When the angels and elders around God’s throne worship him, the attribute they praise again and again is his holiness. Unceasingly they cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8).
God is not just holy; he is holy, holy, holy! Even the place around God is holy simply by virtue of its proximity to his holiness. So God told Moses that the ground around him was “holy ground,” and the place where God dwelt in the Tabernacle was called the most holy place (Exodus 3:5; 26:34).
Clearly, holiness is an important part of who God is—an attribute we need to understand if we want to know God. But it’s not a word we hear very often these days. What does “holy” mean, anyway?
The root of the Hebrew word for holy (qadosh) means “to cut.” It signifies separation, being set apart, radical otherness. There is a fundamental, transcendental distinction between the Creator and his creatures, and this vast gulf is signified by the word “holy.”
There is a fundamental, transcendental distinction between the Creator and his creatures, and this vast gulf is signified by the word “holy.”
God is holy, we are not. In another sense, holiness characterizes all God’s perfection, all of his attributes. He is perfect goodness, perfect love, perfect mercy . . . in short, he is totally holy.
Holiness also calls attention to God’s moral perfection. Holy things were set apart because they were pure, without blemish or fault. When confronted with God’s holiness, Isaiah was devastated by his sin. He knew that God had to be totally separate from sin. So he cried out, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Just like laying a new white T-shirt next to an old one shows us how dingy the old one has become, when we see the perfection of God, we see how impure we are.
But God’s holiness doesn’t stop with the concept of transcendent purity—the holy God draws near to us. He is not just on his holy hill; he is the holy one in our midst (Hosea 11:9). He creates a holy people for himself (Exodus 19:6) and makes us holy through the blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:16; 2:9).
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15 NIV)
The holy God doesn’t just shine a light on our sinfulness; he saves us from it and clothes us in his own robes of righteousness. One day we will find ourselves in heaven, kneeling before God’s throne, singing of his holiness! But we don’t have to wait for heaven to worship the holy, holy, holy God; we can join in that eternal hymn of praise right now.