What image comes to mind when thinking of the life to come? In the language of the New Testament, the new heavens and the new earth are frequently described as a feast or a perfect city. This imagery can also be found in the Old Testament, such as the vision of the temple in Ezekiel. However, this language of feasting and bridegrooms and cities tends to color our understanding.
More often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit describes the life to come in terms of unimaginable fruitfulness. The blessings of this life will be magnified beyond our ability to comprehend them in our current state. Moses clearly set before the eyes of Israel the blessings which came with obedience in Deuteronomy 28. Fruitfulness in the field, fruitfulness in the pasture, fruitfulness in the home (which translates to the blessing of many children), all of these things come for those who follow after the Lord faithfully. This should not be perverted into a prosperity gospel, as if the Lord is just waiting to make us rich when we choose. Israel at no point in her history came close to this kind of obedience to the will of God. Rather, Moses shows the source of the imagery in Isaiah: fruitfulness is the language of blessing and perfection in the Old Testament.
Paul refers to the beginning of this section in his discussion of the hardening of Israel in Romans 10. The Lord seeks out a nation which did not seek him, which is to say, the Gentiles (Isaiah 65:1). Israel provokes Him because of the hardness of her heart. Therefore, judgment must come upon Israel. “I will not keep silent, but I will repay” says the Lord (Isaiah 65:6). The partial hardening has come upon Israel so that the Gospel may go forth to bring in the fullness of the nations. Judgment must come upon those who have rejected the Lord, even though they be His own chosen people. But God has not failed in His promises.
This, then, is Isaiah’s point when discussing the great Day when Christ returns in glory to bring about the new heavens and the new earth. The judgment upon His people will come to an end. “I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people” (Isaiah 65:18-19). All of the former things, those things which separated Israel, will pass away and be no more. There shall finally be one flock, one Shepherd.
When Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the partial shall give way to the fullness. There will be unimaginable fruitfulness in an unending joy. Isaiah 65:20 should be understood in this light. Isaiah does not mean to say that death will remain in the life to come, but rather this fruitfulness will translate also into life. Where we suffer the pain of miscarriage and infant mortality, then this evil will be no more. Where we struggle to live to a hundred years, then it will be thought odd should a man die so young! But as Revelation 21:4 makes clear, death shall be no more in that day.
They will build and inhabit their houses. They will plant and enjoy their vineyards. Those things which others had taken away in this life shall be theirs forever. The Lord will execute judgment on those who afflicted them (Ezekiel 28:25-26). His people will have justice and vengeance upon their enemies, and the Lord shall be in their midst. “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
Is this language only poetic? I do not think so. On the one hand, it is written for a people who have been exiled and are lamenting the loss of their home. The Lord had placed them in that land, after all, so the grief is particularly strong. Also, because the imagery shifts, especially moving forward into the New Testament, it should not be interpreted in a literalistic way. One would have to assume that death was part of the new heavens and the new earth if that was the case!
On the other hand, Isaiah presents a picture of the life to come in all of its glory. No longer shall there be a curse. No longer shall there be division and unfaithfulness among His people. No longer shall foreigners occupy the land of promise. The Lord will be among His people in glory and majesty. Adam worked in the garden before the fall into sin. Laboring in vain is part of the curse, not laboring in itself. It may be that we will find a new labor, receiving from the hand of God those tremendous blessings which sin has destroyed in this life. But whatever the reality will be, it does not change that Christ will reign triumphant over sin and death, rendering judgment on His enemies.