Genesis 1:1 Commentary - The Great Texts of the BibleThe Creation and the Creator
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.—Gen 1:1.
This is a sublime sentence with which the Bible opens. Will the sentences that follow be in keeping with the musical throb and stately massiveness of these opening words? Even when we regard the book simply as a monument of literature we find it impossible to conceive a more appropriate introduction than this: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Yet the end is not less majestic than the beginning: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth are passed away.”
How should we approach the study of a book which opens and closes with words of such sublimity? There is a sentence or two in the preface to John Wesley’s first volume of sermons, in which the great evangelist gives us the secret of his method of Bible-study. “Here am I,” he says, “far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone; only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His Book; for this end—to find the way to heaven. Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift my heart to the Father of Lights. I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. And what I thus learn, that I teach.” To Wesley, then, there were two great realities—the visible Book, and its invisible but ever-present Author; and to a man of his training and susceptibilities the one would have been an enigma without the other. He saw God at the beginning of every section of Holy Scripture.
Let us attempt to explain this great but difficult text by considering—
I. The Creation.
i. The meaning of “In the beginning,” and of “the heaven and the earth.”
ii. The idea in the word “created.”
iii. Other explanations of the origin of the world.
iv. In what sense God continues to create.
II. The Creator.
i. What does Creation tell us about the Creator?
ii. What other works of God follow from Creation?
iii. Three things in Creation to encourage us.
i. Two Phrases
1. “In the beginning” does not mean here “from all eternity.” There is no “beginning” in eternity. It means in the beginning of the existing universe as conditioned by time. The expression is used in precisely the same sense in the prologue of St. John’s Gospel, the difference between the opening of Genesis and the opening of the Fourth Gospel being due to the use of the verbs. In the beginning—that is, of the things which we see and among which our human history unfolds itself—God created the universe. In the same beginning the Word was, as existing from all eternity. When the beginning was we are not told; it may have been thousands or millions of years ago; but there was a beginning. Matter is not eternal.
When I was a student at College, the Standard book on divinity which was put into our hands was Bishop Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, in which it was laid down as quite an authoritative statement that heaven and earth were created most certainly within not more than six, or, at the farthest, seven, thousand years from the age in which we were living. Astronomers who have gone into this question, however, now say that the time when the moon became separated from the earth—an event which might be regarded as the commencement of the earth’s history—could not be placed at any period less than fifty-seven millions of years ago. Even the historians find records of men living in a high state of civilization more than eight thousand years ago—and that state of civilization must itself have taken long centuries for its development. Similarly, the geologist, when he tries to read the book of Nature, finds, in the relics of the river-drift man, evidences that man had existed on this earth more than twenty thousand years.1 [Note: J. Lightfoot.]
2. “The heaven and the earth” does not mean the chaotic mass, the rough material, so to speak, but the whole cosmos, the universe as it appears in its present order. This is the common mode of expression in Hebrew for what we call the universe. The nearest approach to this idea of “universe” is found in Jer 10:16, where the English versions have “all things,” the Hebrew being literally “the whole.” Taking the first verse as complete in itself, we have here the broad general statement of creation; then follows the early dark, empty, lifeless condition, not of the whole, but of the earth; and then the gradual preparation of the earth to be the abode of man. The history of the visible heavens and earth is bound together throughout Scripture till the final consummation, when the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up, to make way for the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
The conception which we express by the term “universe” is usually expressed in the Old Testament by this phrase, “the heaven and the earth.” But there is a still more complete expression: “heaven above, earth beneath, and the water under the earth” (Exo 20:4). A similar phrase is found on the Assyrian Creation-tablet: “the heaven above, the earth beneath” (line 1), and “the ocean” (line 3).
ii. The Idea in Creation
It cannot be proved that the word translated “created” means etymologically to create out of nothing. It is common to all the Semitic languages, and may be connected either with a root meaning “to cut” and “fashion by cutting,” the material so cut or fashioned being already in existence; or perhaps with a root signifying “to set free,” “to let go forth,” “to cause to appear.” It is in favour of this latter derivation that the word is never followed, like other words denoting “to form,” “to fashion,” and the like, by the accusative of the material out of which the thing is fashioned. (See the striking use of the word in Num 16:30, “If Jehovah should create a creation.”) But the word, whatever be its derivation, is never used except of a Divine act; and it is quite certain that the writer intends to convey the impression of a creation called into existence out of nothing by the voice and will of God. “In the beginning God created.” Before “the beginning” no material thing existed. God called all that is into existence. This is the sense in which the words were understood by the earliest commentators, the Hebrew poets. So in Psa 33:9, “For he spake, and it was” (came into being); and Psa 148:5, “He commanded, and they were created.” So, too, in the Epistle to the Heb 11:3, “By faith we understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God, so that what is seen hath not been made out of things which do appear.” The creation, then, was no operation wrought upon pre-existent matter, neither is it an emanation from a Divine substance. The Hebrew cosmogony has no tinge in it either of dualism or of pantheism. God is the eternal, self-subsistent Being; “He is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Moreover, on its first page the Hebrew Scripture asserts clearly the unity of the Godhead. There are no rival deities here, each exercising an independent power, and claiming separate worship: God is one.
The idea in the word cannot be defined with precision, but the following points are to be noted: (a) the most important fact is that it is used exclusively of Divine activity—a restriction to which perhaps no parallel can be found in other languages. (b) The idea of novelty or extraordinariness of result is frequently implied, and it is noteworthy that this is the case in the only two passages of certainly early date where the word occurs. (c) It is probable also that it contains the idea of effortless production (such as befits the Almighty) by word or volition (Psa 33:9). (d) The facts just stated, and the further circumstance that the word is used always with accusative of product and never of material, constitute a long advance towards the full theological doctrine of creation out of nothing, and make the word “create” a suitable vehicle for it.1 [Note: J. Skinner, Genesis , 15.]
This is not a philosophical account of the Creation. There is no such thing in the Bible. Wisdom, among the Israelites, developed herself in quite a different direction from the philosophy of the Greeks. She did not give herself up to speculations upon the origin and nature of things. This one word, resplendent with light, lying at the foundation of all the Jewish conceptions, set their minds at rest upon these matters: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Hence the greater minds among the Jews directed their thoughts to the problems of practical life. The result of these labours is given us in five books, which form, as it were, the code of the Hebrew wisdom. The subjects treated in them relate, not to the study of Being, but to the purely practical question of right living; they even exhaust it. These books are—Job, in which is revealed the art of suffering well; the Psalms, which give us a model of true prayer; Proverbs, in which is taught the art of acting rightly in all circumstances; Ecclesiastes, which treats of the right manner of enjoying the good things granted to man here below; and finally, in the Song of Songs, the wisdom of the Israelites rises to the contemplation of the supreme art—that of true and pure love.1 [Note: F. Godet.]
iii. Other Explanations
What are the alternative explanations of the origin of the world? Three may be named—
1. Materialism.—Materialism tells us that the Universe is eternal and self-existent. The Universe exists, because it exists. God, of course, it leaves out of the question altogether. It holds Him to have no real existence. He is pronounced to be a creature of the human imagination, the product of the human heart at a particular stage of its development. In its most elaborated modern form, Materialism proposes to substitute two self-existent factors for the God of Heaven, two blind, all-powerful agencies—Matter and Force. It pronounces the Universe to be the result of innumerable combinations of self-existent force with self-existent matter; and it maintains that while the quantity of this eternally existing force is invariable, force can transform itself into light, into heat, into electricity, into magnetism; it is, by turns, weight, affinity, cohesion, mechanism. It is inherent in matter; it is light and heat in the suns and in the fixed stars; it is mechanical impulse in planets which move around a central globe; it is cohesion or magnetism in the ponderable material of the heavenly bodies. Its action is regulated by uncreated, self-existent laws.
I do not ask whether we can listen to a system which gives the lie, both to the heart and to the conscience, to some of the deepest and profoundest aspirations of which man is conscious. But I bid you look out for one moment upon the Universe and ask yourselves if the materialistic account of its existence is even rational. That quick-witted and thoughtful people of antiquity, the Greeks, gave it a name which has lasted until modern times; they called it the Cosmos. They meant by that word that upon the face of the Universe there is stamped beyond everything else the imprint of an harmonious beauty. It meets the eye, it falls upon the ear of man, this harmony of nature; it is no fancy impression which we gain from that splendid spectacle of universal order. But why should this harmony exist? Why do we behold this regularity, this concerted and orderly movement of universal existence? If blind force and blind matter are the only ultimate factors of existence, why should chaos ever have terminated in a reign of such harmonious and perfect order? Materialism replies that force moulds matter in obedience to laws. But law implies a legislator, and the question is, Who has created the laws? Why do these laws exist and no other? Has any one presided over that perpetual intercommunion of force with matter, and guided it by law to a result of such singular beauty? Atheism smiles at us Christians when we ask this question, and replies, “A chance.” Out of millions upon millions of chances that it might have been otherwise, one chance has carried the day; it has issued in the reign of order; it has eventuated in the world.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
There was a philosopher, a great man in Aberdeen; his name was Dr. Beattie. He had a little boy about five years old, who was just able to read. Dr. Beattie wanted to teach his little boy about God, and how do you think he did it? He went into the garden, and in a corner, with his finger, he made in the ground the letters of his little boy’s name; and when he had made those marks in the ground he put some mustard and cress in those lines. About ten days afterwards his little boy came running into his study, saying, “Father, father, there is my name coming up in my garden.” He could just read it. The father said, “Nonsense! nonsense! There cannot be your name in the garden. Don’t talk like that.” He said, “Father, come and see.” He took him out, and there was his name in the garden. The father said, “There is nothing remarkable in that; it all came by chance.” The little boy pulled his father by the coat into the house, and said, “I do not think it came by chance, father. It could not come by chance.” The father said, “Do you think somebody put it there, then?” “Yes, I do, father,” said the little boy. “I think somebody must have put it there.” Then his father began to tell him about God. “That is just the way with you,” he said. “Somebody must have made you. You are more wonderful than that mustard and cress.”1 [Note: James Vaughan.]
2. Pantheism.—From the belief that the Universe is the result of matter and force guided by chance a violent recoil is natural; and when this recoil takes place without the guidance of Revelation the result is Pantheism. While the Atheistic Materialist says, “There is no God,” the Pantheist answers, “Everything is God.” The Universe is not made by God; it is God in solution; God passing into various manifestations of being. God is the soul of the Universe; He is the common principle which constitutes its unity; He is at the root of, He combines, He manifests Himself in all its infinite variety of being and life. He is the common fund of life, which animates all that lives; He is the existence which is shared in by all that exists. Pantheism lays emphasis on, it exaggerates, two great truths—the Omnipresence of God, and the interdependence of created life. But Pantheism denies that God is independent of the world; it asserts that He has no existence apart from the Universe which manifests Him as being Himself. It asserts that He is not a Person, having as such consciousness, memory, and will; that He is only an impersonal quality or force; or that He is an Idea, slowly realizing itself in being. Of the general doctrine there are many shades and modifications, but they practically agree in making the Universe identical with God.
Pantheism often uses a religious kind of language which puts people off their guard and blinds them to its real nature and drift. But if Pantheism speaks of God it practically denies Him. Pantheism says that God is the Infinite; but then it goes on to say that this Infinite exists only in that which is finite. But if the Infinite be thus literally identified with the finite, it ceases to be, or rather never was, the Infinite, and there is in reality no Infinite in existence; in other words, there is no God. This is a speculative objection, sufficiently formidable but less serious than a moral objection which I proceed to notice. The very first element of our belief in God is that God is a Moral Being, that He is Essential Right, Essential Justice, Essential Sanctity, Essential Purity, Essential Truth, Essential Love. But if you say with the Pantheist that God is Universal Life, and that Universal Life is God, you thereby destroy God’s Morality. You make God the agent and producer of evil as well as the agent or producer of good; or else you deny that the distinction between absolute good and absolute evil really exists. You make God, indeed, the energy which produces deeds of charity, of courage, of justice, of integrity; but you also identify Him with the energy which issues in adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, and all that is untrue, cruel, impure.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
It is surely more philosophical to believe that all true being centres in Personality, and proceeds from Personality, than that some pantheistic or atheistic It is the ground and first principle of Nature. The one implies that Nature is thought less, soul less, and the other that she is full of soul.2 [Note: John Pulsford, The Supremacy of Man, 127.]
3. The Eternity of Matter.—Besides the doctrines of Materialistic Atheism and Pantheism there is one other supposition—that the Universe and God are both eternal; that an Eternal Universe has existed side by side with an Eternal God. This is the refuge of minds which shrink from the revealed truth of a creation, yet hesitate to acquiesce in the dark theories of a Universe without God, or a Universe which is God. But this third theory inevitably resolves itself into one of the two first. Unless it is to say that there are two Gods, two self-existent, co-eternal Beings, either it must say that the Universe is the reality, and God the imaginary counterpart, or it must say that the Universe itself is God. And if, somewhat violently, this consequence be declined, and the co-existence of God and an Eternal Universe be resolutely maintained, whence then, we ask, come the laws, the harmony, the form of this self-subsisting, uncreated Universe? We have only the difficulties of Atheism or of Pantheism, as the case may be, without their completeness.
How the Jews have understood the first verse of Genesis is sufficiently notorious. “Those,” says Maimonides, “who believe in the laws of our master Moses, hold that the whole world, which comprehends everything except the Creator, after being in a state of non-existence, received its existence from God, being called into existence out of nothing.… It is a fundamental principle of our law that God created the world from nothing.” The mother of the Maccabean martyrs, when endeavouring to strengthen her youngest son for his last agony, bids him look upon the heaven and the earth, and all that is therein, and consider that God made them out of things that were not. If the Alexandrian author of the Book of Wisdom speaks of God’s making the cosmos out of shapeless matter, it does not follow that, like Philo afterwards, he had so yielded to Platonic ideas as to suppose that matter was eternal; he is speaking of God’s later creative action, which gave form to matter that had been made before. Justin Martyr uses the phrase in the same sense; and St. Clement of Alexandria speaks of matter having no relation to time, not meaning that matter is eternal, but that it had been created at a period when there were no “times or seasons or days or years.” Tertullian holds that the Carthaginian artist, Hermogenes, who probably had never unlearnt his heathen creed, really teaches the existence of a second God when he asserts the eternity of matter: “Duos Deos infert,” says Tertullian, “materiam parem Deo infert.” And the common sense of Christian antiquity is expressed in the devout reasoning of St. Augustine: “Thou, O Lord, hast made heaven and earth; yet not out of Thine own Substance, for then heaven and earth would be equal to Thine Only Begotten, and, besides Thyself, there was nought else out of which Thou couldst make it: therefore hast Thou made heaven and earth out of nothing.”
iv. Continuous Creation
In the sense of giving form and order to pre-existent matter, God has continued to create ever since the Creation. It is quite possible, as was distantly suggested by Peter Lombard in the heart of the Middle Ages, and as is maintained by the evolutionary theory in our time, that He has continuously developed ever new species of creatures by a natural selection out of lower species previously existing. In this, and other kindred ways, it may be that He “worketh hitherto.” And to us the development of one species out of another may appear even more wonderful and a greater miracle than the independent creation of every species.
The forest oak is a majestic object, as it sits rooted upon its rocks, looking forth toward all the winds, and watching the seasons come and go. The apparatus of an intricate life is playing in a million of veins and arteries, adding each year its ring of robust strength to the concentric circles on which you may mark off the centuries, girding about it anew its coats of shaggy bark, and painting its leaves with the tender green of spring and the ruddy hue of autumn. It is the grand production of His word who bade the earth bring forth her grass, her herb, her tree. But you bring to me, half hidden in its rustic cup, an acorn, and tell me that in the white kernel within that brown shell are imprisoned all the possibilities of the future oak—not some chance tree, it may chance of beech or elm or of some other tree, but the oak itself with all its lordly traits, its giant boll, its Stretch and grasp of root, its tough fibre, its shaggy bark, its deep-cut leaves of shining green—that all these, to the last detail, are provided for in that little nodule of starch, and I say this is a greater wonder still!1 [Note: L. W. Bacon.]
Men startle us with their beginnings; at once they show their hand, and after the pomp of initiation we are disappointed with the finish. This is all exactly contrary to the method of the greatest Worker of all. He is usually modest, meagre, unpromising in His beginnings; but His finishing strokes make the sublime. It was thus with the creation of the world. Starting with slime and darkness, He went forward in firmaments, suns, moons, stars, and the humanity that is more than all galaxies. This is God’s order in the world still. Beginning with coral insects and earth-worms, He ends with rich landscapes; beginning with specks of jelly, He works up to splendid organisms; beginning with sober seeds, He crowns His creation with the golden lilies and burning roses.2 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]
The sentence, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” stands like an archway at the beginning of the Universe. In the beginning of heaven, God; in the beginning of the earth, God; in the beginning of time, God; in the beginning of man, God; in the beginning of the Bible, God; in the beginning of salvation, God. Looking back at the universe to the time when the chaotic mists hung across the morning of creation, we see streaking their silvery summits that infinite word, “God.” Looking above us at the stars of the heavens, and contemplating their number and magnitude, and the power that created and sustains them, we think of “God.” Looking forward into the infinite future, toward which all are travelling, we meet with “God.” The idea of God is the centre of the spiritual universe. It is the focal point of human thought. It is the answer to the soul’s thirst. It is the universal prayer. It is the greatest idea in the world. It is the idea that over-whelms us, that humbles us, that exalts us, that saves us, that inspires us, and that makes us believe in our immortality. It is the keynote to religious progress. “As a man thinks about God, so is he.”
i. What does Creation tell us about God?
What discoveries about God does Creation allow us to make? If He is creator, what does that enable us to assert concerning Him?
1. His Existence.—Conceive that a thoughtful man, in the full maturity of his powers, had suddenly been placed in the midst of this beautiful system of natural life. His eye rests upon the forms and colours around him with keen, fresh delight. Earth, sky, sun, stars, clouds, mountains, valleys, rivers, seas, trees, animals, flowers, and fruits, in groups and separately, pass before him. His thought is still eagerly curious; it has not yet been vulgarized and impoverished down to the point at which existence is taken as a matter of course: the beauty, the mysteriousness, the awfulness of the Universe, still elevates and thrills him; and his first desire is to account to himself for the spectacle on which he gazes. Whence comes it, this beautiful scene? What upholds it? Why is it here? Does it exist of itself? Is it its own upholder and ruler, or is there any Cause or Being in existence who gives it substance and shape? From this question there is no escape; we cannot behold the vast flood of life sweep before our eyes without asking whence it takes its rise: we cannot read the pages of that marvellous book of Nature and be indifferent to the question whether they have an Author. And thus it is that in circles where Christ is not named, or is named only in accents of contemptuous scorn, the question is asked in our day more and more importunately: Whence comes this Universe? what upholds it in being? for what end does it exist? Now the Christian Solution of this question is the only one which seriously respects the rights and even the existence of God.
Dr. Blomfield, Bishop of London, used to warn his Ordination candidates against too great confidence in attempting to prove the existence of God. Preaching in Suffolk on one occasion in early life from the text, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” he entered into a powerful argument in proof of the existence of God. The service over, the preacher went to dine with a neighbouring farmer, who complimented him on his sermon, but observed quite naively, “At the same time, sir, I believe there is a God.”
That in the beginning of his noviciate, he spent the hours appointed for private prayer in thinking of God, so as to convince his mind of, and to impress deeply upon his heart, the Divine existence, rather by devout sentiments, than by studied reasonings, and elaborate meditations. That by this short and sure method, he exercised himself in the knowledge and love of God, resolving to use his utmost endeavour to live in a continual sense of His Presence, and, if possible, never to forget Him more.1 [Note: Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 25.]
The word “God” is very great. He who realizes and acknowledges this will be mild and fair in his judgment of those who frankly confess they have not the courage to say they believe in God.2 [Note: R. Rothe, Still Hours, 91.]
There was a very wise man who lived many, many hundreds of years ago. His name was Simonides. People came to him because he was one of the wisest men that ever lived; and they said to him, “What is God, Simonides?” He said, “Give me a day to think about it.” They came to him the next day, and said, “What is God, Simonides?” He said, “Give me a week to think about it.” After a week had passed, they came to him again, and said, “What is God, Simonides?” He said, “Give me a month to think about it.” They came again to him at the end of a month, and they said, “What is God, Simonides?” He said, “Give me a year to think about it.” At the end of a year they came to him, and said, “What is God, Simonides?” And he said, “I am no nearer than when I first began to think about it. I cannot tell what God is.”3 [Note: James Vaughan.]
Some one came once to an Arab in his tent in the desert, and said to him, “How do you know there is a God?” He said, “How do I know whether it was a man or a camel that went by my tent last night?” How did he know which it was? “By the footprints.” The marks in the sand showed whether it was a man’s foot, or a camel’s foot, that had passed his tent. So the Arab said, “That is the way I know God. I know Him by His footprints. These are His footprints that are all around me.”
2. His Power.—“God created:” does anything so lead up our thoughts to the almightiness of God as this? For think of the untold vastness of creation, with its two infinities, of great and small; universe beyond universe, in ever-expanding circles of magnificence, as we press our researches without, and universe within universe, in ever-refining delicacy of minute texture, as we pry into the secrets of the infinitely little—think of all this, and then think that it came into being at His word: “He spake, and it was done; he commanded, and it stood fast” (Psa 33:9).
Observe, as an element of creation, the presence of that mysterious gift, so intimately present to each one of us, in its essence so entirely beyond our power of analysis, which we call Life. We know life by its Symptoms: by growth and movement, by feeling and gesture; and in its higher forms, by speech and expression. What is life? It is growth in the vegetable; it is feeling and movement in the animal; it is thought, reflection, resolve in man, as these manifest themselves in speech and look and action. But what is it in itself, in its essence, this gift of life? Science, the unraveller of so many secrets, is silent here: as silent as when she had not yet begun to inquire and to teach. She can define the conditions, the accompaniments, the surroundings, the phenomena of life; but its essence she knows not. It is a mystery which eludes her in her laboratories and her museums; each of her most accomplished votaries carries it perpetually with him, and understands it as little as does the peasant or the child. Oh, marvellous gift of life! true ray of the Creator’s Beauty, in thy lowest as in thy highest forms! We men can foster it; we can stint it; we can, by a profound natural mystery, as parents, yet in obedience to inviolable laws, transmit it as a sacred deposit to beings which have it not; we can crush it out by violence into death. But we cannot create it.
When Mr. Simeon, of Cambridge, was dying, he looked round with one of his beaming smiles, and said, “What do you think specially gives me comfort now? The Creation! Did Jehovah create the world, or did I? I think He did. Now if He made the world, He can sufficiently take care of me.”
O Master of the Beautiful,
Creating us from hour to hour,
Give me this vision to the full
To see in lightest things Thy power!
This vision give, no heaven afar,
No throne, and yet I will rejoice,
Knowing beneath my feet a star,
Thy word in every wandering voice.1 [Note: “A. E.”]
ii. What other works follow from Creation?
Belief in the creation of the universe by God out of nothing naturally leads to belief in God’s continuous Providence, and Providence in turn, considering the depth of man’s moral misery, suggests Redemption. No such anticipation would be reasonable, if we could suppose that the world emanated from a passive God, or that, per impossibile, it had existed side by side with Him from everlasting. But if He had created it in His freedom, the question will inevitably be asked, Why did He create it? Could it add anything to His Infinite Blessedness and Glory? could it make Him more powerful, more happy, more wise? Revelation answers the question by ascribing creation to that attribute of God which leads Him to communicate His life; that generous attribute which is goodness in its relation to the irrational and inanimate universe, and love in its relation to personal beings. “I have loved the with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.”
The sower is justly held responsible for the due care and cultivation of the growing plant. To neglect it, to allow it to wither and die for lack of proper attention, is felt to be a wrong and almost a cruelty. The father and the mother are, still more justly and still more severely, held responsible for the maintenance, education, and tenderest nurture of their children. And why? Because they are their pro-creators; that is, under God, their creators. Nature itself teaches us the rights of creation. And can we think for a moment, that the Creator is forgetful of, is insensible to, those rights? Let our Saviour’s familiar argument be the reply to the question: “If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children; how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” The Creator, the Father, must be infinitely more righteous and faithful than all subordinate and secondary creators and fathers. He will not forsake—He will have a desire to—the work of His own hands.2 [Note: D. J. Vaughan.]
1. Providence.—If God created the world He will also rule it. God does not create worlds in order that meaner spirits may control them. Creation means providence, and providence means redemption, and redemption means heaven, and heaven is a term which no lexicographer can fitly define.
Of this property of God’s activity there is on earth one most beautiful and instructive shadow—the love of a parent for his child. That love is the most disinterested, the purest, if not the strongest, of human passions. The parent hopes for nothing from his child; yet he will work for it, suffer for it, die for it. If you ask the reason, it is because he has been the means of bringing it into existence. Certainly, if it lives, it may support and comfort him in his old age; but that is not the motive of his anxious care. He feels the glory and the responsibility of fatherhood; and this leads him to do what he can for the helpless infant which depends on him. Our Lord appeals to this parental instinct when He teaches us the efficacy of prayer. If men, evil as they are, give good gifts unto their children, how much more shall not a moral God—your heavenly Father—give the best of gifts, His Holy Spirit, to them that ask Him.1 [Note: H. P. Liddon.]
Lo! I have sought, he said, and striven
To find the truth, and found it not,
But yet to me it hath been given,
And unto you it hath been brought.
This Host of ours our Father is,
And we the children He begot.
Upon my brow I felt His kiss,
His love is all about our steps,
And He would lead us all to bliss;
For though He comes in many shapes,
His love is throbbing in them all,
And from His love no soul escapes,
And from His mercy none can fall.2 [Note: Walter C. Smith.]
2. Redemption.—If love was the motive for creation, it implies God’s continuous interest in created life. If love urged God to reveal Himself by His work under finite conditions—and both David and St. Paul insist upon the high significance of creation as an unveiling of the hidden life of God—surely love might urge Him to reveal Himself yet more distinctly under finite conditions, as “manifest in the flesh.” The formula that “time has no meaning for God” is sometimes used even by writers of consideration, in senses which are incompatible with the idea of creation. If it is not beneath God’s dignity to create a finite world at all, it is not beneath His dignity to accept the consequences of His work; to take part in the development of His creatures; to subject Himself, in some sense, to the conditions imposed by His original act. If in His knowledge He necessarily anticipates the development of His work, so that to Him a “thousand years are as one day”; by His love, on the other hand, which led Him to move out of Himself in creation at the first, He travails with the slow onward movement of the world and of humanity; and His incarnation in time, when demanded by the supreme needs of the creatures of His hand, is in a line with that first of mysteries, His deigning to create at all. For thus God, having created the rational and human world, so loved it, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
It lies at the very root of all Christian religion that our Word of Revelation should open, not with the Call of Abraham, or the Covenant of Circumcision, or the Law of Sinai, but with the Creation of the Heaven and the Earth. There is One Lord for the physical world and for the spiritual. True; the salvation through Christ has come to us in history from the people of Israel. The work of Redemption, however, is not a Jewish event, but the continuance of the work of Creation, to be consummated in the days of “the Restoration of all things.” The love that was manifested on the Cross is the love that was shown in the framing of the Universe. To us, with the Bible in our hands, the two epochs, if the phrase be permissible, are inseparable, that of Creation and that of Redemption. The whole teaching of Revelation Springs, as it were, from the first chapter of Genesis. The God who made the world did not send it “spinning down the grooves of change,” and then gaze at a distance upon its course, unheeding of its destiny, regardless of its inhabitants. The same God that created has also redeemed, even now sanctifies, even now encompasses us with mercies, and will hereafter, in a fashion and a manner yet to be revealed, restore. The Gospel of Genesis is one of hope.1 [Note: H. E. Ryle, On Holy Scripture and Criticism, 62.]
“When” (in the words of a Talmudic allegory) “the Almighty was about to create man, He called together before His Throne a Council of the angelic hosts. ‘Create him not!’ so spake the Angel of Justice. ‘He will be unjust towards his brother man. He will injure and oppress the weak, and cruelly ill-treat the feeble.’ ‘Create him not!’ said the Angel of Peace. ‘He will stain the earth with the blood of men, his brethren. The first-born of his race will be the murderer of his brother.’ ‘Create him not!’ said the Angel of Truth. ‘Thou mayest create him in Thine own image, after Thy likeness, and stamp the impress of truth upon his brow; yet will he desecrate with falsehood even Thine own Sanctuary.’ And more they would have said, but Mercy—the youngest and dearest child of the Eternal Father—stepped to the sapphire Throne, and knelt before Him, and prayed: ‘Father, oh, Father, Create him! Create him after Thine own image, and as the favoured child of Thy goodness. When all others, Thy servants, forsake him, I will be with him. I will lovingly aid him, and turn his very errors to his own good. I will touch his heart with pity, and make him merciful to others weaker than himself. When he goes astray from the paths of Truth and Peace, when he transgresses the laws of Justice and Equity, I will still be with him; and the consequences of his own errors shall lead him back to the right path, and so Thy forgiving love shall make him, penitent, Thine’ The Father of mankind listened to her voice, and with the aid of Mercy created man.”1 [Note: H. Gollancz.]
Let us bear in mind that a religion of mere Theism is now impossible. We are redeemed from our sin by Him who gave us being, and therefore the claims of God the Creator are enhanced and intensified by the new, wondrous, matchless claims of God our Saviour.
’Twas great to speak a world from nought,
’Twas greater to redeem!
And of all the universe the most significant and sacred place is the place of the Cross; for there we hear a voice more full of constraining power than any voice that comes down to us from the everlasting hills, or finds an echo in the spacious heavens, even the voice of a love unto death!2 [Note: T. F. Lockyer.]
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs,—in the heaven, a perfect round!1 [Note: Browning, Abt Vogler.]
iii. Three Encouragements
Now in this great thought of Creation involving Providence and Redemption there are three things to encourage us.
1. First, there is the fact that the material world originated from the spiritual; the visible from the invisible. It is the unseen forces that give shape and form to the things which are. The phenomenal world is but the expression of invisible forces. The Unseen dominates and rules the seen. It would seem as if all force is, in the last analysis, spiritual, and has its seat and origin in God. The Unseen is the eternal and unchangeable; the visible is temporal and perishable. A mighty truth is contained in that word of St. Paul, “All things work together for good … while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are … not seen are eternal.” And all those unseen verities and forces have their root in God.
When that my soul, too far from God,
In earthy furrows crawled about,
An insect on a dusty clod
Wandering wingless in and out:
At deepest dusk I looked above
And saw a million worlds alight,
That burnt the mortal veils of Love
And left it shining infinite:
I gazed and gazed with lifted head
Until I found my heart had wings,
And now my soul has ceased to dread
The weary dust of earthly things.2 [Note: Rachel Annand Taylor.]
2. Next there is the fact that the unity of God the Creator carries with it the idea of the unity of the Creation. And here arises the grand conception of the universe as a cosmos. One law, the law of gravitation, pervades the whole material creation, and binds it into one vast and glorious system. And that law of gravitation, what is it but the expression of one omnipotent Will, the exertion of one infinite Energy? Here the poetry of the Psalmist is seen almost as a physical truth: “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” May we not most surely conclude that as physical law pervades all space, so also does moral law reign over the whole creation in unchanged majesty? John Stuart Mill thought there might be a place in the universe where two and two do not make four. That position is unthinkable. Truth here is truth everywhere, because God is the same everywhere. Nothing can really hurt the good man. “Say ye to the righteous, that it shall be well with him.”
Professor Henry Jones, in his book on Browning, points out how Browning differs from two others of his great contemporaries—Emerson and Carlyle. Speaking of Emerson’s always rose-coloured view of things, he says: “Such an optimism, such a plunge into the pure blue and away from facts, was Emerson’s. Caroline Fox tells a story of him and Carlyle which reveals this very pointedly. It seems that Carlyle once led the serene philosopher through the abominations of the streets of London at midnight, asking him with grim humour, at every few steps, ‘Do you believe in the devil now?’ Emerson replied that the more he saw of the English people the greater and better he thought them. This little incident lays bare the limits of both these great men. Where the one saw, the other was blind. To the one there was the misery and the universal murk; to the other the pure white beam was scarcely broken. Carlyle believed in the good, beyond all doubt; he fought his great battle in its strength, and won; but ‘he was sorely wounded.’ Emerson was Sir Galahad, blind to all but the Holy Grail; his armour spotless white, his virtue cloistered and unbreathed, his race won without the dust and heat. But his optimism was too easy to be satisfactory.” Now, in opposition to the pessimism of Carlyle on the one hand, and the “too easy” optimism of Emerson on the other, Browning—seeing the worst, as Carlyle saw it, and seeing also the best beyond, as Emerson saw it—reveals a true, unfailing, and glorious optimism, which grounds itself upon the only sure, immovable basis—a conviction resulting from the vision of the loving, powerful, regnant God! Evil may exist, does exist—paint it, if you will, in its blackest colours; but good exists too, and good will triumph at last, because God and good are one. And so our poet declares—
Oh, thought’s absurd!—as with some monstrous fact
Which, when ill thoughts beset us, seems to give
Merciful God that made the sun and stars,
The waters and the green delights of earth,
The lie! I apprehend the monstrous fact—
Yet know the maker of all worlds is good,
And yield my reason up, inadequate
To reconcile what yet I do behold—
Blasting my sense! There’s cheerful day outside.1 [Note: J. Flew, Studies in Browning, 30.]
3. And there is also the assurance that through the ages an unceasing Divine purpose runs. Scientific research reveals that plan up to a certain point. It proceeds from lower to higher, and from higher to highest; from inorganic to organic; from the simple to the complex; from the zoophyte to man. It is ever ascending, unfolding into richer amplitude and meaning. Such is the testimony of the rocks. Here revelation takes up the mighty theme. God is in creation. The development of the plan cannot cease where geology leaves it. A Divine purpose runs through the ages, and, according to later revelation, centres in Jesus Christ. Hence He is described as “a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” The redemptive idea is thus fundamental; it is the central truth of creation. “For by him and through him and to him are all things.” Here is the meaning of creation; man as created is not the ultimate purpose of God, but man as redeemed and glorified. Here the purpose of God in creation becomes luminous and grand. The suffering world is not the fulfilment of the Divine plan, but the renewed and reconstructed world. “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together … waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” At the opening of the Bible we see all things proceeding from God, at the other end we see all things returning to Him again. “When all things shall be subdued unto him (Christ), then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”
There is plan in the universe; plan implies thought, thought predicates a thinker. Philosophically, the Divine mystery of Creation is the transmutation of thought into matter, or the self-evolution of God, the evolution from the Originating Spirit of what was involved in Himself—
The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains—
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?
Is not the Vision He? Tho’ He be not that which He seems?
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?
We live in dreams, because the self-evolution of the Spirit in man and matter necessarily implies a career amidst various complications and appearances that are more or less obscure, a kind of divinely appointed dreamland; but the Divine origin of the problem is the assurance of the awakening from the dream, for it is the Omnipotent who is hidden in the dream—the dream of life; and the full awakening will be when Parent and offspring, Thinker and thing thought, become consciously one; perhaps that will be when we die, perhaps there is truth in Shelley’s words, “Peace, peace, he is not dead, he doth not sleep, he hath awakened from the dream of life.” I do not know. But I do know from direct revelation, endorsed by conscious intuition, that God is Love and that the human race and its Divine source are inseverable, and, as Owen Meredith says—
Only matter’s dense opaqueness
Checks God’s Light from shining through it,
And our senses, such their weakness,
Cannot help our Souls to view it
Till Love lends the world translucence,
Then we see God clear in all things.
Love’s the new sense, Love’s the true sense,
Which teaches us how we should view things.1 [Note: B. Wilberforce.]
Alford (H.), Quebec Chapel Sermons, iv. 1.
Bacon (L. W.), The Simplicity that is in Christ, 196.
Brandt (J. L.), Soul Saving, 41.
Brooke (S. A.), Sermons, i. 222.
Flint (R.), Sermons and Addresses, 56.
Forbes (A. P.), Sermons on the Grace of God, 183.
Fotheringham (D. R.), The Writing on the Sky, 1.
Gibson (E. C. S.), Messages from the Old Testament, 1.
Hiley (R. W.), A Year’s Sermons, i. 85.
Kingsley (C.), The Gospel of the Pentateuch, 1.
Liddon (H. P.), University Sermons, ii. 38.
Liddon (H. P.), Sermons at St. Paul’s, 1.
Lockyer (T. F.), The Inspirations of the Christian Life, 1.
Middleton (W.), Alpha and Omega, 15.
Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, vii. 3, 128.
Parker (J.), The City Temple, i. (1872) 56.
Pattison (T. H.), The South Wind, 275.
Pearse (M. G.), Some Aspects of the Blessed Life, 17.
Reichel (C. P.), Sermons, 143.
Selby (T. G.), The God of the Patriarchs, 23.
Shore (T. T.), Some Difficulties of Belief, 103.
Terry (G. F.), The Old Theology in the New Age, 43.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xv. (1877) No. 1034.
Waller (C. B.), Two Sermons, 1.
Wilberforce (B.), The Hope that is in Me, 193.
Wilson (J. M.), Rochdale Sermons, 79.
Christian Age, xxxv. 306 (Growden).
Christian World Pulpit, xii. 333 (Peabody); xvii. 249 (Gibberd); xxvii. 123 (Taft); xlv. 108 (Law); 1. 211 (Ryle); lxi. 212 (Jones); lxix. 92 (M‘Cleery); lxxii. 307 (Shelford); lxxiii. 133 (Fotheringham).
Church of England Pulpit, lx. 142 (Lightfoot); lxi. 223 (Jackson); lxiii. 118 (Shelford), 130 (Fotheringham).
Churchman’s Pulpit (Trinity Sunday), ix. 270 (Shelford); (Sermons to the Young) xvi. 100 (Vaughan).
Preacher’s Magazine, ii. (1891) 120 (Watson).
Consult other comments:
The Great Texts of the Bible
This extensive twenty-volume collection is a commentary of different essays, sermons, anecdotes, and interpretations of various Scripture passages. Scottish Presbyterian minister James Hastings compiled The Great Texts of the Bible in the early twentieth century.
James Hastings (1852–1922) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and theologian and the editor of many biblical works. He studied at the University of Aberdeen and the Free Church Divinity College. In 1884, he was ordained a Free Church minister. Born in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, he studied the classics at the University of Aberdeen and attended the Free Church Divinity College in Aberdeen. He was the founder and editor of the Expository Times.