|The Ineffable Holiness of God|
Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 to 430)
“Have I spoken of God, or uttered His praise, in any worthy way? Nay, I feel that I have done nothing more than desire to speak; and if I have said anything, it is not what I desired to say. How do I know this, except from the fact that God is unspeakable? But what I have said, if it had been unspeakable, could not have been spoken. And so God is not even to be called unspeakable, because to say even this is to speak of Him. Thus there arises a curious contradiction of words, because if the unspeakable is what cannot be spoken of, it is not unspeakable if it can be called unspeakable. And this opposition of words is rather to be avoided by silence than to be explained away by speech. And yet God, although nothing worthy of His greatness can be said of Him, has condescended to accept the worship of men's mouths, and has desired us through the medium of our own words to rejoice in His praise. For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God). For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.”[i]
Augustine was taken aback by a sense of awe because God had given him a tongue to utter His holy name. He was so overwhelmed with God’s name, he says it is unspeakable – so unspeakable that it cannot be spoken of even in unspeakable terms! This is what we mean by referring to God’s “ineffability.”
In today’s world we have lost the sense of the awesomeness of God. Time was when the word awesome applied only to God; but in our modern culture everything is awesome from candy bars to automobiles. The focus for this week’s study is the holiness of God, so we can appreciate the significance of God’s willingness to hear our small voices as we sing out praises to Him, and to realize the condescension of God that Augustine wrote about.
Monday: Read Exodus 3:1-6
When God led Moses to the mountain, He told him to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. What was special about the ground where Moses was standing? When Moses wrote this chapter he wanted us to see a contrast of what he was doing before the mountain experience and what he was doing on the mountain. How would you describe this contrast, and how have you experienced this?
Tuesday: Read Exodus 3:13-17
When Moses asked God His name, he was seeking more information than letters printed on a piece of parchment. In biblical terms asking for a name was the same as seeking information about the person’s character; thus Moses was asking about nature of God. When you read verse 14 did you see God’s name? What is His name and what do you learn about His character from His name and this passage? How does knowing God’s character change your understanding of His ineffability?
Wednesday: Read Isaiah 6:1-8
King Uzziah was a great man of his time, so great that Isaiah didn’t see the Lord until after Uzziah’s death. Is there an Uzziah standing in the way of your seeing the Lord? The Lord gave Isaiah a glimpse of His throne room. What did he see there and what does what he saw say about the holiness and ineffability of God? In verse 5 Isaiah gives his response to what he saw and says woe is me for I am undone…. a man of unclean lips. What does he mean by this? In verse 6 we see God’s response to Isaiah: What was it and what did it mean? When has God touched your lips and how did you respond to his holiness?
Thursday: Read Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 5:1-11
Reading these two passages you will find similarities and differences in the responses of the people of the Gadarenes and Peter to Jesus. What are they? This incident was Peter’s first understanding of who Jesus is: What do you think he understood, and how did it ultimately transform His life? How has your perception of Christ changed from the first time you begin to understand who He is?
Friday: Read 1 Peter 1:14-16
Peter says that if we are obedient children we will not be conformed to evil; rather, we will be conformed to God’s holiness. If God is ineffable how can we possibly become holy like Him? What does it mean to be holy as God is holy? How does understanding the character of God from the previous verses help you understand what Peter means when he says God is holy? How is being holy changing the way you live out your life?
Saturday: Read Revelation 2-3; 4:6-11; 15:1-4
The address to each of the seven churches starts with the words, “The words of.” What follows in each case tells you something about the character of Christ. What? Make a list noting how each statement impacts your understanding of the holiness of God. How does 4:8-11 compare with how God named himself in Exodus 3? Who are the creatures in the throne room with God and what are they saying about God? In Revelation 15 the believers are celebrating and worshipping the Lamb. What are they saying about God? As you read these verses are you awestruck at God’s holiness and how does that compare to how Isaiah felt?
Sunday: Read Psalm 29
This is a hymn of praise to God for the awesomeness of His holy and ineffable character. List all the characteristics ascribed to the Lord and in your own words explain what they mean to you and how they cause you to humble yourself in the presence of God.
Summary:Moses, Isaiah, Peter, John, and Augustine were living in awe as the name of the Lord crossed their lips. They had a common understanding that God was so awesome that even His name should only be spoken in “unspeakable” terms. For centuries the Jewish people because of reverence, still to this day, will not utter the name of the Lord. But God’s name is special only because God is unique beyond our understanding. He is so extraordinary that we do not give Him due consideration by saying He is amazing. Approaching God with this understanding is not within the capability of man; we need the indwelling and help of the Holy Spirit. My prayer for you as you meditate on this week’s study and hear the name of God ring in your ears, you will, like Augustine, fall on the knees of your heart “when that sound reaches your ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence.”
[i] North, Wyatt; St. Augustine (2012-02-27). The Life and Writings of Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Chapter Six, In What Sense God is Ineffable; (Kindle Locations 24472-24478). . Kindle Edition.
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[i] Edwards, Jonathan (2009-02-13). The Works of Jonathan Edwards, volume 1 of 2 (Samizdat Edition with Active Table of Contents), improved 2/5/2011 (Kindle Locations 14650-14653). B&R Samizdat Express. Kindle Edition.