Is the Phrase ‘Holier Than Thou’ Biblical?

Posted on February 6, 2020

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By David Ettinger

Biblical and Non-Biblical
There are well-known Bible verses actually in the Bible, and well-known supposed Bible verses not in the Bible. An example of the former is: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” That’s biblical – Romans 8:28.

Here are two examples of the latter: “God helps those who help themselves,” and “cleanliness is next to godliness.” Search for it all you want and you will come up fruitless; these are not in the Bible.

Then there’s the phrase, “holier than thou.” This very popular expression is used in a critical context, a condemnation for those who think they are spiritually superior to others. But what of its status; is it biblical or non-biblical?

Authentically Biblical
The answer is “Yes, this phrase is biblical.”

The “thou” indicates you will find this precise wording in the King James Version. The most common modern-day rendering of this verse is, “I am holier than you.”

So where does it appear?

The Book of Isaiah
The phrase, “holier than thou” – used only once in the Bible – is found in Isaiah 65:5, and just as today, it is not in a good context.

In verses 1 through 4, God chastises Israel for stubbornly refusing to submit to Him. In verse 2, the Lord says: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.”

To make matters worse, the Israelites “sit among the graves and spend their nights keeping secret vigil” (v. 4) – meaning they engage in the pagan practice of consulting the dead. Furthermore, they “eat the flesh of pigs, and [their] pots hold broth of impure meat” (v. 4) ­– meaning they desecrate God’s dietary laws.

But rather than repent, they build themselves up to a degree of religious arrogance. And here is where they say of themselves: “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou” (v. 5, KJV). In other words, they believe they are so holy, so sacred, so spiritually perfect that should anyone of lesser religious integrity come near them, they would be defiled.

God’s Response
This verse speaks of those who elevate their spiritual self-worth and disparage anyone they feel falls short of their “righteousness.”

Such people exist today, and unfortunately they exist in the Church. In God’s family, there is no room for belittling others; as we are all sinners. If there are those who are struggling and not walking in faith, we should nurture them back to good standing with the Lord, not condemn them and magnify ourselves at their expense.

And what does God think of the “holier than thou” crowd? He leaves no room for ambiguity: “Such people are smoke in my nostrils, a fire that keeps burning all day” (v. 5).

This is a reference to the burnt sacrifices of ancient Israel, which were to render to God “a pleasing aroma” (Exodus 29:18, 25). But the “aroma” of those who are “holier than thou” – spiritually arrogant to the point they regard themselves as perfectly pious and all others as deficient – is putrid to God.

May we never be those who are “holier than thou,” but strive to be “a pleasing aroma” to our gracious and glorious God!