The primary meaning of holy is “separate.” It comes from an ancient word meaning “to cut,” or “to separate.” To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase “a cut apart.” Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase “a cut above something.” When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is “a cut above the rest.”
God’s holiness is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. The word transcendence means literally “to climb across.” It is defined as “exceeding usual limits.” To transcend is to rise above something, to go above and beyond a certain limit. When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. The word is used to describe God’s relationship to the world. He is higher than the world. He has absolute power over the world. The world has no power over Him. Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature. He is an infinite cut above everything else.
When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be “other,” to be different in a special way. The same basic meaning is used when the word holy is applied to earthly things. Look carefully at the following list of things the Bible speaks of as holy:
holy ground holy convocation holy sabbath holy nation
holy place holy anointing oil holy linen coat holy jubilee
holy house holy field holy tithe holy water
holy censers holy ark holy bread holy city
holy seed holy word holy ones holy covenant
holy place holy of holies
This list is by no means exhaustive. It serves to show us that the word holy is applied to all sorts of things besides God. In every case the word holy is used to express something other than a moral or ethical quality. The things that are holy are things that are set apart, separated from the rest. They have been separated from the commonplace, consecrated to the Lord and to His service.
The things in the list are not holy in themselves. To become holy they first must be consecrated or sanctified by God. God alone is holy in Himself. Only God can sanctify something else. Only God can give the touch that changes it from the commonplace to something special, different, and apart.
Notice how the Old Testament regards things that have been made holy. Whatever is holy carries a peculiar character. It has been separated from a common use. It may not be touched; it may not be eaten; it may not be used for common matters. It is special.
Where does purity come in? We are so accustomed to equating holiness with purity or ethical perfection that we look for the idea when the word holy appears. When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simple apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but it is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is transcendent purity.
When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is a spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of the holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But 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 is used as a synonym for His deity. That is, 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.
We have seen that the term holy calls attention to the transcendence of God, the sense in which He is above and beyond the world. We have also seen that God can reach down and consecrate special things in this world and make them holy. His touch on the common makes the common suddenly uncommon. Again we say that nothing in this world is holy in itself. Only God can make something holy. Only God can consecrate.