A Commentary by John Stott
Paul personifies ‘the creation’, much as we often personify ‘nature’. Indeed, there is ‘nothing…unnatural, unusual or unscriptual’ about doing so, since such personifications are quite common in the Old Testament. For example, the heavens, earth and sea, with all their contents, the fields, trees of the forest, rivers and mountains are all summoned to rejoice and to sing to Yahweh (Ps. 96:11ff.; 98:7ff.).
The apostle now makes three statements about creation, which relate respectively to its past, future and present.
First, *the creation was subjected to frustration* (20a). This reference to the past must surely be to the judgment of God, which fell on the natural order following Adam’s disobedience. The ground was cursed because of him (Gn. 3:17ff.; cf. Rev.22:3: ‘No longer will there be any curse.’). In consequence, it would ‘produce thorns and thistles’, so that Adam and his descendants would extract food from it only by ‘painful toil’ and sweat, until death claimed them and they returned to the dust from which they had been taken. Paul does not allude to these details. Instead, he sums up the result of God’s curse by the one word *mataiotes, frustration*. It means ‘emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness’ (BAGD). The basic idea is emptiness, whether of purpose or of result. It is the word chosen by the LXX translators for ‘Vanity of vanities!…All is vanity’ (Ec. 1:2, RSV), which NIV finely renders ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!…Utterly meaningless!’ As C.J.Vaughan comments, ‘the whole book of Ecclesiastes is a commentary upon this verse’. For it expresses the existential absurdity of a life lived ‘under the sun’, imprisoned in time and space, with no ultimate reference point to either God or eternity.
The apostle adds that the creation’s subjection to frustration or ‘futility’ (RSV) was *not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope* (20b). These last two words are enough to prove that the person in mind, whose will subjected the creation to futility, was neither Satan nor Adam, as a few commentators have suggested. Only God, being both Judge and Saviour, entertained hope for the world he cursed.
Secondly, *the creation itself will be liberated* (21a). The word ‘hope’ is the pivot on which Paul turns from the past to the future of creation. Its subjection to frustration will not last for ever, God has promised. One day it will experience a new beginning, which Paul terms a ‘liberation’, with both a negative and a positive aspect.
Negatively, creation will be *liberated from its bondage to decay* (21b). *Phthora (decay)* seems to denote not only that the universe is running down (as we would say), but that nature is also enslaved, locked into an unending cycle, so that conception, birth and growth are relentlessly followed by decline, decay, death and decomposition. In addition, there may be a passing reference to predation and pain, especially the latter which is mentioned in the next verse. So futility, bondage, decay and pain are the words the apostle uses to indicate that creation is out of joint because under judgment. It still works, for the mechanisms of nature are fine-tuned and delicately balanced. And much of it is breathtakingly beautiful, revealing the creators hand. But it is also in bondage to disintegration and frustration. In the end, however, it will be ‘freed from the shackles of mortality’ (REB), ‘rescued from the tyranny of change and decay’ (JBP).
Positively, creation will be *liberated…into the glorious freedom of the children of God* (21c), literally ‘into the freedom of their glory’. These nouns correspond to those of the previous clause, for nature will be brought out of bondage into freedom, out of decay into glory; that is, out of corruption into incorruption. Indeed, God’s creation will share in the glory of God’s children, which is itself the glory of Christ (see 17-18).