The next two chapters of Richard Middleton’s book A New Heaven and a New Earth look at the Old Testament view of God’s salvation in law, wisdom, and prophecy. The goal of salvation in the Old Testament is earthly flourishing for both God’s people and God’s creation. Given the reality of sin salvation cannot be separated from judgment, and these certainly are not separated in the Old Testament.
God’s will for his people is expressed in terms of law and wisdom. Both Torah (see Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy) and wisdom (are described as the way of life grounded in creation itself.
What this means is that in principle there is no difference between wisely discerning God’s will structured into the created order and obeying God’s revealed word. Most fundamentally, Torah or wisdom is that which discloses, and thus orients the community to, God’s creational intent for flourishing. (p. 102)
Both law and wisdom encompass all areas of life. In the Old Testament we find that YHWH is Lord of all and Israel was consecrated to his service in everything. According to Middleton “[t]he God of the Scriptures … is concerned for the entire range of earthly life and desires flourishing, well-being, and shalom – in short, salvation – for both humanity and the nonhuman creation.” (p. 102)
The Old Testament connects justice with faithfulness to YHWH. Jesus made this connection explicit connecting love of God with love of neighbor and concluding “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:40, see also Mark 12 and Luke 10). This connection runs through the Old Testament, and especially the prophets. The two main targets of prophetic critique are idolatry and injustice; the call to repentance is a call to put aside idols and to practice justice. Jesus, Paul, and James reiterate a call to practice justice and raise it to a level of radical love for others. “In both Testaments allegiance to God must be shown in the pattern of one’s life. ” (p. 105)
God comes in Judgment. The failure of Israel to live up to its divine calling to be God’s people, practicing instead idolatry and injustice, results in judgment. But judgment is not restricted to Israel alone, other nations face the wrath of God as well. God’s coming in judgment is depicted throughout the prophets and in poetry in vivid apocalyptic terms. In many cases the created order itself becomes undone. Middleton cites a range of examples in different contexts, only a few of which are repeated here.
The song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5:
When you, Lord, went out from Seir, when you marched from the land of Edom, the earth shook, the heavens poured, the clouds poured down water. The mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, before the Lord, the God of Israel.
Suddenly, in an instant, the Lord Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire.
Psalm 97 (image credit: Oliver Spalt)
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; … Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles. the mountains melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.
Look! The Lord is coming from his dwelling place; He comes down and treads on the heights of the earth. The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope. All this is because of Jacob’s transgression, because of the sins of the people of Israel.
Jeremiah’s vision in Jer. 4 sees an undoing of creation that includes the heavens.
I looked at the earth, and it was formless and empty; and at the heavens, and their light was gone. I looked at the mountains, and they were quaking; all the hills were swaying.
A prophecy against Babylon in Isaiah 13 also includes a dimming of the lights of heaven.
See, the day of the Lord is coming —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
And Isaiah 51, in a passage about the salvation of Zion:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.
Rather than “my righteousness will never fail” the NRSV translates the last line “and my deliverance will never be ended.” Isaiah 51 concerns the salvation of Zion … an earthly deliverance to a restored land. How are we to interpret this passage?
[W]e have what seems to be the destruction of heaven and earth followed by God’s salvation. But what sort of salvation/deliverance is expected here if heaven and earth no longer exist? There is certainly no nonearthly salvation in the Old Testament; indeed there would not even be a “heaven” to go to if it vanished like smoke as this text indicates. And who is saved if all people are destroyed? (p. 118)
Both judgment and salvation are real, but the prophets can and do use extreme language to describe the judgment that precedes salvation. These passages, along with many others that could be cited, “warn us about forcing Old Testament imagery of cosmic destruction into a preconceived (literalistic) mold. Instead, we need to discern the theological claims undergirding this imagery by interpreting it with sensitivity to its context. (p. 120)
God’s judgment in the Old Testament is for the healing of the world, the cleansing from evil and the refinement, as by fire, of his people. Zechariah 13, Isaiah 1 and Malachi 3,4 provide images of fire that refines and destroys. It destroys sin and the unrepentant, but refines the repentant. Despite the apocalyptic language no obliteration of earthly creation is in view.
In the end, when YHWH comes to judge evil and restore justice on earth, the Old Testament anticipates a grand celebration. Then all the redeemed (human and nonhuman alike) will enjoy the flourishing and blessing that God intended; then God’s salvation will be as wide as creation itself.
Bottom line: (1) The Old Testament hope is for an earthly salvation and restoration that returns the earth and its inhabitants to God’s good plan for creation. Israel, and through Israel all nations, will embrace their God-given role as images in a flourishing world. The vision of new creation in Isaiah 65, for example, is very much a this worldly restoration. (2) Judgment is a real and necessary precursor of deliverance and restoration. (3) The apocalyptic imagery in the prophets is not intended in a literalistic sense.
There is much more in these two chapters that could be worth discussion, but this is plenty for one post.
How should apocalyptic imagery be interpreted?
Do you agree with Middleton that judgment in the Old Testament is intended for the healing of the world?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.