but because of him who subjected it, in hope
21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption
and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together
in the pains of childbirth until now.
With poetic elegance Paul personifies creation, giving it will, emotion, and awareness that its fate depends on the destiny of humankind. Creation understands that its own bondage to corruption is the result of humanity’s bondage to sin. Now creation eagerly waits for its day of freedom, which will coincide with the revealing of the sons of God.
We note the parallel between verses 18 and 19. Just as believers now suffer and await future glory, so the creation is now subject to futility and awaits its freedom.“Subhuman” creation
By creation Paul appears to mean nature, the created order apart from humans and angels. It includes animals, birds, fish, plants, and the inanimate parts of creation—the mountains, valleys, rivers, and seas—all of which God declared “good.” Creation was God’s gift to humankind. It was a source of food, meaningful labor, and beauty.
Paul was not the first to personify creation, as we see in the psalms and prophets. Mountains and hills break forth into singing, trees clap their hands, and the hills, meadows, and valleys shout and sing for joy (Isaiah 55:12, Psalm 65:12–13). But creation also sings a discordant note.Dominion detoured
In the beginning God gave man dominion over nature. Adam’s rebellion against God brought condemnation on humanity and a curse on his dwelling place, the earth. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” God said (Genesis 3:17), where the word for “ground” is ădâmâh, basically meaning the dirt from which God took dust and created Adam. Bruce Waltke and Cathi Fredricks say,
Human behavior is responsible for the condition of the earth, but for a more basic reason than secular environmentalists realize. A society may clean up its rivers but excuse moral pollution that brings God’s judgment on both people and land. Under the weight of people’s evil deeds the land mourns and beasts and birds perish (Jeremiah 12:4). “The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5).Even stones would cry out against evil and for righteousness if humans fail to do so (Habakkuk 2:11, Luke 9:40). There is a sense in which nature knows and obeys its Creator better than humans do, as R. C. Sproul comments:
Biblical morality is pro-earth, both for mandating responsible stewardship of creation and for calling people to repentance so that God will forgive sin and heal the land (2 Chronicles 7:14).Key terms
Eager longing. The Greek term pictures creation leaning forward in suspense and with intense desire. Creation cranes its neck in anticipation of glory to come.
Him who subjected it. The passive verbs leave some question about the identity of “him.” Of the possibilities—Adam, the devil, or God—only the latter fits the reality of God’s sovereign hand in judgment of sin with hope of redemption.Futility. Creation experiences frustration because it cannot fulfill God’s intention and purpose. Instead of Eden, earth is a tempest of tornadoes and hurricanes, floods and droughts, thistles and plagues that bring death and destruction upon both humans and nature itself. John Chrysostom commented on verse 20, with reference to Genesis 3:17–19:
Not willingly. Creation found itself the unwilling instrument of mankind’s fall when the devil spoke through the serpent. To extend the motif of personification, we can imagine the plants and animals of Eden sensing the peril and shouting “Don’t eat it!” to Adam and Eve’s deaf hearts.
In hope. Chrysostom went on to say that though the creation became corruptible because of man, it will become incorruptible once again for man’s sake. “This is the meaning of ‘in hope’,” he said. God’s curse of the ground was not without promise, because God decreed that the woman’s offspring would bruise the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
Bondage to corruption. Charles Cranfield notes that creation’s slavery to death, decay, and transitoriness “is the very opposite of the condition of glory.”
The whole creation has been groaning together. By “the whole creation” Paul does not mean now to include humanity, as becomes clear in verse 23. The entire cosmos moans in harmony over its predicament.
Pains of childbirth. ESV derives this phrase from a verb that parallels “has been groaning together.” Both verbs are present tense. A more literal translation would thus read as follows: “all creation groans together and suffers birth pangs together until now.” What do birth pangs signify? A baby soon will be born! Suffering is a consequence of sin but also a promise of joy. Jesus applied the same image as a promise to his disciples that their grief would turn into joy when they see Jesus again (John 16:20–22).Trees of sin, redemption, and glory
To pay for Adam’s sin of eating from a forbidden tree, Christ obeyed his Father by dying on a tree. Now he offers to everyone who perseveres in faith amidst present trials the right “to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2:7). Through Christ the children of God, clothed in the full glory of righteousness, will enter a restored garden. And creation will rejoice in its freedom to fulfill the Creator’s purpose.