Beauty for Ashes means healing the deep parts of our hearts that have been wounded and are hurting. In this post, we will break down this passage so that we can understand God’s promise and message in this tiny phrase that has a great impact.
Beauty for Ashes Scriptures
It is always good to read a verse from multiple versions. But for this post, I’m only using two.
Beauty for ashes KJV
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.
Beauty for ashes NIV
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.
Beauty for Ashes meaning in context
The book of Isaiah is a pretty big book that can be hard to understand. Without the story behind it, nothing makes sense. So let’s start there.
Chapter 61 is one of the last in this book that has 66 chapters. We have to know what happens in the previous 60 chapters in order to understand what’s going on in Isaiah 61.
In the beginning of the book, Isaiah calls out and confronts the sin of the nation of Israel. They worship idols, sacrifice their children to false gods, mistreat the widows and orphans. A list of their sins could go on and on.
Using Isaiah, God tells them that He is going to punish them by sending a neighboring nation to attack, destroy and carry them off as slaves to another country.
(Sidenote:If you’ve ever wondered, this is how Daniel and the three Hebrew boys ended up in Babylon where they got into trouble for worshiping God.)
Now, towards the end of the book of Isaiah, God is using the medium of prophecy again to speak to the people. The chapter opens with an unknown speaker. Scholars are not convinced it is Isaiah talking.
In any case, God uses this speaker to tell Israel that although they will end up in slavery for a while, there will come a time when God will allow them to be released and they will return home.
In the last chapters of Isaiah, the future glory of the people of God is described in great detail. Among those prophecies is one about a person who would right all the wrongs done to them and be a healer among other things.
This is where Isaiah 61 fits in. It picks up with the proclamation of this person.
Let’s take a closer look at the background.
Beauty for ashes meaning – Background
The phrase beauty for ashes, is a part of one very long sentence that starts in Isaiah 61:1. To understand the phrase we have to look at the entire idea expressed in the sentence.
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,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve probably learned that this verse is about Jesus.
Well, that’s definitely true. I hope we will get to that in this post. But for now, I invite you to take another look at this passage. We’re going deeper.
Most prophecies in the Bible have two applications: a primary application and a secondary application.
The primary application has to do with what the prophecy meant to those who heard it first in their original context. That will be our focus in this post.
What is Isaiah 61 talking about?
Isaiah 61 is a prophecy. It’s really a small part of a larger prophecy.
This prophecy was originally meant for the Israelites who were to become slaves in Babylon. The words of Jeremiah 61:1-2 were spoken in a vision.
It is about someone announcing his own arrival and his own mandate to proclaim, free, heal, release etc. He does all this because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him” and God has “anointed” and “sent” him to do all this work of restoration.
Here is a very important detail to help interpret these verses. At that time, only kings and priests were usually anointed. Being anointed was the symbol of being commissioned to do God’s work.
For example, remember the prophet Samuel going down to David’s house to anoint him to become king when he was still just a boy?
In the book of Isaiah, king Cyrus was anointed to do God’s work although he wasn’t a believer in God (Isaiah 45:1).
The point I’m making is this: in delivering his people, God calls other people, pours out the gift of His Spirit on them, equips them with various gifts and then releases them to do His work on the earth.
Therefore this individual who is speaking in Isaiah 61:1-3 would show up for Israel to help them get released from captivity and to start a new life back in their homeland from which they were taken by force.
To the Israelites hearing this prophecy, it would have been very good news. God would raise up someone to help rescue them from slavery and restore them to their homeland.
This person who God would use would “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes“.
The fulfillment of this prophecy happened more than once. It was first fulfilled when the Israelites were released from Babylon and men such as Ezra and Nehemiah were called by God to reestablish the nation of Israel.
At that time, it was a reformation of spiritual revival that translated into all kinds of different blessings.
But when Jesus came to earth in the form of a human being to minister to us, that was a secondary application. And still, another fulfillment will happen when Jesus comes back the second time.
But, in this post, as I said, I will look at the first and primary application.
Who in the Bible was promised beauty for ashes?
The promise of beauty for ashes is for a specific group of people – to those who mourn.
Verse 3 says ” to provide for those who grieve in Zion a crown of beauty instead of ashes”.
This is important.
Keep in mind that this is a prophecy to a set of people who were uprooted from their homeland and enslaved in a foreign land.
In the process, many people would have died. When another country came in to take a city, it wasn’t calm and quiet. It meant chaos and calamity.
When the Babylonian army came to Israel, they came with war on their mind and greed in their hearts.
They attacked the people of Israel, murdered some, shackled others, set fields and farms ablaze, burned houses, ransacked the temple and destroyed it and took anything made of gold.
Whatever pleased them, whatever came to mind, the Babylonian soldiers did.
The loss and tragedy was unimaginable. Women lost their husbands and children. Children lost their parents.
Husbands lost their wives and sons and daughters. People lost their wealth and their property. They lost their homes. They lost their place of worship and the right to worship in a free familiar place.
As a people, the Israelites lost their identity. They became the butt of jokes to the other nations around.
There was going to be a lot to grieve for. Don’t you think?
The promise of beauty for ashes was for those whose hearts were going to be broken because of loss of various kinds.
Beauty for ashes meaning – the full idea
Now that we know who the promise is for, what does all that have to do with beauty for ashes?
Let’s go digging again into some background about the significance of ashes in this verse and what beauty means literally.
What is the significance of ashes in the Bible?
In the Bible, one of the spiritual meanings of ashes is repentance. But in the context of this verse, this is not the case.
In Jewish culture, mourning the loss of a loved one was serious business. Back then, a person mourning meant they would be wailing so loudly that they could be heard for miles around.
And they wouldn’t be alone. It would be multiple people that would be bawling and wailing and lamenting.
Now another important thing to know is that mourners would spread dust and ashes on their heads and foreheads. This was one way of publicly declaring that they were in mourning.
And not just any mourning. The deep kind that had a feeling of utter ruin and desolation attached to it.
On the other hand, during an occasion of happiness and celebration it was common to wear stunning and colorful headdresses.
Some Bible versions use the word beauty, in this verse but Beauty for Ashes in Hebrew is better translated to give a beautiful headdress instead of ashes. So the word beauty really means something you wear on your head.
A headdress could be any of a number of things. They could be turban for men. Or, it could even be leaves or flowers wrapped together to make a wreath worn on the head.
The point is that dirty, black ashes would be washed away and replaced by headwear that would be beautiful to look at and a pleasure to wear.
With this background you can realize that God was using a Jewish custom as a metaphor to describe what He would do for his people through His anointed servant whom He was going to send.
Beauty for Ashes meaning – the oil and garment in Isaiah 61:3
The rest of verse 3 expands on the beauty for ashes idea. The few words after beauty for ashes extends the metaphor of grieving.
…the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. Isaiah 61:3
Instead of mourning, they would receive the oil of joy.
This oil is in reference to the act of putting oil on the face and body. When people were done with their season of mourning, they washed away the ashes and oiled their heads and faces.
People also oiled themselves in preparation for an occasion of celebration as well.
In this metaphor, God keeps telling them how much He will do for their hurting, grieving hearts through His servants.
And the garment?
Remember I said mourning was serious business back then?
Well, along with ashes on their head and face, people in mourning would also wear different clothing. The garment was made of an ugly, coarse material of black goat’s hair. It was known as sackcloth and it was very uncomfortable to wear.
This was pretty much the funeral clothing of the day.
But God would allow this uncomfortable garment of goat’s hair to be replaced by beautiful, comfortable, colorful clothing. These were the garments of praise fit for an occasion of celebration.
Again, all this is a metaphor.
Lessons from the meaning of Isaiah 61:3 for today
So far, we have learned that beauty for ashes is a promise of healing and restoration to a set of people experiencing grief and loss and are mourning bitterly.
We have learned that God’s promise is to raise up someone who would be anointed with God’s Spirit to do the work of healing and restoration.
What lessons can we draw for our lives today?
How does God give us beauty for ashes?
If you’re grieving, God sees you
Beauty for Ashes represents the emotional healing that God wants to accomplish in our lives, especially for those who are grieving.
Losing a loved one or losing something you hold dear is a hard thing to experience. Grief can be a very lonely place to dwell.
It’s lonely because it can feel like your pain is invisible to those you interact with. Meanwhile your pain and anguish is so palpable that your body feels like it could buckle under the pressure.
It’s hard to explain to others so you just don’t bother. And so the reality of bearing the grief all by yourself makes you feel all the more alone and lonely.
But the way you feel isn’t true.
You’re not alone. God sees you. He sees your pain, your grief, your anguish. God is in your grieving place with you, helping you to carry it.
No matter how you feel, don’t go with the feeling. Your grief is real but your feelings are not reliable. The enemy will use your feelings to try and trick you into believing lies about God. Lies like God has left you and you are alone.
The truth is:
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18 NIV
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3
God sees you in your place of grief and loss and pain. He’s with you. You aren’t alone. And even better, God wants to deliver you from it.
God’s desire for you is emotional wholeness
Emotional baggage. We all have them.
Some people are still grieving the loss of never being allowed to be a child.
Some are grieving being abandoned and abused.
Some grieve the loss of their innocence at a young age.
Some grieve the loss of identity for some reason or another.
Some grieve the loss of their health and life as they know it.
And some grieve the loss of their wealth and lifestyle.
Grief doesn’t look the same for everyone.
Whatever you’re grieving, God’s desire is not for you to live with that baggage. He knows that it will be hard to enjoy all He has for you if you’re mourning.
It’s hard to have a fruitful relationship with God when you are covered in the ashes of yesterday and clothed in the sackcloth of decades ago.
When God told Israel of their coming glory, he also told them that emotional healing would be available.
You see, it’s hard to see your blessings through hurt and tears. It’s even harder to see God’s path and purpose for you if you are hanging on to the past. There are many many many blessings to follow the healing of your heart.
But if you insist on wearing ashes and goat’s skin, then there is no space or place for your new crown and garment of praise. I suppose it would look like a hot mess if you should wear ashes, a crown, sackcloth and colorful linen clothing all together.
Yet, each day we all try to do that. All while God is saying, ” let me have your broken heart and I will give you in exchange a whole, happy heart”.
You can’t have both the ashes and the headdress or crown. They don’t go together.
You have to let one of them go. Which one will you release to God?
Even if your grieving is due to your own mistakes, God wants to heal your heart
The reason Israel suffered so much loss was because they had strayed from God. Their stubborn disobedience landed them in a place where God allowed them to be enslaved.
You see, they had taken God and His protection for granted. So God lifted his hand of protection for some time. That was their consequence. Because good parents ensure there are consequences.
Do you know what it’s like to stray from God only to end up a mess?
Something or someone told you that marrying that man or woman wasn’t a good idea. But you thought you knew best. And now you’re miserable and unhappy and stuck.
You let yourself ignore the signs and now you have children for someone who isn’t your spouse.
Nobody at church will ever look at you the same again. It seems like you have moved on but the guilt and shame you feel everyday cannot be described with words.
You knew that business idea wasn’t a good one but you were desperate. You didn’t bother to ask God to lead.
Now, you’re drowning in debt and battling sleepless nights. You’re constantly in a terrible mood.
Your mistake might not look like any I have described but know your unique situation.
If you made a bad decision and you lost your dignity or peace of mind, God wants to restore your joy.
If you made a choice that you knew wasn’t a good one and now your emotions are raw from hurt and sorrow, God desires to heal your heart.
It doesn’t matter that it was your own choice, your own doing. Don’t allow what you did to hold you hostage.
God still doesn’t want you to live a life grieving over something that you cannot change.
Learning to live with what you cannot change means accepting God’s gift of healing and grace.
God will gather up the broken pieces of your heart. He will become your emotional fashion designer.
He will design the most stunning outfit for you. By the time He’s done with you, people will know you’re different. Your emotional makeover will make you glow.
The emotional burden you’ve carried will be lifted over time. Emotional healing takes time and it happens in stages.
But eventually, you will throw your head back and laugh from your gut. Your smile will reach your eyes instead of just settling on your lips.
When you check in with yourself, you will not be afraid to greet the real person living inside you.
Happiness and peace will not be distant things you are trying to discover. You will know what it is because you will experience it. Your joy will be full, complete and overflowing into the lives of others.
God is in the business of healing his people at the emotional level. He gave us our emotions. And He meets us in them, no matter what they look like: grief, anger, rage, sadness, hatred.
He’s there for it all when we need Him. But His ultimate goal is to transform all the emotions that are hard to bear into one’s that bring light and life into our lives.
God raises up regular people to do His work of healing
While God Himself has the power to do this healing, He has raised up people in the earth to do His work of healing. God will always invite humans beings to participate in His ministry.
If you have ever read through the New Testament, Isaiah 61:1-2 should be familiar to you.
Because Jesus read these words. Right after Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist, He was led into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and to be tempted by the devil.
Afterwards, he headed straight to the temple. It was the Sabbath day when the Old Testament scrolls would be read in the hearing of the people.
Jesus stood up and read Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus read it to declare to everyone that He was the Messiah. This was also to declare the beginning of His ministry on earth.
After reading it, Jesus said “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.
Read Luke 4 for the entire study.
Scholars consider these verses Jesus’s mission statement.
Now, if you read the entire post up to now, you will remember I said earlier that the fulfillment of the words in Isaiah 61:1-3 had a primary and secondary application.
I said the fulfillment through Jesus is a secondary application. This is the ultimate fulfillment that is the fulfillment of all fulfillment. The absolute most important one.
But, I also said God raised up men like Nehemiah and Ezra to fulfill those words in the lives of the people back then. These were regular people. No different than us. God poured out His gifts and Spirit on them to do His work of healing and restoration.
And you know what? God is still doing that today. He’s still calling and anointing and empowering men and women to bring the beauty to replace ashes.
You may not recognize some of them.
People who are trained and gifted to give therapy and conduct counseling sessions.
That person who is good at having tough conversations and leading change and transformation.
The church is also meant to be a place of emotional healing too. By reminding you of who God is and challenging you to see His faithfulness instead of your sins, the church plays that role.
Who knows, maybe God is calling you to have a ministry of healing wounded hearts. Very often, God calls those who have experienced some hard things to minister to those who are experiencing something similar.
Wounded healers is the name we give to such people.
Ezra and Nehemiah knew what it was to be uprooted. They knew what it was to feel out of place. And God called them to be ministers of healing and restoration.
Prayer points on beauty for ashes
Here are some places to start praying around the promise of beauty for ashes:
- God’s healing touch over your emotional life
- The strength to work on forgiving yourself for your mistakes
- Fresh eyes each day to see how God exchanges ashes for beauty in your life
- Leading to a gifted, spirit filled individual who can help you heal emotionally
Beauty for Ashes quotes
And here are 5 quotes about beauty for ashes to take with you.
God wants you to be delivered from what you have done and from what has been done to you – Both are equally important to Him.
A believer may pass through much affliction, and yet secure very little blessing from it all. Abiding in Christ is the secret of securing all that the Father meant the chastisement to bring us.
Tessa Emily Hall
But where we see trash, God sees potential. The Mater Artist, with His tender touch, can rework our suffering into a pattern of good.
Sheri L. Swift
Beauty is sometimes born of pain
Of one thing I am perfectly sure, God’s story never ends with ashes
God will give you beauty for ashes
The entire chapter of Isaiah 61 is about the transformation of Israel and the restoration of their lives after slavery.
We have only scratched the surface in this post.
Beauty for Ashes isn’t about beauty rising out of ashes like in the case of the mythical creature called the Phoenix.
Beauty for Ashes is about healing from grief, hurt and sorrow. It’s about God doing a swap, an exchange. He does not use the ashes to make anything. He washes it away altogether and replaces.
The chapter Isaiah 61 goes on to talk about restoration of their spiritual lives, their economic lives, their family lives. It was a complete overhaul that God did.
Although it took a few decades, God fulfilled His promise. That’s what the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about.
But the promise of Isaiah 61:3 are fulfilled in our lives everyday when God meets us in our places of mourning and offers to exchange our ashes for His beauty. And when we do accept His offer, He’s besides Himself with joy.