LCN Article
Beauty for Ashes

September / October 2023

Wallace G. Smith

The Fall Festival season reminds us that our present world is mercifully destined for the ash heap of history, and that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ will do all They must to replace it with a far better world—and to complete Their plan of salvation for humanity, inaugurating the expanded Family of God.

The prophet Isaiah describes this change from one world to another, using words Jesus Christ partially quoted during His ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified (Isaiah 61:1–3).

That turn of phrase—that the Eternal will give suffering mankind “beauty for ashes”—is a succinct yet moving summary of exactly what the Fall Festivals are about. Reviewing how this world went from a place of beauty to a place of ashes, yet will once again become a place of beauty, is a worthwhile exercise for this time of year.

A World of Beauty

Before we consider what God will do once carnal humanity ceases to devastate the current world, it is worth considering what He did when His original creation had become corrupted, requiring a “reboot.”

The world before the re-creation week detailed in Genesis 1–2 was ravaged by “chaos and ruin”—another translation of the Hebrew wording that the New King James Version renders as “without form, and void” in Genesis 1:2. Satan’s rebellion had left behind a devastated world. But, over the course of six days leading up to His seventh-day Sabbath, God remade that ruined world into something beautiful. Scripture records that He paused at the end of each day to note that “it was good.” From the destruction of the past, God was creating something truly good and beautiful.

Yes, God cares greatly about beauty. For instance, He didn’t need to make the rising and setting of the sun such beautiful events. The sun could have just sunk down and disappeared over the horizon in a utilitarian sort of way. But instead, He arranged the sun, the composition of our atmosphere, and other factors so that a beautiful sunset will be full of glorious reds and oranges filling the horizon, lighting the surroundings in a special manner, reflecting off the clouds in ways that highlight their altitude, composition, and configuration. Something in us seems designed to resonate with those moments.

Indeed, God filled His creation with beautiful sights for the eyes. Consider the vistas available in places like Hawaii, with its cliffs and views of the vast ocean, amidst a treasure trove of tropical plants and trees. Even the volcanoes, as terrifying as some can be, thrill us with their awe-inspiring power and their particular majesty.

Mountain ranges did not have to inspire us or stir our souls. No “laws of geography” would be violated if the vast Grand Canyon did not move us to awe. Life could still function if the world below the ocean waves, with its coral reefs and colorful, exotic creatures, were not so stunning. The sounds of the birds and the rustle of leaves as the wind makes its way through a forest canopy need not draw our minds upward and fill us with a calming satisfaction. Yet we seem, by design, to react to so many beautiful sights and sounds around us in ways we would not want to be without.

God’s plan required a functional world, but He chose of His own volition to create a beautiful one. In this way, as in so many others, the created order reflected its Creator, whom Scripture describes in many passages as Himself beautiful (e.g., Psalm 45:2; 27:4; Isaiah 33:17).

So, how beautiful must that first Sabbath have been for Adam and Eve—when God first set down His brush as His canvas was finally complete from edge to edge? What sights would they have seen in the beautiful, living world their Creator had handcrafted for them? What sounds would have greeted them from moment to moment?

It was surely a beautiful world. And it was a world intended to become only more beautiful, as the man and woman living in it increased their family and grew in character to eventually join God’s own family—traveling from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The beauty that began in the garden could have, eventually, grown that much more beautiful and expanded to include the entirety of creation, as the Creator intended.

A World of Ashes

Fast-forward 6,000 years, and we find that the former world of beauty is becoming a world of ashes. 

Yes, some of us are blessed to live in places where it is easier to pretend that things are not “all that bad.” Our communities are still relatively safe. We have homes, or at least good shelter. We have sufficient access to goods and services. Sure, they may be more expensive than we would like, but we manage to get by. But that relative comfort is absolutely an illusion—one that billions of our fellow human beings do not share. And even our relative comfort is not guaranteed.

Years ago, when I was helping to answer questions from people writing to us at the Tomorrow’s World page on Facebook, I was struck by one comment about an article describing Jesus’ return. I have long since lost the exact quote, but the sense of it has stuck with me: Man, I hope Jesus doesn’t come back for another 75 years, because life is pretty good. One can tell that this was someone commenting from a privileged perspective in the Western world, because life for most of humanity today is not “pretty good” at all. Life is full of suffering and difficulty, and if it hadn’t yet touched that individual, it would eventually.

Consider that, for all our growing knowledge in the fields of medicine and health, we are ravaged by a growing list of diseases, disorders, and dysfunctions that we cannot heal or even treat competently. For all our advances in science and our profound insights into the workings of the natural world, daily life in modern society is increasingly childish and petty, addicted to the qualities of the surface even as rot grows below. For all of our public professions of care, concern, and compassion for children, young people today suffer more than ever from broken homes, shattered hopes, and a skyrocketing suicide rate. And, for all of our celebrated “tolerance,” the abject hatred between nations and individuals seems as high as it has ever been.

Today’s leaders are often despised by the people they govern, and many of those leaders despise the people “beneath” them. Democratic systems are increasingly going “scorched earth” in campaigns where winning is the ultimate goal—no matter how much hatred and invective must be conjured to assure that victory. 

Truly, there is no better world available from our leaders, nor from our neighbors, reflecting the words of the psalmist: “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3).

The path that mankind has trod for the last six millennia is filled with bloody footprints and the bodies of those left behind while humanity “advances.” It is a picture sketched in the pages of history to match the carcasses of those Israelites who refused God’s promised land in favor of their own imaginations (cf. Numbers 14:29).

One area in which mankind truly has made “progress” from generation to generation is in warfare. And with new advances in technology, humanity now has more options than ever before as to how it might choose to destroy itself—nuclear exchange, biological weaponry, A.I.-enhanced warfare, or just mismanagement of our planet’s abundant resources.

One conclusion is plain, because Jesus Christ makes it so: Mankind will bring about a crisis so great that, if left to itself, it would utterly wipe the earth clean of all life: “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21–22).

It should not be hard for us to recognize that this is so. If we could listen with God’s ears to the sounds of Earth, those ears would be filled with sad evidence. Yes, we would find laughter, and places of singing and joy. But we would also hear screams of mourners in villages pillaged by raiders, and of children torn from their parents to become soldiers or sex-slaves. We would hear the weeping of those with no other choice than to work long hours at hard labor for poverty wages. We would hear the mutterings of those whose bodies and minds have been addled by drugs that they once chose voluntarily but to which they have become desperately and painfully addicted. 

We cannot deny that, without the guidance—or, in large part, even a passing acknowledgment—of our loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful Creator, all we have built will eventually become ashes.

Why is this so? With such beautiful beginnings, how did we come to such a place?

We Chose the Ashes

Thinking again of that beautiful beginning 6,000 years ago, we must recognize that we are surrounded by ashes today because we chose to be so then, refusing to build upon the foundation God laid for the world and instead establishing our own.

God’s purpose for us always extended far beyond the limits of the Garden of Eden, and even the limits of this planet. Our divine purpose is to share the very level of existence that the Father and Son now enjoy—in glory, splendor, and eternal life, as members of the same divine Family. To achieve that, God made us wonderfully like Himself, giving us a shape and body that reflect His own image and a mind that reflects His own capacity for reason and invention. But even God cannot create from nothing what He most wants from us—holy and righteous character that reflects His own, so that we not only reflect Him on the outside but also radiate His character from within. And developing such character requires us to choose.

This is why God gave the Garden of Eden two special trees—the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and gave Adam very clear instructions: Eat what you want from the garden, but do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If you do, you will die (Genesis 2:16–17).

Sadly, the first human beings chose to eat of that tree (Genesis 3). The serpent deceived Eve into eating from it, and then Adam—not deceived in any way—chose with clear-minded purpose to eat from it. The world we see around us is the result of that fateful choice. 

It is as if God said, “I’ve created all of this for your good, to nourish you in the light of My path. I’m going to feed you and care for you. I love you. I want nothing more than to work with you and fulfill My beautiful purpose for you. This is My will; obey Me,” and Adam responded, “Thanks, but no thanks, God. We don’t need You. Sure, You’ve done a wonderful job here—thank You very much—but we don’t need You. Please feel free to go and do something else in some other corner of the cosmos, because we want to do our will.” God made the results of Adam’s choice very clear:

“Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17–19).

And with every sin of our own, we repeat Adam’s choice of ashes over beauty. We lay again the foundation Adam first laid: Not Your will, but mine. Consequently, as Abraham recognized, we are “but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). And we have all chosen ashes over beauty at various times in our life. If we are growing spiritually, we should be making that choice far less often than we used to, but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that such choices continue (cf. 1 John 1:8). We sin, telling God, whether for the gain of a momentary pleasure or for the sake of leading an entire self-oriented way of life, Not Your will, God, but mine. And that choice is the foundation of the world we now inhabit. In telling God, Not Your will, but ours, the path to beauty became the path to ashes. All the suffering of mankind—every war ever fought, every murder committed, every profit gained through exploitation, every disease ever endured, every loud cry wrenched from hearts filled with despair and pain—has its root in this choice.

Mankind as a whole has not yet realized the truth of this. But God mercifully plans to help us do so before we truly do turn the world to ash. And while the dramatic events that unfold at the end of the age—the seven seals, seven trumpet plagues, and seven bowl judgments, described in painful detail in the book of Revelation—may bring chills down our spine, it is important to remember why God will send them. Those elements of God’s awesome intervention in world affairs at the end of this age give us a brief glimpse of what we ourselves would have done with planet Earth and its people in time. 

Carnal human beings murder the good, so what does God give them to drink? The blood that they have chosen for themselves. For nearly 6,000 years, mankind has chosen to destroy instead of build, so God will give it destruction. Our failure is so great that Christ gave us a sobering warning of that time soon ahead. Mankind will find itself on the edge of wiping out all life on our planet, leaving it a speck of lifeless ash in a cold, dead universe, and this will only be prevented by divine intervention at Christ’s return (Matthew 24:22).

Beauty Restored

But God does not give up on His plans and purposes. He accomplishes them (Isaiah 46:8–11), and His plan from the beginning was to build a divine family. The process of being born into that family is more painful as a result of sin, a fact poetically reflected in the punishment God pronounced upon Eve (Genesis 3:16). It required the death of the Son of God—the Creator, Himself—for our sins to be forgiven and washed away upon our repentance. And in achieving that, Jesus Christ established a new foundation for the world to come, one that would replace that of mankind and restore the beauty that God had always intended.

On the night before His execution, kneeling before His Father and pleading passionately with Him, Jesus spoke the words that represent that new foundation: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

And the world that will be built on that foundation—Not My will, God, but Yours—will be of stunning beauty. Consider only a few elements, a sampling of the scenes of wonder and glory that will take place over a thousand years under the King of kings and His glorified siblings.

While the events of the end-time will see the destruction of the cities of man (Revelation 16:19), they will be built anew (Isaiah 61:4). They will not be like the cities we see today, which are already desolations and centers of poverty, homelessness, crime, and addiction. Rather, they will be cities where the old and the young can gather outside, safely, in streets that ring with the sounds of laughter and playing children (Zechariah 8:4–5).

The lands of the world will be healed: “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the excellency of our God” (Isaiah 35:1–2).

 As waters flow in places once starved of them (v. 6) and life explodes into existence where there had been none, it will be as though the very land itself rejoices in the presence of its Creator and His family. Every new bloom and blossom will serve as a hymn to God, who has restored beauty to the land after so long.

a beautiful valley with purple mountains and wildflowers and a sunriseBut restoration and healing will not just be for the land; it will also renew the people living there. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing” (vv. 5–6). Can we imagine a sight more wonderful than seeing the crippled leaping for joy? The blind given sight? The smiles on the face of the formerly deaf as they hear their loved ones? The sound of the formerly mute as they open their mouths in praise to the One who has freed them?

Not only will individuals be healed—healing will take place between entire peoples. Of those future millennial days, God tells us that “ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you’” (Zechariah 8:23).

It is wondrous enough to think of people from every nation of the world longing to learn God’s way for themselves, but consider further: In this the current world of ashes, can you imagine people from nations where Israel is hated asking a Jewish man if they might follow him to learn of God? Grasping the sleeve, not the arm, is a sign of humility. What a beautiful shift in the world!

In tomorrow’s world of beauty, the ashes of man’s hate for his fellow man will be swept into the trash. Ancient enemies will see themselves as fellow peoples of God (cf. Isaiah 19:24). Developed and shaped within the righteous boundaries of God’s law, the different cultures of the different families of man will no longer be excuses for butchering each other. Rather, they will be differences to be enjoyed, as people from all lands parade to Jerusalem every year for the Feast to share of the blessings God has granted them and the prayers and music their people have learned to offer Him (Zechariah 14:16).

In the beautiful world Christ will build, all of humanity will blossom as God originally intended, forming a garden of variety and wonder, all under the hand of a loving and divine Gardener.

These and a thousand other beautiful things await us in tomorrow’s world—all because Christ and His saints will build on Not my will, but Yours. Truly, Jesus Christ provides the only foundation any good and beautiful world could ever be built upon (1 Corinthians 3:11). All other “foundations” are quicksand disguised as bedrock.

Build on That Foundation Now

The Feast of Tabernacles is a wonderful time for us to talk with one another about the beautiful world we anticipate helping Christ to create in the future. God notices how we speak to each other (cf. Malachi 3:16) as those who long for that time and are eager to make it all the more real in their mind’s eye—in which He sees Himself reflected.

So, talk to your brethren about what makes for a beautiful city, town, or village. Talk about the varieties of beauty the created world can offer, and which you long to help restore. And share with one another your hope for the healing of the world—and how you look forward to taking part in that glorious healing.

More than that, take time at the Feast to renew your conviction to begin building now on the foundation found only in Jesus Christ. One of the greatest joys we possess as those who have a clear picture of the better, heavenly country to come (Hebrews 11:14), is the knowledge that we do not need to wait to build on that good and right foundation. God has not yet given us the reins of the whole world, but we each hold in our hands the reins of our own lives. How we choose to run our own lives tells our Father how we will run the world when He gives it to us.

Until then, we must choose whether to build those lives on Not Your will, but mine, or on Not my will, but Yours.

If we choose to build on the latter, then God the Father can take what we have to offer from our past and do just as He and Christ will do for the whole world in the days just ahead: Give us beauty for ashes.