Formless and Void

God started in the beginning with an empty canvas – formless and void – and He, in love, started over again with a perfect empty canvas.  

God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation. Isaiah 34:11 

Reading in Isaiah recently two words in this verse jumped out at me – chaos and desolation. What does that mean a “measuring line of chaos” and a “plumb line of desolation”? 

The words translated chaos and desolation are in the Hebrew tohu (formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness) and bohu (emptiness, void). I was surprised to learn that there are only three places in the Bible where these two words are used together, and the first one is in Genesis, chapter one. 

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless (tohu) and empty (bohu), darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:1-2 

Formless and empty or void. Like an empty or blank canvas. God, the artist, hovering over it with the pigments of creation. The third place this duo is used is in Jeremiah. 

I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. Jeremiah 4:23 

Both Isaiah 34 and Jeremiah 4 are warning of coming judgement. A judgement so passionate and powerful that the canvas would be wiped clean and the Creator would start over. “It was as if the earth had been ‘uncreated’ and reverted back to its erstwhile primeval chaos. Order seemed to return to confusion.”1 Like the Potter starting over with the marred pot in relentless love. Wiping off the canvas and starting over, as with Noah, a consuming fire, unchanging, passionately zealous, tireless, one-track, His focus on the goal.  

So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Jeremiah 18:3-4 

God is always creating, working, moving from chaos and desolation to something wonderful. But we always seem to want to turn back, turn away. In God’s great, mocking commentary on idols and idolatry in Isaiah 41, He calls the idols in our lives “less than nothing” and “utterly worthless.” And then declares, “Their deeds amount to nothing; their images are but wind and confusion (tohu).” 

Do we actually erase our real lives when we try to create them ourselves? Are we, in rebellion, wiping off God’s artwork from our canvases? Are we then painting with our own inferior, or even imaginary, pigments? 

I remember on the brink of surrendering my life to Christ, a terrible fear overwhelmed me. What would God make me give up? What would He take away? I didn’t see that my canvas was formless and void, already empty; I didn’t see that the pot I had been shaping was marred. But I sensed the Artist’s hand hovering over me, passionately waiting to make me a beautiful new creation, filled with a new Life. 

For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life. Ephesians 2:8-10 

God saw that my canvas was ruined, that my pot was marred. And He saw that I could not fix it myself. And so, He started over for me – for all of us. God started in the beginning with an empty canvas – formless and void – and He, in love, started over again for us with a perfect empty canvas.  

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus:  

Who, existing in the form of God,  

did not consider equality with God  

something to be grasped,  

but emptied Himself 

taking the form of a servant,  

being made in human likeness.  

And being found in appearance as a man,  

He humbled Himself  

and became obedient to death— 

even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8 

The word above translated “emptied” – Christ Jesus … emptied Himself – means “to empty out, render void.” Jesus became tohu, empty and void, so that, in Him, the Creator God could start over in our lives.  

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV) 

We are His workmanship. He starts over from scratch with us when we receive Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross on our behalf. We are new creations in Christ. A blank canvas. Clay in His hands. Our lives are very much chaos and empty.  But then God. 

Nothing before, nothing behind; 
The steps of Faith 
Fall on the seeming void, and find 
The rock beneath.  

John Greenleaf Whittier
excerpts from the poem “The Soul and I”

See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. Isaiah 65:17 

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. Revelation 21:1  

… so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11 

For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Philippians 2:13 (NLT)

If you want to start over as a blank canvas with God. If you want to be a new creation. Give yourself to Him. Salvation 

1Thompson, J.A. The Book of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1980) 

Photo, MOMA: Empty canvases, by Dan Nguyen https://flic.kr/p/7PbhBC  

The Hands of the Loving Potter

The LORD looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; from His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works (deeds, actions). Psalms 33:14-15 (NASB)

These verses are a comfort and hope to me. God’s gaze is on me. He sees me. He understands why I do the dumb things I do. And he is fashioning, forming my heart. Strong’s Concordance defines this forming as squeezing into shape as a potter does with clay. It feels like squeezing too.

And the psalmist says that God sees all the sons of men; he is forming the hearts of all, everyone. This forming is being done where we cannot perceive, deep inside the hidden place. Those people we look askance upon, doing things that, to us, are incomprehensible – their hearts are also being fashioned by the hands of a compassionate, merciful God. I like how the Pulpit Commentary puts it:

“The hearts of all men are in God’s keeping, and his gracious influences are exerted to ‘mould’ them aright. Some hearts are too stubborn to yield themselves up to his fashioning, and refuse to take the impress which he desires to impart; but all, or almost all, owe it to him that they are not worse than they are.”

Yes, that’s for sure. We all stubbornly resist at times, but he does not give up on us. And neither should we give up on each other. This is a gracious hope for me. That God is working in the hearts of those for whom I am praying. That the hands of the loving potter are at work though I may not be able to see it.

If there are ones for whom you have been praying, maybe for a long time, do not give up. Let us wait in hope. Let us keep loving. Let us keep praying. Let us trust that the hands of the loving Potter are upon us all.

Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in Him, because we trust in His holy name. Let Your lovingkindness, O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in You. Psalms 33:20-22

 

 

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