CHAPTER 6- REJOICE WITH TREMBLING
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. ~Psalm 2:11
Several summers ago, my wife and I went to a nearby park for the annual 4th of July fireworks show. We got great seats, right on the grassy hill overlooking the field where they set off the explosives. I love fireworks, and this year was particularly spectacular. We were enthralled by the show, but about halfway through the event, an approaching severe thunderstorm forced the night to end early and sent us all scurrying to our cars.
That night is burned into my memory because of a vivid shift in perspective that happened right before the storm hit. We had been sitting on our blankets marveling at the brightly colored fireworks, but our show was quickly dwarfed as the rumbling, flashing bank of dark clouds rolled in. I can still remember seeing the lightning exploding across the sky from a towering bank of storm clouds behind the fireworks, and all of a sudden, our light show seemed puny by comparison. Even the noise of “bombs bursting in air” was drowned out by the rising wind and steady rumbling thunder.
The incoming storm exposed our fireworks as the silly light show that they really were. Moments before, we had been amazed by the lights and sounds. But now, against the backdrop of the approaching storm, our biggest fireworks seemed like the sparklers that kids hold in the backyard. They just weren’t impressive anymore, overshadowed by a vastly superior spectacle. God’s fireworks were, frankly, much better than ours.
I learned a valuable lesson that night about worship and the fear of God. I find myself so often enamored by the world’s toys and distracted from an undivided pursuit of God by admiring the fireworks of worldly entertainment. The only thing that will set us free from the pursuit of small-time shows is to behold a vastly superior spectacle.
Jesus Christ is the greatest spectacle in the universe. His authority, love, power, holiness, humility, justice, and mercy outshine and overshadow every other glory. The greatest thrills in the world are like a meager fireworks show compared to his greatness. The problem is, we’re enamored by our own light shows and toys. “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult,” Isaiah 60:5 says about the sight of this glory. He is more thrilling than the cheap toys that compete for our attention. What we need is a shift in perspective, to see our pursuits and desires and hobbies and entertainment in the light of his overwhelming beauty.
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY
Isaiah got a glimpse of this spectacle one day in a vision that changed the course of his life and ministry. While I don’t anticipate getting the same kind of vision that rocked his world, I trust that God put this account into his Word so that the Holy Spirit could take the truth here and rock my world and yours as well with the same power that changed Isaiah.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to the other and said, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
Isaiah tells us that this vision came during a time of change and turmoil in the kingdom. King Uzziah, who had loved the Lord and presided over a long era of national prosperity, had died. But in the midst of mourning and change, Isaiah saw a glimpse of the undying King who was still sitting on his throne, still ruling over his universe. When it says that “the train of his robe filled the temple,” we’re supposed to get a picture of how spectacularly massive this king is; the fringe of his garment fills the entire room. This brings to mind King Solomon’s words at the dedication of the temple: “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house I have built!” Seeing God face to face, Isaiah must have recognized the reality of those words; this grand temple that served as the center of Israel’s worship couldn’t even contain the corner of the King’s royal robes. All the systems of worship built around the temple must have seemed ludicrously insufficient in that moment as Isaiah gazed on the King, high and lifted up. Our songs don’t do him justice, our sacrifices don’t supply anything to him, our services barely scratch the surface of who he is. A shrinking feeling must have come over Isaiah in that moment as he realized that all of his life of ministry and service didn’t add anything to this King, as if he needed anything. That’s where true worship starts: realizing that the King doesn’t need you, but that you need the King.
All around the King, Isaiah saw heavenly beings flying and endlessly singing praise. The word “seraphim” in Hebrew literally means “burning ones.” Throughout Scripture, the appearance of these flaming angelic beings was enough to send mortals cowering to the ground, but they themselves are obviously overcome by the far superior spectacle of the King. Their strange appearance makes that clear: “Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.” Two wings covered the angels’ eyes, because even these “burning ones” could not look full on into the consuming fire of God’s holiness and survive. So they shield their eyes from the brightness of his glory. Two other wings cover their feet, lest they disrespect God by trampling his glorious presence. This brings to mind Moses standing before the flaming presence of God, and God telling him:
“Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. ~Exodus 3:5-6
Moses was right to strip off his dirty shoes and shield his eyes; not even the heavenly Burning Ones dare to look at God or get too close. And yet, even at their safe distance, they cannot help but endlessly worship the One they catch glimpses of. “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty!” they cry. “The whole earth is full of his glory!”
When the flaming angels proclaim, “Holy, holy, holy!” they are doing more than just repetition for the sake of redundancy. In Hebrew poetry, repeating something twice adds emphasis; repeating something three times emphasizes the emphasis, making it urgent and absolute. Saying something once, twice, or three times in the Bible is like this:
Twice- very beautiful
Three times- MOST PERFECTLY BEAUTIFUL!
So when the angels say, “Holy, holy, holy,” they are shouting in bold, uppercase, underlined letters, “HE IS ABSOLUTELY, PERFECTLY, INFINITELY, BREATHTAKINGLY HOLY!” Do they have your attention yet? They continue: “the entire world is filled with his glory, with the radiance of his perfection!” The Self-Existent One, they say, is infinitely holy, and the echo of his beauty and worth fills all of creation.
The word “holy” doesn’t just mean “morally perfect” like many people think it does. Rather, the word “holy” has the idea of being set apart, different, unstained, pure. The truth that God is holy means, in addition to him being morally perfect, that he is utterly unique, set apart, and different. He is in a class by himself. He is utterly unlike us, exalted high above our ability to comprehend. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts,” he says in Isaiah 55. That’s a picture of just one facet of his holiness: comparing his thinking to our thinking is like comparing an inch to a light year, or a candle to a supernova. He is unique and set apart, different. Two chapters later, God is described like this: “the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy.” He is exalted far above us, and even exists outside of time—he “inhabits eternity.” All of this is summed up in the phrase, “whose name is Holy.” His name, his very essence, is set-apartness.
Isaiah, confronted with this set-apart One, the Holy King that even the Burning Ones fear, fell on his face in terror.
And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Almighty!”
“I am lost!” Isaiah cried. Other translations render that as, “I am undone,” or “I am ruined.” The Hebrew word that Isaiah uses has the idea of coming apart, of being destroyed. “I am wrecked,” he says, “because I am a man of unclean lips.” In the piercing blaze of the King’s holiness, Isaiah becomes keenly aware of his own sinfulness. This is especially poignant considering that in the previous chapter, Isaiah had leveled “woe” after “woe” against God’s rebellious people. Six times in chapter 5 he pronounced prophetic woes against the rich who forsake God’s ways, the sinners who indulge themselves, the evil people who love their sin, the moral relativists who call good evil and evil good, and those who trust and admire their own wisdom. But now the light of God’s holiness is turned on him, and he pronounces his seventh woe… against himself. “Woe is me!” is all he can say. He has been broken by the sin he sees all around him, but now in God’s presence, he is broken by the sin he sees in himself.
In this moment, as he sees his own sin in stark relief against God’s dangerous perfection, he knows there is no hope for him. “I’m lost, undone, wrecked, because I’m a sinner in a land of sinners, and I’ve seen the King face to face!” He has done what the angels dare not do; he has looked straight on the face of Yahweh, and he knows he is ruined. Like a twig cast into the fire, he expects to be turned to ash and annihilated by the consuming fire he sees.
That’s why what happens next is so surprising. Isaiah experiences not annihilation but atonement; not destruction but deliverance.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
The fiery angel goes to the altar—the place of sacrifice—and carefully picks up a coal with tongs. I find that fascinating; this altar, this sacrifice, is too hot for even the Burning Ones to touch. And yet this supernaturally hot coal is seared right onto Isaiah’s lips, a gracious, cleansing branding. What remains is a scar of sinlessness: “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.”
What is this coal, this sacrifice that angels cannot approach and yet takes away the guilt of sinners? Could it be that what Isaiah is experiencing here is the power of the cross applied to his guilty lips? The sacrifice of Christ is what “angels long to look into” (1 Peter 1:12), and Hebrews 10:19 tells us that only the blood of Jesus gives us access into the holy presence of God. And so Isaiah’s only hope, even 700 years before the Savior arrives, is that God will relate to him on the basis of that future sacrifice. Here in Isaiah we have a picture of the grace that each of us who are in Christ have experienced: we are ruined, guilty sinners in the presence of the King, but have been seared into sinlessness, branded by the blood of Jesus—and all our guilt is gone.
FRIGHTENING OR FUN?
Now let me stop and ask an important question. On Sunday morning, when you enter church and gather with believers to sing praise to this great King, you are coming right into God’s holy presence. Psalm 22:3 says that God is “enthroned on the praises” of his people. That means that the sanctuary on Sunday morning is holy ground—heaven’s throne room. If, during the week, you gather with your small group and begin with a couple worship songs, your living room is now a throne room. God—the same God that Isaiah saw—is present among you. So what is your response to that reality? Is your response anything like Isaiah’s?
There should be a real sense of trembling when we come into God’s holy presence to worship him. He is not a small god; he is not a tame lion. He is not like us, and he is not safe. In Leviticus 10, two sons of the high priest Aaron presumed to disregard the safety precautions that God had instituted for sinful people to approach him, and “offered unauthorized fire before Yahweh. And fire came out from before Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh” (Leviticus 10:1-2). God struck them down for their cavalier approach to worship. God’s explanation to their father, Aaron, was unapologetic: “Among those who are near me I will be treated as holy, and before all the people I will be glorified” (10:3). Or else.
And yet, I’ve got to be honest: I don’t get the sense—in my own heart or from those around me—that we’re particularly concerned about God being treated as holy when we’re singing on Sunday mornings. Aaron’s sons were struck down for offering unauthorized sacrifices; I wonder what the King thinks about the songs we sing? Are we deeply concerned with singing rightly and biblically, honoring God with accurate words about him and emotions that match the truth we proclaim? Or do we want to be “entertained” by worship?
How do you think about worship at your church? “That was a fun song!” “The band really rocked today.” “I didn’t really like the songs we sang.” “I was distracted during worship.” These betray our entertainment-centered vision of worship; we view worship as being about us and our comforts and needs and emotions, instead of being about the Holy One to whom we sing. We should tremble at such outrageous abuse of our privileged access to the throne of grace.
THE ONLY REASON YOU’RE NOT STRUCK DEAD FOR SINGING
The sobering reality of our worship is this: the only difference between us and Aaron’s sons is not that we’re somehow offering better worship than they did. The only difference is that Jesus was struck dead in our place. The only reason that you’re not struck dead for your half-hearted singing is that the wrath of God fell on Jesus instead of you. Rather, you have been granted extraordinary, unparalleled, undeserved access: the God whom Isaiah saw has welcomed you into free, unfettered fellowship with himself.
That is the frightening privilege that you have as a believer who, like Isaiah, has been branded by the blood of Jesus. You have access that ancient Israel could only dream of: access into the Most Holy Place, the very presence of God. Hebrews 10:19-22 opens the door for us to approach God himself:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
You have access to God that Isaiah could only dream of. God has promised to hear all your prayers (John 14:14), accept all your praise and sacrifice (1 Peter 2:5), never leave your side (Hebrews 13:5), always be with you (Matthew 28:20), take up holy residence in your heart (John 14:17), and welcome you as blameless into his glorious presence (Jude 24). Every one of those blessings was purchased at great cost by the Son of God who bore every one of your failures to appropriately honor and treasure the great worth of God. When Hebrews 10 says that we have confidence to enter the holy places “through the curtain, that is, through the flesh,” that means that we draw near to God through nail wounds, spilled blood, and torn flesh. That is the violent, costly grace that paid for your singing on Sunday morning. The cross is the only “safety precaution” we have, and the only safety precaution we need, when approaching God.
Those twin realities—the dangerous holiness of God and the violent grace that paved the way for you to enjoy fellowship with God forever—are at the heart of what a lifestyle of biblical worship looks like. Psalm 2:11 describes it like this:
Serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
“Rejoice with trembling”—only those who, like Isaiah, have been branded with the blood of Jesus can understand that contradictory emotion. Fearful gladness is the only appropriate response for those who have been rescued with a violent grace: gladness at the rescue, fear at the cost. So what does fearful gladness look like?
In Isaiah chapter 8, we are told that our response to this Holy One is supposed to be the same as the Burning Ones who never cease to cry, “Holy, holy, holy!” “Yahweh Almighty, him you shall honor as holy” (Isaiah 8:13). It means, he’s not like you, so don’t treat him like he is. His thoughts are light years above our own; give him the respect that someone like that deserves. He is unveiled brightness and blinding perfection; don’t treat him as common or ordinary. He’s not common or ordinary; he is exceptionally, infinitely valuable—and our own values systems should reflect that.
What does that look like practically? It means giving the highest possible respect to his words, because Infinite Wisdom has spoken to us. It means striving to obey him, because Infinite Purity has commanded us. It means worshipping him with the joy and passion he deserves, because Infinite Beauty has revealed himself to us. It means grieving our sin and loving his mercy, because Infinite Grace has shed his blood to forgive us. It means trusting him completely, because Infinite Faithfulness has made unbreakable promises to us. It means pressing on to know him and be with him, because Infinite Worth has invited us into relationship with him.
And it means having the same response that Isaiah had. Isaiah’s worship in that moment wasn’t bored, distracted singing. It wasn’t even happy clapping and dancing. After the terror of seeing the King’s face and the King’s unexpected pardon came the invitation from the King:
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I, send me.” ~Isaiah 6:8
Isaiah’s response to the holiness of God was, “I will go wherever you send me.” Real worship is more than a song; it is a living sacrifice (Romans 12:2) that lays down everything at the feet of the Holy One and says, “Use me.” Isn’’t that what Psalm 2:11 means? “Serve Yahweh with fear; rejoice with trembling.” True worship is both a fearful serving and a trembling rejoicing. It trembles in wonder that the Holy One has rescued us, and then takes the news of that great rescue to a world that needs to hear it. That means the worship service doesn’t end when you walk out the doors of the church; that’s when the truest worship begins.