And why was it holy ground? Because God had come there and occupied it. Where God is, there is holiness; it is the presence of God makes holy. This is the truth we met with in Paradise when man was just created; here, where Scripture uses the word Holy for the second time, it is repeated and enforced. A careful study of the word in the light of the burning bush will further open its deep significance. Let us see what the sacred history, what the revelation of God, and what Moses teaches us of this holy ground.
1. Note the place this first direct revelation of God to man as the Holy One takes in sacred history. In Paradise we found the word Holy used of the seventh day. Since that time twenty-five centuries have elapsed. We found in God's sanctifying the day of rest a promise of a new dispensation -- the revelation of the Almighty Creator to be followed by that of the Holy One making holy. And yet throughout the book of Genesis the word never occurs again; it is as if God's Holiness is in abeyance; only in Exodus, with the calling of Moses, does it make its appearance again. This is a fact of deep import. Just as a parent or teacher seeks, in early childhood, to impress one lesson at a time, so God deals in the education of the human race. After having in the flood exhibited His righteous judgment against sin, He calls Abraham to be the father of a chosen people. And as the foundation of all His dealings with that people, He teaches him and his seed first of all the lesson of childlike trust -- trust in Him as the Almighty, with whom nothing is too wonderful, and trust in Him as the Faithful One, whose oath could not be broken. With the growth of Israel to a people we see the revelation advancing to a new stage. The simplicity of childhood gives way to the waywardness of youth, and God must now interfere with the discipline and restriction of law. Having gained a right to a place in their confidence as the God of their fathers, He prepares them for a further revelation. Of the God of Abraham the chief attribute was that He was the Almighty One; of the God of Israel, Jehovah, that He is the Holy One.
And what is to be the special mark of the new period that is now about to be inaugurated, and which is introduced by the word holy? God tells Moses that He is now about to reveal Himself in a new character. He had been known to Abraham as God Almighty, the God of Promise (Ex. vi.3). He would now manifest Himself as Jehovah, the God of Fulfilment, especially in the redemption and deliverance of His people from the oppression He had foretold to Abraham. God Almighty is the God of Creation: Abraham believed in God, 'who quickeneth the dead, and calleth the things that are not as though they were.' Jehovah is the God of Redemption and of Holiness. With Abraham there was not a word of sin or guilt, and therefore not of redemption or holiness. To Israel the law is to be given, to convince of sin and prepare the way for holiness; it is Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, the Redeemer, who now appears. And it is the presence of this Holy One that makes the holy ground.
2. And how does this Presence reveal itself? In the burning bush God makes Himself known as dwelling in the midst of the fire. Elsewhere in Holy Scripture the connection between fire and the Holiness of God is clearly expressed: 'The light of Israel shall be for a fire, and the Holy One for a flame.' The nature of fire may be either beneficent or destructive. The sun, the great central fire, may give life and fruitfulness, or may scorch to death. All depends upon occupying the right position, upon the relation in which we stand to it. And so wherever God the Holy One reveals Himself, we shall find the two sides together: God's Holiness as judgment against sin, destroying the sinner who remains in it, and as Mercy freeing His people from it. Judgment and Mercy ever go together. Of the elements of nature there is none of such spiritual and mighty energy as Fire: what it consumes it takes and changes into its own spiritual nature, rejecting as smoke and ashes what cannot be assimilated. And so the Holiness of God is that infinite Perfection by which He keeps Himself free from all that is not Divine, and yet has fellowship with the creature, and takes it up into union with Himself, destroying and casting out all that will not yield itself to Him.
It is thus as One who dwells in the fire, who is a fire, that God reveals Himself at the opening of this new redemption period. With Abraham and the patriarchs, as we have said, there had been little teaching about sin or redemption; the nearness and friendship of God had been revealed. Now the law will be given, sin will be made manifest, the distance from God will be felt, that man, in learning to know himself and his sinfulness, may learn to know and long for God to make him holy. In all God's revelation of Himself we shall find the combination of the two elements, the one repelling, the other attracting. In His house He will dwell in the midst of Israel, and yet it will be in the awful unapproachable solitude and darkness of the holiest of all within the veil. He will come near to them, and yet keep them at a distance. As we study the Holiness of God, we shall see in increasing clearness how, like fire, it repels and attracts, how it combines into one His infinite distance and His infinite nearness.
3. But the distance will be that which comes out first and most strongly. This we see in Moses: he hid his face, for He feared to look upon God. The first impression which God's Holiness produces is that of fear and awe. Until man, both as a creature and a sinner, learns how high God is above him, how different and distant he is from God, the Holiness of God will have little real value or attraction. Moses hiding his face shows us the effect of the drawing nigh of the Holy One, and the path to His further revelation.
How distinctly this comes out in God's own words: 'Draw not nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off thy feet.' Yes, God had drawn nigh, but Moses may not. God comes near: man must stand back. In the same breath God says, Draw nigh, and, Draw not nigh. There can be no knowledge of God or nearness to Him, where we have not first heard His, Draw not nigh. The sense of sin, of unfitness for God's presence, is the groundwork of true knowledge or worship of Him as the Holy One. 'Put off thy shoes from off thy feet.' The shoes are the means of intercourse with the world, the aids through which the flesh or nature does its will, moves about and does its work. In standing upon holy ground, all this must be put away. It is with naked feet, naked and stript of every covering, that man must bow before a holy God. Our utter unfitness to draw nigh or have any dealings with the Holy One, is the very first lesson we have to learn, if ever we are to participate in His Holiness. That Put off! must exercise its condemning power through our whole being, until we come to realize the full extent of its meaning in the great, 'Put off the old man; put on the Lord Jesus,' and what 'the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ,' is. Yes, all that is of nature and the flesh, all that is of our own doing or willing or working -- our very life, must be put off and given unto the death, if God, as the Holy One, is to make Himself known to us.
We have seen before that Holiness is more than goodness or freedom from sin: even unfallen nature is not holy. Holiness is that awful glory by which Divinity is separated from all that is created. Therefore even the seraphs veil their faces with their wings when they sing the Thrice Holy. But oh! when the distance and the difference is not that of the creature only, but of the sinner, who can express, who can realize, the humiliation, the fear, the shame with which we ought to bow before the voice of the Holy One? Alas! this is one of the most terrible effects of sin, that it blinds us. We know not how unholy, how abominable, sin and the sinful nature are in God's sight. We have lost the power of recognising the Holiness of God: heathen philosophy had not even the idea of using the word as expressive of the moral character of its gods. In losing the light of the glory of God, we have lost the power of knowing what sin is. And now God's first work in drawing nigh to us is to make us feel that we may not draw nigh as we are; that there will have to be a very real and a very solemn putting off, and even giving up to the death, of all that appears most lawful and most needful. Not only our shoes are soiled with contact with this unholy earth; even our face must be covered and our eyes closed, in token that the eyes of our heart, all our human wisdom and understanding, are incapable of beholding the Holy One. The first lesson in the school of personal holiness is, to fear and hide our face before the Holiness of God. 'Thus saith the High and Lofty One, whose name is holy, I dwell in the High and Holy Place, and with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.' Contrition, brokenness of spirit, fear and trembling are God's first demand of those who would see His Holiness.
Moses was to be the first preacher of the Holiness of God. Of the full communication of God's Holiness to us in Christ, His first revelation to Moses was the type and the pledge. From Moses' lips the people of Israel, from his pen the Church of Christ, was to receive the message, 'Be holy: I am holy: I make holy.' His preparation for being the messenger of the Holy One was here, where he hid his face, because he was afraid to look upon God. It is with the face in the dust, it is in the putting off not only of the shoes, but of all that has been in contact with the world and self and sin, that the soul draws nigh to the fire, in which God dwells, and which burns, but does not consume. Oh that every believer, who seeks to witness for God as the Holy One, might thus learn how the fulfilment of the type of the Burning Bush is the Crucified Christ, and how, as we die with Him, we receive that Baptism of Fire, which reveals in each of us what it means: the Holy One dwelling in a Burning Bush. Only so can we learn what it is to be holy, as He is holy.
BE YE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.
Most Holy God! I have seen Thee, who dwellest in the fire. I have heard Thy voice, Draw not nigh hither; put thy shoes off from thy feet. And my soul has feared to look upon God, the Holy One.
And yet, O my God! I must see Thee. Thou didst create me for Thy likeness. Thou hast taught that this likeness is Thy Holiness: 'Be holy, as I am holy.' O my God! how shall I know to be holy, unless I may see Thee, the Holy One? To be holy, I must look upon God.
I bless Thee for the revelation of Thyself in the flames of the thorn-bush, in the fire of the accursed tree. I bow in amazement and deep abasement at the great sight: Thy Son in the weakness of His human nature, in the fire, burning but not consumed. O my God! in fear and trembling I have yielded myself as a sinner to die like Him. Oh, let the fire consume all that is unholy in me! Let me too know Thee as the God that dwelleth in the fire, to melt down and purge out and destroy what is not of Thee, to save and take up into Thine own Holiness what is Thine own.
O Holy Lord God! I bow in the dust before this great mystery. Reveal to me Thy Holiness, that I too may be its witness and its messenger on earth. Amen.
1. Holiness as the fire of God. Praise God that there is a Power that can consume the vile and the dross, a Power that will not leave it undisturbed. 'The bush burning but not consumed' is not only the motto of the Church in time of persecution; it is the watchword of every soul in God's sanctifying work.
2. There is a new Theology, which only speaks of the love of God as seen in the cross. It sees not the glory of His Righteousness, and His righteous judgment. This is not the God of Scripture. 'Our God is a consuming fire,' is New Testament Theology. To 'offer service with reverence and awe,' is New Testament religion. In Holiness, Judgment and Mercy meet.
3. Holiness as the fear of God. Hiding the face before God for fear, not daring to look or speak, -- this is the beginning of rest in God. It is not yet the true rest, but on the way to it. May God give us a deep fear of whatever could grieve or anger Him. May we have a deep fear of ourselves, and all that is of the old, the condemned nature, lest it rise again. 'The spirit of the fear of the Lord' is the first manifestation of the spirit of holiness, and prepares the way for the joy of holiness. 'Walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost;' these are the two sides of the Christian life.
4. The Holiness of God was revealed to Moses that he might be its messenger. The Church needs nothing so much to-day as men and women who can testify for the Holiness of God. Will you be one?
The connection between the fear of God and holiness is most intimate. There are some who seek most earnestly for holiness, and yet never exhibit it in a light that will attract the world or even believers, because this element is wanting. It is the fear of the Lord that works that meekness and gentleness, that deliverance from self-confidence and self-consciousness, which form the true groundwork of a saintly character. The passages of God's Word in which the two words are linked together are well worthy of a careful study. 'Who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises?' 'In Thy fear will I worship towards Thy holy temple.' 'O fear the Lord, ye His holy ones.' 'O worship the Lord, in the beauty of holiness; fear before Him, all the earth.' 'Let them praise Thy great and terrible name; holy is He.' 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.' 'The Lord of hosts, Him shall ye sanctify; let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.' 'Perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.' 'Like as He which called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy; and if ye call on Him as father, pass the time of your sojourning in fear.' And so on through the whole of Scripture, from the Song of Moses on to the Song of the Lamb: 'Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord! and glorify Thy name, for Thou only art holy.' If we yield ourselves to the impression of such passages, we shall feel more deeply that the fear of God, the tender fear of in any way offending Him, the fear especially of entering into His holy presence with what is human and carnal, with aught of our own wisdom and effort, is of the very essence of the holiness we are to follow after. It is this fear of God will make us, like Moses, fall down and hide our face in God's presence, and wait for His own Holy Spirit to open in us the eyes, and breathe in us the thoughts and the worship, with which we draw nigh to Him, the Holy One. It is in this holy fear that that stillness of soul is wrought which leads it to rest in God, and opens the way for what we saw in Paradise to be the secret of holiness: God keeping His Sabbath, and sanctifying the soul in which He rests.