Posted inForthright Magazine

Isaiah’s new heaven and earth (part 1 – interpretation principles)

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 interpretation 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 our goal is to hear the message God intended his prophet to communicate, this will require careful study and an openness to listening.

  • Our first step involves a goal. Allow each biblical author to communicate his own message from God.

We need to hear what God led Isaiah to communicate to his audience. And when New Testament authors later quote or allude back to Isaiah’s message, we allow them to present their own message(s) from God.

Why is this signifiant? NT authors are known to appropriate OT language to communicate ideas that do not preserve the Old Testament meaning. For example, Hosea 11:1 refers to Israel having coming out of Egypt hundreds of years before Hosea’s time. Yet Matthew 2:15 quotes this verse as describing Jesus coming out of Egypt hundreds of years after Hosea’s time.

What is going on? During the time when the New Testament was written, one accepted technique, called typology, involved identifying parallels. The basic idea is that a truth or principle in one situation suggested or proved a principle regarding the other.  In the above case, Matthew applied a typological approach to Hosea’s message. Other examples of typology include 1 Peter 3:20-21 and Romans 5:14.

Thus spirit-led first century authors used common techniques of their day to communicate God’s message. Accordingly, while they might allude to or quote from Isaiah, their usage(s) of Isaiah may or may not provide us insight into what Isaiah communicated to his audience. To understand Isaiah’s message we need to first study Isaiah.

Failure to recognize this principle of allowing each author to communicate his own message will distort at least a portion of God’s word. We will end up imposing one author’s message upon another’s and therefore will remain deaf to the latter. We need to hear what each author communicated.

  • Our second step is methodological. Read the larger context so that it might inform our understanding of a particular passage.

If we wish to hear what an author sought to communicate, we need to understand a text’s context. In our case we need to understand the flow of thought within and surrounding Isaiah 65-66. This will not be a quick reading of a few verses followed by, “What does this text mean to me?”

Next week we will use these two steps to delve into Isaiah 65-66. We’ll also engage in a third step, allow the genre of Hebraic poetry to inform our understanding.


 

Barry Newton
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