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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Genesis 1

Verse 1

THE BEGINNING

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’

Genesis 1:1

I. What is meant by creation? The giving being to that which before was not. The expression, ‘the heavens and the earth,’ is the most exhaustive phrase the Hebrews could employ to name the universe, which is regarded as a twofold whole, consisting of unequal parts. Writing for men, Moses writes as a man. The moral importance of the earth, as the scene of man’s probation, is the reason for the form which the phrase assumes. The truth of the Creation governs the theology of the Old and New Testaments, and may have influenced the formation of heathen cosmogonies, such as the Etruscan and the Zendavesta. Creation is a mystery, satisfactory to the reason, but strictly beyond it. We can modify existing matter, but we cannot create one particle of it. That God summoned it into being is a truth which we believe on God’s authority, but which we can never verify.

II. Belief in the creation of the universe out of nothing is the only account of its origin which is compatible with belief in a personal and moral God.

Creation suggests Providence, and Providence leads the way to Redemption. If love or goodness were the true motive in creation, it implies God’s continuous interest in created life. By His love, which led Him to move out of Himself in creation at the first, He travels with the slow, onward movement of the world and of humanity, and His Incarnation in time, when demanded by the needs of the creatures of His hand, is in a line with that first of mysteries, His deigning to create at all. Belief in creation keeps man in his right place of humble dependence and thankful service. A moral God will not despise the work of His own hands, and Creation leads up to Redemption.

Canon Liddon.

Illustration

(1) ‘What sacredness the thought that God is the Creator should stamp on every object in nature!

I go forth amid all the glories and the beauties of the earth, which He has so marvellously framed. He is there; it is with Him I walk; in His works I see something of Himself. Thus there is a tongue in every breeze; there is a voice in the song of every bird; there is a silent eloquence in every green field and quiet wood. They speak to me about my God. In a measure they reveal and interpret Him. He made them; He made them what they are; He made them for me. Thus the sights and sounds around me should be means of grace.

And, if He is Creator, I must be careful how I use nature’s gifts and bounties. The wheat, the corn, the vine, this piece of money, this brother or sister, He formed them, and formed them for gracious and holy ends. My hand should be arrested, my mouth should be shut, my spirit should shrink back in awe, if ever I am tempted to abuse and wrong them. Let me tell myself: ‘They came from God, and they are meant to be employed for God; for His pleasure they are, and were created.’ I move through a world mystic, wonderful.’

(2) The keynote of the whole chapter is struck in its first verse: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ As Professor Elmslie well says, ‘The concern of the chapter is not creation, but the character, being and glory of the Almighty Maker. If we excerpt God’s speeches and the rubrical formulas, the chapter consists of one continuous chain of verbs, instinct with life and motion, linked or in swift succession, and, with hardly an exception, the subject of every one of them is God. It is one long adoring delineation of God loving, yearning, willing, working in creation. Its interest is not in the work, but the Worker. Its subject is not creation, but the Creator. What it gives is not a world, but a God. It is not geology; it is theology.’ It matters little to this writer whether the birds or fishes come first in the scale of creation; it matters everything that his readers see, behind and above all, God. ‘And God said’—let the intermediary stages be as many as they may, we come to that at last. Let science take all the æons of time it needs for the great creative processes it is slowly unravelling before our eyes; let it go on adding link after link to the mighty chain of created being; sooner or later the question must be asked, ‘On what shall we hang the last?’ And when that question is asked, the wise men and the little child will go back together to the Bible to read over again the old words past which no science ever takes us, so simple and yet so sublime—‘ In the beginning, God.’

Verse 1

THE BEGINNING

‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’

Genesis 1:1

I. What is meant by creation? The giving being to that which before was not. The expression, ‘the heavens and the earth,’ is the most exhaustive phrase the Hebrews could employ to name the universe, which is regarded as a twofold whole, consisting of unequal parts. Writing for men, Moses writes as a man. The moral importance of the earth, as the scene of man’s probation, is the reason for the form which the phrase assumes. The truth of the Creation governs the theology of the Old and New Testaments, and may have influenced the formation of heathen cosmogonies, such as the Etruscan and the Zendavesta. Creation is a mystery, satisfactory to the reason, but strictly beyond it. We can modify existing matter, but we cannot create one particle of it. That God summoned it into being is a truth which we believe on God’s authority, but which we can never verify.

II. Belief in the creation of the universe out of nothing is the only account of its origin which is compatible with belief in a personal and moral God.

Creation suggests Providence, and Providence leads the way to Redemption. If love or goodness were the true motive in creation, it implies God’s continuous interest in created life. By His love, which led Him to move out of Himself in creation at the first, He travels with the slow, onward movement of the world and of humanity, and His Incarnation in time, when demanded by the needs of the creatures of His hand, is in a line with that first of mysteries, His deigning to create at all. Belief in creation keeps man in his right place of humble dependence and thankful service. A moral God will not despise the work of His own hands, and Creation leads up to Redemption.

Canon Liddon.

Illustration

(1) ‘What sacredness the thought that God is the Creator should stamp on every object in nature!

I go forth amid all the glories and the beauties of the earth, which He has so marvellously framed. He is there; it is with Him I walk; in His works I see something of Himself. Thus there is a tongue in every breeze; there is a voice in the song of every bird; there is a silent eloquence in every green field and quiet wood. They speak to me about my God. In a measure they reveal and interpret Him. He made them; He made them what they are; He made them for me. Thus the sights and sounds around me should be means of grace.

And, if He is Creator, I must be careful how I use nature’s gifts and bounties. The wheat, the corn, the vine, this piece of money, this brother or sister, He formed them, and formed them for gracious and holy ends. My hand should be arrested, my mouth should be shut, my spirit should shrink back in awe, if ever I am tempted to abuse and wrong them. Let me tell myself: ‘They came from God, and they are meant to be employed for God; for His pleasure they are, and were created.’ I move through a world mystic, wonderful.’

(2) The keynote of the whole chapter is struck in its first verse: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ As Professor Elmslie well says, ‘The concern of the chapter is not creation, but the character, being and glory of the Almighty Maker. If we excerpt God’s speeches and the rubrical formulas, the chapter consists of one continuous chain of verbs, instinct with life and motion, linked or in swift succession, and, with hardly an exception, the subject of every one of them is God. It is one long adoring delineation of God loving, yearning, willing, working in creation. Its interest is not in the work, but the Worker. Its subject is not creation, but the Creator. What it gives is not a world, but a God. It is not geology; it is theology.’ It matters little to this writer whether the birds or fishes come first in the scale of creation; it matters everything that his readers see, behind and above all, God. ‘And God said’—let the intermediary stages be as many as they may, we come to that at last. Let science take all the æons of time it needs for the great creative processes it is slowly unravelling before our eyes; let it go on adding link after link to the mighty chain of created being; sooner or later the question must be asked, ‘On what shall we hang the last?’ And when that question is asked, the wise men and the little child will go back together to the Bible to read over again the old words past which no science ever takes us, so simple and yet so sublime—‘ In the beginning, God.’

Verse 3

‘ALL THE BLESSINGS OF THE LIGHT’

“And God said, Let there be light.’

Genesis 1:3

I. We have reason every day that we live to thank God for life and health, for countless blessings. And not least among these may be reckoned the free gift of, and the many ‘blessings of the light.’

For in many ways that we can tell off, at once, upon our fingers, and in very many more ways that we neither dream of nor think of, does light minister to our health, wealth, and comfort.

The very birds sing at daybreak their glad welcome to the dawn, and the rising sun. And we all know and feel how cheering is the power of light. In the sunlight rivers flash, and nature rejoices, and our hearts are light, and we take a bright view of things.

So, too, light comes to revive and restore us. Darkness is oppressive. In it we are apt to lose heart. We grow anxious, and full of fears. With the first glimmer of light in the distance, hope awakens, and we feel a load lifted off our minds.

Again, we have often felt the reassuring power of light. In the darkness, objects that are perfectly harmless take threatening shapes; the imagination distorts them, and our fancy creates dangers. Light shows us that we have been alarmed at shadows; quiets, and reassures us.

Once again, the light comes to us, often, as nothing less than a deliverer. It reveals dangers hidden and unsuspected; the deadly reptile; the yawning precipice; the lurking foe.

And when, over and above all this, we remember that light is absolutely essential, not to health only, but to life in every form, animal and vegetable alike, we shall heartily echo the words of the wise king in Ecclesiastes—‘Truly the light is sweet; and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.’

II. All things are double one against another. The types in the natural world all have their antitypes in the moral and spiritual world. So we find it here. The natural light of which we have been speaking; the sun, which is the centre of our system—is a type of another light, of which we are now going to speak.

When God sends this light, of which we speak, into a soul that has long been dwelling in, and rejoicing in the darkness which the evil liver loves, a man’s first impulse generally is to shrink from it—to shut it out.

As you know very well, one of the chief characteristics of light is that it shows things, not as they might be, not as they are said to be, not as they ought to be, not as they are supposed to be, not as we would like them to be, but as they are!

In some way or another God sends a flood of pure light into your home; sometimes it is through sickness; sometimes through sorrow; now by means of an accident; now it is the innocent prattle of a little child. Your life is revealed to you just as it is! There hang the thick cobwebs—long indulged, confirmed evil habits; here lies the thick dust of a dulled conscience—there the dark stains of grievous sins. And the air is full of countless motes—these are what you call ‘little sins’—motes of ill-temper; motes of malice and unkindness; motes of forgetfulness of God, and many others.

It is from God, this light; stand in it; gaze at it; look through it, till you see His face who sends it—God, who in the beginning said, as He saw the earth ‘without form, and void,’ who says, as He looks at you, ‘Let there be light.’

—Rev. J. B. C. Murphy.

Verse 5

‘DAY AND NIGHT’

‘God called the light day, and the darkness He called night.’

Genesis 1:5

(I.) One of the first lessons which God intends us to learn from the night is a larger respect for wholesome renovation. Perhaps this may not show itself in any great lengthening of our bodily life, but rather in a more healthy spirit, less exposed to that prevailing unrest which fills the air and which troubles so many minds.

(II.) The night is the season of wonder. A new and strangely equipped population, another race of beings, another sequence of events, comes into and fills the world of the mind. Men who have left their seal upon the world, and largely helped in the formation of its deepest history,—men whose names stand up through the dim darkness of the past, great leaders and masters, have admitted that they learned much from the night. (III.) The next thought belonging to the night is that then another world comes out and, as it were, begins its day. There is a rank of creatures which moves out into activity as soon as the sun has set. This thought should teach us something of tolerance; senses, dispositions, and characters are very manifold and various among ourselves. Each should try to live up to the light he has, and allow a brother to do the same. (IV.) Such extreme contrasts as are involved in light and darkness may tell us that we have as yet no true measure of what life is, and it must be left to some other conditions of existence for us to realise in anything like fulness the stores, the processes, the ways of the Kingdom of the Lord which are provided for such as keep His law. (V.) Let us learn that, whether men wake or sleep, the universe is in a state of progress, ‘the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together.’ (VI.) Let us learn to use day rightly and righteously, to accept the grace and the forces of the Lord while it is called to-day, and then the night shall have no forbidding, no repulsive significance.

Rev. H. Jones.

Illustration

(1) ‘Light in verse 3 is not the same word as is rendered lights (ver. 14, etc.), to describe light-giving bodies or lamps. There is light in nature quite apart from the sun or stars. The dividing of light from darkness, and their naming as day and night are difficult to explain apart from a possible anticipation (by no means surprising in a Hebrew author) of the subsequent events (ver. 14 to 19), but may refer to facts beyond our present knowledge. It is believed, on good scientific grounds, that the earth had light and heat for vast ages before any differences of climate existed such as are produced by sunlight, and this accords with the general teaching of Genesis.’

(2) ‘The heretofore dark mass began to give light—at first poor in quality, but improving as condensation went on—until our planet attained the temperature of our sun, and then the light was good for all its present uses. This completion of the evolution of good light occurred before the earth was covered with a dark crust, and by its opaque body divided the light on the sun side from the darkness on the other.’

(3) ‘Take the reference to the appointment of sun and moon, “the great light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” Again the purpose of the narrative is not scientific but religious. “In the teeth of an all but universal worship of sun, moon, and stars, it declares them the manufacture of God, and the ministers and servants of man.” As Calvin puts it, with characteristic shrewdness and good sense, “Moses, speaking to us by the Holy Spirit, did not treat of the heavenly luminaries as an astronomer, but as it became a theologian, having regard to us rather than to the stars.” ’

Verse 14

SUN AND MOON

‘And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.’

Genesis 1:14

There are few words much oftener in our mouths than that short but most important word, ‘Time.’ It is the long measure of our labour, expectation, and pain; it is the scanty measure of our rest and joy. And yet, with all this frequent mention of it, there are, perhaps, few things about which men really think less, few things upon which they have less real settled thought.

I. Two remarkable characteristics make up the best account which we can give of time. The one, how completely, except in its issue, it passes from us; the other, how entirely, in that issue, it ever abides with us. We are the sum of all past time. It was the measure of our opportunities, of our growth. Our past sins are still with us as losses in the sum of our lives. Our past acts of self-denial, our struggles with temptation, our prayers, our times of more earnest communion with God,—these are with us still in the blessed work which the Holy Spirit has wrought within us.

II. Such thoughts should awaken in us: (1) deep humiliation for the past; (2) thankfulness for the past mercies of God; (3) calm trust and increased earnestness for the future.

Bishop S. Wilberforce.

Illustration

‘It is noticeable that while this chapter does not profess to be a scientific account of creation, not only is creation represented as a gradual process, but the simpler living forms are introduced first, and the more advanced afterwards, as the fossil remains of plants and animals prove to have been the case. God has seen fit to appoint, in the world of mind as well as of matter, great lights, and lesser lights, and least lights, answering to the daylight, moonlight, and starlight of the heavens.’

Verse 26

THE DIVINE IMAGE IN MAN

‘And God said, Let us make man in our image.’

Genesis 1:26

It is not too much to say that redemption itself, with all its graces and all its glories, finds its explanation and its reason in creation. Mystery, indeed, besets us on every side. There is one insoluble mystery—the entrance, the existence of evil. It might have been fatal, whencesoever derived, whithersoever traceable, to the regard of God for the work of His own hands. He might have turned away with disgust and abhorrence from the creature which had broken loose from Him, under whatsoever influence, short—and it must have been short—of absolute compulsion. No injustice and no hardship would have been involved, to our conception, in the rebel being taken at his word, and left to reap as he had sown. Nevertheless, we say this—that if we have knowledge of an opposite manner and feeling on the part of God; if we receive from Him a message of mercy and reconciliation, if we hear such a voice as this from the ‘excellent glory,’ ‘I have laid help upon One that is mighty, I have found a ransom,’ there is in the original relationship of the Creator to the creature a fact upon which the other fact can steady and ground itself. He who thought it worth while to create, foreseeing consequences, can be believed, if He says so, to have thought it worth while to rescue and renew. Nay, there is in this redemption a sort of antecedent fitness, inasmuch as it exculpates the act of creation from the charge of short-sightedness or of mistake, and turns what this book calls the repentance of God Himself that He had made man, into an illustration unique and magnificent of the depths of the riches of His wisdom, revealing, St. Paul says, to higher intelligences new riches of the universe, of His attributes, and making angels desire to look into the secrets of His dealing with a race bought back with blood. In this sense and to this extent creation had redemption in it, redemption in both its parts, atonement by the work of Christ, sanctification by the work of the Spirit. ‘Let us make man in our image’—created anew in Jesus Christ—‘after the image of Him that created him.’

I. First Divine Likeness: Spirituality. ‘God is a spirit,’ and I would make it our first thought now. If it had been ‘God is intelligence,’ or ‘God is reason,’ or ‘God is light,’ in that sense of light in which it stands for knowledge, whether in possession or communication, we should have been carried off the track of profiting, and we should have been called, besides, to enter into many subtle distinctions between the intelligence of the animal nature and the intelligence of the rational. But it is otherwise when we make this the first feature of the divine image in man. He too, like God, is spirit! he has other characteristics which he shares not with God; he is in one part matter; he is in one part of ‘the earth, earthy’; he is in one part material and perishing; but he is spirit, too. There is that in us which is independent of space and time. We all count it a reproach to call one another carnal or to call one another animal. There is a world altogether incorporeal in which human nature, such as God has made it, finds its most real, most congenial and most characteristic being. It is in the converse of mind with mind and spirit with spirit that we are conscious of our keenest interests and our most satisfying enjoyments. Man is spirit. This it is which makes him capable of intercourse and communion with God Himself. This it is which makes prayer possible, and thanksgiving possible, and worship possible, in more than a form and a name.

II. Second Divine Likeness: Sympathy. Love is sympathy, and God is love. We may feel that there is a risk of irreverence in so stating the condescension of the Son of God to our condition of liability to and experience of suffering as to make it indispensable to His feeling with us under it. Sympathy is an attribute of Deity. When God made man in His own likeness, He made him thereby capable of sympathy. The heart of God is the well-spring of sympathy; the Incarnate Son needed not to learn sympathy by taking upon Him our flesh. When we look upwards in our hour of pain and anguish for comfort and help, for support and strength, we separate not between the Father and the Son in our appeal. We invoke the sympathy of the Father who has not Himself suffered, as well as a Saviour who hungered and thirsted, wept and bled below. It was not to learn sympathy as a new attainment that God in the fulness of time sent forth His Son; but that which is His very trinity is light, omnipotence, omniscience, and holiness; He came forth to manifest in the sight of the creature, in the sight of the sinful and sorrow-laden, that they might not only know in the abstract that there is compassion in heaven, but witness its exercise in human dealing, and be drawn to it by a realising sense of its accessibility and of its tenderness. The image of God is, in the second place, sympathy—spirituality without sympathy might conceivably be a cold and spiritless grace: it might lift us above earth in the sense of the higher nature and the everlasting home: it would not brighten earth itself in its myriad clouds and shadows of suffering by bringing down into it the love of God and the tender mercies, which are the very sunshine of His smile.

III. Third Divine Likeness: Influence. A third feature of the divine likeness is needed to complete the trinity of graces which were the endowment of the unfallen, and shall be the higher heritage of the restored man. The third feature is that which we call influence; the other two are conditions of it. Without spirituality there can be no action at all of mind upon mind; without sympathy there can be no such actions as we speak of, for threatening is not influence, and command is not influence. These things stand without to speak, and never enter into the being which they would deter or compel. Influence is by name and essence that gentle flowing in of one nature and one personality into another which touches the spring of will and makes the volition of one the volition of the other. As the divine attribute of sympathy wrought in the Incarnation, the Passion, and the intercession of the Eternal Son, so the divine attribute of influence works in the mission of the Eternal Spirit to be the ever-present Teacher and Comforter of all who will yield themselves to His sway. It needs, surely, but a small amount of humility to allow to the Divine Creator the same kind, or, at least, the same degree, of access to the spirits and souls of His creatures, which we see to be possessed by those His creatures, one over another. It is, indeed, a worse than heathenish negation of the power and activity of God, the source of all, if we debar Him alone from the exercise of that spiritual influence which we find to be universal, which we find to be all but resistless in the hands of those who possess it but by His leave. ‘God said, Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.’

Dean Vaughan.

Verse 31

THE DIVINE VERDICT

‘And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.’

Genesis 1:31

No one can prove to us that God made the world; but faith, which is stronger than all arguments, makes us certain of it.

I. All which God has made is good, as He is, and, therefore, if anything in the world seems to be bad, one of two things must be true of it: (1) either it is not bad, though it seems so to us, and God will bring good out of it in His own good time; or (2) if the thing is really bad, then God did not make it. It must be a disease, a mistake, a failure of man’s making, or of some person’s making, but not of God’s making. For all that He has made He sees eternally, and, behold, it is very good.

II. God created each of us good in His own mind, else He would not have created us at all. Why does God’s thought of us, God’s purpose about us, seem to have failed? We do not know, and we need not know. Whatever sin we inherited from Adam, God looks on us now, not as we are in Adam, but as we are in Christ. God looks not on the old corrupt nature which we inherited from Adam, but on the new and good grace which God has meant for us from all eternity, which Christ has given us now.

III. That which is good in us God has made; He will take care of what He has made, for He loves it. All which is bad in us God has not made, and therefore He will destroy it; for He hates all that He has not made, and will not suffer it in His world. Before all worlds, from eternity itself, God said, ‘Let us make man in our likeness,’ and nothing can hinder God’s word but the man himself. If a man loves his fallen nature better than the noble, just, loving grace of God, and gives himself willingly up to the likeness of the beasts that perish, then only can God’s purpose towards him become of none effect.

Canon C. Kingsley.

Illustration

(1) ‘God saw that it was good.’ His ideals are always realised. The Divine Artist never finds that the embodiment of His thought falls short of the thought.

‘What act is all its thought had been?

What will but felt the fleshly screen?’

But He has no hindrances nor incompleteness in His creative work, and the very sabbath rest with which the narrative closes symbolises, not His need of repose, but His perfect accomplishment of His purpose. God ceases from His works because ‘the works were finished,’ and he saw that all was very good.’

(2) ‘It seems more like a story of mythology than a recital of truth and fact—this record of the garden eastward in Eden. I have wandered far from its blessedness and innocence.

Yet I like to believe in that golden past which lies behind me. It may be a long distance behind. It may be separated from me by many more years than I am able to reckon. But once it was a reality. In the infancy of the world there was a Paradise where nothing but what was fair and gracious grew. And in this Paradise a man and a woman walked with God in the cool of the day. They were fashioned like me, but they were unacquainted with my sins. They were holy and harmless and undefiled.

And why am I glad to remember this? Because what has been may be again. I delight in the thought of that old Eden, remote as it is, impossible as it sometimes looks. It tells me of the lofty levels on which humanity has walked, and may walk. It assures me that there is no iron necessity which makes me a sinner simply because I am a man. It opens the door of a golden future as well as of a golden past.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Genesis 1". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/cpc/genesis-1.html. 1876.