2 – Holy, Holy, Holy
The records of the lives of the prophets reads like a history of martyrs. The life expectancy of a prophet was that of a Marine lieutenant in combat. When it is said of Jesus that He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, it is clear that He stood in a long line of men whom God had appointed to such suffering. The prophet’s curse was solitude; his home was often a cave.
Such a man was Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah was unusual. Most prophets were of humble origins: peasants, shepherds, farmers. Isaiah was of nobility. He was a recognized statesman, having access to the royal court of his day. God used him to speak to several monarchs of Judah.
What set a prophet of Israel apart from other men was the sacred nature of his call. His call was not from men. He could not apply for the job. He had to be selected—chosen directly and immediately by God. And the call was sovereign; it could not be refused. Jonah tried, but failed. Jeremiah sought to resign after a term in this office, but God refused to accept his resignation. The job of a prophet was for life. There was no quitting or retiring with pension.
When the word Lord appears in the Bible in lower case letters, it refers to the word Adonai, which means “sovereign one.” It is not the name of God. It is a title for God, indeed the supreme title given to God in the Old Testament. When the word LORD appears in capital letters, that is the word Jahweh. This is the sacred name of God, where as the lowercase Lord is simply a title. Normally this word occurs only with the use of its four consonants—yhwh, the unspeakable four letters to the Jew.
When Isaiah came to the temple, there was a crisis of sovereignty in the land. King Uzziah had just died. The eyes of Israel were then opened to see the real King of the nation. Isaiah saw God seated on the throne, the sovereign one.
Men are not allowed to see the face of God. The Scriptures warn us that no man can see God and live. God allowed Moses to see his back, but never His face. Then when Moses returned from the mountain, his face was shining. The people were terrified, and they shrunk away from him in terror. Moses’ face was too dazzling for them to look upon. If people are terrified by the sight of the reflected glory of the back of God, how can anyone stand to gaze directly in His holy face?
1 John 3:2 says we will indeed be able to look at God’s holy face: “…for we shall see Him as He is.” That is God’s promise to us, but right now it is impossible. Before that can happen, we must be purified. Jesus said who would be able to see God in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” None of us in this world is pure in heart. It is our impurity that prevents us from seeing God. Our problem is not with our eyes, it is with our hearts.
“Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.”
The seraphim are not sinful men, but even as angelic beings they are still creatures and they must shield their eyes from looking directly at the face of God. They also cover their feet, as Moses did when God told him in Exodus 3:5: “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” The ground was made holy by the presence of God. The seraphim and Moses are both created by God and must cover their feet in God’s holy presence.
“And one cried to another, and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the earth is full of his glory.’”
The significance of the repetition of the word holy can be easily missed. Repetition was a form of emphasis in the Hebrew language, similar to how we would highlight, underline, or use boldface or italics. We see Jesus’ use of repetition with the words, “Truly, truly, I say unto you…” Here the double use of the word truly was a sign that He was about to say was of crucial importance. The word translated “truly” is the ancient word amen. Amen isn’t just something said at the end of a prayer, it simply means, “It is true.”
On a handful of occasions the Bible repeats something to the third degree. To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree. Only once in Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy or justice, justice, justice.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “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.”
Jesus also used the word woe. When He spoke out in angry denunciation of the Pharisees He pronounced the judgment of God upon their heads by saying to them, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
On the lips of a prophet the word woe is an announcement of doom, but Isaiah’s use of the word was extraordinary. When he saw the Lord and cried, “Woe is me!” he pronounced the judgment of God upon himself. When he said, “I am ruined,” that phrase is better translated, “For I am undone.” To be undone means to come apart at the seams, to be unraveled. It can also mean to disintegrate, to not be a unified whole or to no longer have integrity.
If ever there was a man of integrity it was Isaiah. He was respected as a paragon of virtue. Then he caught one sudden glimpse of a Holy God. In that brief moment all his self-esteem was shattered. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his own character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed. He was undone. He came apart. His sense of integrity collapsed.
The sudden realization of ruin was linked to Isaiah’s mouth. He cried, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Why is this focus on his mouth? Jesus said, “It’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles a man, it’s what comes out of his mouth that defiles him.”
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…no man can tame the tongue…With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men…”
We are fortunate in one respect: God does not appear to us in the way He appeared to Isaiah. God showed Isaiah his corruption all at once. No wonder that he was ruined. Isaiah explained it this way: “My eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” He saw the holiness of God. For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah 6:6, 7
Isaiah was looking for a place to hide, but there was nowhere to hide. He was naked and alone before God. Relentless guilt screamed from his every pore. But the holy God is also a God of grace. He refused to allow His servant to continue on his belly without comfort. He had the seraph cleanse Isaiah by taking the hot coal and burning Isaiah’s lips. This was a severe mercy, a painful act of cleansing.
In this divine act of cleansing Isaiah experienced a forgiveness that went beyond the purification of his lips. He was cleansed throughout, forgiven to the core, but not without the awful pain of repentance. He went beyond cheap grace and the easy utterance, “I’m sorry.” He was in mourning for his sin, overcome with moral grief, and God sent an angel to heal him and take his sin away.
“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Isaiah’s vision took on a new dimension. Now for the first time he had heard the voice of God. There is a pattern here, a pattern repeated over and over again in history: God appears, man quakes in terror, God forgives and heals, God sends. From brokenness to mission is the pattern for man.
God asked, “Whom shall I send?” To be sent meant to function as an emissary for God, to be a spokesman for the deity. The word apostle means “one who is sent.” God was able to take a shattered man and send him into the ministry. He took a sinful man and made him into a prophet. He took a man with a dirty mouth and made him God’s spokesman.
No minister is worthy of his calling. Every preacher is vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. In fact, the more faithful a preacher is to the Word of God in his preaching, the more liable he is to the charge of hypocrisy. Why? Because the more faithful a man is to the Word of God the higher the message is that he will preach. The higher the message the further he will be from obeying it himself.
Because I preach about holiness, some people mistakenly assume that I must be as holy as the message I preach. That’s when I want to cry, “Woe is me.” There is irony here. I am sure that the reason I have a deep hunger to study God’s holiness is because I am not holy. But I have had just enough of a taste of the majesty of God to want more. I know what it means to be a forgiven man and what it means to be a man sent on a mission. My soul cries for more. My soul needs more.