Fearsome Holiness

lightening fearsom holiness sxc smallThough appearing over 1000x in Scripture, HOLY is a tricky notion to express in modern secular communities. Few raised in the modern western tradition today have the proper mental and emotional categories to contain its full weight and meaning, even when accurately defined through extended description; and we need extended description for it, because our common uses of the idea are usually off target. Holy is a fearsome notion, and, to tell the truth, modern folk are rarely afraid even if they know they should be.

The tendency throughout Christendom has been to confuse holiness with morality. Many are under the impression that the most basic meaning of holiness is purity,[1] that for God to be holy is to suggest that God is morally unstained by this world.[2] We wrongly imagine that holiness is a moral attribute of God like goodness, mercy, love etc., rather than an essence attribute like omnipresence, eternity, immutability, etc.

This a problem at more than a few points, but chief among them is that this suggests that there exists somewhere a standard called “morality” and “purity” that is independent of God, a standard against which God is measured… even if he is found NOT wanting.

Those who seek in the term HOLY a meaning more generic, such as “separate,” alleviate this, but often detach the term from its singular application in Scripture—the divine… more specifically, human encounter with the divine. This is to say thatקדשׁ  holy is a technical root[3] in Hebrew whose meanings are always associated with the religious, seeming to lack alternate generic applications; i.e. One does not find things being “holy” separated to anything but the divine.

If there is some etymological (original) sense of something so generic as “separate” in the rootקדשׁ  holy its actual use in Hebrew society seems to be exclusive to the idea of God as truly distinct from the human realm, wholly other, belonging completely to a distinct sphere of existence… the divine. To speak of God as holy is to speak of God as truly divine. What in scripture is a category of one. (Revelation 15:4) Indeed, to the prophets of Israel, this was, as I have noted above, a fearsome notion, a breed of terror all its own.

In his classic work, The Idea of the Holy, Rudolph Otto analyzes the concept of the Holy in the ancient world. While well worth the full read, we might summarize his conclusions thus.

In encounters with the Holy One, one finds a terrifying fear of the awesome power & wrath of that, which, being clouded in incomparable mystery displays itself in unapproachable majesty, & draws the overwhelmed witness in exultant fascination in spite of, or perhaps because of, the vitality of the divine, manifested as consuming fire & whirlwind.[4]

Every other notion of holiness in Scripture draws its sense from its connection to this terrifying sense of God. He is the Holy One. People and things are fearfully dedicated to His service in isolation to all else. His character and will are the essence of right, forming all the criteria of morality. To trifle with the Holy is to invite death. (Leviticus 10:1-2; Numbers 16:32-37; 2 Samuel 6:6; Acts 5:5)

The author of Hebrews says it plainly, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) When Moses said, “Please show me your glory,” God said, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18ff) When John, who laid his head upon Jesus’ breast at the last supper, encounters the resurrected Christ in his unveiled splendor, he falls as though dead at His feet. (Revelation 1:17)

An encounter with the Holy One in Scripture is regarded as the proper foundation for all obedience and all wisdom, the fount from which truest faith springs. Are we not afraid? Most of us are not. God is our buddy. We have not, yet, met Him in His fearsome holiness. Pray that we might.



[1] McComiskey, “vdq,” TWOT 2:786-9.

[2] In Akkadian literature, the word-root used for “HOLINESS” in Hebrew does concern purity. This purity, however, is NOT moral. It is used to speak of earthly things free from pollutants. In Akkadian literature, “unholy” would be things like mixed metals, soiled linen, or objects influenced by malevolent spiritual forces.

[3] A root in Hebrew is a series of consonants carrying one or more core meanings, to which the Hebrews add prefixes, suffixes, infixes and particular vowels in order to create various words connected in one way or another to these core ideas.

[4] Otto, Idea of the Holy, et al.

[5] Media Pic from sxc.hu

7 thoughts on “Fearsome Holiness

  1. Robert Kerr says:

    One of the greatest challenges a Christian has is overcoming his or her desire to try and qualify for the love a holy God gives them.

    1. True, because it can’t be done, and the very attempt is an offense to his Holiness. We draw near to Him by nothing but the covering blood of His Son, by faith.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Can you give me an example of how we can “meet Him in His fearsome holiness”? I can understand being afraid of a universe based on chance, a random whirlwind that cares nothing for me and will eventually kill me without a thought. I understand that God is not knowable, predictable; that He is in essence wholly separate from me and the physical world I inhabit. His purposes are far above me. Yet I believe He has made precious promises to me. How/why should I be afraid of Him?

    1. This is a great question that will take some time to answer. The short answer is that one should always fear that which can destroy them if so inclined, so as to do what it take to keep that one from being so inclined. Fear of the Holy and love of the holy are not at odds. The book of Hebrews deals with both realities quite nicely. We enter with confidence, but also with fear of the possible. He has made a way for the sinful to dwell in the presence of the Holy and we may have confidence in that way, in the love that paved it, but should never lose sight of the fearsome holiness that made the creation of a safe path necessary.

      1. Steve says:

        So does “meeting Him in His fearsome holiness” involve more than the amygdula? What higher brain functions can be involved? What does it mean to be in the presence of the Lord? Is there anything in the Bible like Maslow’s peak experiences?

        1. May I recommend the book The Idea of the Holy by Rudolph Otto, Holiness in Israel by John G. Gammie, and Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer, and last but not least, I and Thou by Martin Buber.

          1. Steve says:

            But I want you to net it all out for me in bite-size nuggets!

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