On the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of holiness
Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
If asked to identify a single point of emphasis in the Book of Isaiah, a special feature that distinguishes this prophet from the other prophets of the Bible, I suspect the word ‘holiness’ might come to mind. Isaiah is particularly the prophet of the divine holiness. To begin with, Isaiah’s prophetic call came in an overwhelming experience of the holiness of God. It was 742bc, ‘the year that King Uzziah died.’ The prophet saw the Lord, high and lifted up, and his train filled the Temple. He listened to the alternating chant of the fiery Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft, borne on their pinions, singing the triumphal hymn, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, the earth is full of his glory’
The words he uses
It is perhaps needless to say Isaiah was never again the same. Throughout the rest of the book that bears his name, God is repeatedly called ‘the Holy One of Israel’ This expression is found 26 times throughout the Book of Isaiah, in each of its three major parts, whereas the expression appears only six other times in the entire remainder of the Hebrew Bible. In addition to this specific title, Isaiah uses the adjective ‘holy’ (qadosh) in ascription to God more times (33) than all the other books of the Old Testament put together (26). Its contextual applications, however, are not uniform.
In the first section, the prophecies of the Messiah [chs.1-39], the appeal to God’s holiness is especially found in the setting of the divine judgement on those that reject that holiness. Thus, we read, ‘They have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel’ [1.4; etc.]. In this context of judgement, the holiness of God is perceived as menacing to the idolatrous and unrepentant nation; even the unclean prophet felt threatened [6.5].
In the second part, the prophecies of the Servant of the Lord [chs.40-55], the references to the divine holiness consistently appear in the context of redemption. Typical in this respect is
Isaiah 41.14: “Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,’ says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel’ In this setting, God’s holiness does not inspire fear but reassurance. God calls himself ‘your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel’ [43.14; etc.].
The theme of deliverance
This theme of deliverance also marks the references to the divine holiness in the third section, the prophecies of the Triumphant Warrior [chs.56-66]. Whereas in the first part of Isaiah the unrepentant nation is threatened by the holiness of God, in this last section that same nation receives the promise, ‘They shall call you the city of the Lord, Zion of the Holy One of Israel’ [60.14].
Taking the Book of Isaiah as a whole (appropriately, because the book has been handed down to us as a whole), we discern that the divine holiness embraces more than one experience. It includes not only the sense of transcendence and the sentiment of terror, but also the renewal of strength and the resurgence of hope.
Finally, all three parts of the Book of Isaiah are concerned with the same figure of holiness, because the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, and the Triumphant Hero are all the same Person. He is the Messiah in his conception and birth – the mystery of the Incarnation, about which Isaiah says a great deal, as we hear in Advent. He is the Servant of the Lord in his sufferings and death – the mystery of the Cross, which Isaiah describes in unforgettable detail, as we read on Good Friday. He is the Triumphant Warrior in his victory over sin and death – the mystery of his Resurrection and Exaltation, the theme on which Isaiah ends.
More clearly than any of the other prophets, Isaiah perceived the revelation of the divine holiness in all of these mysteries of Christ our Lord, ‘when he saw his glory and spoke of him’ [John 12.41]. /VD