This post and those to follow are extracts from a draft chapter in the book The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 (forthcoming, d.v.). Read the series.
The Intertwining of the Covenants: A Little Summary of the Coming Kingdom
In these kinds of passages Isaiah presents a picture of the future kingdom of the Branch that is glorious in many respects. It is fair and just and safe and beautiful. After the initial battles, there will be a realization of the dream of world peace, brought about by the great mass of people turning to the true God—a New covenant era.
Additionally, the beautification of the earth, the desolate places made verdant, and the increase in natural productivity will be matched by the pacification of the animal world. This might readily be seen as a New covenant effect on the Noahic covenant. Peace, both outward and inward, will not be the elusive thing for which men have unsuccessfully sought throughout history. It will be present as a felt reality. It will be a natural part of human experience. And humanity will not be left to itself, but will know itself to be under the benevolent and judicial eye of the everlasting One. For God Himself, through “Immanuel,” will dwell on the earth in Jerusalem,1 and all eyes will be on the great nation of Israel. This is where the first two parts of the Abrahamic covenant, together with the Priestly and Davidic covenants come in.
What happens in the Prophets is that the covenants of God intertwine.2 Even parts of the Mosaic covenant are refocused in the New covenant. The New covenant is the key, because through it the other divine covenants can be realized. The great obstruction of human sin is dealt with.3
This is the outlook of the prophetic witness we have studied so far. It will be repeated and expanded as we move forward. The future kingdom will be wonderful in many ways. The believing will find “perfect peace” (Isa. 26:3) and “learn righteousness” (26:9). In fact God will work it all within them (26:12. Cf. 35:17).
Many of these great themes are present in Isaiah 32. There is the pouring out of the Spirit in 32:15, which is followed by the revitalization of the wilderness and super abundance of the field. But a noteworthy thing is that these normally uninhabited places will be places of justice and righteousness (32:16). The ethical and the physical are beautifully intertwined in the passage.
Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. (Isaiah 32:15-17)
In his Religio Medici, the 17th Century polymath Sir Thomas Browne supposed that while there is only one world open to the senses, there are two open to the reason; the visible and the invisible.4 It is my belief that the end of the Creation Project is where the two worlds unite in our sensory experience as well as in our understandings. That is what is portrayed by the Prophet here. “Peace,” that elusive dream often rather rudely confronting us on preachy bumper-stickers and placards, will indeed be “felt” in the former nether regions of the earth when the righteous King reigns (Isa. 32:1).
But it will not be completely perfect.5 Already we have read that the Messiah, if I may at this point call Him by that title, will still have to keep sin in its place. When the last book of the Bible tells us that this “Lord of lords and King of kings” will rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15-16), it is because it is picking up on the language of Psalm 2. Isaiah has also described how “He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth” (Isa 11:4). Micah, in the midst of predicting a scene of the kingdom (Mic. 4:1-8), has to report the continuance of idolatry (Mic. 4:5a. cf. Zech.13:2-6).
The “Little Apocalypse”
What has been called “the little apocalypse” in Isaiah 24-27 begins with a description of God’s wrath upon earth (24:1-23),6 before introducing an era when God “will swallow up death forever, and… wipe away tears from all faces” (Isa. 25:8). Yahweh says that He will expand “all the borders of the land” (Isa. 26:15), which obviously recalls the Abrahamic oath of Genesis 15:18-21. Judgment gives way to blessing. There is even a mention of resurrection (Isa. 26:19 cf. Job 19:25-26), places this section at the time of the Lord’s establishment of His kingdom. Pain is substituted for joy because God “will establish shalom,” having done all their works within the redeemed (Isa. 26:12; 27:9). This will be an era of true justice, not just politics under the name of justice (Isa. 26:9); an era of a resurgent and resplendent Israel (Isa. 27:6).
In sum, Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse shows that a global kingdom follows global tribulation.7
1 So many covenant theologians assume that these prophetic references to a glorified Jerusalem are to New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven (Rev. 3:12; 21:2), because their theological covenants force them to. However, “heavenly Jerusalem“ is not a concept that occurs in the Old Testament.” – See Andrew T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul’s Thought with Special Relationship to His Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 18-19
2 Thomas E. McComiskey refers to the way the “redemptive” or “promise covenants” (e.g. Abrahamic) work in tandem with what he calls the “administrative covenants” (e.g. Mosaic). Hence the covenants function “bicovenantally.” – The Covenants of Promise, 139-177. His work is stimulating, but the Abrahamic covenant is not a redemptive covenant. Only the New covenant contains the means of redemption. Furthermore, McComiskey holds a necessary correlation between Israel and the Church on this bicovenantal pattern (Ibid, 189-190). This fails, for example, to account for the raising of specific expectations by God in the three strands of the Abrahamic covenant and the repetition of these expectations under New covenant conditions.
3 As we shall see, the New covenant itself is embodied in the Messiah, making Him the center of the covenantal picture of the Bible.
4 Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), edited by R. H. A. Robbins, 37
5 Note, for example, that not until the creation of the new heavens and new earth is there “no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).
6 In Isaiah 24:5 we read of the earth’s inhabitants breaking “the everlasting covenant.” The phrase is found in relation to the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:16, and I believe that is the covenant Isaiah mainly has in mind here (John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1 – 33, 318). Still, I think Motyer is correct in saying that human beings have failed to live in right relationship to God within the terms of every divine covenant. See his discussion in Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 199. Less likely in view of the Noahic connections is the view that it may convey a less technical sense meaning the relationship between man to the Word of God under which he is to live, as in e.g. Harry Bultema, Commentary on Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981), 236-237. The term is also found in reference to the New covenant in, for example, the Book of Hebrews (Heb. 13:20). In each of its usages the onus is not on “eternity past” but upon the future. It will take a work of God Himself to rectify the persistent failure.
7 Michael J. Vlach. He Will Reign Forever, 167
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.