Read an Excerpt
Gripped by the Greatness of God
By James MacDonald
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2005 James MacDonald
All rights reserved.
GRIPPED by the HOLINESS of GOD
I AM DEEPLY CONVICTED in my heart that this is one of the most important studies you have ever undertaken. Isaiah has a message about God that, if we let it take us and shake us, we will never be the same. A joy-producing, fulfillment-enhancing, life-exhilarating change. The kind of change you would expect when you are gripped by the Creator and Designer of your own soul.
Ready—here we go.
Every journey begins with the first step. This first step in climbing God's great mountain means we walk in Isaiah's footsteps and see what Isaiah saw—the immense, indescribable, incomprehensible holiness of God. Maybe you're thinking, Whoa, can't we start with His love or mercy or something more friendly, and then sort of work our way up to holiness? The answer is no. We don't get to choose where we start—God is in charge of that. So we'll start where God started with Isaiah—with His holiness.
Holiness. What image does that conjure up in your mind? My earliest image of holiness is standing in a little country Baptist church. I was maybe five years old, staring straight ahead with my brothers, all stiff and stale, my suit and tie choking the life out of me. In the same row were my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, all gripping the pew in front of them till their knuckles turned white. They sang at the top of their lungs, a medieval organ backing their trio ...
"Holy, holy, holy,
Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee."
For me, God's holiness was connected with the clock ever so slowly ticking out the remaining minutes of the monotonous message while I squirmed on the hard seat searching for relief from the heat and longing to be free from constraint. Do you relate in some way to that picture?
Possibly you think of holiness as a list of rules to freeze freedom and crush your creativity. Maybe you have known some people who claimed to be fired up about holiness, but there's nothing appealing about their lifestyle or perspective on living a God-centered life. They live by black-and-white thinking that says, "This is holy, and that is not." Rule lovers—they delight to point out who is not making the grade on their latest checklist of absolute rules for holiness.
That's not God's kind of holiness.
God does not present His holiness as a horizontal prescription for human activity. God displays holiness as the central and defining essence of His character. I know some people think that God is defined by love, but I would beg to differ. If love was at the very center of God's nature, then He could have welcomed us into heaven without the atoning death of His Son, Jesus. Fact is, God's holiness demanded that sin be paid for, and then His love compelled Him to pay the price Himself.
To know God as He truly is requires dispelling our human notions of holiness and thinking about it in a fresh, new way. Let's start there—with a lofty view of exalted holiness from the God who said, "Be holy, for I am holy." When we allow ourselves to be gripped by that reality, no human standard of goodness, no man-made regulation of righteousness, no plastic, legalistic creed will ever again substitute for such a fearful and wonderful encounter.
So let's bag what man says about God's holiness and let the ever-new message of God's Word shape our ideas about Him. The Bible has the power to change our lives by introducing us to a God whom our culture, even our Christian culture, has ignored, softened, and minimized. A true glimpse of God in all His holiness will rock your world to the core. I want that; don't you?
If your answer is yes, then stand with me at the base of God's holy mountain. Warning: There's no way we can scale the heights of holiness in this brief study or even in our short lifetime. After reading the next few pages, we won't say, "Oh, I get it. What's next?" But through the eyes and words of the prophet Isaiah, we can step a little closer. In humble dependence, we can ask God to reveal to us more of His holiness, and I'm confident He will.
Gripped by the Holiness of God
Just to remind you, our man Isaiah flashed like a shooting star over the dark sky of a morally corrupt culture. His specific, God-given call was to minister to the affluent leaders of his day. Isaiah knew what it was like to move among self-sufficient people. They had power, money, and influence—what more did they need? Sound familiar?
I talk to people all the time who have deceived themselves into thinking that they've got life hardwired. They have a good education, a good job, and a good portfolio. Their life is moving along at a pretty good pace, so they think they don't need God.
If I could, I would take these loved ones by the shoulders and shake them ... hard. I would say, "Do you realize what you are saying?" But since it's not proper for a pastor to do that sort of thing, I'll settle for saying loud and clear, "Wake up, dude! It's not about who you are. It's all about who God is." That's what Isaiah figured during the event recorded in Isaiah 6:1–7. (Now's a good time to go back and read the passage on the first page of this chapter if you did not do so earlier.)
God allowed Isaiah to peek into His heavenly throne room and glimpse His holiness like no human being has ever done! And he was seriously laid out, or we would say "gripped," by what he saw. Isaiah's vision of this scene above the ceiling is one we desperately, desperately need in the church today. Why? Because it blows away the comfortable, manageable God we've fashioned for ourselves. It reminds us how small we are and how great He is. So great, in fact, that He is unapproachable except in the ways He has prescribed.
Did you ever learn about the children of Israel's desert wanderings? The people and priests understood God's innate holiness far better than we ever have. When God instructed them to build the tabernacle, He included a place for Himself called the Holy of Holies that was so sacred, so ominous that only one person once a year could enter, and only with an offering. The place was filled with such mystery that every year, before that one priest entered, they would tie a rope of bells around his ankle, just in case he did something wrong and was struck dead on the spot. Then the other guys could pull him out of the Holy of Holies without meeting the same end. The priests of old had a mega, reverential awe of God and His holiness.
Back then nobody confused the creature with the Creator. God is set apart way above any human standard. Set apart for a special purpose. There was no one like God. That's why this vision Isaiah had of entering God's throne room is so cool. And God invites us, through Isaiah's eyes, into a place very few people have ever been. How many times have we said we want to know God? Well, here's our chance. Let's explore Isaiah's vision one piece at a time.
In the year of King Uzziah's death (v. 1)
The date 740 B.C. may not mean much to you and me, but to Isaiah's original readers, the date marked the end of an era. King Uzziah had been a fixture in Israel, ruling the nation for fifty-two years. For the most part, they had been good, peaceable years. So, when leprosy finally took his life and his long reign ended, the country was thrown into incredible turmoil. Imagine what it would be like if we had a president for fifty-two years and felt secure and accustomed to his ways. Everything is operating like clockwork—then suddenly every television channel interrupts programming with the stunning news from Washington that the president is dead.
When Uzziah died, the nation's moral climate went into a tailspin. People began to think, "If I'm going to make it in this crazy culture, it'll be on my own, doing what I think is right for a change."
In the midst of this moral confusion, God called Isaiah to speak for Him.
In the year of King Uzziahs death I saw the Lord (emphasis added)
Think of the significance of those four words. "I saw the Lord." Who could ever be the same? Now, whether he was waking or sleeping, whether he had a vision or a dream, we're not told. But Isaiah was supernaturally allowed to see the very throne room of God.
Notice the word "Lord." When it's LORD (all caps), it refers to God's covenant name, Yahweh. But here Lord is lowercase, referring not to God's name, but to His position. Isaiah is really saying, "I saw the ultimate Monarch! I saw the Sovereign! The Ruler over everything! I saw Him!"
John 12:41 indicates that Isaiah actually saw the pre-incarnate Christ, the second person of the Trinity. It couldn't have been God the Father, as is commonly thought, since John 1:18 says, "No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (NKJV). So, Isaiah was allowed to see Christ before His incarnation. Before Jerusalem, before Nazareth, before Bethlehem, Isaiah was given one quick glimpse of Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, in all of His glory ... and it took his breath away.
... sitting on a throne
Notice what Isaiah saw in the next phrase. "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne." Sitting—not pacing back and forth. Sitting—not wringing His hands. Sitting—not struggling or searching. Not God. Where was He? He was seated. He was settled. He was secure. He was certain.
I wrote in the margin of my Bible, "Why so settled and so seated?" The answer is: because He is in control. He knows it. Everyone in the throne room knows it. No one is worried.
I am struck by that truth each time we sing a particular worship song at Harvest Bible Chapel. The lyrics include the phrase, "You are in control." When I sing it, I think of this verse in Isaiah. God is seated on the throne. He is in control. Wow, that sure puts into perspective any burden I carry on my heart. How difficult could this problem be for God, no matter how monstrous it might seem to me? What problem would seem large to the One who is sitting on a throne? My problems are nothing to Him. He is in control! Even of this? (Think about your biggest worry right now.) Yup. He's even controlling that. Even this? (Think about the biggest issue facing our world today.) Even that. The Lord is sitting on His throne.
... lofty and exalted
Notice the Lord isn't just sitting on any old throne. "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted." I believe that the main reason the church has lost its moral vision is because it has lost its high and exalted view of God. We have embraced the comfort of His nearness at the expense of His transcendence. God is not the "man upstairs." God is not an old codger with a white beard. God is ineffable glory, and He dwells in unapproachable light. The Bible says that no one can see God and live. He is lofty and exalted.
... with the train of His robe filling the temple.
The train is the part of the robe that communicates honor. Seldom seen today except at formal weddings, the train is the symbol of grandeur and royalty. If you've ever seen a video clip of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth many years ago at Westminster Abbey, you would remember that the train of her robe went all the way down the aisle and almost to the back door of that cathedral. It took several courtiers to carry the train of her robe during her coronation.
What does Isaiah say about the robe of almighty God? He says it fills the temple! Down the aisle and back again, back to front, front to back, doubling and redoubling. The symbol of God's splendor fills the temple. So awesome is this view of God that Isaiah can look no higher than the train of His robe. Isaiah cannot elevate his eyes beyond the hem of our Lord's garment.
Just imagine, if the hem of our God's robe fills the temple, think of His presence! Isaiah, so overcome by the sight of this holy God, can only describe the fringe of His clothing. Isaiah is so completely awestruck that he has to look away and says in effect with his next phrase, "Let me tell you about the angels."
Seraphim stood above Him (v. 2).
The seraphim are the angels that exist in the throne room who instantaneously do the bidding of almighty God—ever standing to serve the seated Sovereign. The Hebrew word seraph literally means "the burning ones." Though we have more questions than we can answer about the seraphim, we are given a limited physical description of them and their role. Picture two lines of angels coming out from the throne of God, "each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew" (v. 2).
Why six wings? Two cover their faces lest they see the glory of God and die. Always serving but never able to look upon the Holy One. Two wings cover their feet which symbolize their lowliness—lest God see them and the shame they feel in the presence of infinite holiness. And with two more wings they flew. It's interesting that four of their six wings are for relating to God; only two are for serving Him.
The verbs covered and flew are continuous action. The angels' motion is ceaseless as they fulfill with precision every wish of almighty God. And they don't just fly; they speak as they hover around God's throne.
And one called out to another ... "Holy, Holy, Holy" (v. 3)
You got that picture in your mind's eye of the seraphim forming two lines coming out from God's throne? Now, listen as they call out back and forth, from one line to the other in an antiphonal chorus that through ages of time has gone on without interruption. And what do they say? Imagine all the things they could say about God. They could say, "Merciful, Merciful, Merciful God!" They could say, "Loving, Loving, Loving God!" But God, in a mystery we could guess at but never comprehend, chose that the words spoken continuously before His throne would be of His holiness.
So these burning ones call back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, never ceasing: "'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory."
And this never stops. This praise never ceases. It goes on and on and on through countless eons of time. This brings to mind a well-known Bible teacher who recently visited our church and ridiculed modern worship as a collection of repetitious diddies. How strange that such a good man would not be fond of something God not only appreciates but has ordained, namely the endless, changeless chorusing of a single line of certainty. When the truth is significant, there is great power in repetition, especially if the subject is an attribute of God.
Actually, in the Hebrew language when someone writing or speaking wants to emphasize something, he or she will repeat the word. For example, if they wanted to tell you that they fell into a pit, they would say "pit." But if it was a really deep pit, they would say that they fell into a "pit" pit. While several times in the original language of Scripture we can read a repeated word for emphasis (for example, shalom, the Hebrew word for peace used in Isaiah 26:3, is literally "peace, peace," meaning peace now and peace for eternity), nowhere in all of Scripture do we see an attribute repeated three times. This three-peat is used only of God and only of this attribute. The seraphim are saying that God is not just holy, and not just "holy, holy," but that the Lord of hosts is "holy, holy, holy"! The whole earth is full of His glory! Think of that chorus as it goes on endlessly and eternally. In fact, it's going on at this very moment. Isaiah stood there stunned and silent as he gazed upon the transforming scene and trembled in the presence of God.
Excerpted from Gripped by the Greatness of God by James MacDonald. Copyright © 2005 James MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.