Holy, Holy, Holy – A Unique Description?

Whenever Isaiah 6 is mentioned, there is usually a specific observation in the mix.  Actually, I’ve probably said it myself in the past.  I don’t deny it.  But I do want to offer what might be a helpful balancing observation.  Holy, holy, holy.  The only time a description is repeated three times of God, it is in reference to His holiness.

I have even heard it said that while the Bible says God is love, it emphasizes that He is holy, holy, holy.  This kind of statement can lead us down the path of squabbles over the divine perfections.  I don’t want to go there and somehow tear down God’s holiness.  Absolutely not.  He is holy, holy, holy and the Seraphim know exactly what they’re singing about.

But if we are going to emphasize the description due to its compounded repetition, surely we need to be good Bible readers and recognize other compounded or repeated or multiplied descriptions of God too?  Several come to mind:

In Psalm 136 the Psalmist pounds the refrain again and again, “His steadfast love endures forever.”  I won’t list them all, but he repeats it twenty-six times to be exact.

One of the most quoted texts in the Bible is in Exodus 34.  Moses has headed back up Sinai with two fresh stones following the golden calf debacle.  Surely God has been provoked beyond mercy by their shocking sin?  Uh, no.  Here we find God speaking of Himself, and what does He say?  He repeats His name, then offers a compounded list of eight statements of his love, followed by a couple of clarifications on his justice.  I’m not being simplistic and contrasting eight statements with a couple, but I do want to note the repetition that drives home the theme of His love.

In the New Testament we have passages like Romans 8.  As Paul comes to the climax of his presentation over the previous few chapters, he uses literary features that rely on repetition to drive home his point.  Five rhetorical questions about the love from God the Father and His Son, a quote, and then a list of ten extremes that are unable to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Or there’s Paul’s use of a list in Galatians 5.  Again the love theme has been lurking for quite a while in the background, visible to those watching with eyes open to see, but then stepping into the spotlight when Paul gets to the list of the fruit of the Spirit.  Rather than the perversions of love that the flesh brings forth (the majority of the list of the fruit of the flesh), the fruit of the Spirit, when God is at work in the deepest parts of our lives, is love.  He follows the chief characteristic with four pairs of descriptors, but all are building and reinforcing and clarifying the chief fruit of love.

Actually, if we are sensitized to it, the love theme often resonates in the background of biblical texts.  Psalm 139 is often treated as a hymnic presentation of divine attributes – omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, justice – but all treated in the context of the love of David for the God who loves him.

This post is not about one attribute versus another.  Some insist that the perfections of God cannot be set against one another, but then subsume all of them under a dominant attribute of sovereignty or power.  I’m not doing the opposite here, although some great figures in church history have done so.  My point is more as a biblicist than a historian or even systematician:

Let’s be careful not to make simplistic statements about the literary device of repetition in Isaiah 6 in contrast with the rest of the Bible, without remembering that there are numerous other cases of repetition in slightly different forms, that make divine love the emphasis.

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