Art in the Bible
by Bill Drake
God is the consummate artist, the purveyor of Divine expression. In the eternal Logos, He is the originator and bestows truth in communication. What these two statements mean for the arts is that they are the creative medium God has chosen to express Himself aesthetically: to the imagination, to the five senses, and to the visceral dimensions of the heart in order to communicate truth and elicit worship from mankind.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Bible itself is replete with art and art forms. When God revealed His story in Scripture, it is primarily in narrative and poetic form. It appealed to the imagination. Only about ten per cent of the Bible is overtly instructional and didactic. From the first verse of the Bible, Genesis 1:1, we learn that God as the Creator is an artist. The largest book in the Bible is a collection of song lyrics that contains not only poetry and beauty, but also divine prophecy and guidance for godliness. In Psalm 19 specifically, God assigns the beauty of His own creation with the task of proclaiming His glory. He goes on to describe in detail the way in which His creation has been designed by Him to 'speak': “Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.” (Psalm 19:2-4a NLT).
Consider the instruction God gives Moses concerning Bezalel the artist, in Exodus 31:1-5. God chooses the artist, fills the artist with His Spirit (first time this is ever mentioned in the Bible) and with the wisdom and ability to be a master craftsman, all for the purpose of building the Tabernacle of the Lord in all its glory and beauty. The Tabernacle, along with its trappings, was not merely a utilitarian place for priests to sacrifice animals and get on with their duties – it was immensely beautiful, ornate, and inspiring for worship.
This use of art forms has been God’s pattern throughout His thousands of years of discourse with man. We see Miriam celebrating victory in dance and song in Exodus 15, and David using music against spiritual opposition in 1 Samuel 16. We see Nathan using a parable to rebuke David in 2 Samuel 12, and Jehoshaphat deploying the vocalists in battle in 2 Chronicles 20. In Jeremiah 18 we see Jeremiah observing a potter, and then in chapter 19 using the potter’s earthenware flask to deliver a stunning prophecy. In fact, the connection between art and prophecy is completely unavoidable as one reads the Scriptures. The gorgeous heights of the prophet Isaiah’s prose are literally breath-taking, flowing through passages like Isaiah 40:9-31 and 61:1-11. And who could forget Ezekiel, the ‘mime artist,’ arguing with God about using cow dung instead of human excrement as fuel, to bake bread; and forecasting the doom of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4:9-15). Even Jesus, at the Passover feast, institutes what is known as The Last Supper – a metaphorical passion play that not only reminds us of but involves us in the feasts God has designed from the beginning of time, allowing us to engage in and partake of redemptive history. Again and again in Scripture, God enlists art forms in order to express truth to people in inescapable ways that are unforgettable over time.
Art is necessary because God is intrinsically beautiful. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was the ultimate work of the Divine; His humanity being the pinnacle of God’s creation, Jesus embodied the Godhead in human form. Jesus used creative story (parable) to reveal the gospel of the Kingdom, grafting listeners into His narrative in such a way that as the revelation of God’s truth washed over their minds and imaginations, they realised that they were to be a part of the Kingdom as well.
The arts are incarnational when they manifest God’s divine purposes in verbal and non-verbal communication about the human condition, and when they bring God’s creativity and 'image' directly and personally into that condition for the purpose of redeeming it. In much the same way that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:3), any time the Word becomes music, drama or dance, it 'invades' that arena of human experience with the light and truth of a biblical worldview. Visual art gives physical form to that which was once unseen; spoken and sung art gives voice to that which was once silent; and dance gives external movement to that which was once still. One needs look no farther than the Sistine Chapel, or listen to Handel’s Messiah to see this is true.
The arts can be prophetic when they speak truth to the heart of a culture in the language that the culture is already speaking to itself. The arts can mirror or 'witness' God’s intentions for culture and enable it to look beyond what is immediately present to what might be. Because Jesus is the Word and the image of the invisible God (see John 1:1), He intentionally uses all art disciplines to proclaim truth, be it rebuke, edification, admonition or inspiration.
And like the Word, the arts can be transformational, causing us to see things differently and therefore think and behave differently. We are called to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2), and by speaking to our imagination, emotions, and mind, the arts challenge us to rethink old paradigms in light of the new.
We should therefore never downplay the transformational power our creative God has bestowed on the arts in His Word to express His heart, His truth and His redemptive purpose for mankind. We should enthusiastically embrace the arts not only as they reflect the full range and beauty of abundant life in the here and now, but also as they better prepare us to one day be able to gaze straight into His magnificence and see the Divine Artist face to face.