In chapter 42, of Herman Melville’s great American novel Moby Dick, Ishmael reflects on the whiteness of the whale. He makes a lengthy argument that ‘whiteness’ is normally characteristic of beauty and purity, like in a pearl or the whiteness of untouched snow. Yet, when it came to Moby Dick, that great albino whale, it was precisely his whiteness that appalled Ishmael the most. Why? Because it didn’t lead him to thoughts of beauty of purity, it led to him to believe the whale was wholly other than any other creature of the deep, a singular and incomparable monster created in Leviathan like manner to bring ruin onto men…and in the face of such ghastly grandeur, Ishmael felt like nothing.
In all the reading the late Dr. R.C. Sproul did in his life, he said it was here in chapter 42 of Moby Dick that he felt like he was reading Isaiah 6 where the unholiness of mankind is felt in comparison to the majesty of God’s holiness. Such things are good for us to feel. I say all this because this morning we’re beginning a summer sermon series on holiness. We’ve titled it HOLINESS: Distinct From the World – Distinct For the World.There is much more to explain about this but for today, it is our hope to present one thing and one thing only: the holiness of God. To do so there is no better place for us cast out into this ocean than Isaiah 6.
Let’s slowly walk through it and point out five glory’s God gives us here.
First, the Context.
“In the year that King Uzziah died…” In the 52 years King Uzziah reigned the people of God enjoyed prosperity and ease. It was such a prosperous time that King Uzziah began to grow prideful and the people followed suit.They began growing dull, a spiritual decline set in, and everyone began to feel it (2 Kings 15, 2 Chronicles 26). Interesting to note that in the same year King Uzziah died another great city was founded in Italy on the banks of Tiber River, the city of Rome. So in the same year that King Uzziah was dying and the people of God began to decline and the city of Rome was founded and began flourishing, it’s during this year that Isaiah is called into ministry by a stunning revelation of God’s holy glory.
Second, the King
It is not a mere detail that the King died. Isaiah wants us to see a contrast here. As the earthly King expires Isaiah saw the Greater King still ruling and reigning on His heavenly throne. This would’ve encouraged Isaiah that God’s purposes continue for His people even when the nation’s ruler dies and the nation despairs. It would’ve reminded Isaiah that God is not undone by what undoes man.It also would’ve reminded him that while all men come and go God remains forever. Psalm 29 says it, “The Lord sat enthroned as King over the flood, the Lord sits enthroned as King forever.” Psalm 90:2 echoes it, “…from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” This means there will never come a time when God is not. Regardless if Time magazine proclaimed God to be dead in 1966, He remains (!) and always will. John Piper once said God, “…will be living ten trillion ages from now when all the puny attempts against his reality will have sunk into oblivion like bb’s at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.”Or in other words, God not only deserves to reign supreme, He does reign supreme. No one makes Him Lord, He is Lord forevermore!
6:1 says Isaiah “…saw the Lord sitting on the throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple.” Isaiah did not see this glorious vision of a god sitting in a field, or on white shores, or in a flowery mountain side. He saw Him on His throne. This is raw authoritative majesty that will never change. We all know what this means when it speaks of the train of God’s robe. In a wedding the train of the bride’s dress is long for a reason, it signifies the beauty of the bride. It exists to make much of her. I can still remember standing up front seeing the doors in the back of the church swing open to reveal Holly in her wedding gown, walking down the aisle. It was a sight to see, it was gripping, captivating, beautiful, and magnificent to behold. The train of her dress flowed behind her, and the whole moment seemed to be filled with wonder and awe. Similarly, when we see the train of God’s robe filling the temple we’re meant to see and feel similar things. It is meant to signify the magnificence of His beauty. It doesn’t merely take a few people to hold His train, God’s robe spills out over the sides of His throne, moving across the floor, completely engulfing the whole of the heavenly temple! Lesson? His majesty is unparalleled. His beauty is unequaled. His splendor is unending.
Third, the Seraphim
6:2 mentions creatures called seraphim who are standing above the throne. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. The word “serapim” means “burning ones.” This is telling because the word refers to both the fiery angelic beings themselves and what they were created by God to do – burn in worship before the Lord of hosts! These seraphim are not mere mosquitoes buzzing around the throne or fat baby like angels with a cute bow and arrow. They are heavenly angelic fiery beings worshipping the only One worthy of worship. These are creatures that if we were to see them we would think that we had died and were standing before God Himself. There’s a reason every time an angel shows up the firsts words they say are “Don’t be afraid.” They, in themselves, are a sight to behold, they’re terrifying, but not nearly as terrifying or awe-some as the One who made them.
6:3 says, “One called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory!” The significance of the anthem of the angels is massive. The Jewish people had various ways to express emphasis in their literature, and they used these expressions in the Bible. We do the same today to emphasize things: we may use italics, we may put a word in all caps or bold letters to draw attention to it, or maybe even attach very intense or alarming descriptive adjectives to the word we want to emphasize to get attention. Isaiah did the same and in his culture the way to communicate supreme importance was repetition. See here in v3 a rare threefold repetition, so rare even has been given the name the Trisagion (thrice holy song). Notice how 6:3 is phrased? The seraphim cry out in response to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What does this mean? This means first what it says, that God is holy. But it means more. In all of the Scripture from Genesis – Revelation this verse is the only place where we see an attribute of God raised to the third degree. God is not just “holy”, He’s not just “holy, holy”, He’s “holy, holy, holy.” Nowhere do we see the Bible say that God is sovereign, sovereign, sovereign – or love, love, love – or mercy, mercy, mercy – or righteous, righteous, righteous – or just, just, just. Nowhere in Scripture do we see an attribute of God have such importance.
Now I am aware that it is dangerous and bad theology to try to pit one attribute of God against another, or to try and assemble a hierarchy of attributes so as to make one more important than others. This is an error people make all the time. In talking with others about God’s character, especially when we’re talking about His sovereignty or justice, or wrath, I often hear people say, “I don’t believe that, my God is a God of love, He would never do such a thing.” Well surely God is a God of love, but just as we can’t come to the Bible as if it were a cafeteria line, putting things on our plate only if they are pleasing to our tastes, leaving the others we don’t like…so too we can’t come to the Bible on our terms but on its terms. We cannot construct a hierarchy of attributes as if one were more important than others, BUT if the Bible shows us that out of all the attributes of God there is one that rises to the top – we must believe it. Such is the holiness of God. The use of the threefold repetition of Holy, Holy, Holy teaches us that the one defining characteristic of God’s nature is His holiness; it is who He is. Therefore we must speak of all of God’s attributes underneath God’s holiness. His love is a holy love, His wrath is a holy wrath, His mercy is a holy mercy, His justice is a holy justice, and so on, and so on.
But notice the lyrics of the song as it continues. When it says in 6:3, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” why does it not say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His holiness?” If holiness is the one defining characteristic of God, why does it say the earth full of God’s glory and not His holiness? It would seem then, that the text is implying that there is a connection between God’s holiness and God’s glory. What is that connection? Based on this passage, the Glory of God is the holiness of God put on public display. When the holiness of God fills the earth for people to see, it is called glory. Or think of it like this, the basic meaning of holy is “separate” from what is common. You see God is unique, there is none like Him, He is one of a kind. We value gold and diamonds over tin and copper because they’re rare or uncommon. Since God is one of a kind, since there is none like Him, since He is separate, since He is holy – God is infinitely precious and valuable above all other things. When His infinite value is put on display before the eyes of the seraphim and Isaiah, they call it “Glory!” So, God’s glory is the radiance (or the shining-forth) of his holiness, the out-streaming of His incomparable worth.Nothing is more beautiful than this, nothing is greater than this. His glory is so immense that though we see 6:3 say it fills the whole earth we can be sure the whole of the universe isn’t large enough to contain this majestic glory. But though the earth can’t fully contain it, the whole earth does truly display it. Indeed all of creation is the theater of the glory of God. That the holy glory of our holy God fills the earth to the brim means it is God’s will to make all the earth an extension of His heavenly throne room. Habakkuk longed for this day when the “…earth would be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).The evidence that God is actually doing this is everywhere, in fact there is so much evidence of God’s glory in what He has made in creation Paul says in Romans 1:19-20 that all men are without excuse. The beauty of a sunrise, the calm of a sunset, the vastness of the oceans, the immense expanse of the skies, the cry of a baby, the friendship between two people, the love between a husband and wife. Ever since Genesis 1 when God said “Let there be light” it seems that there has been a kind of symphony to behold in all of creation, which all that has been made joins in on. When was the last time you noticed it? When was the last time you remembered that you were made walk in step with this great song of Glory?!
Fourth, the Prophet
We see Isaiah’s response to the scene unfolding before him in 6:4-5, “And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost (ruined, undone); for 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 of hosts!”
Immediately we see the foundations of the heavenly temple shaking in response to the vibrant worship happening before the King. Their worship was intense, their worship was deep, their worship was white-hot! Friends, do you shake? Do you tremble when you worship the King? Is there a reverent fear when we worship? We need to be rebuked. Nowhere throughout the whole of the Bible do we see anyone coming into contact with God and leave that meeting feeling disinterested! The whole temple shook with worship, it filled with smoke, and yet here as we worship in this room and what do we do? Stand here unmoved by the glory of God, think about checking Facebook, take a sip of coffee, give a tip to God in the offering plate, start itching to leave early to see the game? Far too many of us are duped into thinking that God’s glory, God’s holiness, God’s perfections, beauty, majesty, and awe are not practical – so we avoid these things and deprive ourselves the richest resource to feed our souls! Pragmatist’s do not linger over the glory of God, only those who’ve seen it and savored it linger on this the greatest of all things. Jonathan Edwards did this and from it he concluded that, “One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of his sweet grace and love will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than anything else.” God is ultimate reality, there is no One more real, there is no reality more practical than Him.
But did you notice that we don’t only see the foundations of the temple shaking? We see Isaiah shaking too. When Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up, shining forth in all the beauty of His infinite and incomparable glory, Isaiah gained knowledge of two things: for the first time in Isaiah’s life he found out who God was, and for the first time in Isaiah’s life he found out who Isaiah was as he was deconstructed in God’s presence. As opposed to the angelic beings pure worship of God Isaiah knew he was utterly different, opposite even, being a ruined man of unclean lips dwelling among a people of unclean lips. The Hebrew word for glory means ‘weight’ and upon seeing the weight of God’s holiness Isaiah’s knees could no longer support him.
Therefore, the first oracle, or prophetic announcement Isaiah delivers as the prophet of God is not delivered against Babylon, Moab, Egypt, Philistia, or even Israel – the first oracle the prophet Isaiah pronounces in his ministry is against himself. We can be sure that some modern psychologist would say this is an example of someone with low self-esteem and that this is a bad thing for us to emulate. I am 100% positive that Isaiah lost all self-esteem when he gazed upon the Lord of glory, and that it was a best thing that ever could’ve happened to him – for in that moment he gained God-esteem that could never be taken away from him, and would prove to be the foundation of all his life and thought regardless of what life’s circumstances threw his way. This affected Isaiah deeply and from here on out his preferred title for God is ‘the Holy One of Israel.’Church, nothing that reveals the unholiness of man like the holiness of God. It’s like comparing the brightness of a small match to the blazing light of the sun. Sin rightly seen isn’t just damaging to man, it is dishonoring to God.
John Calvin said it like this, “We see men who in God’s absence normally remain firm and constant, but who, when taken before the manifest glory of God, are so shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death…man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”
Fifth, the Pardon
After the woe he pronounces upon himself we read in 6:6-7, “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.” While worshiping, one of the seraph’s moves away from the throne and comes near Isaiah holding a burning coal he took from the altar. It isn’t hot because it’s burning, it’s hot because it’s holy. And when the heat of the coal’s holiness touches the unholiness of Isaiah’s mouth it doesn’t hurt him, it heals him.In this moment the transcendent God showed Himself to also be the immanent God with Isaiah. This doesn’t make sense. I mean, what judge in Pasco county would keep his job if he forgave sin and didn’t punish lawbreakers? As a judge you can’t just sweep sin under the rug. How much more is at stake when it is God, the just Judge of all the universe, taking away sin from Isaiah? This coal was taken from the altar of atonement, and with it God removed the sin of Isaiah, as far as the east is from the west, so much so that Isaiah himself can say in his own book “though your sins be like scarlet, God can make you white as snow” (Isa. 1:18).
This doesn’t make sense – until we read John 12:41. John says in 12:41, “Isaiah said these things because he saw His glory and spoke of Him.” What does this mean? What did John just say? He said very simply, and clearly, that when Isaiah saw the Lord high and exalted, sitting on His throne, watching the train of His robe fill the temple, beholding angelic beings worship Him crying Holy, Holy, Holy – John is saying that Isaiah saw the glory of Jesus, was deconstructed by Jesus, and was forgiven and healed by Jesus. Then Isaiah would spend the rest of his life using those forgiven and healed lips to proclaim the glories he’s just beheld.
The pattern remains the same for us. Remember, God’s glory is the radiance (or the shining-forth) of his holiness, the out-streaming of His incomparable worth. In whom does the glory of God shine out of in the clearest and greatest manner possible? His Son. Therefore, Jesus, the Son of God, is infinitely precious and valuable above all other things because He is as Hebrews 1:3 states, “the exact representation of God’s being, and the radiance of the glory of God.” When we see His glory we must be deconstructed, we must be shocked almost speechless that the Holy Christ would die for His people on the cross and come to that fountain to be washed white as snow. Then we must spend the rest of our lives spreading and proclaiming His good news for sinners like us.
Nothing is more beautiful than this, nothing is more practical for your life than this, “One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of his sweet grace and love will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than anything else.”
This is our Holy God.
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., Isaiah: God Saves Sinners – Preaching the Word Commentary, page 76.
Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah – Vol. 1 chapters 1-18, page 235.
Bryan Chapell, The God We Worship – God’s Glory Revealed, page 3.
John Piper, Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts, sermon from 1/1/1984 accessed via desiringgod.org on 6/5/18.
Alec Motyer, Isaiah – TOTC, page 81. See also Piper, sermon cited above.
Andrew Davis, Isaiah – Christ Centered Exposition, page 40.
Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament – Vol. 7, page 192-193.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.3 (page 39 in the Battles two volume edition).