The Terrifying Holiness of God

Starting September 7, Victory Tacloban will start a three-week series on the holiness of God (Victory Metro Manila and other Victory centers start this weekend, August 31). The importance of this topic could not be overstated. We live in a time when people generally think of God as their pal, someone they could have drinks with. We no longer think of God as terrifyingly holy. This series is an attempt to address that. Drew Dyck, in his book Yawning at Tigers, describes the holiness of God in striking details. Quoting from Isaiah 6, he writes:

Woe to me! . . . 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. –Isaiah 6:5

What was happening to Isaiah? R. C. Sproul explained: “What Isaiah was expressing is what modern psychologists describe as the experience of personal disintegration.” In other words, he was falling apart, having a breakdown, freaking out. Isaiah’s reaction may seem odd, but before we label him a coward, consider how German theologian Rudolf Otto described such encounters in his classic, The Idea of the Holy. Otto coined a term for what Isaiah experienced— the mysterium tremendum, the overwhelming mystery. Or as Otto put it, “the mystery before which men tremble.” According to Otto, holiness includes “absolute unapproachability . . . absolute overpoweringness . . . awful majesty.”

At this point we might expect the seraphim to swoop down and comfort Isaiah. Maybe even throw an arm around his shoulder and say, “Calm down, Isaiah. What’s all this talk about unclean lips? God’s cool with you just the way you are.”

That’s what I would expect to happen. After all, Isaiah was the godliest person in Israel. He was chosen to be the very mouthpiece of the Lord. Why would he be in danger of death because he caught a glimpse of God?

But the angels didn’t seem to share my perspective. They did little to assuage Isaiah’s fears. In fact, they seemed to acknowledge the gravity of his predicament. It was not safe for him, a sinful mortal, to behold the unmediated glory of God.

Death or cleansing— these were the only two solutions for Isaiah’s predicament. Fortunately for Isaiah, the seraphim chose the latter.

Then one of the seraphim 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.” (vv. 6– 7)

Finishing this passage feels like waking from a dream . . . or a nightmare. Odd creatures, a trembling temple filled with smoke, and at the center of it all, the Lord Almighty, devastating in his glory. Harder to look at than the sun. What a vision! What a powerful, lofty image of God!