4 Who will not fear, O Lord,
and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy. – Revelation 15:4 ESV
11 “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” – Exodus 15:11 ESV
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong… – Habakuk 1:13 ESV
God is holy. In fact, the seraphim who surround God’s throne describe Him as holy, holy, holy. The prophet Isaiah was given a glimpse of that heavenly scene and he provides us with a vivid description of what he saw.
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!” – Isaiah 6:1-3 ESV
The apostle John was also given an opportunity to peek behind the heavenly curtain and see the throne room of God. And his description is very similar to that of Isaiah.
And the 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!” – Revelation 4:8 ESV
These heavenly creatures weren’t content using one “holy” to describe God. They made sure to use the word three times and to do so without ceasing, day and night. This three-fold repetition is called a trihagion, and it was a common literary and linguistic tool used by the Hebrews to provide emphasis and force to a statement. It was like saying, “God is super holy.” Or “He is holier than holy.”
But what does it mean to say that God is holy? We’re familiar with the word, but do we fully understand the significance of what it says about God? In some ways, the word holy has become overly familiar to us. And yet, biblically, holiness is considered one of the primary and self-defining attributes of God. Tony Evans defines God’s holiness as “His intrinsic and transcendent purity; His standard of righteousness to which the whole universe must conform” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On).
The Hebrew word that is used most often to describe God’s holy nature is qodesh. It means “set-apartness” or “separateness.” God is unique and without equal. But it’s not just that God is one-of-a-kind. As Tony Evans points out, God’s holiness is tied to His purity. So, it’s not enough to say that God is different. What makes Him different is that He is holy – thoroughly righteous, without sin, and intrinsically pure in every way. He is The Holy One. As A. W. Pink puts it, “He is so because the sum of all moral excellency is found in Him. He is absolute Purity, unsullied even by the shadow of sin” (A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God).
But there is more to God’s holiness than His moral perfection. When the seraphim shout “holy, holy, holy” they are declaring far more than just His sinlessness. And they are not simply stating His separateness. There is no doubt that God stands alone, having no equal and being incapable of duplication or emulation. Man may have been created in God’s image, but that doesn’t make man a god. God remains set-apart and distinctly different from all that He has made. Which means He is transcendent.
When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else. – R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God
To consider and treat God as holy is to revere Him for who He is. It is to acknowledge His infinite greatness and incomparable otherness. “God’s holiness unlocks the door to understanding and making sense out of everything else about Him. This attribute infiltrates all the other attributes” (Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On).
To treat God as holy is to recognize and revere His otherness – His set-apartness. It is to lift up and celebrate His extraordinariness. But if, in our attitudes and actions towards Him, we give the impression that He is ordinary in any way, we profane His character and defame His holy name.
When God consecrated Aaron and his sons to serve as priests before Him, He commanded them “to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10 ESV). Later on, God would give a similar command to the Levitical priests: “They shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 44:23 ESV). They were to teach the people about what God meant by holiness or set-apartness. The tabernacle was to be considered holy. The sabbath was to treated as holy. They were to be a holy nation. God had set them apart for His service. They belonged to Him. And their lives were to reflect their unique status as His chosen people.
But back to God and His holiness. Unlike the tabernacle or the sabbath, God has not been set apart by someone else. He simply is set apart. He didn’t have to be consecrated, He always has been. God stands completely apart from the rest of the created order. Whether we are talking about angels or atoms, planets or people, there is nothing and no one who compares with God.
That is why it is why considering God as common or ordinary is one of the greatest sins a human can commit. Even worse yet is the audacity to treat God as non-existent. The great King David described the idiocy of discounting the existence of God.
Only fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
not one of them does good!
The Lord looks down from heaven
on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
not a single one! – Psalm 14:1-3 NLT
How stupid can you be? And yet, we all have moments in our lives when we act as if God does not exist. We fail to acknowledge Him. We refuse to turn to Him. Rather than go to Him for strength, help, and hope, we ignore Him, relying on our own power, or placing our trust in someone or something else. God becomes a second- or third-tier option on our list of saviors, just another common and pedestrian source of potential rescue.
During the period of the judges, God got fed up with Israel’s propensity to treat Him as ordinary rather than extraordinary. They had treated Him with disdain, acting as if He was no more set-apart and holy as all the gods of the Canaanites. So, when they found themselves in trouble and called out to Him, He decided to refuse their cries for help.
“Yet you have abandoned me and served other gods. So I will not rescue you anymore. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen! Let them rescue you in your hour of distress!” – Judges 10;13-14 NLT
If they weren’t willing to treat God as extraordinary and holy, they could seek help from one of their many false gods. Yahweh was not willing to play second fiddle to some pagan deity. And He wasn’t going to allow His people to treat Him as some ordinary, run-of-the-mill God. He was God Almighty, the Holy One.
When Isaiah was given the privilege of seeing the throne room of heaven and catching a glimpse of the seraphim pronouncing the holiness of God, he was awestruck and filled with fear. He was seeing the unimaginable and incomprehensible. He describes the impact this vision had on him.
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! 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!” – Isaiah 6:4-5 ESV
Witnessing the holiness of God was too much for him. In the presence of the all-powerful, perfectly pure God of the universe, Isaiah was immediately struck with his own sin and insignificance. He was nothing when compared to God, the Holy One. In the presence of unblemished purity, Isaiah recognized his own sinful state and his unworthiness to stand before the throne of God. But, amazingly, the Holy God did a wholly unexpected thing.
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.” – Isaiah 6:5-7 ESV
The holy and wholly righteous God of the universe graciously atoned for Isaiah ’s sins, setting him apart for His own use. And when God asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, Isaiah responded, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8 ESV). And the Holy One simply said, “Go!”
Understanding God’s holiness is essential to our own usefulness. Until we fall on our knees before Him in awe of His holiness and in recognition of our own sinfulness, we will never be awed by His amazing grace. That the set-apart One would set us apart for His use should leave us stunned and yet stammering the words of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me.”
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.