Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was pastor of an Anglican Church in the tiny village of Hodnet, England; in fact, he ministered at the same church once led by his father. Between 1811 and 1821, Reginald wrote 57 hymns, which he longed to see published. However, the Anglicans hadn’t yet adopted the singing of hymns in worship. In 1823 his superiors reassigned Heber to the mission field, so he packed away his hymns in an old family trunk and sailed to India.
Heber labored with intensity on foreign soil for a few short years before passing away at age 42. He never had the joy of hearing congregations sing his hymns. However, a few years later Heber’s widow was rummaging through that old trunk and found his long-forgotten songs of praise. Heber’s hymns were eventually published and at least one is still famous to this day:
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Only Thou art holy;
there is none beside Thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.”
Heber was inspired to write that hymn after reading the incredible passage recorded in Isaiah 6 where the prophet gets an earth-shattering vision of God on His throne:
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Notice the three-fold refrain of the angelic beings focuses on God’s holiness. Admittedly, we don’t hear much preaching these days about God’s holiness. If you had to define this indispensable divine attribute, how would you do it?
The Hebrew word for holy, qodesh, is a term that means “separate from.” Put another way, God is “wholly other than” everything else in existence. This means that God is totally and utterly distinct from all creation and evil. Morally, this means that God is pure and cannot tolerate sin. God is the standard by which everything else is measured and His holiness puts Him in a class alone.
Admittedly, when preachers and theologians search for adequate illustrations to convey the concept of God’s holiness we are always at a loss for words. Even our best writing and thinking becomes quite beggarly. A.W. Tozer once described the problem of talking intelligently about God’s holiness like this:
“Neither the writer nor the reader of these words is qualified to appreciate the holiness of God. Quite literally a new channel must be cut through the desert of our minds to allow the sweet waters of truth that will heal our great sickness to flow in. We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. 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. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness He cannot even imagine.”
The subject of God’s holiness is not only intriguing, but utterly terrifying. As believers we desire to know what God is like, yet if we were actually to be put directly into God’s throne room we would find ourselves in what R.C. Sproul called “the trauma of holiness.” The reason is because the closer we mortals get to this holy God the more His purity reveals our iniquity.
God is not just holy, but thrice holy. The holiness of God is the only attribute of his character that is repeated three times in the Bible. God is never referred to as love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy. Because God is holy, everything else about Him filtered through that single attribute—His love is a holy love, his wrath is a holy wrath, his goodness is a holy goodness.
Smoke billowed forth from the temple and even the furniture and inanimate objects in the temple began to quake and shudder because of God’s power (Is. 6:4). Isaiah had never seen a light and sound show like this before and he was reminded, rather forcefully, that the crown and scepter may have fallen from the throne of Uzziah, but God was still on His throne.
Isaiah’s only natural response in this scene is to declare judgment upon himself, “Woe is me! For I am lost; 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!” (Is. 6:5).
In a single moment all of his self-image was completely shattered. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of himself. However, the instant he compared himself to the Ultimate Standard, he was utterly ruined.
R.C. Sproul in his book, The Holiness of God has written: “The clearest sensation that human beings have when they experience the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness. That is, when we aware of the presence of God, we become most aware of ourselves as creatures. When we meet the Absolute, we know that we are not absolute. When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite. When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal. To meet God is a powerful study in contrasts.”
It is said that the great Scottish preacher F. B. Meyer was visiting one of his parishioners on a cold afternoon. It was washday, and the clothes were on the line. It began to snow, and soon the clothes did not look so white against the background of the snow. When Meyer remarked about it, the old Scottish landlady cried, “Sir, what can stand against God Almighty's white!”
Getting close to God can be quite painful and uncomfortable, because His character reveals our corruption. If you think getting close to God is going to be an easy and enjoyable process you are dead wrong. It will shatter your self-concept, annihilate your notions of righteousness and leave you spiritually broken. God’s holiness shows us all our sin in high definition. Thankfully, there is way into His presence—the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
Were in not for the imputed righteousness of Jesus, sinners like you and me would be vaporized by a thrice holy God. Without Christ, we might as well try standing on the sun than to approach this holy God on our own merits. “For God hath made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21) –DM