Familiarity breeds contempt. At least that is often the case with our relationships. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes, “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other.”[i] And all the people said, “Amen!” Or, as the kids might put it, “Been there, done that.”
Interestingly, when it comes to a relationship with God, familiarity breeds not contempt but ever-increasing wonder. Consider, for example, these words from Revelation 4:8–9: “And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’”
John’s words allude to the imagery of Isaiah 6:2–3. In that Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah saw the Lord of Hosts in his temple, surrounded by seraphim who voiced to one another God’s praise. And he explained the function of the six wings: “with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” The seraphim, it seems, covered their eyes out of humility and their feet out of modesty. For, according to Exodus 33:20, no one sees God’s face and lives. Curiously, the four living creatures John mentions are covered with eyes. They constantly see both God’s glory and the world he created. And they constantly fly about him, always in motion, and always singing praise.
Both the seraphim of Isaiah and the creatures of John acclaim God for his holiness. They proclaim it three times: “Holy, holy, holy!”—a superlative of praise. God is not only “holy,” which is good; or “holy, holy,” which is better; but he is “holy, holy, holy,” which is best.
What is holiness? Typically, we think of holiness as a moral quality, the mark of genuine saints. In our more cynical moments, we think of holiness as the possession of the self-righteous. We deride a person as “holier than thou.” In the Bible, however—especially the Old Testament—holiness means “set apart for a definite purpose.” It is a term of distinction. Used of God, holiness expresses God’s utter transcendence and absolutely distinguishes him from creation. “To acknowledge God as holy,” Robert H. Mounce writes, “is to declare his complete separateness from all created beings.”[ii]
Holiness, in other words, is a way of stating that God is divine, not creaturely or human. Unlike his creation, which comes to life and dies (sustained only by God’s power), God “was and is and is to come”—he is eternal. The seraphim and four living creatures worship God simply for who he is. They “gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4).
Familiarity with other humans often brings unendurable irritation, but familiarity with God only eternal delight.
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 13.
[ii] Robert H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 125.