The Bible tells us that all men are impure and sinful (Romans 3:23). Much earlier in the Bible, not long after Adam and Eve sinned, we find that one of their sons killed the other, when Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:8). Then we are told in Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
By contrast, God is holy. One passage is very telling:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
Here we have an interesting situation. Isaiah gets a glimpse of what appears to be the throne room of God, with angels singing of God’s holiness, an an impressive sight of God. The surprising thing is that upon seeing such majesty, Isaiah does not do what we would think, which is comment on the glory of God and His throne. Rather, the first thing Isaiah speaks of is his own dirty mouth. We know he feels bad, not good, when he speaks of being ruined. Why would a man, upon seeing God, first think of his own curse words?
A few somewhat similar situations happen in the New Testament when people realize Jesus is God. In Luke 5, Jesus causes some fishermen to have a gigantic catch of fish. Peter, one of the fishermen, immediately replies with “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8). Again, we have a curious response. We have a fisherman, who we would normally be expecting to want Jesus around, especially if He can increase the fishing business. Yet instead of focusing on the fish or the money that he would make, immediately realizes he is a sinner and asks Jesus to leave. Why?
Before they had the experience mentioned here, both Isaiah and Peter knew about God and had studied spiritual things. They likely knew the definition of holiness and sin, and had been taught the theology that went along with it. But when they come face-to-face with God, they suddenly realized the vast difference between themselves in their sin, and the holiness of God. The realization made them uncomfortable.
As long as Peter and Isaiah were looking at the people around them, and comparing themselves to the other people in their towns, they were comfortable, for they could convince themselves their sin was not so bad. But as soon as they came face-to-face with purity, they suddenly realized how impure they were. When they saw what clean was, they suddenly realized how dirty they were.
The same is true for all of us. As long as we compare ourselves to ourselves, we can convince ourselves that we are not so bad, at least not as bad as the fellow down the street. But the truth is that we are all dirty, and all need a bath. Later in his book, Isaiah says:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Is. 64:6).
As long as we compare ourselves to each other, we can convince ourselves that we’re not so dirty, and it’s really the other guy who needs a bath. But when we truly see how holy God is, we suddenly know how dirty we are.
The same is true for God’s justice. We think that maybe Hitler deserves some sort of punishment, and certainly the rapist, but my own little discretions do not call for much punishment at all. But when we realize that we have all done horrible things– such as ignoring a holy God — we realize that we are all deserving of God’s punishment.
I recently heard a speaker put it this way. Assume you are happily married, but your spouse dresses up and starts to head out the door. You ask ‘where are you going?’ but they say “none of your business” and proceed to stay out all night. Returning the next morning rather disheveled, you again ask where they have been. The response is “If I wanted you to know I’d tell you.” Why, you would have every right to be be upset and demand an answer. After a few years of this, you would at least demand a separation.
We have all treated God badly, even worse. God is patient, but will eventually demand a separation. In God’s terms, this is Hell, which is a separation from God, away from His good graces, a place where we can have what we want, to be left alone.
So we all deserve separation from God. But what if God were to select some, clean them up, and give them another chance? If He takes some of the filthy rags and cleans it up, He is not bound to take all the filthy rags.
So is part of the answer with God’s actions with the Canaanites. If God acted the way He does in the rest of the Bible, then we can conclude that He likely gave them plenty of notices about what He expected, and plenty of chances to change. The Canaanites refused, so He ordered all of them separated from Him into Hell.
Meanwhile, we sit around and compare one of them with the other and with ourselves, and say some of them are not so bad, for it seems to us that they did not do much wrong. We feel this way because we are comparing the Canaanites to ourselves, comparing one filthy rag with another. But if we, or the Canaanites, were to realize how holy God is, we would all, along with Isaiah and Peter, beg God to cast us away, for we are all deserving of separation. Only by God’s infinite mercy do any of us have a chance to change our ways.