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From Eternity to Eternity

Wolfgang Hamburger
Fall 2003

“Before the mountains came into being, before You brought forth the earth and the world, from eternity to eternity You are God.” (Ps. 90:2)  

Psalm 90 is part of the liturgy at our funeral service. When a close relative or a good friend passes on, the thought of the bereaved turns to the transitory nature of human existence even if the departed enjoyed a long and good life. For that reason, Psalm 90 may be better known than most of the 150 Psalms with probably the exception of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) and Psalm 130 (“Out of the depths I call You, O Lord.”) The length of man’s life, although it may be 70 or 80 years and nowadays even longer than that, is limited, but God’s Being is “from eternity to eternity.” It was a poet’s way of describing God’s complete otherness.  

The ingenious formulation by a master of communicating thought inspired later students and scholars of the Bible to offer their explanations of the poetic phrase. A remarkable interpretation of the Psalmist’s wording has been preserved; it can stimulate the imagination of modern persons who are blessed with, or have attained, openmindedness. Its author was David Kimchi who lived during the last decades of the 12th century well into the first decades of the next one. His home was France; he made a name for himself as a scholar of Hebrew grammar and as a biblical commentator. He understood the phrase “from eternity to eternity” as referring to the eternity before creation and from then to the eternity thereafter. It is not clear, however, whether Kimchi thought of creation as being limited, even though in terms of immeasurable time, or as being eternal itself.  

Latecomer in Nature  

Natural science views the human species as a latecomer in the long and difficult development of nature. Minimal changes in the composition of the atmosphere surrounding the earth can undo the late development of humankind and cause its extinction. It is thus possible that man will not be part of all the eternity to come. Measured by nature’s undefinable periods of time, the human species represents a brief interruption of endlessness even if that interruption should last far beyond any human imagination. When astronomers, referring to time, speak of eon, not even they can relate to the word of Greek origin, the literal meaning of which is an indefinitely long period of time. The human being is part of nature, yet his or her mental keenness makes the observation of nature and intricate calculations possible. Only an intellectual grasp of the facts is possible, but those facts lack any relationship to human experience; the emotions are not touched.  

Thus, human existence can be understood as a brief interruption of endlessness. Everything which may be considered brief by the measure of nature and the universe exceeds what humans can grasp. Astrophysicists use terms such as galaxies and black holes when they describe the vastness of the cosmos or nature. Their work satisfies and rewards them; they gain fame and recognition in the small circle of their colleagues and the admiration of those lay-persons who are interested in this particular branch of science.  

Origin of the Universe  

Physicists and mathematicians concluded from observations and calculations that the universe had its origin in the elemental explosion of a substance hardly the size of an atom. Scientists estimate that this event, the birth of nature, occurred in a fraction of a second, between ten and twenty billion years ago.1 The fact that the universe is expanding at a high speed is established by the observation that distant galaxies are rapidly moving away from the earth. This expansion must have had a beginning.  

Indeed, it is identified with the explosion of that exceedingly small substance. Science does not offer an opinion about the composition and origin of the substance as the event lies outside the ken of scientific consideration, of statement and proof. Therefore simple thought, not provable but probable, may now pose the question with which science cannot concern itself. The question relates to the tiny substance out of which the universe came forth: How did it originate?  

It is obvious that this question would be raised by persons who are familiar with the theory of the origin of the universe. The fact that scientists declare their inability to concern themselves with that theory in the accustomed manner of natural science invited thought, reasonable and responsible, to handle it. Thought cannot be satisfied with the assumption that the tiny substance should have always for eon after eon been in existence as that postulation leads to the question why or how at last the elemental explosion occurred.  

Natural Necessity  

There is no plausible and satisfactory answer to that question, unless caprice is to be ascribed to nature, and that most certainly is inconceivable, Not even thought is able to provide a reason for the explosion of the substance except as the function of natural necessity. What constitutes natural necessity in the process of the evolving universe or nature cannot be defined in terms of any law or criterion available to science and its established procedure. Astrophysicists can only state what they think happened at the moment of nature’s birth and leave it at that.  

Thought, however, is free to roam, to concern itself with the problem of the substance which, by exploding, brought forth the universe. How did it originate? The answer to this question could unlock the secret of nature’s working on its grand scale and offer a glance at its immanent force. Thought is qualified and therefore obligated to concern itself with this question and present an acceptable explanation.  

Surpassing Human Imagination  

The tiny substance may have been the remnant of a previous universe which collapsed upon itself. It was left as the sole evidence of nature’s earlier flourishing the span of an eon ago, Thought is free to suppose that the cosmic event of collapse and rebirth was not a unique occurrence in nature’s timelessness but, like pulsation, an ongoing process on so grand a scale that it surpasses by far human imagination or fantasy.  

When the Psalmist wanted to describe God’s Being as without beginning and without end, he coined the phrase “from everlasting to everlasting” or “from eternity to eternity.” He could not realize that his poetic formulation, about two and a half millennia later, would become the principle of another view of nature or the universe. It is a view which intimates an inkling of God.  

1Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, 1988, pp. 8-9.  

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