Isa 65:20: Will There Be Death in the New Earth?

Text

Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed. Isa 65:20, NIV.

Statement of the Problem

The problem with this text is the context, Isaiah 65:17-25. The whole passage contains one of the most beloved descriptions of what life in the new earth will be like. God will create a new heavens and a new earth (verse 17). There will be no more weeping and crying there (19). God’s people will build houses and live in them, they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit (21). Then there is the glorious climax, “‘The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the LORD” (25).

What troubles people about this text is the presence of death in paradise (verse 20). God’s people will live long in this new earth, “as the days of a tree” (22), but they will not live forever. How can this be harmonized with the “forever” of other biblical texts (Daniel 7:18; Joel 3:20; Micah 4:5; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 22:5)? The key to resolving this problem is to explore briefly the historical context in which the prophecy of Isaiah 65 was given.

The Exile and the Return

The central theme of Isaiah through Malachi is the exile of God’s people to Babylon followed by their eventual return to the land promised to Abraham. This “Exile and Return Theme” is dominant in the writing prophets whether they wrote before, during, or after the Exile. They prophesy that the return from Babylon would be accompanied by a three-fold transformation of reality. In Ezekiel 36, for example, God planned to transform human society by restoring Israel to her land and to her witness to the nations (Ezek 36:24,28,33-36, see also Mic 4:1-5, Isa 2:2-5; 11:2-5). He would transform human nature with a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:25-27, see also Jer 31:31-34; Joel 2:28-29; Isa 35:5-6). And He would eventually transform the natural world itself, banishing hunger and violence (Ezek 36:30,35, see also Isa 11:6-9; 35:1,2,7; Ezek 47:1-12).

Unlike the Flood story and the Book of Revelation, where the end of the world means the full, physical destruction of the planet, the End of the prophets would come within history and geography as they understood it. God would intervene mightily within history to transform society, human nature and the natural world. This End is usually described in the context of the exile to and return from Babylon.

There is no question that the view of the End in the Old Testament was a developing one. God always meets people where they are. As they are able, He reveals more and more of His purpose. This principle is clearly stated by Jesus in John 16:12: “I have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.”

The danger in this is that later readers would try to universalize these early prophecies and expect every detail to be fulfilled at some time in the future. Instead we should allow later revelation (such as the New Testament) to guide us through the Old Testament material to a clearer picture of the End than was possible earlier. Each stage of Biblical history offers a fresh window into the mind of a God who meets people where they are, yet knows all along where He is going!

Isaiah 65:20 in its Context

Isaiah 65:20 needs to be understood in light of the triple transformation of reality that was promised at the time when God’s people would return from Babylon. This triple transformation would take place within history, within the time, place, and circumstances of the prophetic writers. The “new heavens and new earth” of Isa 65:17, at first glance, sound very much like the book of Revelation, where God destroys the earth before creating it anew. But in Isaiah, it is Jerusalem that is created and the life span is far short of eternity (Isa 65:18-20). “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.” Isa 65:20, NIV.

As attractive as these numbers sound in our degenerate age, they fall far short of the text “there will be no more death” (Rev 21:4). Isa 65:20 is a “problem text” when read from a New Testament mind-set, but it made perfect sense in the setting of what might have been after the return from Babylonian Exile. Although God would intervene in spectacular fashion, according to the prophets, the fullness of paradise would only be restored a little at a time. In the wake of the Christ event, the book of Revelation portrays a much more radical picture of the End.

3 thoughts on “Isa 65:20: Will There Be Death in the New Earth?

  1. Kevin Hellerud

    Excellent! At AUC we were taught that there are 3 correct ways to use scripture: Exegesis, or what it meant to the original readers/writers/editors, and this frequently offers a chance for a moderately short time for an eschatology, and includes language usage, geography, history, culture etc. A second way is “Analogy” taking the principles and reapplying to similar situation and to take from the past principles to apply on how we can cycle around to times where eschatology is possible, and one will be THE end, but God works with principles and our free will. A third way is if there are words in the Bible that give a perfect description even though it is not properly an exegesis nor analogy. Of course we need to be careful with all of these.

    We tend to see eschatology in how it is possible for our time frame and have a danger of trying to force that on earlier times, and events that were possible back in earlier times, we tend to tap-dance over. Deuteronomy 4 did predict the exile for being the last days. The Old Testament gives two possible frameworks for spreading the gospel. One is being in the land (the major intersection of the ancient world) where. if faithful God would bless them, and those passing through the land would notice the blessings and the world come to Israel to learn the gospel. If unfaithful God would send curses to encourage them to change. If nothing else worked they would go into exile. In the exile they were to share with their neighbors their unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness, and thus spread the gospel, and the exile could end in a second great exodus lead by the Messiah. While I did not find these terms in “The Role of Israel in Old Testament Prophecy” in the SDABC which gives an excellent overview, nor in our religion classes at AUC where we would study these, I term these two possibilities “Land Theology” and “Exile Theology” One is stay in the center of the great trade route intersection and let the world come to you for the gospel, the other is go ye into all the world and spread the gospel.

    Both Second Isaiah and Daniel start out with the impending great second exodus from Babylon lead by the Messiah to set up his kingdom, but then has a great disappointment and encouragement for their co-exiles to repent, and then end with a looking forward to a lackluster return from the exile and the Messiah being in the future. Some of these trouble texts at the end of Isaiah is what God was hoping to do with Israel upon return from the exile to lead up to the Messiah, or what Daniel describes as the 70 weeks of years.

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