11Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you - majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders? 12You stretched out your right hand and the earth swallowed them. 13In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling. 14The nations will hear and tremble; anguish will grip the people of Philistia. 15The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; 16terror and dread will fall upon them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone - until your people pass by, O LORD, until the people you bought pass by. 17You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance - the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established. 18The LORD will reign for ever and ever.
1I saw in heaven another great and marvellous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues - last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. 2And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. 4Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
The Bible is full of songs of praise, and the two readings we have today are the first and last songs recorded in Scripture.
The focus of both these songs of praise are on the Holiness of God.
God had destroyed any notion that Egypt’s false gods were anything other than the figments of the imaginations of those who worshipped them. After the 10 plagues He led His people from slavery, then parted the Red Sea and destroyed the Egyptian army. Moses then led the nation of Israel in a song celebrating God’s holiness, recorded in Exodus chapter 15. Verse 11 perfectly encapsulates the gist of the song: “Who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you - majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?”
As we go to the other end of the Bible, the Apostle John was given a divine glimpse into the future, and he saw a moment when the final outpouring of the wrath of God was about to take place. He was given a vision of the saints in Heaven whose faith and allegiance to God in defiance of the rule of the antichrist had cost them their lives. And John tells us that they “sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: ‘Great and marvellous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
The similarity of these hymns of praise is no coincidence. In between Exodus 15 and Revelation 15, God’s holiness comes up over and over again.
The word ‘holy’ is used more often as a prefix to God’s name than any other adjective. Two men in Scripture – the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle John - were permitted to see into the throne room of heaven and write about it, and both reported hearing the same continuous refrain, sung day and night. Isaiah 6:2-3 says, “Above Him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory.’”
And John wrote in Revelation 4:8, “Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’”
This is the only thing said about God in this fashion. No other attribute of His is repeated three times. To mention something three times in succession is to emphasise it to the superlative degree.
There are only two instances in the Bible where an attribute of God is elevated to the third degree. Only twice is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession: in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. But it does say that He is holy, holy, holy.
We began this theme last Sunday and are continuing with it this morning. We simply have to get into our minds the vast chasm that exists between the awesome holiness, holiness, holiness of God and sinful human beings. Until such time as we have some idea of just how far we have fallen, we will never fully appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus. We have to understand just something of what God has taken us from, and what He is taking us to in and through our Saviour Jesus Christ. There’s an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, and that is certainly true. Most of us have heard countless sermons on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. One of the best ways to guard against taking the Gospel for granted is to take time out and remember just who we are and how far we have fallen, and just who this Holy God is, and how far He has gone in order to save us from eternal damnation.
The Bible tells us that Job was blameless and upright. He was a man who feared God and shunned evil, but when he finally understood who he was in comparison to the holy nature of God, all he could do was to confess, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)
What brought Job, a blameless and upright man to such a confession? Or what about Isaiah? He was a man of God, yet he was reduced to the point of saying, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)
The short answer is that they were exposed to just something of the holiness of God, but what does it mean to say God is holy?
To be holy is to be distinct, separate and unique.
The basic meaning of holy in the Bible is to cut away or to separate. When we speak of something or someone being superior to the norm we might say that it is “a cut above the rest.”
When we say God is holy, we’re not talking about one characteristic out of many about God. We’re actually talking about the character of God Himself. Holiness, when applied to God, means that He is utterly unique, incomparable, matchless, without parallel and without peer.
In Isaiah 40:25, God Himself challenges us by asking, “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” The only answer we have is, “No-one. There is no comparison.”
God is not just a better version of you or me. He is transcendently separate. He is in a class by Himself. He is subject to nothing. He answers to no one. This is who our Holy God is.
Hannah rejoiced when God answered her prayer for a son by praying, “There is no-one holy like the Lord. There is no-one besides you; there is no rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2).
When David praised God, he consistently focussed on His unique and perfect holiness. Psalm 86 is just one example: “Among the gods there is none like you, O Lord; no deeds can compare with yours. All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord; they will bring glory to your name. For you are great and do marvellous deeds; you alone are God.” (Psalm 86:8-10)
God is not like anything or anyone we can imagine. He is above us and He is beyond us. He is so different and so utterly unique that no human being throughout history, regardless of how devout or learned, fails to crumble in fear and humility and repentance when exposed to the true character of this holy God. When God met the prophet Habakkuk, he described his reaction like this: “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. (Habakkuk 3:16)
He was awestruck by what he heard. When we see God as He is, it traumatises us because we immediately see ourselves for who we really are.
As we saw last week, this is a very different picture to the God which so many people have reduced Him to in their own eyes, including many who confess to be Christian.
Through the psalmist Asaph, God says,“You thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face. Consider this, you who forget God, or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.” (Psalm 50:21-22)
God cannot be defined in finite minds. That is part of what it means to say He is holy.
Holiness is absolute purity. God is perfect, without sin and completely flawless.
Even the sinless seraphs who worshipped God in Isaiah’s vision in chapter six had to cover their faces with their wings as they praised Him.
Stephen Charnock, the English Presbyterian minister who lived in the 17thcentury wrote, “As there is no darkness in His understanding, so there is no spot in His will; as His mind is possessed with all truth, so there is no deviation in His will from it. He loves all truth and goodness; He hates all falsity and evil.”
As we saw last week, God consistently says throughout Scripture, “Be holy, because I am holy.”
Hebrews 12:14 takes this principle to whole new level. “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy: without holiness no-one will see the Lord.”
This of course, presents us with a huge problem.
Only holy people can see God. Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.”
One of the most fearsome and frightening passages of Scripture which underlines God’s fury at human sin is found in 2 Samuel 6. The Ark of the Covenant, that most sacred and holy of vessels which was the symbol of God’s presence, and which would eventually be housed behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies in the temple, had been captured by the Philistines. King David attacked and defeated the Philistines and took back the Ark. 2 Samuel 6 describes the pomp and ceremony and the events that unfolded as they brought the Ark back home. Before we read the text, it’s important to know that the Ark of the Covenant was meant to be carried by the Levites, the priestly tribe. The Ark had solid gold loops on all four corners through which poles were to be inserted so the Ark could be carried by the priests. No human hand was to touch this symbol of God’s holiness.
“David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals. When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.” (2 Samuel 6:1-7)
After 20 years the Ark of the Covenant was finally returning to Israel, and amidst all the celebration, singing and dancing, Uzzah was struck dead by God. Why?
One of the oxen stumbled and lost its footing, and it looked as if this most holy of vessels was about to fall off the cart and be desecrated. So instinctively Uzzah stretched out his hand to steady the Ark to ensure it wouldn’t fall into the mud. As soon as Uzzah touched the Holy Ark of God, God struck him dead. Why would He do that?
Uzzah was a Levite. The Levites were the priestly tribe who were responsible for everything to do with the temple, the temple furnishings (including the Ark), the sacrifices and worship. The Levites were taught over and over again about how all of these sacred objects and furnishings were to be treated.
RC Sproul explains it like this: “The one, absolute, non-negotiable principle that every Levite had drummed into him from the time he was a child was this: never, never, never, never, never ever touch the Ark of God. God said, ‘If you touch it, you die.’ In the first place we wonder why in the world the Ark was being transported in an oxcart. It was to be transported on foot. There were loops on the edge of the Ark through which staves were inserted to make sure that no human hand touched it. But instead they were in a hurry, and they put it in an oxcart, and Uzzah did the unthinkable. He touched the Ark of God. So we say, ‘Wait a minute. Uzzah’s motive was pure. He was trying to preserve the Ark of God from being desecrated by the mud.’ But the presumptuous sin of Uzzah was this: He assumed that his hands were less polluted than the dirt. There was nothing about the earth that would desecrate the Ark of God. The earth was lying there on the ground, doing what God has called earth to do, being dirt – turning to dust when it’s dry and turning to mud when it’s mixed with water. It obeys the laws of God day in and day out, doing exactly what dirt is supposed to do. There’s nothing defiling about the earth. It was the hand of man of which God said, ‘I don’t want this on this Ark.’ In a word, Uzzah broke the Law of God, and God killed him.”
The tragic story of Uzzah gives us a vivid picture of how far removed sinful human beings are from the sheer Holiness of God.
And then we’re told that without holiness, no-one will see the Lord.
So what hope do we have?
Because fundamentally by nature and by choice, I am a sinner.
Psalm 24:3-4 describes our predicament. “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.”
But my hands aren’t clean. My heart is not pure. Who am I to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place?
My life is not holy. My heart is attracted to sin. My mind justifies my sin. I know exactly what Jeremiah means when he says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9), because he is describing the condition of my heart. And yours.
We are living in contradiction to God’s holy character.
Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
We are accountable to the God who created us, and we are guilty in His eyes. Not only does our sin make us totally incompatible with a holy God, it makes us guilty of treason. We have broken His law, we have defied His commands and we have fallen short of His glory.
As Job’s friend Eliphaz asked, “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17)
How can a holy God who must judge sin perfectly, remain just while at the same time pronouncing guilty sinners ‘Not guilty?’
1 Peter 3:18 has the answer: “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
Our hope – our only hope is in the glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How do we even begin to describe what He has done? The Apostle Paul tried, and all he could say in 2 Corinthians 9:15 was, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”
What God’s holiness demanded, His grace provided in Jesus Christ. All of the fury, the holy revulsion and righteous anger towards our sin was poured out on Jesus at Calvary, so that all who put their hope in Him will not be put to shame.
Our sin is put on Christ, and His holiness clothes us.
Put your faith in Jesus Christ, believe that what He has done for you has satisfied the holy wrath of God, and you will stand before God clothed in a righteousness that is not your own, forgiven, accepted and granted full rights as an heir and co-heir with Christ.
The question facing each of us is a simple, yet infinitely crucial one: Do you have the holiness of God working for you in Christ, or is His holiness set against you? Have you turned to Jesus in faith, personally trusting that what He did on the cross is your only hope of being right with God? Or are you still carrying your sin and an appointment with the fierce wrath of God?
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Isaiah 6:2-3 and Revelation 4:8
The “thrice holy” description of God appears only twice in the Bible. This is the only characteristic of God which is emphasised to the third degree.
Why do you think the holiness of God is stressed above His other perfect qualities such as His love, mercy, justice, wrath, etc?
Read 2 Samuel 6:1-7
Here we are given a vivid reminder of how seriously God sees our sin. Many would say that God overreacted and was unnecessarily cruel in how he reacted to Uzzah’s irreverence.
What do you think?
What does this passage teach us about the danger of taking what the Bible says out of context (ie, “cutting and pasting” to suit our own purposes?)
Read Psalm 50:21-22
What does this passage (and there are many others in Scripture) teach us about the error of reducing God to our level?
How does treating Him as no more than a friend conflict with the reality of His holiness?
How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ solve the seemingly insurmountable problem of depraved sinners being allowed to approach the Throne of God?