Everyone knows what Isaiah’s new heavens and new earth is all about, right? Spoiler alert! Some regard Isaiah 65:17-19; 66:22 as referring to the end of time. Others understand it to have been a prophesy informing post-exilic Israel how God would rebuild worship in Jerusalem in their time.
Why such divergent interpretations? The short answer involves assumptions, methods and goals. Whether we realize it or not, this is also why we hold onto whatever views we might have.
For those accepting scripture as God’s word, here are some common goals and methods. If adopted, they can guide toward identifying an author’s intended message.
- Seek to understand the message God intended his prophet to communicate.
This goal requires careful study using our available tools and methods. Our first step will involve reading the larger context. It will not be a quick reading of a few verses followed by, “What does this text mean to me?”
- Allow each biblical author to communicate his own message from God. Therefore, interpret Isaiah 65-66 within Isaiah’s context.
NT authors are known to appropriate OT language to communicate ideas that do not preserve the OT meaning. For example, Hosea 11:1 refers to Israel coming out of Egypt hundreds of years before Hosea’s time. Matthew 2:15 quotes this verse as describing Jesus coming out of Egypt hundreds of years after Hosea’s time.
Thus while NT authors might allude to or quote from Isaiah, their messages might not provide us insight regarding the message Isaiah communicated. To understand his message we need to study Isaiah.
As for the textual context of Isaiah 40-66, it relays God’s message to Palestinian Jews freed from 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 revealed 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 proclaimed harsh punishment for the majority who worship idols (Isaiah 66:1-24).
- Interpret scripture according to its literary genre. Isaiah 65-66 is written in poetic hebraic parallelism.
Thus, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me” presents a parallel message to: “I was found by those who did not seek me” (Isaiah 65:1). So too, “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth” conveys the same basic message as “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
What idea would Isaiah be sending to post-exilic Jews when he wrote that the former things would not come to mind? Sounds like their exilic memories were about to fade as they experienced a new beginning! What type of new beginning? The cosmic language of new heavens and a new earth deserves a closer look.
Space does not permit carefully stepping through these chapters allowing one parallel line to interpret the other. If we find ourselves interpreting one synonymous line dramatically different than its parallel, we ignore Isaiah’s communication technique and we will distort his message.
- Be sensitive to how an author uses language to convey ideas. Isaiah used dramatic cosmic language enveloping the heavens and the earth to indicate either national blessings or destruction.
To give us perspective, consider how he described the king of Babylon’s conquests. “Is this the man who shook the earth, the one who made kingdoms tremble? Is this the one who made the world like a wilderness, who ruined its cities …? (Isaiah 14:16,17). Notice the parallelism!
Well, if a man can shake the earth and turn the world into a wilderness, how does Isaiah describe God’s ability to destroy a nation or people? The lights go out in the heavens while the land or even the whole earth burns up or trembles, streams dry up and wilderness chaos presides (Isaiah 5:24-25; 9:19; 13:1-13; 14:23,26; 15:1,6; 19:1,5; 34:8-10). Ain’t no sunshine when God is on the war path!
Conversely, Isaiah used the cosmic imageries of the sun and moon shining even brighter, streams irrigating the desert, and the land bursting forth with fertility as a pastoral scene overtakes chaos to portray God’s blessing. (Isaiah 30:25,26; 41:14,18,19; 42:16; 44:4; 55:13).
While new heavens and a new earth certainly portray a new beginning, what type of new beginning? Does this point toward God creating new heavens after the world ends or is it about God’s new provisions for a godly remnant to worship? Where does the evidence point for you? Is there a primary meaning and a subsequent secondary one?
As for me, given Isaiah’s proclivity to use cosmic language to describe God’s blessings and given the literary context, it seems reasonable to at least conclude that Isaiah’s primary message communicated hope to post-exilic Jews regarding what God was preparing for them. This does not deny that other authors might have used Isaiah’s words to teach about the end.
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