I don’t have a tattoo, but I’ve always wanted one. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the certain “tough guy” image every guy wants. Maybe it’s the attention they garner, message they send, or perhaps I want to let people know that even though I go to church, I can still clean your clock.
But I’ll probably never get a tattoo. For one, my wife would never go for it. It’s one thing if I already had a tattoo. This might actually be attractive in her eyes. “I married a guy with an adventurous past but now he’s settled down,” is sort of appealing to a daughter of a pastor. But I always come back to the fact that I’m in my late thirties and married with four kids. To get a tattoo now would be more sad than savage. So I don’t think I’ll get a tattoo any time soon. But even if my wife did give me the okay on branding my body, I still don’t think I would for one reason that’s hard to get around. Tattoos are permanent. What if I change my mind? What if I don’t like it any longer? The idea of permanency scares me.
But God is all about permanency. We know this, because God has a tattoo and it’s got your name on it.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isa. 49:16)
Tattoos were quite common in the ancient world, as they are now. Different cultures would get tattoos for different reasons. Egyptian women would tattoo their stomachs and breasts during pregnancy, which was believed to ensure a safe birth. In other cultures, slaves would often get tattoos to identify them as someone who belongs to another. Criminals would sometimes be forced to get a tattoo to bear the stigma of their crime. The Greeks and Romans would get a tattoo (a stigmata) to show allegiance to their god. The Grecian ruler king Ptolemy IV (221-205 B.C.), for instance, tattooed his body with ivy leaves to show his devotion to Dionysus, the god of wine. Sounds like something that would happen at a frat party. And I’m sure it has.
God’s tattoo is probably similar to Ptolemy’s, only He turns the meaning on its head. While Ptolemy and others were running around, flaunting their devotion to their god, Yahweh tattooed your name on his hands to show His devotion to you. God is so committed to you that He has carved your name into the palms of His hands. Because God is all about permanency, and He’s not afraid of getting a tattoo to prove it.
This image of God’s tattoo becomes even more powerful when we understand the spiritual state of the people for whom it was first given.
Here’s a few of Isaiah’s own own words:
“How the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21)
“You have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities” (43:24)
“But you…sons of the sorceress, offspring of the adulterer and the loose woman” (57:3)
“You who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys” (57:5)
“Their feet run to evil, and they are swift to shed innocent blood” (59:7)
God does mention Israel’s righteousness, but when He does, He compares it to a bloody menstrual rag.
But even though Israel was unlovable, unusable, unworthy of anything but wrath, hatred, and annihilation, she was still the people upon whom the Creator God has set His affection. In the words of Augustine, the church is a whore but she’s also my mother. God would say, Israel is a whore but she’s also my bride. In fact, this is exactly what God says in several prophetic books.
Isaiah 49:16 says that God has Israel’s name tattooed on the palms of his hands and this conveys the idea of permanence and commitment. And—here’s the vital point—God’s commitment to Israel was not and simply could not have been based on any good they have done. God didn’t look at Israel’s menstrual rag and say, “hey, now there’s something that’s beautiful. I’m going to reward them for that.” The same people whom he calls a whore are etched into the palms of His hands. The one who is swift toward evil is hunted down by a Creator who delights in conquering sinners with boundless grace. The people who slaughter their sons are the children of God’s unswerving delight. God hates the sin but loves the sinner—He loves them so much that He will chase them with his free, persistent, and life-transforming grace. And to show them He’s serious, He tattooed their name on His hand.
Still think God loves you because you do your devotions?
God loves you because of God. And God has a one-way love for image bearing masterpieces. God’s tattoo is only one of many ways in which the prophet Isaiah sought to convey His message of unilateral grace. The book of Isaiah radiates with the stunning beauty of grace like a ray of light refracted through a priceless jewel. Meditate on this book. Read it often. Memorize its verses. Explore the rich images that the prophet paints in order to soak us in God’s unconditional love for unlovable people. Do this, and you will never again bank on your own morality to sustain God’s love for you.