The holy city Jerusalem

Revelation 21-22:5. The city that God has prepared for those who seek him. During Christ’s reign on earth its gates are open, and the nations learn to live by its light.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
The transition from the present world to the new is the last event encompassed by the Bible. The Sun will not, as the scientists say, get hotter and hotter until the oceans boil. It will not, 5 billion years from now, become a red giant, engulfing the planets Mercury and Venus. Long before then, the heaven will vanish like smoke, and the earth wear out like a garment (Isa 51:6).
Formerly you established the earth,
     and the heavens were the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will endure;
     they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away. (Ps 102)

Just as the original heaven and earth were his direct handiwork – they did not form by themselves over billions of years – so God will speak the new universe into being by his word of power; he will create them (Isa 65:17). He will change the old for the new, just as the soul will be given new clothes, and the new heaven and earth will endure forever, along with Israel’s offspring (Isa 66:22). But, ‘there will be no more sea.’

The crashing of waves, the cry of gulls, the smell of stranded seaweed, the crunch of pebbles, the unseen creatures that crawl and swim and burrow: who would wish them away? But God will not abolish what is good. In the first world the ‘sea’ was the deep beneath the land (e.g. Ex 20:4-11), while ‘seas’ plural (Gen 1:10) were surface bodies of water surrounded by land, like the present Mediterranean or the Great Lakes. It was the surface waters that teemed with marine creatures. During the Cataclysm the subterranean waters erupted to the surface, so that in the present world the ‘sea’ is one boundless ocean.

Some suppose the sea will cease to exist because it is where the beast came from (13:1), but in that context the sea is a metaphor, not a real place of evil. The metaphor can hardly constitute a reason to abolish the literal sea, any more than the false prophet’s rising out of the earth (13:11) might be reason to abolish the literal earth. In the declaration that God created the sea there is no sinister connotation (10:6 and 14:7). The statement that there will be no more sea in the new creation means simply that there will be no boundless ocean or watery abyss, no anglerfish imaging the demons of the abyss. It also has spiritual import, inasmuch as he will cast all our sins into the sea (Mic 7:19). There will be no sin in the new world; no causes of sin; no death.

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them, their God. And he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, or crying, or pain anymore; for the former things have passed away.”

Jerusalem (Yerushalayim, a dual in later Hebrew), has a double reference, earthly and heavenly (Gal 4:25f). Both cities are ‘holy’, for Yahweh will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem’ (Zech 2:12). The new Jerusalem is personified as a bride, and her descent from heaven is related twice. The first time, she personifies the redeemed of the first and second resurrection alike. The city is settled on a new earth in which righteousness dwells, the unrighteous having been destroyed in Gehenna. The ‘former things’ have passed away, death is no more, and God makes all things new. The second time, the vision sets forth the significance of the city for the nations around it. John is taken to a high mountain – elevated Mount Zion – and there sees the redeemed of the first resurrection only, descending to the present earth. The first vision anticipates the newness that the second moves towards.

The principal source is Isaiah 25:8 and 65:17-19. The latter verses announce the new creation as Jerusalem’s assured destiny. Jerusalem will be created a place and a people of great joy. The law’s curse on Israel (Deut 28) is finally lifted. Restored to their land, the people again build houses, enjoy the fruit of their labour and bear children. Wolves and lions will no longer prey on other animals. God will dwell on Mount Zion and wipe away men’s tears. A man who dies at the age of 100 will be considered young. Eventually God will swallow up death itself.

His intention has always been to make the nations his own (Ps 2:8, 82:8, Isa 56:7f, Luke 2:32). ‘Peoples’ is therefore plural, and the promise that Israel would be his people and he their God (Ex 6:7, Jer 24:7, Ezek 11:20, Zech 8:8) expanded. His dwelling (‘tent/tabernacle’, Gk. skene) is with all humanity, for ‘many peoples will join themselves to Yahweh on that day’ (Ezek 37:27, Zech 8:3, 2:10-12). God comes in the company of the redeemed out of heaven – their former place of sojourn – to the peoples on earth, and sojourns (skenωsei) with them there.

God, Moses told Israel before foretelling their unfaithfulness, is perfect in all his ways; he is a God of faithfulness and without injustice (Deut 32:4). Everything good comes from him. Nonetheless he has created a world that, ever since the eighth day, has been blighted by evil, in order that we might know good from evil (Gen 2:17).
I form light and create darkness;
     I make well-being and create evil. (Isa 45:7)
He has made everything for its purpose,
     even the wicked for the day of trouble. (Prov 16:4)

It is he who subjected the creation to death, consigning all human striving to futility (Rom 8:20). It is he who determines if a man is mute, or deaf, or blind (Ex 4:11). In the story about Job, Satan is given permission to strike everything Job has. After losing his children, all ten of them, in a storm, Job accepts this natural disaster as God’s prerogative to take back what he has given. “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept evil?” God makes these disclosures in order that we may grapple with them, in life as well as in theology. Perhaps there is a grain of comfort in knowing, amidst the darkness, that he is in control. But the knowledge that God allowed it, even willed it, can also augment the pain. Somehow we are to entrust our souls to the very person responsible for our suffering (I Pet 4:19).

The last judgement is the vindication of God’s justice following the injustice which vitiates this world. He wipes the wicked from the face of the earth (Gen 6:7); the sins of the penitent he wipes from remembrance (Ps 51:9, Acts 3:19), and finally he wipes away their tears. The verb is exaleiphω, in Hebrew machah, denoting complete erasure. It is an act of tenderness, the obverse of his justice and the vindication of his love. He wipes our faces the way a mother comforts her child. Having made us creatures susceptible to pain, and having been its ultimate cause – to test, to discipline, to purify, or for no reason that we can discern – he himself wipes the tears away, he who once also mourned, and wept, and was tortured. It is specifically a promise for Israel, when she is saved from her enemies (Isa 25:8-10). ‘He binds up the brokenness of his people, and heals the wound of his blow.’ ‘He will gather the lambs in his arm.’

God has created us for pleasure and for joy.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer man is wasting away, yet the inner is being renewed, day by day. For the momentary lightness of our affliction is working out for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (II Cor 4:16f)

At his right hand there are pleasures forever more (Ps 16:11). In his presence there is fullness of joy, his joy and ours, and one day we will enter it (Matt 25:21). Sorrow and sighing will flee away. So we wait for that day.

And he who was seated on the throne declared, “Behold, I make all things new.” And he says, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he declared to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. He who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be God to him and he will be a son to me. As for the cowardly, and faithless, and abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and drug-dealers, and idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”

Progressive transformation leads towards the completely new. The creation will be delivered from the bondage of corruption. The corruptible will put on the incorruptible and the mortal put on immortality. Somehow, he will give us back the Eden of our childhood: the innocence, the freshness of perception in the light of which everything is wonderful, the simplicity of feeling, the sense that here is our home, a place where we are totally loved. If we must become like children to enter the kingdom, will we not actually be like children? Childhood and adulthood will be reconciled.

‘It is done’ previously announced the end of God’s anger (16:17) and implicitly a new beginning for humanity. Finally, at the end of the millennium, God’s purpose in creating heaven and earth many ages ago will have been accomplished.

Water is essential for life. Earthly Jerusalem had a natural spring, but it was outside the walls (II Chr 32:3), and spiritually she was dry. She needed a spring of living water, which was Yahweh himself (Jer 2:12). On the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” On the day the Messiah is revealed just such a spring will open for Jerusalem, washing away sin and uncleanness (Joel 3:18, Zech 13:1). ‘With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.’

Let the reader remember the promises for every one who conquers (Rev 2-3). To believe that God exists is of little value. What matters is that God should choose to be our God: the greatest privilege, the greatest blessing. To those who courageously and faithfully overcome the world he gives his whole self, embracing them as sons and daughters.

Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues. And he spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance resembling a precious jewel, like diamond, crystalline, and with a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names inscribed of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel, to the east three gates, to the north three gates, to the south three gates, and to the west three gates, and the wall of the city having twelve foundations, and on them twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

And he who spoke with me had a golden rod with which to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with the rod: 12,000 stadia. Its length and its width and its height are equal. He also measured its wall: 144 cubits, a man’s measure being an angel’s. The structure of the wall was diamond, and the city was pure gold, like clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel: the first foundation diamond, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates being of one pearl, and the street of the city pure gold, like pellucid glass.

This second vision of Jerusalem is introduced by one of the angels that had poured out wrath on the earth. The vision of Babylon the Great was likewise introduced, for the previous plagues are not to be forgotten. Both cities are portrayed as female: one a prostitute, the other a pure bride. One is seated on waters representing the nations of the earth, in a desert; the other originates from heaven and comes to rest on a high mountain. One is adorned with gold, jewels and pearls; the other is actually composed of gold, jewels and pearls – her beauty is internal, not merely external.

Isaiah draws a similar contrast:
“We have a strong city;
     as walls and bulwarks he sets up salvation.
Open the gates,
     that into it may enter the righteous nation that keeps faith. …
For he has humbled those who dwell on the height;
     the lofty city he lays low,
he lays it low to the ground;
     he casts it down to the dust.” (26:1-5)

“Afflicted one, storm-tossed, not comforted,
     behold, I set your stones in antimony,
     and lay your foundations with sapphires.
I make your pinnacles of rubies,
     your gates of carbuncles
     and all your walls of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by Yahweh,
     and great shall be the peace of your children. (54:11-13)

The angel with the measuring stick recalls the vision of Jerusalem under Gentile occupation (ch. 11) and, most pertinently, Ezekiel’s final vision (Ezek 40:2f). Like John, Ezekiel was transported to a very high mountain in the land of Israel. So the ‘structure like a city’ that he saw is the new Jerusalem that John sees. But the descriptions are different, not least in respect of the dimensions. Ezekiel records measurements for the temple, the city and the land’s territorial division that are copious and detailed, all consistent with a literal signification. By contrast, a city extending in every direction 12,000 stadia (around 1400 miles) is absurd, understood literally. But the number still holds. Centred on Jerusalem, an area with those dimensions would reach from the Black Sea to the Red Sea and from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, encompassing Greece, Asia Minor, Iraq (ancient Assyria and Babylonia), Phoenicia, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, all the nations and empires that Old Testament Israel came into contact with except Medo-Persia. The significance is that they now are included in the kingdom of God. ‘His rule will be from sea to sea, and from the River’ – the Euphrates – ‘to the end of the earth (Zech 9:10).
“In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isa 19:24)

The city also extends into heaven, its cubic shape like the holy of holies in Solomon’s Temple (I Ki 6:20); but the entire city is now his sanctuary, and is gold all the way through, not just overlaid with gold. John avoids saying that the city was ‘built’, or ‘made’. God’s residence is not a building but a newly created people (I Cor 3:17, Rev 3:12), a vast multitude. The Bride’s jewels symbolise a heavenly splendour. They are the precious stones set in the high priest’s ‘breastplate of judgement’, engraved with the names of the twelve sons of Israel (Ex 28:15-21).

Yahweh chose Jerusalem even from birth, a foundling abandoned in the field (Ezek 16). He waited for the child to grow up to womanhood. When the time was right for love, he washed her (the ritual cleansing before marriage, Ex 19:10), spread his garment over her and covered her nakedness. He entered into a covenant betrothing her to himself. As wedding gifts he gave her sumptuous raiment, adorned her body with ornaments and jewels, and placed a crown on her head. But she used her beauty to prostitute herself with foreign gods, with the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians: adulterous spiritually and fornicating literally. She became even worse than the peoples she lived amongst, including Sodom. “Can a maiden forget her ornaments or a bride her attire? Yet my people have forgotten me, days without number,” he lamented (Jer 2:32). So, instead of consummating the marriage, he divorced her and brought on her the full force of his wrath – he who had saved her from death, her jilted husband. Nonetheless, in the last days he would remember his covenant. He would cleanse her and give her a a new heart, and then she would gladly call him husband.
I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. (Hos 2:19)

In faithless Israel’s idolatrous and syncretistic religion, Yahweh already had a wife, the Canaanite goddess Asherah. The nation never supposed that in the latter days, after many years in the wilderness, they themselves, collectively, would be his consort.

The Gentiles were formerly alienated from the polity of Israel, but Christ washed them too, in baptism, by his word (John 15:3, Eph 5:26). The Bride will be the redeemed Gentiles as well as the redeemed children of Israel. We share the citizenship of the city and its temple with the people he chose first (Eph 2:12-22). The twelve foundations of the city symbolise the sons of Israel; the twelve gates through which the righteous nation enters bear their names (Ezek 48:30-34). The apostles themselves were Israelites. There is no separate Gentile bride.

Only a little earlier, earthly Jerusalem had been laid waste and its inhabitants driven out. “Surely Yahweh has forsaken us,” they said. But he had not.
“See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
     your walls are continually before me.
Your builders make haste;
     your destroyers and those who laid you waste depart from you.
Lift up your eyes and look around:
     they all gather, they come to you.
As I live, declares the LORD,
     you shall put them all on as an ornament;
     you shall bind them on as a bride does.
“Surely your ruins and desolate places
     and the land of your destruction –
surely now you will be too narrow for your inhabitants,
     and those who swallowed you up will be far away.
The children of your bereavement
     will yet say in your ears:
‘The place is too narrow for me;
     make room for me to dwell there.’
Then you will say in your heart:
     ‘Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
     exiled and put away,
     but who has fostered these? (Isa 49:16-21)
‘These’ are Israel’s resurrected children: the people who died without faith in Messiah. When God raises them from their graves, he will restore their skin, their flesh and their bones and give them a new spirit (Ezek 11:19, 37:7-14). But they will not, at this stage, be immortal; they will not ascend to heaven or be part of the bride coming down from heaven. He will raise them up (Isa 49:6) and in so doing ‘reverse their captivity’, and immediately bring them back to the wilderness of the land of Israel (Jer 29:14, Hos 2:14). He will say to the prisoners, “Come out”; to those who lay in darkness, “Appear!” (Isa 49:9)
They shall feed along the ways,
     and their pasture shall be on the bare heights.
They shall not hunger or thirst;
     neither desert nor sun shall strike them.
For he who has pity on them will lead them
     and by springs of water he will guide them.
And I will turn all my mountains into a road,
     and my highways will be raised up. (Isa 49:9-11)
The prophecy could be referring to the return of Jews from the Diaspora and of Israelis exiled from their homeland in the last days (Joel 3:2), but since there is no indicated change of subject, it more naturally refers to Israelites brought back to life.
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened
     and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame man will leap like a deer
     and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. (Isa 35:5f)

The prophecy is not of the works that Jesus would do at the time of John the Baptist. Rather, his works of healing prefigured the day when he would come in vengeance against Israel’s enemies (Isa 35:4), save the nation and heal those leaping from the grave (Mal 4:2), as he hinted when he added the raising of the dead to Isaiah’s prophecy (Luke 7:22). He would gather the remnant of Israel from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind, the lame and the pregnant (Jer 31:8f, Mic 4:6f, Zeph 3:19f). In whatever condition they died, and whether young or old, they would be raised to life whole.

The landscape is desert, but physical springs and rivers will open for them, as in the first Exodus (Isa 30:25, 35:6f, 41:18, 43:19f, 49:10, Jer 31:9, 16:14f). They will be carried on horses and other physical forms of transport, laden with silver and gold. The nations themselves will bring them (Isa 60:9, 66:20). Settled in the land together with the Israelis who already live there, they will marry and have children (Ezek 43:22, 37:26, Isa 65:3). Boys and girls will play in the streets (Zech 8:5). Their lives will be like a watered garden (Num 24:6, Jer 31:12). They will fill out their days, but nonetheless die at the end of them (Isa 65:10).

The raising of Israel’s dead is likened to a birth (Mic 5:3). Suddenly the barren woman brings forth an entire nation:
“Before she was in labour she gave birth;
     before her pangs on she produced a male.
Who has heard such a thing?
     Who has seen such things?
Shall a land go into labour in one day?
     Shall a nation be brought forth all at once? (Isa 66:7f)
You have multiplied the nation;
     you have increased its joy. (Isa 9:3)
He will send out his angels to gather also the Jews living overseas (Matt 24:31); no Jew will be left among the nations (Ezek 39:28). He will give to Abraham’s descendants the land he promised, from the Negev to northwestern Syria, as far east as Damascus and the river Jordan (Ezek 47:15-21). Although the territory they initially occupied was small, ‘You have increased the nation; … you have enlarged all the borders of the land’ (Isa 26:15, 54:2f, Mic 7:11). The outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah, living and dead, will be re-united (Isa 11:12f). Non-Jews who lived in the land will also have an inheritance (Ezek 47:22-23).
And I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God the Almighty is its temple, and the Lamb. And the city has no need of the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light. And the kings of the earth bring their glory and honour into it. And at no time will its gates be shut, for there will be no night there. They will bring the glory and the honour of the nations into it. But nothing common may enter, nor anyone who does what is abominable or false, but only those who have been written in the Lamb’s book of life.
There will be no physical sanctuary in the new creation which the new Jerusalem anticipates, for the earthly temple was only a shadow of the heavenly things (Heb 8:5) and the whole earth will be filled with his glory. The city, open to all, presents a preview of what the new earth will be. Ezekiel communicates the literal picture, in which Jerusalem does have a temple (Ezek 40:5-44:31). Also Isaiah:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
     that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established on top of the mountains
     and be lifted up above the hills.
And all the nations shall flow to it
     and many peoples come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
     to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways,
     that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
     and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isa 2:1-3)
The nations will walk spiritually by the light that the city shines spiritually, as Israel herself is urged to do (Isa 2:5). The Lamb shines like the sun, and his light is the glory of Yahweh, rising upon Jerusalem like the dawn (Isa 60:1f). It is also the Law, which with a lesser light looked forward to the Lamb and now looks back. Do not be misled by Paul’s polemic against self-righteousness. The Torah in itself is good (Rom 7:12).
Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
     who walk in the law of Yahweh! …
Your word is a lamp to my feet
     and a light to my path. …
The law of Yahweh is perfect,
     reviving the soul. (Ps 19:7)
He will not grow faint or be dismayed
     till he has established justice on the earth
     and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isa 42:4)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17f)

Days before the Babylonians destroyed it, the glory of Yahweh quit the Temple. Now his glory will again fill the building (Ezek 43:1-4). “This is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever.” God’s house and the king’s house will be one, because the king himself is God.

The kingdom having come, righteousness will no longer be a matter of faith, of believing in things not seen. The age of the gospel will be over.
From new moon to new moon,
     and from sabbath to sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
     declares the LORD. (Isa 66:23)

In particular, once a year, the families of the earth will go up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles, even the Egyptians (Zech 14:16-18). ‘Yahweh will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know Yahweh in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering’ (Isa 19:22). All must offer sacrifice (Zech 14:21), for sin will still need to be atoned for. At the direction of David their king (Ezek 34:24, 45:17) and of the appointed priests (44:15-41), even Israel must offer (45:16f, 20:40). ‘Kings shall see and arise, princes, and they shall worship’ (Isa 49:7). ‘Because of your temple at Jerusalem kings will bear gifts to you’ (Ps 68:29, 96:8). It will be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa 56:7). ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising’ (Isa 60:3). Earth’s kings will no longer be the enemies of God, nor will they war with each other (Ps 46:9, Isa 2:4). Rather, they will acknowledge that he alone is worthy to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and might, and honour, and glory, and blessing. The nations themselves are the ingathering envisaged by the feast, welcomed in order that they too may have life. They include the poor, the maimed, the blind and the lame among the survivors (Luke 14:21), even the wicked (Matt 22:10). ‘Common’ has the sense of ‘unsanctified’ (Acts 10:13), for not everyone will be admitted (Isa 52:1, Ezek 44:9, Matt 22:11-13). The wicked must come in repentance.

The Sumerian King List opens, ‘When kingship came down from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu’. The kingship shifted from one city to another, until a great king unified the country and chose Babel, the ‘gate of God’, as his capital (Gen 10:10). Its builders erected there a terraced pyramid, not a cube, symbolic of a great, high mountain, and the city got its name from the gate at the top. Through this gate the gods walked down to the earth below. But the kingship was illegitimate, a usurpation of what belonged to God. Babylon was not the City of the Great King (Ps 48:12), and not at the centre of the earth (Ezek 5:5, 38:12). Later, Jacob dreamt of a stairway on which angels ascended and descended. When he awoke, he said in awe, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Stairways branched half way down like the arms of a cross, a prefigurement of the true stairway between heaven and earth (John 1:51).

“Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” Solomon exclaimed. “Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you – how much less this house that I have built!” (I Ki 8:27) The ‘heaven’ was the space containing the sun, the moon and the twelve planets, within the envelope of water whose frozen remains we call the ‘Oort Cloud’ (Gen 1:14-16, Ps 148:4). It was created as God separated the waters below from the waters above and thereby stretched out the space inbetween (Gen 1:7f, Job 9:8 Isa 42:5, Jer 10:12). The ‘heaven of heavens’ was the space beyond, containing the stars of the Galaxy and (as we now know) countless other galaxies.

Heaven is likened to a tent which God has made for his dwelling (Ps 19:4, Ps 104:2, Isa 40:22):
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth
     and its inhabitants, like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heaven like a curtain
     and spreads it like a tent to dwell in.

The Hebrew word is a dual and never singular, so whether to translate as singular or plural is a matter of choice. The physical heaven is the representation of God’s spiritual habitation, the ‘greater and more perfect tent’ (Heb 8:2, 9:11). In the beginning the solar system was illumined by an ultraluminous quasar. Later the quasar shot out relativistic jets of matter that condensed into stars, forming the spiral arms of the Galaxy, and the remnant collapsed into a supermassive black hole. In the beginning the earth had no need of the sun to give it light, though the sun still shone. The glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ will be like that primordial light, before the sun was formed (II Cor 4:6).

When, and by whom, the temple will be built is left unclear. Nowhere does Ezekiel say that Israel should build it. In a passage whose opening lines (Isa 60:1-3) are often misapplied to the first advent, though possibly the magi prefigured the day, Isaiah reiterates his vision of the return of Zion’s sons and daughters. Then he adds, ‘The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the cypress, the plane-tree and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary,” suggesting that the temple will be built with hands, and not until after Christ’s return and after Lebanon has been reforested. ‘The throne of his glory’ (Matt 25:31) will not be of human construction, for it already exists. It will come down from heaven.

And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb; in the middle of its street and of the river, on either side, a tree of life producing twelve kinds of fruit, each month yielding its fruit; and the leaves of the tree for healing of the nations. And there will be no curse any more. And the throne of God and the Lamb will be in it. His servants will minister to him. And they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no lamp, or light of a sun, for the Lord God will illumine them, and they will reign for ever and ever.

First the physical, then the spiritual (I Cor 15:46). In the beginning God planted a garden, in the midst of which was a tree of life, and a river flowed there. Like the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it was an ordinary tree, but God would have caused the man to live forever had he eaten from it. Instead he ate from the forbidden tree, forfeiting eternal life, and God expelled him. New Jerusalem redeems what was lost. There is again a tree, and a river. The way to the tree is no longer barred.

As in the ‘great city’ (Rev 11:8), only the central street is mentioned. The river runs along the street, and a tree of life is on either side. The river flows ‘from the throne of God and of the Lamb’ because ‘just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself’. Spiritually, the tree is the stake on which our Lord was crucified (I Pet 2:24), the apple tree among the trees of the forest (Song 2:3), the true vine.
His delight is in the law of Yahweh,
     and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
     that yields its fruit in its season,
     and its leaf does not wither. (Ps 1)

As the nations eat from the spiritual fruit of the tree, their lives will be prolonged (Prov 3:16-18); as they apply its leaves, they will be healed of their diseases. The curse on the ground (Gen 3:17) and the curse on the descendants of Canaan will be lifted (Gen 9:25).

In physical reality too there will be a river, flowing from the south side of the temple eastward and providing water for every kind of fruit tree (Ezek 47:1ff). It will get progressively deeper, emerging at the valley north of the Dead Sea (Joel 3:18). The Dead Sea will become fresh, and fishermen standing on its shores will fish there. Presumably, the source of the river will be an aquifer tapped by the great earthquake. On every mountain and hill there will be streams of water (Isa 30:25).

One might also venture an allegorical interpretation. When Solomon built the first Temple, the river was only ankle-deep; a thousand years later, it was knee-deep; a thousand years later, waist-deep. In the millennium to come, it will be deep enough to swim in (Ezek 47:3-6). The fish living in the river will be caught in the nets of the kingdom, as all nations are brought in. Alternatively the deepening signifies the progress of Christ’s rule during the millennium itself, for ‘of the increase of his government there will be no end’. Since the river is for all, the waters will also flow west towards the coast (Zech 14:8).

Israel was instructed to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles in this manner: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Lev 23:40). He who planted and uprooted Israel will plant them again, in their own land (Isa 5:7, 61:3, Jer 24:6, 31:28, 32:41, Ezek 17:23, Amos 9:15). He will take them from the dust of the ground, breathe his spirit into them, and set them in the land where he himself dwells. He will make Zion’s wilderness like the primeval garden (Isa 41:19, 51:3, Ezek 36:35) and make it his sanctuary. Hence the walls of the holy of holies were lined with cedar and carved with cherubim, palm trees and flowers. This is the paradise that Paul was given a glimpse of, and which was promised to the rebel crucified next to Jesus. We ourselves have a glimpse of it whenever we raise our eyes to search for the blackbird hidden in the foliage, that cannot but sing.

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel,” Isaiah interjected (45:15). God hid his face because of Israel’s sins (59:2), and because of our sins he still does. But there were also other reasons. Understanding that our parent’s instructions really were for the good, having the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them without fear of chastisement, becoming parents ourselves – these are elements of growing up. How would man repay that gift of freedom? Would he become like God in wisdom and holiness and compassion for the unfortunate, simply by moral evolution? Would wars cease? God revealed himself for a time, then went away. Instinctively, knowing our nakedness and his holiness, we hide ourselves from him. But he will hide himself no more. The pure in heart will see him face to face, not dimly. At last we will see the face of the one who created us! We shall know him fully, even as he knows us.