The Old Testament prophet Isaiah tells about a vision he had when God commissioned him to be a prophet. “In the year king Uzziah died, I say the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!’
And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1-4; NKJV).
King Uzziah was a king of the southern kingdom of Judah, and he died in 742 B.C. Seraphim (the plural of “seraph”) were angelic beings in heaven. But what did they mean when they cried out, “Holy, holy, holy”?
The basic idea of holiness connotes being set apart from what is commonplace and ordinary. God is not like other things in our experience, and therefore He should not be treated like other things. Rather He is due our utmost reverence and respect.
In what way is God different from everything else? First of all, He is exalted high above all of creation. Isaiah saw Him “sitting on a throne, high and lifted up.” Psalm 99 speaks of the Lord as “great in Zion, / And He is high above all peoples” (Ps. 99:2). As much as God loves us, and wants us to love Him, the fact remains that He is the Creator and we are His creatures, and between us there is a vast difference which should never be forgotten or overlooked. We must always approach Him with the reverence and awe that is due someone who is infinitely greater than ourselves.
But what really separates God from ourselves is our sin. When Isaiah saw his vision of God in all of His glorious majesty, his immediate reaction was,
“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because 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.”
To behold the absolute moral purity of God is to be struck by our own depravity and moral pollution. We are like Adam and Ever, who after they had sinned, “hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God” (Gen. 3:8). Sin and righteousness are absolutely contradictory and incompatible; to love what is good is to hate what is evil. And so it is that God cannot come into direct contact with a depraved and morally polluted human race.
This meant that when God chose Israel to be His chosen people special precautions had to be taken. When God met Israel at Mt. Sinai, the people had to ceremonially cleanse themselves, and God instructed Moses to tell the people, “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 19:12). Later, a tabernacle was assembled, a large tent that served as a kind of mobile temple that signified the presence of God among His chosen people. But special rules applied here as well. The Ark of the Covenant, a special chest that contained the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, was kept in a special part of the tabernacle called “the Holy of holies.” Only the high priest was allowed to enter there, and even he could only do so once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even here precautions had to be taken. Among other things the high priest had a special robe that had little bells sewn on its hem, “and its sound will be heard when he goes into the holy place before the Lord and when he comes out, that he may not die” (Ex. 28:33-35).
The sanctity of God’s being and presence, His separateness from sin and pollution, was underscored by several historic incidents. On one occasion the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the neighboring Philistines, who returned it after a series of disasters befell them. The ark wound up at the Israelite city of Beth Shemesh. There, unfortunately, some of the men looked inside the ark. As a consequence a number of men in the city were struck dead (I Sam. 6:19,20) On a later occasion, when an attempt was made to move the ark from one location to another, one of the drivers of the cart it was on touched the ark to stabilize it, and was also struck dead (I Chron. 13:9-12). Such were the terrifying consequences of treating God’s person and presence carelessly!
So what are the practical implications of God’s holiness? First of all, it should inspire a profound sense of awe and reverence on our part. “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; / Let Him be your fear, / And let Him be your dread” (Isa. 8:13). Because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, we may now “come boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:10), and yet God still remains God and we are still mortal human beings. Let us bow in reverence and worship His holy name!
But secondly, the holiness of God requires that we also should be holy in the way we live our lives. If we profess to know Him and love Him we should hate sin the same way He does. “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). As Christians God had given us a new nature, but we must still live in a fallen and sinful world. In order to please God, then, we must be “sanctified,” “set apart from the sin and corruption of the surrounding society. We are to be lights shining in the darkness. We must live by God’s standards, not the world’s.