“And the angels called to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.’ And I cried, ‘Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live amongst a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:3, 5)
John Calvin, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, began his famous Institutes as follows: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Here, in Isaiah’s scene of God’s throne-room, we have a magnificent revelation of the Lord’s character and a damning insight into our own.
Isaiah saw many things in this throne-room, but perhaps the most striking of them all was the posture of the angels. Although they were exalted beings, they still needed to shield their faces and feet in the Lord’s presence. A mere glimpse of God’s majesty filled them with awe and a profound sense of sin.
But it was not this sight alone which troubled him. It was their testimony about God’s holiness that unnerved him. Knowing the holy God left the angels prostrate in His presence. Three times the angels refer to God as ‘holy’. This threefold repetition was a literary device in Hebrew to emphasize the ‘otherness’ of God. Holiness refers not simply to God’s moral purity, but also to His exalted singularity and His transcendence over the creation. God is altogether different from us and His exalted nature is meant to fill us with awe.
If God’s holiness had this effect on the angels, it certainly had it on Isaiah the prophet. While it’s a mark of our age that God weighs inconsequentially upon us, it was certainly not so with Isaiah. He was undone in the presence of the holy God.
Unfortunately, Isaiah’s response is not typical amongst church-goers today. While he and the angels were shattered in their encounter with God, many believers today still feel supremely self-confident. “God’s okay; we’re okay.” This is due to the fact that we really don’t know Him. If we did, we would, like all His saints, be undone in His presence. However, we are so committed to feeling good about ourselves and protecting our self-esteem that God’s revelation of Himself as altogether holy is completely lost on us. Thus we are more worried about being burnt in the court of public opinion than being burnt in hell.
The angels and the prophet have got it right. The big issue that we all face is how we can live in the presence of a holy God and how we can endure in the midst of everlasting burning (Isa 33:14)?