Did you know that in Isaiah’s new heavens and a new earth people die (Isaiah 65:17-22), but typically not before reaching a hundred years old? Put another way, they will succeed in living as long as trees do. This can span several hundred years. Yet, I thought that people would live forever in heaven! What’s this?
How do we handle such an unexpected wrinkle? Ignore or downplay death in heaven? Assert Isaiah’s descriptive language constitutes a metaphor for something else? Embrace the security of the most popularly accepted viewpoint?
Perhaps the best approach begins by avoiding intuitive conclusions in order to examine the context. As many have acknowledged, “Context is king.”
Isaiah presents us with two contexts. Not only does a textual context exist, we also possess the context of cosmic language in prophetic oracles.
As for the textual context of Isaiah 40-66, it relays God’s message to his captive people in Babylon. Chapters 65 and 66 fall into three sections providing Yahweh’s response to Israel’s earlier complaint against him for not answering their call for help. God reveals that it was he who had repeatedly called to them, but the majority of them did not answer his call. So, God will destroy his rebellious people while restoring a remnant (Isaiah 65:1-16).
Second, having distinguished between his true servants and the pretenders, the true servants will forget their former difficulties as God’s blessings enable them to enjoy a rebuilt Jerusalem, the fruits of their labors, and long lives enveloped in an environment of peace (Isaiah 65:17-25).
Finally, God announced he will bless those who will serve him with a bright future. In fact, the faithful will even succeed in going out into the nations to bring to Jerusalem those who do not know God. Yet God also simultaneously announced harsh punishment for the majority of his people who worship idols (Isaiah 66:1-24).
As for prophetic contexts in Isaiah, cosmic language of both sky and earth often depict either blessings or destruction. For example, imagery such as watered ways becoming a desert, fire scorching the land, barrenness replacing fertility, and the extinguishing of celestial lights convey a nation’s downfall (Isaiah 19:1,5; 10:12,17-18; 34:8-10; 15:1,6; 13:1,10). In fact, although an oracle of doom might be focused against a particular nation, the language envelops the earth (Is. 13:1,5; 14:26). Conversely, the imagery of deserts becoming streams, fertility replacing barrenness and celestial lights shining even brighter announce God’s blessing upon a nation (Is. 30:25,26; 41:14,18-19).
Students of God’s word shun the practice of taking phrases or verses out of context. In order to gain an author-centered understanding, thus avoiding a reader-centered interpretation, requires us to consider how the context shapes the meaning within a verse or paragraph, even when its meaning might seem obvious at a quick glance. What was the author trying to communicate? How does the context contribute toward that understanding?
My purpose in this article is to stimulate Bible study. The question is, should we allow either or both of the two contexts briefly described above to influence our understanding of Isaiah’s new heavens and a new earth? If so, what do we understand?