Beauty For Ashes

Phrases like "beauty for ashes" can be difficult to understand without some historical background and/or contextual references. First of all, it's important to understand the significance of ashes in biblical culture. In biblical times it was customary for people to sit in ashes or cover themselves with ashes to express mourning or loss, such as grief over a distressing situation (2 Sam 13:19), grief over a national disaster (Esther 4:1), or grief associated with repentance from one's own sin (Jonah 3:5-7). Ashes were therefore associated with pain, loss and suffering, which is a key to understanding the phrase in question. To more fully understand the meaning of this phrase, we must also consider the context in which we find it: Isaiah 61. This entire chapter is a prophecy foretelling 1) God's plan for the nation of Israel, and 2) the arrival of the Messiah and how His arrival was destined to impact the world. It's also helpful to know what was happening to the nation of Israel at the time Isaiah--under the guidance of the Holy Spirit--began to prophesy about what was to come: The nation of Israel had been taken captive and the people were being heavily oppressed by their captors. In addition, political turmoil in the region further complicated their situation, and many people were confused, afraid, and certain God had left them for good. Isaiah reminded God's people in many places that it was their sin against a holy God that had forced His hand into allowing their pain and suffering; on the other hand, he also reminded them that God is merciful, His anger doesn't last forever, and He had future blessing planned for them. The words of comfort we find in Isaiah 61 gave them hope in the midst of their dire circumstances. Here are the opening verses of this chapter (Isaiah 61:1-3): "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor." Given the cultural background and the context, we can see that the promise of "beauty for ashes" is a promise to God's people that He planned to deliver them from their plight, and ultimately planned to send them the Messiah. Today, Christians can still look to these verses for encouragement and hope when facing difficult circumstances.