Thursday, January 24, 2008


Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods?
who is like thee, glorious in holiness?
(Exodus 15:11)

Behold, he putteth no trust in his saints;
yea, the heavens are not clean in his sight.
(Job 15:15)

Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea,
the stars are not pure in his sight.
How much less man, that is a worm?
(Job 25:5-6)

But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. (Psalm 22:3)
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom:
and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.
(Proverbs 9:10)

And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy,
is the LORD of hosts:

the whole earth is full of his glory.
(Isaiah 6:3)

THEY SAY THAT WHEN LEONARDO DAVINCI painted his famous Last Supper he had little difficulty with any of it except the faces. Then he painted the faces in without too much trouble except one. He did not feel himself worthy to paint the face of Jesus. He held off and kept holding off, unwilling to approach it but knowing he must. Then in the impulsive carelessness of despair, he just painted it quickly and let it go. “There is no use,” he said. “I can’t paint Him.”

I feel very much the same way about explaining the holiness of God. I think that same sense of despair is on my heart. There isn’t any use for anybody to try to explain holiness. The greatest speakers on this subject can play their oratorical harps, but it sounds tinny and unreal, and when they are through you’ve listened to music but you haven’t seen God.

We Cannot Understand Holiness
I suppose the hardest thing about God to comprehend intellectually is His infinitude. But you can talk about the infinitude of God and not feel yourself a worm. But when you talk about the holiness of God, you have not only the problem of an intellectual grasp, but also a sense of personal vileness, which is almost too much to bear.

The reason for this is that we are fallen beings—spiritually, morally, mentally and physically. We are fallen in all the ways that man can fall. Each one of us is born into a tainted world, and we learn impurity from our cradles. We nurse it in with our mother’s milk, we breathe it in the very air. Our education deepens it and our experience confirms it—evil impurities everywhere. Everything is dirty; even our whitest white is dingy gray.

Our noblest heroes are soiled heroes, all of them. So we learn to excuse and to overlook and not to expect too much. We don’t expect all truth from our teachers, and we don’t expect faithfulness from our politicians. We quickly forgive them when they lie to us and vote for them again. We don’t expect honesty from our merchants. We don’t expect complete trustworthiness from anybody. And we manage to get along in the world only by passing laws to protect ourselves not only from the criminal element but from the best people there are who might in the moment of temptation take advantage of us.

This kind of world gets into our pores, into our nerves, until we have lost the ability to conceive of the holy. Still, I will endeavor to discuss the holiness of God, the Holy One. We cannot comprehend it, and we certainly cannot define it.

Holiness means purity, but “purity” doesn’t describe it well enough. Purity merely means that it is unmixed, with nothing else in it. But that isn’t enough. We talk of moral excellency, but that isn’t adequate. To be morally excellent is to exceed someone else in moral character. But when we say that God is morally excellent, who is it that He exceeds? The angels, the seraphim? Surely He does—but that still isn’t enough. We mean rectitude; we mean honor; we mean truth and righteousness; we mean all of these—uncreated and eternal.

God is not now any holier than He ever was. For He, being unchanging and unchangeable, can never become holier than He is. And He never was holier than He is, and He’ll never be any holier than now. His moral excellence implies self-existence, for He did not get His holiness from anyone nor from anywhere. He did not go off into some vast, infinitely distant realm and there absorb His holiness; He is Himself the Holiness. He is the All-Holy, the Holy One; He is holiness itself, beyond the power of thought to grasp or of word to express, beyond the power of all praise.

Language cannot express the holy, so God resorts to association and suggestion. He cannot say it outright because He would have to use words for which we know no meaning. He would have to translate it down into our unholiness. If He were to tell us how white He is, we would understand it in terms of only dingy gray.

God cannot tell us by language, so He uses association and suggestion and shows how holiness affects the unholy. He shows Moses at the burning bush before the holy, fiery Presence, kneeling down to take his shoes from his feet, hiding his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be ready against the third day: for the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death: There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount. And Moses went down from the mount unto the people, and sanctified the people; and they washed their clothes. (Exodus 19:9-14)
Moses did the best he could. He went down and tried to clean up their dingy gray. And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount. And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice. And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount: and the LORD called Moses up to the top of the mount; and Moses went up. And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people, lest they break through unto the LORD to gaze, and many of them perish. (19:16-21)

All the trumpeting and the voice and the fire and smoke and shaking of the mount—this was God saying by suggestion and association what we couldn’t understand in words.

Two Words for Holiness
There are two particular words for holy in the Hebrew Bible. One word is used almost exclusively of God the Holy One and rarely used of anything or person except God the Holy One. In Proverbs 9:10 it says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” I am greatly fascinated by the fact that the King James Bible refers to it in the abstract—”the holy” rather than “the Holy One.” And yet the Jewish Bible says “the knowledge of the Holy One.”

Proverbs 30:3 also uses this phrase: “I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy.” Again, the Jewish Bible translates it “the knowledge of the Holy One” or “the All-Holy.” The Jewish translators encountered exactly the same word more than forty times and translated it “the Holy One.” So obviously this is God! And yet there is enough vagueness about it that the King James translators felt free to make it abstract and call it “the holy.”

There is another word for “holy” that is not used of God very often. It is not as “high” a word; it is used often of created things. It is something that is “holy by contact or association” with something holy. We hear of holy ground or holy Sabbath or holy city or holy people or holy works. It’s not the same awesome, awe-filled word that He uses when He says “the holy” or “the Holy One.”

In the New Testament, we have a Greek word about God being holy. “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). I notice that the definition of that Greek word is “Awful [full of awe] Thing.” Now think of that. The Awful Thing—that’s one meaning of the word holy—the Holy One!

Let’s think a little about the Holy One and His creatures. We see that this Holy One allows only holy beings into His Presence. Yet in our humanistic day—our day of a watered-down, sentimental Christianity that blows its nose loudly and makes God into a poor, weak, weeping old man—in this awful day, that sense of the holy isn’t upon the Church.

I hear of a lot of people doing specialized ministries these days. If we’re going to be specialized then I think we ought to specialize on the right thing. And therefore if I’m going to emphasize God and the holiness of God and the awful, unapproachable quality that can be called “that Awful Thing,” I think I’m on the right track. It hasn’t completely disappeared, but it’s something we’ve almost lost in our day. We have lost the sense of the Holy One almost altogether.
And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them. (Revelation 7:11-15)
There are people in the presence of God, but they’re there only by a technical redemption. I worry in this hour that we’re “technically” Christians. We can prove that we are—but anybody can flip open a Greek lexicon and show you that you are a saint. But I’m afraid of that kind of Christianity. If I haven’t felt the sense of vileness by contrast with that sense of unapproachable and indescribable holiness, I wonder if I have ever been hit hard enough to really repent. And if I don’t repent, I wonder if I can believe.

Nowadays we’re given a quick fix and we’re told just to believe it, and then we give our names and addresses and we’re all right. But I’m afraid our fathers knew God in a different manner than that. James Usher, the seventeenth-century Irish archbishop, used to go out to the riverbank, kneel down by a log and repent of his sins all Saturday afternoon—though there probably wasn’t a holier man in all the region. He felt how unutterably vile he was; he couldn’t stand the dingy gray which was the whitest thing he had set over against the unapproachable shining whiteness that was God.

The Fiery Holiness of God
Go to the book of Isaiah: “Above [the throne] 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” (6:2). There wasn’t any of the flippancy that we see now. There wasn’t any tendency to try to be funnier than a clown. There was a sense of Presence, and the holy creatures covered their feet. Why? They covered their feet in modesty, and they covered their face in worship, and they used their other wings to fly. These were the seraphim; they’re called “fiery burners.” Then there is Ezekiel, chapter 1, where the creatures come out of a fire.

God speaks of Himself often as fire. “Our God is a consuming fire,” it says in Hebrews 12:29. And in Isaiah 33:14: “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?”

People sometimes use this text to ask, “Who of you is going to go to hell?” but if you will read it in its context this does not describe hell. Almost all commentators agree on this, because the next verse says that it is “He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil” (33:15).

What is this devouring fire? It is not hell, but the presence of God. Who among us shall dwell in the fiery burnings? Do you not know that fire can dwell with fire? You can put the iron into the fire and the iron can learn to live with the fire by absorbing the fire and beginning to glow in incandescent brightness in the fire. So we will dwell in the fire; these creatures in Ezekiel came out of the fire, and they let down their wings to worship. At the Word of God’s command they leap to do His will, these awesome holy creatures about which we know so little and about which we ought to know more.

God showed Himself as fire when He spoke to Moses out of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). He went with them in the pillar of fire:

And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (Exodus 13:21-22)

God was dwelling there in that awesome fire. Then when the tabernacle was made and the cherubim of gold overshadowed the mercy seat, what was it that came down between the cherubim wings? What was it that only one man could see, and he only once a year with blood? I wonder how many high priests ever looked at the Shekinah, with all of the protection of the atoning blood and the commandment of God. The priest would go through the great, heavy veil that took four men to part it. And this man went in trembling into the Presence.

I wonder if, being Jewish and worshiping the great God Almighty, the Holy One of Israel, one in twenty ever dared gaze on that fire. He was not told he couldn’t, but I wonder if anybody ever dared do it. I notice that the very seraphim covered their faces. Moses “hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus 3:6). John fell down when he saw the Savior and had to be raised up again almost from the dead (Revelation 1:17).

Every encounter with God has been such that man went flat down and went blind. Paul went blind on the Damascus road (see Acts 9). What was the light that blinded him? Was it a cosmic ray coming down from some exploding body or from two colliding galaxies? No! It was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God that dwelt in the bush, the God that dwelt in the Shekinah between the wings of the seraphim.

When they were all together in one place and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as the rushing of a mighty wind and fire appeared and sat as a tongue of flame upon each one of them (see Acts 2:1-3)—what was it? What could it mean but that God was branding them on their foreheads with His fiery holiness to say, “You’re mine now”?

The Church was born out of fire, just as the creatures in Ezekiel 1 came out of fire. We have gray ashes today, but we are to be men and women of fire, for that is our origin.

Here are the words that tell us how God shall some day untomb the sky:
But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment… the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat… the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved… (2 Peter 3:7, 10, 12)

What is that fire? Is it to be the atomic fire of a hydrogen bomb? Don’t allow yourself to be fooled by the scientists. Don’t let your spiritual concepts and perceptions be dragged down to a research laboratory. That awesome fire out of which the seraphim moved, that fire that dwelt between the cherubim and that blazing light that knocked Paul flat—that’s the same fire that shall dissolve the heaven and the earth: the awful presence of that Holy Thing, that Awful Thing. (Don’t be offended because I say Thing—I know He is a Person, God the Holy One of Israel. But there is something about Him that is awesome and awful.)

The Holy One and the Sinner
This Holy One confronts the sinner, who thinks he is going to decide when he’ll serve Christ. He is going to push God around. He is going to decide whether to accept Jesus or not, receive Him or not, obey Him or not. He is going to go proudly down the aisle with his chest out.

The sinner—who will lay his head on his pillow tonight with a heartbeat between him and eternity—tells himself, I’ll decide this question. I’m a man of free will. God isn’t forcing my will. No, He won’t—but I have words for the sinner. “Art thou not from everlasting, O LORD my God, mine Holy One?… Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:12-13).

People say, “Are your problems too much for you? Jesus will handle your problems. Are you troubled mentally? Jesus will give you mental peace. Do you have trouble at the office? Jesus will help you at the office.” All this is true—but oh, how far it is from biblical religion! God was in their midst!

What was it that gathered the people together in the book of Acts? They ministered unto the Lord and fasted and prayed. And there in the awesome presence they heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say, “Separate me Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 13:2). Now when the church gathers, we’re thrown back on our planning, our reasoning and our thinking—when the great and holy God is in our midst.

I would recommend that you remember these words: “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil.” You have evil in your life, your heart, your home, your business, your memory—all unconfessed, unforgiven and uncleansed. Remember that it is only by the infinite patience of God that you are not consumed (see Lamentations 3:22). “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). And it is also written, “Follow… holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (12:14). Teachers come from everywhere with their dingy gray interpretations, pulling this down and explaining it away and saying, “See note on such and such.” But it stands—”holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

If you can interpret that neatly and go home without being bothered, I wonder if your eyes have ever gazed upon that Awful Thing. I wonder if you have “the knowledge of the holy” (Proverbs 9:10). I wonder if that sense of the overwhelming, crushing holiness of God has ever come upon your heart.

It was a common thing in other days, when God was the center of human worship, to kneel at an altar and shake, tremble, weep and perspire in an agony of conviction. They expected it in that day. We don’t see it now because the God we preach is not the everlasting, awful God, “mine Holy One,” who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity.”

We’ve used the technical interpretation of justification by faith and the imputed righteousness of Christ until we’ve watered down the wine of our spirituality. God help us in this evil hour!

We come into the presence of God with tainted souls. We come with our own concept of morality, having learned it from books, from the newspaper and from school. We come to God dirty—our whitest white is dirty, our churches are dirty and our thoughts are dirty—and do nothing about it!

If we came to God dirty, but trembling and shocked and awestruck in His presence, if we knelt at His feet and cried with Isaiah, “I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), then I could understand. But we skip into His awful presence. We’re dirty, but we have a book called Seven Steps to Salvation that gives us seven verses to get us out of our problems. And each year we have more Christians, more people going to church, more church buildings, more money—and less spirituality and less holiness. We’re forgetting “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

I tell you this: I want God to be what God is: the impeccably holy, unapproachable Holy Thing, the All-Holy One. I want Him to be and remain THE HOLY. I want His heaven to be holy and His throne to be holy. I don’t want Him to change or modify His requirements. Even if it shuts me out, I want something holy left in the universe.

As soon as anybody begins to plead for Christians to be holy, somebody comes along and says, “Now, brother, don’t get excited about this; don’t become a fanatic. God understands our flesh; He knows that we are but dust.” He knows we are but dust, but He also says He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” and that without holiness, “no man shall see the Lord.”

Thomas Finney wrote one of the most awesome, wondrous things ever written:
Eternal light, eternal light,
How pure the soul must be.
When placed within Thy searching sight
It shrinks not
But with calm delight
Can look and live and look on Thee.
The spirits that surround Thy throne
Can bear the burning bliss.
But that is surely theirs alone
For they have never, never known
A fallen world like this.
How shall I,
Whose native sphere is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear
And on my naked spirit bear
The uncreated Being?
“How shall… my naked spirit bear the uncreated Being”—that fiery Being, out of which come the “holy burners” who sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”? How can I bear it? All your religious helps, all your marked Bibles, all your jolly, joke-telling, banqueting Christian friends—all of these will mean nothing when each one of us is called “before the Ineffable [to] appear and on our naked spirits bear the uncreated Being.” How are we going to do it?

There is a way for man to rise to that sublime abode. “An offering and a sacrifice, the Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God”—these prepare us for the sight of Holiness above. “And the sons of ignorance and night can dwell with the eternal Light through the eternal love.” I think that’s one of the greatest things ever written by mortal man. We don’t sing it much; it is too awful and we’re afraid of it.

“The spirits that surround Thy throne”—the seraphim, cherubim, angels, archangels, principalities, powers, unfallen creatures—”can bear the burning bliss,” but that’s because “they have never, never known a fallen world like this.”

But how can I “bear the burning bliss”? It isn’t enough for somebody to mark a New Testament and rub my nose in it and try to comfort me. I don’t want to be comforted! I want to know what it will be like in that hour when I leave my wife, my children, my grandchildren and all my good friends. There’s not one of them that can help me in that awful hour when I appear before the Ineffable, and the uncreated Being impinges on my naked spirit.

There is a way. It is through the “offering and the sacrifice” of “the Advocate with God.” But don’t take that lightly. Conversion used to be a revolutionary, radical, wondrous, terrible, glorious thing. But there’s not much of it left. We’ve forgotten that God is the Holy One of Israel.

Oh God, time is running, flying like a frightened bird. The bird of time is on the wing and has a little way to flutter. The wine of life is oozing drop by drop, and the leaves of life are falling one by one. Soon, before the Ineffable every man must appear to give an account for the deeds done in the body. Oh, Father, keep upon us a sense of holiness that we can’t sin and excuse it, but that repentance will be as deep as our lives. This we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.


Michele Rayburn said...


We do hope you are getting the best of care. Is there any chance they can turn the ship around?! We will be praying for you. Please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you here.

Ever since we saw you do the "David Project" at Thomas Road Baptist Church with Charles Billingsley, we have been enjoying listening to Charles sing on Falwell's TV program every Saturday. Two weeks ago, they had a young lady singing "Lord, You're Holy" (with the choir) and it touched my heart like nothing else.

I cannot find a video of her singing it, and I understand that Karen Wheaton made the song famous. But she apparently didn't make a video of this song either.

But I found two YouTube videos that I think you all will enjoy.

The first one is a beautiful production with Veronica Y. Miller singing. The second one was done in a humble little church by "Esther" and is my second favorite next to the Thomas Road version.



In His Love,

Debbie said...

I started reading this piece last night when the room was full of noise and plenty of distractions. I quickly realized it was one that I needed to come back to in a moment of quiet. I’m glad I did! I’m guessing I’ll have to read through it again just because there is so much here to absorb and glean … slowly.

Steve –- after such an ordeal, things can only look up! I pray it will …. be well.