The following is an extended meditation on Psalm 1:2, based on a sermon I preached on January 15, 2023.
The opening verse of the Bible strikes us with its clarity and grandeur: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But the following verse might leave us perplexed. “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”
What is this formlessness and emptiness? We are inclined to leapfrog over this chasm of watery darkness into the clarity of the third verse: “And God said, ‘Let there be light.” But if we skipped it, we would miss an important lesson about God’s plan to bring order to what is chaotic and fullness to what is empty.
The Answer to Formlessness and Emptiness
Observe that the structure of the six days of creation answers to the formlessness and emptiness of the primeval state of the earth. In the first half of creation’s week, God brings order out of disorder by separating, identifying, and evaluating; and in the second half, he fills in these newly-made spaces. On Day One, God separates light from darkness, thus making the spaces of day and night. On Day Two, he separates the upper waters from the lower waters, thus making the spaces of sky and seas. Now that the borders have been drawn and spaces identified, on Day Three he begins to fill these spaces with life, as an artist would paint on a canvas: vegetation springs from the land. On Day Four he returns, as it were, to the spaces he made on Day One, filling the day with the sun and the night with the moon and stars. Moreover, he sets these celestial bodies as time keepers for the march of time. On Day Five, he returns to the spaces he made on Day Two, filling the skies and seas with birds and fish. Finally on Day Six, he returns to what he made on Day Three, placing humans and animals in the grassy plains and leafy forests.
God Continues to Form and Fill
What God did in the very beginning teaches us about what he continues to do. After all, doesn’t he who created all things continue to “uphold all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3)? Yes, God who brought order to formlessness and gave fullness to the void continues to form and to fill. Although sin had not yet entered the world, this primeval condition—“without form and void”—well describes the havoc sin wreaks upon our world today. The only other time this phrase occurs in Scripture is in Jeremiah 3:24. Here the prophet laments the destruction brought upon the land of Judah as a result of her sin. Echoing Genesis 1, he cries:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and behold, there was no man,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger. (Jeremiah 3:23-26).
Sin involves both disordering and emptying. It disorders by combining what ought to be separated and separating what ought to be combined. It disorders morals, calling good evil and evil good. It disorders truth, calling falsehood truth and truth falsehood. It disorders love by cherishing in first place what belongs in second or third, or relegating to second or third what ought to be first. What is sinful is always so because it wrongly combines or wrongly separates.
Lust, for example, separates sexual intimacy from whole-person commitment. Greed separates God’s gift from God as the Giver. Anxiety separates the future from God’s providential control over it. A lie separates reality from one’s report of reality, and it consequently separates those whom it deceives from reality. In the end, of course, sin separates a person’s soul from God himself.
Just as a disordered glass pitcher—shattered and broken—cannot hold water, so also the disorder of sin leads to emptiness because it cannot hold what is valuable. The disorder of lust cannot hold the enjoyment of intimacy. The disorder of greed cannot hold enjoyment of wealth. The disorder of anxiety cannot hold enjoyment of the future. The disorder of lying cannot hold the joy of mutual trust. In these and all other cases, the disorder of sin empties one of what is most valuable because it has attempts to redraw God’s boundaries and redefine God’s values. Thus sin empties us of peace, joy, and hope. And, in the end, it empties us of life itself.
“My people have committed two evils,” God declares through the prophet Jeremiah. “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,”—what is that, if not disorder?—“and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water”—what is that, if not emptying (Jeremiah 2:13-14)?
Now Genesis 1:2 shows us that God is a God who does not delight in disorder and emptiness, but who is at work to bring order to what is disordered and fullness to what is empty. It shows us that he sets boundaries, not to harm us, but to allow us to flourish. Like the walls of a well, his boundaries keep us full; they do not empty us. He has drawn borders to frame what is good and beautiful, not to prevent our enjoyment of goodness and beauty.
Yet a grave problem confronts us. We are not emotionless matter, like sky, seas, and land. We have thoughts, feelings, and desires. And we harbor deep suspicions that God’s order is not good for us, and that his fullness cannot satisfy us. Just as all sin involves disorder leading to emptiness, so all sin springs from doubting the goodness of God in all he has done. In everything he had made, God saw that it was good. But in our darkness, we wonder whether it really is.
How God Forms and Fills Today
So the question presses upon us: how will God bring order and filling to us—us who have brought disorder and emptiness to our lives due to distrust deeper than the fathomless waters of the primeval chaos? The answer lies in our text: God’s Spirit was hovering over the face of the waters, and his Word goes out to illuminate what was dark.
Christian theologians have rightly seen the doctrine of the Trinity latent in these first three verses of the Bible. The Gospel of John, echoing Genesis 1, tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). God’s methods have not changed. It is still through his Spirit and living Word that he brings order and life to what sin has disordered and emptied.
We see this in the Old Testament as well as in the New. During Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God sent his word to Moses, giving instructions for the construction of a tabernacle—a place for God and humans to meet together. When the form was completed, the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. The same happened after Solomon completed the temple: it too was filled with the glory of the Lord. A striking illustration of God’s word and Spirit is found in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones—skeletons scattered and lifeless, “formless and void.” Yet Ezekiel was to preach God’s word to them. When he did, God’s wind blew into them and filled them with life, creating a mighty army.
But the wilderness tabernacle and the valley of dry bones merely foreshadow the way God would bring order and fullness through Jesus, the incarnate Word, the Spirit-giver. “Whoever believes in me,” he had preached, “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water,” that is, “the Spirit” (John 7:38-39).
How did he do this? Jesus, the one who brought order and fullness at the beginning of creation, entered his own creation; and when he did, he took our disorder and emptiness upon himself. Look at the chaos he took upon himself when hanging on the cross! He was called a blasphemer and evildoer, though he had never spoken a word against God nor ever harbored even the slightest impure thought against his fellow man. He was crucified between two thieves. He was surrounded by jeering crowds. What disorder! And see how he emptied himself! “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). This mystery is deep, but he was emptied even of his relationship with the Father, as heard in the haunting cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And at last, he was emptied of life itself, as he surrendered his spirit.
Why did he subject himself to such disorder? Why did he empty himself? To reorder our chaos and to fill our emptiness. As it was in the beginning, so it is now. God’s Spirit hovers over the face of the deep—ready, when the Word is proclaimed, to bring form and fullness, order and life, kingdom and flourishing. Hear that good Word break your deathly silence! God has sent his Son who sends his Spirit, bringing order to what is chaotic and life to what is lifeless.
As it was in the beginning, so it is now. God’s Spirit hovers over the face of the deep—ready, when the Word is proclaimed, to bring form and fullness, order and life, kingdom and flourishing. Hear that good Word break your deathly silence! God has sent his Son who sends his Spirit, bringing order to what is chaotic and life to what is lifeless.
Yes, when a person trusts in Jesus, Jesus brings order to what was disordered by sin. He reorders our loves, for who could be more loved than the one who loved us this much? He reorders our obedience: after all, he has proven that his boundaries are for our good, so we can trust and obey him. A person who trusts in Jesus receives the Holy Spirit, and with him, all the benefits of being indwelt by the Spirit—love, joy, peace.
How can we fail to be moved in the depths of our being by what God has done through his Word and Spirit? He is the God who forms and fills!
Expand Thy wings, celestial Dove,
Brood o’er our nature’s night;
On our disordered spirits move,
and let their now be light.
– Charles Wesley
He who in Creation’s dawning,
Brooded o’er the pathless deep,
Still across our nature’s darkness
Moves to wake our souls from sleep.
Moves to stir, to draw, to quicken;
Thrusts us through with sense of sin;
Then, Himself, the Pledge, He seals us—
Saving Advocate within.
– Margaret Clarkson