The Threefold Repetition

Isaiah 6:1-7, “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 another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; 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. 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, the LORD of hosts!” 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.”

Two more things:

First notice that 6:2 mentions creatures called seraphim who are standing above the throne. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew.  The word “serapim” means “flames.”  This is telling because the word refers to both the fiery angelic beings themselves and what they were created by God to do – burn in worship before the Lord of hosts!  Bottom line?  These seraphim are not mere mosquitoes buzzing around the throne.  They are heavenly angelic fiery beings worshipping the only One worthy of worship – God Himself.  These are not fat babies with wings and harps, these are creatures that if we were to see them we would think that we had died.  Every time in the Bible when an angel shows up the firsts words they say are: “Don’t be afraid.”  There’s a reason for this!  They, in themselves, are a sight to behold, they terrifying, but not nearly as terrifying or awe-some as the One who made them.

Lastly notice the song the seraphim sang.  6:3 says, “One called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory!”  The significance of the anthem of the angels is massive.  The Jewish people had various ways to express emphasis in their literature, and they used these expressions in the Bible.  We do the same today to emphasize things: we may use italics, we may put a word in all caps or bold letters to draw attention to it, or maybe even attach very intense or alarming descriptive adjectives to the word we want to emphasize to get attention.  Isaiah did the same and in his culture the way to communicate supreme importance was called the Trisagion, or the threefold repetition.  Notice how 6:3 is phrased?  The seraphim cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  What does this mean?

This means first what it says, that God is holy.  But it means more.  When taking into account the use of the Trisagion, the use of the threefold repetition, we see something further.  In all of the Scripture from Genesis – Revelation this verse is the only place where we see an attribute of God written three times in a row.  This means much more than God is “holy”, even more than “holy, holy.”  It means that God is “holy, holy, holy.”  Nowhere do we see the Bible say that God is sovereign, sovereign, sovereign – or love, love, love – or mercy, mercy, mercy – or righteous, righteous, righteous – or just, just, just.  Nowhere in Scripture do we see an attribute of God have such importance.

Now I am aware that it is dangerous and bad theology to try to pit one attribute of God against another, or to try and assemble a hierarchy of attributes so as to make one more important than others.  This is an error people make all the time.  In talking with others about God’s character, especially when we’re talking about His sovereignty or justice, or wrath, I hear people say, “I don’t believe that, my God is a God of love, He would never do such a thing.”  Well surely God is a God of love, and as R.C. Sproul says, “We can’t come to the Bible as if it were a cafeteria line, putting things on our plate only if they are delectable to our tastes, leaving the others we don’t like.  We come to the Bible on its terms.”

Thus we cannot construct a hierarchy of attributes as if one were more important than others, BUT if the Bible shows us that out of all the attributes of God there is one that rises to the top – we must believe it.  Such is the holiness of God.  The use of the threefold repetition of Holy, Holy, Holy teaches us that the one defining characteristic of God’s nature is His holiness; it is who He is.  Therefore we must speak of all of God’s attributes underneath God’s holiness.  His love is a holy love, His wrath is a holy wrath, His mercy is a holy mercy, His justice is a holy justice, and so on, and so on.

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