I learned a new word the other day. I fancy myself to be a word nerd with a decently large vocabulary, so this doesn’t happen that often. The word was trihagion, and it’s probably not on any word-of-the-day toilet paper, unless the toilet paper is in the bathroom of a prestigious Bible college, and they probably just have regular toilet paper at places like that.
The word trihagion (in Greek) means “thrice holy,” and it refers to the three-time use of the word holy in two separate places in the Scriptures. The first is in Isaiah chapter 6, where the prophet is given a vision, which jump-starts his ministry:
I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 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. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (verses 1-3)
And Isaiah’s response?
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips . . . and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (verse 5)
He realizes his own unworthiness, the huge gaping chasm between us and God.
The second time the trihagion appears in the Bible is in the book of Revelation, about seven hundred years later, where the apostle John is given a vision as well, with similar sights and sounds:
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures. . . . Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (4:6,8)
And the response of those around the Holy One?
[They] fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (4:10,11)
We are not worthy. We are brought to our knees before such holiness.
But why is the word used three times? Why such repetition? The repeating of a word is often used to help us remember and add emphasis. “In a galaxy far, far away,” for example—you know it’s not just far; it’s far, far. “A long, long time ago” starts a story that took place way in the past. Plenty of other things in the Bible are considered “holy”; God says the Sabbath is holy and the temple is holy. But only God is “holy, holy, holy.”
Numbers in the Bible often have bigger, deeper meanings; the number 3 in the Bible is used to mark completeness. Our God is completely and utterly holy. The trihagion underscores the ultimate attribute of God. Notice that the angels don’t say, “love, love, love” or, “grace, grace, grace,” although he is those things too. Our culture tends to gravitate toward those attributes—peace and joy and love and mercy. Those are nice and fluffy and comforting things to think about God. But we first need to recognize his holiness and supremacy and fall to our knees before him. Humility is not comfortable or fun or fluffy. Realizing our lowliness is unpopular, but it is absolutely necessary.
We are not worthy. It is only because of his holiness that we have hope. It is only because of his holiness that we have joy. It is only because of his holiness that we have a future with him in heaven. He alone has the power to be gracious and merciful and save us from ourselves. Holy, holy, holy.
And this should make us realize the most amazing thing: God could have just stayed up on his throne in all his holiness and not bothered with us unworthy beings. But he didn’t.
“I am God, and not a man—the Holy One among you.” (Hosea 11:9)
In our midst! Let me say that three times for emphasis—In our midst! In our midst! In our midst! The God who is holy, holy, holy, is in our midst. We are not worthy. He came down to us, to raise us up to him. And our response? We fall down before him and worship him forever.