In Romans 8:20 the A.V. reads “the creature was made subject to vanity.” What do these words mean?
With the help of a few modern versions, and Greek Lexicons, Paul’s underlying thought becomes much clearer, and is worth pondering. Instead of “creature” we should read “creation”. It is not so much a commentary on life forms, as on the whole of creation, certainly of this, our world, but probably the rest of astronomical space as well.
The word “vanity” is misleading in our day and age, though it probably conveyed the correct impression in 1611. One writer, Vaughan, said, “The whole book of Ecclesiastes is a commentary upon this verse.” Solomon frequently employed the word vanity in his summary of life.
The Greek word is MATAIOTES. The Lexicons tell us that it means, variously, “futility, uselessness, purposelessness, lacking in outcome, frustration.” No one of these words gives the fullness. Putting them all together certainly conveys more of the underlying message.
So, “the whole creation was made subject to a frustrating purposelessness.” Here is something we can say “Amen” to. Everything man does ends eventually in the futility of death, corruption, and decay. As the old hymn puts it, “We blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree, and wither and perish, but naught changeth Thee.” Or again, “Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all its sons away.”
Man is often heard saying, “What’s it all about? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What’s the point of it all? After all, the best known fact of life is death.”
In the physical sphere, man has always spoken about “the elements.” In early days, these were just four in number, being earth, air, fire, and water. But in the last three centuries science has gradually discovered an amazingly wonderful array of basic elements in the universe, numbering about 90, and when charted, these constitute a rich but complicated design which has been called “the periodic table”.
However, there is evidence that originally there were 118 elements, but those now missing have decayed by radioactivity. Here again, there is evidence of futility, this time in the non-biological world.
Paul says that “the whole creation groans together, and is in labour-pains together until now.” Yes, Paul, and it’s been like that for the 2000 years since you penned those lines and for the 4000 years before!
But this is where the misery ends. Paul used the word “labour pains”, and therefore out of the strain and stress, the wretchedness, and the futility, there will be a BIRTH. And we are told in Scripture, and every mother will bear this out, that as soon as the baby is born, she straight-way forgets all the pain in the joy of the child.
What child is to be born? “The creation itself will be set free from the slavery of corruption, into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Furthermore, “the anxious watching of the creation is eagerly expecting the revelation of the sons of God.” Why? Because the “subjection” was attached to that wonderful word “hope”.
Now Biblical “hope” is nothing like ordinary human hope. “I hope we have a fine day tomorrow,” or “I hope he gets well soon.” These are things we might hope for in the natural, with no sure expectation that our hopes will be realised. But the Greek word ELPIS, translated “hope” should really be thought of as “sure expectation.”
All the apparent uselessness of human life, the depressing events that continually invade our ears on the radio and TV, are mere reflections of the “vanity” we have spoken about. But those who know their God have a hope, a sure expectation that this will not last, but will issue into a dimension of great wonder.
Paul said, “I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are NOT WORTHY TO BE COMPARED with the glory that will be revealed to us!” God subjected the creation to futility, uselessness, frustration, and purposelessness, but He did so IN HOPE, in the certain promise that it was all part of a plan, a purpose, which centres in His Son Jesus Christ, who “in the fullness of time” came to this earth to redeem mankind, by His death and resurrection, from the bondage of slavery, and the coming of the “sons of God”, predicted by Paul, is part of the means to achieve that goal.
Are we eagerly waiting and expecting the revelation of the sons of God, whereby the rest of God’s creatures can be led forth into this glorious freedom? Are we looking for the “new heavens and new earth”, where righteousness will dwell? Are we, by our “holy living, awaiting and hastening that day”?
May God grant an ever-increasing awareness of the sheer glory about to be revealed to mankind in His Kingdom, whereby the “joy that is set before us” may help us through the days of trial and difficulty to embrace all that God has in store for the days to come, awaiting “our adoption, the redemption of our bodies”.