At the very outset of our inquiry we have to encounter a deeply-rooted popular fallacy in regard to the creation of the world -- a fallacy which can boast of long antiquity, and which seems originally to have sprung from a sort of compromise between revelation and the legends of Pagan cosmogony.
The ancient poet Hesiod tells us that the first thing in existence was Chaos, that is, according to its etymology, "the yawning and void receptacle for created matter." But the word soon lost its strict meaning, and was used for the crude and shapeless mass of material out of which the heavens and the earth were supposed to have been formed. Ovid thus describes it, "There was but one appearance of nature throughout the whole world: this they called Chaos, an unformed and confused bulk." And in his Fasti, he makes Janus, whom he identifies with Chaos, speak as follows:
"The ancients used to call me Chaos : for a primeval being am I. See of how remote an age I shall recount the events! This air, full of light, and the three remaining elements, fire, water, and earth, were a confused heap. As soon as this mass was separated through the discord of its component parts, and had dissolved and passed away into new positions, the flame ascended upwards; a nearer place, that is, nearer to earth, received the air; the earth and the sea settled down to the bottom. Then I, who had been but a mass and shapeless bulk, passed into a form and limbs worthy of a god."
Thus, according to the cosmogonies of Greece and Rome, the universe sprang from Chaos. Uranus, or Heaven, was supposed to have been the first supreme god. But he was driven from power by his son Cronos or Saturn, who afterwards received the same treatment at the hands of his son Zeus or Jupiter, Chaos was the first thing in existence, and the transient series of gods came subsequently into being.
This doctrine, ancient and widespread as it was in the time of our Lord, did not fail to influence the real as well as the spurious Christians. Among the last mentioned, the important sects of the Gnostics believed in the eternity and intrinsic evil of matter ; but, unlike the Heathen, they taught that the Supreme Being also existed from eternity. The orthodox Christians escaped the greater error altogether; but, nevertheless, gave clear testimony to the influence of the popular belief in their interpretation of the commencing chapter of Genesis. For they made the first verse signify the creation of a confused mass of elements, out of which the heavens and earth were formed during the six days, understanding the next sentence to be a description of this crude matter before God shaped it. And their opinion has descended to our days. But it does not appear to be substantiated by Scripture, as we shall presently see, and the guile of the serpent may be detected in its results. For how great a contest has it provoked between the Church and the World! How ready a handle do the geological difficulties involved in it present to the assailants of Scripture! With what perplexity do we behold earth gloomy with the shadow of pain and death ages before the sin of Adam! How many young minds have been turned aside by the absolute impossibility of defending what they have been taught to regard as Biblical statements! And lastly, in carrying on the dispute, how much precious time has been wasted by able servants of God, who would otherwise have been more profitably employed!
Let us, then, turn to the Mosaic account, and endeavour to elicit its plain and obvious meaning. In the beginning, we read, God created the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1). The beginning refers, of course, to the first existence of that with which the history is concerned, the heaven and the earth. Here, then, is at once an end to speculation in regard to the eternity of matter. For God was before the things that are seen, and by His supreme volition called them into being. And again; this short sentence strikes a mortal blow at all pantheistic identification of God and nature. Nature is but one of His many creatures, one of the works of His hands: her years can be numbered, the day of her birth is known; but from everlasting to everlasting He is God.
Now, in the inspired description of what took place in the beginning, the heaven and earth are not said to have been moulded, fashioned, or made out of material, but to have been created. For, whatever may have been the original meaning of the word bara, it seems certain that in this and similar passages it is used of calling into being without the aid of pre-existing material. The Hebrew writers give it this sense, and Rabbi Nackman declares that there is no other word to express production out of nothing. But it is, of course, easy to understand that a language might not possess a verb originally confined to such a meaning : for the idea would scarcely have been conceived by men without the assistance of revelation. The development theories so popular in our days, coupled as they almost invariably are with more or less of scepticism, indicate the natural bent of human minds on this point; and the philosophic poet Lucretius was an exponent of it when he declared the first principle of nature to be "Nothing is ever gotten out of nothing by Divine power."
Hence we can readily understand that the word selected by the Holy Spirit to express creation may have previously signified the forming out of material. But its use is sufficiently defined in this and other similar passages. For we are told that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth ; but the Scriptures never affirm that He did this in the six days.
The work of those days was, as we shall presently see, quite a different thing from original creation. They were times of restoration, and the word "asah" is generally used in connection with them.
Now, "asah" signifies to make, fashion, or prepare out of existing material; as, for instance, to build a ship, erect a house, or prepare a meal.
There are, however, two acts of creation mentioned in the history of the six days. First ; God is said to have created the inhabitants of the waters and the fowls of heaven : because these do not consist merely of the material mould of their bodies, but have a life principle within which could be conferred only by a direct act of creation (Genesis 1:21). Hence the change of word in this place is quite intelligible. Just in the same way man is said to have been created, though in the second chapter we are expressly told that his body was formed from the dust (Genesis 1:27; 2:7). For the real man is the soul and spirit : the body, which is naturally changed every seven years, and must ultimately moulder in the grave, is regarded merely as the outward casing which gives him the power of dealing with his present surroundings, and the materials of which were appropriately taken from that earth in contact with which he was destined to live.
In the detailed account of man's origin, a third word is used to signify the forming of his body. This is, yatzar, which means to shape, or mould, as a potter does the clay (Genesis 2:7).
A passage in Isaiah well illustrates the meaning and connection of all three verbs, "I have created him for My glory; I have formed him; yea, I have made him." (Isaiah 43:7) On this verse Kimchi remarks, "I have created him, that is, produced him out of nothing; I have formed him, that is, caused him to exist in a shape or form appointed; I have made him, that is, made the final dispositions and arrangements respecting him."
God, then, in the beginning created the heaven and the earth, not merely the materials out of which they were afterwards formed. How this wonderful work was accomplished we are not told : but it may be that the creative power of God has a very dim analogy in the beings who were made after His image, an analogy which would well illustrate the distance between the creature and the Creator. We know that by force of imagination we can not only place before our eyes scenes in which we were long ago interested, spots which we would fain revisit in the body, departed forms dear to us as our own lives, but are even able to paint in fancy future events as we would wish them to be. The vision is, however, shadowy, fleeting, and alas! too often unholy. Somewhat, then, perhaps, as we produce this dim and quickly fading picture, the thoughts of God, issuing from the depths of His holiness and love, take instant shape, and become, not an unsubstantial and evanescent dream, but a beautiful reality, established for ever unless He choose to alter or remove it. Hence it may be that a great part, or, perhaps, the whole host of innumerable suns and planets which make up the universe, flashed into being simultaneously at His will, and, in a moment, illumined the black realm of space with their many-hued glories.
The heaven mentioned in the first verse of Genesis, is the Starry heaven, not the firmament immediately surrounding our earth. And since its history is not further unfolded, it may, for aught we know, have remained, developing, perhaps, but without violent change from the time of its creation until now. Not so, however, the earth, as the next verse goes on to show: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep."
Now the "And" according to Hebrew usage -- as well as that of most other languages -- proves that the first verse is not a compendium of what follows, but a statement of the first event in the record. For if it were a mere summary, the second verse would be the actual commencement of the history, and certainly would not begin with a copulative. A good illustration of this may be found in the fifth chapter of Genesis (Genesis 5:1). There the opening words, "This is the book of the generations of Adam," are a compendium of the chapter, and, consequently, the next sentence begins without a copulative. We have, therefore, in the second verse of Genesis no first detail of a general statement in the preceding sentence, but the record of an altogether distinct and subsequent event, which did not affect the sidereal heaven, but only the earth and its immediate surroundings. And what that event was we must now endeavour to discover.
According to our version, the earth was without form, and void. This, however, is not the sense of the Hebrew, but a glaring illustration of the influence of the chaos legend. Fuerst gives ruin, or desolation, as the proper meaning of the noun rendered, without form. The second word signifies emptiness, then, that which is empty. So that in this case, the authorized translation is admissible. Now these words are found together only in two other passages, in both of which they are clearly used to express the ruin caused by an outpouring of the wrath of God.
In a prophecy of Isaiah, after a fearful description of the fall of Idumea in the day of vengeance, we find the expression, "He shall stretch out upon it the line of confusion, and the stones," or, as it should be translated, the plummet, "of emptiness." (Isaiah 34:11) Now confusion and emptiness are, in the Hebrew, the same words as those rendered, without form, and void. And the sense is, that just as the architect makes careful use of line and plummet in order to raise the building in perfection, so will the Lord to make the ruin complete.
There is, then, no possibility of mistaking the meaning of the words in this place, and the second passage is even more conclusive. For, in describing the devastation of Judah and Jerusalem, Jeremiah likens it to the preadamite destruction, and exclaims, "I beheld the earth, and, lo, it was without form, and void. And the heavens, and they had no light. I beheld the mountains, and, lo, they trembled, and all the hills moved lightly. I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens were fled. I beheld, and lo, the fruitful place was a wilderness, and all the cities thereof were broken down at the presence of the Lord, and by His fierce anger. For thus hath the Lord said, The whole land shall be desolate; yet will I not make a full end." (Jeremiah 4:23-27)
We see, therefore, that the Hebrew word, TOHU, signifies desolation, or, that which is desolate. And BOHU, emptiness, or, that which is empty, probably with reference to the absence of all life, I beheld, and, lo, there was no man, etc. And again, the verb translated "was" is occasionally used with a simple accusative in the sense of, to be made, or, to become. An instance of this may be found in the history of Lot's wife, of whom we are told, that she became a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Such a meaning is, by far, the best for our context. We may therefore adopt it, and render, "And the earth became desolate and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep."
But if any further evidence be needed, to prove that our verse does not describe a chaotic mass which God first created, and afterwards fashioned into shape, we have a direct and positive assertion to that effect in the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah. For, we are there told, that God did not create the earth a tohu (Isaiah 45:18). This word, therefore, whatever meaning be assigned to it, cannot at least be descriptive of the earliest condition of earth. But our translators have obscured the fact by rendering tohu, in vain. they can hardly have compared the passages in which it occurs, or they would surely have seen the propriety of translating it in Isaiah's manifest reference to creation by the same word as in Genesis, it is thus clear that the second verse of Genesis describes the earth as a ruin, but there is no hint of the time which elapsed between creation and this ruin. Age after age may have rolled away, and it was probably during their course that the strata of the earth's crust were gradually developed. Hence we see that geological attacks upon the Scriptures are altogether wide of the mark, are a mere beating of the air. There is room for any length of time between the first and second verses of the Bible. And again; since we have no inspired account of the geological formations, we are at liberty to believe that they were developed just in the order in which we find them. The whole process took place in preadamite times, in connection, perhaps, with another race of beings, and, consequently, does not at present concern us.
And it is to be observed that God has never, since the fall of man, revealed anything to gratify a mere thirst for knowledge; but only such matters as may sufficiently illustrate His everlasting power and Godhead, our own fallen condition with its remedy of unfathomable love, and the promise of a speedy deliverance from sin, a complete restoration to His favour, and a never-ending life of perfect obedience and perfect joy.
Knowledge in this life is a gift fraught with peril: for our great task here, is to learn the lesson of absolute dependence upon God, and entire submission to His will. His dealings with us now are to the end that He may withdraw us from our own purpose, and hide pride from us (Job 33:17). But knowledge, unless it be accompanied by a mighty outpouring of grace, causes undue elation. It was the vision of knowledge which filled the breast of our first parent with impious aspirations, and made her listen to the Tempter when he bade her hope to be as God. And it is an ominous fact, that, after the fall, the first inventors of the arts and sciences were the descendants, not of the believing Seth, but of the deist and murderer Cain.
So in our own days the leaders of science are too often the leaders of infidelity, the despisers of God and of prayer. Except by special grace, man seems incapable of bearing the slightest weight of power upon his shoulders without losing his balance.
And hence the Scriptures take up just the attitude we should expect. They altogether, as in the verses before us, avoid contact with the science of men. God does not forbid us to search so far as we can into the laws of His universe; but He utterly refuses to aid or accelerate our studies by revelation. For the present He would have us rather attentive to the moral renovation of ourselves and our fellow-creatures: but after a short season He will open vast stores of His wisdom to those who love and trust Him, and delight their souls with the secrets of His creative power.
 Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book 1, pages 6 and 7
 Fasti, 1, 103 to 112
 Therefore the expression has in this case a sense very different from that which it bears in the first verse of John. Here it is used of the beginning of time, but there, of the countless ages of eternity before time was. The third verse of John, All things were made by Him, brings us down to the period of the first of Genesis.
 Lucretius, De Rer. Nat. i. 150
 See remarks on the Fourth Day in Chap. IV., and also the exposition of Gen. ii. 4, in the latter part of the same chapter.