By Pastor Glenn Pease
Everett Fullam was in Libera in 1969 when the two Americans, Armstrong and Aldin walked on the moon. He told the Gheo tribe chief this was happening, and the old man looked up to the moon and said, "There's nobody up there." He sounded angry and added, "Besides, that is not big enough for two people to stand on." He had no conception of the size of the moon. The result is, he could not feel the awe of those who knew the wonder of what was taking place.
If you have a small view of reality, you will have a small view of the God who created it. That is why the Psalms are so full of the marvel and wonder of creation. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork. David gazes into the vast wonder of the universe and asks, "What is puny man that you are mindful of him? The more you grasp the magnitude of creation, the more you will gasp at the majesty of the God who made it.
Astronomy is one of the greatest aids to worship, and when we study it in the Bible we will see why it is that most astronomers are people who believe in God. Awe is an aid to faith. It is hard for an astronomer to think small and believe something so vast and orderly can be an accident with no mind behind it. This Psalm we are looking at doesn't even soar into space. It stops earth bound, and still it deals with a God who is truly awesome. He is awesome, not because of His creation and what He has done, but because of His character, and what He is. He is, says David in this unique song, Holy, Holy, Holy. This is called the Holy, Holy, Holy Psalm because God's Holiness is the chorus that concludes each of the three divisions of this Psalm.
Verse 3 ends, He is holy.
Verse 5 ends, He is holy.
Verse 9 ends, our God is holy.
This is the only Psalm where God is called holy three times. Keil & Delitzch, the great Old Testament scholars, call it Song And Praise Of The Thrice Holy One. There is no other attribute of God that is used like His holiness. In Isa. 6:3 the Seraphs around the throne of God call out, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty." In Rev. 4:8 the Living Creatures never stop saying these words around the throne of God: Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty." In both the Old and the New Testaments we have this triune chant.
God is love, but you never find it anywhere as a chant like-love, love, love is the Lord God Almighty. God is light, but no where is there such a song as-light, light, light is the Lord God Almighty. You will look in vain to find any other of the attributes of God used in this triune way. God is an awesome God, and nothing makes this more clear than His holiness.
Many of you have seen the movie Raiders Of The Lost Ark. You saw in the conclusion a marvelous manifestation of the holiness of God. When the German soldiers dared to open the ark of the Lord-that ark that sat in the holy of holies for centuries, and where no man but the high priest dared enter but once a year-the light of God's awesome presence came out of that ark and melted them like a laser beam would melt and ice cream cone. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty would have been an appropriate song to sing after that film.
God's holiness means He is separated from all He has made. He is elevated above all that is finite and imperfect. He is in a different category of reality, and unless He wills it not to happen, anything or anyone that comes into His presence will be disintegrated, for anything that is not holy cannot exist in the presence of His holiness. God is a consuming fire, and your chances of getting to the center of the sun are greater than getting into the literal presence of the holiness of God. Heb. 12:14 says, "Without holiness no one will see the Lord." That is why you will find words like tremble and shake in the context of dealing with the holiness of God.
This Psalm has many good points. I came up with a great outline for a six point sermon:
1. The Affirmation of His Reign.
2. The Adoration of His Fame.
3. The Accomplishment of His Aim.
4. The Authenticity of His Claim.
5. The Authority of His Blame.
But I am going to take just one point for our focus, and that is:
6. THE AWESOMENESS OF HIS NAME.
The name of God stands for who He is, that is, His character. It is awesome because God is holy. That is the essence of this song, and our grasp of this is a key factor in our worship of God. The more we can grasp the holiness of God, the more we can worship Him in spirit and in truth. Everything God is, is holy. His love is holy; His power is holy; His mercy is holy, and His justice is holy. We could go on and on, for His Spirit is the Holy Spirit. There is nothing about God that is not holy, which means totally transcendent and above all else in the quality of His being. Because the holiness of God is so different, it is mysterious and almost impossible to explain. It is more easily conveyed to the emotions than to the intellect.
We all know to some degree what it is to be afraid of the mysterious. I remember the radio program that was popular when I was a kid. It was called Inner Sanctum. I loved to listen as that squeaky door would open and set the atmosphere for a scary story. Inner Sanctum means within the holy. The holy and scary are linked, for man is fearful of the holy. It deals with dreadful and awful things that are beyond the control of his mind and body, for the holy is supernatural. We are pulled toward the holy like a magnet drawing us and attracting our soul, but at the same time we are repulsed by it, and we tremble and shake in fear. The holy is a paradox, for we love it and fear it at the same time.
Kids love to gather around the campfire and tell ghost stories, and yet they shiver and scream and have nightmares because of them. This love-hate feeling about the holy is just what we see in the Bible. Rudolf Otto, who wrote the most famous book on the subject, The Idea Of The Holy back in the 1950's wrote this:
"The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like
a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil
mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into
a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing,
as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at
last it dies away and the soul resumes its profane,
non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may
burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the
soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the
strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to
transport and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic
forms and can sink to an almost grizzly horror and
shuddering. It has it crude barbaric antecedents and
early manifestations, and again it may be developed
into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It
may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless
humility of the creature in the presence of-whom or
what? In the presence of that which is a mystery
inexpressible and above all creatures."
In a nutshell, any scary feeling due to a sense of the presence of the supernatural is an experience of the holy. The old Negro spiritual says, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble." That is a description of experiencing the holy. It is an awesome feeling of being in the presence of mystery, and that is scary because it cannot be grasped by the mind.
Maybe some of you have tried to imagine what it is like to be dead, and for you to not be in the world, and it is a scary and awesome thought, and your mind cannot resolve it, and your emotions feel strange. You are confronting the holy, the world of mystery that is scary because it does not fit into our categories of reality. The holy puts us on the borderline between a reality we can grasp, and one that is beyond our grasp. We are attracted to that reality, but also fearful of it, for to cross that border is to enter the twilight zone and be insane from the point of view of the normal. A holy roller is one who has crossed the border and cares not for physical reality, for his soul has gone crazy with emotions that are powered by his experience of the holy.
All of this stuff is scary, and so we prefer to keep our comfort zone well away from the holy. We feel far more comfortable with the non-holy. That is not necessarily anything evil, but just the normal flesh and blood commonplace living where the natural is our game, and nothing supernatural is a part of it. It is okay to feel this way, for in our present bodies we are not made to get too close to God. It was not just in the holy of holies, but even in the great outdoors of the Sinai wilderness that God's presence could be deadly.
In Ex. 19 the Lord came down in a thick cloud with lightning and thunder on Sinai, and He said to Moses in verse 21, "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish." In 20:18 we read, "When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke they trembled with fear." They were afraid of hearing God less they die. There was both an attraction, for they wanted to see God, and a repulsion, for they were afraid of God. The tension was good for it aroused their curiosity to know God and what He was revealing to Moses. Yet, fear kept them from running into the awesome presence of God. Some of the smartest men in history had not learned to respect the awesomeness of God and His wondrous works.
Vesuvius had been a sleeping volcano for centuries, but in the year 79A.D. on Aug. 24th it erupted. Pliny, who wrote the Natural History, and who was the most voluminous and encyclopedic writer, was curious about the great fire and smoke. Like people today he wanted to get closer to the scene. He took a ship across the bay and landed near Herculaneum. Showers of ashes were falling. The day became dark as the sun was blotted out by the smoke belching mountain. They could not go back for the earthquakes made the waves come in so high there was no escape. Many in Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under lava. Pliny was found with no injury to his body. It was fully clothed and unharmed, but the sulfur fumes blocked his windpipe and he could not breathe. He died of suffocation. His curiosity killed him, and it could have done the same to the Israelites had they gotten too close to the smoke billowing up from Mt. Sinai.
This memory stuck with them, and they never forgot that God was an awesome God. If you get too close you get burned. The fear of God is a healthy respect for His holiness, which is very much like respect for fire. It is a great blessing, but you cannot get too close or you suffer pain rather than pleasure. God is the author of all such paradoxes, for they illustrate His nature. If God is a consuming fire, how can we ever enter His presence? That is what salvation is all about. It is providing us with bodies that can stand in the presence of His holiness and not perish, but instead, praise.
Jesus crossed over that border that divides the holy and the non-holy, and He came into the world of flesh. He took on His body the sin of the world, and carried this unholy mass into the very flames of hell as He cried out on the cross, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" By so doing Jesus gained a body that was raised from death and hell, and that could pass through the fires of God's holiness and be untouched. All that is not tempered, as was His body, will pass through the flames of God's holiness and perish like wood hay and stubble. But those who are in Christ will be given bodies like His, and they will be able to stand in the presence of God, and like diamond in the sunlight reflect the glory of God.
We will be able to see God face to face and not fear disintegration. This gives us the peace that passes understanding. We will be able to dwell in His very presence. But until then we still live in the fear of the Lord. His holiness is too hot to handle in our present body, and so we stand in awe. The idea of God being terrible and awful is one that is often ignored. It does not mean God is bad, but that he is high, holy, and awesome. Peter Kreeft, one of the great authors of our day writes, "I think there is not a single experience in the storeroom of human consciousness that has more totally disappeared in the modern world than this. There is no other way in which the Western Man of this century more radically differs from the kind of man that prevailed at virtually all other times and places in history than this: the loss of awe."
He feels the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are the best tools for giving modern man a feeling of awe. Aslan the lion represents Christ, and he stimulates awe. Balance is so hard to maintain. We so stress the loving forgiving nature of God that we forget His holiness and demands for justice. Psa. 99 does not divide these two sides of God, but makes them part of one whole picture. Look at verse 8 where it says, "You were to Israel a forgiving God though you punished their misdeeds."
God has two faces: The loving forgiving Father, and that of the angry severe judge. He is both merciful and stern; both soft and hard. Seeing both of these faces is the key to experiencing the reality of God as an awesome God. Peter Kreeft is a marvelous author and theologian, and he has done a brilliant job of helping us see these two faces of God that Satan does not want us to see. Listen to these two profound paragraphs from his book, Knowing The Truth Of God's Love.
"God shows us these two faces of His love in the opposite way
and at the opposite times from the way the devil shows them.
Before we sin, God shows us the authoritative face, the stern
warning away from the incomparable harm that always comes
to us and others (for "no man is an island") from sin. If we are
saying, if we live in the real world and value things at there true
worth, we ought to fear sin more than sickness, suffering, or
death itself. At this stage, when we are tempted and
contemplating sin, God appears to us as stern and Satan is kind.
Satan reminds us then of how forgiving God is, to tempt us to sin and
its harms. He tempts us to presumption.
But after we sin, Satan tempts us to despair. Then he reminds
us of how uncompromising and stern God is, and how awful
sin is. Satan tells the truth, but never the whole truth. He tells
us the truth we will misinterpret. That's how he leads us on.
But after we sin, God wants to show us (if we only listen to
Him rather than Satan, which is something sin makes much
harder to do) the compassionate face of the Father of the
Prodigal Son to keep us from despair. Thus we are doubly
surprised if we listen to God: first, by how serious sin is when
we feel it is not so bad; and, second, by how forgiving God is
when we feel only how serious sin is. We should remember
these two faces and turn to the one Satan is hiding and God is
offering at all times."
Seeing the right face of God at the right time is the key to the good and righteous life. If we saw the awesome face of God and trembled in fear, we would not lightly defy His will and choose to act in ways that displease Him. We would resist temptation and refuse to tarnish the holy name of God by willful disobedience. But in the absence of the awe of God we lose our motivation to resist evil.
David pictures God sitting enthroned between the cherubim, and that means nothing to us. To the Jews it was an awesome thought, for to come into the presence of those cherubim was to be a death warrant. They sat on top of the ark in the holy of holies. You recall the cherub that God set at the gate of paradise with the flaming sword. If Adam and Eve would have tried to sneak back into the garden to eat of the tree of life they would have been zapped into instant cremation. To say God dwells between the cherubim would be to the Hebrew mind what saying he dwells in the center of the hydrogen bomb trigger apparatus would mean to us. It was the most fearful and awesome place on earth to their minds. It was a place of instant death if you were not invited by God Himself.
The awesome side of God is for our protection. It has a very positive purpose. Had that awesome angel not been preventing Adam from getting back to the tree of life he could have eaten and lived forever, but in a state of rebellion and out of fellowship with God. He would have been like Satan and the fallen angels. God threw fear into Adam, and the flaming fire that would have cremated him was there so Adam could be saved, and be able to fellowship with God forever as a redeemed child. God's plan of salvation depended on keeping Adam from saving himself right into hell. The negative side of God is only really negative when you refuse to respect it. The awesome and fearful side of God is a key factor in helping us enjoy Him forever, and all of the riches of His grace.
Those who would throw out the so-called negatives of God's awesome nature would lay off the cherubim at Eden's gate and let Adam and Eve go to eternal damnation. God in love made them tremble and shake in fear that they might trust in Him and not go their own way. This was His way of making sure they would be saved for eternal bliss. What we need to see is that we fear the holiness of God because it posses the greatest danger to our sinful nature. We fear it for the same reason we fear getting our hair to close to fire. They just do not go well together, and we know if they get too close it will not go well with the hair. So we fear the holiness of God, for it will hurt us. But what we need to see is that it is also our greatest blessing, for because God is holy it is inevitable that goodness and justice, and all that is right will prevail. That is what verse 4 stresses. God loves justice and does what is just and right.
The character of God is what determines the ultimate destiny of the universe. God is love, but if His love was not holy that would be a disaster. If God loved evil as well as good, there would be no assurance that eternity would be pleasant and enjoyable. His holiness makes it clear that God loves only the positive virtues. If God loved the negative also, it would be unholy love, and that would negate His love for the good, and God would be evil.
A holy love has to hate all that is not holy. If I love faithfulness, but say I love unfaithfulness equally, I have negated my love for faithfulness, and worse yet, I have despised and rejected faithfulness. The only way to truly love faithfulness is to despise unfaithfulness. In other words, if you do not hate the opposite of what you love, you end up hating what you love. Holy love has to, by its very nature, hate what is contrary to what it loves. Hate is a key to love being permanent. Love without hate will end. The more we can grasp this, the more we will understand the nature of God and His wrath, and the fearful side of Him that makes Him awesome.
If I love truth, I must hate what is false. If I say I love the false to, I then despise the truth. I can't have it both ways. You have to make choices in life. You can't have your cake and eat it too. It is true for God as well, and God, because He is holy, has to, by His very nature, hate and despise all that is not holy, just, good, and right. This is scary for us because we are not holy, just, good, and right in many ways, and so we feel like a lock of hair would feel if it could feel as it approached a flame. It would tremble and shake. That is the way we ought to feel, for we are not fit to be in the presence of His holiness. On the other hand, we can rejoice in His holiness, for it means all evil, injustice, and wrong is heading for the scrap heap of the universe to be permanently eliminated from the presence of God's people.
We have ambivalent feelings about the holiness of God. We fear and tremble because we are not holy, but we rejoice and praise God for His holiness, for that is our hope of eternal victory over all evil. The paradox of God's holiness is everywhere in the Bible. The holy of holies is where God was present, but if anybody went in there it was instant death. Yet, the only hope of forgiveness was to get into God's presence and offer a sacrifice. So the high priest once a year was allowed to enter God's presence to offer such a sacrifice. It was both deadly and absolutely essential to get into God's presence. On the cross Jesus entered God's holy presence with the sin of the world on Him, and the holiness of God cast Him, and all the sin of the world, into the hell of damnation. That is when Jesus cried out asking God why He was forsaken.
All unholiness was judged in Christ and damned by the holiness of God. But then God raised up Jesus with a body that was pure and holy, and cleansed of all that unholiness He took upon Himself. He came out of the fire perfected, and able to stand in the presence of God without fear. In Christ we will be raised with just such a body as His, and stand in God's presence also without fear and trembling. We will be forever grateful that God was, is, and ever shall be, a God of holiness.
Until that final day of resurrection we will not feel comfortable about the holiness of God. We can learn to love it and rejoice in it, and come to understand it as the basis for our eternal hope. But we will still feel the awesomeness of it, for it will, the more we see it, make us look so unholy. This is what happened to Isaiah in Isa. 6. He was a man of God, as good a man as you could find, but listen to what he says when he saw the seraphs around the throne of God singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty." He writes in 6:5, "Woe to me "I cried," I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord Almighty."
God's holiness made Him feel very unholy, and He felt it was the end for Him, for how could God tolerate such awful crud? But God was not interested in judgment. He cleansed Isaiah of his sin and guilt. Our unholiness only needs to bother us if we love it, for to love unholiness is to hate holiness, and to be a rebel against a holy God. But if we hate it that we are unholy, God is on our side to help us gain the victory and to be over comers. What is hard for us to do is to get the two sides of the paradox together, and see that the hard side of God's holiness is a valid and vital part of His soft side of mercy.
Joseph Clark, a missionary and anthropology professor, tells of a scene he remembers as a child. The principal of his school was disciplining some students. He was whipping them as the teacher stood off to the side weeping. He saw the weeping as love, and the whipping as holiness, and it took him a long time to get rid of this misconception. The weeping and the whipping are not opposites in God, but they are one. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, but because they would not respond to His weeping, the whip was applied, and Jerusalem was wiped out in judgment just as Jesus warned. Holy love needs to see a willingness to respond to that love, or it has to act in judgment. Judgment is never God's choice, for it is forced upon Him by man's lack of choosing to respect His Word and holiness. In both love and judgment it is very clear that our God is an awesome God.