Meditations On Isaiah 6: Part 1

It has been a while, but my wife’s recent entrance into the blogging world has inspired me to attend to this once again!

Here’s a bit of what has been on my heart lately. There are three parts so look for those in the coming days as well!

THE HOLINESS OF GOD

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the book of Isaiah. One of my favorite stories in the book of Isaiah is found in the first seven verses of chapter six when Isaiah tells the story of his first encounter with the God of the universe. It goes like this.

As Isaiah was strolling through the city one day, he decided to enter into the temple. When he did, he saw the Lord sitting on a throne that was “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1). The robe of the Lord filled the temple, His presence caused the foundations to tremble, and smoke swirled around Him. On top of that, seraphim, which literally mean, “burning ones,” stood around the throne of God. Each of them had six wings. Two covered their feet, two covered their face, and the other two were used for flying. Isaiah goes on to say that as this scene unfolded before him, the seraphim began flying around singing,

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The scene is terrifying to Isaiah. He tells us that he hits the floor and begins to pronounce “woes” over his life. He cries out to God saying, “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!” I have always thought this was an interesting reaction. Normally, if something scares me I back away from it. I think in terms of fight or flight just like my psychology class taught me in college. But Isaiah does neither of these things. He just falls flat on the ground and begins crying out about how he should be pitied above all things because he is dirty. He is unclean. He is a sinner.

The reason this seems like a strange reaction to me is because it suggests that coming face to face with God had a deeper impact on Isaiah than just being outwardly scary. I’ve never seen a horror movie where the pretty blonde girl (it’s always a pretty blonde girl) opens a door that everyone knows she shouldn’t (she always opens a door that everyone knows she shouldn’t), sees the evil murderer about to kill her, and then begins screaming about how she is sinful and lives in the midst of a bunch of sinners. Have you? No, she screams bloody murder and does everything that she can to get away (she never gets away).

Isaiah opens the doors of the temple, sees God sitting upon His throne, and pities himself because in that moment he recognizes the full extent of his sin. This is a lot scarier than a masked man with a bloody knife. When it comes to the topic of salvation, Scripture teaches pretty plainly that you cannot outweigh your own sin by any amount of righteous dealings before the Lord, which means that running for Isaiah was not an option. There is nowhere to run. In that moment before the Lord, he was overcome with the hold sin had on his life as well as the lives of those around him. Why is that? Because in that moment He stood in the presence of the holiness of God.

Do you remember what the seraphim were singing about God? They flew around his throne singing, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.” Their song was about how God is holy.

Originally, the Old Testament was written in the language of Hebrew. What I have come to learn, specifically about this passage is that our English translation of this song waters down the punch that was meant to back the statement being made here.[1] In English, we have what are called comparative and superlative functions of speech and we use these to designate emphasis. For instance, if you see a movie and begin talking to someone about it, they are bound to ask, “How was it?” Now, you have some options in how you can respond to this. If you want to make a statement about the movie alone, you could say, “It was great.” If you want to make a comparative statement about how the movie measures up to another movie, you could say, “It was greater than ____” If you want to make a superlative statement about how the movie is better than all other movies, you could say, “It was the greatest!”

This is how the comparative and superlative functions work for us. Great, greater, greatest. They represent degrees of emphasis. The Hebrew language does not have these functions. In order for a Hebrew speaker (or writer in our case) to designate emphasis, he/she would simply repeat the word. So instead of blogging about “that camel race being the greatest!” a Hebrew would write, “That camel race was great, great, great!” See where I am going with this? Rarely is this superlative function used throughout the Bible. Isaiah 6:3 is one example along with Revelation 4:8. Ezekiel 21:27 says, “A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it” while Jeremiah 22:29 says, “O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord.” Any time you see words repeated awkwardly in the Bible like this, know the text is trying to tell you one thing – listen up.

As I said, this function of emphasis is rarely used to this degree in Scripture, but it is only used to credit one single attribute to the character of God. That instance occurs in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 when God is called “holy, holy, holy.” In other words, those who observe the Lord, those in close quarters with Him attribute His highest and most superlative characteristic as being His holiness. He is holy, holy, holy. This also means that every other attribute flows from His holiness. God is love, but He is not love, love, love. His love is holy. God is just, but He is not just, just, just. His justice is holy.

Above all, Scripture is telling us that God is holy. To be holy means to be “set apart” or “separate.” And not just in terms of morality, but also in terms of the unique quality of who God is. Isaiah chapter 55 quotes God as saying,

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[2]

Everything about Him is greater, higher, stronger, better, and more pure than anything we can offer. He is the God whose robe fills the temple. He is the God whose presence shakes the foundations of the world. He is the God who causes Isaiah to tremble in His presence and be overwhelmed by his sinful condition. Why? Because He is holy, holy, holy.


[1] I am greatly indebted to R.C. Sproul for his explanation of what follows in his book, The Holiness of God. Much of my wonder over the majesty of God has come from this wonderful work.

[2] Verse 9

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