Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25
If it seems to you that the passage from Isaiah has cropped up recently, you are correct.
Besides this day, Isaiah 65:17-25 was an alternate lection for Easter Sunday last March.
The chances are good that most preachers focused on the Gospel reading that day. While that is understandable, the reappearance of this text affords a gospel “do-over” to proclaim the joy and assurance that the Resurrection story always brings, but that no single Easter text can contain.
We need not long delay over the scholarly debates surrounding the placement of this oracle between the first half of Isaiah chapter 65 and chapter 66. We have the canon we have. Suffice it to say that chapter 65 anticipates judgment and hardship for those who forsook the LORD and who failed to listen to God’s voice but blessings for the faithful servants of God (Isaiah 65:12-16).
The fact that these assurances of blessing and curse are held out as a promise suggests that the prophet addressed people for whom the triumph of God was not self-evident. In the “now” of this Isaiah, it was not altogether clear that the faithful would be sated and blessed because seemingly only those who rebelled against God were filled and satisfied. In other words, the oracle describes a situation much like our own. We wait in hope for the declination of the world’s moral compass, but the “former troubles” are currently neither forgotten nor hidden from God’s sight, the prophetic perfect of Isaiah 65:16 notwithstanding!
This Isaiah ups the proverbial ante in Isaiah 65:17-25. Promises of a new creation envelope the whole: a new heaven and a new earth (v. 17) will include a peaceable kingdom the likes of which have not been known since the beginning (v.25; see Genesis 1:29-30). The promise of peace between wild and domestic animals on “my holy mountain” echoes the messianic promise of Isaiah 11:6-9.
Three themes emerge in the description of the coming new creation, any one or all of which could serve as a basis for the proclamation of the good news.
- Joy. The LORD enjoins the people to be glad and rejoice. Indeed, gladness and rejoicing are the hallmarks of the new creation envisioned by this Isaiah:
Be glad (sisu) and rejoice (gilu) forever in that which I create (bore’);
for I am creating (bore’) Jerusalem as a rejoicing (gilah) and her people a gladness (mesos).
I will rejoice (galti) in Jerusalem and I will be glad (sasti) because of my people.1
The imperative forms of the verbs sus and gil in verse 18a are matched by their nominal forms in 18b. Between them are twin participles describing God’s creative acts. The people should be glad and rejoice for Jerusalem is created as a rejoicing and her people a gladness.
Since only God can create (bore’ is restricted to divine activity throughout the Bible), verse 19a refers to the divine rejoicing. Like the people, the LORD will rejoice (gil) in Jerusalem and be glad sus) in her people.
Consideration of God’s joy at the glad condition of the redeemed and saved people of God could easily occupy the entirely of a sermon. The inner voices of disapproving family members, employers, or our own unforgiving consciences are matched and overcome by a God who is made glad and rejoices over us.
- Life. As the second Genesis creation account makes clear, death is a consequence of rebellion (Genesis 2:16-17; 3:3) and not a part of God’s intention in creation. Speaking biologically, death is a necessary factor in our existence. We all have a biological expiration date! Speaking theologically, however, death is the antithesis of God’s intention. It is the wages of sin (Romans 6:22). God’s wills that God’s people might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10). Isaiah 65:20 exults in the claim that, in the new creation, infant mortality will be unheard of, as will be the death of anyone younger than one hundred years (with the exception of most determined sinner). The claim of believers this side of the cross, however, is even more expansive for we have heard Jesus say, “”I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
- Just rewards for labor. Isaiah 65:21-23 imply a condition of economic injustice where some labored in vain and bore children anticipating terror (v. 23). Verses 21 and 22 are set in opposition. If the situation presently is such that those who build and plant do not enjoy the rewards of their labor (v. 22), that condition will not persist (v. 21). They shall be like a long-lived and fruitful tree (v. 23b; see Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:8). They will enjoy the work of their hands and as will their children and their descendants.
Economic inequalities and unjust distribution of resources is a growing problem in the so-called developed world, and it is a problem of long standing for developing nations. This text includes a condemnation of that status quo. Strains of “The Canticle of the Turning” are, even now, wafting through the air. How will the Church be involved further in the work of economic justice? How can preachers help the people God understand that justice is a central concern not just of this text but of the Scripture as a whole?
Before returning to the theme of the new creation with which this oracle began, the prophet forwards one more gospel promise in Isaiah 65:24. The LORD will answer before anyone calls and hear while they are yet speaking. If in the new Jerusalem there is no weeping or crying (verse 19b; Revelation 21:4) it will be because any potential cause for grief will be anticipated and answered even before it can be fully articulated. If, previously, the people’s iniquities prevented God from responding (Isaiah 59:1-2), that barrier will be overcome. If the hallmarks of our days are death, including a shortened life, grief, economic injustice and terror, then believers anticipate an unspeakable joy that is guaranteed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
1 Verses Isaiah 65:18-19a, author’s translation.