“From Zion, from that which is made perfect in beauty, God shines forth.”
The majority of translations render this a little more idiomatically, “From Zion, the perfection of beauty…” and such is a perfectly legitimate way to render the phrase מִכְלַל־יֹפִי (miklal-yopiy). Clearly the psalmist is praising God and celebrating the place of worship that God had ordained (in this case, the Tabernacle as it was placed on Zion in anticipation of a Temple being built. King David had commissioned Asaph, along with others, to prepare for the Temple worship in the days of his son, Solomon.
At the same time, we must ask, what made the Tabernacle beautiful? And, we can ask by extension, what would make the Temple a beautiful building? Certainly both were works of remarkable art and craftsmanship. They were wonders of their day and era. But, was it the artwork that is really to be commended? Could we be missing something by simply viewing the Tabernacle and Temple as beautiful places — like we might view the Parthenon or the Pyramids in Egypt.
The answer to this question is bound to the reason that I opted to translate this passage more literally. The two Hebrew root-words that are brought together in the phrase in question are כלל and יפה. The verbal form of the first refers to that which is made perfect and thus the noun (as it is being used here) has to do with the perfect presentation of something. The second noun that is found in this construction refers to beauty as a whole. To preserve the idea of “being made” in this phrase, I have rendered it as “which is made perfect in beauty.”
But, why is it important to bring out the nature of “that being made perfect” in this passage? The answer lies in the question we have been asking — what made the Tabernacle and Temple perfect and beautiful? The answer is that it is the presence of God which does so. If God’s presence is not there, no matter the craftsmanship, its beauty is not perfect — it cannot be! And thus, God’s presence is what makes Zion to be “perfect in beauty” and worthy of being a place of worship. And indeed, in context, that is what the latter half of this verse communicates: God shines forth!
And so, why is the rebuilt Temple of Nehemiah never described in such terms? Why is the modified Temple of Herod never described in these terms? It is because God’s presence never manifested itself in those places — the Son was the greater Temple to come and is yet the great Temple of God (so why do so many people want to rebuild the old one?!?). And we, as the body of Christ, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, are the new Temple — perfect in beauty when we gather together as one to worship. But remember, we are not perfect in beauty because we are any way beautiful in and of ourselves. We are beautiful because God dwells in us and shines forth from us as we commit our worship and our lives to Him.
Solomon wrote that there was “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The nineteenth-century theologian, W.G.T. Shedd, wrote: “Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one.” One pastor I knew while growing up used to say, “True genius is not creating something new, it is knowing what is good enough to steal (and improve upon).”
I am told that every combination of chords that can be played has been played. And thus, there are no truly original pieces being written — yet, people are still writing new music. It can be said that every possible combination of words has already been written, yet new books are still being written. There are only a finite number of possible plot lines in literature and all of them have been explored, yet new stories are still being told. You can see the shadows of previous designs in every invention, yet we are still trying to build a better mousetrap. And the ideas that seem new or novel to us only seem so because we are generally poor at teaching history.
So, am I suggesting that we do not create? Not at all. In fact, I am suggesting just the opposite. One of the things that makes us human is the fact that we create new things, we learn from the things that others develop and we re-imagine those things to make them better, faster, more efficient, and more useful. It is this work of making new things that not only distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, but that reminds us that we are made in the image of a creative God. And so, as we imitate God, particularly in creative work, we grow in our reflection of His character, that is, so long as we create well.
There is a sense, particularly when it comes to artistic expression, of good creativity and bad creativity. Not every color blends together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not every chord progression is pleasing to the ear. There are things that belong together and things that clearly do not belong together. Not every alteration on a design is helpful or appealing. And, while certain things appeal to one person and not to another, there are still combinations and compositions that are more or less universally disconcerting and disturbing to the eye, ear, or mind.
C.S. Lewis called this a departure from “the Normal” or the “Sense of Normal.” For Lewis, there was a sense of color, sound, and design that is found in the created order that we humans are meant to imitate when we create things. When we go outside of that sense of “Normal,” we find things to be disturbing and aberrant. That, of course, does not mean that people do not sometimes try and produce art outside of the realm of “the Normal,” but it does mean that the art will tend to only appeal to a certain niche crowd that shares the artist’s disturbing perspective on the world.
I am reminded of my college years and an instance in a class where we were to write a fiction story. I had written a story where the murderous villain was caught but escaped trial on a technicality. The response of my classmates was to be appalled. The technicality was a legitimate one and certainly, people had been released from jail on that technicality before. There was nothing outrageous or unrealistic about the villain’s release. Yet, in the story, I had generated such hatred and disgust for the villain that, when he was not convicted of the murder of these women, my classmates left the story dissatisfied and angry. Or, to put it another way, the sense of “Normal” also includes a basic sense of justice that needs to occur in a plot line.
The challenge we face in society is that as the knowledge of God is attacked and devalued in the classroom, we more and more fail to see the value of this sense of the Normal, which originates and is given value by God’s design. We also fail to see the importance of creating things of interest and beauty to all. Until we really consciously recognize that we are engaged in the imitation of our creator, the motivation for creation will always be self-serving and limited in scope and value. It is only when God’s sense of “normal” is applied to our creation, that true value and aesthetic beauty will be visible.
“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”
What does it mean to set your mind on that which is lovely? Literally, the Greek word that Paul uses here means “to engender a kind of brotherly love.” It conveys the notion that there are things in this world that when we look upon them, when we listen to them, when we take the time to appreciate them, there is a certain deep-felt “rightness” and satisfaction that wells up in our hearts. C.S. Lewis referred to this idea as “the Normal” in his novel, That Hideous Strength.
To develop this idea further, there are certain relationships and proportions that we see in the world around us that are naturally beautiful in our eyes. The Golden Ratio, for example, made up of the Fibonacci sequence, is found throughout the created order. This is the ratio found in numerous elements of the human body but the spiral that this ratio creates is found in everything from the structure of DNA to the spiral of the nautilus shell to the spiral of the great Spiral Nebula. Artists talk about complimentary colors and symmetry; architects use varying proportions to create an aesthetically beautiful building, composers use certain progressions of notes and chords, etc… Clearly, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is found in how, when we create works of art, those works mimic or approximate what was made by our creator.
Often we speak about the doctrine of the Imago Dei — that humans are made in the image of God — and all the Imago Dei means when it comes to the inherent dignity found in all mankind. We often do not talk at length about the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei — the doctrine that as those made in the image of God, we best live our our lives in imitation of the God whose image we bear. And as God is a creative God, we too are to exercise our creativity to his glory. That does not mean that we create carte blanche, instead it means that we are to create with a certain degree of continuity between our creation and God’s…that is if we want to create something of beauty.
Today, though, it seems that art has moved away from this notion and instead of seeking out that symmetry and continuity, it seems that many artists strive for just the opposite — creating things that shock us as abnormal and hideous rather than lovely. Paul implies that such is not healthy for our personal sanctification. We are to set our eyes upon that which is beautiful and lovely because it seeks to approximate the beauty of the created order to the glory of God. The abnormal that is prevalent in our culture simply reflects the rebellion against God of our times and the chaos that ensues. From this influence we should flee.
“The girl had a very good appearance — a virgin which no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled up her pitcher and came back up.”
When we read this passage, it might be our first assumption to suggest that Eliezer was attracted to Rebekah because of her beauty, but remember, being “good of appearance” does not necessarily speak of one’s physical beauty, but can also be applied to the wholesome character and demeanor of the person in question. Peter writes:
You must not be external, elaborately braiding your hair and wearing gold, or wearing the clothes of the world. But let the hidden person of the heart [be your adornment], with the imperishable thing of a gentle and a quiet spirit, which is precious in the face of God. For in this way, the holy women who hoped in God adorned themselves, also being submissive to their own husbands.
(1 Peter 3:3-5)
In the west, we have become so obsessed with the physical that we forget God’s intent that we focus on the spiritual. Physical beauty only passes away; spiritual beauty grows and matures as one goes through life; which is more valuable? Paul says that our physical exercise is of some value, but godliness of life has eternal value (1 Timothy 4:8). Surely what distinguishes Rebekah from the others is not simply that she is an attractive young lady, but that her spiritual attractiveness (we might say, “grace”) also exceeds that of the other young women coming out for water.
Similarly, the language of Rebekah’s virginity stands out to modern readers in the west as being remarkable, yet in Abraham’s culture it would not only be expected, but her virginity would be one more “jewel in her crown” — a thing to be honored and celebrated as a part of her good character. How sad it is that in the western world we have sunk so deep into the morass of immorality that virginity is something that many young girls are embarrassed about rather than celebrating.
Friends, how quick we are to take the statement: “man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7) as the normative end of our interactions with others. Indeed, we cannot clearly see and read the heart, but does that mean we should not try? May it never be so! Let us strive with one another to look and interaction on the basis of the heart, the character, the integrity, the godliness of a person, not on the basis of their physical beauty. The things of this world are passing away, but the things of God will last forever. Which will you choose to honor in a person’s life?