Beauty for Ashes

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

There’s a gentle song by Crystal Lewis that more or less comes from this text and the chorus is one which really outlines the Great Exchange that God brings about in our lives. “He gives beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, and peace for despair.”

Beauty for ashes The Hebrew technically is “a garland for ashes” but the garland is beautiful. Plus, the garland here would be a wedding garland, a crown of beauty  and this is in contrast to the ashes a mourner would put on their head. So beauty for ashes is the joy of loving and being loved in place of desolation and loss.

Strength for fear At base, this is the exchange we see in the angels greeting “be not-afraid.” For those who have read Hannah Hurnard’s famous book, this will make sense because the heroine starts out named “Much Afraid” and ends the story named “Grace and Glory.” The admonition to “be strong and courageous” flows through the Old Testament and fundamentally, is part of the work of getting us to stand up again  because our chains are gone.

Gladness for mourning In Isaiah, the text talks about the “oil of gladness” which was a scented oil, a perfume a person would put on (anoint themselves with) which was part of being happy. In contrast, at the time mourners would… not wash and therefore had a different fragrance. God is essentially promising a sweet smell in the place of unwashed sweatiness.

Peace for despair Ok, this is a bit of a stretch, but the underlying Hebrew is fun. Technically, this promise is of a “mantle of tehilah in the place of a spirit of weakness.”

Tehilah is the singular of tehilim the word translated as “psalm.” Fundamentally, it means prayer/praise and so, the book (sefer) of Psalms (tehilim) could just as correctly be called the Book of Prayers or the Book of Praises. The weakness, the faint spirit that this mantle of prayer replaces, is much like the spirit of weakness that afflicted that woman in the Gospels. And what did Jesus give her in place of her weakness? Praise.

These are the exchanges God gives to us in our lives as we face the newness of life we have received in Christ. Where we have lived in a society very much obsessed with our “getting what we deserve” and ruthlessly determined that you get what you can keep, God has a different way. Instead of looking at our grade sheets, poring over each credit and debit in our big book of life, God has a (deeply annoying) habit of ignoring the whole thing and giving us grace.

I don’t always believe (trust) this and, to be honest, tend to “honor it in the breach” but this is what God does and who God is. Scripture tells me this, Jesus’ life shows it, and the experience of the saints before and beside me testify to the truth of this unfairly merciful God. And so, I will keep working to open and unharden my heart so that this mercy can flow through me.


About pstrobus

The product of a youth misspent in libraries. I realized early that language is important and that words have a great deal of power and so I listen for the shape of the ideas as well as the words.
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