Holy God

Holy God

TEXT: Isaiah 6:1-7

Do you remember “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” It was an exciting movie about Indiana Jones, a professor/archaeologist who spend his time away from class going to remote parts of the world to unearth or rescue ancient artifacts. One of these was the biblical Ark of the Covenant, which had not been seen for over one thousand years. Even secular Indiana Jones knew better than to open the Ark where the presence of God once resided. Near the end of the movie, the “bad guys” open the Ark, and the special effects kick in to try to portray the power and holiness of God sweeping through the place. It is at once beautiful and terrible as unbelievers gaze on at the face of a God they are not worthy of beholding. I remember seeing that scene as a young teenager and my heart almost pounding out of my chest. But as spectacular (and only somewhat biblical) as that was, it doesn’t even come close to what Isaiah saw in his vision of God!

First, Isaiah saw a great throne – high and lifted up. It was not only literally elevated, but figuratively “lofty.” In other words, it was the most magnificent throne you could imagine. And it was located within a great temple. And the Lord God, who was sitting on this great throne wore a massive robe with a train that filled the expanse of the temple. In this vision, God doesn’t say or do anything until later, when He speaks to Isaiah. In verses 1-4, though, the action comes from great angelic beings called seraphim. Each seraph had six wings, with two covering the face, two covering the feet, and two for flying. I don’t know how well you can picture such a thing, but it doesn’t sound beautiful; it sounds terrifying. And when one seraph called out to the other, the foundations shook and smoke filled the place. Never mind the presence of God for a moment; these beings were terrifying! Imagine the powerful sound of a jet engine if you’ve ever had to walk across the runway to climb the stairs to a plane. Their mighty voices made the place shake and smoke. Yet these powerful creatures also covered their eyes and feet with other wings out of complete deference to the Lord they served. Even they would not dare to look casually or openly at the great Lord on His throne. Rather, they proclaimed the song that is the song of Heaven (cf. Revelation):

          Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts,
          The whole earth is full of His glory.

And truly, that is the point of this vision. The point is not in the details about the setting or sequence. This vision is not supposed to answer questions like:

          Does God sit on a throne all the time?

                    How big is God’s robe?

                              What is the exact nature of angels or seraphim?

The point of this vision – of Isaiah’s seeing the Lord – is to describe and cause Israel to consider the HOLINESS of God (and their own sinfulness). It serves the same purpose for us. God is holy; where do we stand in relation to a holy God?

What is Holiness?

It is pretty plain from Isaiah’s vision that God is holy. But what does that mean?

Holy means being “set apart” or “distinct.” Though the Bible can talk of us being created in God’s image, God is clearly something other than a human being or a limited, finite creature. And when the heavenly creatures declare God to be “Holy, Holy, Holy” it means that God is perfectly and ultimately set apart – that is what it means to be, not only a god, but THE only God.

God’s holiness is like the heat of the sun. And that is an apt analogy, for God’s holiness is said to shine or radiate with “glory.” To suggest that God simply lay that holiness aside to ignore the world’s sin and darkness is like suggesting that the sun continue to be the sun without its heat and light. If that were the case, the sun would no longer shine and no longer be our source of light and heat. We would all die!

Further, to suggest that we can casually come into the presence of God without attention given to our own condition is as foolish as firing a manned NASA rocket straight at the heart of the sun. The sun’s heat would consume it, not out of wrath or anger, but because we could not survive the encounter.

However, God DOES save human beings for the purpose of coming into His presence and the worship of Heaven. God makes a way! Let’s look at two ways God does this, signaled in this passage.

Seeing the Lord (vv.1-4)

Besides the incredible scene described in these first few verses of Isaiah 6, there is another significant statement by the winged seraph who is by the throne of the Holy God. With a voice that thundered with angelic power, the seraph proclaimed God’s holiness… then he said:

          The whole earth is full of His glory.

That’s good news for all those who desire to see and know God. Though God is completely “other” and set apart from us and though our finite minds cannot begin to comprehend the mystery of an all-powerful and holy God, God’s creation is full of His glory. The earth, the wind, the waves, even you and I are filled with the majesty, beauty, and creative touch of this Most Holy God. And so we are not without opportunity to see God. We do not see God directly in His creation. That is a good thing – to see and know God directly in our human and sinful condition would burn us up like flying into the sun. But we can see the radiant glory that exudes from all God has made.

Is that enough? We touched on this last week. In the New Testament, Paul says that this general revelation does not save us; but it does leave us without excuse. We cannot say that God is unknowable and invisible, for the whole of Creation proclaims His existence and character gloriously.

Conviction: “Woe is me, for I am undone” (v.5a)

When Isaiah took this in – God, lofty and exalted, train filling the temple, seraphim thundering God’s holiness, room shaking – he came completely unglued. Older translations quote him as saying, “Woe is me, for I am undone.” Literally, the text says ‘destroyed.’ The sight of the God who formed man from the dust was enough to unmake him on the spot!

This reaction is not that of a man to an angry or vengeful God. This is more like the cry of a man who has just encountered a blazing fire, and realized the blaze was about to burn him up. Remember, the sun and the stove top aren’t angry and out to get us; rather, they are by nature hot – too hot to handle. And Isaiah couldn’t handle the presence of the Holy Lord. He was convicted of his status before God. The early Greek translations of the Old Testament actually translate the word ‘undone’ as ‘pierced.’

Isaiah was ‘pierced through’ or convicted of God’s holiness and his own unholiness. He was convicted – that is, pierced to the heart and convinced – of his own desperate situation before a most Holy God. And in his moment of conviction, he profoundly said, “That’s it… my life is over… I am undone… I cannot stand before such a Holy God.”

It is the same moment of conviction that grabs hold of our hearts and says – “Things are not right between me and God… and it’s going to destroy me.” Isaiah goes on to make a confession (actually, two of them) to God. Sometimes this precedes conviction and helps us reach a point of being pierced through by the truth. Other times confession follows conviction like waters flooding through a broken dam. In the case of Isaiah, his confessions broke forth out of the conviction of his heart.

Confession: “I am a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips” (v.5b)

Isaiah confessed two areas of impurity and ungodliness. The first was individual confession, he was a “man of unclean lips.” Whether he meant that he spoke things unpleasing to God or failed as a prophet to speak the words he should, his confession was that his mouth was unworthy of God. As a prophet, he was the mouthpiece of God, so his confession struck to the very core of his being. He was not serving the Lord well; in fact, his service to the Lord was a disservice. For us realization of God’s holiness may lead to individual confession that we are people of unclean lips, hands, hearts, eyes, motives, and passions.

Isaiah also made a corporate confession about the sinfulness of his people and his own participation in that sinfulness. His people were the children of God. Of all the peoples of the Earth, they had the promises and history of God on their side. They were chosen not only to be blessed, but to BE a blessing to the whole world. And they, too, had unclean lips. They were not being witnesses to God’s goodness and glory. Far from it, they were worshiping false gods and turning away from the Lord. And Isaiah found himself to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Again, the application for us goes beyond acknowledging that we live in a sinful culture or a “worldly” world. Isaiah’s confession set in our own lives would mean a recognition not only that our culture, country, and world need to know the Lord, but that we are willing participants in that same culture, country, and world and its collective sinfulness. We are silent or inactive over moral outrages like racism, materialism, and idolatry. We too live among a people of unclean lips before a holy God!

Holy Hope (vv.6-7)

If God is that holy and we are that sinful, what hope is there?

In Isaiah’s vision, one of the seraphim left its “post” at the throne of God to go over to the altar. Right away this signals us that God is initiating what happens next, because the seraphim would not leave the immediate presence of God and their task of constant worship for anything short of God’s instruction to do otherwise.

The seraph goes to the altar and takes a burning coal with tongs, then holds it in its hand. Several interesting details are present here. First, I’m not sure what heavenly “tongs” look like, but it signifies the holiness of the altar and the fire upon it that even a seraph would not directly touch it. At the same time, many commentators speculate that the fire on the altar is “stoked” by the ardency – the heat – of the heavenly worship. For one, God’s glory is a radiant heat. Secondly, the word ‘seraph’ means ‘burning one’ – these seraphim burned hot with their adoration and worship of God. And some commentators suggest that the glory of that heavenly scene kept the coals on the altar hot with the holy fire of that glory.

All that being said, it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to realize that the burning coal from the altar represents the pure and glorious holiness of God. The seraph took that coal and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” With the careful and directed touch of God’s holiness we are not destroyed, but healed. Finding Isaiah helpless and hopeless, God acted to make right what was wrong. He cleansed Isaiah of his sin, taking away his “iniquity” and forgiving his sin.

I hope all that language rings some bells. What a beautiful picture of what God has done in Christ! Again, the Bible’s story is that we are even as Isaiah was – helpless and hopeless in our sin. Things are not right still between humanity and God, and we are unable to make them right. And, it will be the end of us. But God has acted, not in a vision this time, but in time and space, sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to do for us what that burning, heavenly coal did for Isaiah. When Jesus touches our hearts and lives, our “iniquity” is taken away and our sin is forgiven.

Again, the process for us is like that of Isaiah. We must first glimpse enough of God and His holiness to realize the problem, and doing so will convict or pierce us through with the understanding that things are not right, and that will be our undoing. Then, confession and repentance lead us to Jesus Christ, the way God has provided, in His mercy, for us to be cleansed, forgiven, and made right.

Ultimately, God’s holiness leads us to Christ. It does so by way of our own conviction and confession of sin. From here, undone on the ground, God cleanses Isaiah and calls him forth to service. God does the same with us. Understanding of our sinfulness, our “undoing” prepares us for God’s healing and wholeness, and then our service. Don’t neglect or downplay God’s holiness, for it is what leads us to Christ. Amen!

Some Music Used

  • Preludes
    • Open the Eyes of My Heart
    • Holiness/Take My Heart
    • Praise God’s Holy Name (Cameroonian Procession)
    • Holy is the Lord (Schubert)
    • Holy Ground (Geron) – Cathy Youngblood, piano
  • I See the Lord
  • Holy is the Lord
  • SANCTUS (during communion): Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts (Nolene Prince)
  • Holy, Holy, Holy