Isaiah 6:3

Sermon preached on January 20, 2002 by Laurence W. Veinott. © Copyright 2002. All rights reserved. Other sermons can be found at

Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.

One of the most shocking things I have ever seen was the destruction of the World Trade Towers. To see the planes hit the buildings, to watch them burn, and finally to see them collapse — was most unsettling. I remember thinking, "Those poor people."I thought that over and over again. "Those poor people."

Yet as disturbing and unsettling as that scene was, it can't compare with Isaiah's reaction to seeing God on His throne. His reaction was one of absolute horror. His dismay was much worse than the horror that we felt on September 11. September 11 was a shocking day and we were traumatized by it. Yet Isaiah's trauma was of on a much higher level, and much more personal.

What caused his trauma was a glimpse at God's holiness. Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on His throne, high and exalted. The train of his robe filled the temple. The seraphs were above Him calling to one another. They said,

"Holy, holy, holy
is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

Isaiah's reaction is disturbing. He said,

"Woe to me!
I am ruined!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips,
and my eyes have seen the King,
the LORD Almighty."

This morning I want to look at Isaiah's vision and his reaction to it. God's holiness is a topic that is vitally important for us. You'll remember that when Jesus taught His disciples to pray that the first petition concerned God's holiness. He said, (Matthew 6:9)

"This, then, is how you should pray:
'Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name...'"

We are to pray that God's name be hallowed. We are to be greatly concerned with the glory of God's name—that we honor, serve and magnify Him as we should—that we regard Him as holy. To help us do this let's look at Isaiah's vision.

Consider the scene. What I find most interesting is that
Isaiah doesn't really doesn't describe much about God directly, but gives us a description of what is happening around God. He tells us that He saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted. That's it. The rest is about what happened around God.

This is significant for it tells us something about God.

It shows us His transcendence.

God is holy. What does that mean? Part of its meaning is that God is transcendent above His creation. Louis Berkhof writes, (Systematic Theology, p. 73)

"The Hebrew word for 'to be holy,' quadash, is derived from the root qad, which means to cut or to separate…. From this it appears that it is not correct to think of holiness primarily as a moral or religious quality, as is generally done. Its fundamental idea is that of a position or relationship existing between God and some person or thing."

"In its original sense it denotes that He is absolutely distinct from all His creatures, and is exalted above them in infinite majesty. So understood, the holiness of God is one of His transcendental attributes…”

R.C. Sproul writes, (The Holiness of God, p. 55)

"When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us."

Donald Macleod tells us that the biblical definition of holiness relates to the 'otherness of God'. (Behold Your God, p. 87) Macleod writes,

"He falls outside the range of the familiar, manageable objects. He is uncanny."

Louis Berkhof quotes from Otto's study of holiness and says that God's holiness, (Systematic Theology, p.73)

"includes such ideas as, 'absolute unapproachability' and 'absolute overpoweringness' or 'aweful majesty'."

The seraphs show us this. What do the seraphs do in God's presence? We read that

the seraphs cover their faces with two of their wings.

The seraphs were created to serve God at His throne. Yet even these glorious, pure, exalted beings do not look upon God with uncovered faces. God's brilliance is too much for their eyes. E.J. Young suggests that the glory of the Lord is so great that just as one cannot look directly at the sun because of its brightness, so the seraphs could not look directly at the majesty of God. God's purity is of such brilliance that even the glorious seraphim cover their faces with their wings.

Now what this means is that

God's majesty knows no limits.

The One that we have to do with is infinitely exalted. He is wholly other- the glorious, exalted, magnificent King. He is absolutely transcendent, exalted far above even the most exalted angels.

This is also evident from how the angels sang.

They called out to one another,

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

E.J. Young writes,

"It is probably safe to assume that the singing was antiphonal, for the seraphs cry out to the other seraphs, as though proclaiming to them and declaring to them that the Lord is holy."

In other words, the seraphs were probably in groups or choirs. One group would sing to another, declaring God's praise. Then the other choir would respond, adding their voices to praise God for His majesty and glory.

I love sophisticated music. Very often when I am preparing sermons I will listen to
J.S. Bach's cantatas. Bach wrote many cantatas to be performed in church to the glory of God. They would be based on a passage of Scripture and Bach would set the text to music. Some of the cantatas contain the most beautiful counterpoint. Counterpoint is where you have two or more melodies that are played or sung at the same time. They complement one another and together add up to the most glorious praise.

Is this what the angels were doing? Quite possibly. I imagine that the angels singing was something like that, only on a much higher and glorious level.

But whatever their singing was like, it is evident from what Isaiah saw that

they delighted in praising God for His holiness.

Notice what happens when they sing. We read,

"At the sound of their voices
the doorposts and thresholds shook
and the temple was filled with smoke."

It is the very glory and strength of the song of praise that causes the thresholds to tremble. (Young). These exalted creatures take the greatest delight in praising God.

How glorious our God is! How inexhaustible is His glory. The seraphs never tire of praising Him, they are never bored doing it. No, no. Perish such thoughts. There's an enthusiasm, a joy, a delight in the seraphs. They are doing the greatest thing possible.

But this is not all.

We should also take note of what they sang.

They called to one another saying,

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory."

Some see a reference here to the Trinity, that they are praising Father, Son and Holy Spirit for their holiness. That may be part of it. But others I think rightly conclude that they repeat the word for emphasis.

When we were in
Northern Ireland several years ago visiting our friends I noticed that in some places in the villages they had a yellow line on the curb next to the street. I asked my friend Stafford what the yellow line meant. He told me that it meant, "No Parking". But in other places instead of one yellow line there were two yellow lines. I asked him what two yellow lines meant and he looked at me with a smile and said, "Two yellow lines mean 'Really No Parking'".

The fact that the word "Holy"is repeated three times
emphasizes this characteristic of God. Indeed, it gives great prominence to it. Nowhere else in the Bible is an attribute of God repeated three times in a row.

What this means is that God's holiness is of the utmost importance.

The song of the seraphs greatly emphasized God's holiness. It certainly made a distinct impression on Isaiah for his favorite designation of God in the book of Isaiah is "the Holy One of Israel". He used it 26 times in His prophecy.

How important is God's holiness?

Some see God holiness as the essential attribute of God. E.J. Young writes,

"In their song of praise therefore the seraphim set forth what was the distinguishing characteristic of God, namely, his holiness. Their hearts burst forth in praise of His very essence."

James Montgomery Boice points out that the Bible itself,

'calls God holy more than anything else.'

I once heard a minister preach on God's holiness and he said that you could put 'holy' with any other attribute of God to modify it. You could speak of God's holy love, of His holy wrath, of His holy wisdom etc. etc. He concluded from that that holiness was the most central attribute of God.

But I'm not really sure that we should speak of one attribute of God being more central than another. Is God more holy than He is just? Is He more holy that He is truthful? Is He more holy than He is loving? Is He more holy than He is wise? Such questions don't seem to be a good way to approach the attributes of God. I think it's wrong to try to create a hierarchy among God's attributes.

I'm more comfortable with how Louis
Berkhof puts it. He tells us that it although it does not seem proper to speak of one attribute of God as being more central and fundamental than another,

'but if this were permissible, the Scriptural emphasis on the holiness of God would seem to justify its selection.'

We must remember that God is one. He is a person. We must not think of Him as a mere collection of attributes. I like how Wayne Grudem puts it. (p. 178)

"God's whole being includes all of his attributes: he is entirely loving, entirely merciful, entirely just, and so forthÖ. God himself is a unity, a unified and completely integrated whole person who is infinitely perfect in all of these attributes.""Why then does Scripture speaks of these different attributes of God? It is probably because we are unable to grasp all of God's character at one time, and we need to learn of it from different perspectives over a period of time. Yet these perspectives should never be set in opposition to one another, for they are just different ways of looking at the totality of God's character."

I think God's holiness is emphasized so much because this is a lesson that we human beings need especially to learn.

We tend to think of God in terms that are much too low. We tend to think of ourselves in terms that are much too high. Very often we don't know our place. We can be very arrogant and full of pride. We can be like Peter, who once took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. (Matthew 16) We can talk back to God and be upset with Him. Remember how disappointed Jonah was that God sent him to Nineveh? Remember how discouraged Elijah was in the way things turned out when he was fleeing from Queen Jezebel? Remember what Job said during all his trials? He wanted to question God. (Job 23:3-5) Yet after God answered him out of the whirlwind, what did Job say? He said to God, (Job 42:3)

"[You asked,]
'Who is this that obscures my counsel
without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know."

God is not like us. He is holy. He is absolutely transcendent. He is so exalted that we cannot even imagine how glorious He is. Even the exalted seraphim do not look on Him with uncovered faces. He dwells in light unapproachable. He is absolutely pure. He is wholly other. He is far, far, far above us. He is so far separated from sin and corruption that He cannot look on it without hating it. He is the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah's reaction brings this into focus. How did Isaiah react to this vision of God on His throne?

Isaiah was absolutely traumatized. He felt like he was totally destroyed.

He was filled with horror. He said,

"Woe to me!
I am ruined!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
and I live among a people of unclean lips,
and my eyes have seen the King,
the LORD Almighty."

Isaiah is filled with dread and horror. He said, "I am undone."He pronounced woe upon himself. R.C. Sproul writes, (The Holiness of God, p. 43)

"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 in a unified whole."

The word 'undone' means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled, to be pulled apart. Isaiah felt like he was going to be destroyed, that he was going to cease to exist. It also has connotations of being silenced, of being absolutely overwhelmed.

According to R.C.
Sproul, Isaiah was consider by his contemporaries as the most righteous man in the nation. He writes, (The Holiness of God, p. 44)

"He was respected as a paragon of virtue. 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 exposed, make naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holinessÖ The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed."

His sense of being collapsed. James Montgomery Boice writes on coming face to face with the Holy. (Systematic Theology, p. 131)

"It is not a pleasant experience. It is profoundly threatening, for the Holy cannot coexist in the same space with the unholy. God must destroy the unholy or else purge out the sin."

Now what does all this mean? I have three applications.

First, for Christians, how we must strive to be holy.

Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy One lives in us. Donald Macleod writes,

"The One who is with us is dreadful. This is why it is fair to say that right through the Old Testament it was a terrible strain to be an Israelite. The Divine Visitor was not easy to live with and the protocol required by His presence was exceedingly burdensomeÖ. the special relationship with God involved grave risks: 'You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities'. (Amos 3:2)"

For some of the time the past three years we have been going through Acts and we have seen that one of the characteristics of the early church was that of great reverence for God. The account of the Spirit's coming at Pentecost stressed the holiness of God's presence. The tongues of fire that rested on each of them are, (Macleod, p. 92)

"reminiscent of the burning bush, the pillar of fire and the fire that consumed the 250 followers of Korah. All these are symbols of the divine purity and majesty, reacting destructively to sin in the church."

He was awesome in their presence, cutting off sinners like Ananias and Sapphira. At such times great fear seized the whole church. Remember the warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3? Jesus said to the church in Ephesus, (Revelation 2:5)

"Repent, or I come quickly."

In Revelation 3:9 he said,

"As many as I love
I rebuke and chasten."

In 1 Peter 1:17, the apostle wrote,

"Since you call on a Father
who judges each man's work impartially,
live your lives as strangers here
in reverent fear."

Donald Macleod writes,

"Not even the greatest confidence in saying, 'Abba, Father!' can eliminate the sense of holy dread inalienable from man's approach to God. Even Christ pauses on the threshold and says, 'Holy Father' (John 17:11). Even as our God, He is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:29)"

Secondly, for Christians, this has great implications for your evangelism.

Be bold in your evangelism. Warn people of the danger they are in.

Most people today have no idea what it's like to be confronted by a holy God. If you asked people what it would be like to see God, many non-Christians would tell you that it would be a pleasant experience. Some who have had near-death experiences report that they had a great sense of peace as they moved toward a light. People think they're going to be all right.

But nothing could be further from the truth. We must remember that near-death experiences are just that. They are near-death. They do not describe death itself.

When people stand before the Holy Judge, they are going to feel the trauma that Isaiah felt when He saw God. Isaiah's trauma was short lived because his sins were purged as indicated by the seraphs taking a coal from the altar and touching Isaiah's lips with it.

For those not in Christ, their trauma will last forever. Forever, Jesus words will be ringing in their ear, (Matthew 25:41)

"Then he will say to those on his left,
'Depart from me,
you who are cursed,
into the eternal fire
prepared for the devil and his angels."

Lastly, if any here aren't in Jesus. I want you to know assuredly that

you need Him.

Hebrews 10:31 says,

"It is a dreadful thing
to fall into the hands of the living God."

How can anyone be saved? How can anyone dwell with a Holy God? It's through Jesus. You need Jesus. The seraph cleansed Isaiah by taking a coal from the altar and applying it to Isaiah.

An altar, a sacrifice is needed. And not just any sacrifice, but the death of God's only begotten Son.
John 3:16,

"For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him
shall not perish but have eternal life."

Donald Macleod describes God's work at Calvary this way, (Behold Your God, p. 80)

"It was a priestly act and as such an act of righteousness in which the divine holiness consumes the archetypal holocaust, doom-deserving as the vicar of His people."

Jesus died in our place. God's holiness consumed Him. He was torn apart in order to save sinners. Go to Him now. He's your only hope.