3 – The Fearful Mystery
The Bible uses the word holy in more than one way. It has been customary to define holy as “purity, free from every stain, wholly perfect and immaculate in every detail.” Purity is the first word most of us think of when we hear the word holy. To be sure the Bible does use the word this way, but this is at best the secondary meaning of the word in the Bible. When the seraphim sang their song, they were saying far more than God was “purity, purity, purity.”
The primary meaning of holy is “separate.” It comes from an ancient word that meant “to cut” or “to separate.” The word holy also refers to transcendence, which means “to climb across.” It is defined as “exceeding usual limits.” To transcend is to rise above something. When we speak of the transcendence of God we are talking about that sense of which God is far above and beyond us. It refers to His supreme and absolute greatness in relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature.
When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way. The same applies when the Bible refers to things as holy: holy ground, holy Sabbath, holy convocation, holy nation, holy tithe, holy word, holy ones, holy of holies, etc. In every case the word holy refers to things that set apart and separated from the rest. They have been consecrated (declared or set apart as sacred), separated from the commonplace, unto the Lord and His service.
None of the things in the list is holy in itself. To become holy they must first be consecrated, or “sanctified” by God. Whatever is holy carries a peculiar character. It has been separated from a common use. It may not be touched; it may not be eaten; it may not be used for common matters. It is special.
Where does purity come in? When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as being set apart or separated. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. Holy means purity and transcendence.
We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes: God is spirit, loving, just, merciful, all-knowing, etc. The tendency is to add the word holy to this long list. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute, but it is used as a general term for all His attributes. His love is holy love, His justice is holy justice, His mercy is holy mercy, His knowledge is holy knowledge, His spirit is holy spirit.
God can “reach down” and consecrate things in this world and make them holy. His touch on the common makes the common suddenly uncommon. Nothing in this world is holy in itself. Only God can make something holy. Only God can consecrate.
Rudolf Otto, a German scholar, attempted to study the holy in a scientific way. First, he found that people have a difficult time describing the holy. There was something extra that defied explanation and could not be put into words. He called the holy the mysterium tremendum, the “awful mystery, because of the fear that the holy provokes in us.
He found that the clearest sensation that a human being has when he experiences the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness. That is, when we are in the presence of God, we are humbled and become most aware of ourselves as creatures. This is the opposite of Satan’s original temptation, “You shall be as gods.”
There is a special kind of phobia from which we all suffer. It is called xenophobia, which is a fear (and sometimes a hatred) of strangers or foreigners or anything that is strange or foreign. God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia. He is the ultimate stranger. He is holy and we are not. We fear God because He is holy. It is a servile fear, born of dread. God is too great for us; He is too awesome. He makes difficult demands on us. He threatens our security. In His presence we quake and tremble.