Have you ever considered how much time and money people spend on appearance? Concern over one’s looks is a universal and timeless condition as people the world over, throughout the ages, have spent countless sums of money on their looks. The list of expenditures includes clothes, hair maintenance, and grooming supplies, as well as manicures, facials, plastic surgeries, and much more.
And if you are a guy, don’t think that appearances are only important to women. It is reported that men are rapidly growing in the amount of time and money they spend on their looks. The Princeton Press reports, “The average American husband spends thirty-two minutes on a typical day washing, dressing, and grooming, while the average American wife spends forty-four minutes.” (It appears she’s really not spending that much more time on this than we are, guys).
There’s no doubt about it: appearances have been a big deal for people for thousands of years. A simple Internet search on the history of cosmetics shows that makeup was used by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and others. Some of the first makeup was used to enhance the eyes, much like the black eyeliner women use today. People also used oils and balms for the skin, and there are reports of royalty and the rich painting their eyelids. Even to this day, when referring negatively to a woman, especially one who uses an excessive amount of makeup or dresses and acts like a seductress, some people will say that she looks like a “painted Jezebel.” This phrase is actually rooted in the Bible’s description of Jezebel and her use of eye makeup.
2 Kings 9:30 (NIV 2011)
Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window.
While it is true that there are some places where the Bible’s descriptions include a physical attribute—such as the one about Jezebel’s makeup and hair—for the most part, it provides limited details about people’s appearances.
What did the people of the Bible look like?
I’ve often wondered what many of the biblical characters looked like; maybe it’s a result of the western culture where such an emphasis is placed upon appearances. Was Abraham tall or short? Lean or stocky? Maybe he was just an average-looking man. I’m fairly certain he had dark skin, much like the nomadic herdsmen I once saw during a visit to the Middle East, and he, like many other characters in the Bible, most likely had a weathered appearance from spending year after year exposed to the elements.
And consider Sarah, his wife. Even when she was in her mid-sixties, it was recorded that she was a “beautiful woman” (Gen. 12:11)—so beautiful that Abraham was concerned that other men like Pharaoh would kill him so that they could take her. Beauty can vary a lot between cultures, with some preferring long necks or high cheekbones, etc., but I have no doubt that when God recorded that she was beautiful, it meant that she was indeed a very lovely woman.
People have especially wondered about Jesus’ appearance, but does anyone really know what he, Noah, Moses, Elijah, or the other biblical figures looked like? We have the various artists’ portraits and the Hollywood versions, but I’m certain we can dismiss those iconic images of the Caucasian leading-man-type Jesus we so commonly see. The fact is that all of these people were Middle Eastern, which means that most of them probably had dark hair and skin and would have blended right into a crowd of Egyptians or other Middle Eastern races, even today.
The Bible places little emphasis on physical appearances
One of the unique aspects of the Bible is that it spends so little time on the physical descriptions of people. To the Western mind this is somewhat odd, because we live in such a visual world. Nowadays people are surrounded with images of rulers and important leaders through the various media of television, movies, magazines, and the Internet. In the ancient world of the Middle East, many people would have known about Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Rameses the Great, and Caesar, but few would have known what they actually looked like. Other than personally meeting them, the only way their appearances were known was through a one-sided rough image stamped on a coin or some other type of inscription. Of course, there were also marble statues of many prominent figures, but these were very limited in number and not spread throughout their empires—whereas today, people all over the world readily recognize the images of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Saddam Hussein, and many other world leaders both past and present.
In contrast, the Bible spends virtually no time on a person’s looks, and when God does give us a physical detail, such as Goliath being a giant or Ehud being left-handed, in almost all of those cases the detail is an important aspect to the point of the story. In the case of King Saul, we are told that he was “handsome” and “stood head and shoulders above everyone else,” (1 Sam. 9:2). God gives us this description to show that Saul’s stature made him the people’s ideal of what a king should look like. Although Saul had the “right look” in the people’s minds, ultimately he fell far short of the character qualities that God was looking for. Later, when looking for Saul’s replacement, even the prophet Samuel saw Jesse’s son Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord,” because Eliab must have physically “looked the part.” But God quickly reminded Samuel:
1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV 2011)
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
God looks at the inside
Unlike people, God looks first at the “inside” of a person—what God calls “the heart.” We get swayed by a person’s looks, their height, their body type and facial features, but God is not distracted by these traits. The details of Saul’s height and Eliab’s appearance were included in the story so that God could make the point that He was looking on the inside—at a person’s heart and character—not at the outside, like we all tend to do.
At God’s direction, Samuel overlooked physical appearances and selected David, Jesse’s youngest, anointing him as king over Israel. After David’s death much later, his son Solomon recounted in prayer and praise to God exactly why God chose David: though God did mention some of David’s physical traits, He also made it clear that it was David’s pure heart and his faithfulness to Him that made David the right choice for a king—not because of his size and stature, since being the youngest meant that he was probably still the smallest of all his brothers.
1 Kings 3:5-6 (NIV 2011)
5) At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
6) Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.
Like all of us, David was far from perfect. The record of the Bible is clear that he committed many sins, including adultery and even murder. In spite of his many missteps, he repented of his pride and confessed his sin to God. He wasn’t perfect—but he faithfully pursued the One who is.
Psalm 139:23-24 (NIV 2011)
23) Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24) See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
Looks are deceiving
Give a small child the choice between a nickel and a dime, and most will choose the nickel. Why? Because they see that the nickel is bigger, and they equate bigger with better. They don’t yet understand that the dime has a greater value, one that is not based on its external appearance but on its inherent worth.
Even though we all eventually learn that the value of coins is not based on their size—their appearance—many of us still fall victim to the delusion of appearances in other areas. Con men manipulate our propensity to evaluate, categorize, and make judgments based upon appearances for their own gain. We tend to trust the banker in a suit and tie more than we would one in blue jeans and a stained shirt. It is a bias we all have—a confirmation bias that causes us to see what we want to see and not necessarily what is real. We rely upon our eyes, which is not necessarily a bad thing; but wearing a suit versus having a stained shirt does not make one banker better than the other. What matters is not the external appearance of a person, but the internal reality of their heart. I’ll take a sloppy banker with integrity and a stained shirt over a well-dressed, dishonest one—and I’m sure you would, too.
God, like any author, has emphasized in His book, the Bible, the things that He wants us to learn and focus on. But unlike men and women who can be deceived by looks, God can’t be.
Psalm 44:20-21 (NIV 2011)
20) If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21) would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?
1 Kings 8:39 (NIV 2011)
[…] deal with everyone according to all they do, since you know their hearts (for you alone know every human heart).
The kind of “looks” that God considers important are the inner beauty of the heart and the look of kindness, goodness, integrity, and holiness.
Micah 6:8 (NIV)
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
The appearances that people highly value are detestable to God
Jesus made it affirmed that God does not look at things the way people do.
Luke 16:15 (NIV 2011)
He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
Many times the things people put a lot of emphasis on are things that are detestable to God. The world’s vanity, with its focus on the external things is detestable to God, such as having the “right” look, pedigree, job, or car, or even living in the “right” neighborhood and having a big bank account because it all promotes pride—the inflation of one’s self.
Jesus made this very clear when he confronted the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were placing so much importance on doing things for appearance’s sake. When fasting, they would make sure others could tell by the discomfort they displayed on their faces. Being honored was also a very big deal in that culture, so they made sure they only associated with the “right” people, never the sinners and less-fortunate members of society. They also prayed in ways that others would see, wore clothing that indicated their social status, and sat in the places of highest honor. Jesus compared them to “whitewashed tombs,” places that looked good on the outside but whose insides were full of death and decay (Matt. 23:7).
The kind of appearance that does matter to God
It’s not that appearances don’t matter at all to God; clearly they must, because He demonstrates so much beauty in the design and appearance of all creation. He was also very explicit and exact in the appearance of the Tabernacle and all its sacrificial materials (Exod. 25:9-27), as well as the Temple (1 Chron. 28:11-19). The description of God’s throne and Council Room are magnificent in color and quality. He provides us details of the great beauty of the attending angels, cherubim, seraphim, and others. We are also told that He will glorify His sons and daughters in dazzling white robes with ornate sashes and crowns.
When it comes to appearances, the lesson we must learn is that the external beauty is merely meant to be a reflection of the true beauty within. We all have to be careful to not fall victim to the deception of outward appearances. Let’s beautify the inside first—the heart—and then the outside will follow.
 Hamermesh, Daniel S., Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful, pg 3. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2013