Isaiah & The Beauty of God
An Introduction to Isaiah’s “Doctrine of Beautification”
In reading the book of Isaiah, I was recently struck by a footnote found in several places in the ESV, including verses 49:3, 55:5, 60:9, 60:21, and 61:3. In all of these verses, the typical English translation has to do with God’s glory: “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (49:3). But the footnote suggests a more accurate translation is “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will display my beauty.”
The Hebrew word being used here is pa’ar. It’s a kind of showing off, strutting your stuff, displaying your beauty, almost like a peacock. It gets used 13x in the Old Testament, and 9 of them are in Isaiah. And Isaiah keeps using this word at key points in the book that shape our understanding of Christ, missions, and the whole purpose of God’s salvation for his people. Isaiah tells that displaying the beauty of God is:
God’s ultimate purpose in the person and work of Christ, the suffering Servant (49:3)The primary means of drawing the nations to God (ex. 55:5; 60:9),The final end and purpose of redemptive history (ex. 60:21; 61:3).
In other words, God displays his beauty in Christ’s work of Redemption, it is God’s beauty that draws people unto God, and at the end of all things God’s people will shine forth with his beauty. This is what I call Isaiah’s doctrine of beautification. God is not just legally reconciling people unto himself, and he is not just ransoming back captives from Satan, Sin, and Death: he is making us beautiful as he is beautiful. We are made to be mirrors, and though we are cracked and broken by sin, God is about the work of remaking us to reflect his image again, even better and brighter than before the Fall.
I will write more about each of these points in future posts in this multi-part series. I’ve also written a paper on this topic, which I will make available in the coming weeks.
But first, why is Isaiah so important?Why do we need to understand and press this point about God displaying his beauty with regard to salvation?
Isaiah was, in large part, the Bible of the early church. There is so much about Jesus packed into Isaiah that it’s been called “the Fifth Gospel” (See The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianityby John F. A. Sawyer). Jesus himself quoted Isaiah, the New Testament authors quoted Isaiah more than any other Scriptural author, and when the early church sought to understand what had happened in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection, they turned to Isaiah to search for answers. So it is right for us to make an effort to see the New Testament Scriptures through the lens of Isaiah.
The display of God’s beautyangle gives us a different way to think and talk about salvation.With the New Testament writings, we see clear emphases on understanding the mechanicsof Salvation: Howis it that we are justified and sanctified? By faith! What is it that we are saved from and saved to? From Hell, to Everlasting Life! Whohad to make propitiation for sins? God himself, taking on human flesh, because humankind are born in sin and unable to keep God’s law. In the Old Testament, we see the emphasis on holiness, especially in covenantal statements like “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
In contrast, through the writings of Isaiah, we get a glimpse at God’s own purposesfor Redemption. He will show off his beauty, first in Jesus Christ and then in his redeemed people! His beauty is such that it will take the darkest ugliness of humanity, displayed in the crucifixion, and make even thatinto a display of beauty. And not only a display, but a redemptive showcase that makes shattered mirrors whole again.
I think this language of Beauty is important for our cultural moment.We tend to get trapped into thinking of “holiness” as a set of legalistic codes; if you don’t sin, you’re holy. We tend to think of justification as merely making up for the fact that we are sinful, and sanctification as a process that will enable us to notsin. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. If I may put it this way, Isaiah moves us to go beyond our weak definition of holiness, beyond technical rights and wrongs, and into Beauty. Things can be technically right and still ugly, legally right and still wrong. Beauty entails technical excellence, but it encompasses so much more.