And one cried to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!”
From Isaiah’s time until today, trying to explain the person and holiness of God has been a complex undertaking. The prophet Isaiah wrestled with explaining it. He was privileged to get a glimpse of the awesome, terrifying throne room of God (Isaiah 6:1-4). So he wondered “How can a sinful man like me talk about God’s holiness? How can I possibly describe the infinite Creator?”
What makes this so difficult is one theological aspect of God’s character: His transcendence. That means He is wholly unlike us, wholly independent of the material universe. So any attempts to describe Him will come up woefully short. All we can do is scratch the surface.
Since God is transcendent, He cannot be known by our own efforts. Therefore, another theological aspect of His character is His immanence. We could not know God all by ourselves, so He chose to reveal Himself to us, as He did to Isaiah. He showed us as much as our little minds could grasp about who He is.
That’s what God did with John the Revelator. The same scene He granted Isaiah to see, He granted to John. As John was taken up in vision, he drew attention to the throne of God (Revelation 4). He saw God there and from it, flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder symbolizing God’s action — in particular, His judgments on the earth. The brilliance of the throne room was overwhelming, with glimmering crystals and fiery reds. John saw a rainbow around it that shone like an emerald. He also saw a sea of glass before the throne and twenty-four elders seated on thrones around it.
As John looked, the four living creatures sat around the throne, each of them with six wings and full of eyes all around and within. They echoed the words of the Seraphim in Isaiah 6: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (v. 8).
How often did these four living creatures say these words? John says day and night — without stopping. Of all the attributes they could have used to describe the Lord, the four living creatures chose holiness. They called to one another, “Holy, holy, holy,” using repetition to emphasize this singular attribute. God’s holiness is His only attribute repeated in triplicate.
In the entire Bible, Isaiah 6 is the only place that speaks of the seraphim, making them a mysterious order of angels (see sidebar). They have six wings and are pictured flying in God’s throne room. Their wings cover their faces and feet perhaps because God’s glory is too intense to view and because of the holy ground they tread, as Moses experienced (Exodus 3).
What does it mean that God is holy, holy, holy? The Bible gives several answers.
- God cannot sin. Numbers 23:19 says, “God is not a man, that He should lie.” It is logically incorrect to say God can do everything; God cannot sin. His motives are pure. His actions are right. His plans are perfect. Since God cannot sin, we can trust Him completely.
- God hates sin. Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lordis to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.” Remember that to hate sin, we need to get closer to God.
- God will judge sin. Hebrews 9:27 says, “As it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” God’s justice flows from His holiness because He is all good and will one day judge all sin. Only one of two people will take the judgment for sin: the sinner on judgment day or Jesus, who took the judgment for sin on the cross.
Woe is me!
Considering God’s view of sin, it’s time we look at ourselves for personal and communal revival. Two things are needed for our spiritual lives to spring up: an awareness of the holiness of God and an awareness of our depth of sin. Isaiah expressed this:
“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because 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” (6:5).
Isaiah was given an amazing opportunity, but he wasn’t prideful that, out of all the people in the world, he was chosen for this privilege. When he saw the glory of the Lord, he was overwhelmed by the weight of it and the weight of his own sin. He understood the deep wickedness of his own heart. Sometimes woe is used in the Bible to denote an inescapable distress or a feeling of grief so serious that words can’t express it.
People think that their sin is not serious, because they use the wrong standard: themselves. We realize our sins are serious only when we encounter the standard of God’s holiness.
Isaiah experienced that holy standard, and in comparison with God’s, he came up short. Like God’s writing on the wall to Belshazzar, king of Babylon, He told Isaiah, “You have been weighed and found lacking.” Isaiah wasn’t close. Neither are we. By ourselves, we are hopeless.
Isaiah understood the depth of his sin when he was commissioned as a prophet. As far as we know, the Bible doesn’t tell us that he was especially sinful. Compared to those around him, he was holier and more righteous than most. But seeing God, he came face to face with himself, and he didn’t like what he saw. He knew guilt.
Guilt is not a nice feeling. In the world today, people seek to escape feelings of guilt. But the Word of God is a mirror that shows His holy standards and how we fall short of them and how His Spirit convicts us to repent of our sin and guilt.
Some sins the Bible says we are guilty of are pride, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, covetousness, idolatry, anger, and wrath; malice, blasphemy, filthy communication, lying, selfishness, and unfaithfulness; gossip, discontentment, stubbornness, drunkenness, envyings, unforgiveness and unsubmissiveness, hate, hard-heartedness, homosexuality, abortion, swearing, ungratefulness, lack of mercy. We are lovers of self, mockers, thieves, tax evaders, busybodies, etc. (Romans 1; 2 Timothy 3).
When Isaiah saw God, he saw himself in this list, and he was overwhelmed by it. Have you come to the point where you can say, “Woe is me!”? Before we can move forward to where God wants us to go, we must first face our holy God and, like Isaiah, say, “Woe is me! I am unclean.”
The good news is God did not reveal this to Isaiah to rub his face in his own guilt. He did it to show Isaiah the way of escape. The only true escape is through the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ.
Yes, God is a holy God. One day we will join the billions of people at the throne and praise Him for His holiness that cleanses us from sin. Amen!
Seraphim are the angelic order identified only in Isaiah 6. Like the living creatures in Revelation 4, but unlike those seen in Ezekiel 1, the seraphim have six wings. A pair covers their face, two more their feet, and with two wings they fly. The seraphim also differ in reference to their single “face” (Isaiah 6:2), whereas the living creatures in Ezekiel and Revelation are described as having four faces: man, lion, ox/calf, and eagle. Primarily, their role appears to be to worship God, calling attention to His holiness and majesty and transcendence. They are also involved as agents of purification, taking the burning coal to Isaiah and announcing his forgiveness (6:6, 7). The seraphim are amazing beings that remind us of God’s awesome creative power.
— Ubong Edet
What is the proper response to such a holy, sinless God? Worship, according to Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. One of the things we see in those chapters is that the angels’ full-time job is to worship God. If worship is done correctly anywhere, it is within His throne room. There, God will be worshipped as He should be, with the total focus on Him — who He is and what He has done — and not on us.
This must be the aim of our worship. Is God the focus, or are we? Is His name honored, or our own? Is the song we sing true? Is the prayer we pray authentic? Does it please God? From the angels we can learn an important lesson about the nature of true worship. It is extolling, lifting up God’s character. True worship is God focused. The angels gaze on Him and rejoice in who He is.
The question we must ask ourselves is if our worship is worshipful. Does it exalt ourselves or our God? God seeks praise and glory for all the things He has done. He is the Creator. He is the Redeemer. He is the King. If someone else tries to take glory for themselves, it is unjust and robs God. “I am the Lord, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images” (Isaiah 42:8).
— Ubong Edet