By Grant Walker
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
Uh, what was that? A delight in His holiness? That seems like a bold statement. There are probably a lot of other attributes of God that one might naturally delight in before His holiness. What about His love, or grace, or mercy, or kindness, or generosity. Don’t those seem like better places to start in developing a love of God. Maybe after reading this quote you have questions like… “Shouldn’t we introduce people to some of his more ‘safe’ attributes before introducing them to His holiness?” “Weren’t people destroyed in the presence of a Holy God?” “How are we able to delight in His holiness?” In order to look into God’s holiness, let’s enter into the throne room and look at Isaiah 6.
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:
In biblical writing, repetition of words was a way of emphasizing a point to make sure you pay attention. The repetition makes it stand out as important. If Jesus said, “truly, truly I say to you”, then you better pay attention. Here we see triple repetition. “Holy” is repeated three times. This indicates that God is absolutely holy and the source of holiness.
So, what does holy mean? We might say it a lot in church and sing it in songs. But what is the definition? It can be hard to understand and describe because God is the only holy, holy, holy One. First, to be Holy is to be pure, clean, and righteous. Second, to be holy is to be set apart and unique. Finally, in the New Testament the Greek word used could be translated “the awful thing” or “full of awe thing.”
The Bible speaks of a lot of holy things. Here is where we need to understand the two ways that the Bible uses the word. It uses “holy” in reference to God, the Holy one who is holy, holy, holy, meaning that he is absolutely holy and is the source of holiness. And then it also uses the word “holy” for people, places, or things that are holy by association or have holiness imparted to them.
God is the only absolutely Holy One and He is the source of all holiness. But then we see this strange thing happen: wherever God is and whatever he touches receive a holiness by association.
When Moses encountered God at the burning bush, God said, “take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Was there anything special about that dirt or sand? No, not in and of itself. But the source of holiness was there and had touched it; therefore, it was set apart and unique by association. And we see the Bible refer to holy cities, or holy people, or holy days. These are all set apart because they have received a holiness outside of themselves. But there is only One who is pure, perfect, set apart, full of awe—the Holy One, our God.
In Isaiah 6, we understand Isaiah is in the presence of the absolutely pure, perfect, full of awe, set apart, Holy One. What is his response?
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 6:5)
Isaiah knows the ceremonial laws. Only the high priest can, once a year, go into the Holy of Holies. And only after doing all God tells him to ritually purify himself and the people. Even then, a rope was tied around his ankle in case he was destroyed in God’s presence (so his dead body could be pulled back out). Isaiah knows the law and, therefore, when he sees he is in the presence of the Holy One, he knows it’s game over.
He says “Woe is me! I am lost”; meaning I am undone…I am ruined…I am silenced…I am a dead man…I am destroyed.
Some people who do not know God talk about how they will act when standing in His presence. Some people have said, “God is going to have a lot explaining to do,” or “I’ll be the one asking the questions.” But any encounter humans have had with the Holy God has not gone this way. And one glimpse of God puts us in our place and reveals our true reality.
“Accordingly, until God reveals himself to us, we do not think that we are men, or rather, we think that we are gods; but when we have seen God, we then begin to feel and know what we are. Hence springs true humility, which consists in this, that a man makes no claims for himself, and depends wholly on God; …Our life, therefore, until our minds earnestly draw near to God, is a vain delusion.”
Until we behold the true and living, Holy God, not only is our own life a delusion, but also the rest of God’s character and his actions are distorted and don’t make sense to us.
Because if you don’t understand his holiness, you won’t understand the rest of his character.
If you don’t understand that God is holy, you might be deluded to think that God is mean and cruel. You might be thinking, “I’m generally a good person. I follow the laws, I try to do good things, I’m not more selfish than anyone else. I’m trying my best. Why would I be destroyed in the presence of this Holy God?”
You might be asking, “Was Isaiah really that bad? Am I really so bad that I would be destroyed in His presence? You might say, God sounds mean, God sounds cruel.” No, God is Holy.
Or you might be reading the story about the poor levite who died from touching the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant, the mobile hotspot of the presence of God, was traveling through the desert with the Israelites when the oxen stumbled. And when this guy reaches out to catch it, he is struck dead. Man, God sounds mean, God sounds cruel. No… God is Holy.
Let’s look at it another way. Absolute goodness and absolute purity and absolute light will crush any spot, blemish or darkness in it’s path. If you don’t believe me, do an experiment by turning on a light in a dark room. What happens? The light obliterates the darkness. The darkness is overcome and overrun by the light.
Consider the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve disobeyed and sinned against God, he sent them out of the garden—out of paradise. One mistake, one strike and they’re out. Doesn’t it sound mean? Doesn’t God sound cruel? No… God is Holy.
“What his Holiness has required, His grace has provided.”
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.” (Isaiah 6:6-7)
You see, Isaiah needed a holiness by association. He needed holiness that was imparted to him. He needed something beyond himself to save him. And here we see a glimpse of the salvation that was to be, once and for all, accomplished by Jesus.
In order for us to delight in His presence and not be destroyed our sin had to be atoned for and our guilt taken away. This is the Gospel—the good news that God saves sinners. This salvation was accomplished by the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It is a salvation that is received by grace through faith.
In Christ, we can now delight in His holiness. The holiness of God does not contradict all of his other attributes. It only enriches them.
When you begin understanding the holiness of God is when you can really start to enjoy the love of God on a deeper level. When you understand the heights of holiness, you can then fully understand the depths of his grace. When you understand the uniqueness of the holiness of God, you can appreciate the uniqueness of his mercy. When you grasp his holiness is when you can start grasp his goodness. His wrath no longer seems mean or cruel in light of his holiness. His immensity, his immanence, his perfection, his knowledge, his sovereignty, his supremacy, and his patience become much more sweet and enjoyable when you first understand his holiness. We must first understand his holiness in order to enjoy the rest of his attributes in depth and clarity.
So may we be a people who delight in His Holiness. Let us enjoy and rest in the fact that what his Holiness has required, His grace has provided.