|TIME, MEANING OF |
The chronological sequence of life and its significance in biblical teaching.
God and Time The biblical God is not governed by time because He is the Lord of time. God is in time in the sense that He is sovereignly present in all the events of time, confronting His people with His warnings and His promises. However, this is not the same as saying that God is caught up in time or governed by it. Humankind cannot bind Him to special sacred times; rather, He encounters humankind in each moment of their temporal existence, offering each new day as an opportunity for judgment in the event of their willful stubbornness or for redemption in the event of their repentance.
Both the Old and New Testaments speak of God as everlasting, but they do not participate in the abstract, philosophical notion that He lives in an eternity of splendid isolation. Western thinking borrowed that from the ancient Greeks. To the people of the Bible—Israelites and Jewish
Christians living out of the Hebraic heritage—it would have been impossible to even think of eternity as a timelessness before and after time. The Hebrew words that are translated “eternal” and “eternity,” along with the New Testament Greek equivalents, conceive only of endlessness or perpetuity, that is the absence of the temporal conditionedness marking every finite creature.
To say God is eternal from the biblical standpoint means that His existence brackets cosmic time. He was there at the beginning of all created things; He will be there when temporal reality ends; and He is present at every moment in between. This is the true meaning of eternity. Before, above, and beyond all creaturely existence, God is; yet He is intimately close in every temporal experience—not passively but actively—governing all His creatures and calling each person, to whom He has given the power of free choice, to obey and believe.
Because the Bible is no theological treatise, it never speculates about these facts. Rather, it presents them in passages whose immediate purpose is to call for true obedience and trusting faith. The poems in
Isaiah 40-55 directly state God's creative presence at the beginning of all things (Isaiah 48:12-13; compare
Isaiah 44:6). These words are addressed to a people in Exile, despairing that their God has abandoned them. The prophet assured them that the God who created in the beginning can create redemption for them.
Temporality, on the other hand, is an inescapable aspect of mankind's creaturely existence. Created of dust (Genesis 2:7), human beings must sometime die. As there is no limit to the Creator's existence, there is a necessary and inescapable limit to human existence. Genesis teaches that this is intended to keep people from seizing immortality and becoming like God (Genesis 3:22), to limit a person's lifetime in order to restrain and order the penchant for self-exaltation and violence (Genesis 6:3;
Genesis 11:6). The human creature may not lay hold on the unending existence that belongs only to the Creator. Rather than attempting to seize immortality, humanity is advised to “remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come” (Ecclesiastes 12:1: 1 NRSV; compare
Ecclesiastes 11:8). Measuring and qualifying time
Like all ancient peoples, the people of the Bible were aware of the passage of time. They learned to mark seasons and measure durations. To be sure, they knew nothing of modern man's clock-watching and tight scheduling. They experienced time much more holistically. No evidence indicates that the Israelites counted seconds, minutes, or even hours (the Jews of the New Testament learned to count hours from the Romans). All their time units were based on observation and experience. Thus the day was divided up into “watches” (compare
1 Samuel 11:11), measured by observation of the sun's position in the sky. They counted years by the cycle of the seasons, but especially by observation of the sun's return in its annual orbit. Their months were not based on an arbitrary number like our 30 days but were counted from one new moon to the next, making it necessary to add extra “intercalary” days after twelve months to make the new year (365 days) begin on a new moon ;c5 month. (Because the Jews have continued this method, their years have a variable new beginning from September into October.) By far the most important unit of time was the day, the most basic unit of intuitive experience. Early on, the Israelites counted the day from morning till evening, or, counting the night in between, from one morning to the next. Because of the growing importance of the rising moon for festival observance, they later came to count the day from the evening, and this is the Jewish custom today. What is important for understanding the biblical view of time is the fact that days were not just counted, but were identified by their most significant event. Throughout the Scriptures we read of “day of rejoicing,” “day of trouble,” “day of salvation,” expressions that commemorate a given day's experiential quality. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word y|#om, meaning “day,” is the fifth most frequently used word in the Old Testament. Though used for all sorts of common experiences, it came to be used for marking special days of God's revelatory appearance, whether to individual persons or to the nation. Most notably, there was a “day” of Israel's election (Deuteronomy 9:24; compare
Ezekiel 16:4-5), a “day” when God brought His people out of Egypt (Judges 19:30;
1 Samuel 8:8;
2 Samuel 7:6;
Jeremiah 7:22,Jeremiah 7:25), but also a “day” of restoration (Zechariah 8:9-12). There was also a “day” of judgment (
Lamentations 1:12). A final day when God would judge the world was “the day of the Lord” (Amos 5:18-19;
When the plural of yom (day) is used, it may measure a significant period or sequence of days, such as the length of a king's reign (2 Samuel 2:11 NAS margin). Often the plural is synonymous with the word ‘et, which means “time” or “situation” and refers to an ongoing period identified by its experiential quality. There were good and evil days or times;
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 provides a list of such times while warning that mankind is unable to discern God's intent in sending them. Usually a person's “days” weigh more heavily with evil than with good (compare
Job 7:1,Job 7:16;
Psalms 90:1, which measures mankind's brief life (Psalms 90:9-10) against God's eternity (Psalms 90:2,Psalms 90:4), prays that God will do two things: (1) “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” (Psalms 90:12 NRSV) and (2) “make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil” (Psalms 90:15 NRSV).
Time and history The habit of the people of the Bible to identify certain days by their dominant quality is not to be compared with the ancient Babylonian notion that the quality of every day and time is set by heavenly decree, fixed so firmly that even the gods are forced to submit to it. The Babylonians observed the heavenly constellations and made them the clock that brought good or evil. If a memorable calamity had occurred under a given constellation and when the planets were in a certain convergence, the recurrence of this heavenly configuration would be the inevitable omen of evil. Thus the Babylonians saw no organic, cause and effect, interconnection between human events. Because of their fatalism, they developed no true understanding of history and saw no ultimate purpose in human striving.
Egypt, another ancient neighbor to Israel, had little of this cosmic determinism; yet the Egyptian civilization was equally unable to understand and deal with history. Time in Egyptian thought was an endless, meaningless cycle of death and rebirth, a continual return to primordial reality. Everything new was only a new incarnation of its eternal model, just as each Pharaoh was a reincarnation of the divine. Here one finds no sharp delimitation of times, as in Babylonian civilization, yet historical event remained meaningless because only the eternal order was real.
This description, little understood by Bible readers, is an illuminating preface to the biblical understanding of time and history. The Bible teaches that people, man are free to act—but always they are called to act in accordance with God's revealed law. Preceding all responsible human acts, however, is God's saving act within history. The Israelites were unique in the ancient world in their belief that God had not made them with the land of Canaan, like the Egyptians with the Nile, but had brought them as strangers to settle in a land that was not theirs (Genesis 12:1-3) through a mighty act at the commencement of their existence as a people. Later, Israel became a people in the deliverance from Egypt.
God gave them His law from Sinai, and ever thereafter they strove imperfectly to be God's people and to keep His law. Because of their vacillating and backsliding, they lived constantly between the promise and the fulfillment. Their striving had historical significance because their God was present to blame their failure while urging them forward to a more perfect obedience. The people of the Bible were different because they were free in the presence of the eternal God to obey or disobey; and, in the event of their disobedience, they were free to repent and be saved (Ezekiel 33:11).
Biblical humanity saw themselves standing in a present moment of critical decision making, looking back upon the records of an imperfect obedience that spoke also of God's grace and forbearance, interpreting this as a warning and a renewed promise of grace for the future. Thus the past is a mirror of the future, showing the perils and opportunities that are yet to be. This arms mankind for a commitment here and now, once and again, to decide for God.
Christ's new time After a long age of waiting and sometimes of despair, the Jewish people who were heirs of the Old Testament promises heard the announcement that God had brought history to its fulfillment in His Messiah (Mark 1:15). This Messiah eventually died a cruel death on the cross, but when He arose to everlasting life, His followers went into all the world to announce, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2 NRSV; compare
2 Corinthians 3:7-18). Just as Jesus had declined at the moment of His ascension to give His followers a clue to times and seasons (Acts 1:7), Paul refused to tell the church when the end would come, except to tell them that it would come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11), and that God was presently acting to overcome the mystery of “the man of lawlessness,” which must first be destroyed. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
Some are troubled that the mystery of lawlessness is still at work and has delayed the “day of the Lord” for another two thousand years. In spite of this, we must affirm with Paul and with Christ Himself that God's new age has most certainly arrived. Mankind is still lost, but only insofar as the gospel, widely proclaimed to all the world, is ignored. We too should be warned off from calculating days and seasons, for the fullness of time has already appeared. In His Son God gave mankind the most perfect revelation of Himself (John 14:5-11). For each human person, nothing counts but the present moment—the moment of decision for Christ—which brings the history of divine salvation to a climax of meaning in the life of peoples and individuals. Deciding for Christ in the present moment is the decisive act in waiting for Him.
Sacred time Israel's neighbors were very religious. They believed that their gods could be contacted at holy places (the shrines) and at holy times (the religious festivals). The biblical God, as Creator of the world and Lord of history, cannot be tied down to special places and special times. Nevertheless, His ancient people did right when they built the Temple and set aside holy seasons for His worship. This was not intended to coerce God but to hallow His holy presence for prayer and thanksgiving. Every time that Israel met for worship, it praised God for that great day at the beginning of their history, when He delivered them from Egypt; it praised Him also for every day of divine intervention. To keep His sabbaths and holy festivals and to gather in His temple, was an act of celebration and recommitment.
The Temple is long since destroyed, yet Jews and Christians gather in holy places and at holy seasons to continue their praise and renew their prayers. There is nothing sacrosanct about our church buildings or about our holy days. They are made holy by our intention. It seems a departure from biblical religion when the liturgy designs to recreate the real, bodily presence of Christ. Yet Christ must be present if worship is to be valid. It is God's greatest saving deed on our behalf, the death and resurrection of Christ, that must come to pass in our hearts anew. Then we will speak and testify in “the great congregation” (see
Psalms 22:25 NRSV), recreating in our worship the reality of Christ. All time belongs to God (Genesis 1:1), but sacred times, especially set aside and devoutly observed, serve to show once again our participation in the great events of God's appearance. See History; Time.
Simon J. DeVries