The Aesthetics of Israel’s Sanctuaries



The beautiful attributes of God’s character are revealed in His coming down to “tabernacle” with humanity.

Richard M. Davidson

In the Bible’s “Song for the Sanctuary” (Psalm 27), David describes his first goal in the sanctuary experience: “to behold the beauty of the Lord” (vs. 4, NKJV). The Hebrew word here translated “beauty,” is a dynamic term, describing beauty that moves the beholder by its loveliness, its pleasantness. David longs to behold this beauty of the Lord in the sanctuary—a beauty the Lord has within Himself (His character) and also a beauty the Lord imparts.


The Language of Beauty for the Sanctuary

Throughout the Old Testament, the experience of salvation and wor­ship at the sanctuary is described in the language of aesthetics (beauty). The biblical writers employ at least 14 Hebrew words for “beauty” in their description of this aesthetic experience. For ex­ample, David calls for created beings to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness” (29:2, NKJV) or perhaps better, “in holy beauty.” Psalm 149:4 calls for praise to God because “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (NKJV). Isaiah repeatedly describes salvation in terms of beauty: “Awake, awake, O Zion. . . . Put on your garments of splendor” (Isa. 52:1, NIV); “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” (62:3, NRSV); “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation” (52:7, NIV). This language of beauty is especially used to describe the sanctuary and its services. David writes, “Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6, NKJV).




The Divine Designer and Divinely Commissioned Artists

Dozens of chapters in the Pentateuch are employed to describe the beautiful structures and services of Moses’ wilderness tabernacle. Notice that God Himself gave the plans (Ex. 25:9, 40). He is the great Master De­signer! As we read through the Book of Exodus, we may get bogged down and even bored by all the details, but God deliberately lingers over the details. He wanted everything to be built “just right”—beautiful in every detail. Not only did Moses record chapter after chapter of instructions about what was to be built (Exodus 25 to 31), but also God inspired Moses to repeat the detailed description—this time indicating that the tabernacle had been built just as God had directed (Exodus 35 to 40)!

God did not give the plans for the tabernacle and then say, “Do the best you can to build it.” He also commissioned the artist Bezalel and “filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship” (Ex. 35:31, NKJV). It is amazing to rec­ognize that the first person in Scripture said to be filled with the Spirit of God was not a preacher or priest or prophet, but an artist! Not only Beza­lel, but Aholiab and other artists were commissioned: “every gifted artisan in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom, everyone whose heart was stirred, to come and do the work” (36:2, NKJV).

Various artistic talents were divinely gifted “to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship” (Ex. 35:32, 33, NKJV). Bezalel and Aholiab were also given the ability to teach others to do “‘every work of an engraver and of a designer and of an embroiderer, in blue and in purple and in scarlet material, and in fine linen, and of a weaver, as performers of every work and makers of designs’” (vss. 35, 36, NASB). What a host of artistic abilities and crafts!

Similarly, David received from God the plans to build the temple (1 Chron. 28:11), and many chapters of the books of Kings and Chronicles de­scribe the gathering of the materials for the Jerusalem temple (1 Chronicles 22–29; 1 Kings 5), and the actual building and dedicating of the temple (1 Kings 6–8; 2 Chronicles 2–7). The master workman in charge of the construction of Solo­mon’s temple was Hiram, “a descendant, on his mother’s side, of Aholiab, to whom, hundreds of years before, God had given special wisdom for the construction of the tabernacle.”1


Breathtaking Beauty

In the inspired directions for construction of the Mosaic tent sanc­tuary, and later the Solomonic temple, the externals of worship are described as breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, the inspired writers explicitly point out the aesthetic function of various features. For example, twice God instructed Moses that the holy garments of the priests were to be designed “‘for glory and for beauty’” (Ex. 28:2, 40, NASB). Again, the writer of Chronicles notes that Solomon’s temple was garnished (studded) with “precious stones for beauty” (2 Chron. 3:6, NKJV).


The Beauty of the Wilderness Tabernacle

The artistic work of the Mosaic tabernacle was spectacular, utilizing an array of beautiful materials: “‘gold, silver and bronze; blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair;
 ram skins dyed red and hides of sea cows; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece’” (Ex. 25:3–7, NIV).

There is no better summary of the architecture of the Mosaic taberna­cle than that given by Ellen G. White in the book Patriarchs and Prophets: “The tabernacle was so constructed that it could be taken apart and borne with the Israelites in all their journeyings. It was therefore small, being not more than fifty-five feet in length, and eighteen in breadth and height. Yet it was a magnificent structure. The wood employed for the building and its furniture was that of the acacia tree, which was less subject to decay than any other to be obtained at Sinai. The walls consisted of upright boards, set in silver sockets, and held firm by pillars and connecting bars; and all were overlaid with gold, giving to the building the appearance of solid gold. The roof was formed of four sets of curtains, the innermost of "fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubim of cunning work”; the other three respectively were of goats' hair, rams' skins dyed red, and sealskins, so arranged as to afford complete protection.

“The building was divided into two apartments by a rich and beautiful curtain, or veil, suspended from gold-plated pillars; and a similar veil closed the entrance of the first apartment. These, like the inner covering, which formed the ceiling, were of the most gorgeous colors, blue, purple, and scarlet, beautifully arranged, while inwrought with threads of gold and silver were cherubim to represent the angelic host who are connected with the work of the heavenly sanctuary and who are ministering spirits to the people of God on earth.”2

After describing the surrounding courtyard and the furnishings in­side the tent sanctuary, Ellen White seemed to struggle to find adequate words to describe the overall glorious beauty within the tabernacle, which only dimly reflected the dazzling glory of which the heavenly sanctuary the earthly one was a copy: “No language can describe the glory of the scene presented within the sanctuary—the gold-plated walls reflecting the light from the golden candlestick, the brilliant hues of the richly embroidered curtains with their shining angels, the table, and the altar of incense, glittering with gold; beyond the second veil the sacred ark, with its mystic cherubim, and above it the holy Shekinah, the visible manifestation of Jehovah's presence; all but a dim reflection of the glories of the temple of God in heaven, the great center of the work for man's redemption.”3


The Beauty of Solomon’s Temple

The architecture and artistic work of Solomon’s temple were even more spectacular, utilizing vast quantities of gold, silver, bronze, iron, woven tapestry with rich fabrics and textures and colors, giant quarried ash­lar stones, massive cedar and cypress timbers, olive wood for the doors, not to speak of the “glistening stones of various colors, all kinds of precious stones, and marble slabs in abundance” (1 Chron. 29:2, NKJV). Ellen G. White has provided a wonderful summary of the beauty of Solomon’s temple: “Of surpassing beauty and unrivaled splendor was the palatial building which Solomon and his associates erected for God and His worship. Garnished with precious stones, surrounded by spacious courts with magnificent approaches, and lined with carved cedar and burnished gold, the temple structure, with its broidered hangings and rich furnishings, was a fit emblem of the living church of God on earth, which through the ages has been building in accordance with the divine pattern, with materials that have been likened to ‘gold, silver, precious stones,’ ‘polished after the similitude of a palace.’ 1 Corinthians 3:12; Psalm 144:12. Of this spiritual temple Christ is ‘the chief Cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.’ Ephesians 2:20, 21.”4

Elsewhere, Ellen White wrote that Solomon’s temple was “the most magnificent building which the world ever saw,”5 “the most magnificent structure ever reared by human hands,”6 and that “There is no such building to be found in the world for beauty, richness and splendor.”7 But Solo­mon’s temple and its furnishings also provided but a dim reflection of the awesome grandeur of the original heavenly temple: “The abiding place of the King of kings, where thousand thousands minister unto Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stand before Him” (Daniel 7:10); that temple, filled with the glory of the eternal throne, where seraphim, its shining guardians, veil their faces in adoration, could find, in the most magnificent structure ever reared by human hands, but a faint reflection of its vastness and glory.”8


Imagining the Beauty

Have you ever tried to grasp just how beautiful the sanctuary actu­ally was that God asked Moses to make in the wilderness, and how even more incredibly beautiful was the temple of Solomon?


Precious Metals

To assist imagination, consider just the precious metals. Accord­ing to Exodus 38:24 and 25, more than a ton of gold was used for Moses’ portable sanctuary (29 talents, 730 shekels9 = 2,205 lb./1,000 kg), and almost four tons of silver (100 talents, 1,775 shekels = 7,583 lb./3,440 kg)!

It boggles the mind to think of the amount of gold used for the whole of Solomon’s temple—including the gold overlay for the walls, floor, and doors, the solid gold sockets and seven-branched candela­bra. According to 1 Chronicles 22:14, David collected 100,000 talents of gold—some 3,500 tons (3,770 U.S. tons/3,420 metric tons)! In today’s monetary value, this is about US$170 billion worth of gold! Can you visualize the gold-covered walls and furniture and golden vessels—everywhere the glint of gold! Imagine the dazzling beauty. The amount of silver was used in Solomon’s temple was one million talents, or some 35,000 tons (37,700 U.S. tons/34,200 metric tons)—valued today, that is about US$20 billion worth of silver. And there was so much bronze and iron that it was “beyond measure” (1 Chron. 22:14).


Visual Art

Almost every kind of visual art known was employed in Moses’ sanctuary and Solomon’s temple. There was representational art in the round: the pure gold statuary of cherubim; the lampstands decorated with representations of flowers and blossoms; the bronze “sea” with a capacity of some ten thousand gallons, upheld by representations of 12 oxen and decorated with representations of lions, lilies, and palm trees. “God is saying, ‘I’ll even have lions in my house, carved lions, oxen, and cherubim.’ Not for pragmatic function, just for beauty.”10

There was gold-filigree overlay (of the inner walls and floor of the temple, and the table and incense altar in the Holy Place); tapestry woven with its rich colors and textures (for the covering of the tabernacle, the veils of both tabernacle and temple, and the high priest’s special garments); fine embroidery (of cherubim in the fabric of the veils and covering of the tabernacle); bas-relief carving (of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and chain work on the inner temple walls); engraving (of the title on the miter of the high priest); and the cutting and setting of jewels (for the precious stones on the high priest’s garments and those garnishing Solomon’s temple).

As further evidence of the emphasis upon aesthetic display in the temple, two gigantic free-standing, capital-topped columns, 40 cubits (at least 60 feet) high, were constructed to stand in front of the temple. As Francis Schaefer points out, these columns “supported no architectural weight and had no utilitarian engineering significance. They were there only because God said they should be there as a thing of beauty.”11


Auditory Art

The aesthetics of the temple included not only impressive architecture, but also exquisite music, with the Book of Psalms constituting the hymnbook for the temple worship. The Levitical choirs were comprised of 288 singers (1 Chron. 25:7), and four thousand instrumentalists played musical instruments that David himself had designed and made (23:5)! During regular services and especially during the annual festivals, three antiphonal choirs, comprised of descendants of the three sons of Levi—the Kohathites in the middle, led by Hernan; the Merarites on the left, led by Ethan; and the Gershomites on the right, led by Asaph—sang psalms responsively, accompanied by cymbals, harps, and lyres. At the dedication of the temple, along with the singers and instrumental­ists, there were 120 trumpeters, blazing forth in rapturous tones as the glory of God filled the temple (2 Chron. 5:12–14). In addition to the glori­ous music, one must not forget the liturgy involved in the services of the sanctuary/temple, and spectacular pageantry as priests and worshipers enacted the drama of salvation.


Olfactory Aesthetics

The aesthetic delights even reached the olfactory nerves, as the en­tire camp was suffused with the aromatic fragrance of the holy incense. God Himself gave the recipe for this precious, exotic oil (Exodus 30): approximately one gallon of the purest olive oil mixed with the finest spices—11 pounds of costly liquid myrrh (from today’s Somaliland), five-and-one-half pounds of sweet-smelling cinnamon (from Ceylon), five-and-one-half pounds of the aromatic cane calamus (from Arabia), and 11 pounds of the aromatic cassia bark (from India)—all of this was blended by the professional perfumer into a rare and exquisite scent. Imagine the fragrance of myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, and cassia, giving forth an exotic aroma as it wafted over the camp of Israel! What lavish aesthetic display in the sanctuary!


God Is a Lover of the Beautiful

Some may raise the question as to why God commanded Israel to build a tabernacle and temple with such lavish display, when they could have used the resources to feed the poor or care for the needy. Many are tempted to cry out as did Jesus’ disciples when they saw Mary’s alabaster box of beautiful-smelling perfume ready to be poured out in abandon: Why this waste? It could have been sold and given to the poor! And God will have to remind us, as Jesus gently did the disciples, “‘She has done a beautiful thing to me’” (Matt. 26:10, NIV). In the Old Testament, God made ample provision for the poor, but He also commanded Israel to build a beautiful sanctuary/temple.

The beauty of the sanctuary shows, first of all, that God is a lover of the beautiful and takes great care that things related to His service are beautiful. By contrast, in many religious settings much time is devot­ed to training in truth (doctrine) and to goodness (ethics), but little to beauty (aesthetics). Limited time, energy, and resources are expended on making houses and services of worship truly beautiful.

For some, the awakening to the importance and value of the beauti­ful, especially in worship, is almost as traumatic as their dramatic con­version to Christ. I was born in a utilitarian home, where it seemed that everything had to have a useful function. If something was not useful, then it was not worth having or doing. In college I dated a girl whose background was saturated with the arts. We both were required to take a course in aesthetics (the study of beauty), she as a music major and I as a theology major. During that course Jo Ann and I sat together in the mid­dle of the front row of the large band practice room—she with her fellow music majors beside and behind her, and I with theology major friends on my side of the room. The entire semester the theology majors (utili­tarians, with few exceptions!) fought with the artistic music majors. We theologians argued that we knew what was beautiful: If the music played in an evangelistic meeting caused people to walk down the sawdust trail and give their hearts to Jesus, it was beautiful music! No, said the music majors (and our organist professor Harold Hannum); there are principles of beauty, and not all music that reaches the hearts of souls for Christ is necessarily beautiful music.

Jo Ann and I fought our individual battle; we actually broke up three times that semester, fighting over beauty! But finally, in the last week of the class, I realized I was not really grasping what Professor Hannum was trying to get across, and told Jo Ann I would really try to be open in understanding what she was saying. As she talked, the lights finally came on. I still have a copy of the final examination I wrote for that aesthetics class. I started out, “Dr. Hannum, this last week it is as if scales fell off my eyes, and I could see for the first time. . . .” (I didn’t tell him that he didn’t have anything to do with it, and that it was my girlfriend who finally got through to me!) I went on to describe how I finally understood that not everything in life had to serve some utilitarian purpose—that I could stop and smell the roses just because they were beautiful, and not because their scent had any health-giving properties. I could just gaze upon the beauty of God’s creation because His handiwork is beautiful!

Since those debates in aesthetics class, I married Jo Ann, and she has continued to be an inspiration to me in areas of beauty. (In fact, she earned a PhD in systematic theology, and wrote her doctoral dissertation entitled A Theology of Beauty: Toward a Biblical Aesthetic.12) When I unconsciously fall back into my old utilitarian ways, she reminds me how the sanctuary and its services highlight God’s love of the beautiful.

From the beauty of the sanctuary, we learn of our need to experience the beauty that God made because it is beautiful. We need to learn to stop and smell the roses—to admire the handiwork of our Creator. We need to learn how to reflect the divine love for the beautiful in our tasteful dress and personal appearance, well-kept places of residence, and, especially, aesthetically pleasing houses and services of worship.


God’s Heavenly Sanctuary Is Beautiful

As we have noted, the beauty of the earthly temple was only a “dim reflection of the glories of the temple of God in heaven.”13 The earthly sanctuary carries our mind upward to that temple in heaven, which Isaiah was permitted to view in vision, astir with the fervor of worship: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke” (Isa. 6:1–4, NIV).

Isaiah witnessed the dazzling throne and the glorious train of the Lord filling the heavenly temple. The seraphim (literally, “burning ones”) in their awesome beauty were glowing with the glory of the Lord. Isaiah heard the fervid antiphonal singing of the seraphim. “As their songs of praise resounded in deep, earnest notes of adoration, the pillars of the gate trembled, as if shaken by an earthquake. These holy beings sang forth the praise and glory of God with lips unpolluted with sin.”14 John the Revelator was given a vision of this same worship experience, ongo­ing in the heavenly courts (Revelation 4 and 5). The heavenly music that enraptured Isaiah and John is faintly echoed in the beautiful music God inspired David to provide for the earthly temple (the Psalms). What glorious beauty is found in the heavenly sanctuary, reflected but dimly in the earthly counterparts!


God’s Truth Is Beautiful

The message of Scripture regarding worship and salvation is not given in abstract tenets of faith, but is presented in an aesthetic medium. About 40 percent of the Bible is written in poetry, large parts of Scripture are presented in elegantly crafted narrative, and all of Scripture is placed in a setting of literary beauty. In particular, the plan of salvation is pre­sented in the aesthetic medium of the sanctuary and its services. In the spectacular pageantry of the sanctuary, God enacted before Israel’s eyes the drama of salvation. Through the aesthetic symbols and types of the sanctuary, the truth was made vivid and real.

Jo Ann points out how this focus on the beautiful in Scripture “affirms the wholistic nature of each human being by communicating through aesthetic manifestations. While the mind is an important aspect of hu­man nature, God does not limit his communication to abstract reasoning or systematic discourse.”15 Ellen G. White used the words beauty or beautiful about 5,800 times in her writings. In particular she pointed out how correct doctrine and flawless ethical systems by themselves will never move hearts. It is the beauty of the truth that captivates the senses to draw and attract the beholder. This “beauty of the truth” is revealed especially in the sanctuary.


God’s People Are a Beautiful Sanctuary

As mentioned, Solomon’s beautiful temple was a “a fit emblem of the living church of God on earth, which through the ages has been building in accordance with the divine pattern, with materials that have been likened to ‘gold, silver, precious stones,’ ‘polished after the similitude of a palace.’ 1 Corinthians 3:12; Psalm 144:12. Of this spiritual temple Christ is ‘the chief Cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.’ Ephesians 2:20, 21.”16


God Himself Is Beautiful!

God is not only a lover of the beautiful. He not only dwells in a tem­ple of indescribable beauty. He not only reveals beautiful truth and dwells in His beautiful temple of the church and our bodies. The ultimate les­son to be learned from the beauty of the sanctuary is that God Himself is beautiful! “The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” are the ulti­mate temple (Rev. 21:22). Isaiah and John the Revelator saw not only the beauty of the temple, but also the beauty of the Lord in the temple! The sanctuary/temple on earth as well as in heaven is a standing testimony to the beauty of the Lord.

When I taught the course “The Doctrine of the Sanctuary” in Russia just a few months before the “Putzsch” and the fall of Communism (Sum­mer 1989), my students were professors of Zaokski Seventh-day Adventist Seminary, who during the years of Communism had had no opportunity for formal studies in theology, but had to study nonbiblical subjects such as medicine, music, or philosophy. One of my professor-students was trained as an interior decorator. Her paper for the course was “An Interior Decorator Looks at the Sanctuary,” in which she explained that by care­fully observing how a house is furnished an interior decorator has a very good idea of what kind of person lives in the house. She proceeded to show that the same was true for God’s house, His sanctuary. By looking at the exquisite beauty of the sanctuary and its furnishings, one is able to infer the beauty of the one who inhabits the sanctuary—the beauty of God’s character.

As David put it, in the sanctuary he was able “to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Ps. 27:4, NKJV)! The beautiful attributes of God’s character are not only revealed before sin through His coming down in space and time to be with His created beings in the history of the universe, but are even more dra­matically revealed in His coming down to “tabernacle” with humanity (John 1:14) in order to save them from their sins.

As a seminary student, I first caught a vision of the holy beauty of the Lord in His heavenly sanctuary (especially from Isaiah 6), and as a young pastor, fresh in my “first love” of understanding righteousness by faith, I was introduced to the aesthetic embodiment of the gospel in the types of the Old Testament sanctuary services. The beauty of the gospel in sanctuary typology has continued to shine ever more brilliantly for me in my study as I have seen how the Old Testament types (foreshadowings) so forcefully and consistently point forward to Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice and His high-priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. I have been overjoyed to see how every type is fulfilled not only objectively in Jesus, but also in us. Since we are “in Christ,” we experientially participate in that fulfillment and await a glorious consummation of that fulfillment at His second coming.


Richard M. Davidson, PhD, is the J. N. Andrews Professor of Old Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A.



1. Prophets and Kings, 63.

2. Patriarchs and Prophets, 347.

3. Ibid., 349.

4. Prophets and Kings, 36.

5. The Great Controversy, 23.

6. Ibid., 414.

7. Ellen G. White Comments, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1954), 1:1089.

8. The Great Controversy, 414.

9. Siegfried H. Horn, The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1979), 1170; a talent is calculated at an average of 75.39 pounds and a shekel at 0.40 ounce.

10. Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1976), 17.

11. Ibid., 16, italics in the original.

12. Now published as Toward a Theology of Beauty: A Biblical Perspective (New York: University Press of America, 2008).

13. Patriarchs and Prophets, 349.

14. Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1955), 4:1140.

15. Jo Ann Davidson, “Toward a Scriptural Aesthetic,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 41:1 (Spring 2003): 108.

16. Prophets and Kings, 36.