The late Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
God’s Creation of the Firmament (Gen. 1:6-8)
It has been a favorite device of some to hold up the biblical record of creation to ridicule and scorn as something that can be attributed to Babylonian myth for its origin, but that cannot possibly serve as a record of real works of God whereby He brought into existence a real universe as it is actually described in the Genesis record.
This attempt runs somewhat as follows.
First of all, they find in the record of Genesis a very primitive and scientifically impossible conception of things. The earth is supposedly presented as a plane. It is flat and – if they really want to emphasize the ridiculousness of the biblical presentation -they point out that the Bible speaks of it as four-cornered. This earth is held up by pillars, and it is surrounded by a great ocean. Above this earth the firmament is supposed to be like a solid dome, stretched over the earth like a gigantic curtain, with various movable lights located above it, traveling above a stationary earth. Supposedly, when it rained, God opened windows in that firmament, and the waters which were above that curtain came down upon the earth.
Secondly, they boast that modern man with all his scientific enlightenment knows much better. He knows that what looks like a solid firmament, the blue sky, is nothing but a thin, transparent atmosphere, with the vast reaches of space beyond it. He knows that the earth is not flat, but that it is a ball, or sphere. He knows that the sun and the moon and the stars are also so many spheres, and that many of them are far larger than our little planet earth. He knows that the sun does not move above the earth, rise and set over it, but that actually the earth moves about the sun. And while he will admit that there are many things which he cannot yet explain and that remain to be investigated, he will insist, especially in this space age, that the inventive genius and scientific prowess of man is on the verge of great discoveries which will lead to a solution of many of the remaining mysteries of the universe and which will certainly contribute greatly to the advance of civilization and knowledge.
But that creation story? Why, that is absurd! It cannot possibly be believed – at least, not if we are to take it literally. It is a piece of curious mythology devised by primitive peoples, based on optical illusion – which we can probably understand in the light of the fact that men had no telescopes and none of the instruments of modern science, nor any of the modern means of investigation and of probing the secrets of the universe, but which we cannot possibly believe.
This is but one of the ways in which the Bible is denied. There have been refinements of such attempts. But the ridiculing of the biblical record, the literal creation record, has only been refined in the process; and the darts cast have only been made the sharper.
In regard to this attempt, let us note, in the first place, that the difference with respect to the Genesis record is not one of scientific knowledge, but one of spiritual attitude. It is unbelief which exalts itself and boasts with pride and haughty delight that it knows so much more about the nature and the origin of the universe in this day of advanced science than did those primitive peoples of long ago. Faith views this narrative not as an invention of Moses or as a myth which he learned from Babylonian sources, but as the inspired record which God gave to Moses concerning His own work of creation. And if only we study this narrative in that spiritual attitude of faith, believing its verbal inspiration, then we will find it to be full of a merciful attempt on the part of the infinitely great Creator to get into our little minds a little of the almighty and great work which He performed. But then our attitude will be that of humility and of readiness to listen, rather than to criticize.
In the second place, it can be understood that unbelief casts its cruel and sarcastic barbs of ridicule at the Bible and at those who in faith insist that what the Bible says is true. But it is indeed a sad thing that those who call themselves Christians can sometimes join in the same mocking attempt to reduce the truth of creation to an absurdity in order to justify one or another departure from the literal presentation of Holy Scripture, all in the name of Christian faith. There is a goodly amount of such haughty and conceited ridicule today that is conducted under the banner of the Christian church. And to those who engage in it, as well as to any church which listens to such philosophy, there is but one word to say: “Repent! for you are making common cause with, the enemies of the Word of God and of the cross of Christ.”
In the third place, let it be noted that this caricature of the biblical narrative does not at all accord with what the Bible actually says. The narrative does not tell us that the earth is flat. It does not teach that the firmament is some kind of solid dome. Nor does it say anything about rain or about the source of possibility of rain. In fact, it is quite biblical to believe that it did not rain for centuries to come.
Instead, therefore, of assuming a haughty and critical attitude, let us believe that God made the heavens and the earth, and that He certainly also knew how to tell His people about it in. this creation narrative.
Turning now to the creative work of the second day, we may note, in the first place, that there is a distinction made between the waters below and the waters above. These are the waters that are separated by the firmament. They are below and above the firmament from the viewpoint of the earth, the viewpoint which pervades the narrative of Scripture – not because the earth is the local center of the physical universe, but because the earth is the center from the point of view of its significance. By the waters below are meant the waters that belong to the earth as it then was in its chaotic, or unfinished state. The waters above are not the clouds. For, in the first place, the clouds were not as yet. But besides, the clouds are not above the firmament, but below it. They belong to the earth. In the waters that are on the earth the clouds have their origin; and thither they return also in the rain. The clouds, together with the atmosphere that surrounds the earth at a considerable depth, the oceans and seas, and all the inland waters (the rivers and lakes) – these all belong to the waters that are below.
By the waters above are meant the waters that are now diffused throughout the entire firmament and distributed in the heavenly bodies. There are those who consider it possible that these heavenly bodies became light bearers on the fourth day, but that they were already formed on the second day. Whether or not that is possible certainly cannot be determined; nor is this the important question with respect to the creation of the second day. As such, the waters that belong to the heaven in its unformed, chaotic state, and which later are formed and finished in the sun and moon and stars, constitute the waters above. And these are separated from the waters below, the waters of the earth in its unfinished state.
In the second place, that which causes the separation between the waters below and the waters above is described in the text as the firmament. The firmament is that which from our earthly point of view we see as the blue sky, as it stretches itself apparently like a beautiful dome over the earth on a clear and sunny day. It is in reality an immense ocean, filled with what the biblical term apparently describes as a very fine, beaten out, or stretched out substance, and which the Bible describes as a molten looking glass (Job 37:18): “Hast thou with him spread out the sky, which is strong, and as a molten looking glass?” We refer to the vast reaches of this firmament as “space” or as “outer space.” We must remember, however, that space is not “nothing,” or mere emptiness. But space is the created and limited vast reality in which all the physical world floats.
The original Hebrew word, for firmament signifies something “beaten or stretched out, a finely beaten substance.” This suggests that God formed the firmament by beating or stretching out the original waters, everywhere present in the chaos, the unfinished earth and heaven. Part of these waters were stretched, expanded, thinned out, into a very fine substance. Thus the Bible speaks of the firmament. This is true in the passage already quoted, Job 37:18, which speaks of the sky as stretched out, but strong.Psalm 104:2 speaks similar language: “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain.” Isaiah 40:22 speaks as follows: “It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.” Job 26:7 speaks of God as stretching out the north over the empty place.
All of this stands in close connection, in the third place, with the purpose of this firmament, namely, to separate the waters from the waters. This also implies that it separates, keeps apart, and keeps in their places all the different bodies of creation. It serves as a medium to sustain all the various bodies in space in their proper orbs and in their relative position. The firmament is a vast ocean, deep and wide, in which all the heavenly bodies and the earth float. It supports, them and presses on them from all sides; and it keeps them in their paths. At the same time, that firmament is the means of communication. For if the space between us and the light bodies were absolutely empty, the light would never reach us. If space were mere emptiness, nothingness, there could be no communication of any kind.
Finally, we must remember that this firmament, which God called Heaven, is not unlimited in its extent. We speak sometimes rather glibly of space as being endless or infinite. But we must remember that there is nothing infinite in this world. It may be true that we cannot imagine a limit to the firmament, or a limit to the world. It may be true that when we think of a limit, or end, to space, we are ready with the question, “And what is beyond space?” – somewhat in the same way as we are ready with the question, “And what was before the beginning?” This does not change the fact that the vast and deep ocean of the firmament is limited. For it is created, it is a creature. And the creature is not infinite, but finite; not endless, but limited. Moreover, above the heaven of the firmament is the heaven of glory and the heaven of heavens. The firmament is even presented as the pillars upon which that heaven of glory rests. Through the heavens Jesus Christ passed when He ascended; and through the heavens the souls of the saints pass to glory.
All this mighty creation came into being by the Word of God. God “made” the firmament, we are told in the text; and He made it so that it divided. But this making of the firmament was by the almighty creative Word, spoken on the second day. He spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.
In conclusion, we must remember that this firmament, occupying as it does an essential place in the very structure of the present universe, was not made to be permanent. Though it was created good, that is, fit to serve the purpose for which God made it, that purpose was not His final purpose; and it was not God’s purpose that the firmament should abide forever. By the Word of God the heavens were of old, and by the Word of God the heavens and the earth which are now are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. This world is to be destroyed. For the temporal is but the image of the eternal. No, it is not to be annihilated, so that all returns to nothing. But it will be destroyed in the day of the Lord. The universe, not only the earth, but also the sun and moon and stars as well, is to be burnt up. And from the elements a new heaven and earth are to be formed, in which righteousness shall dwell.
Scripture speaks of this. In Revelation 6:14 the breakup of the physical universe is described in part as follows: “And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.” When we remember that the heaven, or firmament, separates the heavenly bodies, and bear in mind that this heaven is rolled up like a scroll, then we can also understand what is stated in the preceding verse: “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.” This is in harmony with the picture of the final catastrophe which shall come with the day of the Lord, according to II Peter 3:10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The only thing that keeps the fire from igniting and consuming all things is the firmament, kept there by the same Word of God that created it. When that firmament shall be rolled up, the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat – all in order to give way to the new heavens and the new earth, in which all things shall be united in our Lord Jesus Christ.