What is the Meaning of “Holy“?

The meaning of “holy” is often defined by the culture we find ourselves to be a part of. But the ancient Biblical culture gives us a very specific perspective on this unique word.

Merriam-Webster defines holy as a “religious or morally good; exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness”.

For this reason, when we read about people like holy priests, who ministered to God in the Tabernacle, we often cannot relate to them. That is because we feel like we aren’t good enough to fit into that category.

But then, we also read in the Scriptures that there were a lot objects in the Temple also described as “holy”. Does that mean that these objects were “morally good” or “perfect in righteousness”?

There is something that we are missing in both of these understandings.

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The Hebrew Words for Holiness

Hebrew is a unique language when it comes to word studies. Every Hebrew word is usually built on a three-consonant root word.

Often, many words close in meaning can share the same root. And reversibly, every word carries the meaning of the root word that it derived from originally.

The Hebrew word for “holy” is kodesh. It comes from the root word “Kadash”. This root word, in simpler terms, means to be set apart for a specific purpose (Ancient Hebrew Lexicon, vituralbookword.com publishing, Jeff Benner).

There are times when aspects of moral righteousness or Godly devotion are connected to the meaning of “holy”. Nevertheless, on its own, the term holiness does not refer to piety or perfection.

Therefore, when the Bible calls something holy, it is not speaking of purity or righteousness. Rather, it is something “set apart” from everything else in order to accomplish something specific.

Set Apart

Using the definition we just learned, we can now safely say that our homes contain a few holy objects. If you own a tea pot that is only used for guests – it is not for coffee nor for everyday use – by definition, you have a “holy tea pot”.

Your toothbrush is only used for your teeth and (hopefully) not for anyone else’s mouth. It is especially not meant for cleaning of any other items. So, by definition, you have a “holy toothbrush”. 

Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing divine about these household items. But they are kadash – set apart for a unique purpose.

man set apart in the dessert

Whom does the Bible call Holy?

So, we now know that the Hebrew meaning of holy is more than just “morally righteous”. With this new understanding, read these well known scriptures and consider their meaning:

And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6a)

But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)

A quick glance at Israel in the Bible (and today) could leave you baffled. There are many faults in this nation that does not live up to what God intended.

But when the Scriptures call Israel a holy nation, it isn’t suggesting that Israel is somehow sinless or divine. Instead, it points to the fact that Israel has been chosen. They have been set apart from the nations! And they were called for a specific purpose in the earth.

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Does the Bible Explain the Meaning of Holy?

God said to those He chose to be His friends, be holy as I am holy. 

For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy… (Leviticus 11:44a)

Because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16)

Many have understood this to mean that we are required to be perfect like God. Well, that would be quite the challenge, wouldn’t it? Why would God ask us to do (or be) something that He knows we are not capable of?

If we could be perfect on our own or simply encouraged to do so, we wouldn’t have a need for the sacrifice of Jesus. But we know that the opposite true. We are so far from perfect that there is no hope for mankind without the blood of Jesus. 

Therefore, in the above verses God is not putting on us anything that we cannot carry out. We are not required to be perfectly sinless on our own.

He is saying he wants us to choose to be uniquely different from our surroundings and focused in the way He is. The meaning of holy in this case points to the fact that we are not of this world.

A Holy Proclamation 

Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 say that the angels cry before God: “Holy holy holy is the Lord of Hosts” day and night.

With our western understanding, we might wonder why they would say the same thing over and over. Do they not get bored?

Yet before the Lord’s throne, nothing could be more compelling. The angels are proclaiming the holiness and the uniqueness of God, because He is so different from all Creation. 

In essence they are saying:

“You are so holy – set apart from anything and everything in every situation! There is no one that loves the way you do! Holy! No one has the perspective that you do! No one in all the earth is as kind and merciful as You! Holy! Your justice is like no other justice in the universe! You are so uniquely different from anything else you have created!”

We could go on and on, proclaiming how holy – kadosh – set apart He is, and focused on a specific purpose. And that is exactly what the angels do!

Holiness is not about being absolutely perfect, but instead, it is about being separated from what is sinful. We cannot make ourselves perfect and blameless, but we can choose to be set apart for God. Thus, we can choose to be holy.

7 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know: Free PDF Download

With the use of the Hebrew language God revealed Himself to mankind. This ancient tongue held the greatest spiritual truths that guided our lives through the ages. And in each generation, they are discovered anew.

We know the Bible can be hard to understand and you want to get more out of it. Which is why we want to teach you seven Hebrew words that will transform the way you read the Bible.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Doug Hershey
Doug Hershey shares from a perspective of historian and storyteller. He is the author of the best-selling book ISRAEL RISING. His new online video course, "10 Prophecies Fulfilled in Our Lifetime" connects bible prophecy with its fulfillments in Israel today. Doug is the founder of Ezra Adventures, a travel and education company, specializing in exclusive customized small group travel throughout Israel and the Middle East. For more info, go to DougHershey.co or keep up with Doug Hershey, Author on FB, IG and Youtube.
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