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Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: the eschatology of Isaiah 60-66

In “21 reasons why the coming of the kingdom of God was not the end of the world” I stated that “There is no new creation in the Old Testament…, only kingdom.” There are, however, two explicit references to new creation in the Old Testament, both in the third part of Isaiah: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth”, and “as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me” (Is. 65:17; 66:22). Have I got it wrong, then?

To understand what Isaiah is saying, we need to read the whole section. It never helps to take things out of literary (or historical) context.

Isaiah 60-66 is a vision, from early in the post-exilic period, of the future glory of Israel, and of Jerusalem in particular, in the midst of the nations (60:1-3, 20). The scattered Jews of the diaspora will be regathered (60:4, 9); nations and kings will come to behold the glory of YHWH, bringing tribute (60:5-16), and foreigners will contribute to the rebuilding of the city following the devastation of the Babylonian invasion (60:10), as reparation for having afflicted Israel; the nation or kingdom that will not serve Israel will be laid waste (60:12); there will be no more violence and destruction in the land (60:18); the people will all be righteous, not just some of them, and will possess the land forever (60:21; cf. 5:23).

The prophet proclaims goodness to those who mourn in devastated Zion (61:1-3); the ancient ruins will be rebuilt (61:4); foreigners will labour for them, but Israel will be called “priests of the Lord” (61:5-6); they will eat the wealth of nations (61:6); YHWH will recompense his people for all that they have suffered, their descendants will be known among the nations as “an offspring the Lord has blessed” (61:8-9); he will establish Jerusalem and make it a praise in the earth (61:11).

YHWH is determined that the righteousness or “rightness” of his people will be seen by the nations (62:1-3); Jerusalem will no longer be an object of scorn, it will never again be ransacked and exploited by foreigners (62:4-9); Israel will be called by the nations “The Redeemed of the Lord”, Jerusalem will be called “A City Not Forsaken” (62:12). YHWH will wreak vengeance of the surrounding nations: “I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:6).

[pq]Even allowing for the essential realism of the prophetic vision of renewal, it was not fulfilled in anything like the scale envisaged, so the eschatological dissonance remains right down to the time of Jesus.[\/pq]

Isaiah prays that YHWH will remember his faithfulness towards Israel and intervene to put things right, as he did in the past, that he would “rend the heavens and come down… to make your name known to your adversaries, that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (63:15-64:2). YHWH punishes his rebellious and unfaithful people, but he will not destroy them all (65:1-8). His chosen will possess the land and prosper, but those who “forsake the Lord” are destined for the sword (65:10-16).

This transformation of the social-political condition of Israel is presented as the creation of “new heavens and a new earth”: as far as faithful Israel is concerned, the “former troubles are forgotten… the former things shall not be remembered” (65:16-17). New creation is a figure for a new start for Israel. It is a process that is already underway:

Only after the old present order has gone can a new age be created, but the references in chaps. 40–66 presumed a position in which the former age is already gone and a new age with Cyrus and his successors has begun. Here, too, the new order that is being created is (like chap. 45) the one in which Persia holds sway over the entire area so that Jerusalem can be rebuilt.1

The figure is developed in 65:18-25. YHWH will “create Jerusalem to be a joy”. The righteous will live into old age; the “sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed”. The fruit of their labour will not be stolen by their enemies; they will not again suffer the sort of “calamity” that had left Jerusalem in ruins. The ending of warfare and destruction for Jerusalem will extend even to the natural order: the wolf and lamb will graze together, the lion will eat straw like the ox. This “new creation” is confined to Mount Zion: it is not a global or cosmic phenomenon.

Parenthetically, the sacrificial system is compromised (66:1-6). YHWH summons Israel to a simple expression righteousness: “this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Is. 66:2); those who hate the simple righteous will be put to shame (66:5-6).

Now back to the main story about post-exilic Jerusalem. The emergence of a restored Jerusalem and its inhabitants will be like a childbirth: God has brought his people to the point of birth, therefore he will certainly bring forth the new city (66:7-9). We are in the middle of the historical process of reconstruction, and there are doubts over whether it will be carried through to a glorious fulfilment. The assurance is that Jerusalem will know peace; the glory of the nations will be extended to it. Its inhabitants will be comforted and rejoice; they will know the hand of the Lord, and he will “show his indignation against his enemies” (66:14). This brings us to the final section.

The Lord will come in fire to judge his enemies in Israel, and “those slain by the LORD shall be many” (66:16). The time is coming when he will gather the nations to witness the judgment of unrighteous, idolatrous, obstructive Jews and the restoration of his people. Indeed, the nations will bring with them the Jews of the diaspora, as their own offering to the Lord. Some of the returning Jews will be recruited as priests and Levites (66:18-21). As long as this new order, this new heavens and new earth, remains, all Jews will come to worship YHWH in restored Zion. But as they go out from the city, they will see the corpses of the unrighteous Jews who rebelled against him. “For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (66:24). This will be a reminder to Israel not to rebel against YHWH in the same fashion.

So some brief conclusions:

  • The passage presupposes a historical context: the difficult circumstances that the Jews faced following return from exile.
  • At the heart of the passage is Isaiah’s prayer that YHWH will “rend the heavens and come down” to sort the mess out.
  • The prophetic narrative describes the eventual restoration of Jerusalem and its establishment as the glorious focal point for the knowledge of YHWH among the nations of the Ancient Near East.
  • This is a kingdom story: it has to do with the security and status of Israel in the midst of hostile nations.
  • The “new creation” language is figurative. History is not literally transcended, but a dramatically different and enduring social-political situation is predicted.
  • Even allowing for the essential realism of the prophetic vision of renewal, it was not fulfilled in anything like the scale envisaged, so the eschatological dissonance remains right down to the time of Jesus.
  • Jesus used the language of Isaiah 66:24 to the same effect. Jews of his own generation were rebelling against God. As part of the coming judgment on Jerusalem, they would be thrown into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, Gehenna, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48).
  • 1. J.D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (2005), 924.

Comments

“The “new creation” language is figurative. History is not literally transcended, but a dramatically different and enduring social-political situation is predicted.“

And seeing how Isa 60-66 is the OT backdrop for John, so is Revelation 21-22.

I see the appeal of the argument, but I still think that i) John’s thousand year period is intended to create an enormous symbolic distance between the transformative eschatological events that culminate in the establishment of Christ’s reign and the new creation; ii) John speaks of a resurrection of all the dead, which, as in the Jewish literature (see #4 here), suggests a final judgment; and iii) the final annihilation of death and Hades marks out John’s new creation as something fundamentally different from Isaiah’s, where death persists: “the young man shall die a hundred years old” (Is. 65:20). See also this post.

Andrew,

I think one can still hold to the 1000 years beginning at AD70, and have the new heavens and earth arrive at the same time. Duncan McKenzie made this argument in The Antichrist and the Second Coming, vol. 2. Essentially his argument was that the thousand years and the Gog/Magog event were a parenthesis out into the future, but the parousia, binding of satan, great white throne judgment, end of death and hades, and arrival of the new heavens and earth all arrived at the same time at AD70. Quite honestly, his arguments are the most compelling yet of any I’ve seen trying to put the pieces together on this difficult text.

As far as referencing the other Jewish writings, that seems rather circular to me…it starts with the assumption because there is global and cosmic language, that is must be a global event at the end of time. But this is not uncommon in the OT (see Isa 24-27). It’s also not uncommon in the NT, and clearly the “global” language in places like Matt. 24 are quite the opposite…as you yourself have well argued.

Your comment about death and Hades assumes that death is physical death, but there’s plenty of room to debate against that assumption, particularly that Adam died the day he ate the fruit (not 900 years later), and that physical death was already a reality prior to the time of Adam.

Finally, I find it rather incredulous to believe that Hades exists still today, 1947 years after the full dissolution of the old covenant system. Why would a believer in Christ still wait in detention after death today? That makes the new covenant rather impotent, and quite similar to the old covenant; neither one fixing the problem of sins curse (death, via the law - 1 Cor. 15:56).

It sounds like you are stipulating to Isa. 65-66 being fulfilled in the establishment of the kingdom in The first century. If so, and assuming that the original audience of the NT is using OT precedent as a basis for NT terminology, on what basis do you say that Peter intended to communicate a melting of the universe in 2nd Peter 3? It seems to me that he is using language directly from this chapter in Isaiah, so that we should assume they had a similar point.

I would be more inclined to say that the prophecies of Isaiah 60-65 were not fulfilled, even in the first century AD. The Jerusalem on earth remained in bondage and was eventually destroyed; it never became a glorious beacon of Yahwistic faith among the nations. But the Jerusalem above, which is by no means an Old Testament idea, was free (Gal. 4:25-26).

The author of 2 Peter uses Isaiah’s language, but I wouldn’t assume he is making the same point. In fact, since this is 2 Peter, I wouldn’t assume that he has got the “promise” directly from Isaiah—it may have come by way of the apocalyptic tradition:

And the angel of the presence who went before the camp of Israel took the tables of the divisions of the years… from the day of the [new] creation when the heavens and the earth shall be renewed and all their creation according to the powers of the heaven, and according to all the creation of the earth, until the sanctuary of the Lord shall be made in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, and all the luminaries be renewed for healing and for peace and for blessing for all the elect of Israel, and that thus it may be from that day and unto all the days of the earth. (Jub. 1:29)

Then will I cause Mine Elect One to dwell among them. And I will transform the heaven and make it an eternal blessing and light And I will transform the earth and make it a blessing (1 En. 45:4–5)

…and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are, and how it is with regard to all the years of the world and unto eternity, till the new creation is accomplished which dureth till eternity (1 En. 72:1)

And the first heaven shall depart and pass away, And a new heaven shall appear, And all the powers of the heavens shall give sevenfold light. And after that there will be many weeks without number for ever, And all shall be in goodness and righteousness, And sin shall no more be mentioned for ever. (1 En. 91:16–17)

…and in the battle of the stars a new creation shall come forth, so that the whole land of the Ethiopians shall perish with fire and moanings. (Sib. Or. 5:212–213)

For there will be a greater trial than these two tribulations when the Mighty One will renew His creation. (2 Bar. 32:6)

And the hour comes which abides for ever. And the new world (comes) which does not turn to corruption those who depart to its blessedness….(2 Bar. 44:12)

I find it rather startling to claim that Isa. 65 wasn’t fulfilled in the first century because Jerusalem on earth never became a “glorious beacon.” That is precisely the point of the text. Jerusalem on earth was prophetically being judged and found wanting. But there was a new creation, a new Jerusalem, in mind of Isaiah: “I create Jerusalem to be a joy.” It was the Jerusalem above that Isaiah clearly had in mind in this new creation. The Jerusalem below was the one destined for the sword, which happened historically in AD66-70. God left their name as a curse, and chose a new people by a new name (65:15).

Paul seems to take issue with your claim that a Jerusalem from above is nowhere to be found in the OT. It might be helpful to quote all of Paul in this setting:

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;[e] she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
28 Now you,[f] brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”

Paul interpreted the OT story to be an allegory of the old vs new Jerusalem’s. He understood this to be the full meaning of the OT texts. This seems rather clear and straightforward to me.

It was the Jerusalem above that Isaiah clearly had in mind in this new creation.

But nothing in Isaiah 60-66 suggests that he was thinking of a Jerusalem above. That makes nonsense of the passage. His is a thoroughly earthly vision.

And yes, Paul had to allegorise the story of Sarah and Hagar in order to talk about a Jerusalem above, which is another way of saying that the idea is not found in the Old Testament.

Andrew,

Isaiah was comparing two peoples: one who were destined to the sword and a curse, and another called by a new name. These new people with a new name were who/what was being created: a new covenant community, a new heavens and earth, the Jerusalem “of joy.” Of course he didn’t call it “the Jerusalem above,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t; particularly when that is how the NT interprets it and sees it being played out historically.

It seems rather clear to me that Paul viewed his new covenant community as the “Jerusalem above.” The Hebrew writer also saw the same thing:

12: 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

BTW this new “heavenly” (i.e. above) Jerusalem community was also a kingdom:

12: 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,”

And specifically regarding the allegory in Gal 4, just because Paul interpreted it allegorically doesn’t mean that it’s not the final meaning God wants it to have; in fact, Peter seemed to understand that the ultimate meaning of Scripture was how the Apostles were revealing it to mean in his day:

1 Peter 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time[a] the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”

Part of the problem I think you are having is you are reading the OT literally in certain places, and when that literal interpretation of fulfillment didn’t happen in the NT narrative or in history, then you are pushing it out into the future. But that seems arbitrary to me. The prophets all had deeper meaning behind the literal fulfillment (e.g., the dry bones in Ezek 37 not being literal resurrection but of a new covenant community of people coming out of the old covenant community; yes the text was looking partly to some sort of exilic return from Babylon, but as you said earlier that didn’t quite fulfill the text by the time of Jesus).

This is how James understood prophecy, such as Amos, in Acts 15:

13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,

16 “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant[b] of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

Now a literal interpretation of Amos would not yield the interpretation James gave. The exile in reality didn’t fulfill this passage. The church did. And in the church we don’t see a literal tent of David, or his city being rebuilt. So by your hermeneutic we are waiting for a literal tent and rebuilt city of Jerusalem in the future? Why should we not take James’ word as the final authority on this matter, and use his (and Peter’s and Paul’s and John’s) hermeneutic to understand the OT prophesies had non-literal fulfillment in the historical events of the creation of a new covenant people, during the second Exodus of AD30-70?

So the language of Isaiah 65:17 was figurative, not literal? Was the language of Revelation 21:1 also figurative and not literal? Such a direct echo makes a contrasting usage far fetched, to say the least.

Why far-fetched? You need to give reasons for your sweeping assertions. Why shouldn’t a literal idea in the Old Testament be used figuratively in the New Testament, or vice versa? Why shouldn’t we allow that John saw in the figure of the creator recreating Jerusalem the greater possibility that finally he would renew all things? I don’t see the problem. The re-creation of Jerusalem anticipates the re-creation of the cosmos.

I think we have something similar in Romans 8: creation sees in the coming glorification of the sons of God something of its own eventual liberation from the bodage to decay.

Isaiah is echoing Genesis 1:1 - new heavens and new earth. As far as his contemporaries were concerned, this was drawing in a literal description of the cosmos. There’s no reason to think that Isaiah intended a figurative meaning.

As I said before, you need to give reasons for your sweeping assertions.

When Isaiah 60-66 is clearly a story about Israel’s status and place among the nations, established as a result of warfare, still subject to sin and death, what grounds are there for asserting that the language of new heaven and new earth is literal?

Obviously Isaiah echoes Genesis 1:1, just as he echoes Genesis 2 in Isaiah 51:3, but that in itself does not make the allusion literal. Genesis 1:1, in any case, is not a “new” creation. As soon as we add “new” to it we are talking about something different.

Resurrection begins in scripture as a figure for the revival of God’s people but it later becomes a literal concept.

In this case, new heavens and new earth are in a different category from Isaiah 51:3, though it’s part of the same story. 51:3 describes earthly renewal. 65:17 extends to the cosmos. This literal cosmic renewal is understood and repeated in Revelation 21.

The entire tone of Isaiah 60-66 breaks the bounds of limited historical realities. Isaiah is drawing on the only imagery he has to describe this - a renewed Jerusalem, now significantly renamed Zion. The renewal expresses a dimension of the ideal which even for figurative language goes beyond historical possibility.

It’s certainly kingdom language, but a very different kind of kingdom than that experienced and practised by Israel in the ancient world. The kind of kingdom introduced by Jesus, in fact, when he quoted Isaiah 61 as his mission.

Why does Isaiah connect the new heavens and earth with forgetfulness?

What Isaiah describes is the renewal of Zion among the nations, where sin persists and people still die? How is that a “literal cosmic renewal”?

Why would we think that the renewal of Jerusalem is the only imagery at Isaiah’s disposal to describe a literal new creation? That seems an especially specious argument. Surely Isaiah, or anyone writing in the Isaianic tradition, would have the imagination to describe the renewal of heaven and earth. You have to give a better reason than that for the restriction of peace to Mount Zion.

Jerusalem is not renamed Zion. Jersualem is Zion as far back as 2 Samuel 5:7; the name occurs throughout the Psalms and about 40 times in Isaiah before we get to chapters 60-66.

I don’t understand your first comment. In one sense, it’s another argument for cosmic renewal, when the memory of former times will be erased. In a slightly more likely sense, it’s a forceful way of making a contrast: between the quality of the times to come and those that have passed. Either way, it encourages the view that we are not looking at historical events in 60-66.

Isaiah 60-66 is describing the future from the perspective of the imperfect present, with movement back and forth between the two. However, I haven’t seen that sin persists in Isaiah’s vision of the future, and the only death I see in this vision is couched in figurative terms: people will be thought of as youthful if they die at a hundred years and considered cursed if they fail to reach a hundred years. This is using non literal language as an approximation of an otherwise indescribable future state.

Much of the language of this future state in Isaiah 60-66 is, as you know, repeated in Revelation 21, such as: Isaiah 65:17 and 19; no temple in the city; no sun or moon but the light of the Lord/Lamb; kings bringing their splendour into the city, etc. A good reason for this is that the author of Revelation took inspiration from Isaiah for the same vision of the future, but now brought closer and made accessible through the actions of the Lamb. This would include Isaiah 63 fulfilled in Revelation 19, except that the blood in 19 is Jesus’s own blood, not that of his enemies, and his sword is the word that comes from his mouth, not the sword of enemies killed in violent conquest.

Rather than saying that Jerusalem provided the only imagery available to Isaiah to describe cosmic renewal, perhaps I should have said that it would seem unlikely that Isaiah could or would have thought about the future in any other terms. This is consistently how he sees an ideal future for Israel throughout his prophecy. It is consistently a future which was never realised by historic Israel, but it did emerge out of Israel through Jesus, as the NT declares.

The terms Zion and Jerusalem need a bit more discussion than this exchange allows, but you are right in saying that Jerusalem was not renamed Zion. The use of Zion as a term in many of the Psalms does look forward to a future beyond historic Jerusalem. Just because the Psalms appear before Isaiah in our bibles does not mean they only deal with matters in history before Isaiah.

Also, to quote Kidner of 60-62b in the New Bible Commentary: “these verses transcend the old order, and even in places the Christian era itself . . . the vision looks repeatedly . . . to the end, the state of ultimate glory”. Of 65:17-25 he says: “This leaves the question open whether the passage promises these things literally, or depicts the final state by means of earthly analogies.” Taken literally, Kidner says, the things described would refer to a future millennium. Taken as analogy, they would refer to a final state. He argues for the latter, with allusions to the sinner and serpent as promises of judgment and victory.