“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Isaiah 6:3)
What Does It Mean to Say God Is Holy?1
This single vision in which Isaiah encounters God in the temple emphasizes three aspects of God’s holiness: His sovereign transcendence, His moral purity, and His costly grace.
By Derek Tidball
When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush, He made himself known as the One who is holy (Exodus 3:5). Holiness is His essential nature, the essence of His being.
The Old Testament describes God’s name as “Holy” more than all other ways combined. Isaiah, “the prophet of holiness,”2 repeatedly calls God “the Holy One of Israel.” While we often resort to images, such as Rock, Father, Shepherd, or Light to describe the indescribable God, when we say God is holy we are not using a metaphor. There is nothing in our human experience to which we are comparing Him. We are telling it as it is.
What do we mean when we say that God is holy? Holiness refers to God’s altogether different nature, His transcendent separateness, His exalted majesty, His awesome power, His absolute purity, His immeasurable brightness, His unfathomable glory, and His redeeming salvation. It is shorthand for the excellence of His perfection.
The word holy is like a brilliant firework that explodes into a myriad of colors. It is impossible to take it all in at once. We mostly focus on one aspect or another of God’s radiance. Isaiah, in chapter 6, however, gets as near to describing the fullness of God’s holiness as anyone. This single vision in which Isaiah encounters God in the temple emphasizes three aspects of God’s holiness: His sovereign transcendence, His moral purity, and His costly grace.
God’s Holiness as Sovereign Transcendence (Isaiah 6:1–4)
Isaiah’s visit to the temple occurred the year King Uzziah died (verse 1), at the end of Uzziah’s 50-year reign. An era of stability had passed and the people faced a period of uncertainty. The increasing aggression of Assyria and its inroads into neighboring territories (2 Kings 15:17–38) compounded this uncertainty. At the point when the transience and weakness of earthly thrones was all too apparent God granted Isaiah a vision of the One who is the real Lord of all, whose reign was both permanent and powerful.
In this vision, earth and heaven merged, giving Isaiah a sight of “the Lord seated on a throne” (Isaiah 6:1). The vision caused Isaiah to gaze upward to the superior position of the throne. God’s throne is not on a level with earthly thrones — whether it be Uzziah’s, or the rising Assyrian throne of Tiglath Pileser III. It is higher than theirs. Its location speaks of His supremacy over the earth and all human rulers who rise and fall at His command.
God’s surpassing greatness was the bedrock of Israel’s faith. The Psalmists did not intend for their repeated cries for the Lord to “be exalted” to imply God’s elevated position needed shoring up. They knew that “God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. … the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted” (Psalm 47:8,9). Rather, this was a way of recognizing the status He already possessed.
God’s throne was inviolable whatever circumstances His people were undergoing. Even when the nation had apparently come to an end and its people were in exile, Daniel still spoke of God as “the Most High God” who was “sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (Daniel 4:2,25).
Trappings of majesty surrounded the throne Isaiah saw. The royal robe reached from heaven into the temple. Its length captures the grandeur of God’s sovereign rule, but also, in making a connection with earth, suggests that God is not remote from or indifferent to the struggles of His subjects below. The robe “filled the temple” — not the palace, the seat of power; or, the courts, the seat of law; but, the temple, the seat of atonement. This further suggests God’s desire to overcome His people’s lack of holiness by providing them with a means of cleansing and reconciliation.
Any earthly sovereign has attendants. Here the seraphs (Isaiah 6:2,6) attend the King of kings. These fiery creatures, mentioned by name only in these two verses in the Bible, cannot look directly on God. Hence, “With two wings they covered their faces [and] with two they covered their feet.” Probably they covered their feet because they “disavowed their intention to choose their own path.”3 The other pair of wings they used to fly, since they were constantly ready to do the bidding of their Lord. Their ears remained uncovered; their duty was to listen to God’s command and obey.
The Egyptians said that such creatures were responsible for spreading their wings to protect their gods, like modern Secret Service agents interpose their bodies between the President of the United States and any potential assailant. But the seraphs attending the living God of Israel are the ones in need of protection. Their wings do not cover Him. They cover themselves in view of His awesome holiness.
Isaiah’s attention shifts from what he sees to what he hears. “And they were calling to one another: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (verse 3). This song is something of a surprise. Since the focus has been on God’s sovereignty, we might expect the seraphs to celebrate His rule: its legitimacy, power, and authority. Instead the seraphs celebrate His holiness. They are not content to mention His holiness and pass on, or even mention it twice — the usual Hebrew way of providing emphasis. They repeat their cry three times with increasing intensity. He is utterly, thoroughly utterly, perfectly utterly, holy. This is, “an emphatic formulation (that) is tantamount to a definition of the nature of YHWH.”4 God’s holiness is such that only a “super-superlative”5 does it justice.
The second line of the seraphs’ song speaks of the sphere in which this holy God operates. God wants people to see His glory — the manifestation of His divine attributes — throughout the world. Isaiah encounters Him in the temple, but God is not limited to that shrine. Isaiah represents the children of Israel, but God has not limited His sovereignty to His covenant people. Just as we find God’s signature throughout His creation, so we, too, know His law is throughout the earth and the nations observe His works (Psalm 19). The God in this vision is no petty tribal deity, limited in authority to a small group in Judah. He displays His holiness in the theater of the whole world.
It would have been surprising if this breaking in of this “highly active, energetic, dynamic even threatening” divine power6 had not had an immediate impact on the place where it occurred. And it did. Isaiah records the classic signs of a visitation from God in saying, “the doorposts and thresholds shook,” as if an earthquake was occurring, and “the temple was filled with smoke” (verse 4). This was reminiscent of Moses’ encounter with God on Sinai (Exodus 19:16–20). In Isaiah, the holy God of the Exodus and Sinai revealed himself once more at a crucial point in Israel’s history.
God’s Holiness as Moral Purity (Isaiah 6:5)
Such an out-of-the-ordinary experience was naturally profoundly disturbing. We are not surprised to read that Isaiah’s response was to cry out, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” (verse 5). But we do not read of him showing signs of panic, or of deep emotionalism, shaking, lying prostrate, or going into a trance. Rather, to our astonishment, the text takes us for a second time in an unexpected direction. The cause of his fear lies not in his emotional terror in the face of the power that has confronted him, but in his personal unworthiness in the face of the holiness he encountered. His response says his fate is sealed because “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Having encountered holiness, Isaiah realizes that his own life is far from clean. His confession focuses on his lips for a number of reasons. The seraphs’ lips had proclaimed God’s holiness and, by contrast, he realized that his own lips had failed to witness to God’s perfection.
The chief instrument Isaiah used as a prophet were his lips. It was natural, therefore, to concentrate on them. He was not confessing to swearing or filthy conversation but to preaching unworthy messages, which perhaps came from his own imagination, frustrations, temper, or desire for comfort and compromise.
It was natural for Israel to think of speech in the Temple where words and songs were central to the liturgy. Perhaps Isaiah treated worship with the contempt that arises from overfamiliarity. More significant still, lips give expression to the mind and heart and reveal the otherwise silent thoughts of those who speak. In focusing on his lips, Isaiah is not exclusively majoring on the sins of speech but rather using the lips as a symbol that his whole life and those of his fellow citizens were out of sync with God. He is saying he is wholly unfit to serve a holy God. Whatever it means precisely, Isaiah was not alone in his guilt. The rest of the nation was just as culpable.
It is hard to overestimate the significance of Isaiah’s response for our understanding of holiness. Some, following Rudolf Otto, have tried to reduce religion to an emotion and have stressed that “the idea of the holy” lies in a feeling of “creatureliness” which causes us to tremble in awe before the mystery of “the wholly other.”7
We would be patently foolish to deny some element of emotion when God reveals himself in His awesome holiness as He did to Isaiah. But it is a grossly inadequate explanation of what was going on and ignores Isaiah’s own response. Morality, not mystery, characterizes Isaiah’s reaction to this in-breaking of overwhelming power, and for good reasons. Isaiah’s schooling in the Law and formation as a member of the covenant community, the setting in the Temple where the high priest made atonement for failure to observe the Law, and the song of the seraphs which draw attention not to God’s power but to His holiness, all combine to make Isaiah’s reaction one of confession of sin. As John N. Oswalt says: “For Isaiah, the announcement of God’s holiness meant that he was in the presence of One distinct from — other than — himself. But for Isaiah as a Hebrew, it also meant that the terrifying otherness was not merely in essence but in character. Here was One ethically pure, absolutely upright, utterly true.”8 The One who is wholly other relates to His people in very down-to-earth ways and looks to them “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8).
Isaiah’s instinctive reaction was self-deprecating because he was measuring himself correctly in the light of his encounter with the Holy One. To quote Oswalt again: “The content of this experience is not merely numinous, emotive, nonrational. Had God only wished to convey His otherness to Isaiah, He could have done so without words. But there is moral substance here, indicating that revelation does not come merely through raw experience, but through a divinely given interpretation as well.”9
Other deities made themselves known as “raw power,” but the God of Israel was unique: His holiness was not only power, but morality; not only transcendence, but also ethics. Other gods may have given their people laws, but those laws did not necessarily reflect their character. The God of Israel required His people to live in such a way as to mirror His own character. They were to be holy — to live ethically — because He was holy (Leviticus 11:45; 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15,16). Isaiah’s response, therefore, was entirely appropriate and exactly right.
God’s Holiness as Costly Grace (Isaiah 6:6–13)
Isaiah’s vision reveals another dimension of God’s holiness — that of costly grace. Christians are apt to contrast God’s holiness with His love, pitting law and grace, judgment and salvation against each other. Isaiah would have no dealings with such a view. Because God is the Holy One of Israel, He exercises compassion on His less-than-holy people, providing salvation for them and inviting them to enjoy being reconciled. Isaiah also says, “The Holy One of Israel” is their Helper (Isaiah 41:13); Savior (Isaiah 43:3; 52:10); and, most frequently, Redeemer (Isaiah 43:14; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7; 54:5).
God manifests His costly grace in Isaiah 6 in three ways: the cleansing of the prophet, the chastening of the people, and the choosing of a remnant.
In response to Isaiah’s confession, a seraph with a live coal from the altar touched Isaiah’s lips and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (verses 6,7). Surprisingly, this act does not disfigure Isaiah’s lips, but cleanses them.
This act only makes sense in the context of Israel’s sacrificial understanding of worship where there is a strong connection between holiness and fire. God reveals himself in fire, displays His judgement through it, and commands its use in sacrifices — all of which this passage reflects.
We do not know from which altar the seraph took the coal. He may have taken it from the altar of burnt offering, signifying the renewed commitment into which Isaiah was entering. More likely, he took it from the altar of incense that stood in the Holy Place and played a crucial role in the annual atonement ceremony (Leviticus 16). The smoke, probably from incense, suggests that. Whichever altar is involved, through identifying with the sacrifice offered, God pardons Isaiah and atones for his sin and makes the unfit prophet fit for service again. This act satisfies God’s holy purity, and He manifests His holy grace — it met the penalty of sin and cleansed the sinner.
In touching Isaiah’s mouth, God is not only dealing with Isaiah at his expressed point of need, but also touching him at the place that symbolized his calling as a prophet. His lips were not injured but equipped. Isaiah correctly understood this act not only as one of salvation, but of commissioning. Immediately following Isaiah’s cleansing, God spoke (verse 8), and Isaiah once more readily made himself available to God. His life is no longer his own.
Just as God’s holiness marks His separateness, it also separates the prophet from ordinary affairs to be wholly available to do God’s bidding. It was important that Isaiah’s commissioning be unmistakable. Isaiah was to face the most challenging of all prophetic callings and speak to audiences that were profoundly deaf to God.
Isaiah’s preaching did not result in the people turning to God, but the fault was not his. He lacked neither skill nor urgency in communication, but the people failed to hear. This was part of God’s plan. Though in His holiness God is a God of grace and salvation, He is not a God of cheap grace or cut-price salvation. To offer cheap grace is incompatible with His holiness, as well as failing to meet the true needs of a sinful people. Blanket forgiveness coupled with easy repentance would prove worthless. It would neither lead to a genuine reconciliation between a holy God and His sinful people, nor to a real transformation in their lives. Grace is not only costly to God — in that He provided the sacrifice for atonement — but also to sinners, in that there must be evidence of a changed way of life.
Consequently, before God could bring about salvation for Israel, it was necessary for Him to chastise them so they would face the seriousness of their sin and the cost involved in renewing grace. P.T. Forsyth says we might treat God too lightly if we see Him only as a father for, in truth, He is the Holy Father. People spoke, Forsyth protested, much about God’s love but had not thought deeply enough about it. God’s love is inseparable from His holiness, the ultimate claim we make about Him. “You can go behind love,” Forsyth wrote, “to holiness, but behind holiness you cannot go.”10 “ ‘God is love’ is not the whole gospel,” he wrote. “Love is not evangelical till it has dealt with holy law. In the midst of the rainbow is a throne.”11 This makes the Cross necessary.
Forgiveness does not occur without cost for “the soul of divine fatherhood is forgiveness by holiness.”12 “Forgiving is not just forgetting. It is not cancelling the past. It is not mere amnesty and restoration. There is something broken in which a soul’s sin shatters the world.”13 Sin cannot be repaired on the cheap.
Isaiah learned this the hard way: He preached to an unresponsive audience. Indeed, his preaching would make them even more unresponsive than they already were. It was not that Isaiah caused their hearts to be calloused toward God. They already were. But he drew their hardness out, just as a bruise comes out before the wound heals. No wonder Isaiah asked how long this unrewarding ministry was to last (verse 11). He must not have gained much comfort from the answer (verses 11,12), which bound him to the task until the exile occurred and Israel was, in effect, no more.
God’s severe mercy, it seems, reflects His holy love in bringing people to an end of themselves, their excuses, and their self-justification before they are ready to receive the remedy of His salvation — secured, ultimately, at the cost of the sacrifice of His Son.
Exile is not the end of the story. God’s aim was to chasten Israel, or at least a purified remnant of them, that He might restore them to their homeland. God alone determines when the process of refinement is complete and the new exodus will take place.
The Hebrew of verse 13 is uncertain, but most believe it points to hope beyond the exile. For most it signals the survival of the stump. Just as the stump of a felled tree breaks forth into new life, so the stump of Israel that returns from exile will be the bearers of a new hope and heralds of a new beginning. Such a message is consistent with the other prophets of Israel.14
God’s grace is never facile. The demands of holiness need to be satisfied, and then the other facet of His holiness, that of redemptive and costly grace, can come to the fore.
So what is the holiness of God? Holiness defines the very character of God who is transcendent over the earth, awesome in majesty, sovereign in power, perfect in goodness, pure in His moral nature, and gracious to the core of His being.
1. A longer version of this article is found in the author’s The Message of Holiness (Nottingham and Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 42–55.
2. Alec Motyer,The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 17.
3. Motyer, 76.
4. R.W.L. Moberly, “Holy, Holy, Holy: Isaiah’s Vision of God” in S. Barton (ed.) Holiness Past and Present (London: Continuum, 2002), 126.
5. Motyer, 77.
6. B.W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 43f.
7. Rudolf Otto,The Idea of the Holy (1917; Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1959).
8. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah 1–39, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 181.
9. Oswalt, 180.
10. P.T. Forsyth, God: The Holy Father (1897; London: Independent Press, 1957), 5.
13. Ibid, 9.
14. E.g., Jeremiah 33:1–26; Ezekiel 36:1–37:28; Hosea 11:9; Amos 9:11–15; Micah 7:19.