I am blessed to live in the Wairarapa. In our neck of the woods it is always sunny and warm and the summer goes on forever. What is especially distinctive about our lives here is the hills. Not only the view of the sunrise as it illuminates the peaks, nor is it just the sunset as the reddish glow plays on the various slopes and valleys. It is also the view from the tops. Looking down from those peaks is something I can’t help but say is beautiful. With views like that it’s always nice to have a psalm handy to whisper in praise of the creator.
While the Bible does give us words to speak in the face of immense beauty, does it speak about beauty itself? Is beauty something that God cares about, and is it something that we should look for in our Christian lives? That’s what we are going to explore.
When we think of the way the Bible thinks about beauty, most of us probably will naturally gravitate to the ways that God speaks of external human beauty in a negative way. Perhaps we thought of Proverbs 31:30 which says “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.” In this passage we have come to the end of the words of Lemuel’s mother to him about a woman who is to be sought. She gives a lengthy description of the woman of excellence (eg Ruth 3:11) and all the characteristics that will be found in such a woman.
What is notable in this passage, however, is that it is not a diatribe against beauty itself, as if the godly woman can’t be beautiful! Beauty here is described as something which can lead someone (Lemuel in this case) to choose a woman who is not godly, if beauty is the main or sole factor he looks for in a wife.
Paul speaks in a similar way in 1 Timothy 2:9-10, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.” Once again, external beauty shouldn’t be the focus of the godly woman, but her character is what demonstrates her beauty. These works adorn her and indeed make her beautiful.
Of course, it isn’t only women whose looks can be deceiving. In 1 Samuel 9 we read of, “Saul, a choice and handsome man, and there was not a more handsome person than he among the sons of Israel.” Despite his appearance, Saul proved to be a king who failed miserably to obey his God, and was a terrible king.
Likewise, when Jesus speaks in Matthew 23:27 to the Scribes and Pharisees he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” In one sense, the beauty that Jesus is describing is metaphorical. Yet, the leaders in Israel were concerned with their outward appearance in the sense that they wanted to be perceived as righteous and respectable. However, as with Saul, the external didn’t match the internal.
So, what does the Bible say about beauty? Well, first of all, when it comes to people, external beauty and adornment can be a distraction or a deception, which might cause us to ignore an ungodly character.
But, let it not be said that the Bible only speaks negatively about beauty! In fact, there are many in Scripture who were both physically attractive and had a godly character. David is described in 1 Samuel 16:12 as being “ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance.” We see Saul described in a similar way. Both kings were attractive men, but what was the distinguishing factor? Their heart. Saul served himself, and David served the Lord. He was the man after God’s own heart, and this is what God must point out to Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Likewise Scripture speaks of many women who were both beautiful and godly. In 1 Samuel 25:3 we read of Abigail who is described as “intelligent and beautiful in appearance,” and who ultimately is thanked by David because God used her to prevent him from exacting vigilante justice on her worthless husband Nabal.
Who could forget Esther? The Bible describes her as “beautiful of form and face.” She, too is used by God for the salvation of his people when she courageously risks her own life in faith.
To this list might be added the ‘Beloveds’ in Song of Songs who extol the beauty of one another in form and character in a God-inspired love-song!
Is it ungodly to be attractive? Certainly not. There is even something to be celebrated in the beauty of God’s creation as shown in the human body. However, that beauty is worthless if it isn’t matched by a godly character. Indeed, then it only serves as a deceptive trap.
And so, it seems that we might need to be discerning when it comes to the appearances of people. However, what about places? Is there a place for beauty in the lives of Christians?
Well, if we are to imitate our Heavenly Father, it would seem that we should cultivate an appreciation for beauty. This is because we find that wherever God makes his dwelling with men, that place tends to be beautiful. We see that right from the very beginning when God placed man in a garden. A garden where, in Genesis 2:9 we read, “the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.” In this place where God and man would commune, he made a place which wasn’t only functional, but was also beautiful!
The same is true of the tabernacle. If he so desired, the tabernacle could have been a basic building with no visual appeal. However, when God describes the building in which he is to meet with his people, it is not a building purely made for function, but is meant to be beautiful. This is so important that in Exodus 31 God specially gifts men so that they can undertake the artistic metalwork and woodwork so that the tabernacle would be adorned.
Certainly, in this vein, we cannot forge the temple that Solomon built for the Lord. You can read the description of this in 1 Kings 6. It was full of decorative carved engravings and was coated with gold. It would have been an unbelievable structure! Once again, not made purely for function (which certainly was important), but also so that the dwelling of the Lord would be beautiful.
Now, you might wonder what example we can point to today of God’s beautiful dwelling. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:12-17 that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and that when this temple is built well it is built on the foundation of Jesus and with gold, silver and precious stones, just like the Old Testament temple. His church has now become his beautiful dwelling.
However, the church (just like the Old Testament types) is simply a foretaste of the beautiful dwelling to come. In Revelation 21:19 we read about the New Jerusalem that “The foundation stones of the city wall were adorned with every kind of precious stone.” Of course, much about these descriptions is figurative, but they are designed to give us a sense of awe, of anticipation, of a glory that no eye has yet seen!
And why is there all this beauty in the dwelling of the Lord? Because the Lord himself is beautiful! The reason that the new Jerusalem is glorious is that it has the glory of God! (21:11) As we read in Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the LORD And to meditate in His temple.” God himself is one who when we see him face to face will be the most glorious thing we have ever seen, and so the place where he dwells among men is designed to give a sense of this glory.
Is it any surprise, then, that the God who delights in beauty of form in his presence created a world that is beautiful? A world that shows his beauty in everyday things? This is what the first half of Psalm 19 describes, the glory of God is painted even in the fallen creation. As we look at the beauty of our world we get a glimpse of the beauty of our God. A beauty Jesus says extends even to the smallest lily that he formed with his hand (Matt 6:29).
So, what does the Bible say about beauty? God is certainly not neutral on the issue! Yes, it can hide a nefarious purpose when it is found in man. However, in general, our God uses beauty for his purpose. It is one of his attributes, and he uses it in his creation for his glory. So, let’s not feel like we need to be people of function instead of form, let’s embrace beauty where we find it as a gift from our Heavenly Father.
Mr David Stares is the minister of the Reformed Church in Masterton.
See issue 47/2, March 2020 for more articles on this subject.
Image: Photo by Ilya Pavlov on Unsplash