Monday, September 05, 2011

The river of time

There are different ways to imagine of time’s passage. And this, in turn, involves different ways to imagine the human lifespan.

1. Linear

One popular way is to imagine time in linear terms. The river of time is a conventional metaphor, immortalized by Isaac Watts’ adaptation of Ps 90:

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away.

On this view, we’re like rafters swept downstream by the current. We never see the same thing twice. Life is always in motion. We are facing into the future, while the past is rapidly receding behind us.

Life is a blur. We skim life. We see time passing us by on either side of the riverbank.

This metaphor captures the fleeting, ephemeral nature of time.

2. Cyclical

Another popular way is to imagine time in cyclical terms. The four seasons are a conventional metaphor. Spring represents birth and childhood; summer represents youth; autumn represents middle age, while winter represents old age and death.

Before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain (Eccl 12:2)
11for behold, the winter is past;
    the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
   the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
   is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
   and the vines are in blossom;
   they give forth fragrance.
(Cant. 2:11-13)

This captures the lifecycle. From a secular standpoint, this is cyclical in the sense that each spring represents the next generation. Taking the place of the older generation.

From a Christian perspective, the seasonal cycle represents birth, death, and rebirth. We are born. We live, we age, and we die. But that’s not the end. There’s the afterlife. The resurrection of the body. 

3. Layered

Then there’s another, albeit neglected, metaphor–which was more familiar to folks in Bible times. And that is the mound or tell. This preserves the ancient cycle of settlement-abandonment-resettlement.

Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt on its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be (Jer 30:18; cf. Ezk 32).

This reflects a stratified view of time. A new city built atop the ruins of the last city. Deserted for a time. If you take a cross-section, you can see successive occupational levels. What’s lower is generally earlier, what’s higher is generally later.

This models the passage of time in both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The corporate dimension of life. The epochal nature of time.

Not just the lifecycle of individuals, but members of the same generation. Not just the diachronic aspect of time, but the synchronic aspect. Simultaneous lives. Interwoven lives. A group of individuals who grew, lived, aged, and died together at about the same time and place. A shared existence. A shared experience. Shared memories. A network of family and friends.

When contemporaries died off, they don’t merely die as isolated individuals. Relationships die. Their livelihood becomes obsolete. The world they knew becomes a lost world. Buried ruins.

In a sense, all of us reside in a cemetery. The living walk on the graves of the departed. We’re just one more level in a multi-storied existence. One generation stacked atop another.

It’s interesting to consider the extent to which heaven, the new Eden, and the New Jerusalem, will either combine or preserve different epochs.


  1. Now that was thought provoking!

    Of late the Words from Peter in 1 Peter 5 have been ringing in my ears and what I just read bring the sounds again.

    Especially from the quotation taken from Ezkl's writings.

    As it was layered for those of that period, so it seems to be as much and more so for us in our own generations in Christ as Peter illuminates it so well:

    1Pe 5:10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
    1Pe 5:11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.

    After now walking it out just about 40 years, sojourning through this world with Christ in me, I have to admit I have some things needing to be restored. Oh wretched man that I am! Thanks be to God, though, through Jesus Christ our Lord, that God, He Himself, makes that promise to restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us!

    Love never fails!

  2. What do you think, Steve; is the church "growing up"?

    If one looks back at church history, especially in light of Israel's history, do we see her going through a life cycle from infancy to maturity?

    Is there a Scriptural underpinning for such a view?

    I've been pondering this for some time now, and your layered city analogy struck a chord with me.

    In Christ,

  3. Coram Deo, you don't have to respond to this post of mine.

    I personally think the Church is growing up. I remember listening to a lecture by Reformed Baptist Sam Waldron critiquing the positives and negatives of theonomy. In the lecture, he gives a brief defense of amillennialism which included the idea that the church is growing up and maturing down through history culminating in the return of Christ. He argued from Eph. 4:13ff that the Church would progress and develop in doctrine by it's ability to distinguish truth from heresy ("every wind of doctrine").

    13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,d to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

    It's a fact that the Church has often developed it's doctrine more precisely in opposition to error and/or heresy. For example against gnosticism, Sabellianism, Docetism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Dynamic Monarchianism, Sabellianism/Modalism, Adoptionism, Eutycheanism, Monophysitism, Monothelitism, Binitarianism, Pneumatomachianism/Macedonianism. This can also be observed in the Donatist controversy, the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian controvery, the controversy concerning justification during the Reformation.

    This kind of development is something which might also be prophetically hinted at in 1 Cor. 11:19

    For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. (KJV)

    For there must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you. (NASB)

    This might also be suggested in Eph. 5:25ff

    25Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish"

    As a charismatic, I could say more about the Church's progess due to the Holiness Movement, Pentecostalism and how it lead to the Charismatic movement (etc.), but I'll leave it at that.

    Suffice it to say that the early Church dealt with the *Person* of Christ (and to the lesser degree with the "person" and divinity of the Holy Spirit). During the Reformation the Church dealt with the *Work* of Christ. And now I think we've entered the era of the *Work* of the Holy Spirit as evident by the fact that pentecostal/charismatic Christianity is growing rapidly in the world.

    John Bugay acknowledges it's growth and influence in one of his blogs.

    Btw, Waldron wrote books in defense of the amillennial position titled "The End Times Made Simple: How Could Everybody Be So Wrong about Biblical Prophecy"

    He also wrote a sequel titled "More of the End Times Made Simple"

    I read the first book and I recommend it. However, I think the fatal flaw of the book is his admission that there are sub-divisions in the great Ages of history. If that's true, then he should be wiling to admit that there could be sub-divisions in the "Age to Come". Something which he attempts to deny in order to undermine Pre-Millennialism and it's two stage view of the return of Christ (viz. 1. Millennium prior to the Eternal State and 2. the Eternal/final State/Eternity).