In his classic book on the holiness of God (titled, aptly, The Holiness of God), the late R. C. Sproul opines that divine holiness “is one of the most important ideas that a Christian can ever grapple with. It is basic to our whole understanding of God and of Christianity.” Noting that repetition is a Hebrew literary device to designate emphasis, and that “to mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree,” Sproul observes, “Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree…. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy, that the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Sproul goes on to note that holiness is essential to God’s character. It is more than just one attribute among many but is, in many ways, definitional to who he is.
When the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense…. The word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that his love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.
If this is the case, the question becomes, what does it mean for something or someone to be “holy”? We tend to think of holiness in ethical terms, as if it is a synonym for purity. Holiness, we imagine, has to do with the way we behave. While it is true that holiness manifests itself in pure behaviour, purity is actually the result of holiness. The word “holy,” as it is used in the Old and New Testaments, literally means “to be set apart.” Properly speaking, therefore, holiness describes God’s otherness. When applied to objects, it describes them as being set apart for particular (normally religious) use. When applied people, it describes the fact that God has set them apart as distinct, which results in their distinct (and therefore pure) behaviour.
This understanding of otherness is crucial when we think of divine holiness. As Joshua delivered his final charge to the people of Israel, newly entered into the Promised Land, he reminded them that their ancestors had “served other gods” (Joshua 24:1–2). Yahweh then set Abraham apart and entered into a covenant relationship with him and his descendants, which included the promise of land. Yahweh had been faithful to his people for hundreds of years, fulfilling promise after promise and giving them deliverance after deliverance (vv. 3–13). Joshua then delivered these famous words:
Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.
The people immediately, and apparently rashly, responded that they, too, would serve Yahweh (vv. 16–18). Joshua warned them, “You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God” (v. 19). The words “holy God” translate the name of God under consideration this week: Elohim Kedoshim. Yahweh is “holy” because “he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good” (vv. 19–20).
As you read this exchange, you might be confused. Why would Joshua call the people to serve Yahweh, only to seemingly discourage them when they affirmed their intention to serve him? It is evidently because they didn’t understand his otherness—his holiness. They had benefited from his kindness and power for generations, and yet they still served other gods (v. 14). If they understood that Yahweh, the true God, was completely other, and that all other gods were false gods, why did they still carry idols with them? Why did they still serve the gods that their fathers had served and from whom Yahweh had called Abraham?
Israel’s problem—and, too often, our problem—was that they did not understand the character of the God they claimed to serve. He was not like the “other gods” that their fathers had served or the “foreign gods” that the people in the land served. His demands were wholly other because he was wholly other. We need to remember the same truth.
Joshua was delivering to the people a call to a certain kind of commitment. But it was a commitment not to be taken lightly, because it was a call to commit to the God who should not be taken lightly. Yahweh is not like any other Elohim; he is Elohim Kedoshim—the holy God. Joshua’s charge helps us to understand what commitment to Elohim Kedoshim looks like.
First, the call to commitment to Elohim Kedoshim is a call to reasonable commitment. “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness” (v. 14). The call to commitment had a foundation: “therefore.” They should serve Elohim Kedoshim because of all that he had done for them (vv. 1–13). If they reflected on all he had done for them, wholehearted commitment to him was nothing more than the logical response.
The New Testament calls us to the same. In the light of the great salvation that God has granted us in Christ, offering our whole selves as a living sacrifice is nothing more than “reasonable service” (Romans 12:1, NKJV).
Second, the call to commitment to Elohim Kedoshim is a call to exclusive commitment. “Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (vv. 14–15). They could not serve Yahweh and the gods of their ancestors. They could not serve Yahweh and the gods of Canaan. They had to make a choice. It was Yahweh or other gods.
Jesus Christ calls us to exclusive commitment. We cannot have him and our other gods. We must bring all things under his lordship. Commitment to him requires that we allow him to dethrone our other gods. There is no compromise.
Third, the call to commitment to Elohim Kedoshim is a call to calculated commitment (vv. 16–24). When the people rashly vowed to serve Yahweh exclusively, Joshua warned them, “You are not able” (v. 19). He was not barring the way into the kingdom but calling them to properly count the cost before professing allegiance to Yahweh.
Centuries later, Jesus did the same. Rather than embracing every profession of faith in him, he cautioned some that they could not be his disciples without first counting the cost (Luke 14:25–33). The good news is that God’s grace is available for those who will make the calculated commitment. We cannot serve Elohim Kedoshim apart from his grace, but his grace wonderfully grants us the ability to serve him.