Forthright Magazine

Isaiah’s new heaven and earth (part 2 – Context and Genre)

As mentioned last week, commentators offer various and conflicting ideas regarding Isaiah’s new heavens and new earth. Interpretations differ as to what Isaiah 65 and 66 mean. In order to hear God’s message through Isaiah, we will need to do more than just return to studying the text.

For starters, there is the need to allow Isaiah to speak for himself.  Imposing another biblical author’s message over Isaiah’s Spirit filled message will only render us deaf to his message.

Furthermore, we must avoid reading a verse or two and then asking, "what does this mean to me?" Context matters. Context informs and shapes the meaning for individual paragraphs and verses. If context is king, then we will want to start with a question like: "What is the overall flow of the author’s message?"

When we consider the broad context of Isaiah 40-66, we discover a strong declaration concerning God. It is the LORD who creates, commissions, chooses, redeems, protects, exalts and punishes as he determines. Furthermore, Yahweh alone is God.

Against this backdrop, God’s sovereignty is woven together with pronouncements regarding exilic and post-exilic Israel. Some of the broad key thematic notes include: Although God punished Israel, Israel is now to be comforted because God is Israel’s Redeemer (Isaiah 40:1,2; 49:13; 48:20; 51:3; 52:9). God has chosen his servant Israel for service, but they are blind (Isaiah 41:8,9; 42:18-22; 49:3). God’s previous lack of action is not because he was powerless (Isaiah 50:2; 59:1). Rather, the LORD will be exalted among Israel and the nations when he restores Jerusalem and delivers the righteous among Israel (Isaiah 44:6,23,26; 45:13; 52:1,2; 59:20; 60:18-19; 62:11-12; 65:13-14).

Within that greater context, we encounter Isaiah chapters 65 and 66 falling into three sections announcing Yahweh’s response to Israel’s earlier complaint against him for not answering their call for help. First, 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. As this occurs God will also dispense harsh punishment for the majority who worship idols (Isaiah 66:1-24).

As we spiral closer to the details, perceiving that much of Isaiah is written in hebraic poetry will sharpen our understanding and assist in avoiding faulty interpretations. Unlike English poetry which can be built upon meter and rhyming, Hebrew poetry is constructed on a parallel structure. One line might echo another (synonymous parallelism) or provide a stark contrast to the other (antithetic parallelism). For example:

“The children of your oppressors  will come bowing before you;

all who despise you will bow down  at your feet 

and will call you the City  of the LORD,

Zion  of the Holy One  of Israel” Isaiah 60:14

In this case, it would distort Isaiah’s message if we were to interpret “children of your oppressors” as being different than “all who despise you.” Similarly, “City of the LORD” should be equated with “Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”

Or consider Isaiah 51:11:

“Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return;

They will enter Zion with a happy shout.

Unending joy will crown them,

Happiness and joy will overwhelm them;

Grief and suffering will disappear.”

Returning and entering Zion are intended to covey the same message. Joy crowning and happiness overwhelming are once again synonymous. Stating the opposite side of this coin provides a reason for this joy – grief and suffering will disappear.

Previously we noted that Isaiah 65 describes God destroying his rebellious people while restoring a remnant and blessing his true servants to enjoy a rebuilt Jerusalem in an environment of peace. When we bring to this context an appreciation of parallelism, what do we understand by “The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” standing in parallel with “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17)?

Has the author suddenly jumped to a message regarding the end of time? Or did the author claim memories of the exile would fade as the remnant experiences a new beginning?

The cosmic language of new heavens and a new earth deserves a closer look. Next week, we’ll explore the prophetic usage of cosmic language.


Barry Newton
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