The following is a plenary session given by Dr. Bruce Ware, Professor of Christian Theology, Southern Seminary, at CDG NatCon 2013.
Turn to Isaiah 57:15.
15 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.
We are going to focus on this verse today. But in order to see the whole context, we really need to see the whole chapter and how verse 15 fits in. There’s an antagonist and a protagonist to be seen. This is what I want to press on – what does Isaiah 57:15 contribute to our understanding of God and his holiness? We must see the whole chapter.
1 The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; 2 he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. 3 But you, draw near, sons of the sorceress, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman. 4 Whom are you mocking? Against whom do you open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue? Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, 5 you who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks? 6 Among the smooth stones of the valley is your portion; they, they, are your lot; to them you have poured out a drink offering, you have brought a grain offering. Shall I relent for these things? 7 On a high and lofty mountain you have set your bed, and there you went up to offer sacrifice. 8 Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your memorial; for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a covenant for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have looked on nakedness. 9 You journeyed to the king with oil and multiplied your perfumes; you sent your envoys far off, and sent down even to Sheol. 10 You were wearied with the length of your way, but you did not say, “It is hopeless”; you found new life for your strength, and so you were not faint.
11 Whom did you dread and fear, so that you lied, and did not remember me, did not lay it to heart? Have I not held my peace, even for a long time, and you do not fear me? 12 I will declare your righteousness and your deeds,
but they will not profit you. 13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off,
a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain.
14 And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” 15 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. 16 For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would grow faint before me, and the breath of life that I made. 17 Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry, I struck him; I hid my face and was angry, but he went on backsliding in the way of his own heart. 18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, 19 creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him. 20 But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt. 21 There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”
Here’s a story of:
- The protagonist – God, first, who – implied in this text and explicitly described in many others – is kind, gracious, giving, providing and protecting his people, pledging to them all they need, guarding them from harm, and promising untold blessing if they will but follow and obey him. Isaiah 55 – God is the vinekeeper who nourishes the vine to bear fruit – which it didn’t do. Behind the rebellion of his people is a God who has been nothing but generous. He has offered to them untold blessings; if they would just obey him. The grace of God begins this story.
- The antagonist – His chosen people, second, who despite the magnitude of God’s mercy, prove themselves relentlessly unfaithful, rebellious against divine authority, and thankless in the face of divine forbearance and repeated forgiveness.
- In response, God moves against these people, and brings upon these treasonous rebels his just and wholly justified judgment, displaying the heat of his anger against their transgressions of law and idolatry of heart and action.
- But this is not the end of the story. Then, amazingly, astonishingly, incredibly, this same God now pledges himself to their renewal, restoration, transformation, promising that they will indeed become, in the end, the objects of his most gracious and generous favor and blessing. They must humble themselves – this is true – but God will work in them to bring about this transformation of heart that is necessary for them to be changed, and thus fit for them to be recipients of God’s blessings for them. He will not fail to make of them an obedient and faithful people who experience the fullness of his kindness.
- We see, then, that God’s final word to his people is not the word of judgment they rightly and righteously received before – we would expect him to say that “I am done with you!” no, God’s final word is a word of restoration, renewal, forgiveness, transformation, and joyous divine favor, despite their despicable sinfulness and absolute unworthiness. Now transformed, they will receive the fullness of what God has for them, this hard-hearted but transformed people of God.
This is an amazing and incredible story, displaying the greatness of the forbearance and forgiveness of God, and extoling his immense mercy, kindness, and faithfulness to his covenant commitment to these people of his choosing. We don’t want his grace – we want our own way. But God graciously forbears, keeping his covenant to the people of his choosing.
But . . . here’s what I want you to see now – all of this can be conveyed beautifully without verse 15. The story reads just fine without it.
In fact, listen as I read verses 13-16, omitting verse 15
13 When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain.
14 And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
16 For I will not contend forever, nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would grow faint before me, and the breath of life that I made.
What Isa 57:15 adds is this: the revelation of the holiness of God! It is in verse 15 in particular that we see a revelation of the holiness of God. We have seen other elements in the chapter, but in verse 15 a dimension is introduced that adds enormous significance to the story we’ve just seen.
So, what does it mean for God to be holy?
Dual Truths of God’s Holiness
First, God’s Holiness refers to this: God’s Transcendent Excellence, Independent Self-existence, and Eternal Fullness of Perfection Separate and Apart from all things Created
- Elements of 57:15a – high and exalted, inhabits eternity, name is holy (i.e., his nature is one of a kind, e.g., Isa 46:9). We are finite. Everything that is qualitatively good God possesses in infinite measure. We only have what is derivitive, and we possess it in finite measure. You can see this in verse 15 – this one who is lifted high, literally who inhabits eternity. We realize this is not us – this is God alone who inhabits eternity. There wasn’t and will never be a time where God does not exist. And too we see the name of God is holy. Think about Isaiah 6 – they don’t say, “love, love, love.” It is “Holy, holy, holy!” There’s something about the holiness of God that gets to the very core and nature of God. There is a sense in which holiness describes the Godness of God. He doesn’t say “Jacob have I been holy towards, but Esau I haven’t been.” He is always holy. His emphasis on his holiness underscores that he is the creator of all that is. Notice Isaiah 66:1-2 and how similar they are. So paralell to Isaiah 57:15. God as Creator and Holy are mutually entailed – that there is a creation means that it must be made by this holy God.
- Implications of 57:15a – God as self-sufficient, God as Creator; we are dependent, we owe him our allegiance. Everything that God “needs” is fulfilled within himself. He doesn’t need us! He did not have to create. We are not here to provide something that God lacks. This is humbling! To come to terms with the fact that God does not need me. It is so healthy to say those words. We are the generation that has excelled in selfish – the preoccupation with the importance of me. We have to overcome this – God, in who he is, doesn’t need any of us. Paul puts it this way in Acts 17:25 – “for life, and breath, and all things.” We are dependent on him for all things. Our allegiance is properly owed to him. Not only because of the cross, but also because of creation.
Second God’s Holiness, refers to this: God’s infinite and eternal Purity, his Separation from all sin and evil, his disposition by which he approves and embraces what is good and righteous while rejecting and judging what is impure and contrary to his morally perfect character.
This is implied by 57:15b, where only the contrite and lowly can be rightly related to God. Sin is unacceptable, so his people are called to turn in humility from sin to be with this holy God. He cannot be with sin – Psalm 5:4. This second sense of the holiness of God is only implied in verse 15, but it is implied in 15b. He dwells “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.”
So, ontologically – in his very being, he is separated from all other reality. And he is separated morally from all things that are impure. This is the holiness of God.
Impact of the Revelation of God’s Holiness on our Story
We realize, then, that the protagonist in this story, the faithful and gracious covenant partner, who judges for a season and then pledges himself fully to the restoration and renewal of his people, is none other than the one-and-only, infinite and majestic holy God, Creator of all that is, who eternally exists in the fullness of his glorious perfections. What does this add to our understanding of the story?
First, because of God’s transcendent otherness, his independence from all things created, his self-sufficient existence in the joyous and blessed fellowship of the Triune Persons, his fullness of perfections and infinite completeness within himself alone – because of this, he simply does not need these people whom he has created, to whom he has pledged his undying and faithful commitment to their everlasting well-being.
We move, then, from mere astonishment to a perspective that is nearly unbelievable, were it not shown to be true by the revelation of God himself. Why should he care? What leads him to commit himself to those he does not need, to those who have mocked his rightful ownership of them? Answer: he chose to create them, to love them, and to make them his own. For no benefit he derives, but for the benefit they derive, he made them the objects of his perfect and faithful electing, restoring, transforming love. C.S. Lewis said in The Problem of Evil that the love of God is bottomlessly self-less by very definition – it has everything to give and nothing to receive. Why can’t it receive anything? Because it already has everything! . This is what the revelation of the holiness of God adds to our story, when seen in light of God’s transcendent and independent self-existence apart from all.
How does this help us in ministry to children? Here is one key idea: we need to work hard to teach our children that the love of God is not an entitlement. We have to work hard to show them that they don’t deserve this – which is exactly contrary to everything the culture is telling us. The only thing we deserve is everlasting condemnation. We need to help our children revel in the love of God – the God who gives, who wants us to experience the fulness of joy. Children need to know the love of God, not as entitlement, but as sovereign grace.
But there’s more . . .
Secondly, because of God’s infinite and eternal purity, his deep and abiding holy disdain for evil and his unflinching commitment to what is good, he can only truly love his people on one condition: they must be as he is – holy and blameless. Anything less or other would be a denial of his very character as God, and anything less or other would be a denial of their actual and real good. Holiness is the substance of goodness and joy, while unholiness is the makings of all misery and ruin. For God’s own sake, and for the sake of his people, they must be as he is – holy and blameless.
But recall from Eph 1:4, this – holy and blameless – is exactly what he elected them to be, before he even created the world! And, recall from Eph 5:27 this is exactly what Christ died to make them, as he showered his love upon them in his atoning death for their sin. Both announce the two ends of this – eternity past, I choose them to be what they are not now. I send my son so they might be brought to me and dwell with me, because I must dwell in a high and holy place, and only those who are holy can dwell with me.
Isaiah 55:18-19 tells us that he repledges himself to them – this is Ephesians 2:4. “But God.” Notice who does the work to bring about the transformation. God does!
I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and his mourners, creating the fruit of the lips. Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord, “and I will heal him.”
How does this translate to children’s ministry? We start them on a path where they grow in the knowledge of how undeserving they are, how sinful they are, how prone they are to resist authority. This is one reason that parental authority has to be seen in the home – their sinful hearts have to be confronted. And this isn’t for just actions, but also attitudes! They must be holy to be in God’s presence. This is the whole point of God giving his law to his people, but his people won’t do his law. So God writes the law on the hearts so that we are the law-keeping, holy people that we must be if we are to be with him forever. This is what our kids must see. 1 John 4:10, Romans 5:8 – God loves us while we are still sinners! Help your children learn the incredible nature of the God who saves them out of their sin, makes them holy, and brings them to himself.
Again, we move from mere astonishment to a perspective that is almost beyond our ability truly to conceive. What love is this?! Because we can only be with God, experiencing the fullness of his presence and enjoying the fellowship of his nearness, as we are made the holy people we (as did Israel) disdained and rejected, so God now moves to remake us to long to be what we should be. As Isa 57:19 says, God creates the praise of our lips! Oh what mercy, what power, what sovereign grace this is.
The revelation in verse 15 of the holiness of God, then, confronts us with a God who is at one and the same time eternally separate in the fullness of his perfections, and intimately near as he chooses to create and draw near those whom he remakes to he as he is, holy. There is a condition: be holy! But he makes us holy in the gospel. Herein is the power and the beauty of holiness, revealed to bring us to be with him, in a joyous and holy union, forever.