The Aesthetic Nature of God

 

 

“Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17, NKJV).

Jo Ann Davidson

Delving into the biblical aesthetic properly begins with a conception of God. The primary source for the Christian understanding of God is Scripture. Though God’s being is invisible to humans at present (Deut. 4:12, 15; 1 Tim. 1:17), Christians have long believed that He is there and is not silent. In fact, Christians have always maintained that God was vigorous in His attempts to reveal Himself through Scripture. Yet, the Bible was not written to prove God’s existence. One of the fundamental assumptions of all its many writers is that God is. Not one of them ever expresses any uncertainty regarding Him.

Instead, within the 66 books one finds numerous portrayals of God. For example, Christ invites believers to address Him as “‘“Father”’” (Matt. 6:9). This is also an Old Testament concept. So prays King David: “‘Blessed are You . . . , our Father, for ever and ever’” (1 Chron. 29:10, italics supplied).1 God also declares in the Old Testament: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is My honor. . .’ says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:6, italics supplied).

God also reveals the qualities of a mother. He likens Himself to a mother hen trying to gather her chicks under her wings (Matt. 23:37), and as a (mother) eagle hovering over her nest (Deut. 32:10, 11). He also compares His anguish over His people to a mother giving birth (Isa. 42:14) and His solace to a mother consoling her child:

“For thus says the Lord:

‘Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,

And the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream.

Then you shall feed;

On her sides shall you be carried,

And be dandled on her knees.

As one whom his mother comforts,

So I will comfort you;

And you shall be comforted in Jerusalem’” (Isa. 66:12, 13).

God is also Judge: explicitly identified in the books of Daniel (7:9, 10) and Revelation (14:14–20) and also in several New Testament sermons. God as Judge is also an ancient concept. Patriarch Abraham contended, “‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’” (Gen. 18:25). And Hannah said in her prayer, “‘the Lord will judge the ends of the earth’” (1 Sam. 2:10).

Varied indications of God’s nature are found throughout biblical canon. However, in the myriad Christian deliberations, whether philosophical or theological, one of God’s attributes is rarely addressed: God’s artistic nature. Yet this attribute is highlighted throughout Scripture. First of all, the beauty of the created world comes to mind. And rightly so. Not only the psalter but also many biblical writers regularly praise the glories of the natural world:

“‘O Lord, our Lord,

How excellent is Your name in all the earth . . .

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have ordained’” (Ps. 8:1, 3)

However, God’s artistic nature is revealed in much more than roses and sunsets. For example, He also declares Himself a potter. Jeremiah writes: “Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?’ says the Lord. ‘Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!’” (Jer. 18:6). And, “Now, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You our potter; and all we are the work of Your hand” (Isa. 64:8).

The apostle Paul reflects appreciation of this Old Testament declaration: “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does not the potter have power over the clay . . . ?” (Rom. 9:20, 21).

God demonstrated particularly delicate artistic skills when He sculpted Adam and Eve from earthen materials: “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Much later, a lauded artist, van Gogh, perceived that: “Christ lived his life as an artist, a much greater artist than the one who is concerned with mere matter like clay or colour. He worked upon living flesh.”2

The Proverbs 8 creation scene also speaks of the Creator as “master craftsman” (vs. 30). Later, Jesus Himself referred to the beauty of creation: “‘Consider the lilies of the field, . . . even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’” (Matt. 6:28, 29).

God’s artistic nature also includes His being a musician. Zephaniah speaks of God as a singer:

“In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:

‘Do not fear;

Zion, let not your hands be weak.

The Lord your God in your midst,

The Mighty One, will save;

He will rejoice over you with gladness,

He will quiet you in His love,

He will rejoice over you with singing’” (3:16, 17, italics supplied).

One also finds intriguing hints sprinkled throughout the Old Testament regarding the importance of music. Within Israelite corporate worship, the influence of Moses and David is extensive. And both record that they received their directives from God.

Not only is music prominent, but singers and musicians are specifically mentioned by different canonical writers. One example, when the foundation of the temple of Solomon was laid, David’s influence was noted: “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel” (Ezra 3:10).

 Ezra described the organization of the exiles returning from Babylon: “The Levites: the sons of Jeshua and Kadmiel, of the sons of Hodaviah, seventy-four. The singers: the sons of Asaph, one hundred and twenty-eight. . . . So the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities” (2:40, 41, 70, italics supplied).

King Artaxerxes’ letter to Ezra also mentions musicians: “Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. . . . Also we inform you that it shall not be lawful to impose tax, tribute, or custom on any of the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Nethinim, or servants of this house of God” (Ezra 7:7, 24, italics supplied).

Nehemiah, a contemporary of Ezra, referred to the musicians of Israelite worship: “Also the overseer of the Levites at Jerusalem was Uzzi the son of Bani, the son of Hashabiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micha, of the sons of Asaph, the singers in charge of the service of the house of God. For it was the king’s command concerning them that a certain portion should be for the singers, a quota day by day. . . . And the heads of the Levites were Hashabiah, Sherebiah, and Jeshua the son of Kadmiel, with their brothers across from them, to praise and give thanks, group alternating with group, according to the command of David the man of God. . . . Both the singers and the gatekeepers kept the charge of their God. . . . For in the days of David and Asaph of old there were chiefs of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. In the days of Zerubbabel and in the days of Nehemiah all Israel gave the portions for the singers and the gatekeepers, a portion for each day. . . . Now before this, Eliashib the priest, having authority over the storerooms of the house of our God, was allied with Tobiah. And he had prepared for him a large room, where previously they had stored the grain offerings, the frankincense, the articles, the tithes of grain, the new wine and oil, which were commanded to be given to the Levites and singers and gatekeepers, and the offerings for the priests” (Neh. 11:22, 23; 12:24, 45–47; 13:4, 5, italics supplied).

When King Hezekiah restored Israelite worship, music was again mentioned: “He stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with stringed instruments, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for thus was the commandment of the Lord by his prophets” (2 Chron. 29:25, italics supplied).

Later: “Jehoiada appointed the oversight of the house of the Lord to the hand of the priests, the Levites, whom David had assigned in the house of the Lord, to offer the burnt offerings of the Lord, as it is written in the Law of Moses, with rejoicing and with singing, as it was established by David” (1 Chron. 23:18, italics supplied).

When Josiah repaired the temple: “The men did the work faithfully. Their overseers were Jahath and Obadiah the Levites, of the sons of Merari, and Zechariah and Meshullam, of the sons of the Kohathites, to supervise. Others of the Levites, all of whom were skillful with instruments of music, were over the burden bearers and were overseers of all who did work in any kind of service” (2 Chron. 34:12, 13, italics supplied).

Music was also associated with prophecy. One example, when Samuel instructed Saul regarding his lost donkeys: “‘After that you shall come to the hill of God where the Philistine garrison is. And it will happen, when you have come there to the city, that you will meet a group of prophets coming down from the high place with a stringed instrument, a tambourine, a flute, and a harp before them; and they will be prophesying’” (1 Sam. 10:5, italics supplied).

God directed Ezekiel to measure and record the instructions for a future temple, which includes the following: “outside the inner gate were the chambers for the singers” (Eze. 40:44, italics supplied).

The Book of Psalms is replete with praise and singing and musical instruments: “Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” (Ps. 119:54).

God is also a poet. It is significant that much poetry in the Old Testament involves a “Thus says the Lord.” This commences in the Genesis narratives, where one finds the sentiments expressed in poetry each time God’s voice is heard. Moreover, the entire Creation account of Genesis 1 is recognized to be in poetic structure. God is the source of beauty, just as He is the source of truth. Beauty is seen as an attribute of His from the first day of Creation. And aesthetic values are already operant all during creation week (Gen. 2:9). Moreover, humans encounter the divine predominantly through aesthetic manifestation. “The Bible,” writes Eleonore Stump, “is conspicuously lacking in proofs for the existence of God. Insofar as the Bible presents or embodies any method for comprehending the goodness of God or coming to God, it can be summed up in the Psalmist’s invitation to individual listeners and readers: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’”3

God also reveals Himself as keenly involved in artistic creations. He who commanded the Israelites to care bountifully for the poor (Leviticus 19, 25; Deuteronomy 14, 15) also gave directions for and then commanded the building of lavish earthly sanctuaries. This is significant. In fact, Frank Gaebelein refers to this divine instruction for the earthly sanctuary as the “aesthetic imperative.”4

The second commandment of the Decalogue forbidding the making of any graven images, which God Himself spoke from Sinai and then engraved in stone, is sometimes understood to be warning against any human artworks. However, this perception is not adequate.

The sequence of instructions at Sinai is critical. Following the solemn divine pronouncement of the Ten Commandments and the civil code commanding concern for the poor, God presented extensive instructions to Moses for the building of an opulent sanctuary replete with representational art. The Israelites were not exhorted to restrict their offerings for the building of the sanctuary so that they could provide more assistance to the destitute. This was not an either/or situation. They were to be both bountiful to the poor in addition to furnishing great beauty for the worship of God. The argument cannot be sustained that God, when warning against the making of any graven images, was forbidding human art.

Instead, the second commandment forbids any attempt to represent God’s being with inanimate tangible materials. Moses apparently understood, explicitly mentioning no worshiping of graven images: “‘You shall make no molded gods for yourselves. . . . The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. . . . “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure”’” (Ex. 34:17; Deut. 4:12, 15, 16).

The prophet Jeremiah admonished similarly: “Hear the word which the Lord speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: ‘Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.’ Inasmuch as there is none like You, O Lord (You are great, and Your name is great in might), who would not fear You, O King of the nations? For this is Your rightful due. For among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine. . . . But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth will tremble, and the nations will not be able to endure His indignation. Thus you shall say to them: ‘The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens.’ . . . He has made the earth by His power, He has established the world by His wisdom. . . . Every metalsmith is put to shame by an image; for his molded image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are futile, a work of errors; in the time of their punishment they shall perish. The Portion of Jacob is not like them, for He is the Maker of all things; . . . the Lord of hosts is His name” (Jer. 10:1–8, 10–12, 14–16).

Isaiah also was masterful as he wondered that the true God of Heaven “has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance. . . . Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. . . . All the nations are as nothing before Him; they are counted by Him as less than nothing and emptiness. . . . It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers. . . . who brings princes to nothing and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing’” (Isa. 40:11–17, 22, 23, NRSV).

Contemplating such a God, Isaiah was constrained to ask: “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?” (vs. 18). This question is followed immediately by a description of a workman constructing a lifeless graven image. Following this, Isaiah personally repeats the same question after additional verses portraying more aspects of God’s unlimited power: “‘To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and see who has created these things” (Isa. 40:25, 26).

The second commandment is not warning against human artistic creations. It is directed against any attempt to reduce the God of heaven to temporal materials. The next phrase in this commandment (“you shall not bow down to them nor serve them”) directly pertains to worship and thereby argues against depicting God’s being materially. The strong admonitions there are a caution against a type of false worship. John Calvin so argues: “We think it unlawful to make any visible figure as a representation of God, because he hath himself forbidden it, and it cannot be done without detracting in some measure from his glory. . . . We conclude, therefore, that nothing should be painted or engraved but objects visible to our eyes; the Divine Majesty which is far above the reach of human sight, ought not to be corrupted by unseemly figures.”5

Another vital issue involved in the aesthetic nature of God is the incarnation of Christ. Jesus took human flesh and united it with His divinity forever. In the process, He affirmed human nature with all its senses. The redemptive purposes of God include the entire human being.

Tinsley articulates this fundamental Christian doctrine as an aesthetic issue: “At first sight it might well seem that the Christian religion, centered as it is in an historical, particular, and unique incarnation, would inevitably have assigned a prominent place to the arts and to analogies from art in its apologetics. The implications of the word incarnation (‘enfleshment,’ ‘embodiment,’ ‘taking form’) would lead an observer to assume that art would have a key place in Christian expositions of its meaning. The incarnation, both as the act of God becoming man and as the form of the life of Jesus, could be expected to prompt use of the analogy of the work of art since the latter is by its very nature an embodiment, a ‘significant form,’ to use Clive Bell’s famous term.

“Only occasionally, however, has this been the case. When employed at all, the analogy from art has more commonly been related to the doctrine of creation rather than the incarnation. Augustine speaks of the Logos as ‘the art of almighty God’ and compares God’s creation of the world to the making of a poem. Indeed, among the Latin fathers Deus artifex or ftgulus (artistic creator) are frequently used as terms for describing God’s activity in creation. Basil and Ambrose also speak of creation as a work of art. Very rarely indeed, however, is the analogy from art used in relation to the incarnation, and still less to the life of Jesus. To think of the latter in terms of artistic creativity is exceptional.”6

In both Old and New Testaments, the reader also finds dramatic appearances of God, the biblical theophany. These theophanies are an essential aspect of God’s self-revelation, as Dale Patrick correctly notes: “Yahweh confronts us in biblical literature as a dramatis persona with presence. He is not an abstract entity or cardboard figure, but a genuine ‘thou’ with passion, vitality, mystery, subtlety and force.”7

The giving of the law on Mt. Sinai is the major Old Testament theophany. But this is not the sole appearance of God, nor the climax of theophanic appearances. The Old Testament does not end at Sinai. In fact, Von Ogden Vogt finds theophany (particularly Isaiah 6) as a significant inspiration for the biblical aesthetic, informing worship, with its progression: “vision, humility, vitality, illumination, enlistment”—all kindled in the “experience of overwhelming, majestic aesthetic display.”8

New Testament writers pick up the Sinai theophany and make it a significant part of their theology. Jeffrey Niehaus insightfully suggests that the gospel “may in fact be called a ‘Tale of Three Mountains’—the mount of the Beatitudes, the mount of the Transfiguration, and the mount of the Crucifixion—all of which look back to Mount Sinai, and all of which surpass it. . . . Such theophanies contribute in a major way to the structure of Revelation, where God shows that ultimate theophany for which all creation longs.”9

In fact, Niehaus develops the three major theophanies, and argues that these structure the Book of Revelation: the appearance of the Lord to John (1:9–3:22), the throne appearance and its aftermath (4:1–9:21), and the appearance of the angel counselor and his instructions to John (10:1–22:17). These major theophanies are never merely overwhelming mystical appearances, but always include propositional utterances by God.

The Christian canon reveals the aesthetic nature of God as potter, musician, poet, architect, and author. These combine to yield a clearer understanding of the second commandment. God’s other “imperatives” for building lavish temples, along with the divine theophanies and Christ’s own enfleshment of God, are also scriptural indicators that aesthetic values are an integral aspect of God’s nature that cannot be ignored if one seeks an accurate understanding of Him.

 

Jo Ann Davidson, PhD, is Professor of Systematic Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.
2. Vincent van Gogh, “Letter Xl to Bernard,” in Emmy Andriessc, ed., The World of Van Gogh (The Hague: Holbein Publishing Company, 1953), 126.
3. Eleonore Stump, “The Mirror of Evil,” in Thomas V. Morris, ed., God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 241.
4. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Christian, the Arts, and Truth: Regaining the Vision of Greatness (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1985), 63.
5. Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Jon Allen, trans. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1843), Chapter Xl 12.
6. E. J. Tinsley, “The Incarnation, Art, and the Communication of the Gospel,” in Art and Religion as Communication, James Waddell and F. W. Dillingstone, eds. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1974), 51, 72, 73.
7. Dale Patrick, The Rendering of God in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 119.
8. Von Ogden Vogt, Art and Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 143.
9. Jeffrey J. Niehaus, God at Sinai: Covenant & Theophany in the Bible and Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 334.