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Aesthetics in Scripture

That the Bible is an ethical book is evident. Righteousness in all the relations of man as a moral being is the key to its inspiration, the guiding light to correct understanding of its utterance. But it is everywhere inspired and writ in an atmosphere of aesthetics. Study will bring out this fact from Genesis to Revelation. The first pair make their appearance in a garden where grew "every tree that is pleasant to the sight" (Ge 2:9), and the last vision for the race is an abode in a city whose gates are of pearl and streets of gold (Re 21:21).

Such is the imagery that from beginning to end is pictured as the home of ethics—at first in its untried innocence and at last in its stalwart righteousness. The problem will be to observe the intermingling of these two elements—the beautiful and the good—in the whole Scripture range. A few texts will set before us this kinship and then the Bible student can detect it as he reads.

"One thing have I asked of Yahweh, that will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of Yahweh, And to inquire in his temple" (Ps 27:4).

"For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Yahweh made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary" (Ps 96:5,6).

If we catch the spirit set forth in such and similar Psalms, we can use it as a magnetic needle to detect its like wherever we shall read: and we shall find that like in abundance.

It is only necessary to turn to the directions given for making the Ark of the Covenant and its encircling tabernacle, and the decorations of the priests that were to minister in the worship of Yahweh in the ceremonies described, as given in Ex 25ff, to see that every resource of Israel was brought to bear to render ark and tabernacle and their service beautiful. One will find in a concordance half a column of references under the word "Ark" and a column and a half under the word "Tabernacle." By looking up these references one can realize how much care was spent to give and preserve to these aids to worship the attractiveness of beauty.

In 1Ch 15 and 16 we have an account of David’s bringing in the Ark of the Covenant into his own city to rest in a tent he had provided for it. On this occasion a demonstration was made with all the aesthetics of which the music of that day was capable. "And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren the singers, with instruments of music, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding aloud and lifting up the voice with joy." And David himself gave to the celebration the aesthetics of one of the noblest of his psalms (1Ch 16:8-36).

It is almost idle to refer to Solomon and his temple (1Ki 6 ff; 2Ch 3 ff). It is a common understanding that the civilization of Solomon’s day was drawn upon to its utmost in every department of aesthetics, in the building of that house for Yahweh and in the appointments for the worship there to be conducted. Beauty of form and color and harmony of sound were then and there integrated—made one—with worship in holiness. The propriety of that association has been seen and felt through the ages.

There is beauty in speech. It is a fact that the supreme classics in English and German literature are translations of the Bible. There is no explanation of such fact except that the original justified the translations. You can read indifferently from one translation to the other and catch the same aesthetic gleam. Nobility and poetry of thought lay in what was to be translated. Here is proof that cannot be gainsaid that the Scripture authors sought the aid of aesthetics as garb for the ethics they taught. So they wrote in poetry. So they used allegory, illustration, figure, metaphor that would charm and hold.

The parables of Jesus are examples of this method of clothing thought. They do their ethical work because they have swept into it figure and imagery from familiar aesthetic perceptions. "The sower went forth to sow" (Mt 13:3). That is a glad sight—always has been and always will be. That is why a picture of "The Sower" hangs on the walls of a Christian home. Just the painting—and every beholder remembers the parable and cannot forget its ethics. The intensity of thought concentrated upon ethics in the New Testament has drawn away attention from the partnership between these two principles in religion. But it is there, and we shall see it when once we look for it.

It is something to which we do not wake up till late in life—to wit, the measurelessness of the provision in Nature for beauty. Common consent awards beauty to the rainbow.


The Bible does not have an aesthetic doctrine as such. The appreciation of beauty is everywhere in the Scriptures, but beauty for beauty’s sake is of no consequence to its writers. One area in which the Biblical appreciation of beauty is obvious is the natural. Genesis passes judgment on the created universe by declaring that God saw that it was good. The Psalms especially reveal an appreciation of the beauty of God’s handiwork in nature (Pss 8; 19:1-6; 29; 65:9-13; 104; 147:8-18).

It was God who made the springs gush forth in the valleys, the grass to grow for the cattle, and the moon to make the seasons, who covers the heavens with clouds, determines the numbers of the stars, etc. The Hebrew mind appreciated the beauty of the earth and all of nature. By way of contrast it can be observed that pagan minds, even influenced by Jewish thought, had some reservation about the beauty of nature. The Hermetic Corpus (writings originating in Egypt about the beginning of the Christian era) were notably influenced by Judaism, but could not fully appreciate the beauty of the natural creation. In the cosmogony of Poimandres (a part of the Hermetic Corpus) there is clearly an echo of Genesis 1 which declares repeatedly that when God looked upon that which He had made He saw that it was good. The Bible spoke of the visible, material creation as good, but Poimandres makes a deliberate correction. It was not for the Hermetist, the natural universe which was beautiful, but the archetypal universe of which the visible world was only a faint copy. Some of the Hermetists went so far as to declare that the world was a totality of evil, as God was a totality of good.


The home land of the Jew was especially beautiful. Jeremiah wrote that God had said “I thought how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beauteous of all nations” (3:19). The city of God, Jerusalem, was likewise regarded as especially beautiful: “Is this the city which was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?” (Lam 2:15). The nation was described as the “beautiful flock” (Jer 13:20). The Temple was God’s beautiful house (Ezra 7:27).


The Pharaoh of Egypt was to be likened to the fair branches of the cedar of Lebanon, beautiful in its greatness (Ezek 31:3, 7, 9). The king of Tyre could be described as “the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (28:12). Isaiah described the doom of Samaria in terms of a fading flower of glorious beauty (28:1, 4), and Jeremiah Egypt as a beautiful heifer (46:20).


Human beings are spoken of in the Bible as being beautiful, and Isaiah and Ezekiel both disclose the use of cosmetics (Isa 3:18-24; Ezek 10:9-14), used to beautify the person. Certain women are described as beautiful: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Abigail, Abishag, Bathsheba and Esther. The bride of the Song of Solomon is addressed as the writer’s beautiful love (Song of Solomon 4:1). Certain men likewise are referred to as exceedingly fair and handsome: Absalom, Daniel, David, Joseph, Jonathan, and Moses in his infancy could be described as a goodly child.


Isaiah described God as becoming a beautiful diadem for His people (28:5) and the Messiah as a beautiful king (33:17). At the same time Isaiah spoke of the coming servant of the Lord as having “no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2). The Book of Revelation avoids anthropomorphic representations of God, but there is an undeniable splendor about the description of all that pertains to God. He who sits upon the throne of the universe “appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald” (Rev 4:3). The final estate that God has prepared for His people is likewise glorious. John wrote, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2).

Thoughts on Aesthetics in Nature

Reflect that every drop of water in the ocean, or in the hydrated rocks, or in the vapor floating over Saturn, has in it the possibility of rainbow coloring. In fact all matter has color of which the rainbow is only specimen. Any element incandescent has a spectrum partially coincident with that of water and ranging above and below it in the infinite capacity it has to start ether undulations. As apparently the larger part of the matter of the universe is incandescent, we can see that the field for expression in color is infinite. No one but the infinite God can see it all.

If we come down to this plain, plodding earth, cultivation of aesthetic sense will bring out beauty everywhere, from the grandeur of mountain scenery to aesthetic curves and colors revealed only by the microscope. We say the butterfly is beautiful. But the larva from which it is derived often carries as much beauty in mottling of color and of the fineness of of spine and mandible. Looking across the scale in this way the evidence of theism from beauty itself becomes convincing. Beauty becomes a messenger of and from God—as Iris was to the Greek and the rainbow to the Hebrew (Ec 3:11).

This from Amiel’s Journal Intime, I, 233, sets forth the radical, inexpugnable position of beauty in Nature and in philosophy thereof correctly interpretative:

"To the materialist philosopher the beautiful is a mere accident, and therefore rare. To the spiritualist philosopher the beautiful is the rule, the law, the universal foundation of things, to which every form returns as soon as the force of accident is withdrawn."

As we accustom ourselves to make larger and larger synthesis in the department of aesthetics, what diapason of theistic message may we not hear? Beauty wherever and however expressed is a medium of revelation. It is a bush ever burning, never consumed. Before it "put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." That beauty should be—to that intent, for that end, from everlasting hath wrought the Ancient of Days.


  • P. T. Forsyth, Christ on Parnassus (n.d.).
  • G. A. Smith, “The Hebrew Genius,” The Legacy of Israel, ed. Bevan and Singer (1927).
  • J. A. Montgomery, “Aesthetic in Hebrew Religion,” JBL, LVI (1937); C. H. Dodd, The Bible and the Greeks (1954).
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