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  

Miniature World

Many times, how God sets things up is definitely not how we would choose to set things up in our own miniature world.

Joash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all the years of Jehoiada the priest. 2 Chronicles 24:2 

I am reading through the Old Testament again, and the weirdly sad, downhill history of Israel. Here, 2 Chronicles records that Joash did many good things and rebuilt the temple – but only as long as the old priest, Jehoiada, was alive. Immediately, upon Jehoiada’s death, however, the king and the people abandoned the temple and started worshiping idols. Zechariah, the priest, stood up to them and they murdered him. 

The next king, Amaziah also starts out good. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, but not wholeheartedly. Again, weirdly, even illogically, though he listens to God about attacking the enemies of Judah, and God makes him victorious, he then brings back his enemies’ idols. The Bible records that he brought back the gods of the people of Seir. He set them up as his own gods, bowed down to them and burned sacrifices to them (2 Chronicles 25:14). Does this even make sense? 

Why is idolatry so irresistible? I think for two reasons, at least. One, you can see and touch them, and God can seem elusive and far away. Two, you can control them. Idols don’t come and rebuke you for your sins. They don’t command you to do things you don’t want to do. You command them – at least in your imagination. 

It says that Amaziah “set them up.” In this context, it means to prop up, cause to stand. As God laments through Isaiah: 

They lift it to their shoulders and carry it; they set it up in its place, and there it stands. From that spot it cannot move. Though one cries out to it, it does not answer; it cannot save him from his troubles. Isaiah 46:7 

This made me think of a kid with a train set, creating this miniature world, where he is “god” and decides where to set up everything and how it should run.  

But in reality, “causing to stand” is something that God does: 

Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. Psalm 33:8-9 

My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together. Isaiah 48:13 

Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Romans 14:4 

Through him [Jesus Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Romans 5:2 (ESV) 

It is God doing the setting up, not the other way around. In fact, the Hebrew word translated “set” in Isaiah – they set it [the idol] up in its place, and there it stands – is the same word that is translated “put” or “placed” in Genesis 2:15: 

The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. (NLT) 

God sets us in our place and makes us stand. But, many times, it is definitely not how we would choose to set things up in our own miniature world. He asks us to do hard things like die to self and love our enemies. If we are honest, there are times when we would like to put our enemies on our little train track and run them down. But God commands love. He commands forgiveness. 

His commands run directly counter to the message of popular culture all around us – self-care, self-awareness, self-love, self-improvement. How many times have I heard the phrase “you’re worth it” in advertising? 

In this environment, God’s voice speaks an ancient, and increasingly unknown language. Put others first; be a servant; die to self; do not be proud; submit to each other; bless the ones who curse and persecute you; do good to the ones who hate you; do not repay evil for evil; live at peace with everyone; do not take revenge; take care of your hungry and thirsty enemy. Love your neighbor. Love one another. Love. 

God’s way is always outwards, always towards others. His train is always one-track towards bringing people into the Kingdom. To accomplish this, God commands love in self-sacrifice. In God’s world He is the Worthy one, and the focus is on other-care, other-awareness, other-love, other-improvement. And I can let Him care about and take care of my “self” because He does and He will to the end.  

Now to Him who is able to protect you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory, blameless with great joy. Jude 1:24 (NASB) 

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. Psalm 40:2 

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 22:37-39 

Jesus answered, “I am the way …  John 14:6 

Image, Trains by Quinn Dombrowski https://flic.kr/p/LRAueB  

Claims and Cares

My portion is this wispy little brush stroke over here on the edge.

Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. Psalm 55:22 

Before I start, I want to tell you that I have been angry and grumbling a lot lately and not really knowing why. So, I asked God to show me. These verses and the quote by Lewis, I believe, are His answer.  

The Hebrew word translated “cares” here is yehab (יְהָב). This is the only place it is used in the Bible. Surprisingly, it doesn’t mean worries or anxiety, it means “what is given, a lot [as in a portion], a burden.” So, this verse could say, “cast what God has given you, your lot in life, back on Him and He will sustain you.” 

The word translated “sustain” is another amazing word. It is kul (כּוּל) and, at its root, it means “to keep in” to measure, contain. It means (be able to, or can) abide, bear, comprehend, feed, forbear, guide, nourish, be present, make provision, receive, sustain, provide sustenance. 

He sustains us; He provides sustenance. He knows and is able to bear my lot or portion. The problem comes when what He has given is not what I expected or feel entitled to. The Israelites following Moses out of Egypt felt they were being misused by God for this reason.  

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” Numbers 11:4-6 

“This manna” was not what they expected or felt entitled to or felt they were promised. C.S. Lewis put it very well in a fictional conversation between demons training to tempt and derail the faith of humans:

“Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered.” — Screwtape Letters, XXI, C.S. Lewis   

“The more claims on life.” Ooo, ow, ouch! That is really peeling off the hard scab on my heart to clean out the pus of sin. Like me, the grumbling Israelites in the desert felt they were being misused. They felt their claims and entitlement. “Moses, I thought this was supposed to be a better life than in Egypt. I thought this was supposed to be some great salvation! And here we are wandering around in the life-sucking heat with just this manna to eat!”  

My claims are not meat and fish and cucumbers and leeks. My claims are more based on my conception of a perfect life. I hear myself grumbling like them. “I don’t want this lot. This is not what I signed up for. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. If only I had never started out on this hard, hot, rocky desert journey, where all I have to eat is this manna!” 

But, oh, do you hear the hard slap in the Face of God? For who is the manna? 

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:26, 43-51 

And see, Jesus points here to another thing. God has a BIG plan. It is way bigger than my ability to comprehend, much bigger than my short time here on earth. He is always setting His face toward the Cross. He is always one-track focused on reconciling people to himself. He is always painting a huge canvas, writing this wonderful story, portraying the bread given for the life of the world.

Those people crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the desert, eating the manna provided there, were part of that canvas. And I’m seeing that in God’s amazing grace, my failures and wanderings and returnings are part of it too. My portion is this wispy little brush stroke over here on the edge. You can hardly see it close up. But when you stand back I hope, that in His strength and grace, it contributes my tiny portion to the salvation story picture. 

But it seems that my claims and assumptions blind me to my true portion, to what God is really like and what He is after. Like Adam and Eve I listen to the “what ifs.” Did God really say? What if He just doesn’t want you to have all you deserve? Like the man who was entrusted with the one bag of gold, I assume the worst of God.  

Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ Matthew 25:24-25 

Two bad assumptions about God: that God had given a bad lot, that God is “hard” and requiring more than the man was able to bear. That man received what he expected. But what did the master say to the two men who received gladly, and served with, the portion they were given? “Enter into the joy of your master.” 

I think this lot or portion we have been given is only a heavy burden if we resist it or try to carry it ourselves. We were never meant to carry it, but to cast it back on His broad shoulders.  

And I begin to see that if God contains my lot, then my lot is in God – that my lot is God. The manna from heaven. 

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. Psalm 16:5-6 

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:6-7 

Those who cling to their lives will give up true life. But those who let go of their lives for my sake and surrender it all to me will discover true life! (TPT) 

But here is the bread that comes down from heaven … 

Image, detail from painting by Jack Bair

His Right Hand is Free

If God is holding me by my right hand I can’t use it.

Yet I am always with you; 
you hold me by my right hand. 
You guide me with your counsel, 
 and afterward you will take me into glory. 
Whom have I in heaven but you? 
 And earth has nothing I desire besides you. 
My flesh and my heart may fail, 
 but God is the strength of my heart 
 and my portion forever. Psalm 73:23-26 

When I was meditating on these verses I realized that if God is holding me by my right hand I can’t use it. And since I am right-handed anything I tried to do with my left hand would be awkward and malformed.  

The right hand in the Bible is a symbol of strength. Also, “The right side of a man is the side on which God ‘marches’ when assisting him in battle (Isa. 63:12; Ps. 109:31; 110:1, 5) and it is the right hand which God grasps as a symbol of election (Isa. 41:13; 45:1; Ps. 73:23).” i  

Wow, what amazing grace! He has grasped my right hand; He has chosen me! But, if my right hand is in His, I basically can’t do anything in my own strength. I would have to take my hand out of His. That explains my frequent urge to do just that – shake Him off and do it myself. Fearful that things are taking too long, that I’m missing out, afraid He has forgotten me.  

But His word assures us that He will never forget. Yet, I am always with you. He will never leave us or forsake us. And think of this: though His left hand is occupied holding on to me, His right hand is free. And so, “though my flesh and heart may fail” God is my strength and help. He is fighting for me with His mighty right hand. 

Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life; you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies, and your right hand delivers me. The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Psalm 138:7-8 (ESV) 

For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. Isaiah 41:13 

Lord, keep my right hand in yours

iJewish Virtual Library “Right and Left” 

Photo, free download from Piqsels

Unchanging

Do you see how one-track God is?

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Luke 1:35 

The two phrases in this verse – “come on you” and “overshadow you” – tell an amazing story. 

The phrase “come on you” is the Greek word epercomai (ἐπέρχομαι) which means to come upon, come to, arrive, come on. But more than just arriving, what comes upon “comes and leaves its appropriate, inevitable effects that build on the particular coming. (Note the prefix epi, showing the action as the ‘epi-center’ of what happens.)”i 

“Overshadow you” is the word episkiazó (ἐπισκιάζω) which means overshadow, envelop, to cast a shadow on, and leave “a natural (apt) result.” The word is “used in the NT of God’s over-shadowing presence – which always brings His boulē-plan to pass.” God’s boulḗ is “God’s immutable will for physical circumstances.” 

God’s coming causes something to happen! His coming upon and overshadowing of Mary was the epicenter of a history-splitting event, an inevitable effect, the natural result of the Most High God touching His creation and bringing His plan and purpose to pass. And the writer of Hebrews says that this plan and purpose of God is unchanging. 

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose (boulḗ) very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. Hebrews 6:17 

When God overshadows something or someone His unchangeable, immutable, unalterable purpose is accomplished. This overshadowing, purposeful, building Presence calls to mind Genesis. In the beginning God overshadowed, hovered over, the world to accomplish this purpose. 

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Genesis 1:2 

What was God’s original plan and purpose? To have relationship; to have sons and daughters to communicate Himself to and to love. And so, He created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. They were unfaithful to Him and rejected Him. But His purpose remained unchanged. So just as God hovered over the earth in the beginning and created the first Adam, he hovered over Mary to create the last Adam, Jesus Christ Son of God, who would bring God’s boulē-plan to pass. 

So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 1 Corinthians 15:45 

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. Ephesians 1:7-10 

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:38-40 (ESV) 

“The Lord was never a passive or unconcerned God; rather, He was always actively intervening, even invading the affairs of men. His incarnation as one of us is the most spectacular example of the Lord’s lovesick and purposeful involvement in the earthly realm.” — Jill Shannon, A Prophetic Calendar 

Do you see how one-track God is? His purpose has always been to love us and to be loved back. And if we cooperate by turning towards Him, with even the feeblest opening of our hearts, He is there. When we crawl under the shadow of His wings, and let God overshadow us; when we hide ourselves in and cling to Him, then we put ourselves at the epicenter of His life-giving and creating and redeeming power. We allow Him to complete His passionate purpose in our lives. And nothing can come between us and God’s passionate, one-track, love and purpose for us. No matter the circumstance. No matter the storm. No matter the attack of the enemy. No matter even our own rebellious, struggling, wavering hearts – for even a faintly burning wick he will not snuff out (Isaiah 42: 3). God will fulfill His purpose for us. 

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me. Psalm 57:1-2 (ESV) 

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 (ESV) 

So now I live with the confidence that there is nothing in the universe with the power to separate us from God’s love. I’m convinced that his love will triumph over death, life’s troubles, fallen angels, or dark rulers in the heavens. There is nothing in our present or future circumstances that can weaken his love. There is no power above us or beneath us—no power that could ever be found in the universe that can distance us from God’s passionate love, which is lavished upon us through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One! Romans 8:38-39 (The Passion Translation) 

iAll definitions from HELPS Word-studies, Discovery Bible (2021), and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 

Image copyright by Derek Bair

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