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).
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).
- 1J.D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66 (2005), 924.