“To appoint unto them in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes. . .” Isaiah 61:3
In the beginning of the prophecies of Isaiah, he saw “a people that walked in darkness, a people dwelling in the shadow of death.”
But that people saw a great light. They had begun to be very joyful before God’s face, even as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
And why all this rejoicing? Because that light would be so powerful as to break their yoke, destroy the staff that oppressed them, and splinter the rod of their oppression.
What is that light?
This: “A child, a Son with the government upon His shoulders”. And He had a most wonderful name: “Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace!” I must work here with capital letters, for the Person bearing these exalted names is God of God!
And in the chapter from which my text is taken for this meditation He appears before the wondering eyes of the Church of all the ages. Listen to Him: He will show His credentials: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon He!” And: “to …. give beauty for ashes”!
Beauty for ashes!
Ashes! Imagery for that which is powerless and entirely nerveless. It is imagery for that which has lost all resistance, which is without animation. It is the consumed, that which is gone out, the chilled, that which is absolutely gone, it is imagery for the dead!
Beauty, especially according to the original, is adornment, and as such it is the exact opposite of ashes. The first is object of abhorrence. There is terrible speech in ashes. And the other is object of adoration and ecstasy.
Beauty is the figure in this connection of pomp, splendor and magnificence. Adornment is that which is added to the beautiful. It is gold and silver and very precious stones. Adornment is the string of pearls and the sparkling rubies. Adornment is the apparel of silk and purple and fine linen. It is the figure of the costliest and the most beautiful and attractive, of that which is the most splendid imaginable.
And now comes the question: But what is the signification of both in Holy Writ, in this particular place in Isaiah?
The attempt to find the signification of both terms is not difficult, especially when we remember that the Wonder Child is pictured as bringing to His people Israel this beauty for ashes.
If we let the light of the whole Bible fall upon this phrase, we see that ashes describe man, hung about and permeated wholly with death in its fullest signification. It is man, without resistance, entirely impotent unto any good and entirely inclined unto evil. It is man, powerless and nerveless. It is man, consumed, gone out, chilled, dead.
Ashes is man, the fallen race of men, the man of sin who would dare to raise his fist to the Almighty in heaven. They are the people that sit in darkness: they are at home in the atmosphere of devils; they are the people that walk in the shadow of death. They are under the yoke, the staff, the rod of the devil and his henchmen.
Ashes is imagery for God’s own people too, as they are dead in sin and trespasses. Ashes describes your and my estates as we are by nature, dear reader!
Ashes was the condition of the people of Israel at the time of Isaiah’s writing. Their condition was so characterized by ashes that they had to be sent into the captivity of Babylon so that they might lose their ashes and be crowned with most wonderful adornment.
Beauty for ashes!
We know what ashes is, but what is meant with adornment? With beauty?
I will tell you at once: it is the most wonderful thing that man may ever taste for time and for eternity. It is the blessed covenant communion with the God of our salvation.
And how fitting that this wonder child should bring this beauty! How fitting, for it is He that earned every sparkle of it.
And you receive it all by His Holy Spirit.
And if you would ask me to enumerate the beauties of this covenant communion with the Triune God of your salvation, then I would speak, and sometimes sing, of regeneration, calling, conversion, faith, justification sanctification, glorification. Then I would like to speak of the eternal love of God. I would sing of the rubies of His lovingkindness and the pearls of His grace for you, poor sinner!
Oh, yes, beauty for ashes! The wonder child has oceans of beauty for Israel, for the Church, for the elect of all the ages.
And, please note that it is beauty for ashes. In other words: the ashes disappear and in its place comes the beauty of covenant communion.
Beauty for ashes!
The godlessness of the natural man is taken away, and the beautiful, lovely, attractive son and daughter of Almighty God appear on the scene of history.
I know that there are many that will laugh at this statement, but you just let them laugh. It is the laugh of devils. And its fruit shall be shame and reproach when God will substantiate our appraisal of Jesus’ work. Yes, they will point you to all the ashes that still cling to the church of Jesus,’ and they will say: Is that the city which is supposed to be a joy unto all the earth? The poor people do not see two things, things which you know and see with rejoicing. First, they do not see that all the ashes that remain after the visit of the Wonder Child are there against our will; and, second, that in Christ we are indeed entirely beautiful. We are so perfect and so beautiful in Christ that God Himself has said that He does not regard sin in Israel.
Oh, yes, you have received beauty for ashes!
Beauty for ashes!
Yes, I have already intimated who are to receive this boon of the Wonder Child, but for the sake of clarity I will ask the question again, and answer it: for whom is this beauty? What is the application?
Who receive beauty for ashes?
And well nigh the whole world crieth: It is unto all!
Some of them are very learned in deception, and they say, not unto all, but it is offered, or it is promised unto all. As far as God and the wonder child are concerned, there is enough for all, and the God of the heavens and the earth would like to see all men accept this wonderful beauty in exchange for their ashes, and be happy for evermore.
Yes, sad to say, such is the conception, and such has been the conception on the streets of Jerusalem during all the weary ages that are past. And such is the conception today.
Almost everyone whom you may chance to meet on the streets of Sodom owns unto himself the beauty of Christ. They bear His name. They gather in His house. They call the nations Christian. But they crucify Jesus wherever they meet Him.
And thus they are drilled. There are millions of books written on the theme of my text. And with small exception they all are faulty, deceitful, false, misleading, devilish.
I call you all to witness that the beauty of the Christ-Child is thrown for a scramble among the dogs!
If you do not grab it, it is your own fault! There is enough for all! And the Lord God is offering it to the whole world. Become beautiful, why do you not?
And on the holidays of the Church everything glitters and glistens of beauty and splendor. All seem beautiful. And the devil himself appears among them as an angel of light.
The whole world shouts: Beauty for Ashes! Hallelujah!
But it is not true!
I would beg of you: read the text!
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes!
That is the text.
I would ask in a mighty challenge: where is the world? The world is not in it at all! It is not even unto all that are and belong in Zion according to their generations.
All of Zion keeps holy day: it is true. But all of them do not receive beauty for ashes. There is a second limitation. Those that are at ease in Zion do not receive beauty, but they receive a still uglier woe: their portion is second death in hell forever! That, my dear reader, is the truth.
The beauty of my text is for those that mourn in Zion! It is the spiritual kernel of Zion.
And they themselves and those that surround them may know them for what they are: they are the mourners. Take the trouble (?) and read Ezekiel 9. There you find a commentary on this mourning. They mourn because of the abominations that are done in Jerusalem. And first of all their own abominations. Listen to David, Nehemiah, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and all the saints who have recorded their inmost prayers in Holy Writ, and you will see that they mourned, and they mourned first of all because of their own sins.
They are the happy people that receive beauty for ashes. In Ezekiel they receive a mark on their foreheads, and they are not destroyed by the destroyers. That is negative language for the positive beauty of God’s covenant communion.
These mourners are described in the context. Attend to their appearance in history: the meek—and they receive glad tidings; the brokenhearted—and they receive the binding up of their wounded hearts; the captives—and they are released; the prisoners—and they go free; the mourners—and they receive oil for joy; those with a spirit of heaviness—and they receive the garment of praise!
They and they only receive the beauty for ashes.
Beauty for ashes for God’s own people, and no one else!
Beauty for ashes!
And it is given! God be praised! It is a good thing that God gives it. If He did not, I would never become beautiful with the beauty of the Son of God. For I am unable and unwilling to accept it. Oh yes, I accept, I accept oceans of grace and beauty, but even my stretched out hand is wrought by the almighty power of my God. God gives it! And shall continue to give it, until all God’s people are made beautiful and time ended. And then the beautiful city and the beautiful people shall be as it were a mirror so that they may reflect the beauty of the Lord their God!
We wait for that day with inexpressible longing!
Beauty for ashes!
But I have not said anything about the most wonderful part of the text.
Oh, I admit that the sight of a child of God who is made beautiful with the Spirit of meekness is a glorious sight.
But I would tell you of more beautiful things.
Return with me to the text: To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion. . . .
Oh, I must speak of the appointing!
And there are terrible notes in that song. There is a terrible discord in it. A discord of hell and hellish suffering of my Lord.
Back of all the beauty of you and your church lies a chapter in the great works of God which is very difficult reading matter. To appoint He came. In the first two words, which I have asked to write in italics, lie a great humiliation for the wonder c hild. They spelled for Him eternal death. If you and I saw Him go down the valley of the shadow of second death, and if you and I would have asked Him: Quo Vadis? He would have answered: I go to appoint to give unto you beauty for ashes! Your and my Jesus would have looked at you through the bloody sweat of the garden, and He would have sighed within your hearing: It is profitable for you that I go the way of eternal suffering, for I am going to appoint a wondrous beauty for you.
We saw Him go, and we wondered with great wonder.
We looked and saw until it grew very dark. It was dark about the cross of His appointing.
And when we could not see Him anymore, we heard His sighing and His crying on that accursed cross. And when we translate all that agony, in good dogmatics, we hear our leaders tell us that to appoint He came. To appoint means then to prepare, to set in order, to labor to come to pass. They will tell you of the travail of His soul, of His broken heart, of His crushed flesh, His spilled blood, of His eternal suffering in the hands of Almighty God.
Oh, dear reader, behind and above your beauty is a great deal of appointing by the hand of God, by the hand of Jesus, the stranger of Galilee.
If you know that you are one of the mourners of Zion, if you hear your name called by the Lord Jesus Christ, even as He said: My sheep hear my voice and they follow Me! If you have the love of God shed abroad in your heart through the Holy Ghost that is given unto you, if you have the gift of the God-given faith so that you cling and cleave to the promises, then—have your feasts! And also have your holy days in the Church. It is well.
But remember in the midst of all your rejoicing that you have received beauty for ashes, because Jesus received ashes for beauty!
You sing and you joy in all your salvation, and it is well.
But you sing for all eternity, because Jesus wept in deepest night.
You are on the way to heaven, and I do not have in mind the heaven that now is. I have in mind the heaven that will be when God shall say: Behold, I make all things new! You are on the way to the place that shall be musical forever because of the songs and the music of the redeemed. And it is well.
But remember that Jesus trod the weary way in the opposite direction: He went to hell for you!
Beauty for ashes! That is right. But it is the beauty that is earned through the labor of Him that became ugly with the ugliness of the bottommost bottom of hell!
Love Him and His Father forever for so great love!