ne of the most important attributes for understanding God and ourselves is God’s holiness. When we catch a vision of God’s holiness, we can regard many things in our lives as holy. When we lose a sense of God’s holiness (as many have), then we lose the realization that anything is holy or unholy. In this latter case, we also lose a sense of our own sinfulness, our need for God’s grace, and the desperate plight of our culture.
The Hebrew word for holy is quadosh, and the Greek word is haigos. In both cases, the meaning is separateness or being set apart from that which is unclean. An encounter with God always produces awe and dread that leads to separation from sin.
In Isaiah 6:1-8, we see Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple. He sees the Lord “sitting on a throne lofty and exalted” (vs. 1). Seraphim surround Him calling to each other, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (vs. 3). This triple repetition of a divine attribute is without parallel in the rest of the Bible. Scripture never says that God is “justice, justice, justice” or even “love, love, love,” but it does say that He is “holy, holy, holy.” The Hebrew does not have a grammatical way to express the comparative or the superlative (i.e., holier or holiest). The way it stresses the importance of something is by repetition. For instance, Genesis 14 describes a battle between various kings. At one point the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee and fall into the “tar pits” (vs. 10). In order to indicate the size and extent of these “tar pits,” the Hebrew just repeats the word “pit.” These “tar pits” are the “pit, pits.” In other words, these are the pitiest pits you could find anywhere.
Similarly, when God is described as “holy, holy, holy,” it underlines his utter purity. He is set apart, One who inspires awe and is worthy of worship. The foundations of the temple start to tremble (vs. 4) and so does Isaiah himself. He cries out, “Woe is me, I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5). This is the only time in Scripture that a prophet pronounces the prophetic judgment “woe” on himself. As Isaiah encounters God’s holiness, he is acutely aware of his sin and the sinfulness of the society around him. Any vision of God’s holiness leads to a sense of our own sin and makes us sensitive to the unholiness of the culture around us.
Isaiah is also particularly aware of the deficiency in his speech and the way of speaking around him. The central passage in Romans 3 that describes the pervasiveness of our sin also emphasizes the “lips.” “There is none righteous, not even one…none who seeks for God…none who does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). It goes on to speak of the throat as an “open grave” (vs. 13), “tongues…deceiving” (vs. 13), lips have the “poison of asps” (vs. 13). The mouth contains “cursing and bitterness” (vs. 14). This emphasis ought to lead us to examine what comes out of our mouths, and to reflect on the unholy ways our culture influences our speech.
However, if Isaiah was simply left with this crushing sense of sin, he would be unfit for the ministry he was called to pursue. So God sends a seraphim with a burning coal from the altar to touch Isaiah’s lips (vs. 6). In this way, Isaiah is told that “your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven” (vs. 7). Then (and only then) the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (vs. 8). Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me!” (vs. 8). When Isaiah responds to God’s call, he is under no illusion about the degree of his sinfulness. He is utterly dependent on God’s grace. In a similar way, when we each see our own sin, that does not make us unsuitable for ministry, but a candidate desperately desiring God’s grace. In fact, if we feel worthy of the ministry to which we have been called, we should beware.
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