“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure. From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the LORD. Isa 66:22-23, NIV.
Statement of the Problem
This text in Isaiah has been popular with Sabbath-keepers, since it seems to suggest that Sabbath-keeping will continue in the New Earth. If that is so, it strengthens the argument that Sabbath-keeping is valid for Christians today. There are a couple of serious problems with that interpretation, however.
First, not only is the Sabbath practiced in this “new earth,” but also “New Moons,” a concept unfamiliar to most Sabbath-keepers. Can this text be understood to affirm the one without affirming the other? Second, according to the very next verse (Isa 66:24), the redeemed will take Sabbath-afternoon walks to gaze upon the dead bodies of the wicked, which will remain nearby in a loathsome, smoldering condition. “And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
The Exile and the Return
As was noted in the previous article on Isa 65:20, the solution to these problems is found in the larger context of the Scriptures. 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. The return from Babylon would be accompanied by a three-fold transformation of reality. God would transform human society by restoring Israel to her land and to her witness to the nations, He would transform human nature with a new heart and a new spirit, and He would eventually transform the natural world itself, banishing hunger and violence (see references in previous article).
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.
Readers of the Bible today, therefore, should not expect every detail of such texts 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. Isaiah 66:22-24 describes what would have happened had the End come in the context of the return from Babylon at the end of the exile (6th Century BC).
Isaiah 66 in Later Revelation
According to the parallels cited in the 27th Edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek text, Isaiah’s concept of a new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22) is most clearly alluded to in 2 Pet 3:13. The heavens and earth that now exist are to be destroyed at the Second Coming (2 Pet 3:7-12), just as the original world was destroyed in the time of the Flood (2 Pet 3:5-6). After its destruction, the world is to be replaced with a new heaven and a new earth (verse 13).
This brief picture of a new heaven and a new earth in 2 Pet 3:13 is elaborated in considerable detail in Rev 21:1, which also alludes to the Isaiah texts, according to Nestle-Aland. This elaborated picture includes a description of the tree of life (22:2), which yields its fruits on a monthly basis. It could be argued that the monthly cycle of the tree of life in the new earth bears some resemblance to the New Moons mentioned in Isa 66:22-23, but Revelation does not explicitly say this.
While the New Testament nowhere explicitly describes Sabbath-keeping in the New Earth either, Revelation does affirm the importance of the Sabbath in the final stages of earth’s history with a clear allusion to the fourth commandment in Rev 14:7. So Sabbath-keeping today does not need the support of a problematic text like Isa 66:23.
Isa 66:22-23 made perfect sense in the setting of what might have been after the return from Babylonian Exile. God would intervene in spectacular fashion. True worship would be restored to Jerusalem, along the lines of the situation during the previous monarchy, including a renewed role for the priests and the Levites as well as Sabbaths and New Moons (Isa 66:21). The fullness of paradise would only be restored a little at a time. In the meantime the redeemed would occupy a land that contained reminders of what had been before (verse 24).
Isaiah 66:23 makes an intriguing and powerful proof-text for Sabbath-keeping when used in isolation from its context. But if “Bereans” study the Scriptures for themselves, the use of such a text is likely to do more harm than good. Revelation’s use of Isaiah language allows the possibility of Sabbaths and New Moons (tree of life) in the New Earth, and Ellen White takes up the language of Isa 66:23 in a positive sense (6T 368). But Isa 66:23, by itself, should not be used as proof of the concept. Weak arguments can do more harm sometimes than no arguments at all.