What God’s Promise of “Beauty for Ashes” Means for You
What God’s Promise of “Beauty for Ashes” Means for You
Sarah E Martin iBelieve Editor
The saying "beauty for ashes" is common in both Christian and non-Christian circles. But is it more than just a hopeful sentiment? What did "beauty for ashes" mean to the Israelites when Isaiah spoke these words, and what do they mean for your life today?
“… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” – Isaiah 61:3
What do ashes bring to mind? From news of the last year alone, you might picture the flames in California, historic wildfires across Australia, the Beirut explosion which showered ash and debris over residential areas. Ash is a part of the brokenness of Creation. How can beauty rise up from such devastation?
Like us, the people of biblical times recognized ashes as a symbol of mourning and humility. The practice of putting on sackcloth and ashes was an expression of grief, and often repentance, recognizing and lamenting how far we have fallen from how things ought to be (Esther 4:1, Jonah 3:6), as well as a sobering reminder of how every physical life is destined to end on this side of eternity (“from dust to dust,” Ecclesiastes 3:20).
The saying, “beauty for ashes,” shows up in many places in culture, both Christian and non-Christian, often to convey the sentiment of the hope of new life out of destruction. But what exactly did these words mean, spoken from God through His prophet to His people, languishing in Jerusalem’s ruin?
The Story of “Beauty for Ashes” – Announcing The Year of the Lord’s Favor
The prophetic words from Isaiah 61 came to Israel after their return from exile in Babylon, a time when the brokenness of separation from God and his blessings would have been raw and real. Yet despite Israel’s failure to keep their side of the covenant, God is announcing a way for them to be restored.
The speaker of these verses describes himself as a servant full of God’s Spirit, anointed and sent to heal and set free, essentially announcing the good news of God’s Kingdom to the disinherited.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and to provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair."
The visual of “beauty for ashes” is set within a greater promise and poetic vision of a land restored, people re-established and their homes rebuilt. We see the works of their hands, their gardens, and flocks, growing and flourishing again after a time of captivity and oppression.
The picture is beautiful and rich: a fertile land, communities at peace, and plenty to go around and enjoy.
But we also see in Isaiah 61 that God doesn’t promise this beautiful vision as something that come out of nothing. He uses the language of an exchange: “beauty instead of ashes,” “the oil of joy instead of mourning.” God is not just sweeping away their ashes, their ugliness, and destruction, to be carried off by the wind, or hidden under a rug. He takes them. And in exchange, he gives beauty.
Photo Credit: © Unsplash/Pedro Saraiva
The Greater Promise behind “Beauty for Ashes”
The beauty in this passage does not just signify embellishment or worldly gifts to be enjoyed. Verse 10, where Isaiah breaks into a hymn of praise, reveals that God adorns with the beauty of salvation. “I exult in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation and wrapped me in a robe of righteousness, as a groom wears a turban and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."
The HCSB Study Bible says of this verse, “He used the theme of clothing to describe his taking on God’s salvation and righteousness. These were not just any clothes but the clothes of a bride. This image implies the metaphor of God as husband of His people.”
How enduring is the love of God. The Israelites broke the Abrahamic covenant. And as destructive, painful, and humbling Israel’s exile was, it could hardly begin to fully pay for the cost of their rebellion against God.
But God, rich in mercy, was determined to hold on to his people, rising above their unfaithfulness with the passion of a husband jealous for his bride.
For them to be made beautiful again, they must be saved, lifted out of the pit they drove themselves into. For God’s people to be saved, there must be, as John Piper describes, a “great exchange.”
Who Is the Servant Who Exchanges Beauty for Israel’s Ashes?
Over 700 years later, after these words were recorded, the son of Joseph, a carpenter from Nazareth, stood up in the synagogue of his hometown, and opened the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
“Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me / to preach good news to the poor. / He has sent me to proclaim freedom for / the prisoners / and recovery of sight for the blind, / to release the oppressed, / to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:17-21)
Here was the man — the promise of beauty in exchange for ashes, healing and restoration, freedom from oppression. The year of the Lord’s favor had come in a time and place no one could have expected. The servant had arrived to restore Israel’s beauty, to make the great exchange upon the cross.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
Photo Credit: © Getty Images/Elvira Podolinska
What Should Christians Know about the Meaning of “Beauty for Ashes”?
The consequences of sin in the world can’t simply be wiped away. Much of the book of Isaiah grounds its listeners in the facts of the extent of their sin, and the consequences it has on our relationships with each other, with God, and with Creation. God in his justice can’t sweep the ugliness of sin under the carpet, and forget about the cost. Sin and its destruction must be met and paid for.
Just as Israel was taken from their promised land, so we find ourselves in spiritual exile from the presence of God because of our rebellion. And yet God comes to us, in our ashes, and makes promises, not just of forgiveness and the canceling of debt, but of beauty.
Beauty in itself is a kind of extravagance, a lavishness and unsparing luxury. A heart that values and bestows beauty is one that is in a state of overflow. This means that God does not simply want to stop at settling the score. He wants to wipe our guilt away in order to get back to doing what his heart most naturally and abundantly desires: to lavish goodness and beauty and blessing upon the objects of his love.
“For he has clothes me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” (Isaiah 61:10)
Once the ashes are gone, God wants to shower his children, whom he’s brought home, with the evidence of their acceptance, their belovedness, and their belonging.
Isaiah 61:3 tells us that God receives the most delight and honor and praise by using things that have been broken, defiled, destroyed — perhaps past all human hope — and restoring them, not simply to their “former glory,” but to a greater degree of glory because of the mending.
How Do We See Beauty from Ashes in Our Lives Today?
Fire might destroy, sin might separate, but as we see in the promises God sent through Isaiah, this isn’t always the end.
Yes, God is a God of justice, of making wrongs right — and that means punishment and discipline, a frightening prospect for those who don’t accept God’s grace.
But, when it’s time to bless, to rain down affection, to bind up wounds and broken hearts, we witness a part of God that Dane Ortlund, in Gentle and Lowly, says is most natural to him. “[God] is rightly wrathful against sin and sinners. Following Scripture’s lead in how it talks about God, however, these attributes of moral standards do not reflect his deepest heart.”
By pulling us from the ashes, God has given way to a new kind of indestructible hope and beauty that has already been through the fire. And with it, God is building a Kingdom, a New Creation out of the ashes of this broken world.
No other faith can promise such joy on the other side of destruction. There is hope for the bruised and broken, those caught up in repeated sins, or simply worn away by heavy and oppressive circumstances. Ugly conditions can be, not simply replaced, but made beautiful. Is there any other God like this?
After reading from Isaiah 61 and announcing to the awe-struck crowd, “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down. What an act of finality. He said it was so, and then he took his seat. One can’t help but think of another moment in the great story of Scripture when the Lamb of God, who alone is worthy to open the scroll, is found seated, not in a synagogue in Nazareth, but on heaven’s throne.
Alternative Translations of Isaiah 61:3
ASV: "to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them a garland for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah, that he may be glorified."
KJV: "To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified."
CSB: "to provide for those who mourn in Zion; to give them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, festive oil instead of mourning, and splendid clothes instead of despair. And they will be called righteous trees, planted by the Lord, to glorify Him."
ESV: "to grant to those who mourn in Zion-- to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified."
MSG: "To care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion, give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes, Messages of joy instead of news of doom, a praising heart instead of a languid spirit. Rename them "Oaks of Righteousness" planted by God to display his glory."
NAS: "To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the LORD , that He may be glorified."
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Sarah Martin is the editor for iBelieve. She has previously enjoyed editing and writing for her alma mater, Christopher Newport University’s newspaper, and for various ministry organizations. She has a B.A. degree in English and Writing and enjoys a good dive into British literature along with a strong cup of black tea.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.