Beauty. In our culture, it’s pursued. It’s glorified. It’s feted. We have contests, buy into mid-level marketing ventures, and log online to discover what new and rare treatments the stars are using. Products and services that promise to enhance beauty make up a multi-billion dollar industry (ov[er $89.5B in 2018 alone).
The history of beauty treatments includes some pretty bizarre and dangerous activities and applications: crocodile dung baths, dimple machines, the tapeworm diet, foot binding, white lead facials, black-lacquered teeth, urine mouthwash. Don’t laugh. A quick search for “rare beauty treatments” brought these up for today: bee venom, pig placenta face masks, vitamin IV drips, plasma (or “vampire”) face lifts, ceramic crystal therapy, leech therapy, and bird-poop facial. And then there’s the snail treatment featured in the lead photo of this post.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, said the ancient sage. When I read how different than today were the body or facial types that were revered in previous generations, my ego is assuaged. How fleeting our desires are, how transient our opinions, how fickle our affections yet millions of misguided women look to trends and fashion to determine their worth. It says more about the credibility of those who deal in transient affections than it does about the intrinsic value of those who are supposed to evolve according to the proclamations.
The drive to conquer the beautiful look is an attempt to influence the future, to change it from what we think may be a dead end if we remain the way we are, or to protect it from instability in case we lose what we have attained. Perhaps it’s financial security. Perhaps it is relational. We will feel confident in ourselves if we just reach that beauty level. Usually, however, it all comes down to love.
The problem is neither security nor love is guaranteed in this life.
Today, many argue that women ought not to pursue beauty for the sake of pleasing men, and some add that since the industry has been developed for this purpose, women ought not to be a part of it as consumers either. I imagine, then, that most women cringe when they read the first chapter of the book of Esther. Even the most committed traditionalist would struggle with putting a “domesticity is divine” sticker on the debacle we see in Persia’s capital, Susa, involving King Ahasuerus and his queen, Vashti. If wrongly taken as a prescriptive for how men ought to treat women, readers whose only exposure to the Scriptures is a few paragraphs like these might understandably view the Bible as misogynistic.
At a feast of his royal officials and military advisors—at which alcohol and power flowed freely—the ruler of one of the world’s greatest empires summoned his wife to leave her own ladies’ banquet and present herself as a trophy, a toy, a collectible, an object of desire sans humanity, a piece of meat to be assessed and graded, a showpiece before the men of the kingdom. She is ordered to wear her crown; Jewish scholars debate whether the implication was that that was to be her only attire.
She says no, and Vashti the beautiful is deposed. Banished. Who knows whether she is allowed to take anything with her, items that bring comfort or contain memories. Who knows what her fate will be. The story has gone out across the kingdom; who would risk the king’s wrath by taking her in? And not just Vashti, but what about her circle of women? The king’s advisors are concerned they’d be facing an epidemic if other women hear of Vashti’s refusal and become emboldened in their own homes, so they convince him to decree that every man is master of his domain. Because a decree is the only way to effectively demonstrate headship. Eyeroll.
End of Chapter 1.
In a message on Esther 1, Ian Hamilton notes that “women are marginalized in this culture.” I’d like to amend that: Vashti was marginalized. As queen, she did once have at least positional power. With the decree, the worth of all other women in the empire was made subject to the whims of their husbands. Mostly, their existence was a mere blip on the consciousness of men, except as household appliances, tools, decor, distractions.
Chapter 2 doesn’t get much better. Because King Ahasuerus is hankering for some affection, his squad recommends he order a neighborhood by neighborhood sweep of the entire kingdom and claim as his own property every beautiful virgin found throughout the land, and from the booty a queen will be chosen. Esther the Jewess is caught up in the royal net, and because her only worth is her beauty and her potential to allure and satisfy the king, she is primped and spa-ed for a year. In a culture in which the unlovely and the damaged are passed over, even the chosen are not good enough. Although the story progresses with intrigue and excitement, all along the way there have been women discarded, demonized, dispossessed, and forgotten.
This is what godlessness will get you. But the solution is not to swing in the opposite direction.
Throughout the Bible, we learn of another king with a different message about what is most important about women—about all of us, a most gracious message about what constitutes beauty and love. And he shows us a better way.
This King also holds a feast for his bride (Revelation 19:6-8). He prepares the table for her with the choicest delicacies, and he sets a place exclusively for her with all the intentionality of showering her with honor and lovingly seeing to her needs. He gives her his own spotless cloak of righteousness to wear. He chooses her to be his beloved, and his love for her enhances her beauty and makes her lovely.
In an intriguing twist to the sotry, this King had to first be made unlovely himself in order for her loveliness to have a suitable frame. His visage provokes disdain and revulsion. He is a most unacceptable sight. The disarmingly repulsive stain of sin has spilled on the King as he extends himself over his bride, as a tent, as a covering, as a barricade that will absorb the wrath of God against her crimes against the holy heavens. In this sacrificial act, her worthiness is secured.
This is the divine recipe for the bride’s beauty treatment: otherworldly love that compelled a King to sacrifice himself on her behalf.
She is not lovely according to the world’s standards. She would not be summoned before a powerful worldly king because he would not want her to be seen or associated with him. Her presence would not be desired at a banquet attended by elite fashion mavens or sought out by minions of celebrity makers. It is the special love poured out on her by a righteous and holy King that magnifies her worth.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the comparison between these two banquets, these two kingdoms, and the brides of these two kings, it is this:
The world is not the arbiter of truth about love, beauty, and worth.
The kingdoms of this world relegate many to unlovely, unacceptable status. Some of the discarded are tricked into consuming beautifying routines that produce hollowed out shells of false hope, unaware that the King’s tender ministrations are far more desirable than what the world has to offer.
Our king Jesus loves his people with a sacrificial devotion that far surpasses any fictional or historical romance. That’s why even the best love stories of the Bible can only point to the covenantal love of Christ to his bride—because it is too transcendent for us to find words to describe.
- His love is great enough to die for us (Romans 5:8), a crushing, humiliating, curse-riddled death (Isaiah 53:5; Philippians 2:7; Galatians 3:13), even while we were still in our rebellion, sneaking around behind his back. He left his throne, forsook his privileges, departed his home of devotion and adoration, and came to woo a bride that despised him. (See also all of Hosea.)
- He rescued us from perishing and saved us to eternal life. (John 3:16)
- He labors on our behalf (as Jacob did for Rachel) and relieves us of the burdens of this world. (Matthew 11:28-30) He obeyed because we couldn’t.
- He constantly intercedes on our behalf before the throne of God.
- He washes us by the regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, cleansing us from our past foolishness, disobedience, and malice. (Titus 3:3-6)
- He plants his love deeply within us through faith that we “may have the strength to comprehend . . . what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of this love that surpasses knowledge, and that we “may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19) His love is ever fixed and never diverted.
- His gives us his presence which brings rejoicing, gladness, calmness, and exultant jubilation. (Zephaniah 3:17)
- He has set up protections so that we can never be separated from his love, even though powers work against us to make us distrust him, to tempt us to pine for other lovers, to cause us to be discontent, to deceive us with false beauty elsewhere, to make us idol worshipers. Despite all this, he shall not cut us off. (Romans 8:35-39) In fact, nothing can stand against us, because he is for us. (Romans 8:31)
- He is eternally patient, effectively merciful, and exceedingly gracious, abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)
- His care for us is so intricate, he knows the number of hairs on our heads. (Luke 12:7)
- He will provide solace to our sorrows, wiping away our tears (Revelation 21:4), and he turns our mourning into joy. (Jeremiah 31:33)
- He reveals to us “great and hidden things” that we have not known before. (Jeremiah 33:3)
- We are granted “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:3)
- He has raised us to new life, and will raise us to perfect holiness, unspotted and whole. He will present us before his glorious presence with exceeding joy.
“Oh, such was Christ’s transcendent love—that man’s extreme misery could not abate it,” wrote Puritan Thomas Brooks. “The deploredness of man’s condition did but heighten the holy flame of Christ’s love. . . . Such was His perfect matchless love to fallen and miserable man. That Christ’s love should extend to the ungodly, to sinners, to enemies who were in rebellion against Him; yes, not only so—but that He should hug them in His arms, lodge them in His bosom—is the highest degree of love!” (“The Golden Key to Open Hidden Treasures”)
Do you know people who feel unlovely, discarded, used? The king has sent out his servants to bring in the outcasts from the highways and the byways, not the polished and pedigreed who believe they deserve a place at the banquet, but those who know they are lost and undeserving. (Luke 14:16-24)
This is the better way. For those who have not yet been beautified by the grace of Jesus: Invite them to the king’s feast.