*Note: The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Vern Poythress to be published by P&R.
Why is there beauty in the world? Why is a flower beautiful? Why is a hummingbird beautiful? Why is light beautiful? And what is beauty? People dispute about it. Herman Bavinck associates beauty with "harmony, proportion, unity in diversity, organization, glow, glory, shining, fullness, perfection revealed." All of them together make something beautiful—strangely attractive and splendid and wonderful.
Is God beautiful? The Bible indicates that beauty traces back to God. God is supremely beautiful. His beauty is reflected in the world he made and sustains. We find that in searching for the source for beauty, we encounter ultimate reality, the reality of God himself.
Some theologians, as far back as Augustine, have said that God is beautiful. Others have cautioned against ascribing beauty to God, wanting to avoid a confusion
between God and things in the world that are beautiful. So which is it? God is distinct from every created thing; in addition, God's character is displayed in the things that he has made (Rom. 1:20). So the short answer is that created things that are beautiful reflect God but are not identical with God. Beauty in created things relates to God by "analogy, not identity."
Beauty in the Tabernacle and the Priests, Reflecting God
Psalm 27:4 describes God as beautiful:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.
According to this psalm, the beauty of the Lord is displayed in "the house of the LORD," "his temple." We know from other parts of the Bible that the temple is a kind of small-scale version of the big dwelling place of God, which is the whole universe (1 Kings 8:27). The whole universe also displays the beauty of its maker (Pss. 19:1; 104:1-2).
In the same verse in Psalm 27, the psalmist says that he seeks the presence of God; it is the "one thing" that he asks for:
One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life, .... (verse 4)
In seeking communion with God, the psalmist is also seeking the beauty of God. We naturally seek beauty, as something attractive. So Psalm 84:1-2 says:
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the LORD.
Let us consider the tabernacle of Moses, which was the predecessor for Solomon's temple. In Exodus 25-27 God instructs Moses about the building of the tabernacle. The tabernacle is supposed to be a tent dwelling with symbolic significance. It symbolizes that God dwells in the midst of his people Israel: "And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex. 25:8). The tabernacle displays beauty, because it represents the splendor of God, who is the great king of the universe.
This splendor anticipates and foreshadows the greater splendor that belongs to Christ, as the climactic revelation of God: the Bible speaks of "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6). The preceding context in 2 Corinthians 3 explains the analogy and contrast between the glory of God revealed in Moses's time and the glory of the new covenant:
For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation [through Moses], the ministry of righteousness [given to Paul in the new covenant] must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. (2 Cor. 3:9-11)
The Bible mentions the theme of beauty in other verses related to the tabernacle and God's presence. Exodus 28:2 speaks explicitly about the beauty of the special garments of the high priest Aaron: "And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty." Near the end of Exodus 28, similar words describe the garments for Aaron's sons, who are priests: "For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty" (verse 40).
Beauty is paired with glory. They are overlapping themes. What is glorious is also beautiful. The same word glory describes God when he appears in splendor to the people of Israel: "And in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD" (Exod. 16:7). "And behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud" (Exod. 16:10). "The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel" (Exod. 24:16-17). "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle" (Exod. 40:34–35). The tabernacle itself is special precisely because of the presence of God in his glory: "There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory" (Exod. 29:43).
In addition, holiness goes together with beauty. Holiness starts with God, who is supremely holy and supremely glorious. God is "holy, holy, holy" (Isa. 6:3), that is, supremely holy. God appoints the people of Israel as a whole to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). They are supposed to reflect his holiness. Among the people, God appoints Aaron and his sons to a special level of holiness, to be priests for the holy nation (28:1). The tabernacle itself is to be God's holy dwelling place in the midst of Israel: it is a "sanctuary," that is, a holy place (Ex. 25:8). Psalm 29:2 calls on the people to "worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness" (KJV). God himself is the source of this holiness. The tabernacle, like the later temple of Solomon, is a place where the worshiper can "gaze upon the beauty of the LORD" (Ps. 27:4). Psalm 96:6 recognizes the same truth: "Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary."
One of the central garments for Aaron is the "ephod," which is made out of the same materials as the tabernacle tent (Ex. 28:6; 26:1). It indicates that Aaron himself is a kind of replica of the tabernacle. The plate on his forehead proclaims, "Holy to the LORD" (Ex. 28:36-38). The jewels in Aaron's breastpiece are beautiful (Ex. 28:17-20). The association of jewels with beauty and with the priesthood is evident from Isaiah 61:10, where the bridegroom and the bride adorn themselves for their wedding day: "as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels." God appears in jewel-like splendor to John in Revelation 4:3: "And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald."
Revelation 4:1-11 introduces God as the creator (verse 11) and sustainer of all things. He is beautiful himself, with an appearance like jewels. He makes a world with beautiful things in it. "And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food [in the garden of Eden]" (Gen. 2:9). "The name of the first [river] is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there" (Gen. 2:11-12). Ezekiel 31 compares Assyria to a beautiful cedar in Lebanon, about which it is said, "no tree in the garden of God was its equal in beauty" (verse 8). The verse shows that the garden of Eden was beautiful. The final garden city in Revelation 22:1-5 is also beautiful.
In sum, God is beautiful himself. He created a world reflecting his beauty. The tabernacle and the temple are symbolic reminders that display these truths.
When God created the world, it was "very good" (Gen. 1:31). It has since been marred by human sin (Rom. 8:19-20). But remnants of beauty still exist, reminding us of who made it.
We are naturally attracted to beauty. It has a fascination, and we wish somehow that we could be one with it or enter into it or enjoy it even more. This attraction is a subtle message reminding us of the attraction of God himself, and the satisfaction and joy that we can find only by knowing God and having communion with him ("that I may dwell in the house of the LORD," Ps. 27:4). One of the most beautiful things about the world is simply that it reflects and displays the character of the God who made it.