Holy, Holy, Holy
Learning the Holiness of God
December 15, 2002
The prophet of the Old Testament Israel was a lonely man. He was
often alone, a man single out by God for a painful task.
He acted as a prosecuting attorney or spokesman for the Supreme
Judge of heaven and earth to bring suit against those who had sinned
against the bench of this Judge.
The prophet was not a philosopher who wrote his opinions so that
other philosophers could debate them; he was not a playwright who
composed dramas for entertainment. He was a messenger, a herald
of the cosmic king.
His announcements began with “Thus says the Lord.”
If you were to survey the lives of the prophets, you would think you
were reading a casualty list from the Vietnam war. His life expectancy
was not much better than a soldier on the front lines of a heated
When scripture says that Jesus “was despised and rejected by men, a
man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3), it is obvious
that He was in a long list of men whom God had appointed to
The prophet’s curse was solitude; his home was often a cave. The
desert was his normal meeting place with God. Nakedness was
sometimes his wardrobe, a wooden stock was his neck-tie. His songs
were often composed with tears.
So was this man named Isaiah ben Amoz.
Isaiah was a prophet of prophets, a leader of leaders. He is called a
“major prophet” because of the amount of written material that his
Most prophets were of humble origins: peasants, shepherds, farmers.
Isaiah was a man of nobility. He was a recognized statesman, having
access to the royal court of his day.
He hung out with princes and kings. God used him to speak to several
monarch of Judah, including Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.
What set a prophet of Israel apart from all other men was the sacred
call that he was summoned to. His call was not from men, by votes or
popularity. His call could not be applied for. He had to be selected
and chosen directly by God. And the call was sovereign; it could not
be refused. (Jeremiah tried to refuse his call but was quickly reminded
by God that He had consecrated Jeremiah from his mother’s womb.
When Jeremiah tried to resign, God refused to accept his resignation.
The job of the prophet was for life, and usually, it was not a very long
So the record of the call of Isaiah is one of the most dramatic of all
calls. We are told that it came to pass in the year that King Uzziah
King Uzziah died in the 8th Century B.C. His reign was important to
Jewish history. He was one of the better Kings who ruled over Judah.
He was not David, but neither was he noted for the corruption that the
kings of the north were known for, such as Ahab.
Uzziah ascended the throne when he was sixteen years old. He
reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years. Think of that for a moment. In
fifty two years, the United States has seen the presidency of
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush,
Clinton, and Bush again.
There were many people in Jerusalem that lived their entire lives
under the reign of Uzziah.
The Bible tells us that Uzziah began his reign in godliness, doing “what
was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Chron. 26:4). He sought after
God and God blessed him.
He was victorious in battle over the Philistines and other nations. He
built towers in Jerusalem and strengthened the city walls. He
dug massive cisterns in the desert and stimulated great
expansion in agriculture. He restored military power to Judah to
a standard almost as high as it was under David. For most of his
career Uzziah was noted as a great and beloved King.
Unfortunately, the story of Uzziah ends in a sad note. The last years
were tragic. His career was marred by the sin of pride committed after
he acquired great wealth and power. He tried to play God.
He boldly entered the temple and arrogantly claimed for himself the
rights that God had given only to the priests.
When the priests of the temple tried to stop this act, he became
furious. While he was screaming at them, leprosy broke out on his
The Bible says in 2 Chron. 26:21, “He lived in a separate house, being
a lepper,…cut off from the house of the LORD”.
When Uzziah died, in spite of the shame of his last few years, it was a
time of national mourning. Isaiah went to the temple, looking for
He got more than he bargained for:
Isaiah 6:1- “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a
throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple”.
The king was dead. But when Isaiah entered the temple, he saw
another king, the Ultimate King, the One who sat forever on the throne
of Judah. He saw the Lord.
Isaiah came to the temple in a time of crisis, because the sovereign
ruler of the land died. The eyes of Isaiah were opened to see the real
king of the nation. He was God seated on the throne, the true
Humans are not allowed to see the face of God. The scriptures warn
that no person can see God and live.
We remember Moses’ request when he ascended the holy mountain of
God. Moses had been an eyewitness of astonishing miracles. He had
heard the voice of God speaking to him out of the burning bush. He
had witnessed the river Nile turn into blood. He tasted manna from
heaven and had gazed upon the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire.
He had seen the chariots of Pharoah overtaken by the waves of the
Still he was not satisfied. He wanted more. He craved the ultimate
spiritual experience. He asked the Lord on the mountain, “Let me see
your face. Show me your glory.” The request was denied. Turn with
me to Exodus Chapter 33.
Exodus Chapter 33:19-23- 19 Then He said, "I will make all My
goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD
before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will
have compassion on whom I will have compassion." 20 But He said,
"You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." 21 And
the LORD said, "Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the
rock. 22 "So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you
in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass
by. 23 "Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back;
but My face shall not be seen."
When God told Moses that he could see His back, the literal reading of
the text can be translated “hindquarters.” God allowed Moses to see
His hindquarters but never His face.
When Moses returned from the mount, his face was shining so bright
that the people were terrified, and shrank away in horror. Moses had
to put a veil over his face so that the people could approach him.
This response was to a man that had come so close to God that he
was reflecting God’s glory. This was from back of God, not His face.
If people are terrified by the sight of the reflected glory of the back
part of God, how can anyone stand to gaze directly into His holy face?
Yet the final goal of every Christian is to see him face-to-face. We
want to bask in the glory of His divine light.
It was the hope of the Jews as we see in the most famous benediction
of Israel. Numbers 6:24-26- 24 "The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 The LORD make His face shine upon you, And be gracious to
you; 26 The LORD lift up His countenance upon you, And give you
This hope becomes a promise for the Christian. John tells us in his
first letter: 1 John 3:2- Beloved, now we are children of God; and it
has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when
He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
The promise of God is that we shall see Him as He is. Theologians call
this the beatific vision.
This means that someday we will see God face-to-face. We will not
see the reflected glory of the burning bush or a pillar of cloud. We will
see Him as He is, as He is in His pure, divine essnce.
Right now it is impossible for us to see God in His purity. Before that
can ever happen, we must be purified.
Jesus taught the Beatitudes, He promised only a distinct group that
they could see God: Matthew 5:8-“Blessed are the pure in heart, for
they will see God”.
No one of us has a pure heart. It is our impurity, not our vision, that
keeps us from seeing God. Only after we are purified and totally
sanctified in heaven will we have the ability to gaze upon Him face-to-
Isaiah 6:2 - 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
The seraphim were not sinful humans burdened with impure hearts.
Yet as angelic beings, the were still creatures. Even in their position
before the almighty, it was necessary for them to shield their eyes
from the direct gaze on the face of God.
They are fearfully and wonderfully made, equipped by their creator
with a special pair of wings to cover their faces in His majestic
They also were given a second pair of wings. This pair is used to cover
their feet. Not like shoes so that they can walk. The covering of feet
is for a different reason that is similar to Moses’ experience with the
Exodus 3:2-5 And the Angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame
of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush
was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. 3 Then Moses
said, "I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does
not burn." 4 So when the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God
called to him from the midst of the bush and said, "Moses, Moses!"
And he said, "Here I am." 5 Then He said, "Do not draw near this
place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is
God commanded Moses to take off his shoes. Moses was standing on
holy ground. The ground was made holy by God’s presence. The act
of Moses taking off his shoes was to remind him that he was of the
earth. Human, sometimes called “feet of clay,” symbolize us as
creatures. It is our feet that connect us to the earth.
The seraphim are not of the earth. Their feet are not made of clay.
Yet they are still creatures, and the imagery of Isaiah’s vision suggests
that they too must cover their feet, acknowledging that they are
creatures in the exalted presence of God.
The next verse gives us the entire crux of Isaiah’s vision. It is the
song of the seraphim that reveals the message of the text.
Isaiah 6:3 -And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the
LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!"
This song is the repetition of a single word-Holy. Three times the
word is sung in succession.
The significance of the word being repeated three times can be
missed. This is a form of Hebrew literature, especially in poetry.
The repetition is a form of emphasis. When we want to emphasize the
importance of something in English, we have different ways of doing it.
We can underline the word, print them in italics or boldface type. We
may attach an exclamation point following the words or put them in
The Old Testament Jew also had different techniques to indicate
emphasis. One was the method of repetition. We see Jesus’ use of
repetition with the words “Truly, truly, I say to you” as we looked at
week before last.
Only few times does the Bible repeat something three times. To do
this in a succession of three is to elevate it to the highest degree.
For example, the judgment of God is declared in the book of
Revelation by the eagle who cried in midair with a loud voice.
Revelation 8:13-"Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth.
We also hear it in the mocking sarcasm of Jeremiah’s temple speech
when he jabbed the people for calling out in hypocrisy, Jeremiah 7:4-
"Do not trust in these lying words, saying, 'The temple of the LORD,
the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD are these.'
Only one time in scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third
degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in
The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that His is merely
holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy.
The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy,
mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice.
But it does say that he is Holy, Holy, Holy, and that the whole earth is
full of His glory.
Isaiah 6:4-And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him
who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
A recent survey of people who used to be church members revealed
that the main reason they stopped going to church was because it was
boring and didn’t meet their needs.
It is difficult for many people to find worship a thrilling and moving
Let’s notice, when God appeared in the temple, the doors and the
thresholds were moved.
The inert matter of doorposts, the inanimate thresholds, the wood and
metal that could neither hear nor speak had the good sense to be
moved by the presence of God.
The literal meaning of the text is that they were shaken! They began
to quake where they stood.
Isaiah 6:5- So I said: "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 almighty."
The doors of the temple were not the only things that were shaking.
The thing that quaked the most was the body of Isaiah.
When he saw the living God, the reigning monarch of the universe
displayed before his eyes in all of His holiness, Isaiah cried out, “Woe
The cry of Isaiah sounds strange to the modern ear. It is rare that we
hear people today use the word woe. Since the word is old-fashioned.
Some scholars like to substitute the word for another, more modern
word. This is a mistake.
Woe has a special meaning. It is one of deep peril and anguish.
The full force of Isaiah’s exclamation must be seen against the
background of a special form of speech found in the Bible.
When the prophets announced their messages, the most frequent form
of divine utterance was the oracle. The oracles were announcements
from God’ they could be good news or bad news. The positive oracles
were prefaced by the word blessed. When Jesus preached the Sermon
on the Mount, He used the form of the oracle saying, “Blessed are the
poor in spirit,” Blessed are those who mourn,” Blessed are those who
hunger and thirst.” His audience understood that he was using this
formula of the prophet that brought good tidings.
Jesus also used the negative form of the oracle. When He spoke in
angry denunciation of the Pharisees, He pronounced the judgment of
God upon their heads by saying to them, “Woe to you, scribes and
He said this so often it sounded almost normal. When the prophet
uses the word woe, it is an announcement of doom.
In the Bible, cities are doomed, nations are doomed, individuals are
doomed-all by uttering the oracle of woe.
Isaiah’s use of woe was not ordinary. When he was the Lord, he
pronounced woe upon himself. “Woe to me!” he cried, calling down
the curse of God upon himself. He called the anger of God upon his
It was one thing for a prophet to curse another person in the name of
God; it was quite another for a prophet to put that curse upon himself.
Immediately following the curse of doom, Isaiah cries, “I am undone,”
To be undone means to come apart at the seams, toe be unraveled.
What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as
the experience of personal disintegration.
To disintegrate means exactly what the word suggests, dis integrate.
To integrate something is to put pieces together indo a unified whole.
The word integrity comes from this root, suggesting a person whose
life is whole or wholesome.
If ever there was a man of integrity, it was Isaiah ben Amoz. He was
a whole man, a person that had it all together. He was considered by
his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He was
respected and admired for his righteousness.
Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a holy God. IN that single
moment, all his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was
exposes, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of
As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able
to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he was
measured by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed-morally and
spiritually annihilated. He was undone! He came apart. His sense
of integrity collapsed and disintegrated.
This sudden awareness of ruin was linked to Isaiah’s mouth. He cried,
“I am a man of unclean lips.”
You would think he would say he was a man with unclean habits, or a
man of unclean thoughts. Instead he called attention immediately to
his mouth. In effect he said, “I have a dirty mouth.” Why would he
I think the clue can be found in the words of Jesus when He said that
it’s not what goes into people’s mouths that defiles them; it’s what
comes out of their mouths that defiles them.
Or we could consider the words of Jesus brother James:
James 3:6-12- And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The
tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body,
and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell.
7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and creature of the sea, is
tamed and has been tamed by mankind. 8 But no man can tame the
tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our
God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the
similitude of God. 10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and
cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a
spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?
12 Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs?
Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.
We are fortunate in one respect, that God does not appear to us as he
did to Isaiah. Who here could stand it? God normally reveals our
sinfulness to us a bit at a time. We experience gradual recognition of
our own corruption.
God revealed Isaiah’s corruption all at once. No wonder he was
Isaiah explained it this way: “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD
Almighty.” He was the holiness of God. For the first time in his life
Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the
first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.
Isaiah 6:6-7- Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his
hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar.
7 And he touched my mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has
touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged."
Here is Isaiah, groveling on the floor. Every nerve in his body was
trembling. He was looking for a place to hide, praying that somehow
the earth would cover him or the roof of the temple would fall on him-
anything to get him out from under the holy gaze of God.
But there was nowhere to hide. He was naked and alone before God.
Unlike Adam, Isaiah had no eve to comfort him, no fig leaves to hide
him. His was a pure moral anguish, the kind that rips out the heart of
a man and tears his soul to pieces.
Guilt, guilt, guilt. Relentless guilt screamed from every pore.
Yet this Holy, perfect, Almighty God is also a God of grace. He refused
to allow His servant to continue on his belly without comfort.
He took immediate steps to cleanse the man and restore his soul.
One of the seraphim receives God’s command and jumps into action.
The angelic creature moves swiftly, flying to the altar with the tongs,
and from the burning fire, the seraph took a glowing coal, too hot to
touch even for an angel, and flew to Isaiah.
The seraph pressed the white-hot coal to the lips of the prophet and
Here Isaiah felt the holy flame burning his mouth by the excruciating
pain of the heat. This was sever mercy, a painful act of cleansing.
Isaiah’s wound was being cauterized, the dirt in his mouth was being
burned away. He was refined by holy fire.
This act of cleansing went beyond the purification of his lips. He was
cleansed throughout, forgiven to the core, but not without the pain of
He went beyond cheap grace and the easy utterance “I’m sorry.” He
was mourning for his sin, overcome with moral brief, and God sent an
angel to heal him.
His sin was taken away. His dignity was intact. His guilt was
removed, but his humanity was not touched.
The conviction that he felt was constructive. This was no cruel
punishment. A second of burning flesh brought a healing that would
last an eternity.
In a moment of time, the disintegrated prophet was whole again.
His mouth was purged. He was clean.
Isaiah 6:8- Also 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."
Until this point he had seen the glory of God; he had heard the song of
the seraphim; he had felt the coals upon his lips. Now for the first
time he heard the voice of God, and suddenly the angels were silent.
The voice boomed throughout the temple, the voice that Scripture
elsewhere describes as the sound of many waters. The voice echoed
with the piercing questions: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for
This pattern is repeated in history. God appears, people quake and
terror, God forgives and heals, God sends.
From brokenness to mission is the human pattern.
When God asked “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah understood the force of
the word. To be “sent” meant to function as an ambassador for God,
to be a spokesman for the deity.
God was looking for a volunteer to enter the lonely, grueling office of
prophet. “Whom shall I send?”
Isaiah simply says, “Here am I, send me.” He does not say “Here I
am”, which would have merely indicated his location. He says “Here
am I.” With these words Isaiah was stepping forward to volunteer.
His answer was simply, “I will go. Look no further. Send me.”
God put him back together. God was able to take a shattered man
and send him into the ministry. He took a sinful man and made him a
prophet. He took a man with a dirty mouth and made him God’s
Isaiah’s personality was not destroyed, it was overhauled. He was still
Isaiah ben Amoz when he left the temple. He was the same person,
but his mouth was clean.
All preachers are vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the
more faithful preachers are to the Word of God in their preaching, the
more liable they are to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the
more faithful pole are to the Word of God, the higher the message that
they will preach. The higher the message, the further they will be
form obeying it themselves.
I cringe inside as I speak to you about God’s holiness. Some people
may leave the sanctuary convinced that they have just been in the
presence of a holy man. Because you hear me preach about holiness,
don’t assume I must be as holy as the message I preach.
These are the times I want to cry, “Woe is me.”
It is dangerous to assume that because I am drawn to a study of God’s
holiness, that I am already a holy man. There is irony here.
I am sure that the reason that I have a deep hunger to learn of the
holiness of God is because I am not holy. I am a profane man-a man
who spends more time out of the temple than in it.
But I have had just enough taste of the majesty of God to want more.
I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be
sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.