What is God really like? In some ways, that is impossible to answer. In other ways, perhaps we have become overfamiliar with our own interpretations. Here, Tim Bulkeley takes a fresh look at Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God in Isaiah 6, and asks what it means for us.
When was the last time you looked at Isaiah 6? Grab your Bible and have a read. Then come back here after enjoying Isaiah’s vision and we’ll take a deeper look together.
What did you think? I love the sensory overload, sound, and drama of Isaiah’s vision in the temple. I also love the mystery, and not least the puzzling, paradoxical mission that the prophet is given. Let’s keep going.
Back in the day, one of my favourite hymns was “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” It is interesting to note that this hymn begins with descriptors like “immortal” and “invisible.” Writing teachers tell you to avoid negative descriptors depicting absent features, and this hymn starts with two-and-a-half in the first line. (I say two-and-a-half because I’m not quite sure if “God only wise” counts as a negative descriptor—it means God is the only one who is really wise.) But when you are describing God—God with a capital G; the maker of everything—then negative descriptors are almost what you are stuck with: God is not limited, not stupid, nor hateful. God is not like us. Nor is God an animal or a thing.
Of course, you can say what God is ‘like.’ God is like a king, or like a mother bear with her cubs. But then you need to qualify the simile and remember that God is not prone to flattery or favouritism as kings can be; nor is God savage and clumsy as bears can be. Trying to say what God is like soon has us back on the negative route as we remember that he is not really like anything we can describe at all.
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” also uses paradoxes in its attempt to speak the unspeakable mystery of God. God is described as “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” I love the apparent contradiction in the description of the uncreated light being so bright that we cannot see. That’s what God is like.
In the same way, Isaiah’s vision uses paradoxes and negative descriptors as it describes the wonder and mystery of God. If you enjoyed Isaiah’s account of what he saw, then you’ll get even more from it if you give me two minutes for a quick lesson in ancient history.
Isaiah 6 starts with a date - “the year that King Uzziah died” (Isaiah 6:1). That means little today; few of us even know who Uzziah was. But in Isaiah’s day, it was a watershed year. Uzziah had been a good king in Judah; strong and God-fearing. Not long after his death, a new, more powerful king began to rule in Assyria (the superpower in Mesopotamia to Judah’s east). King Tiglath Pileser III of Assyria, during his reign, defeated the rival nation of Babylon and extended his empire west to the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, the politics and survival of Judah depended on the events and decisions of Mesopotamian empires. Therefore, “the year that King Uzziah died” marked (with the benefit of hindsight as Isaiah remembers and retells his vision) the end of Judah’s independence and the start of her subservience to Assyria.
Fast-forward a number of years and Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson, was king of Judah. Isaiah 7 tells of efforts by the northern Hebrew kingdom (Israel), with Damascus (in Syria), to involve Ahaz in rebellion against Assyria. Isaiah counselled King Ahaz to trust God, but Ahaz accepted Assyrian ‘aid’ against Israel and Damascus instead. From then on, Judah was an Assyrian client state.
Placing the vision of chapter six just before the account in chapter seven suggests that Isaiah is telling us about his vision as he remembers it (at the time when King Ahaz was accepting dependency on Assyria instead of on God). As we read his vision, we know (as Isaiah knew) that the hope Ahaz had in Assyria to protect Judah’s independence was futile, and that by contrast the trust in God that King Uzziah showed is the only true path to lasting peace.
Read against this early imperial context, Isaiah saw God enthroned. Like all lords and kings, God is “high and lofty” (Isaiah 6:1). Well, they all are! Rulers sit on bigger chairs or stand on platforms so that they look more important. And yet, in a world with many lords and lots of kings, including a ‘king of kings’ (the emperor of Assyria), we see here that God is like no other lord or king—just the hem of his robe fills the temple in Jerusalem where the prophet was mourning the faithful King Uzziah.
Fiery, flying snakes
God—the creator of everything—is not, however, merely bigger than human dictators. God is also holy. That’s what the seraphim (flying, fiery snakes) shout at each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3). The rest of what they say proclaims God’s holiness. God’s reputation and authority—his glory—is everywhere. These seraphim shout about God’s holiness and glory so loudly that the building shakes and fills with smoke—their declaration causes an earthquake! (Isaiah 6:4) We sing in our worship songs about the holiness of God, but somehow it doesn’t seem to have the same effect! Indeed, the effect on (the respectable establishment figure of) the prophet Isaiah is quite dramatic too (Isaiah 6:5). Basically, he says: “Yikes, like the people around me, I am full of sin. Yet I’ve seen the king—Yhwh of hosts.” In response, one of the terrible seraphim purifies him with fire and burns away his guilt and shame.
At its heart, when the Bible talks about God’s holiness it is saying that God is ‘other.’ God is not like what we know and are comfortable with. If we think we really know God, then what we know is not God, but at best a mere shadow and at worst a caricature of who God really is. Holy makes you shake with fear and tremble with guilt. Holy is a fire that burns (Hebrews 12:29).
Terrific visions and terrible danger
If Isaiah’s vision in the temple does not give you a healthy fear of God’s terrific otherness, then join the procession as David leads the ark to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. Watch as someone reaches out a hand to steady the holy symbol of God’s presence (v.5)—it is surely terrible to watch them die beside the cart (v.6).
Or, read some of C.S. Lewis’ analogy of God’s holiness in Aslan the lion:
“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting
...“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; ...“Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe…” (1)
Another lesson on history and holiness
Actually, if we stop here we have told less than half the story. The Assyrians also talked of their chief god, Assur, in ways that sound surprisingly like Isaiah’s vision of the one God. Certainly Assur’s holiness was seen to be dangerous and ‘other’ and some of their texts (known to us since the late 1800s, but still being deciphered) seem to suggest that other ‘gods’ reveal aspects of Assur’s power. Words recorded from Assyrian prophets speak of all the gods, acting as one, appointing the king. In one prophecy, the speaker (on behalf of Assur) claims to be multiple gods: Bel (another name for Marduk, god of Babylon), Ishtar (the mother-goddess), and Nabu (god of writing). (2) Isaiah’s vision in the temple, describing the one lord who governs the whole world, might well have described a vision of Assur! We need to ask then, what distinguished Isaiah’s (and the rest of the Old Testament’s) understanding of God’s holiness from the cultural religious ideas of the day? For the Bible, it is a question of ethics and power.
The holiness of ethics
Assur’s prophecies, recorded in the Assyrian annals, support the human king and mostly defend the status quo. By contrast, Yhwh’s prophecies (recorded in Isaiah and the other prophetic books of the Bible) regularly criticise kings, and demand that structures of power and wealth be overruled. According to Yhwh’s prophets, those who abuse power to oppress or diminish the weak and powerless offend God’s holiness.
In Isaiah 5 (which prepares the ground for the vision of chapter six), Isaiah imagines a strange love song sung to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2) but calls the Judeans to judge between lover and vineyard (v.3). As the complex literary work reaches its conclusion, we learn that injustice and oppression by the powerful against the powerless offends God’s holiness and leads to destruction (Isaiah 5:7-15). By contrast, “the LORD of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness” (Isaiah 5:16). An earlier prophet, Amos, expressed it succinctly: such abuse of power causes God to declare “my holy name is profaned” (Amos 2:7).
From the laws of the Pentateuch to the last of the prophets, the writers of the Old Testament agree: God’s holiness requires human justice and mercy that reflects divine justice and mercy. Anything less offends the holiness of God!
The other side of the looking glass
In the New Testament, Paul says what we can know of God is like looking at a reflection in a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12). For Paul, mirrors were handmade sheets of polished metal; reflections were dim and distorted. Often in Scripture such dim and distorted glimpses of what God is like can be helped by offering a look at the other side of the sheet as well.
In Isaiah 40:10, we discover that God is like a conquering king returning with the spoils of battle. This is, however, only looking at one side of the mirror. What is seen using the other side is told in the next verse: God is like a shepherd feeding and leading his flock, and cuddling the little lambs. Either picture alone is terribly dim and distorted; together they lead us closer to the wonder and mystery of God.
In the case of God’s terrible otherness (his holiness), the other side of the mirror shows his love. From the start God comes down alongside his creatures to heal, correct, and protect. We see this ‘side’ of the picture supremely in Jesus. Yet even in Jesus one side of the mirror is not enough to see God. Jesus is gentle, meek, and mild. But we also see him thrash the money changers out of the temple with a fierce whip (John 2:14-15); we watch with the Gerasenes as Jesus sends demons into pigs who then jump off the cliff like lemmings (Luke 8:33-34); we listen as he warns that death by ‘concrete overshoes’ would be better than what is in store for some of his hearers (Mark 9:42); we observe him in the garden sweating drops of blood because of God’s terrible will (Luke 22:44).
God is not tame—God is holy
Let’s take a look again at C.S. Lewis’ analogy of God in Aslan the lion. When we are too comfortable in our knowledge of God and too secure in thoughts of his love, we need to remember that Aslan is not a tame lion! If our idea of God merely remembers and celebrates his love and providence, as too many of our songs suggest, then we need to be reminded of his holiness from the other side of the looking glass.
And yet if our sense of God’s holiness ends in fear, then we need to remember God’s goodness. For in Mr. Beaver’s exclamation that “’Course [Aslan] isn’t safe,” there is also a counter-reflection: “But he’s good.” (3)
I’ve written about God’s holiness from the Old Testament, but you will have noticed that I couldn’t help straying into the New Testament from time-to-time. The God of the Bible is one and the same—holy and loving, terrible and gentle—from start to finish.
Story: Tim Bulkeley
Tim is a senior lecturer in Old Testament at the Australian College of Ministries where he teaches by distance from a lifestyle block in the bush of Otanewainuku, Bay of Plenty. Previously he taught at Carey Baptist College and in Congo. He podcasts at 5minuteBible.com.
- When have you been most aware of God’s holiness?
- Have you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Reflect on the parts of the story that remind you that although Aslan is good, he is not a tame lion.
- God’s holiness is quite ‘other’ and even dangerous. Where in contemporary worship is our delight in God’s loving kindness balanced by a sense of awful otherness?
- Where might God be calling you to reflect his holiness?
1. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 79-80.
2. James Bennett Pritchard and Daniel E. Fleming, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Woodstock and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 398.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, 80.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.