In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:1-3)
Throughout the Bible, whenever anyone has a vision of God’s throne, it is surrounded by the four seraphim (Ezek. 1, Rev. 4). They are the creatures closest to God’s throne and thus many Christian and Jewish thinkers believed them to be the highest order of supernatural creatures.
As the creatures closest to God, the ones who presumably know Him best, the seraphim have a deep and profound understanding of God’s nature. The thing that they continually proclaim about God is His holiness.
In Hebrew, to emphasize something, you repeat it; repeating something three times is the highest degree of emphasis possible. In the case of God, holiness is the only characteristic that is repeated three times. For the seraphim, holiness is the ultimate, highest description of who God is.
So what exactly is holiness?
The basic meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart” or “separated.” The items in the Temple were holy because they were set apart from common use. From there, the meaning extends to people’s behavior, so that we are to live lives that are separated from sin. That is the most common understanding of holiness today, the idea of being morally pure and upright in behavior.
God is certainly holy in that sense, but the seraphim are saying something even more profound than that. The seraphim are in awe of God’s absolute holiness—the fact that He is absolutely separate from everything else in existence. Everything else is created, including the seraphim themselves; God is the uncreated Creator. Everything else is finite; God is infinite in every way and in every capacity. Everything else is sustained by God; only He is self-sustaining. In short, in the words of St. Augustine, God is “other, completely other.”
To put it differently, God is incomprehensible. Nothing about Him is in any way like anything else. This is the heart of apophatic theology, an approach to understanding God through negation, that is, describing what He is not and recognizing the limits of human language and thought to grasp His holiness. Since our minds cannot conceive God’s ineffable nature, and since human language is utterly inadequate to contain Him, the best that we can do is to recognize how unlike everything He is and recognize the limits of even our best language to describe Him as He is.
For example, medieval theologian Duns Scotus argued that to say “God exists” is misleading, since we always think of existence in terms we understand from the physical world. Yet God does not exist in the same way a rock, tree, or mountain exists, and thus our statement that He does exist is inadequate and can lead us to a misunderstanding of God because of the limits of human experience, thought, and language. This may seem an odd argument but it is an important point: many atheists base their arguments against God’s existence on a human understanding of existence, thus failing to recognize the difference between the nature of God’s existence and anything we know or experience.
But this is not the end of the story. God has chosen to reveal who He is to us in terms accommodated to our ability to understand them. We can thus say that to some extent God is a mystery—something that has been hidden but now is revealed. We may not be able to fully understand God, but what we can know of Him has been revealed to us in Scripture and in Jesus Christ.
And what is most remarkable is that who God is to us by His own self-revelation is very different from who He is to the seraphim. We will return to this in a later post.