The Holiness of God
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1–6:8
We live in very interesting times. It seems that our sense of wonder has become terribly skewed. It seems the world is always seeking for something new to catch its attention. It also seems to have lost interest and wonder in God. Any talk of holiness seems alien and the concept of sin sounds foreign. In a day and age where most of the world has shifted its focus away from God, this passage is calling us to have a high view of God by presenting to us our eternal God in his holiness.
King Uzziah ascended the throne of Judah in the year 792 B.C. after God gave over his evil father king Amaziah to his enemies because of his pride and idolatry. Uzziah’s 52 years were the second longest and one of the most prosperous reigns in Judah (only surpassed by Manasseh’s 55 years). He sought the Lord for most of his life with the help of the prophet Zechariah. He prospered and grew strong. He defeated enemies, received tribute, improved agriculture, built fortified towers in Jerusalem, gathered a strong army, and may have even invented the catapult. He was very well accomplished. BUT, and the Bible uses this exact word “but” in 2 Chronicles 26:16, he reveled in his strength and grew proud. And pride comes before the fall. When he forgot who was the reason for his success and power, he considered himself worthy of taking the office of High Priest, by entering the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. This was in the holy place, very deep, and closest to the holy of holies. But the Law was clear: only the High Priest burns incense twice a day. The offices of king, priest, and prophet were different and separate. It was not for the king to play priest.
When Uzziah entered the temple, the priests followed him, rebuked him, and urged him to leave the temple, but he became angry, and his wrath was not for the glory of God. Instead of humbling himself, his sin of pride led to the sin of usurping another’s office, which now led to wrath, and then to judgment. While the high priest would wear a frontlet with the writing “Holy to the LORD,” Uzziah now wore leprosy as it broke on his forehead, announcing that he is unholy, that he is rejected by God. This happened in the year 750 B.C., and he remained a leper for the remaining 10 years of his life, during which his son Jotham became his co-regent. Uzziah died and was buried a leper, unholy, unclean (740 B.C.).
Uzziah’s life and death mark important points in the history of Judah. In an age where some kings lasted a matter of a few weeks, Uzziah’s reign was long, prosperous, powerful and stable. Despite his rebellion, there was surely a deep sense of national loss and future uncertainty with waning power and constant instability that would mark the kingdom of Judah in the years to come.
All these events set the background to this scene of the prophet Isaiah having an encounter with the Divine. Isaiah is about to find out at the very beginning of his ministry that not only the departed king was unclean, but he himself and the whole people are unclean, unworthy, unholy. He is about to be arrested, dismayed, and undone by the holiness of God. At a time when the earthly king succumbed to his unholiness, the heavenly King is seated high and lifted up, in holiness, reigning in power, eternally.
Therefore, as we meditate on this wonderful passage today, we will examine the following 4 points:
- The holiness of God
- The unholiness of man
- The need for atonement
- And response after reconciliation
1- The holiness of God
Isaiah may have started to have this vision of God in Solomon’s temple. But the vision quickly transcends the earthly dimensions and limitations. You see, he would not be able to enter the holy of holies in the temple itself where the mercy seat of God was. Only the High Priest could do so, and that’s once a year, on the Day of Atonement. But Isaiah was now taken to a place where he was in the presence of the One True God. This God is the King of kings – King of heaven and earth – rightly seated upon a throne, reigning in power and majesty. There is not even a need to describe the throne itself because the beauty and glory of the One who sits on it is captivating! Psalm 96:6 says: splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary! Psalm 103:19 says: the Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. He is the majesty on high on whose right hand Jesus ascended and sat. In fact, this may well be a Christophany in which Isaiah calls the one seated on the throne Lord - Master or Adonai - as opposed to what the Seraphim says later - LORD, meaning Jehovah. This quite well could be a pre-incarnate vision of Christ, who is seated on the throne, whom David speaks of, saying: the LORD said to my Lord sit at my right hand (Psalm 110:1), whom Paul, John and the writer of Hebrews speak of repeatedly as seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Romans 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb 1:3; Heb 10:12; Rev 3:21)
Our God is seated on the throne. Presidents come and go; kings live and die; empires rise and fall. But the King, the Lord of hosts, sits enthroned forever and ever. No one can usurp his throne. It is established from everlasting to everlasting. He is enthroned in heaven and does whatever he pleases. He is the sovereign God who is high by his own nature. He is exalted by his people acknowledging his majesty and rendering to him the glory that is due to his name. Come let us worship and bow down and kneel before the Lord our Maker (Psalm 95:6). If we do not exalt him and give him glory, we will no more diminish the radiance of his being than a cloud would diminish the light and fire of the sun. Its manifestation may be veiled for a while but the sun is always there. And if we do not glorify God, the world may not witness the brightness of his radiance, but the heavens will declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork (Psalm 19:1). He will make from stones instruments of glory (Luke 19:40). The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord (Habakkuk 2:14). We will not undo anything in the holiness and glory of our God!
Our God is Spirit; no one can see him. Yet every now and then God condescends and reveals himself to us in a way that visibly communicates instruction and comfort to his people. God presents himself in a way that we people can understand, known as anthropomorphism. Thus we hear of the hand of God, or his eye, or his feet, or his robe. Psalm 93:1 says: the Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Do you understand these images that are given to convey to us his nature and character in a way we can understand it? The Lord is robed; and the tail of his robe is unlike any tail of a wedding dress and unlike any of the kings and queens of the earth. It covered everything! His robe is such in splendor that its hem filled the whole temple, communicating authority and grandeur. Isaiah was in the presence of Divine Royalty!
Then, Isaiah notices there are heavenly creatures there, above the throne, ready to serve and minister to God most high. These seraphim, which is a Hebrew word meaning “burning ones” have some similarities with humans. They have faces, eyes, hands and feet. Yet they are so unlike any of us for they are in the holy presence of God. Nonetheless, they still covered their eyes and did not look upon the Lord because he is unapproachable light. While they covered their eyes and feet, they kept their ears open to hear the bidding of the Lord, ready to respond in obedience. And one cried out to the other saying: HOLY! HOLY! HOLY! Is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!
In Heberew literature, repetition was the way of announcing that something is significant. The Hebrew language does not use the typical English approach of comparatives and superlatives such as good, better, best, but it repeats words to convey superiority. When speaking of a deep pit, it says pit pit. When speaking of pure gold, it says gold gold. But repetition 3 times was preserved for the greatest things. In fact, this is the only concept in the Bible where anything is repeated 3 times, and that is because God’s holiness is supremely superlative that this was the only way to declare it.
One theologian said: the central, primary and definitive attribute of God is his holiness. RC Sproul said: any attempt to understand God without holiness is idolatry. Holiness basically defines God. His holiness is not a response to our sin. No! His holiness is absolute eternal consecration to his own self. He set himself apart by his holiness. He is wholly other in his holiness. This is the only attribute of God that is ever declared 3 times. God is love. God is merciful. God is glorious. God is exalted. God is all-seeing, all-knowing, sovereign and gracious. Yet also God is holy, holy, holy! He is really, really, really holy! Because he is holy, everything he does is holy. His love is holy. His justice is holy. His mercy is holy. His grace is holy. His goodness is holy. His righteousness is holy. His plans are holy. His laughter is holy. His word is holy. The Father is holy. The Son is holy. The Spirit is holy. He is, was and will always be holy, holy holy!
Holiness is his moral majesty. He is absolutely morally pure and his morality is absolute. God is necessarily and unchangeably holy. He is not simply perfectly good; he is the source and standard of goodness. God in his moral majesty is unapproachable by human beings. God is transcendent in his holiness, and immanent in his glory which fills all the earth where we humans created by him live. And one of God’s purposes from the beginning of time is to make the whole world a holy dwelling place for himself and to bring his people into this holiness. Do you have a high view of God? Do you have a high view of his holiness? Are you in awe and wonder of this King? When Isaiah was in the presence of God, his view became immediately high of God and rightfully low of himself.
2- The unholiness of man
And here is where we look at our second point: the unholiness of man. God is holy by nature. He does not become holy. Human beings are not holy by nature. We are by nature children of wrath. We may become holy. We fear God not because he is powerful and we are weak, but because he is holy and we are not! When the holy God makes his presence known, everything trembles and shakes before him. And here the foundations of the temple shake for God has made his holy presence known. The temple is the place where heaven met earth, where God met his people at the time of the sacrifice. The sacrifice was by fire and smoke, and God himself is a consuming fire. And here we see smoke filling this temple, mercifully limiting Isaiah from seeing God, whom no one can see and still live.
Isaiah is arrested by this vision. Even more, he is dismayed by the holiness of God and his revealed glory. He does not say “wow” or “everything is awesome,” for in the presence of the holy majesty he is utterly silenced and is only able to pronounce a curse on himself saying: woe is me! I am undone! In the previous chapter, Isaiah speaks 6 curses on 6 types of evildoers. But the 7th curse - a number that typically indicates the climax of a saying - this 7th curse Isaiah speaks on himself. Isaiah’s sin is uncovered in the presence of a holy God. He is disarmed, disrobed, dismantled. There is no more concealment of the reality of his uncleanness, of his unholiness, of his unworthiness. Isaiah thought he was going to die!
Uzziah was not the only one unclean. Isaiah was, and so were the people. The heart was sinful and deceitful. In Genesis 6:5 we have a very sobering verse where we are told that the Lord saw the wickedness of man great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time! That is total depravity! And the organ that so often declares and shows the sinfulness of the heart is the mouth, the tongue, the lips. The same organ we use to praise, we also use to lie, to curse, to profane the Lord our God. It is the same organ we misuse when we draw near to God with our mouth but not with our heart. Isaiah speaks this curse upon himself and is silenced. His lips are sealed; his tongue can utter no more. His lips are dirty; his heart is even dirtier; any work of his is filthy like dirt. This is a day of reckoning. He is in the presence of the Lord of hosts. The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him (habakkuk 2:20). This is the God of armies. Jehovah Sabaoth.
Isaiah is paralyzed. Where can he flee? Where can he hide? What can he do? Is there anything he can contribute? This is the God of hosts who gave David victory over Goliath, who opened the eyes of Elisha’s servant to see the heavenly army surrounding the enemy. He is the King of glory who defeated the chariots of Egypt, the Amalekites, whose angel struck down 185,000 of the Assyrian army, and who will defeat the armies of evil and the Beast. This is the God of salvation; faithful he was, faithful he will be. This is the God before whom Isaiah stands in desperate need for atonement.
3- The need for atonement
And here we move to examine our third point: the need for atonement. How does a holy, pure God deal with sinners? Because he is holy, wrath against sin is a natural outworking of his holiness. Habakkuk 1:13 says the eyes of the Lord are too pure to see evil and cannot look at wrong. The wrath of God must be satisfied. Justice must be exacted. Our hearts cry for justice when we see injustice in this world. And the worse the crime or the bigger the injustice, the higher the demand for justice. Some money is stolen, and a few people pay attention. A murder happens, and more headlines are made. A child is kidnapped or tortured and the nation’s conscience cries now for justice. We yearn for justice yet all the systems of this world seem to fall short. But God who is infinitely pure and holy must exact justice for sin which is infinitely an attempt to undermine the glory of God. Sin must be confronted.
Yet God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love and patience. God gives justice when he gives people what they deserve. He would be perfectly justified in exacting justice from all humanity, and no one can claim that he or she received injustice at the hand of God.
Yet God is merciful. He gives mercy when he does not give people what they deserve. Mercy is never obligatory and God does not owe it to us. But God is rich in mercy, and gives it lovingly. But he cannot give mercy without satisfying his justice, confronting sin, pouring his wrath, and vindicating his holiness. Otherwise, he would contradict himself – which would be fatal to his character. He would cease to be God. Our God is different from the other deities the world worships. He is not the Allah of the Muslims who merely decides to overlook the sin of some without confronting it. That is a capricious deity that is not bound by a moral character. That is not our God. Our God is holy. Therefore, justice must be satisfied and sin confronted and dealt with definitively. And that’s where sacrifice and the shedding of blood come, looking forward to Jesus, in whom we find the ultimate sacrifice. Through his condemnation, justice was made complete and the wrath of God was satisfied. In fact, justice was rendered upon Jesus on the cross where God poured his wrath. Beyond the 6 curses in Isaiah 5 and the 7th curse here in chapter 6, the ultimate curse was on Jesus Christ who made no sin yet became sin, receiving the full curse of God and wrath upon his shoulders, so that we may be reconciled to God and made holy. God does not grant mercy despite or against justice, he does it through justice! It is through justice that God’s mercy and our justification were brought forth. He is patient, and in his forbearance, he means to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
Even more, God is gracious! God gives GRACE when He GIVES people what they DO NOT DESERVE. By his sovereign and saving grace, God freely chose those who will be reconciled to him, cleansing them through a divine decree. The blood of Jesus is that which atones for sin. And God does the work of regeneration. Neither we nor Isaiah have anything to bring. As the hymn says: nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.
Looking back at this vision of Isaiah, a right view of God sees him in his holiness and sees us in our unholiness. There is a great chasm between us. But there is hope! Praise God that in the heavenly temple there is not only a throne, but also an altar! This is a Day of Atonement! The altar is the place of sacrifice, of burning fire, and of smoke. Fire on the altar, symbolizing the sacrifice of atonement, was such that the seraph, this burning heavenly creature set apart to minister to God, had to use tongs to take a burning coal. Isaiah, on the other hand, can only receive the wonder of this grace. Isaiah knew he was a dead man. And you know what dead men can contribute to their resuscitation? Nothing! The act of salvation and atonement is a sovereign act of the God who specializes in giving life to dead people. And that’s what he does to Isaiah by means of this burning coal as he is immediately cleansed as soon as it touched his lips.
I love these words in Psalm 11:4: The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven; his eyes see, his eyelids test the children of man. Smoke did not prevent God from seeing Isaiah who failed the test of holiness. But it did not end there. The holy God graciously commanded the seraph to sear Isaiah’s lips by the burning coal. At that moment, two things happened simultaneously: his guilt was taken away and his sin atoned for. He was saved from wrath and made pure. Payment has been made on his behalf. Justice is satisfied. Mercy is given. Grace abounds. This is propitiation: filth, sin, guilt and shame are removed; righteousness, light, life and purity are bestowed. The Lord who is holy is also the Lord who makes holy, who sanctifies, setting apart those who are his, calling us to be holy as he is holy, making himself the standard, and giving us his Holy Spirit and his grace, which are both sufficient and effectual to save and to sanctify. What he commands - our sanctification - he also enables by his Spirit.
4- Response after reconciliation
And here we come to our fourth point of consideration: the right response after reconciliation. Once sin was atoned for and Isaiah was given life, his response did not remain silence and woe. His response was now embedded in his reconciliation with God. Before he and you and I were cleansed, the only thing we could do was sin. We were unable not to sin. We could not respond righteously to God. We were deaf to his voice; we were willfully ignorant of his commands. But when Isaiah and we were cleansed, we were given a new ability: the ability not to sin. We were set free from bondage and entered the freedom of the children of God where we commit ourselves to his holiness. We were given power to be sanctified, i.e. to be set apart for the works of God. And so Isaiah heard the voice of God saying whom shall I send? And who shall go for us? Just like the seraphim were standing at the ready to obey the voice of God and to minister, even without their eyes seeing him, so now was Isaiah. Newly regenerated by means of a burning coal on his lips, with a new heart that can now speak righteousness and respond to the will of God, he was now standing there with a new readiness. While smoke prevented him from seeing God, nothing prevented him from hearing the voice of God. He no longer thought of how unclean was the king, of how depraved he himself was, and he was not paralyzed by the nation’s sin. He had seen the Holy One of Israel and had been utterly transformed and given new desires. He was no longer slave to sin, to fear, to unholiness; he was now free to respond in joyful obedience. And it was not only freedom, it was, even more than that, eagerness to present himself as a vessel, as a living sacrifice in the temple of God, cleansed by fire, now with zeal to obey the Lord of hosts and to go do his bidding. He did not ask when. He did not wonder where. He did not demand to know his payment. His response was to trust the Lord who is holy, the Lord who sanctifies, the Lord who sees, the Lord who saves, the King - the Lord of hosts. Here I am! I am yours. All of me. Send me.
Conclusion: Striving for holiness
The word of God grants us glimpses every now and then behind the curtains of heaven. It also promises us of participating in glory, celebration, light, life and holiness that are beyond anything we can comprehend. It also commands us to live in such a way that draws us closer into the likeness of our Savior and our future glorified selves. We find God’s command for us to be holy for he is holy in Leviticus 19:2, 20:7, 20:26, 21:8, Exodus 19:6, and 1 Peter 1:16. Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 4:7 that God has called us in holiness. Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:48 to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we are commanded in Hebrews 12:14 to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord. Isaiah saw the Lord and he was transformed. He had a right and high view of God. He saw holiness and recognized his unholiness. He knew he could bring nothing, but by the lovingkindness and mercy of God he was cleansed, and became holy by the work of God, set apart by the will of God. He loved holiness. And like many of the people of faith, he looked forward to the heavenly city where righteousness dwells forever; where everything and everyone is holy.
Let me tell you a little more about this heavenly city through the following words I adapted from two Puritan writers (Richard Phillips and Robert Traill): What do you think you would LIKE about heaven if you do not LOVE holiness now? Heaven, we find, is altogether holy. The angels there are holy. The worship there is endlessly holy. The thrice holy God reigns there, giving holy light to his holy city. Therefore, if you find it hard to come to church, to sit through a service, to hear about God and give praise to him, what do you think heaven will be like? It will be no place for you, unless at least the seed of holiness is sown and is growing in you now. Holiness is necessary to the Christian, and without it we will never gaze upon the Lord in heaven. It is not absolutely necessary that you should be great or rich in the world, but it is absolutely necessary that you should be holy; it is not absolutely necessary that you should enjoy health, strength, friends, liberty, or life, but it is absolutely necessary that you should be holy. A man may see the Lord without worldly prosperity, but he could never see the Lord except he be holy. Therefore strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Friends: when I encountered the holiness of God I was mesmerized. It was indescribable. Like Isaiah, my lips were shut. Oh I thought I previously had a right view of him, but I was wrong. Yet when I encountered him, I was in awe of him and I also found hope! There it was, his lovingkindness leading me to repentance, abounding in love to save me. After atonement, the things of this world that still were appealing now lost their taste. Sin was not pretty or appealing any longer. There was something far better: beholding the beauty and glory of our God; worshiping him and exalting him forever; commands by the King of kings that I had the honor to obey. And the strange thing is I was given new desires to willfully enter myself into bondage to this Sovereign Master who demands full allegiance and joyful obedience.
Believers: the world today may not be excited about talking of the holiness of God or of sin. But this glorious chapter, in fact the whole word of God, begs us to differ. God made us alive in Christ, called us in holiness, and honored us by commissioning us. After he made us alive, there is immediately a question to be answered: will you go? Will you obey? Do you have the right view of God? A high view of God? and the right view of yourself? Do you love holiness and hate sin? Are you presenting yourself as a living sacrifice by the renewal of your mind, fully knowing and trusting the Lord who sanctifies us?
Oh yes he does! He is faithful and holy through all eternity. In fact, lest we wonder if this vision of the thrice holy God was a one off happening, let me read to you some of the verses from Revelation 4: After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said: Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this. At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. [...] From the throne came flashes of lightning and rumblings with peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was at it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, [...] each of them with six wings, [are] full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.
They believe it so much that day and night they never cease to declare it. I hope that this does not bore us, but rather elevate our view of God and stir in us a zeal to exalt him and worship him. Is he not worthy? Our response better be yes!
1- J. Alec Motyer, The prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Intervarsity Press, 1993)
2- RC Sproul, The Holiness of God (Ligonier Ministries, 2006)
3- HB Charles, A High View of God (https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/sermon/a-high-view-of-god/)
4- Richard Lints, The holiness of God (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/the-holiness-of-god/)