Right now, people in the Philippines are reeling in the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Typhoon Yolanda) Before the typhoon, throughout the Philippines, up to 400,000 women and 100,000 children were caught in the bondage of human trafficking. According to HumanTrafficking.org most who are being trafficked are transported from or through the Philippines to other destinations although, for many victims like the Philippine children being exploited sometimes by their own parents for a growing cyber-sex industry, the Philippines is their destination.
As I am writing these words, my oldest grandson, Carter, is cutting grass. He probably hopes it is the last time he has to do it this fall, but we live in Florida, and this hoped for future is not guaranteed. As I string words together, he is seeing the results of his past, sections of grass neatly trimmed next to unruly grass that will, if he keeps pushing the lawnmower, fall down in his future – a future that will surely be the past before I get finished with this blog.
Whatever God does endures forever.
The Preacher in Ecclesiastes said:
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)
A few verses prior, Ecclesiastes 3:11, The Preacher used these words, “He has made everything appropriate in its time,” to summarize his theme that, in the sequence of time on this earth, things come and go and come again. He connects this theme of recurrence to the idea of eternity that God has set in man’s heart.
Contemporary theologian, John M. Frame notes that there are several Hebrew and Greek terms for the words eternity and eternal and that they can mean anything from a long period of time to an endless duration through time. Strong’s says that ‘owlam is the Hebrew term translated eternity in Ecclesiastes 3:11 NASB while the King James Bible substitutes world for eternity. Dr. Frame uses several paragraphs to explore whether or not eternity can also refer to a radical transcendence of time.
Every thing under heaven is thus changeable, but in heaven there is an unchangeable state, and an unchangeable counsel concerning these things.
Of course Matthew Henry is describing Providence. But does this unchangeable state that exists in heaven mean that, in God’s ‘private world’ (for lack of my ability to come up with a better term), Carter’s cut and uncut grass, and all the sin and despair and bondage that goes with human trafficking, and all the sorrow and devastation that follows the typhoon, and the super typhoon itself, exists with God in an ever-present state without a past and without a future? In my questions, I am assuming that the Preacher is using Aristotle’s definition for “eternal” – where there is no measurable change, there is no time, and there is no sequence.
Before Matthew Henry and after The Preacher, Saint Augustine wanted to understand the beginning of creation. That quest lead him to consider God’s creation of time and to grapple, like Dr. Frame, with the question that this unchangeable, ever-standing state might exist with God.
The problem with measuring time.
In Chapter 11 of Book 11 of The Confessions, Saint Augustine pointed out the trouble with measuring a past that is gone and a future that is not yet here and a present time that does not stand still. He concluded that, when we speak of a long time or a short time or compare different lengths of time, these measurements we speak of must be measurements of expectations and memories that for us exist as something fixed in our minds. He says of God though something quite different:
Thy years neither go nor come … All thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding … All these years of ours shall be with thee, when all of them shall have ceased to be. Thy years are but a day, and thy day is not recurrent, but always today. Thy ‘today’ yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy ‘today’ is eternity.- Saint Augustine Book 11, Chapter 13
How can I think of God’s actions as enduring apart from time?
Before I landed on Augustine’s words I was contemplating these verses in Ecclesiastes 3:14-15. I was trying to formulate what they meant in my own head, and so I imagined the limits of our universe and pictured God, who has entered both the time and space of our world, outside that universe with his never changing Word ever swirling round and round him. Of course, from my illustration of this idea one could wrongly conclude that God is the author of sin in the sense that he is liable for sin. He is not!
It is not unscientific or un-modern to think that alternate worlds exist simultaneously and apart. I remember a Ted Talk, Why our universe might exist on a knife-edge, by Gian Giudice, a theoretical physicist. In this talk he discussed the invisible Higgs field that is all around us. (Though it had been there all along, the Higgs boson was discovered July 4, 2012. A boson is the name of a specific group of particles – think atomic – that can potentially occupy the same quantum state, if that helps.)
In this talk, Gian Giudice said a lot of really interesting things. He pointed out that the Higgs field can and might change to a more dense state, sort of like water does when it becomes ice, and that if this happened everything would collapse on itself. Think “dark matter.” The world, as we know it, would end.
In this same talk, he also suggested that our universe is just one bubble floating around among many other universe bubbles. You can see his illustration of this at the 11 minute 15 second point in his talk or you can just think about different bubbles floating around, each representing a universe. Now imagine God’s eternal, never-changing and ever-present thoughts, translated into word, directing them all.
How can time really exist as past or future?
Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Ecclesiastes 3:11
Perhaps The Preacher speaking of eternity and beginning and end all in one verse was not using Aristotle’s definition of eternity. He is after all, from our perspective, before Aristotle. But the word that is translated eternity by NASB in verse 11 and forever in verse 14 is the same Hebrew word according to Strong’s. In verse 14 this Hebrew word translated forever is preceded by will remain; Everything God does will remain forever. Remains, says Strong’s, carries the idea of being or existing.
So I will humbly ask with others before me, “How can something really be or exist outside our memory apart from an unchanging, ever-standing existence? And where would we find this unchanging, ever-standing existence except with God?” Time past and time future make sense when we consider that God’s thoughts are a standing reality remaining with God yet ready to enter history at their pre-appointed time. (It is obvious that not all God’s thoughts enter history. We can see this by our lack of knowledge and by God’s knowledge of what might be that he sometimes threatens but does not bring to pass.)
Does this mean that future time is already fixed?
Of course this raises all kinds of interesting questions and the idea will most likely be unappealing to those who would want to exalt human autonomy that supposes a particular kind of human freedom that operates outside of God’s authoritative word.
You could say that the idea of an ever-standing reality imposes a sort of fatalism. But since fatalism has no purpose, no goal, it is really more of a determinism. It is the determinism of a good God working a real good for a good purpose for those who love him – and it is the determinism of one who holds all humanity – a humanity who freely follows the desires of their hearts – morally responsible.
I cannot explain this biblical paradox anymore than I can truly explain how God can think thoughts apart from time and not change because of them. But God gave us a lasting analogy. In history he gave it to the prophet Isaiah so that he could explain to Judah’s King Hezekiah what would become, in Hezekiah’s future, of the Assyrian King, Sennacherib. The analogy is of a horse and its rider.
Because you have raged against me
and your complacency has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth,
and I will turn you back on the way
by which you came. Isaiah 37:29
To the horse belongs all the restless energy and huge strength of its nature; to the rider belongs all direction and skill of management. The Assyrians give thought and then expression in action to the effectuation of that world dominion which expresses their mind and matches their assumed abilities and rights, but the Lord rides upon world history for the accomplishment of holy purposes. – J. Alec Motyer
Proverbs 16:33 says:
The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD.
Commenting on this verse, Charles Bridges said:
Who can fail to see the hand of God, most wonderful in the most apparently casual contingencies, overruling all second causes to fulfill his will while they work their own?
John M. Frame, presents the analogy of God as author of a story. The story becomes our story and God has written himself into this story as the lead character. Here I will add that, when Dr. Frame speaks of God writing himself into history, he is not just talking about Jesus’ entry into human history;
In Christ, God entered, not a world that is otherwise strange to him, but a world in which he had been dwelling all along.
Dr. Frame uses this author analogy to explain that God’s both enters time and stands above time. He uses the analogy to explain how God changes in his relations with people – he raises us up with him and no longer relates to us as children of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-10) – yet God does not change in his essential attributes, his decretive will (his eternal decree that governs the entire course of nature and history), his faithfulness to keep his promises, and in the truth of his revelation.
God governs all things by the story he has written, his eternal decree that governs the entire course of nature and history. That story has already been written; it cannot and will not be changed. – John M. Frame
I do not know the answer.
I am like Augustine not so very much, but I am like him at least insofar as, “I am seeking the truth, … I am not affirming it.” The Preacher, who speaks both of eternity and God in time in 11th verse of Ecclesiastes 3 said that I cannot “find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). If I cannot understand everything that happens in time, how can I or Augustine or anyone expect to know more than God has told us of his existence outside our time? It is unfathomable.
Why then did The Preacher bring this time issue up at all?
Matthew Henry again commenting on verse 14 of Ecclesiastes 3 said:
God does all that men should fear before him, to convince them that there is a God above them that has a sovereign dominion over them, at whose disposal they are and all their ways, and in whose hands their times are and all events concerning them, and that therefore they ought to have their eyes ever towards him, to worship and adore him, to acknowledge him in all their ways, to be careful in every thing to please him, and afraid of offending him in any thing. God thus changes his disposals, and yet is unchangeable in his counsels, not to perplex us, much less to drive us to despair, but to teach us our duty to him and engage us to do it.
Praying that this essay points you to the Glory of God’s infinite immensity, power, love, wisdom, and ever-standing endurance.
Saint Augustine, The Confessions, Book 11, Hendrickson Christian Classics edition, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 2004, pp. 242-244.
John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God: Theology of Lordship, Vol. 2, “Lord of Time” (Phillipsbury, NJ: P&R Publishing), 2002, pp. 545, 559. 569. You can find some of the points that I mentioned in this blog in Dr. Frame’s online essay, God in Time.
In his chapter, “Lord of Time, pp. 543-575, Dr. Frame offers these Scripture references: God & Time: Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 33:11; Psalm 93:2; Psalm 102:24, 27; Psalm 145:13; Psalm 146:10; Isaiah 40:21; Isaiah 41:4.26; Isaiah 46:10; Matthew 19:4; Hebrews 1:10; John 1:1; Genesis 1:5, 14; Malachi 3:6; Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8; Galatians 4:4; Acts 1:7; Acts 17:26; Mark 13:32; 2 Corinthians 6:2; 1 Peter 1:3-7. God’s unchangeability: Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 7:21; Jeremiah 4:28; Jeremiah 20:16; Ezekiel 24:14; Deuteronomy 32:39; Psalm 33:11; Isaiah 43:13; Psalm 102:25-27; Hebrews 1:10-12; Psalm 33:11; Micah 7:19-20; Psalm 89:34-37; Isaiah 54:10;Hebrews 6:17-20; Isaiah 40:21; Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 43:12; Isaiah 46:10; Romans 15:4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17. God’s ability to change. *Note: Dr. Frame is careful to explain how Scripture is compatible with God’s sovereignty and God’s transcendence. Exodus 32:9-10; Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:29, 35; Joel 2:13-14; Exodus 34:6-7; Amos 7:1-6; Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:9-14; Jonah 4:1-2; Jeremiah 18:5-10; Jeremiah 26: 3, 13, 19; Isaiah 38:1-5; Jeremiah 42:10; Hebrews 5:8.
Regarding the pre-existence of future times: Also consider how the revelation, the Apostle John received was introduced, Revelation 1:1-3
David Mathis, Does God Author Sin?, posted August 29, 2007 on DesiringGod.org.
J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, (Downers Grove , IL, 1993), p. 113.
Heaven: In an Authors on the Line podcast posted on DesiringGod.org entitled Why the Ascension of Jesus Matters: An Interview with Gerrit Scott Dawson and Jonny Woodrow, the idea that we can never find God by space travel is brought up. Paul’s description of his experience in the third heaven may also shed some light: “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter,” 2 Corinthians 12:3-4.
They hymn, Because He Lives, gives a clue why God’s ability to hold the future in his hands is comforting to the believer – we know that his promises are true and what he says will surely come to pass.
Note that is is difficult to find language to speak of God apart from time.
“Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”