Much has been made of the seraphim’s cry in Isaiah 6 of “Holy, Holy, Holy” is the LORD of Hosts, his glory fills the whole earth”. This is the only time in the Old Testament where a attribute of God is uttered three times over. Repetition is a Hebrew way of over-emphasizing or making something superlative. The unique repetition here may indicate that holiness is God’s primary attribute from which all others flow. Thus, the way we understand holiness deeply effects the way we understand and worship God. If, when we hear “Holy, Holy, Holy”, we hear “distance, distance, distance”, we will have a view of God that inhibits us from coming to him in faith and repentance. Instead, we may view him as a God who simply judges us without mercy or has no intention of healing us in our brokenness. Unfortunately, many popular views of God’s holiness elicits such responses in our hearts to the detriment of our joyful worship of God.
The reality is that Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple would have been surprising to Isaiah. It’s surprising because if Isaiah had gone home and told some friends he saw God’s presence in the temple, they would have said, “No way! You went all the way back to the Holy of Holies and saw the Shekinah Glory on the Ark of the Covenant? Yahweh enthroned between the cherubim? And you didn’t die?” To which he would reply, “NO. I walked into the temple because I was worrying about what the kingship of Israel would look like since Uzziah died, and guess what? I saw THE King right in front of me, enthroned between seraphim, not cherubim, and guess what? One of them TOUCHED me, and cleansed me. Then God sent me on a mission for him!” Yahweh is supposed to be back in the Holy of Holies, only to be visited once a year by a overly-purified high priest. He’s supposed to be surrounded by cherubim, the guys who guard the garden of Eden from humans with flaming swords and will kill you. You’re not supposed to look at God and live, much less be touched by one of his representatives.
Yet this is what we see from a three times holy God. He comes out to meet us, he initiates contact. Seraphim, not cherubim, surround the throne. They are symbols of healing and hope that hearken back to the wilderness wandering. There we saw an elevated seraph on the pole that symbolized God’s devotion to bringing his people through the desert. He was devoted to them despite their doubt of his devotion to them, and showed he intended for them to live, not die (for a more in-depth explanation of seraphim and this passage in general click here and scroll to the bottom of pg 29).We see Isaiah silenced, realizing his unclean lips cannot join in the chorus because he has doubted God’s holiness along with the people (ch 5:18-19). Instead of God striking him dead, God touches him through a representative taking a coal from a sacrificial alter. The unclean is cleansed, the rebel redeemed, the untouchable touched, though he brings nothing but his sin to the equation. Not only is he cleansed, but commissioned for God’s glory. This is our three times holy God.
So is holiness equated with distance (commonly defined as “set apart”)? I think we see from this passage and others that God is certainly set apart and different because he is perfectly set apart for a purpose (or devoted). To what purpose is God devoted to? It can only be his glory, for if it’s anything else then he is an idolator. He is wholly devoted to his glory, and guess what? His glory is most clearly seen when the unclean is cleansed, the rebel redeemed, the untouchable touched. It is the most surprising, most undeserving, most grace-filled and God-glorifying action. No wonder it happens in this passage where the clearest caricature of his holiness is seen and declared. Thus God’s holiness ought not be characterized by distance, but…dare we say…closeness?
God is so holy, so devoted to his glory, that his devotion to his glory spills out into all his other attributes. This not only includes his jealous wrath and justice but also his love and mercy. This of course, leads us to Calvary. God’s holiness is most clearly seen in that place where love and justice agree. Where God’s utter devotion to his glory is visibly demonstrated in the crucified King. Unsurprisingly, John claims this is the same King who Isaiah saw high and lifted up in the temple (see John 12:41). So let God speak for himself, let him define who he is as a holy God. A God who is completely devoted to his purposes, which graciously include us. You may be surprised at what you see.
Check back later for Part 2: “Our Response to the Surprising Holiness of God”.