The holy city Jerusalem

Revelation 21-22:5. The city that God has prepared for those who love him. Its gates are open, and the nations who have survived the wrath live by its light.

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth have gone, and the sea is no more.
The replacement of this present world is the last event in the Bible. The Sun will not, as 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 (Isa 51:6).
Formerly you founded 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 (Isa 65:17). He will change the old for the new, just as the soul will be given new clothes. Then the new heaven and earth will endure for ever, along with Israel’s offspring (Isa 66:22). But, ‘there will be no more sea.’

In the first world the sea, or seas, was the deep beneath the land (Hasel 1974); the land was founded upon the seas (Exod 20:4, 11, referring to the world as originally constituted, Ps 24:2). The seas were also surface bodies of water surrounded by land, like the Great Lakes of North America, their water welling up from the deep. It was these that teemed with marine creatures (Gen 1:20-22). At the onset of the Cataclysm the pillars collapsed, so that the deep erupted through and overwhelmed the land. The interconnected oceans that surrounded the continents as they re-emerged were maintained by a different water cycle. In the declaration that God created the sea there is no sinister connotation (10:6 and 14:7).

Some suppose that the sea will be destroyed 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 be reason for abolishing the literal sea, any more than the false prophet’s rising out of the earth (13:11) would be reason for abolishing the literal earth. 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 gone? – to say nothing about the sea’s being a source of food. Rather, in the new creation there will be no abyss, no boundless ocean, no anglerfish imaging the demons of the abyss. Inasmuch as he will cast all our sins into the sea (Mic 7:19), there will be no sin.

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 tabernacle of God is with men. He will sojourn 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 gone.”

Jerusalem (a dual in Hebrew, Yerushalayim) 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 both the first and second resurrection. The city is settled on a new earth in which righteousness dwells and there are no unrighteous. The ‘former things’ having passed away, God makes all things new. The second time (v. 10), the vision sets forth the significance of the city for the nations around it. John is taken to a mountain – elevated Mount Zion – and there sees the redeemed of the first resurrection descending to the present earth. The first vision anticipates the newness that the second moves towards.

The principal inspiration for the passage 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 of great joy. Restored to their land, the people of Israel will 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. Longevity will increase to what it was before the Cataclysm, so that a man dying aged 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) is expanded. He erects his tent/tabernacle (skene) in the midst of 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 temporary refuge – to the peoples on earth, and there sojourns (skenωsei) with them.

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). He alone is good, and 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 may distinguish good from evil (Gen 3:22). In the life to come, our knowledge of him will be informed by the knowledge gained in this world of what he is not, for there are qualities – such as courage, patience, truthfulness, justice – which can only be experienced in an imperfect world where good is postponed, or hidden, and evil has to be opposed.
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 all ten of his children in a storm, Job accepts this natural disaster as God’s prerogative to take back what he has given. “Shall we 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. There is 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, on the day God saves her 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 indeed our outer man is wasting away, yet our inner is being renewed, day by day. For the momentary lightness of our affliction is working out for us an eternal weight of glory surpassing every superlative. (II Cor 4:16f)

The present creation has many pleasures, and at his right hand there are pleasures for evermore (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 said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And he says, “Write, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said 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 share 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 its bondage to decay. 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, the 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, Yahweh himself (Jer 2:13). On the great last day of the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus cried, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.” On the day he is revealed such a spring will open for Jerusalem, washing away sin and uncleanness (Joel 3:18, Zech 13:1).

Let the reader remember the promises for each one who conquers (Rev 2-3). And here is an eighth: “I will be God to him and he a son to me”; he will inherit the covenant promises given to Abraham (Gen 12:7) and to David (II Sam 7:14). To believe that God exists is of no account. What matters is that we should desire him, and that he 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 the Spirit to a great mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, her 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 reed with which to measure the city, and its gates, and its wall. The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with the reed: 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. And 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, like the vision of Babylon the Great, by one of the angels who poured out wrath on the earth, as if the plagues are not to be forgotten. Both cities are portrayed as female: one a prostitute, the other a pure bride (both the names and the common noun for city, polis, are grammati­cally feminine, so ‘it/its’ could be translated ‘her’). One is seated on waters representing the nations of the earth, in a wilderness; the other originates from heaven and comes to rest on a mountain. One is adorned with gold, jewels and pearls; the other is actually composed of gold, jewels and pearls – her beauty internal, not merely external.

Isaiah draws a similar contrast:
“We have a strong city;
     he makes salvation our walls and rampart. …
For he has humbled those who dwell on the height;
     the lofty city he lays low,
lays it low to the ground;
     he casts it down to the dust.” (26:1-5)

“For the mountains will depart
     and the hills shake,
but my love will not depart from you
     and my covenant of peace will not be shaken.
Afflicted one, storm-tossed, not comforted,
     behold, I set your stones in antimony
     and lay your foundations with sapphires.
Of diamond I make your pinnacles,
     and your gates of carbuncle,
     and all your walls of precious stones.
All your children shall be taught by the LORD,
     and greatly shall your children prosper. (54:11-13)

The angel with the measuring stick brings to mind both the prophecy of Jerusalem under Gentile occupation (11:1f) and Ezekiel’s final vision (Ezek 40:2f). Ezekiel was transported to a high mountain in the land of Israel, where he saw a ‘structure like a city’, not named until the end of the book. Evidently it is the Jerusalem that John sees. But the descriptions are different, not least in respect of the dimensions. Ezekiel’s city is 4500 cubits or 1.5 miles square, consistent with a literal signification, whereas 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 God’s kingdom. ‘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 wooden measuring stick (11:1) indicates that Jerusalem will be rebuilt physically, the golden measuring stick that it will be rebuilt spiritually (Isa 28:16f).

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 (3:17, Eph 2:22), a vast multitude. Babylon’s walls were made of brick, Jerusalem’s of stone, the walls protecting new Jerusalem, figuratively, of adamantine. As with the twelve tribes at 7:5-8, the exact nature of the stones does not matter. The Bride’s jewels are the gems in the high priest’s breastplate of judgement, engraved with the names of Israel’s twelve sons. They symbolise an imperishable, heavenly splendour.

Yahweh chose Jerusalem even from birth, a foundling abandoned in the field (Ezek 16). He waited for the child to grow 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 (similarly Ruth 3:9) and covered her nakedness. He entered into a covenant betrothing her to himself. As wedding gifts he clothed her in fine linen and silk, adorned her with gold and silver, and set a tiara on her head. But she used her sumptuous raiment to rig up the booth of a prostitute; she turned the gold and silver into images and solicited the favours of the Philistines, the Egyptians, 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. So, instead of consummating the marriage, he divorced her and brought on her the full force of his anger – he who had saved her from perdition, her jilted husband. Nonetheless, in the last days he would remember his covenant. He would cleanse her again and give her a new heart. Then she gladly would call him husband.
I will betroth you to me for ever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness, and in justice, and in love, and in compassion. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. (Hos 2:19)

In 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 of exile, they themselves would become his consort.

The Gentiles were formerly alienated from the polity of Israel, but them too Christ washed. The Bride will be the redeemed Gentiles as well as Israel. We share the citizenship of the city with the people he chose first (Eph 2:12-22), for it was with the house of Israel that Jesus made a new covenant (Jer 31:33, Matt 15:24). The twelve foundations of the city symbolise Israel’s sons; 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 before me continually.
Your builders make haste;
     your destroyers and those who laid you waste
     go out 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
     and bind them on as a bride does.
For your waste and desolate places
     and the land of your destruction
will now 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.’
And you will say in your heart:
     ‘Who has borne me these?
I was bereaved and barren,
     exiled and put away,
     but who has begotten these?’ ”(Isa 49:16-21)
‘These’ are Israel’s resurrected children: the people who did not live in faithfulness. 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 lead them back to the land of Israel (Jer 29:14). He will say to the prisoners, “Come out”; to those who lie in darkness, “Appear!” He will enter into judgement with them in the ‘wilderness of the peoples’, face to face, as he did with their forefathers in the wilderness of Sinai (Ezek 20:34-38, 34:20-22). They will pass under his rod and walk along a highway of holiness from which rebels and transgressors will be excluded (Isa 35:8-10, 40:3).
They will feed along the ways;
     on all the bare heights they will pasture.
They shall not hunger or thirst,
     nor will the desert or sun strike them.
For he who has compassion on them will lead them
     and by springs of water he will guide them.
And I will make all my mountains a road,
     and my highways shall be raised up. (Isa 49:9-11)
The landscape is wilderness, but physical springs and rivers will open for them, as in the first Exodus (Isa 30:25, 35:6f, 41:18, 43:19f; Jer 16:14f). He will 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).
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)

This is not a vision of what Jesus was to do at the time of John the Baptist. Rather, his works 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 is still the ‘one who is to come’.

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 these things?
Shall a land go into labour in one day?
     Shall a nation be brought forth all at once?” (Isa 66:7f)
The outcasts of Israel and the dispersed of Judah, living and dead, will be re-united. Those who were driven out of the land will be carried on horses and other forms of transport, laden with silver and gold. The nations themselves will bring them (Isa 14:2, 60:9, 66:20). Angels will gather those overseas, so that no Jew will be left among the nations (Matt 24:31, Ezek 39:28). Arabs who lived in the land will also have an inheritance (Ezek 47:22f).

He will give to Abraham’s descendants the land he promised them in his first covenant, from the Negev to northwestern Syria, as far east as Damascus and the river Jordan (Gen 15:18-20, Jos 13:2-6, Ezek 47:13-21). “I will bring them to the land of Gilead and Lebanon, till there is no room for them” (Zech 10:10). Although the territory occupied previously was small, because the nation was small, ‘You have increased the nation; … you have enlarged all the borders of the land’ (Isa Isa 9:3, 26:15, 54:2f, Mic 7:11). So the land will be divided among the twelve tribes anew, including this time an allotment for the Levites. God’s dwelling will be in the midst of Levi’s allotment, and the priests who minister (22:3) will be specifically Zadok’s resurrected descendants. Created for his glory (Isa 43:7), the Israelites will bear the name of God on their foreheads, and no longer bear it in vain.

They will marry and have children (Ezek 44:22, 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 65:20).

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. And nothing common may enter it, nor anyone who does what is abominable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
The earthly temple was only a shadow of the heavenly things (Heb 8:5). Therefore there will be no physical temple as such, for the naos is Christ (John 2:19), and the whole earth will be filled with his glory. He will fill all in all. The building in Ezekiel’s vision is simply called his house, or holy place (hagion). A house there will certainly be, as Isaiah also says:
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 will flow to it
     and many peoples will come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
     to the house of the God of Jacob
and 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. (2:1-3)
Gentiles will walk by the light that the city shines spiritually. The Lamb will shine like the sun, the glory of Yahweh rise upon Jerusalem like the dawn (Isa 60:1f). With a lesser light the Law looked forward to the Lamb and now looks back.

Do not be misled by Paul’s polemic against self-righteousness. The Torah with its commandments and its requirement that our inability to keep the commandments be covered by sacrifice is good (Ps 19:7, Rom 7:12). When the physical house comes back, so too will the law.

He will not grow faint or be dismayed
     until he establishes justice on the earth
     and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isa 42:4)
“Do not think that I have come to abolish but to fulfil. For amen I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota or one dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:17f)

A few years before the Babylonians destroyed it, the glory quit the Temple. Now he will again fill the building (Ezek 43:1-5). “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 for ever.” God’s house and the king’s house will be one, because God will be the king.

When, and by whom, the house will be built is not stated. In a passage whose opening lines (Isa 60:1-3) are often misapplied to the first advent, Isaiah again describes the return of Zion’s sons and daughters, then 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 it will be built only after Christ’s return and after Lebanon has been reforested. No measurements are given for his throne, since ‘the throne of his glory’ (Matt 25:31) already exists. He will enter enthroned above the cherubim.

His kingdom having come, reconciliation will no longer be a matter of appropriating by faith the righteousness revealed in the law and in the gospel. 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)

Once a year, the tribes 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 prince (Ezek 34:24, 45:17) and of the designated priests (44:15-41, Isa 66:21, Jer 33:21) even Israel must offer (Ezek 45:16f, 20:40, Mal 3:4), being still capable of sin. ‘Because of your palace at Jerusalem kings will bring gifts to you’ (Ps 68:29, 96:8, Isa 60:11). Kings will still be ruling over nations, subject to the saints. “The treasures of all the nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory,” as he said on the final day of the feast (Hag 2:7). It will be a house of prayer for all the peoples (Isa 56:7). The earth’s kings will no longer be enemies of God, nor 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 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’ (Ezek 44:23, Acts 10:13), for not everyone will be admitted. The wicked must come in repentance.

The Sumerian King List opened, ‘When kingship came down from heaven, the kingship began 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, symbolic of a great mountain, and the gate at the top gave the city its name. Through it the gods walked down to the earth. But the kingship was illegitimate, a usurpation of what belonged to God. Babylon was not the City of the Great King and not at the centre of the earth. 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 the building 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. “The heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you – how much less this house that I have built!” The heaven was the firmament containing the sun, the moon and the planets, within the envelope of water whose frozen remains we call the Oort Cloud (Gen 1:14-16, Ps 148:4), the origin of the long-period comets. It was created as God separated the waters below from the waters above and thereby stretched out the space inbetween (Gen 1:7f, Isa 42:5, Jer 10:12). The heaven of heavens was the space beyond the firmament, containing what subsequently became the stars of the Milky Way and, as we now know, countless other galaxies. As with ‘water’, the Hebrew word for ‘heaven’ (shamayim) was a dual; whether to translate as singular or plural is therefore a matter of choice. The duality goes back to the language’s origin and reflects the duality of the heavens/waters themselves. Unlike Sumerian, the Afro-Asiatic language family of which Hebrew was part went back to Creation.

Jerusalem’s temple was not so much God’s palace as his footstool (Ps 132:7, cf. II Chr 9:18). In relation to the whole land, and still more the peoples of all the earth, his throne stood in heaven. Heaven was like a tent which God made for himself (Ps 19:4, 104:2).
He it is who sits above the circle of the earth,
     its inhabitants like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heaven like a curtain
     and spreads it like a tent to dwell in.

All flesh was as grass. The nations were as nothing before him, like a drop from a bucket. The whole earth was his footstool and the entire heaven was his throne (Isa 66:1, Ezek 1:26).

The physical heaven was a representation of the ‘greater and more perfect tent’ which was God’s spiritual habitation (Heb 8:2, 9:11). In the beginning the solar system was illumined by an ultraluminous quasar (Gen 1:3). All galaxies began as ultraluminous super-energetic globes of fire. Later the quasar nearest us shot out jets that condensed into stars, forming the spiral arms of our present galaxy, while the remnant collapsed to leave a supermassive black hole. The primeval earth had no need of the sun to give it light, though the sun – less powerful then – still shone. The quasar represented the glory of God. In the new world the sun represented that glory, running his course ‘like a bridegroom going out from his chamber’. In the age to come, as we have glimpsed already in our hearts, the face of Jesus Christ will be that light.

And he showed me a river of water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street; and on either side of the river a tree of life producing twelve fruits, each month yielding its fruit, and the leaves of the tree for healing of the nations. And there will be no curse anymore. And the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and 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 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; its life-giving property inhered in his word. But man ate what was forbidden, forfeiting eternal life, and God expelled him. In the new Jerusalem there is again a tree, and a river. The way to them is no longer barred.

As in the great city (11:8), only the central street is mentioned. The river running down it flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb – still one throne, but now on earth – because ‘just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself’. And there is a tree on either bank. 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 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. There will be no more condemning to ritual annihilation (Zech 14:11), as there was at the banquet of God (Isa 34:5) and as there was when Jerusalem (Isa 43:28, Jer 25:9, Mal 4:6) and modern Babylon (Jer 50:21-26) were destroyed.

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), by Jericho. The Dead Sea will become fresh, and fishermen standing on its shores will fish there. As when Moses struck the rock at Meribah, the source will be an aquifer tapped by the great earthquake. On every mountain and hill there will be streams of water.

One might also venture an allegorical interpretation, given that the cubits measured along the river might be a measure of time (Matt 6:27). A thousand years after the first Temple was built the waters of life were only ankle-deep; a thousand years later, knee-deep; a thousand years later, waist-deep; in the millennium to come they will be deep enough to swim in (Ezek 47:3-6). The fish in the river will be caught in the nets of the kingdom, as all the 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, physical and spiritual, will flow west as well as east (Zech 14:8).

When Israel entered the promised land, they were commanded to follow the ark at a distance of about 2000 cubits. The Lord of all the earth went into the river – the waters of death – before them, just as Jesus was to do before they entered permanently into their inheritance (Mark 1:9, 10:38). The ark stood on dry ground in the midst of the Jordan, and so all Israel crossed.

He who planted and uprooted Israel will plant them again, in their own land (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 will dwell. He will make Zion’s wilderness like the primeval garden (Isa 41:19, 51:3, Ezek 36:35) and make it his sanctuary. The walls of the holy of holies, lined with cedar and carved with cherubim, palm trees and flowers, pointed to the future rather than the past. 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, singing as from another world.

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel,” Isaiah interjected (45:15). He 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? Would he still believe in goodness in the face of brain tumours, leprosy, mosquitoes, in the face of evidence that the Creator, if he existed, might not be good? Or would he curse?

God revealed himself for a time, then went away. Instinctively, we, knowing our nakedness and his holiness, hide ourselves from him as much as the other way round. But he will hide himself no more. The pure in heart will see him face to face, not dimly. At last we shall look into the eyes of the one who made us. We shall know him fully, even as he knows us.