‘Holy, Holy, Holy’
Blazing Hope for the Ruins Around Us
Second Chronicles chapter 26 tells the story of King Uzziah, who was one of the better kings in the sordid history of Israel. He became king when he was only 16 years old. His father, Amaziah, had “turned away from the Lord” (2 Chronicles 25:27), and the people conspired against Amaziah and put him to death. In about 790 BC, Uzziah came to the throne, and reigned for the next 52 years, the second longest reign of all the kings of Judah (exceeded only by Manasseh’s reign of 55 years).
Today we are far more familiar with the name Isaiah than Uzziah. The prophet Isaiah’s ministry began in the days of Uzziah (Isaiah 1:1). Chapters 1–5 of the book of Isaiah are a kind of prologue to the great vision of chapter 6, to which we turn in this session as we ask about the holiness of God and what it means for his people.
In general, Uzziah was a good king. Second Chronicles 26:4 sums up his reign like this: “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” Verse 5 says, “He set himself to seek God . . . and . . . God made him prosper.” He made war and built cities, and according to verse 7, “God helped him.” And verse 8 says, “His fame spread . . . for he became very strong.”
“Our fathers die. Our heroes die. Our kings die. We die. But not the holy God. Yahweh is alive.”
It goes on. He built towers, in Jerusalem and in the wilderness. He hewed out cisterns. He had large herds, and farmers, and vinedressers (verse 10). He had an army, large and organized and fully armed and equipped (verse 11). He sought the God of heaven, and was successful on earth (verse 5). His long reign was unusually fruitful. Uzziah even oversaw cutting-edge technology in his day, as verse 15 says, “He made machines, invented by skillful men, to be on the towers and the corners, to shoot arrows and great stones.”
Then verses 15–16 — in a single breath — bring Uzziah to his height, and his fall: “His fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction.”
Affluence Breeds Pride
Uzziah’s story serves as a powerful warning about how affluence can breed pride and corruption and hardness of heart. Uzziah came to think highly enough of himself as king, that he thought he could do the priests’ work as well, which God had strictly forbidden. Uzziah entered the temple, where only the priests could go, to burn incense that only the priests were sanctioned to burn. The priests, eighty strong, rushed in to stop him, and Uzziah became angry with them and,
leprosy broke out on his forehead in the presence of the priests in the house of the Lord, by the altar of incense. And . . . the chief priest and all the priests looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead! And they rushed him out quickly, and he himself hurried to go out, because the Lord had struck him. (verses 19–20)
Uzziah had started so well. He sought God. God made him prosper. God helped him marvelously. Uzziah’s fame spread. He grew strong. “But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chronicles 26:16).
National Decline, Echoed in the King
Can you imagine how devasted the nation would have been as word spreads that their great, famous, once-godly king Uzziah is now a leper (because God struck him!) and will spend the rest of his life in strict quarantine? And on top of that, the international situation had been growing more threatening. Egypt is rising to the west and south, and Syria is a growing threat to the north. Most of all, Assyria is rising from a regional to a global power. Then, with that tension already in the air, good king Uzziah flames out at the end of his fifty-year reign. These are the days of Isaiah 6.
What must have made these days so painful for Isaiah, and the faithful remnant among God’s people, is that Uzziah has now taken the same path the nation had. It started well. They sought God. He made them prosper and helped them marvelously, and in their affluence, they grew spiritually dull and morally corrupt. They perceived themselves to be strong, and swelled in pride, to their destruction.
And in the end, instead of Uzziah leading such a nation out of their pride and getting them off the path to destruction, he, too, succumbs. The long, tragic decline of the nation is now echoed in the king.
God’s Holiness, Our Response
Here, in the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah sees God. All human hopes have been dashed, and now God appears to the prophet. First, God reveals himself to his prophet. Then, through him, God will reveal himself to the nation.
Isaiah 6 is not an interesting isolated experience of an ancient prophet. This is a revelation to God’s people at a key juncture in redemptive history. What happens to Isaiah here echoes in his whole life and message to the nation for decades. What happens to him is what the whole nation needs: to see God in his holiness and respond fittingly. And there is a timelessness to this vision. This is also what we need still today, perhaps as much as ever.
So what do we find, then, in this great vision of Isaiah 6? Four truths. The first relates especially to what is the holiness of God, and the second, third, and fourth to what it means for us as his people.
1. Holiness begins with a vision of God.
First, we see that holiness is his. He is holy. The topic of holiness doesn’t begin with humans. We don’t start the conversation with us, and the conversation isn’t first about us. Lesson number one: our holiness, to whatever degree we are holy, by grace, is derivative, or secondary. Holiness begins with God. He defines holiness. Verses 1–4:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
So, under the first truth here, in verses 1–4, let’s ask, What does it mean for God to be holy? Consider five aspects to this vision of the holy God.
Alive and Unfazed
First, he is alive. As we’ve seen, Uzziah, the great king of 52 years, is dead. And the hopes that attended his reign, dead. But the true king? He is not fazed. He is alive. He is the living God.
The holy God is alive. He is not a holy thing. He is a holy him. A living, immortal, personal being. He will not die. Our fathers die. Our heroes die. Our kings die. We die. But not the holy God. Uzziah is dead — but Yahweh is alive.
High and Lifted Up
Second, the holy God is above. He is “high and lifted up.” In the book of Isaiah, this spatial metaphor is significant. Throughout his prophecies, there is constant movement: God is high and lifted up, while all others are lowly and humbled. It’s a striking theme once you see it. The place where it first rings out so strongly is in Isaiah 2:9–17:
So man is humbled,
and each one is brought low —
do not forgive them!
Enter into the rock
and hide in the dust
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty.
The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up — and it shall be brought low;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
against all the lofty mountains,
and against all the uplifted hills;
against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
So God is holy. He is life, and we face death. And he is high and lifted up, while all else is humbled, and made low — it’s only a matter of time.
And this vision of God “high and lifted up” isn’t comfortable and warm. This isn’t a sweet, warm experience of worship in the presence of the Lord. Did you hear the word “terror” in Isaiah 2:10?
Man is humbled,
and each one is brought low —
. . . before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty.
Oh yes, there is a sight of “the splendor of his majesty” — and with it, terror. The terror that Isaiah 2 had promised to the people now comes to the prophet himself in chapter 6. This is a fearful moment for Isaiah, as we’ll see. But not without hope.
Throughout Isaiah, the proud are being made low and God is being exalted, but only two other places put together this exact language of “high and lifted up.” One, as we might expect, is about God himself, but it holds out hope to the contrite and lowly:
Thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
And the other is even more surprising. In a book where God goes up, and all else goes down, chapter 52 tells us about a servant who will be “high and lifted up”:
Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted. (Isaiah 52:13)
But maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There is, indeed, hope here, but we won’t feel the full force of that hope if we miss the terror that comes first. The holy God is alive, and he is above.
Adorned in Glory
Third, he is adorned. “The train of his robe filled the temple” — literally, the hem of his robe filled the temple. It’s not even his whole robe. It would be one thing if this God were so holy, so glorious, that his robe filled the temple in this vision. But we’re just talking about the hem; the hem filled the temple. There’s a lot more robe left. And then there is God himself. Which is a picture of the exceeding majesty and glory of the holiness of God.
Just as it was too much for Moses to see the face of God, but God gave him a trailing glimpse of his back as he passed by — and that was glory enough — so, too, Isaiah sees God, but not exhaustively. He doesn’t see his face. He catches a glimpse, in the temple filled with smoke: the hem of his robe, a hem on the robe of a God so spectacular, so holy, that this hem fills the temple.
And now as we’re talking about this holy God being adorned, we’re beginning to talk about his glory. We’ll come back to this. And the glory of God and the holiness of God go together. They are a kind of pair that together give us a clearer sense of what each means.
Attended in Glad Submission
Fourth, then, the holy God is attended. Holiness does not mean he is alone. “Above him stood the seraphim.” Seraphim means burning ones. Because they have wings, and are attending to God on his throne, we think of them as a type of angel. There is no other mention in the Bible of seraphim (however, in the apostle John’s vision in Revelation 4:8, he mentions four six-winged creatures who are praising God on his throne).
“God’s value and worth not only fill up our human categories but far surpass them.”
Here we’re told, “Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” They cover their eyes because the unshielded, unveiled glory of God is too great to look upon and live. And they cover their feet, perhaps symbolic of their submission to God and obedience to them. Feet can be metaphorical of activity, movement, the direction one takes. Their feet are covered; they will not go their own way, but God’s.
And these seraphim are not God’s only attendants. Twice in this vision, in verses 3 and 5, God is called “The Lord of hosts” — Yahweh of the heavenly armies. God himself is almighty. And he is attended by angel armies (not just an army but armies), the armies of heaven, who attend him in reverence, eyes covered, in glad submission, feet covered. And the seraphim, and the armies of heaven, not only attend to him; they worship him.
Adored in Worship
Fifth, and most significantly, the holy God is adored, in worship — they ascribe to him his worth. The seraphim call to each other in verse 3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
So far we have seen glimpses of the holiness of God, but now we have definitive declaration, Holy, holy, holy.
God has given us a word for declaring his praise when all other language fails us. We often praise him in ways we can understand, borrowed from our finite and limited human experience. We praise his strength, his love, his justice, his mercy. But we also grow to realize that God’s value and worth not only fill up our human categories but far surpass them. He is even more strong than we know. Even more loving. Even more just. Even more merciful. We are seeing just the hem of his glory.
In those moments, when we sense we have exhausted the comparisons to our world and experience, we have a word we reach for: holy. When we’re aware of his uniqueness — that he is in a class by himself, utterly set apart from us, higher than us and gloriously other — we cry holy. When we catch but a glimpse of his infinite intrinsic value — and wonder in worship, Who else is like this? — we bow and angels bow and cry holy.
Holy is like the adjective form of the noun God. To reach for the word holy is already to ascribe, in a word, that greatest thing that can be said. And then the seraphim repeat it. In Hebrew, repetition is an intensifier. So you stand back. Not only is he holy; he is holy, holy.
Then, it comes one more time, which is unprecedented. Hebrew often uses repetition of single words. But no other place uses any single word three times in succession, and much less this most sacred of adjectives.
Holiness and Glory
But there is still more we can say about what the holiness of God is, in relation to his glory. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” the seraphim say, “the whole earth is full of his glory.” So, the Lord is holy, and the earth, then, will be full of his glory. So, we might, then, speak of God’s holiness as his very Godness, rooted, in a sense, in his inability to be defined by other things. “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:25). He is holy, he is incomparable. Or as Hannah prays in 1 Samuel 2:2, “There is none holy like the Lord: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God.”
As God, he is in a class by himself. He alone is God. His holiness is his intrinsic worth and value as God. And his glory, then, we might say, is his shining forth into the world — his holiness going public. Based on verse 3, Isaiah commentator Alec Motyer captures it like this: “Holiness is the Lord’s hidden glory; glory is the Lord’s omnipresent holiness.” Holiness is his intrinsic worth. And glory is the out-streaming, the revealing, the showing forth in the world of his supreme value and worth.
So, God is holy. He is alive, and above, and adorned, and attended, and adored in worship. His holiness shines out in his glory, and the angels and his people see it and say, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh, the Lord of heaven’s armies. The whole earth is full of his glory.”
But this scene in Isaiah 6 is not over yet. Holiness, we’ve seen, begins with God. But what about Isaiah, and Israel, and us? So, these final three (briefer) truths from Isaiah 6 are about what this holiness means for his people.
2. We realize and confess our unholiness.
First, we see his holiness; then we realize and confess our unholiness. Isaiah’s first glimpse doesn’t make him comfortable but makes him fear. He is in terror. Isaiah says in verse 5,
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!
In chapters 1–5, the young prophet pronounced woe on Jerusalem and the people of Judah — twice in chapter 3, and then six times in chapter 5 (Isaiah 3:9, 11; 5:8, 11, 18, 20, 21, 22). Woe, woe, woe, woe. And now he says, “Woe is me!” For Isaiah, this vision of God in his holiness is “not rapture but sheer terror” (Barry Webb, The Message of Isaiah, 59). Comfort will come, but not yet. For sinful humans, comfort happens on the other side of holy terror.
Have you ever feared God? Really feared him, with holy fear? Have you ever felt terror before him? That was Isaiah’s first need. And that was Israel’s need. The nation had become all too comfortable before him. Their vision of him had dulled. He was distant. They did not see him as he was, with a sight of the hem of his robe in the splendor of his holiness. So Isaiah walks a path here the whole nation needs, and we need.
The ESV has Isaiah saying, “I am lost.” You may have heard other translations say, “I am undone.” This vision of God in the splendor of his holiness brings Isaiah to the realization of his own sin. “I am a man of unclean lips,” he confesses.
“Our sin was counted to Jesus and atoned for on the altar of the cross, and his holiness is counted to us.”
And this prophet, who for five chapters has been denouncing the sins of the nation around him, now identifies himself with them: “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” In other words, “In the presence of God degrees of sin become irrelevant. It is the holiness of God which reveals to us our true condition, not comparison with others” (Webb, 60).
In the presence of God’s holiness, we see that our sin is first and foremost in relation to him, not others. What makes sin to be sin is not social but its profanation of God.
So, holiness begins with God. Then, the sinner is undone. We realize and confess our unholiness.
3. God makes provision for our unholiness, and for our holiness.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (verses 6–7)
Now we have an altar, a place where the sacrifice for sin is offered. First, atonement is accomplished. Then application is made to the prophet. The seraph flies to him and touches his mouth, applies the burning coal of the altar to him, and then says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And this provision, this grace, comes not despite this God being the God of holiness, but precisely because he is holy.
Atonement is made at the altar. Then atonement is applied to the sinner. And as Christians, we now know that the application of God’s provision for our sin in Christ comes to us in two complementary graces. God provides a double grace (duplex gratia in Latin), not a single grace. He both cancels our sin in a moment, and he rids us of our sin over time. He both reckons us holy on the spot with the holiness of his own Son, and he makes us progressively holy as we live by faith.
You might call this “gospel holiness”: grace for our unholiness and simultaneously grace to actually grow in holiness. In a moment, by faith in Christ, we are justified before God. The Father sees us in his Son with the very righteousness of Christ. Our sin was counted to Jesus and atoned for on the altar of the cross, and his holiness is counted to us. And God doesn’t just count us holy in Christ — he doesn’t leave us in the misery of our unholiness; there is more grace. He also makes us more holy, in time, in our union with Christ.
So holiness begins with God. He is holy. We see him and realize our unholiness and confess our sin. And God amazingly makes provision for our unholiness and for us to be holy ourselves in Christ. And finally . . .
4. God’s call to holiness will be hard, and hopeful.
I suspect many of you have heard verse 8, but far fewer are familiar with verses 9–13. After this vision and realization and provision, Isaiah says,
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”
Happily ever after, right? God calls. Isaiah answers. He goes, he preaches, and revival breaks out, right? That is not Isaiah’s story. And I don’t think we should assume that it will be our story either.
God tells Isaiah up front that being the messenger of the holy God will be hard. He summarizes in verse 9 what Isaiah’s message to the people will be: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” What? He explains in verse 10:
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.
In other words, Isaiah’s ministry will not be one of salvation, but condemnation. A spiritual dullness, darkness, and deafness is settling on the people. Total unbelief, both outward and inward, from the heart to the ears to the eyes, and eyes to ears to heart — inside and out, outside and in. By and large, the nation is beyond repentance. And yet God calls him to speak. And not to speak with obscure, easily misunderstood words. But to speak with fresh clarity. To say it as straightforward as possible, like kindergarten instruction.
In Isaiah 28:9–10, we hear how the unbelieving priests and prophets scoff at Isaiah’s message as beneath their level. They are too smart, too sophisticated, for his basic instruction. They criticize him,
To whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.
This is not irrelevant to us today. We can be so easily deterred by the hardness of heart we encounter. But what if, like Isaiah, we expected it? What if we didn’t let it ruffle our feathers? Not that we speak in such a way as to invite criticism, but like Isaiah, we make it simple and plain and straightforward — and when they reject our message, we keep pleading. And when they do receive our message, we marvel at the grace of God.
In other words, the call to be holy in an unholy world is hard, difficult, unnerving. Yet this is Isaiah’s hard calling in dark days. As it was for Jeremiah. Even Christ himself quotes from Isaiah 6 when his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables:
Because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says [Isaiah 6:10]:
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.” (Matthew 13:13–15)
And the apostle Paul references Isaiah 6, at the end of the book of Acts, of all places! He comes to Rome and gathers the Jewish leaders in great numbers.
From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:
‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”’” (Acts 28:23–26)
But bleak as this calling to holiness is for Isaiah, we end with an amazing ray of hope at the end of Isaiah 6. His holy calling would be hard. But not without hope.
Shoot from the Stump
In verse 11, Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?” And God’s answer is essentially until the last city is destroyed and the people are exiled. In other words, utter devastation is coming. Until judgment is full. This will not be cut short. Verses 11–13:
Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and the Lord removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.
Then, the quote from God ends, and there’s one remaining sentence in the chapter. It’s commentary on the stump: “The holy seed is its stump.”
The stump marks where a tree once stood and now does not. But a stump at least remains. Roots remain. The tree has not been totally consumed. It has not been uprooted. And that stump is the holy seed — God’s promise to David to send an Anointed One.
“Hope is the unexpected fringe attached to the garment of doom.”
Judgment is coming and it will take an axe to the tree of Israel. The tree will be felled. Yet the stump will remain. And then in Isaiah 11:1, which we read at Christmas, we hear, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse.”
One Isaiah commentator says, “Typical of Isaiah, hope is the unexpected fringe attached to the garment of doom.” (Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 79).
Isaiah lived and was called in days of steep and enduring decline. He was promised no revival in his times. And yet there is hope. These decades of decline and judgment for God’s people will not be the end. The great tree may be felled, but a stump will remain. And in God’s timing, long after Isaiah’s life, a shoot shall emerge from the stump.
That shoot did indeed come. In fact, when he came, John 12:41 says that it was the shoot himself that Isaiah saw in this vision. John comments, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his [Jesus’s] glory and spoke of him.”
So, brothers and sisters in the Philippines, may God make us like Isaiah — beginning with a profound and expanding vision of who God is in Christ, leading to the realization and awareness and confession of our own sin, along with a profound experience of God’s striking grace, and then putting in us the willingness and eagerness to be his instrument in word and deed in hard days that are not without hope.