This post continues a series of 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 Kingdom of God and the New Heaven and New Earth
The prediction of a new heaven and a new earth seems to throw a spanner in the works of those interpreters who think they see a kingdom-age after the second coming of Christ but before the New Creation. I think McClain is right in saying that the prophet simply views the kingdom-age and the New Creation together.1 And it is true that the Prophets do place events together which consequently are seen to be separated by millennia. The prophecies concerning the first and second comings of Christ are cases in point. Isaiah 65:17-25 predicts not only a new heaven and earth, it also predicts death and sin, though in a greatly modified setting where children and sinners die at a hundred years of age (Isa. 65:20). But Isaiah has already said that God will abolish death (Isa. 25:8). What is to be done? I think both should be taken literally, although they don’t seem to belong together. Are we to believe that death and sin are still in evidence in the New Creation? But what of the efficacy of the finished work of Christ?
Let me admit that I feel the weight of inquiry from those who would pressure me into answering these points. They would rather make the passage metaphorical or else gloss over verse 20 completely.2 If the death of a child and of a sinner at a hundred years old is a metaphor, what can it possibly signify?3 And if it is not, how can it be fitted into an eschatology where the new heavens and earth follow on directly from Christ’s return? Better then to adopt the interpretation of Saucy who explains,
The blending by the prophets of a future restored Jerusalem and the final eternal city corresponds with their picture of the future of the entire earth and heavens. The hope of the Old Testament was ultimately for an eternal state of things, for the prophets knew that the present “heavens will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment” (Isa 51:6). Consequently, along with the portrayal of the rule of the Messiah over an imperfect world (cf. Isa 2:1-4; Zech 14:16ff), they looked forward to the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22).4
The reference to Isaiah 51 in the quotation above is instructive, for although Isaiah 51:6 states that this present creation order will disappear, Jerusalem (which God is preeminently concerned about in this book,5 and which often in Isaiah stands also for the whole nation), is promised continuance:
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:11; cf. 65:18, 66:22)
The city’s permanence is grounded upon the covenant God Himself, who laid the foundations of the present earth (Isa. 51:13), and who will establish a new foundation (Isa. 51:16). The glorious yet imperfect kingdom of Isaiah 65:20-25 is the kingdom envisaged in chapter 11. There are children (“offspring”) present (Isa. 65:23).
The conjunction of comfort upon Zion and judgment upon God’s enemies returns in the last chapter of this great book. In the midst of this is an enigmatic declaration of the birth (rebirth) of the nation of Israel:
Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her children. (Isaiah 66:8)
Zion is said to bring forth a nation in one day. The suddenness of this “birth” is meant to tell the reader that it is God who will work a miracle for Israel.6 This suddenness corresponds with the impression already made of healing (Isa. 58:8) and comfort (Isa. 61-62). Isaiah leaves us with an expectation of national renewal for Israel (cf. Isa. 46:13).
After another description of worldwide peace and joy stemming from Jerusalem (66:10-12), then a prediction of the coming of the Lord (66:15-16), there is a final flourish from the prophet. The last few verses are worth reproducing since they bring together many parts of the prophetic picture of the Old Testament:
And I will also take some of them for priests and Levites,” says the LORD.
“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “So shall your descendants and your name remain. And it shall come to pass that from one New Moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh shall come to worship before Me,” says the LORD. “And they shall go forth and look upon the corpses of the men who have transgressed against Me. For their worm does not die, and their fire is not quenched. They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” (Isaiah 66:21-24)
Firstly, the reference to “priests and Levites” in verse 21 has commonly been taken by adherents to covenant theology to mean that in the New Creation Gentiles will be brought into the priesthood. The reference to “your brethren” in verse 20 is taken to mean Gentile converts.7 This is then tied to 1 Peter 2:5, 9 and Revelation 1:6 and 5:10 and applied to the church. But “the devil is in the details”. In Peter’s and John’s writing the priesthood is not of the Levitical sort. In Isaiah it is. In 1 Peter 2:5 the “priests” are said to offer up “spiritual sacrifices” as over against actual animal sacrifices. In Isaiah the sacrifices are physical sacrifices (see Isa. 66:3 plus the mention of the “new Moon” and the “Sabbath” in Isa. 66:23). Aside from this, the majority of interpreters, even some covenant theologians among them8, view the “brethren” of Isaiah 66:20 as Jewish returnees. This accords well with the covenant with Abraham of land and descendants recalled in Isaiah 66:22, and with the covenant with Phinehas through his descendants, the Zadokite Levites. Isaiah’s mention of new moon and Sabbath in this context would appear to necessitate the continuance of Israel as a nation and of its priesthood (cf. Ezek. 20:12, 20; 46:1-7). The forecast that “all flesh will come to worship before me” (Isa. 66:23b) echoes Isaiah 40:5 (cf. Isa. 66:18) as well as Isaiah 2:2; 11:12; 60:3; 61:11.
1 Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 138
2 Many Reformed writers simply choose to ignore the presence of death and sin in the passage altogether. E.g., Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, 274; W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 198; Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, 316-317; cf. J. Richard Middleton, A New Heavens and a New Earth, 24, 105-106
3 An attempt at this is to be found in Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 530
4 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, 55. See also his footnote (n.45) on pages 55-56
5 See William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 108
6 See the excellent comments on Isaiah 66:7-9 in Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40–66, 738-740
7 See e.g., John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 2.436-437; E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, vol. 3:534; Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 540-543; G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 661-662
8 E.g., William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 124-125
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.