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.