The Holiness of God

Desiring God 2007 Conference for Pastors

The Holiness of God

[These are notes taken during the session, not the message itself.]

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died…

Uzziah's story is in 2 Chronicles 26. He was among the handful of good kings among the many wretched kings we read about in the history of Israel. He was second only to David in his accomplishments on the battlefield. He did what was right, but toward the end he became proud and ended his life like a Shakespearean tragic hero. In his pride, he presumed the role of a priest, and at that instant God struck him with leprosy. His 52 year reign ended in shame and disgrace.

…I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up…

But Israel's throne was not vacant. The Lord was seated there.

There are two uses of Lord in your Bible.

Lord without all caps is some form of adonai. This is the most exalted title given to God in the Old Testament, representing absolute sovereignty.

LORD, in all caps, is Yahweh. This is the sacred, ineffable name of God.

Lord is God’s exalted title, and LORD is his name.

The title, Lord, that is reserved for God in the Old Testament, is given to Christ in the New Testament. So when Jesus is said to have the name above every name, it is not "Jesus" Paul is talking about—it is curios, adonai.

…and the train of his robe filled the temple…

The train of a ruler’s robe is a measure of his status. He is judged by the stuff and substance of his clothing. God’s robe comes over the edge of his throne and down into the sanctuary and fills the temple where he is seated.

Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings…

God's creatures are suitable for their environment. Birds have wings and light bone structures, because the air is their habitat. Fish have gills, scales, and tails for underwater. And Seraphim have an anatomy that is functional for their natural habitat—the presence of God.

The Seraphim’s required anatomical apparatuses:

…with two he covered his face…

Moses once asked the Lord to let him see his face. But God said he didn’t understand what he was asking for. God let him have a momentary glance at his back, but did not let him see his face. He would have died.

The problem is not with the eye—it's with the soul. In the beatitudes, who sees God?—the pure in heart.

Creatures created to live before the face of God, must be designed to endure it.

…with two he covered his feet…

Feet are symbols of creatureliness. Moses was told by the voice in the burning bush to take off his shoes for the ground was holy. What made it holy? Not Moses. It was God in his presence. Moses’s feet represented that he was of dust. Even the feet of angels represent that they are creatures.

…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!”

The message of the seraphim is to proclaim God’s glory—his weightiness—his substance—his majesty. It is this glory that provokes the angels to sing holy.

Why 3 times holy?

Similarly to our bold, italic, and underline, a Hebrew emphasis was repetition. Paul writes twice in Galations 1:8-9 that those preaching a contrary gospel should be accursed. And Jesus never uses desultory language, so it is meaningful that he prefaces his words with amen, amen—or truly, truly. He is saying, in effect, “Now hear this. This is of sobering importance!”

So the angels are not content with, “Holy!” And they are not even content with the emphasis of, “Holy! Holy!” They must say it three times—“Holy! Holy! Holy!” They take it to the third degree—the superlative degree. No other attribute of God is praised like this. Not love or mercy or justice or sovereignty. Just Holy.

…And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke…

If God's holiness doesn't turn you on, you don't have any switches. Even the dumb structures of wood and stone have the good sense to shake in God's presence.

And I said: “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!”

Isaiah was a man of integrity, yet one glimpse of God's holiness makes him come apart at the seams. As long as our gaze is fixed on the horizontal plane of this earth, we have no problem with ourselves. But if we lift our gaze to heaven and contemplate what God is, we will be broken. Security and smugness is annihilated. Holy men are reduced to trembling with one glimpse of God.

When Isaiah discovers who God is he pronounces an oracle of doom on himself—a curse. The first time he saw what God is was the first time he saw who he was. He saw that he had a dirty mouth and that his dirtiness was epidemic, pandemic.

…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.”

God did not allow his servant to grovel. He acted in mercy. Hard mercy. He put a hot coal on his lips. You can hear the flesh sizzle and burn, the muffled scream of Isaiah. His guilt was taken away, atoned for. Never talk to Isaiah about cheap grace. There is something painful about free grace. The point was not to torment Isaiah, but to cleanse him. He cauterized the lips of his servant. And forgave his sin.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

I don’t know how Isaiah could speak, but when God asks who he will send, Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me.”

Every one of us who has been ordained into the ministry of Christ has that vocation. Consider when that consecration happened for you. Thousands forsake the ministry when they see there is no glamour in it. But keep going back to who it is you serve. The only thing that qualifies us to minister is the knowledge of our forgiveness. And that we know the sweetness and majesty of the God who has cleansed our lips.

(@RCSproul) is founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries and co-pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida. He is the author of more than one hundred books.