorposts shook, and the room was filled with smoke (v. 4) – this was not just another Sunday worship service. In that moment Isaiah met “the Holy One of Israel” (his favourite title for God in the rest of the book).
What is holiness? Thomas Trevethan explains it this way: “Holy apparently comes from a Semitic root that means ‘to cut.’ Hence its most basic meaning is ‘to separate’ or ‘to make distinct’... most fundamentally, as a divine attribute it claims that God is other and set apart from everything else, that He is in a class by Himself.”
God is infinitely greater than his creatures. We can see this in two ways. First, he is the only truly self-sufficient Being. All His creatures depend on Him, but God depends on no-one outside of himself. Second, God is distinct, set apart from all evil. God is absolute in purity and perfection. He is the definition of what it means to be good.
Ultimately, we must confess that human language cannot capture the idea adequately. RC Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God, writes: “The problem we face is that the word holy is foreign to all languages. No dictionary is adequate to the task.” German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto tried to define holiness by studying the concept in different cultures and languages. His study revealed that, universally, there was an element of holiness that no language could capture. There is something about the holiness of God that we simply could not express. He called it “a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures”. For Otto the only appropriate response would be “hushed, trembling, and speechless humility”.
How did Isaiah respond to God’s holiness? In verse 5 he cried out: “Woe is me! For I am lost”. It is only in the light of God’s holiness that we can see ourselves for who we truly are. One of the reasons we do not see our own sin, is because we are surrounded by so much of it. We do what the false teachers in Corinth did: “when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” (2 Cor. 10:12). We will always find someone who looks more evil or sinful than we are. But in God’s presence such comparisons don’t matter. All that matters is how we compare to God – the supreme standard of holiness.
He then confessed his sin: “am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). For us this might seem like a minor sin, a respectable sin, maybe even an excusable sin. Who hasn’t sinned with their lips? We are only human, after all. But in the light of God’s holiness even our smallest sins are seen for what they are: cosmic treason against the God of the universe; an act of rebellion against the Lord seated upon the throne.
How can we stand before such a holy God? The same way Isaiah could. Read the rest of the passage: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (v. 6-7). The only way sinners can stand before the holy God is through sacrifice – that is what the altar represents. And we have that sacrifice in Jesus Christ: “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12).
That is how a sinner can be reconciled to the Holy God – not by our attempts to earn God’s favour, but by faith in Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on our behalf.
Because of Christ,