Although the Bible contains many descriptions of God, it is a fact that ‘The Bible itself . . . calls God holy more than anything else. Holy is the epithet most often affixed to his name’.1
In Hebrew literature, repetition is used to emphasise an important point. Jesus often used this technique to highlight a vital truth. For example, He said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47). To mention something three times elevates it to supreme importance.
Only once in scripture is a characteristic of God mentioned three times, and that is His attribute of holiness.
In Isaiah angelic beings thrice repeat this characteristic: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:3b). No wonder Thomas Watson wrote that “Holiness is the most sparkling jewel of God’s crown, it is the name by which He is known.”2 God is most holy. Nothing but that which is excellent can proceed from Him.
God is incomparable to anything or anyone
The first song in the Bible describes how, because of His holiness, God is incomparable. Taken out of the cruel slavery of Egypt and heading to the promised land, the people of Israel who had seen God’s power and experienced His love sang these words:
‘Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?’ (Exodus 15:11).
Holiness means that God stands alone. His name is separate and distinct. This truth can be seen in the statement that ‘There is none holy like the LORD: for there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God’ (1 Samuel 2:2). Holiness sets God apart from His creation, distinguishing Him from everything and everyone. God is unique. All we are or have is a gift from Him, but He needs nothing outside of Himself. He is both self-existent and self-sufficient.
When the long-serving King Uzziah died, Isaiah was given a vision of the Lord that left him shaken. Seeing God sitting upon a throne, he was reminded that God is sovereign over the raising and replacing of kings. God is ‘high and lifted up’ (Isaiah 6:1), entirely separate from His creation. Sinless seraphim (an order of angels) could not look upon Him, but only cry out in antiphonal worship, confessing God is thrice holy. Although sinless, they were utterly separate from God. They were created, but He is the Creator. God is distinct in that He does not need or require anything outside of Himself. He lacks nothing.
In a world where a king’s magnificence was marked by the length of his robe, Isaiah informs the reader that ‘the train of [Jehovah’s] robe filled the temple’ (Isaiah 6:1).
Overcome by this vision, Isaiah had to confess, ‘Woe is me’, a passionate cry of grief as he acknowledged that in God’s sight he was ‘a man of unclean lips’ (Isaiah 6:5).
Isaiah’s reaction has been repeated whenever men have been confronted with the holiness of God. Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ feet, exclaiming ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Luke 5:8, ESV). Likewise, when on the Isle of Patmos he encountered the ascended and glorified Lord Jesus Christ, John ‘fell at his feet as though dead’ (Revelation 1:17, ESV).
For Isaiah’s sin God Himself provided a solution.
‘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).
God’s messenger proclaimed the good news of forgiveness. The basis of forgiveness was an accepted sacrifice, pictured by the altar from which the burning coal was taken. This Old Testament altar constantly foreshadowed the work of the Cross. Forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to a holy God are available through Christ’s work upon the cross.
- James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive & Readable Theology, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1986) 125.
- A Body of Practical Divinity Consisting of Above One Hundred and Seventy-six Sermons on the Shorter Catechism Composed by the Reverend Assembly of Divines at Westminster:ISBN-10: 1170788777