There is a great range of interpretations of the meaning and application of the biblical phrase "heaven and earth." This short treatise may show how we can allow God in His Word to reveal to us how He used this language various times in the Law and the Prophets. This writer suggests that one of the major areas of difficulty in understanding correctly "heaven and earth" in the New Testament is the misunderstanding of how God referred to nations by this phrase in the Old Testament. We believe sincerely that a biblical concept of "heaven and earth" in the Old Testament will help us greatly in correctly understanding New Testament passages such as Acts 2:17-21; Matthew 24, 25; and II Peter three, as well as the book of Revelation. We will not be exhaustive in this piece of work but hope to illustrate how symbolic "heaven and earth" was even in the Old Covenant, rather than to assume that each time we encounter the phrase, we immediately are to think of this physical universe and its constituent elements. If the reader wishes he can notice that even in Genesis such words as sun, moon, and stars can apply to persons rather than normally understood (37:9,10; Joseph’s dream, e.g.). But we want to start in the Penteteuch, then go to the Old Testament prophets for our study.
There appears to be no problem with grasping the meaning of the first verse in the Bible – "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." We have heard this applied to the Jewish "heaven and earth," but the context does not seem to indicate that definition. Exodus 19 and 20 would seem to be more in harmony with the view that the Jewish "heaven and earth" began its existence after Genesis one. "The existence of God is the First Truth on which all truth depends. He is the all-sufficient First Truth" (C.C. Crawford, Genesis, page 130). "Before the creative acts mentioned in this chapter all was eternity…’in the beginning’ must necessarily mean the commencement of time which followed, or rather was produced by God’s creative acts, as an effect follows or is produced by a cause" (Adam Clarke, Genesis-Deuteronomy, Volume I, page 29).
Just here we wish to mention that as we proceed towards and into the New Testament and read, e.g., "before the foundation of the world" (pro kataboles kosmou, "from the foundation of world," I Pet.1:20), it may be that we have a better comprehension of God’s truth by applying this latter passage to Exodus 19, 20, rather than Genesis 1, due to the context of I Peter (see 1:3-21; 4:1-7, 12-17; 5:1-4; also the promises of II Peter fit perfectly with those of I Peter in that time frame of first century generation (Matthew 24:34; Luke 21:32; Romans 13:12; James 5:7-9; Hebrews 9:27,28; 10:37; 13:14; Revelation 1:1-3,7; 2:25,26; 22:15; 22:6-12). It may not be possible to make such passages as I Peter 1:20 harmonize with Genesis 1 when one perceives a better picture of the time and nature of the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
Beginning in verse 14 of this text God warns Israel that she must listen and obey the Lord in the commandments that have been given. The section has various terms and expressions in God’s describing what it will be like if they despise His statutes, but notice particularly verse 19: "and I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass." Compare how we understand Genesis 1:1 with how we are to understand Leviticus 26:19. "Heaven and earth" do not mean the same thing in each verse. This section has different ways of saying the same thing — sorrow and terror belong to Israel in rejecting God’s commandments in disobedience. Verse 19 then may mean that to break the pride of their power is tantamount to their heaven being made as iron and their earth as brass (Hebrew indicates "bronze," better than "brass," but this is moot for the point). Notice how the character of Israel’s disposition in God’s purview is personalized, "your heaven" and "your earth." So the terms "heaven" and "earth" belong or relate to Israel – they evidently constitute a "heaven" and "earth" and the worth of Israel can be turned into the worth of iron and bronze through disobedience, which carries the implication to this scribe that obedience carried the worth of, say, gold and silver in God’s sight. But maybe more will clarify further.
Moab was one of many enemies of old Israel and one place she is described as coming to destruction reads: "And he shall spread forth his hands in the midst of them, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim: and he shall bring down their pride together with the spoils of their hands. And the fortress of the high fort of thy walls shall he bring down, lay low, and bring to the ground, even to the dust" (Isaiah 25:9-12; see also 28:1-3). The Leviticus text we saw a moment ago revealed that a humbling/destructive concept would result from disobedience. Notice in like manner the same to Moab – "Bring down their pride" is the same as God told Israel, "I will break the pride of your power." The breaking or bringing down a nations’s power/pride was in God’s sight the lessening of their significance by lessening the value of certain metals used to describe their system/government.
Thus, for a moment, let us look in the New Testament. We wish to see if this idea of certain metals representing value or worth of a nation and the idea of "heaven and earth" can complement each other. For example, before Jesus described the fall of Jerusalem (Luke 21:20-24), some were speaking of the temple, "how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts" (Luke 21:5). Did the old Jewish temple pre-70 A.D. represent anything about Judaism? Surely it did. Were their gold and silver and precious materials involved in the construction and existence of the Jewish temple of old? None would deny it. Jesus had said of the gold of the temple that it was the temple that sanctified the gold (Matthew 23:16,17). James wrote later, "Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days" (James 5:3). The "last days" of whom? The "last days" of what? "Forasmuch as ye know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers" (I Peter 1:18). Who boasted of tradition? Israel. Those first century saints would go through a "trial" of their faith, "Being much more precious than of gold that perisheth…" (I Peter 1:7).
Israel’s "gold" and "silver" would perish at the end time of Judaism. "And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands" – (the foundation of what earth? What heavens were the works of God’s hand? We believe the contest shows that Israel was the work of God’s hand. "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation," Exodus 19:6a): "They shall perish" (Hebrews 1:11); "but thou remainest; and they all shall wax (grow) old as doth a garment" (Hebrews 1:10-12).
If the "heaven" and "earth" of Hebrews 1:10 are representative of this physical "world", where would the Hebrew saints "remain" (1:11a) if there were no earth and heavens to remain on? If the earth in Hebrews 1:10 had the same referent as Genesis 1:1, and according to some in interpreting II Peter 3:10 it is someday to be destroyed literally by fire, then the "folding" and the "changing" of the earth and heavens (Hebrews 1:12) wo
uld have to occur before they were burned up by fire, otherwise there would be nothing to fold and change. If fold and change is figurative in Hebrews 1:10,11, and literal/physical in II Peter 3:10, why the difference? Maybe we should interpret II Peter 3:10 in light of Hebrews 1:10-12; 12:26,27; Revelation 6:14; et al., rather than the other way.
Why would inspiration bother describing the end of this physical earth and heavens someday by folding, shaking, changing, rolling up, etc., when "burning up" could have been placed in all these texts? But all of these terms cn be interpreted to refer to a nation that was about to vanish (Hebrews 8:8-13) in fullfillment (Matthew 5:17,18; 24:34,35) And no inconsistency exists when this is done.
"The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see" (Isaiah 13:1). The NASV might help us understand better, "the oracle against Babylon." This introduction sets the stage for the chapter in subject matter and if we forget this, our interpretations of Isaiah 13 can go just about anywhere our imagination wants to go. This is not an "oracle against the world" or an "oracle against the universe" physically and materially speaking. Babylon is a nation, it is a "world" and system of people.
In like manner, Matthew 24 has Jesus beginning in the presence of the temple in His "oracle" against Jerusalem. "And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things?" (Was Jesus having them see stellar entities of the tangible universe or the buildings of the temple?) verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another (one stone of the physical earth or of the temple that represented that old heaven and earth of Judaism?), that shall not be thrown down" (Matthew 24:1,2). If we lose sight of the subject matter in Bible studies, we lose sight of learning more of God’s truth.
Back to Isaiah 13. (1), "They came from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land" (verse 5). Does not coming from a far country equal from the end of heaven? (If we do not learn how God describes things biblically, it really makes it most difficult to understand much in God’s holy writ). This is how God spoke of coming from a far country. (2), To destroy the "whole land" of what? Unless our mind has taken a side tour while looking at Isaiah 13, the "whole land" is not the "whole physical earth," but the "whole land" of Babylon. The terminology of a context cannot be expanded beyond the scope of the subject under discussion. The spectrum of language surely cannot go outside the land of Babylon. (3), "For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine" (verse 10).
We have seen commentaries refer to such passages in the Old Testament in speaking of this physical world/universe and its supposed demise, but we wonder why. There are no signs in the text that Isaiah has left discussing Babylon and now entertains future ideas of this physical world/cosmos. What we need to see, we believe, is that this is the way the Bible discussed the fall of a nation. This is obviously figurative language applied to Babylon in reference to its leadership and functions, but what is more perplexing is the matter of some understanding correctly Isaiah 13 and its meaning, yet when coming to the New Testament and its wording of end-time events, there is no consideration given to the fact that a nation of great importance for 2500 years, a nation from which the Messiah would come, a nation that was a schoolmaster to the faith of Jesus Christ, would be consumed by "fire" and its elements destroyed (Galatians 4:3,9; II Peter 3:10-12; Revelation 21:1; 20:11; et al). And just like Israel of old at 70 A.D., Babylon was to experience a great catastrophe that was described in a series of beautiful figures, a great fiat downfall using terms of the corporeal universe to show it. The reader is encouraged to compare the Babylonian text of Isaiah 13 to Luke 17, 21; Matthew 24; Mark 13; and many texts in Revelation. To materialize stars, moon, sun, etc., in Bible prophecy is to step out of the true redemptive history and goal of the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
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