I like learning new words and their meanings. For someone like me who speaks different languages and enjoys learning them, words are fascinating. From my own language I love the word “saudade” /saʊˈdɑːdə/. There isn’t a word for that in English. People sometimes use the word “homesick” or “missing” to translate it. But it means so much more than just being homesick or missing something. When we use this word we want to express a feeling of longing for someone or something, a feeling of melancholy. The kind of feeling that makes your heart ache.
In my Bible readings and exploration of the topic of holiness, I have seen the word “woe” many times. In fact, it is used about 96 times in the Bible and Jesus used it too. In the English dictionary the meaning for this word is: great sorrow or distress (often used hyperbolically). If you are reading that and have forgotten the many years learning language and the treasures of grammar, hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. This word was used, some believe, to convey to the listeners something important, it was almost like a cry to stop and listen. It was spoken before God’s judgement was announced to the people to convey disaster was coming, should they continue to walk away from their God.
In the book of Isaiah the word woe is used 23 times. Let’s consider one of them. The prophet Isaiah is given a vision of God’s throne and his glory:
6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
This passage is a classic place in Scriptures to look at the attribute of God which permeates all the others, his Holiness. Repetition is used in the Bible to emphasise a point and holiness is the only attribute of God which is repeated 3 times in a sentence. Note the seraphim saying Holy, holy holy. God reveals his other attributes to us in the Bible but we never read anywhere “Love, love, love is the Lord Almighty”, or “Powerful, powerful, powerful is the Lord Almighty”. God’s holiness is so important that no one could see His glory. Isaiah new that and that is why he responds this way:
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Isaiah probably used this word woe to magnify the tragedy of his situation: I am ruined. He was fully expecting to die because he knew how unclean he was and he had seen the Lord Almighty. He new that because of all the sin in his life he could never stand before God. Isaiah knew he deserved death. The feeling of anguish, misery, desolation this little word carries to someone like him who recognises their condition of helplessness before a Holy God. Utter despair! In order to fully understand the meaning of the word woe in the context here one would have had to have gone through the same desperation when looking at ones heart.
We don’t see a lot of that these days. People have largely forgotten how Holy God is and how much He hates sin. They think of God as being just love, mercy, good, kind, friendly. But Holy does not come at the top of the list. People live their lives thinking they might be a bit naughty at times, but not sinful. NO, sin does not appear to be the worst thing in ones life anymore. Sure, we still hear in our churches the mention of God being holy and we sing along to famous words “Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see, only thou art holy; there is none beside thee, perfect in pow’r, in love, and purity”, but are quick to concentrate on the second half of this verse than the first. It is because people have stopped focusing on God’s holiness it has become more difficult to see the filth they live in. It is only when we comprehend God’s holiness (if it is even possible to comprehend it) that we understand that we too should say “woe to me”. Like Isaiah, we too deserve to die because we are sinful. We cannot stand in the presence of a Holy God. Tragic indeed! A complete desolation!
But the passage does not stop there. It goes on to show how the Holy, holy, holy God provided the solution to cleanse Isaiah and to give us a picture of what was to come. It is pointing forward to when Jesus was going to come and die for us to make us clean and we too would have our sins atoned for.
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
What an amazing gracious, holy God we have! Notice that God didn’t compromise on who He is at all. He didn’t change his character to make sure we could come to him. He didn’t get down from his throne to console Isaiah in his despair. No. God is still Holy, holy, holy, but because of his holy love and mercy he provided a way for Isaiah to be able to be cleansed and that is what the coal was used for. It took his sins away from him, so he could stand in God’s presence. God has provided a way for us to be made clean, righteous and therefore, not be destroyed because of our sin. He gave us His Son, Jesus. It is only when faced with God’s holiness that we can comprehend his grace, his love, his mercy, his justice, his power poured down on us through Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross for us.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
If we believe that Jesus died for us, in our place, to forgive our sins and be made right before God, and that He rose again and Jesus is now reigning in Heaven, we are made holy. We move from a situation of total despair and desolation to being saved and made right with God. It is of utmost importance that we speak, teach and point to the holiness of our God and pray that in seeing how Holy God is people will experience their “woe to me” and understand how desperately they need Jesus. It is because of Jesus that we can stand in awe in the presence of our holy God!