Holy, Holy, Holy

Many today elevate God’s love over all else, but ‘holy’ and ‘holiness’ are the most frequent ways in which God is described in scripture.   In the Old Testament alone, the main Hebrew root word denoting holiness appears over 850 times. The Puritan Thomas Watson wrote in A Body of Divinity, ‘Holiness is the most sparkling jewel of His crown; it is the name by which God is known.’

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After crossing the Red Sea, Moses and the children of Israel sang, ‘Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods?  Who is like You, glorious in holiness?’ (Exodus 15:11).   ‘No one is holy like the LORD’ came from the lips of Hannah as she praised God in 1 Samuel 2:2. In Isaiah’s vision, angels called seraphim ascribed holiness to God saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’ (Isaiah 6:3).  God describes Himself, His name and His dwelling place, as holy. ‘For I am Holy’; ‘For thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place’ (Leviticus 11:44; Isaiah 57:15). 

What does holiness mean?   

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘holy’ as ‘dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; of a person, ‘morally and spiritually excellent’.  The English word ‘holy’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon halig meaning ‘well’ or ‘whole’, suggesting one who is free from sickness.  The two basic words translated ‘holy’ in scripture are the Hebrew qāḏôš and Greek hágios, which suggest cutting off, or separation.  The picture of holiness that begins to develop is one of absolute purity, separate in every way from all else, specifically, from what is morally impure.  Perhaps we might think of one who is in perfect health and free from the possibility of being unwell.  Furthermore, God’s holiness is the only creative force behind the whole universe.  The sole being with the power to create such beauty and life, He is utterly unique!

God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered.  We know nothing like the divine holiness.  It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. (A W Tozer The Knowledge of the Holy)

To make the superlative in English, we add ‘-est’ to a word (or the word ‘most’) such as ‘holiest’ or ‘most holy’.  In Hebrew this may be accomplished by saying something three times.  The angels Isaiah saw didn’t say, ‘Love, love, love,’ or ‘Eternal, eternal, eternal,’ or ‘Gracious, gracious, gracious.’  They said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!’   Holiness then, is God’s quintessential nature, His very selfhood.  Of all God’s attributes, holiness is the one that most uniquely describes Him, encompassing and permeating all His other attributes.   

History bears witness to man’s failed attempts to approach the holy God on his own terms.  

At some point in their lives, Cain and Abel’s parents would have instructed them in the proper approach to God.  Both brought sacrifices, but Cain’s offering was rejected, while Abel’s was accepted. The New Testament tells us why: ‘By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks’ (Hebrews 11:4).  Abel’s sacrifice was accepted because it was brought by faith, according to God’s standard. Cain’s offering was brought in accordance with his own standard, which resulted in his offering being rejected.  What followed – a murder and a curse – all stemmed from him approaching God his own way.   

The priests Nadab and Abihu took it on themselves to offer ‘unauthorized fire’ before the Lord, which the Lord had not commanded.  In response, fire from the Lord burned them to death.  Moses said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke saying: “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified”’ (Leviticus 10:1-3).  Those who thought they could approach God on their own terms found it resulted in destruction.

Numbers 16 recounts the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who, along with 250 prominent leaders in Israel, were destroyed because they rebelled against Moses and Aaron’s God-given leadership role.  These men said, ‘You have gone too far! Everyone in the entire community is holy, and the Lord is among them.  Why then do you exalt yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’  They coveted the priesthood which involved the privilege of approaching God with sacrifice.  God had not given that responsibility to them.  Moses informed them that the next morning the Lord would reveal ‘who belongs to Him, and who is set apart or ‘holy’, and the one He will let come near Him.’  When the next morning arrived, the glory of the Lord appeared over the tabernacle.  In a dramatic display, Korah, Datham and Abiram, along with all their possessions, were swallowed up by the earth; and the 250 leaders who were offering incense were consumed with fire from presence of the Lord.  There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death (Proverbs 14:12).