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In Isaiah 6:3, the seraphim call one to another, saying:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (ESV)

קָדֹ֧ושׁ׀ קָדֹ֛ושׁ קָדֹ֖ושׁ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָאֹ֑ות מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבֹודֹֽו׃ (BHS)

I’m wondering about the meaning of repeating three times קָדֹ֛ושׁ (qādōš, "holy"). Is this just an extension of the Hebrew habit of repeating things (usually twice) for "emphasis"1? Or is there a special meaning to the number three?2 Are there other examples in Isaiah (or elsewhere) of such thrice repetition?


1. In quotes because I'm never quite sure what that means. Comments welcome.

2. I did learn the word Trisagion in the process of writing this question, but I’m left without much insight into the point.

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There have been a couple of recent treatments of the Trisagion -- at least, these are ones I'm aware of.

In 2008 H.G.M. Williamson's "Wellhausen Lecture" was published as Holy, Holy, Holy: The Story of a Liturgical Formula (Walter de Gruyter, 2008).1 He looks at the history of the verse in terms spelled out by the title, but probing back into biblical times (not the later Jewish and Christian "liturgical uses"). His focus is on the second part of the verse, though ("the whole earth is full of his glory") rather than the "Holy holy holy" part in Isa 6:3a.

Partly in response to this, one of the articles in his Festschrift was devoted to the Hebrew Bible's texts that "repeat something three times" (OP).2 In fact, it provides discussion of OP's precise question(s). Some brief responses, then, summarizing from this article, in reverse order:

[OP]: Are there other examples in Isaiah (or elsewhere) of such thrice repetition?

There appear to be just four occurrence of this phenomenon in the whole Hebrew Bible:

  • Isaiah 6:3 is the "parade" example supplied by OP;
  • Jeremiah 7:4, a slightly "elongated" example, with the three-fold repetition of "the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD";
  • Jeremiah 22:29: "O land, land, land!"; and
  • Ezkiel 21:27: "A ruin, a ruin, a ruin..." (n.b. - this is 21:32 in the Hebrew text).

That appears to be the sum total of them. These were known as a small "corpus" by the medieval rabbinic commentators, as Rashi and Kimchi discussed them in relation to each other.

[OP]: Is there a special meaning to the number three?

There may well be, but this seems not to have a bearing on these triple-repetition texts.

[OP]: I’m wondering about the meaning of repeating three times קָדֹ֛ושׁ (qādôš, "holy"). Is this just an extension of the Hebrew habit of repeating things (usually twice) for "emphasis"?

The argument of the article is that the triple repetition is simply a rhetorical device, providing an unusually insistent focal point on the "thing tripled". The negative side of the argument is that it is, thus, not a "grammatical" or "syntactic" construction per se, although this assertion is sometimes made, especially in light of the handling in Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley, § 133k.

For Isaiah 6:3 in particular, the frequent claim that it represents a "superlative of holiness" (p. 215) is also excluded, arguing that:

This ... is the point of the tripling: the three-fold declaration emphatically forces this “otherness” of the LORD into the foreground.

There is, of course, much more said about the linguistic issue, and also about how the analysis of the four texts mutually reinforces this kind of interpretative approach. But it's best to consult the article itself for this.


Notes

  1. Unfortunately, the Google Books "preview" is more like a "tantalizing glimpse", as it only includes a few pages from the Foreword.
  2. D.J. Reimer, "On Triplets in a Trio of Prophets", in Let us Go up to Zion: Essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. by I. Provan & M. Boda (Brill, 2012), pp. 203-217.
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  • Does anybody think there aren't supposed to be three? I just ran across 1QIsa<sup>a</sup> which very clearly only has two. (I know I got ahold of a copy of "Triplets" at some point, but I can no longer find it and Google books is rather inadequate in this case, so sorry if this is discussed there. Unrelated: I think it's LORD in that last quote.) – Susan Sep 24 '16 at 4:37
  • In fact, all four of the "triplet" texts show text critical evidence showing some mss that read "doublets" instead -- mentioned in fn. 19 on p. 207. (And quite right about "LORD"; too bad we can't do <smcaps>...</smcaps> or the like. :/ ) – Dɑvïd Sep 24 '16 at 9:20
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In the absence of an explicit assertion as to why one has done something identifying motive is speculative. However I would suggest that the words are recording an antiphon, or responsive recitation.

Seraph #1: "Holy" Seraph #2: "Holy" Seraph #1 or #3: "Holy"

The literary impact of two "Holy"s would be to suggest that there was a single response. Because there are two responses listed it suggests that the responses were continuous and ongoing and/or that there were many Seraphim in the "choir".

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Using the KJAV Bible (because it is the most accurate translation from Hebrew), the trisagion of Isaiah 6:3, (repeated in Revelation 4:8) Jeremiah 7:4, Jeremiah 22:29, Ezekiel 21:27, Revelation 8:13, plainly show a pattern

  1. God is Holy to a superlative degree (that is His standard).
  2. God's people want "religion" but also want to continue in their sin.
  3. Even when warned about their soon coming doom they ignore the warning.
  4. God is removing the "special relationship" bestowed on Israel and giving it to Christ.
  5. All peoples who reject Christ are to be severely punished.

In Hebrew poetry when something is repeated (said twice) it is very important that we take notice of it.

When it is said three times it is absolutely superlative.

There are only SIX examples of this "Tri" in Scripture, and SIX is the number that represents MAN.

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What is the meaning of the repetition of “holy” in Isaiah 6:3?

The number three in the scriptures denotes emphasis, reinforce or strengthen the message. For example Peter's three denials to Jesus. (Mat.26:34,75) And Peter's three-fold vision instructions emphasized to him not to doubt but go ahead, to kill and eat unholy and unclean animals according to the Law. (Acts 10:9-16)

Peter's denials

Matthew 26:34,75 (NASB)

34 Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you that this very night before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.”75 And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Peter's three-fold vision.

Acts 10:9-16 (NASB)

9 "On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky

Holy, Holy, Holy,( Isaiah 6:3, Rev. 4:8)

Isaiah 6:3 (NASB)

3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.

Revelation 4:8 (NASB)

8 And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within, and day and night [a]they do not cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who [b]is to come.”

So the fact that the heavenly creatures, Seraph, repeat Holy, Holy, Holy, emphasize the Superlative Holiness and the Glory of the Lord of the heavens.

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Many interesting interpretations to an important question. A further facet could b explored through parashat Emor in the Zohar. I do not merit deep understanding of these things, but investigating sefirotic interpretations may lead to a different level of interpretation. Baruch HaShem holy brothers and sisters. :)

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I'm surprised that no one has mentioned the Trinity idea in connection with In Isaiah 6:3, the seraphim call one to another, saying:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

As well as in Revelation 4:8

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.

This is a pretty good piece of evidence on the triunity of Godhead.

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Judaism has a tendency to do things in three times (actually all Semitic cultures). Something done/said/ruled thrice is considered permanent. This is called a “instillation/strengthening" (depends on the context) or in Hebrew Khazaqah.

It's not the only occurrence either:

Ezekial 21:27

"A ruin, ruin, ruin I will make it. This also shall not be, until he comes, the one to whom judgment belongs, and I will give it to him."

What we see here is Ezekiel is prophesying the coming of the Babylonians, and the destruction of Jerusalem So while it strengthens his words, there's also something inherently Jewish about doing things in threes.

Sidenote: On the holiness regarding the number "3" within Judaism.

The trisaigon (I believe) is taken from Revelation, which was also probably taken from this verse in Isaiah.

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  • "Judaism has a tendency to do things in three times (actually all Semitic cultures)." Please provide support for this statement - you've offered none. – Dan Feb 28 '15 at 6:13
  • Dan Why ? This is the truth though.the editor of the book knew exactly the 1820 concept. Are u aware that genesis 1:1 equals 37*73 and hence john 1;1 in the Greek gematria equals 39*93 ? Therefore the 3 holy that appear in this very powerful phrase were deliberately made to equate to 1820 Cheers Eli – user8015 Mar 1 '15 at 11:42
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As you stated yourself the twice written part was used to emphasise the words. It would be quite clear that the father of the prodigal son did not simply say "my son, my son" two times, but rather yelled it so loudly that when written down it was written two times to emphasise how loud it was said. There are plenty of examples such as this from the bible where words exclaimed are written down twice, as the writers didn't have bold nor caps lock as we do today.

Reading Isa 6:3 in context, you will notice that the seraphim yelling the word HOLY!!!! Did it in such a loud voice that it shook the foundations of the threshold. If you understand how the Hebrew writers emphasised their words it becomes clear that this was not "holy" said three consecutive times and then spontaniously shaking the foundations of the threshold, but rather a single extremely loud HOLY. This would explain why it was written three times rather than the traditional two times, because the emphasis is so much more severe, pointing to something louder than humanly possible.

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    "...but rather yelled it so loudly that when written down it was written two times to emphasise how loud it was said" - you do realise the prodigal son is a parable, and not a literal historical event, right? – Steve Taylor Jun 2 '16 at 7:57
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    Do you have any references to support your claim that repetition = shouting? – curiousdannii Jun 5 '16 at 4:04

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