The Hebrew Scripture passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday comes from the third main section of the book of Isaiah (chapters 56–66). This section of the book differs from the two main sections that precede it—the pre-exilic section (chapters 1–39) and the section as the exile itself is drawing to an end (chapters 40–55).
The prophet begins this third section with a familiar prophetic announcement which sets forth the classic prophetic programme, with the classic divine assurance: “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). The section offered by the lectionary (Isa 65:17–25) sets out how that justice will come to be, through the vision of “new heavens and a new earth”.
Written during the period when the people of Judah were returning to their land, to the city of Jerusalem (from the 520s BCE), this section of Isaiah sets out what this justice will look like through a series of powerful oracles. The prophet sounds a vivid counter-cultural note in the midst of the events of his time. He begins with the promise to foreigners and eunuchs that “I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:5).
This is a striking contrast to the narrative provided in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which tell of the return to the city, the rebuilding of the walls, the renewal of the covenant and the public reading of the Law, the rededication of the Temple—and actions designed to remove foreigners (especially women) from within Israel (see Ezra 10; Neh 13).
Ezra and Nehemiah exhibited a zealous fervour to restore the Law to its central place in the life of Israel. Ezra, learning that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2), worked with “the elders and judges of every town” to determine who had married foreign women; the men identified “pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (Ezra 10:19). (So much for the importance of families!)
Nehemiah considered that this project to “cleanse [the people] from everything foreign” (Neh 13:30) was in adherence to the command that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them” (Neh 13:1–2; see Num 22—24). The restoration of Israel as a holy nation meant that foreigners would be barred from the nation.
The oracle at the start of the third section of Isaiah stands in direct opposition to this point of view; “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord … and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:6–7). This is what God’s justice looks like!
Jesus, of course, quoted this last phrase (“a house of prayer for all people”) in the action he undertook in the outer court of the Temple (Mark 11:17). Later, the welcome offered to the Ethiopian court official by Philip, who talked with him about scripture and baptised him, a eunuch (Acts 8:26–38), is consistent with the prophetic words, “to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off” (Isa 56:4–5).
From the earliest days, the church practised an inclusive welcoming of diversity that was consistent with this prophetic declaration. What went wrong, we may ponder, for the church to dig itself into the corner of exclusivism and judgementalism that unfortunately has characterised too many manifestation of church?
The particular passage that is provided for this coming Sunday is almost at the end of the book. It offers a wonderfully climactic vision to this section of the book—and indeed to the whole of Isaiah. The prophet has continued to explain what it means to adhere to the way of justice, practising the fast that the Lord desires.
The promise is that Israel will have a new name: “you shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married” (Isa 62:4). We can see the symbolic significance of names in considering the prophet Hosea and in Isaiah 8, for example.
By contrast, vengeance will be the experience of Edom; using the image of trampling down the grapes in the wine press, the prophet reports the intention of God: “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth” (63:1–6). So vigorously does God undertake this task, that he is attired in “garments stained crimson” because “their juice spattered on my garments and stained all my robes” (63:1–3).
Once again, the prophet speaks in graphic terms. Edom is a symbolic portrayal of the Babylonian Empire, which had been dominant in the middle eastern world of the day for some time—yet it had recently been subsumed by the Persian Empire (under whom the people of Judah were able to return home). The punishment was on the horizon, either the horizon immediately in view, or the horizon that had just passed. Edom (Babylon) had been conquered—a happening interpreted by the anonymous prophet as divine retribution.
Confronted with this display of wrath and vengeance, the prophet adopts an attitude of penitence, yearning for God to “look down from heaven and see, from your holy and glorious habitation” (63:15). His plea for the Lord to “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (64:1–2) must surely have been in the mind of the evangelists as the reported the baptism of Jesus, when he “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1:10).
The book ends with a sequence in which the prophet reports the words of the Lord which indicate that Israel will be restored (65:1–16), followed by the statement that the Lord is “about to create new heavens and a new earth” (65:17–25; 66:22–23)—the passage provided by the lectionary this week. It is a wonderfully climactic, all-encompassing vision. Not only will Jerusalem enjoy prosperity, but “the wealth of the nations [shall be] like an overflowing stream” (66:12).
The vision of this penultimate chapter is global; it is for “all people” (picking up the hope of Isa 40:5), for “all the nations of the earth”, as both Jeremiah (Jer 33:9) and Haggai foresee (Hag 2:6–9), for “all flesh” as Joel predicts (Joel 2:28–29), for “every living creature”, as the final vision of Ezekiel portrays (Ezek 47:7–12). The “new heavens and new earth” (Isa 65:17) are for everyone of Israel (Isa 65:18–19), indeed, even for all creatures, “wolf and lamb, lion and ox” (Isa 65:25).
This vision is, of course, taken up and expanded in the closing chapters of the final book of the New Testament (Rev 21:1–22:7). That provides a globally wondrous vision to end the writings of the renewed covenant. The closing vision of Trito-Isaiah, the foundation for the vision of the seer at Patmos, has incorporated a number of references to earlier prophetic words: building houses and planting vineyards (65:21) recalls the words of Jeremiah (Jer 29:5–7); the image of wolves lying with lambs and lions “eating straw like the ox” recalls the vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:6–7).
The promise that “they shall not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain” (65:25) recalls that same vision of Isaiah (Isa 11:9), whilst the next promise about not labouring in vain nor bearing children for calamity (65:23) reverses the curse of Gen 3:16–19. The story of creation from the beginning of Genesis is evoked when the Lord asserts that “heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool … all these things my hand has made” (66:1–2); these are the words which Stephen will quote back to the council in Jerusalem (Acts 7:48–50) and will lead to his death at their hands. All the allusions together make this a fine conclusion to the visionary prophetic stream of the first covenant.
And yet, even to the very end of this book, the judgement of the Lord is evident; the prophet declares that “the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury, and his rebuke in flames of fire; for by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, on all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many” (66:15–16).
Nevertheless, the glory of the Lord shall be declared “among the nations” (66:19) and “they shall bring all your kindred from all the nations as an offering to the Lord” (66:20). The universalising inclusivism that was sounded in the oracle at the start of this prophet’s work (in chapter 56) is maintained through into this closing oracle. In “the new heavens and the new earth which I will make … all flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:22–23). The vision lives strong! It’s a good way to end the series of readings from the prophets we have followed during the past few months.