Great Texts of the Bible
Strength and Beauty
Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.—Psalm 96:6.
The Psalmist, in that lyrical outburst of adoration from which the text is taken, professes to have discovered two qualities which are revealed in combination in the character of God, and which, such is the suggestion, He will Himself communicate to devout, worshipful, and aspiring souls. These two qualities are strength and beauty. Neither quality is of itself uncommon; it is their combination that is so rare. Somehow in this world the strong is not usually the beautiful, and the beautiful is not the strong. We think of the beautiful in nature as the fragile, the delicate, the evanescent. We think of the strong, and with its massive solidity it is difficult to associate any thought of grace and loveliness. But this psalm was a hymn for the Temple; and if it be true, as we suppose, that there yet remained many of the glorious pillars which adorned that magnificent structure, it is conceivable that they suggested to the Psalmist’s mind this rare combination of qualities. For these pillars of the Temple were of radiant marble, stately and splendid in themselves, and with the added decoration of capitals nobly carved in all manners of exquisite device. And not the pillars alone, but the whole majestic pile itself, was it not the standing witness to the truth that the God whom it represented to men was at once strong and beautiful? For its durability and solidity was equalled only by its magnificence; the strength of its stone by the beauty of its colouring and the glory of its decoration. The architects of that ancient cathedral seem to have derived their ideas from nature; and to have seen that He who laid the enduring foundations of the earth decorated the world which He made with the gold of the crocus, the crimson of the field-lily, or the blue of the gentian and the harebell; and they built for Him a fane which, like the world He built for them, was strong and beautiful, massive, but full of delicate colour. As was this temple of their God, so was the God of the Temple—in His Divine Being they felt there must be this glorious combination of strength and beauty.
If it was Solomon’s temple of which the Hebrew writer of this psalm spoke, we can imagine some of the features which he must have had in mind. The immense blocks of stone, of which the foundation was composed, and the great Lebanon cedars which were brought by Hiram, king of Tyre, explain the reference to the strength of the building. Though not large, it was a solid, massive structure, built to last through ages, while the foundations themselves rested on imperishable rock. And then the resources of art were exhausted to make it beautiful as well as strong. The interior was overlaid with pure gold, on which were carved figures of cherubim and palm trees and flowers. All the utensils of worship were of the same costly metal and elaborately ornamented; while precious stones gleamed amid the gold and Tyrian tapestries hung on every side. The wealthiest of kings lavished his riches; the most skilled artificers taxed their art; the adventurous mariners laid tribute upon distant lands to make beautiful the Temple of Jehovah. It thus seemed to combine the two elements of architectural perfection—strength and beauty.1 [Note: G. T. Purves, Faith and Life, 177.]
1. It is better that a building should be strong than that it should be ornamental. And the same is true of character also. Ornament, moreover, ought to accompany strength. It is not good art to put into a building a useless feature merely because it is beautiful. The true artist will beautify the useful. The practical purpose will be first. So a character which aims only to be beautiful is not to be admired. It merely becomes bric-à-brac. It has the taint of cosmetics. The man who is absorbed in the mere adornment of his character is not much beyond the man who is absorbed in the adornment of his body. No, beauty must be superimposed upon strength. The practical usefulness and moral power of life are to be the first things sought. Then you have something worth adorning. It is the hard stone that takes the best polish. It is the strong, earnest character that may be made the most beautiful.
In the life of Archbishop Temple we read: “He stands out from amongst the men of his day, a notable figure, unlike others, cast in a larger mould, nobler than most, more self-reliant, more absolutely incapable of doing anything mean or of acting from self-interested motives; he worked harder and longer; he was more unworldly; he grasped more firmly the substance of life; he was a greater man; but a man nevertheless, working with and for his fellows, compelling the admiration of all, but winning most love from those who knew best the man’s heart within him. To the elders who are left he is a great memory, and as they look back and realize to what extent they lived in him they fancy that life now lies behind them. But it was a real life which they shared, and it still remains; for it belonged to the eternal world, and is of those things ‘which cannot be moved.’ Even its methods will last long; they had always about them something of the enduring spirit of the man. And thus the life points onward and has a meaning for those who are young. The air of perpetual spring blows round the old man’s grave: the memory speaks reality and hope, and these are the memories which live.”1 [Note: Frederick Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, ii. 711.] Yet to those who knew him best his strength was not more notable than the depth and tenderness of his affections.
2. Some foolish people associate religion with weakness. Perhaps some weak Christians are responsible for this. But there is nothing weak about true religion. The man who lays hold upon God is strong. “Strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.” There is nothing weak about faith. It can remove mountains; it can carry men through fire and water, and has inspired the noblest heroism that the world has ever seen. There is nothing weak about truth or righteousness. Falseness is weak; unrighteousness is weak. But to be really good is to be strong. In the Bible weakness is not pitied but condemned, and the watchword to believers over and over again is “Be strong!” The great essential of Christian character is strength—strength to overcome evil and to labour for the good of others.
In February, 1865, Dr. Punshon delivered in Exeter Hall his famous lecture on William Wilberforce, the thoroughness of whose religious decision was thus referred to: “With the accidents of birth and station in his favour, with youth upon his side, fortune at his feet, and fame and power within the grasp of his outstretched hand—when life was in its summer, and he was compassed, so to speak, with its gladness, and music, and flowers—with everything at hand which it is deemed the most costly to surrender—he stepped forth in the sight of the world, for which his name had already a charm, took the crown of his manhood, and laid it humbly at the feet of Christ. I can see in the act a courage of that sort which is the truest and rarest, but which is, notwithstanding, within the reach of you all. The true idea of power is not embodied in Hercules or Samson, brute forces with brute appetites, takers of strong cities, but slaves to their own passion. Nor is it in the brave soldier who can storm a fortress at the point of the bayonet, but who yields his manhood to the enticements of sinners, and hides the faith which the scoffer’s sneer has made him frightened to avow. The real power is there when a man has mastered himself, when he has trampled upon the craven and the shameful in all their disguises, and when, ready on all fit occasions to bear himself worthily among his fellows and ‘give the world assurance of a man,’ he dares to say to that world, the while it scorns and slanders him, ‘I will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.’ ”1 [Note: F. W. Macdonald, Life of W. Morley Punshon, 229.]
3. A man who loves and trusts God cannot but be a strong character. He will not be easily moved by any temptation. He will not be unduly anxious about the future. He will be in no hurry. He will have the calm assurance that, be the present mysteries what they may, all is going well. And he will feel that his life is inseparably linked with the Highest One Himself. “Love is strong as death,” says the old writer; and if we see instances of the love of man to man in which this is true, much more is it true that in proportion as a human soul loves God will it be firm against evil and strong for all good. The mighty granite masses out of which we quarry the material for our great buildings were once in a fluid, molten state, but they have crystallized into the hardest of rocks. So will belief in God and Christ, and love to God in Christ, crystallize a soul into the strongest of characters.
Unwearied in their efforts to prevent Luther’s appearance, the papal ambassadors had at last succeeded in procuring an Imperial edict for the delivery and burning of Luther’s books. This was practically a condemnation in advance, and seemed to render Luther’s presence unnecessary; but the Emperor tried to steer between the two parties by saying that Luther was summoned only for the purpose of having him recant. At Weimar this edict reached him, and its intention was immediately seen. The Imperial herald, who was favourably disposed to Luther, asked whether he would proceed. Only for a brief moment did he tremble; but quickly regaining his self-possession, he answered: “Yes. I will proceed, and entrust myself to the Emperor’s protection,” thus foiling the plan of his adversaries to have him condemned for contumacy in disobeying the summons. Worn out and sick, he wrote to Spalatin from Frankfort: “Christ lives; and we shall enter Worms, though all the gates of Hell and powers of the air be unwilling.”1 [Note: H. E. Jacobs, Martin Luther, 184.]
1. The next thing is beauty. Some Christians are content with the strength, and care little for the beauty, of the Christian life. They are stern in their adhesion to principle, careless of the lesser charities of life, apt to be harsh in their condemnation of error and sin. Every one knows their worth, believes in their honesty, would trust implicitly to their integrity. But they do not win love by their gracious bearing, their kind words, their charitable construction of men and things. In a word, they have the strength, but they lack something of the beauty of the Christian character. We have always the practical, hard-headed people with us (like Dickens’ “Mr. Gradgrind”), who say, “Never mind about the beautiful, give us the useful, the durable,” and who would regard all ornamentation as useless and extravagant. But God has a ministry both for strength and for beauty. He made not only things great but things beautiful. “O, worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness,” says the Psalmist, and we must remember there is also a holiness of beauty. In the fabric and services of the sanctuary nothing is too beautiful or too good for God. “Jerry-building” and cheap fittings are out of place here. God should have the best of workmanship, the loveliest of music, and the perfection of reverence and order.
If you behold the sky with its peerless blue, the meadow with its emerald green, the grain-field with its yellow gold, the lake with its silver white, you will see that beauty has been wrought into all the patterns of nature. What skilled artist can put another touch upon the rainbow, or mix colours that will heighten the beauty of the transfigured cloud-land? The spring in its fresh green, the winter in its robes of pearl, the cataract, the crystal spray, the pearly dew, the ocean all aglow with phosphorescence, every wavelet flashing and sparkling as it caps and breaks, the towering mountains, with their ceaseless lights and shadows, the jewelled sphere of night, the glorious transparency of day, the sunset glories God has hidden beneath the surface of the roughest shell—all these declare with a thousand voices that God loves beauty as well as strength.1 [Note: F. L. Goodspeed.]
2. We must have the strength first, and beauty afterward. It is disaster to reverse this order—to try to get beauty and then have strength. The magnificent Brooklyn Bridge, when viewed at a distance, is a beautiful poem. But the beauty is dependent on the strength of mighty abutments which reach down far below the river bed and take hold of the foundations of the earth. In everything, both artistic and moral, strength is the stalk; beauty is the flower that blooms on it.
The great porch of Solomon’s temple was upheld by two famous pillars of bronze, cast and adorned by the most skilful workmen of the day. Those massive pillars, called Jachin and Boaz, have been described and discussed in a thousand books, and have been the cause of endless speculation. The Biblical description closes with this suggestive sentence, “on the top of the pillars was lily work.” The columns that supported ended in tracery that adorned. The strength that upheld blossomed out into grace and beauty at the top. In our day there is a great desire for the lily work without the pillars, a vain longing for the graces of life and the beauties of character without the supporting power of truth and duty. There are thousands of men who would like the virtues of the fathers, but who do not want the faith which made them virtuous. They would like to have reproduced in their life the qualities of soul which marked the early Christians, the Reformers, and the Puritans; but not their sturdy faith, not their tenacity of conviction, not their majestic conscience or their tremendous hold on things unseen. They want the simplicity and affection of the Waldenses, but not their faith in God; the audacity and fearlessness of John Knox and Oliver Cromwell, without their vivid sense of the Divine Presence; the morality of John Robinson and Miles Standish, without their heroic creed; the integrity of Washington and Lincoln, without their trust in a sustaining and overruling God. Mothers are anxious that their daughters should shine in every social accomplishment; that their sons should be men of talent and of skill; that their homes should be beautiful with music and art and all kindly grace. But they are not so solicitous about the solid foundations of character.
Strength and Beauty
“Know ye not,” says the Apostle, “that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” The sanctuary of God is a human soul that is governed and moulded by God. Such a soul is His temple. Of this it is true that strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. In other words, a true Christian character is the realization of the highest ideal of what a man should be.
1. A noble character must contain in high degree, and in right proportions, just those two elements of which the text speaks—strength and beauty. There must be strength of character. You cannot make a house out of sand, because the particles do not cohere to one another. Neither can you make a worthy character out of irresolution, vacillation, doubt, fear, instability. A true man must have ruling convictions, concentration and constancy of purpose, firmness in the right as he sees it, power to endure reverses, positive purposes and ideas. These make a strong character. A true man must also have these elements of strength adorned by gentler virtues. Manliness is not mere strength. There must be refinement of feeling, humanity, and benevolence, gentleness and patience. These make character beautiful. And the two elements must combine in right proportion. A merely strong character is as one-sided and imperfect as a pugilist is an abnormal specimen of physical manhood. A merely gentle, loving character is often pitiably weak and unpractical. A true man is strong in his convictions, but gentle in his judgments; constant of purpose, but gentle to the weak and mindful of others’ rights; positive but humble; energetic but meek. This is the ideal which Christianity has taught the world.
God has room in His Church for both strength and beauty. Is there not a parable in the fact that Jubal, the inventor of music, and Tubal-cain, the first blacksmith, were brothers? When Tubal-cain set up the first smithy he was starting an industry which has been of great use in the world; but when Jubal struck chords of music from his first primitive harp, he laid succeeding generations of men under no less obligation.1 [Note: F. R. Wilson, The Supreme Service, 17.]
The finest and most impressive effects are often produced by the combination of things that are unlike each other. The painter recognizes this principle when he brings his darkest shadows to heighten the effect of his clearest lights, or contrasts the peaceful life of some humble cottage home with the stately magnificence of the stern mountains that surround it. The architect appeals to the same principle when he crowns his columns with beautiful capitals, and relieves the massive masonry of his walls with delicate tracery. The massive wall and the marble column suggest the thought of strength; while the delicate carvings and the sculptured friezes appeal to the sense of beauty. The thought which lies deep in the artist’s mind, and to which he strives to give expression in his work, is that there is a natural alliance between strength and beauty. He is not satisfied with the stern severity of mere strength, nor does he allow the idea of beauty to exclude all other thoughts. But he endeavours to clothe and crown strong things with beauty, and to support beautiful things by strength.
2. Strong characters are not rare, and beautiful characters are not rare; but characters that are both strong and beautiful are rare. It is so difficult to be firm and not to be hard, to be inflexibly just and not to be cold, to have the solid virtues that make for strength, and with them the soft and gracious qualities that command our love. Some men and women have the decorative virtues—they are full of generosity, noble impulse, charity and magnanimity, and enthusiasm; but they have not with these the strength of mind and will that can resist the “taking” and popular tendency if it be forbidden by sound principles of justice and of practical common sense. Some people, on the other hand, have only the fundamental qualities—they are just, but they cannot be generous; honest, but never liberal; truthful, but never merciful. They have principle, but they have never yielded to a wise enthusiasm, or been moved out of their slow, plodding habit by some sacred zeal for a great and good cause. The world yields to the strong men; it admires them, it honours them; but it does not love them. They command its respect, but they do not engage its affection. On the other hand, the world’s heart is drawn out to the beautiful lives, but it discovers to its pain that it must not lean upon them. They cannot be trusted in our hours of real trial and perplexity. What they gain in heart they seem to lose in head; and we grow conscious that they are tender and generous and kind, but they are not wise. Of how few is it true that they are not only strong but beautiful, not only beautiful but strong!
All the strong things in nature are beautiful; all the beautiful things are exhibitions of strength. David speaks of the “strength of the hills” which is “his also.” We feel the power and appropriateness of the words as we look up to the mountains. But do we not speak with equal truth of the beauty of the hills, clad in exquisite verdure, or flushed with the light that is “new every morning”; delicate flowers and tender ferns nestling in the shelter of their crags, and purple rocks reflecting the sunsets of a thousand years? Take the strongest thing that nature yields, and we shall find that its strength is the cradle of an exquisite and unfathomable beauty. Take the most beautiful thing, and we shall find that its beauty is in closest alliance with immeasurable strength. The dewdrop that glitters on the roseleaf—we all know the perfection of its beauty; but how little do we understand the mystery of the strength by which its beauty is secured! That little drop of water is composed of elements which are held together by electric forces sufficient to form a flash of lightning that would rend the rocks of the mountain or blast the stoutest oak of the forest. All that mighty thunder of power lies sleeping in the crystal sphere of a tiny dewdrop.
Florence Nightingale had that “excellent tiling in woman”—a gentle voice. Lady Lovelace in her poem spoke of her friend’s “soft, silvery voice”; but it could command, as well as charm, unless indeed it were the charm that commanded. “She scolds sergeants and orderlies all day long,” wrote Mr. Bracebridge to her parents (Nov. 20); “you would be astonished to see how fierce she is grown.” That was written, of course, in fun; but there was always a note of calm authority in her voice. A Crimean veteran recalled her passing his bed with some doctors, who were saying, “It can’t be done,” and her replying quietly, “It must be done.” “I seem to hear her saying it,” writes one who knew her well; “there seemed to be no appeal from her quiet, conclusive manner.”1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 186.]
3. In Jesus Christ strength and beauty appear as nowhere else among men. He is the ideal man. His character contains every element of strength—profound knowledge, constant faith, ability to suffer for the truth, composure in the face of an assailing world. Yet His character contains also every element of beauty. He is tender as a woman, devoted in His love of man, humble and meek, gentle and patient too. Each quality exists in accurate proportion in Him; so that we may say, without hesitation and after the closest examination, that the architecture of Christ’s character is absolutely perfect.
The mediæval conception of our Saviour, as meek, and suffering, and patient, and gentle above all others, is true though incomplete. He was “strong Son of God” also. It was the boldness of Peter and John that reminded men of their courageous Master. How constantly in His life do we see strength and beauty, in perfect balance and poise, shining forth from His acts and words! In the garden of agony, faced by cruel and murderous men, He stands erect, calmly repeating to His enemies, “I have told you that I am he”—there is strength; but mark the tender beauty of what follows: “If ye seek me, let these go their way”—solicitude for His faint-hearted followers mingling with His fortitude. As one has truly said: “The eyes that wept beside the grave of Lazarus were eyes that were like a flame of fire.” By His strength and beauty, combined with perfect symmetry in one holy character, Jesus endlessly attracts. His charm is not like that of any other. “Thou hast conquered, O Galilean,” for Thou art strong and Thou art fair, Thou art chiefest among ten thousand, Captain of the Lord’s hosts, and Thou art altogether lovely, beautiful beyond compare.2 [Note: J. Waddell.]
A rose, a lily, and the Face of Christ
Have all our hearts sufficed:
For He is Rose of Sharon nobly born,
Our Rose without a thorn;
And He is Lily of the Valley, He
Most sweet in purity.
But when we come to name Him as He is,
Godhead, Perfection, Bliss,
All tongues fall silent, while pure hearts alone
Complete their orison.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Christ our All in All.]
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, iv. 95.
Holden (J. S.), Life’s Flood-Tide, 172.
Kirkpatrick (A. F.), The Book of Psalms (Cambridge Bible), 577.
Maclaren (A.), The Book of Psalms (Expositor’s Bible), iii. 55.
Purves (G. T.), Faith and Life, 177.
Simpson (A. L.), The Near and the Far View, 219.
Wilson (F. R.), The Supreme Service, 15.
Wirgman (A. T.), The Spirit of Liberty, 104.
Christian World Pulpit, xlviii. 180 (F. L. Goodspeed); liii. 157 (C. S. Horne); lxii. 238 (W. J. K. Little); lxx. 23 (J. Waddell); lxxiv. 147 (F. Tite).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Harvest Thanksgiving and Choir Festivals, Pt. 99, p. 399 (G. A. Poole).