Reading: Isaiah 65:17-25
Today, in Sunday School, we read from two chapters in Isaiah — even though they were from very different parts of the book, they sounded like they went right together. If I read these passages, I also think about Isaiah 11, and Revelation 21, and several other passages both in the Old and New Testaments. I find these passages rather challenging to interpret, because I really don’t know what to do with them.
I grew up with an interpretation that saw these passages as a description of “heaven”, and in context, they assumed that the prophets were talking about the end of the world (and time) that we live in now, followed by a new world. When I was born, Hal Lindsey was suggesting when and how the world would end. Many others came up with very similar ideas. Almost every year, another book would come out saying why the world would end within a year, there were novels, and even movies. It seems like I’ve lived through about 30 predictions of the end of the world. As far as I know, the most recent was last week, to coincide with the Lunar eclipse — and, there is another saying the world should end tomorrow.
I watched the eclipse, knowing that it will be almost 20 years before I get a chance to see another as impressive as that one — and, because I have always loved looking at the beauty of the sky. I really didn’t take any of the ‘blood moon’ talk very seriously — there was a time when I read books speculating on when the world would end, and I still like fiction about living after society collapses, but I guess I’ve lived through enough dates that I don’t expect the world to end tomorrow.
The funny thing is that this is nothing new. When I read Autobiography of Allen Jay, I came across a story that takes place when he was a boy in April of 1843. Allen’s parents were farmers, and one of their farm hands followed the teachings of William Miller. Miller had studied the prophets, searched it for numbers, and came up with the math to demonstrate when the world would end. His followers dressed up in white robes, waited for Jesus on a hill, and went home disappointed.
Allen, however had believed there was something to this prophecy. When the morning came, he could not eat, because he was nervous about the end of the world. His parents worried that he might be sick — but, the truth was that he had no heart to do his chores. When his parents figured out what the problem was, his father went to him and told him that he lived through people saying the world would end — and, when winter came, they would need the wood.
Allen tells us that he didn’t chop the wood, because he figured that he wouldn’t need it — but, the time that Jesus was to return came, and it passed — so young Allen chopped wood with a light heart. Allen Jay concludes this story by observing that even though this wood was burned decades ago, he never forgot, and he offers this advice: “The church better go on chopping wood, and remember the Savior said: `No man knows the time; no, not even the Son of Man.’
I quite agree with Mr. Allen Jay — no matter how much people predict, they are mostly rehashing the same interpretations that proved wrong in the 19th century, then proved wrong again when they were proved wrong for the 20th century, and they are much more likely wrong than right. I’ve got a busy week ahead of me — I have to help some friends prepare for a wedding next week — and I’ve no doubt that the world will live to see it, in spite of wars, rumors of wars, and prophets.
Before I started studying scripture seriously — I had two basic (and overly simplistic) understandings of prophetic scriptures, which I learned by listening. In the Old Testament, prophetic scriptures were either about Jesus, or they were about `the future’. I understand completely why people look for the end of the world — we look for the end of the world, because we forget that scripture had an audience before us — and it has a long history of people wrestling with its meaning. Too often we read it as if it were a closed book until now — but we forget, if it were a sealed book, we would have never received it.
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of Isaiah 65. If I read it very quickly, I will say that it is a picture of the “world to come”. Unfortunately, if I slow down, it does not sound like any picture of Heaven that I would find familiar. There is a image of long life, but the idea that there is still births and deaths — it is long, not eternal.
People still seem dependent upon the labor of their hands to stay alive. There is a sense that economic exploitation ends, but there is still an economy. I really don’t know what to make of this — perhaps it is a Heaven on Earth that can be brought about by actually obeying God, and living out lives ruled by love for one another.
The thing is, if this is where we are supposed to be, I cannot think of a culture that accomplished it. While there are a few people who will be said to have died too young, no matter how many years they lived; our standard for died too young is generally somewhat short of a century. While we are making progress with world-hunger (fewer people in the world are malnourished than 20 years ago) I don’t think that anybody would suggest that we are the `utopia’ that we read about.
Even if humanity managed to live up to this vision, I can’t get past the image of the lion and the wolf together. Even if we lived up to this vision, there is something that is beyond us about it: The nature of the world has to change. Its not quite a picture of what we believe heaven to be, but it also is beyond what is possible for Earth.
As you can tell, I really don’t know what to make of these passages. If I were to assume an allegorical interpretation, I’m not sure I could say with confidence what exactly it would be. Even if I say that it is an allegory about the messianic kingdom — I still get into the interpretation questions of whether the kingdom is something that is yet to come – or if it is something that is established in us.
Personally, I like reading about interpretations. I remember having long conversations about them, but, in the end, its a lot of speculation. Allen Jay was right — we all should be chopping wood. I think my friends who are preparing for spending their lives together have the right idea. Whatever the prophets meant to tell us — we should live our lives as good as we can live them.
I guess the thing that gave me the most peace in this was realizing that I don’t have to understand everything. It took a while, but eventually, I came to admit that I don’t know — and that is OK. I really do believe that Jesus is able to take care of those things that I don’t understand. What’s given me peace is realizing that I believe in God, and that my ability to understand God has nothing to do with this faith. I don’t understand these passages – but, there is something about them that gives me hope