This is an abridged form of the pre-synodical sermon preached in Hudsonville PRC, June 12, 2017.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.
God sets this amazing vision of His holiness before Isaiah at the time of his ordination. The call of Isaiah to the prophetic office is perhaps the most dramatic in all of Scripture, rivaled only by the call of Moses at the burning bush or Paul on the road to Damascus.
We are told God sent this vision to Isaiah in the year King Uzziah died. Uzziah was one of the better kings who ruled over Judah, becoming king when he was only sixteen years old and ruling over Judah for fifty-two years. He began his rule doing what was right in God’s eyes. He served God and experienced God’s blessing. During his early years of rule Uzziah defeated the enemies of Judah in battle and was able to fortify the walls of Jerusalem. But Uzziah’s rule ended on a sad note because his wealth, power, and success went to his head. In his pride, Uzziah entered the holy place of the temple, where only the priests were allowed to go, to do the work only the priests were allowed to do. When the priests tried to stop him, he became enraged. At this moment the Lord struck him with leprosy. The spiritual decline in Uzziah’s life led to a spiritual decline in Judah.
God called Isaiah to bring a word of judgment to Judah because of her sins. Isaiah was sure to face stiff opposition to the Word of God he would declare. Because of this opposition, God reminds Isaiah to keep focused on the thrice holy God in all of his work.
This same Word of God comes to us at the beginning of the synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches, reminding us to keep our focus on the God who is holy, holy, holy. This amazing vision motivates us for the work. It compels men to the highest calling of living and working for God’s glory. This vision qualifies us for our work. It also assures us that the cause of God’s kingdom and gospel will prosper.
The Glorious God
In this vision, Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne in His glory. What he sees is beyond description, evident from the fact that there is no description of God Himself. The revelation of God comes through the actions and words of the seraphim. Isaiah sees seraphim, who serve the purpose of drawing our attention to the holy God in all of His glory.
Who are the seraphim? The book of Isaiah is the only place in the Bible where we read of the seraphim. The fact that the seraphim were unfamiliar to Isaiah, as they are to us, serves to make the vision even more stunning. It appears these seraphim are angels of high rank who served the purpose of singing the praises of the holy God. In the vision they hover around the throne of the holy God because the Lord’s garments fill the temple. The idea is that God’s holy presence so dominated and filled the temple there was no room for the seraphim to stand around the throne. This serves to focus our attention, not on the seraphim, but on the God of all glory and majesty who sits on the throne.
In the presence of the holy God, the seraphim cover their eyes and feet with their wings, while flying with two of their wings. Also this serves the purpose of showing the greatness and majesty of God. God is so great and holy that even the holy, perfect angels cover their eyes and feet in His presence.
This description of the seraphim serves to point us to the Lord who sits on the throne in the temple. Take notice of His name: the Lord. This is the not the covenant name of God, Jehovah. This is the name that reveals God as the sovereign ruler over all things. This is God’s title, as when we speak of the president of our country and call him President Trump. Our God is the Lord God, who has the highest office in Israel and in the world. He is the Sovereign One who rules over all.
The Lord dwells in the temple. The temple is the place in the Old Testament that pictured the presence of God among His people. The temple was the Lord’s house where God lived with His people. This Lord, revealed in His glory and majesty, is a God who is pleased to dwell with His people in love.
Around His throne, the angels call to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of His glory.” The song of the angels reveals the glory of our God.
What does it mean that He is holy? We might think of the holiness of God in connection with His purity. In Him there is no darkness or sin. Although this is true, the holiness of God is much more than this. The word “holy” means “set apart.” There is no one like God. This is the way the holy God is described in Isaiah 40:25, “To whom then will ye liken me or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.” He is greater than the seraphim, who exist to praise Him. The holy God is set apart from all creatures.
What sets Him apart? He is the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is a spirit, who cannot be seen or touched because He is not physical. He is holy as the powerful Creator of the heavens, the earth, and all that they contain. He is holy as the eternal God, set apart from all creatures by the fullness of His perfections. God possesses all these perfections and He is the source of these perfections.
He is the holy God who hates sin. His just anger is the reaction of His holiness against sin that is always an offense to Him. This comes out in the chapter, as Isaiah is sent for the purpose of blinding some by the preaching of the Word, as the just judgment of God upon the wicked in Judah. As the holy God, He is a consuming fire in His holy wrath against sin.
But there is another vital aspect to God’s holiness. He is set apart as a covenant God of mercy and grace to His people. This also comes out in the vision in verses 6 and 7. The holiness of God exposed the sin of Isaiah and the people of Judah so that Isaiah confesses, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (v. 5). In the following verses one of the seraphim comes to him with a live coal from the altar of burnt offering declaring the forgiving mercy of God, “Thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged” (v. 7). God is set apart as a God who establishes, maintains, and perfects His covenant with His people in Jesus Christ. He is holy as the God who forgives and shows mercy to His church. How great is our God of mercy and grace! No one is like Him in the mercy He shows to His people who sin against Him!
As the seraphim confess the majesty of God’s holiness, they repeat the attribute: holy, holy, holy! This repetition is for emphasis. Each “holy” intensifies the one before it. Only once in all of Scripture is a perfection of God emphasized in this way. It is found in this passage. We do not find anywhere that God is love, love, love. But God is holy, holy, holy. He is so holy that the whole earth is full of His glory. The earth is full of the manifestations of His glory—the creation, the events of history, and the existence of the church. What a majestic, amazing, awesome God we serve!
The Necessary Knowledge
May we keep this vision of God’s holiness before our minds as we work in the service of Him at synod this year. This is God’s reminder to us as we begin our work.
As Isaiah begins his ministry, God is saying in this vision that the most important thing for Isaiah to see is the holiness of God. This must be before him in all of his work. This is the idea of the vision. In this vision, God allowed Isaiah to see heavenly realities not normally visible to the earthly eye. This vision was a special revelation to Isaiah in which God said to him, “In all of your work keep this vision before your eyes. May this vision motivate you in your work.”
Isaiah needed this motivation because he would face stiff opposition to the word of judgment he was called to preach in a church that was turning away from God and His Word. God was calling him to preach a message that would make him the most unpopular and hated man in all of Judah, at least among those who rejected God’s Word. When Isaiah faced this, it was essential that this vision of God’s holiness be branded on his heart so that he would cease working in the fear of man. He must be motivated to persevere in the work. What would motivate him would be this vision of the holiness of God. God is calling him to live to glorify Him, the God who is holy, holy, holy.
In this vision, God gives us motivation. What we need more than anything else right now is to see the glory of our holy God. Without this, what we fall into is the motivation of doing things to please man or to seek our own glory and honor. This is a danger also for the men who are being examined by synod. May the motivation in the answers you give be the glory and honor of the God who is holy, holy, holy.
In this vision, God sets before us what we must be most concerned with in all of our work and in all of our conduct as a synod—the glory of the thrice holy God. God is glorified when we do things His way. We must not be concerned when it comes to protests and appeals with who wins and who loses. We must be concerned with God’s glory. When we are concerned with the glory of God, we will do things in His way instead of attempting to manipulate or to get our way. God is glorified when we work together to understand and apply what God’s Word and the confessions say about the issues before us.
We need the knowledge of God’s holiness because seeing God’s glory qualifies us for the work. This is what qualified Isaiah to be God’s servant in Judah at this time. In the verses following the text, Isaiah goes from shattered to saying confidently, “Here am I; send me.”
After seeing the vision of God’s holiness, Isaiah was shattered by the knowledge of the people’s sins and his own against God. He confesses his sin of having unclean lips. He says, “Woe is me!” The presence of the holy God brought him to see his sin. Does not this vision do the same for us? Isaiah wondered how he could possibly go forth preaching the Word of God. We might wonder the same. How can I be used for this work? I am too weak and too sinful. It is good if we enter into the work of synod with this kind of humility.
But God assured Isaiah of forgiveness with the words of verse 7. Then God asked the question, “Who will go for us?” Isaiah answered, “Here am I; send me.” With this vision of God’s holiness, the Lord forged Isaiah into a willing servant. Isaiah is willing to serve the Lord, knowing the strength was not found in himself but in the holy God who called him to the work.
As delegates to synod, we also are forged by the living, holy God to be faithful servants of His with this vision of God’s holiness. We are qualified as those who know the holy God. We are qualified, not because we are gifted and wise enough, but because we are forgiven in the blood of Jesus Christ. The God who calls us to the work will equip and strengthen us for it. We are qualified as those who know God and His mercy. We are qualified as those who have been and are in the presence of this thrice holy God.
We need this encouragement because of the greatness of the work ahead of us. We cannot do this in our own strength. But we can do this in the strength of the holy God who gives us His Word and Spirit to do the work He has called us to do.
The Sure Success
The result of these words spoken by the seraphim was that the posts of the door of the temple moved and the house was filled with smoke. What an amazing result! When God appeared and His glory was declared, the inanimate doorposts and thresholds were moved by the presence of God! These things could not hear or make sense of these words. Yet, they were moved by the presence of God in the temple. The literal idea is that they were shaken. They began to quake where they stood.
Knowing this was God’s work in the temple, we can be assured of the presence of the holy God to do the same thing in our churches and in the Synod of the PRC in 2017. This is the confidence we have as churches—not in men who are delegated and their collective wisdom. Our confidence rests in the holy God who shook the doorposts and the thresholds. We can be assured that if the presence of God shook that building, the presence of God will move His church and this synod so that decisions we make are good and pleasing to Him.
As we do the work, let us trust in the holy presence of God. Let us look to His Word and pray for His Spirit and blessing repeatedly. As we do our work, we will see the amazing glory of God that fills the whole earth. We have no doubt that this glory will be seen in synod.
Let us then keep our eyes fixed on this God about whom the seraphim sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”