Isaiah 61:1-3 (ESV)
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
The first part of this passage is what Jesus quoted in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town (see Luke 4). He stopped with the words, “To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” He then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He was proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He was proclaiming a Jubilee of Jubilees when YHWH restores all things to their rightful order. He will bring justice to a broken world. He will release captives and comfort mourners. That prophecy will be fulfilled completely one day when the King returns to set up his kingdom, but there is a sense in which that prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus here and now.
To those who mourn he gives “a beautiful headdress instead of ashes…a garment of praise instead of mourning.” The King James Version of the Bible says that he will give “beauty for ashes,” but that misses the point. In times of grief mourners would wear sackcloth and put ashes on their heads. It was a symbol of brokenness. The word translated “beauty” in the KJV is translated as “beautiful headdress” in the ESV, and “garland” in the NAS. It is a word that refers to the turban that a bridegroom or an important individual would wear. God is saying that he will change the mourners’ sackcloth and ashes into turbans and garments of praise. They will go from sitting in ashes, like Job in Job 2:7, to being clothed like brides and grooms in wedding celebrations.
This is what the King of Kings does in the lives of those who follow him. Life is painful. It is messy. Sometimes, like Job, we just want to cry out, “Let the day perish on which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man is conceived’” (Job 3:3). But in the darkest times we can hold on to the faithfulness of God. He has a way of turning darkness into light, mourning into celebration, and sackcloth and ashes into wedding gowns and tuxedos. We can’t always see it, but that doesn’t change the truth of it.
I’m sure that as Daniel and his friends were being carried off into captivity to Babylon, remembering the destruction of their loved city, Jerusalem, they couldn’t see any light or hope. They had nothing to celebrate, yet they determined in their hearts not to defile themselves. They understood the promise of God. He is the one who turns ashes on the heads of broken people into turbans of bridegrooms and men of significance. He turns sackcloth into wedding gowns. He has not forgotten nor forsaken us just because we can’t see through the darkness and the pain. He will one day set things right. We can trust him. He is a good God.