Lecture 20: Isaiah and the Holiness of God
Course: 52 Major Stories of the Bible
Lecture: Isaiah and the Holiness of God
Today we will look at the prophet Isaiah and his doctrine of the holiness of God. Next week we will look at Isaiah 52, 53 and 54, and Isaiah’s doctrines of salvation, restoration and the suffering servant.
Background to Isaiah
100 years after the time of Elijah things are still going downhill. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had one bad king after another, perhaps with the exception of Jahu. Eventually the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria. They came down from the north and conquered Babylon and Samaria, as it had come to be called Israel, in 721 B.C. If you want to read the discussion of it, it is in II Kings 17. There the author makes it very clear that the Assyrian’s conquered God’s people because God's people were idolaters. They had broken the covenant and enough was enough. God is not only the God of the covenant, but he is also the God of judgment for sin. The Israelites were deported and most of them resettled in different places and the area of Israel was resettled with foreigners and syncretism fully set in. For example, II Kings 17:33 tells us “they [the re-settled people] feared Yahweh but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nation from among whom they had been carried away.” So all of these foreign people came into Israel, bringing their gods, and they accepted the Lord Yahweh as one among many gods, and it is this mixture of races and religion that became known in the New Testament as the Samaritans, and hence the conflict that the Jews had with the Samaritans.
The Southern Kingdom of Judah did not fair much better. They had a mixture of good kings and bad kings, and it comes down to a series of four kings. We meet Azariah who was also called Uziah, and Jotham. Both of them were good kings and yet they did not destroy the high places. That is the theme all the way through this story. They were good kings but they allowed syncretism to continue, the mixing of religions, and did not get rid of the high places. Ahaz came on the scene a wicked king who, among other things, offered his own child as a sacrifice. Ahaz is followed by Hezekiah a great king who actually destroys all the high places, who trusted in the Lord. The four kings Azariah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah ruled from 792 b.c. to 686 b.c. It was during this time that the prophets Amos, Hosea, and Micah served. And it was during these four kings that Isaiah prophesied. Isaiah appears to have been from an aristocratic family. He was highly educated. In fact, we do not know what 25% of the words in the book of Isaiah mean and have to make educated guesses because his vocabulary is out of this world. It is the hardest book in the Bible to translate. It is one of the most quoted old testament books in the new testament, it is dominated with themes of God’s holiness and judgment and redemption, and it has the clearest picture of Christ and what it is to be a follower of Christ anywhere in the old testament.
Vision of God’s Throne Room
Isaiah 6 is perhaps the most powerful and famous chapter in its book. In chapter 6 Isaiah is given a vision of the throne room scene and he is allowed to see God. “In the year that King Uzziah died [740 b.c] I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” It is a picture of absolute and supreme power, authority and might, and frankly it is a scene that words fail. Words fail to describe what ultimately is in indescribable. Notice that Isaiah cannot really enter into a description of what it meant, all he can do is say that this is what I saw, and this is as far as words can take me. I was reminded back in Exodus 19 of the scene when God was about to descend on Mt. Sinai in the giving of the ten commandments. In Exodus 19:16 Moses writes, “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightening and a thick cloud on the mountain, and very loud trumpet blast so that all the people in the camp trembled, and then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Mt. Sinai was wrapped in smoke because Yahweh had descended on it in fire, and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder Moses spoke and God answered him in thunder and the Lord came down on Mt. Sinai to the top of the mountain.
God of Glory
Again, this is similar to the picture of God’s glory and power in Isaiah, and words fail to describe it other than simply saying this is what I saw. I have been rather frustrated attempting to describe what is indescribable and finally gave up. I ended up thinking about Mount St. Helens. I have never had a similar experience to encountering that mountain. About 20 miles from Mt. St. Helens all of the trees are suddenly knocked down in the same direction, which is weird. And when you get within 5 miles there is simply nothing. There is absolutely nothing. We walked down to Spirit Lake and I felt as if I were on the moon. I had never been in a place like this, where young trees and young flowers were just starting to grow back again. Then to stand one peak away from what used to be the peak of Mount St. Helen’s, and to hear the description of what happened when that mountain blew. Mount St. Helens shot a column of pulverized rock 15 miles into the atmosphere in 15 minutes when it erupted. It continued to pump out ash for the following 9 hours, producing a black cloud that held somewhere between 1.7 and 2.4 billion cubit yards of material, much of it dumped in Spokane, Washington's backyards, I understand. Lightening created by colliding ash particles flashed around the edges of the cloud. The Ranger explained that the side of the mountain blew out somewhere around 600 miles per hour and Incinerating everything human and plant life it touched. He went on and on with these kind of statistics and all that I could think of was that this is nothing. This is absolutely nothing compared to Isaiah 6. It was the greatest show of force I have ever encountered and it was nothing compared to what Isaiah saw when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. Isaiah continues in his attempt to describe what he saw. “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, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!' And the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” These six winged seraphim appear no where else in scripture. Perhaps the closest we find them are the four living creatures in Revelation 4 that have the same function and actually say the same thing. The word means “burning ones,” and the idea is that they are fire, that they are burning, and that they are bright and powerful. The stand, they fly, they hover in the very presence of God, and they are so powerful that when they speak the foundations of the temple shake, and yet not even they can look on God. And in humility they take two of their wings and cover their feet, and in humility they take two of their wings and they cover their eyes. God is truly a God of holiness and a God of glory because what they say shakes the foundations of the temple. Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh. He is not holy, he is not holy, holy, but Yahweh is holy, holy, holy. The three fold repetitions emphasizing, as feeble as words can do the job, emphasizing the fullness of God’s majesty and his wonder and his splendor and his power. A fullness that we have come to know as the trinity.
Holy is one of those words that is difficult to define. The basic meaning of ''holy'' is to be set apart for God’s special use. And so when we talk about us or our hands or our hands or our mouths, or whatever as being holy, negatively it means that we are separated from sin, positively it means that we are fully dedicated to God. That is what holy means when it is applied to us and to things. It is something else to try to use the word holy to describe God. Certainly in a negative sense, God being holy means that he is separate from all that is sin, but how do you positively describe what it means when it says “God is holy”. Well, it means that God is fully dedicated to himself. God is fully dedicated to his honor and glory, because there is nothing above God. There is nothing worthy of worship, there is nothing better, there is nothing sweeter, there is nothing more powerful than God, and so for God to be holy means that he is dedicated and committed to his glory because there is nothing greater, there is nothing more wonderful, there is nothing more splendid. He is absolute in all his perfections. I was checking John Piper’s sermon on this passage because he is better with words than I am, and even John gave up at this point. Let me read you what he says. “The possibilities of language to carry the meaning of God eventually run out and spill over the edge of the world into the vast unknown. Holiness carries us to the brink and from there the experience of God is beyond words. In the end, language runs out. In the word holy we have sailed to the worlds end in the utter silence of reverence and wonder and awe. And then he quotes Habakkak 2:20: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” God is a god of holiness, and in fact the whole earth is full of his glory. ''Glory'' is easier to define than holiness, and they are actually opposite sides of the same coin. Glory is the visible representation of God’s holiness. Whenever the Bible talks about getting a glimpse of God’s holiness what we see is glory, and his glory is seen as a bright light, as crashes of lightening, God’s glory is heard, his peels of thunder, as creation desperately tries to proclaim the glory and the holiness of God. Holiness and glory are the same thing, glory is holiness revealed. Holiness is glory kept silent. And it is the whole earth that is desperately trying to proclaim to you and to me that its creator is holy and that its creator is glorious. Every corner of the world is crying out desperately to describe the holiness of God, and it does not matter whether you look very small at the thousands of genetic codes locked up in the DNA double helix in every cell of your body, it does not matter whether you think about the myriad’s of strange fish that we probably will never see in the depths of the ocean that carry their own lights with them. It does not matter whether we look at the thousands of different kinds of flowers that declare the splendid glory of God in their variations and diversity. All of the earth, from every corner of the earth, we see God the creator being lavish in his splendor and we see the whole earth being full of his holiness and his glory. If only we had eyes of faith to see and ears of faith to hear so that when we look at the mountains in all their majesty, when we hear all the different ways that birds chirp, if only we had the eyes and ears of faith to see and hear and to be overwhelmed with the glory of our creator God. The whole earth is full of his glory. How big is your God? If only we could understand what Isaiah understood. How often do we consider God small. And through our sin and the limitations of our flesh, and our lack of vision and hearing, God shrinks. He loses power. He becomes unable to save, and he becomes irrelevant to our every day life. Our tendency is to give him Sunday morning as long as it is not summer. It is to give him our soul but not our life. (As if those were two different things.) But the God of Isaiah 6 is the God of creation who created reality merely by speaking. He is the Yahweh of the flood, who at a word covered the highest peaks with water. He is Yahweh who rescued his children from Egypt, who parted the Red Sea and brought them through. He is Yahweh who raises the dead, he is Yahweh who one day will destroy everything that you and I see and will create a new heaven and a new earth. This is the Yahweh before whom the seraphim speak and the foundations of the temple shake. How big is your God and is he truly a God of glory?
God of Judgment
God is not only the God of glory and holiness, he is also the God of judgment. Look how Isaiah responds in verse 5. Isaiah sees God and says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for a 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 Yahweh of hosts!” I am struggling this morning because words cannot describe this. I simply do not know how to describe this passage and my prayer is that God be at work in our hearts. So I am going mutter on, but it is not my words that can describe God. It is only the spirit working in yours. So please listen to Him. How does Isaiah respond to the God of judgment when he sees God for who he is? It is Isaiah’s sin that becomes illuminated. That when we see God’s glory we can see how we really look in our depravity, weakness and failures. When we see God we can not take our sin lightly. People who do not think sin is a big deal do not know God. They can’t! Because you cannot see God high and lifted up and think that sin is okay. Isaiah is not the only one that tells us this. It is all the way through the Bible. The children of Israel in Exodus 20 have seen the affects of God come down and are terrified. Moses gets the ten commandments in Exodus 20:18, “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightening, and the sound of the trumpet, and the mountains smoking, the people were afraid and trembled and they stood far off and said to Moses, 'You speak to us and we will listen but do not let God speak to us lest we die.'” See, they understood what it was to have a vision of God. Perhaps a side note, there are several possible sites for the place of Mt. Sinai. One of them is melted granite. Moses wanted to see the glory of God and God put Moses in the cleft of the rock and his glory passed by Moses and he said “you can only see the back of my glory Moses.” This happened in Exodus 34. How does Moses respond? He bowed his head towards the earth and worshiped. When Ezekiel was given his vision of God in the first chapter of the book verse 28 “he falls on his face”. When the apostle Thomas sees God standing before him with hands and feet pierced he says “My Lord and My God”. That is what happens when you see God. When we sing the song ''I See the Lord High and Lifted Up'', do we really want to see God high and lifted up? I doubt we ever will see him so this side of heaven, not in the Biblical sense. Not that many people saw God or his glory and in fact Jesus says that “no one has ever actually seen him.” Do we really want to see God high and lifted up? When we sing that song we had better be prepared to fall flat on our face, to lie prostrate before him, and to cry out in confession our sin. Woe is me for I am unclean and so is everyone around me. That is the only acceptable, Biblical response to seeing God. He is the God of glory but he is also the God of judgment who hates sin. And so will we when we are in his presence.
God of Salvation
God is also the God of salvation and restoration. We will talk more about this next week when we look at the suffering servant in Isaiah 52 and 53. The seed for those chapters is planted in verse 6-8. After Isaiah cries out saying, “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.' And 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.'” You cannot let the imagery of this passage go past unnoticed. The burning one takes a burning coal from God’s alter and he touches our lips and our guilt is removed, our sin is forgiven and we are called into service. Ignore the heading before verse 8 in your Bible. It is not suppose to be there. God in all his holiness in all of his glory, in all of his splendor, in all of his perfections, himself condescends to provide the means by which your and my dark ugly sinister sin can be taken away. I have done nothing to deserve it. I have nothing to help him. He does not ask for my help. I do not give it, I cannot give it. Woe is me. I am an unclean man living amongst and unclean people. All that I can do, and all that you can do is to cry out in your weakness, begging for the burning coal to be brought from God’s alter to touch your lips and to make you clean, and then for that God to condescend once again and to call you and me into the service of His glory. Of being fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. Not everyone responds like Isaiah responds. 700 years after Isaiah 6, this same glorious, majestic, holy God came to earth as a baby. He came for judgment and He came for salvation, and He was spit on, He was beaten, He was taunted, He was tortured, He was murdered and He was raised from the dead. Someday you and I will stand before this same Jesus and the book will be opened, and we will give an account for our life. I invite you, as I invite myself, to get ready. We are going to get ready by knowing that we will respond as Isaiah responded. We will see our sin and we will confess it. We will see his burning coals and we will receive it, and we will hear his call and my prayer for each one of us is that we will have answered that and that we will have said “Here I am, send me.” Send me as a missionary, send me to my neighbor, send me to my co-workers, send me to my family members, send me where ever you want God, but give me the opportunity to proclaim your majesty and your glory, and your power with words that fail but are empowered by the working of his spirit. May we be ready for that day and may we respond as Isaiah responds.
- What is the main point of the sermon today?
- What are some ways that we can describe the might and authority and power of God? Avoid using “religious” language that may be so familiar that it means almost nothing.
- Try to describe the “glory” and “holiness” of God without using those same words. What pictures can we paint in our mind’s eye that will help?
- God’s glory is all around us, in the infinite variety and splendor of His creation. Go out in nature, even if it is your back yard, and identify twenty things you see, hear, smell, and touch, all of which are common, but if seen through the attentive eyes of faith proclaim the glory of God. Don’t keep it to yourself, but share it with a friend, co-worker, or family member.
- How big is your God? What personal tendencies do you have that make God seem smaller? Worry? Busyness? Past hurts? What are you going to do about it?
- Have you ever been faced with the glory and majesty of God so that all you could see is your sin? What happened? Are you still as keenly aware of your sin, or have the images and feelings drifted into the past?
- Share the story of your conversion with someone. Do your children know? Neighbors? Friends? Have you thanked God recently for the knowledge that you have been forgiven, saved, and restored? Has your salvation propelled you into a life of service to the King, regardless of your specific job? What would it look like if you said to God, “Here I am. Send me” and He did?