Opening The Old Testament
Reflections on Isaiah 65:17-25
These new skies and earth will not be so new as to be unrecognizable. Jerusalem will still be there. It is just that Jerusalem will now be "a joy," rather than a blasted ruin, and its people will be "a delight," rather than a people bent on running from God as fast as they can (Is. 65:18-19). This transformed cosmos will banish the "sound of weeping" and the "cry of violence," that cry that signals oppression is occurring in the land. No more infant death here; no more early death for adults. The 100-year-old will be called a youngin', and if anyone dies before becoming 100, it will appear to be some sort of curse (Is. 65:20). Of course, these golden moments are promised to a people who know all too well the pain of early infant mortality and short spans of life and early graves. To reach fifty in those days was a great accomplishment, signaling a blessed life.
Renewing the promise of Deuteronomy, the prophet proclaims that "they shall build houses and live in them, plant vineyards and (actually) eat their fruit" (Is. 65:21). It will not be as it is too often now, where others live in houses built for Israelites, others eat the food planted by Israelites (Is. 65:22a). Why, God's people will then live "like the days of a tree" (Is. 65:22b), rather than the too brief lives they currently live. This is reminiscent of Job's anguished cry in his chapter 14: "For there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again" and "put forth branches like a young plant." On the other hand, "mortals die, are laid low; humans expire, and where are they?" (Job 14:7-10). In the transformed cosmos, God's people will be like trees, filled with vigorous long life and regenerative power.
And their work will no longer be "for nothing," but will be blessed just as all of their descendants will be (Is. 65:23). And in the new cosmos, YHWH will answer the people even before they call out, responding to them in the very midst of their speaking (Is. 65:24). To conclude these vast promises, the prophet borrows the words of an earlier Isaianic colleague: "The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, while the snake—its food will be dust" (Is. 65:25 and see Is. 11:6-9)! As in Genesis 3:14, the fear of the snake will be removed, since its meal will consist of dust, rather than humans or animals. Indeed, "they (the snakes?) shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain" (Is. 65:25c). So ends this prophet's description of the transformed sky and earth.
This new cosmos is both like and unlike the one we know. We recognize the people and the animals, the cycles of birth and death, the future joy amid the current bouts of oppression and sorrow. How easy it is to romanticize all this at the Christmas season! The babe of Bethlehem in his sanitized manger bed (or candle-lit cave, depending on the version you choose) comes into the world, heralded by angels, attended by shepherds, illuminated by a magic star, and worshipped by wise men with rich gifts, wrapped sumptuously no doubt in gold tinsel and blue satin ribbon, tied up in perfect bows. But romance is far from Isaiah's mind in chapter 65. The cosmos needs a transformation, from top to bottom, from people to animals, from hills to valleys, and God is in that business. No frilly present, no children's choir, no sleigh-filled ditty, no busy sidewalks, should deflect us from the vision of a genuinely new sky and earth, because, God knows, we desperately need one. And God promises that that is precisely what we are going to get, despite all the Christmas folderol. If Jesus' birth means anything, it means that, namely a transformed cosmos, not another rock around the Christmas tree.
Well, I really did not mean to sound like Scrooge, but perhaps I have after all. I really do hope your Christmas is "merry and bright," but I hope you can remind your congregation that what we want for Christmas is a transformed cosmos, rather than another transformer toy. I trust you will say that; I pray that you will say that.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.