Enforcing the Noahic Covenant

Beginning with the Abrahamic Covenant our focus has been the nation of Israel and then the Messiah and His mission, which involves all nations. We now focus on the nations and consider how God relates to them and what happens to people of all nations who do not accept the Messiah.

Recall that the Noahic Covenant, which is applicable to all nations, reapplies the Creation Mandate partially in that it is about building a global civilization that is consistent with God’s will, but without the provision for it to be in fellowship with Him. To this end God instituted formal government to uphold justice. We saw that the Mosaic Covenant reapplied the Creation Mandate completely, but only to Israel. And we have just seen that it is only through the New Covenant, inaugurated by the Messiah, that the Creation Mandate is being reapplied completely to all nations. For people in the world who are not part of the New Covenant, God relates to them only through the Noahic Covenant.

The most explicit statement that God holds the nations accountable to Him through the Noahic Covenant, and thus enforces it upon them, is found in Isaiah: “The earth is polluted by its inhabitants, for they have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (24:5). This “everlasting covenant” has to be the Noahic Covenant, for it is the only covenant God made with every human being, and it is specifically called “the everlasting covenant” (Genesis 9:16; cf. Childs 2001: 179).

The mention of laws and statutes in this context does not mean that it has to be the Mosaic Covenant, which was only applicable to Israel and was not an everlasting covenant (cf. Seitz 1993: 180-81). For even Abraham, who lived long before the Mosaic Covenant, is said to have obeyed God and kept “My statutes and My laws” (Genesis 26:5). This is in line with Paul’s teaching that even people who have never known the Mosaic Law already has it written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-16). This explains why even atheists know in their conscience that murder, adultery, theft, lies, and even greed are morally wrong.

So it is not surprising that three prophetic books (Obadiah, Jonah and Nahum) are each about a foreign nation, and most of the other prophetic books include prophecies against the nations. We will focus on those in Isaiah.

Isaiah 13-27 concerns the entire world. Isaiah 13-23 is a series of prophecies against specific nations because of their wickedness and is about God holding the nations accountable to Him throughout history, whereas Isaiah 24-27 consists of prophecies against the world as a whole and is about God holding the world accountable to Him at the end of history.

The judgment of God on the nations throughout history is basically disasters that would befall them. In some cases, like the case of Babylon (13:17-22), the nation would suffer defeat and then cease to exist as a nation. In the case of Tyre (23:15-18), it would be a temporary collapse (cf. Ezekiel 26:19-21, which gives a longer view as it also predicted that Tyre would cease to exist eventually). As for Egypt (19:1-10), it would suffer internal political and economic collapse, as well as becoming ruled by foreigners.

The books of Jonah and Nahum both concern Assyria. The book of Jonah shows that God would spare a wicked nation if the people would repent from their wickedness (3:10). This is because, as Jonah puts it, “I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in unfailing love, and One who relents from sending disaster” (4:2). It is precisely because of this knowledge of God that Jonah had earlier refused to go to Nineveh to warn the people of the impending disaster, for he did not want the Assyrians to be spared. Most interpreters fail to appreciate Jonah’s dilemma and thus do not sympathize with him: the fearsome Assyrians were a serious threat to Israel and were extremely cruel to the peoples they conquered (Hays 2011: 11-15; Bleibtreu 1991).

The book of Nahum, which prophesied the eventual destruction of Assyria because of its wickedness (3:1-7), then shows that God’s sparing a nation because it repented would only be a temporary reprieve if the nation becomes wicked again. For even though “the LORD is slow to anger,” He is “great in power, and … will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (1:3; cf. Numbers 14:18). This means there is a limit to the Holy God being “slow to anger,” and unless a nation not only repents but also remains repentant, it would eventually have to face the judgment of God. The case of Assyria is representative—it is not possible for a nation of fallen human beings to repent and remain repentant for long. Hence, like Israel, the nations need to accept the Messiah and participate in the New Exodus and thus experience God’s circumcision of the heart under the New Covenant.

As for God’s judgment of the world at the end of history, it would be total in every way. Because humanity has so polluted the earth, the whole earth would be “completely laid waste and completely despoiled” (Isaiah 24:3). And God would “punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity” (26:21). Isaiah 24 speaks of “an ending of the earth and all its nations (v. 13)…. The poet has offered a coming judgment in which nothing will be safe, protected, or immune. The poem strains to be unqualifiedly comprehensive” (Brueggemann 1998: 192).

Isaiah highlights that in the process “the LORD will punish the host of heaven above and the kings of the earth below” (24:21). In the Old Testament “the host of heaven” may refer to the sun, moon and the planets (Psalm 33:6) or to angelic beings (1 Kings 22:19). In this context, since they are to be punished together with human rulers, presumably because of the wickedness they have unleashed on the earth, they must be the fallen angels “who have influenced the rulers on this earth to turn against God and to transgress His laws” (Young 1969: 178).

The idea that there are spiritual forces behind, and expressed through, the powers that be helps us understand the enigmatic poem in Isaiah 14:12-21 (also that in Ezekiel 28:12-19). Though the reference here is obviously to the king of Babylon (king of Tyre in Ezekiel 28), the description is so clearly Satanic in nature that many interpreters have concluded that it is a description of Satan. In other words, the king was so influenced by Satanic forces that he is practically an incarnation of Satan, and the poem identifies him with Satan.

How then do angelic forces influence human rulers? In the New Testament Paul explains it in terms of the “principalities and powers” (cf. Young 1969: 178-9), which is an intricate subject (for a succinct discussion, see Stevens 1997: 795-801). We get a sense of what we are really encountering when we are faced with a social, economic or political problem so intractable, that we realize that we are not merely dealing with human beings, and “find ourselves confronted with ‘the system’—with frozen tradition, with intractable institutions, with deeply engrained social patterns that resist us, and, finally, with the world of spiritual beings and forces. What makes life difficult is systemic evil” (795).

So “the system” not only has a life of its own, but one that is shaped by evil angelic forces; even people who have hitherto been men or women of integrity tend to be corrupted when they become part of it. As Paul puts it, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). By encountering “the system” and its hold on “flesh and blood” we are encountering an expression of the principalities and powers.

Interestingly Walter Brueggemann (1998: 188) summarizes Isaiah 24-27 as: “Yahweh's [the LORD’s] judgment on the power of evil in the world system and the prospect of new well-being for the remnant of Israel.” At the end of history not only the physical world, but also the corrupted world-system will be destroyed. To appreciate what this system involves we now look at three main idols in the world.

We have seen that God desires His people to boast in knowing who He is rather than in wisdom, power or wealth (Jeremiah 9:23-24). For when people do not know God and trust in Him, they will trust in wisdom, strength and wealth, which thus become corrupted as their idols. Given fallen human nature, lack of trust in God will in itself result in lack of restraint towards evil, let alone when compounded with trust in these idols, especially wealth. For “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Love of money then leads to trust in and abuse of strength, and even wisdom, as means to pursue wealth, and abuse of people in the process. With the influence of evil angelic forces, evil in the fallen world becomes pervasive as well as systemic.

The strength that nations trust and glory in is political and military might; this is exemplified by Babylon (Isaiah 14:4-6, 11-12), “whose strength is their god” (Habakkuk 1:11). Note that, since true religion is the fear of God, which eschews the use of force of any kind for the sake of religion, an offensive war in the name of religion, is an expression of trusting and glorying in political and military might.

Tyre, a prosperous harbor, “a market of nations” (Isaiah 23:3), and whose king says, “I am a god” (Ezekiel 28:2), exemplifies trusting and glorying in wealth. God’s judgment on Babylon and Tyre serves as a warning to all nations against trusting and glorying in political and military might as well as in economic power.

Egypt was renowned for its wisdom (1 Kings 4:30), and exemplifies trusting and glorying in wisdom. When God’s judgment fell on Egypt, “the advice of Pharaoh’s wisest advisers has become stupid” (Isaiah 19:11), resulting in internal political and economic collapse (19:1-10). Trusting and glorying in human wisdom is self-defeating.

Nations today still trust in political and military might, economic power, as well as intellectual prowess, especially in terms of technological “know how.” Worshipping these three forms of idols is integral to the evil world-system we encounter. Without trust in God and God only and drawing on His resources, it is impossible to break free from the bondage to these idols and overcome systemic evil (see further 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Ephesians 6:13-20).

With the punishment of even the “host of heaven,” God’s judgment in Isaiah 24-27 will thus be total, affecting “all of heaven and all of earth. This poem [Isaiah 24] anticipates a judgment wrought by Yahweh against all of creation. The poem exhibits the creator at the work of undoing and dismantling the creation” (Brueggemann 1998: 190).

On the positive side, in “a remarkable counterpoint that anticipates newness for the faithful community,… 25:6-10a and 26:19 ... [together] asserts that Yahweh will destroy ‘the last enemy,’ death (cf. also 27:1). In 25:6-9 death is ‘swallowed up.’ In 26:19, the dead rise, no longer held by death” (189).

So in Isaiah 24-26 not only creation, but also death, will be undone. Then Isaiah 27 begins with “Yahweh’s victory over Leviathan, the great sea monster who embodies the autonomous, recalcitrant force of evil that lies beneath the surface of the earth and that endlessly threatens the stability of creation” (210).

Then Israel becomes a new vineyard, which unlike the old one in Isaiah 5, “will take root, … blossom and sprout; and they will fill the whole world with fruit” (verse 6). In view of what happens prior to this scenario—the undoing of the old creation, death and evil—the new vineyard, which fills the whole (new) world with fruit, has to be referring to the New Heavens and the New Earth, the ultimate fulfillment of the New Exodus (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-13).

In other words, God’s judgment (undoing) of the world is an indispensable means to God’s redemption (redoing) of the world. This teaching is expressed dramatically and more comprehensively in Isaiah 61-66. It begins with the words of the Messiah, saying, “the Spirit of Lord God is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to bring good news to the afflicted;… to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of our God's vengeance; to comfort all who mourn” (61:1-2). Jesus, soon after He was anointed by the Spirit of God at His baptism, read publicly these two verses in a synagogue (Luke 4:16-19). He then said to the people gathered there, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

Thus Jesus publically proclaimed Himself the Messiah. It is significant that in reading the two verses He stopped at “to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,” and thus left out “and the day of our God's vengeance.” Evidently this was because executing the day of God’s vengeance was not part of His mission in His first coming, but only in His second coming to consummate history.

Isaiah 61-66 ends with a description of the eternal destiny of people who have accepted the Messiah and thus participate in the New Exodus—jubilation in the New Heavens and the New Earth (65:17-66:24), as well as of people who have rejected Him—destruction on the day of God’s vengeance. On that fearsome day, the Messiah is depicted as coming from Edom, having executed a bloodied massacre there (63:1-6), and leaving behind corpses, whose “worm shall not die, and their fire shall not be quenched” (66:24). Jesus associates this scenario with Hell (Mark 9:48).

Isaiah 34, which provides another depiction of the massacre on God’s day of vengeance (verse 8; cf. 63:4), makes it clear that not only Edom, but “all the nations” and “all the host of heaven” (34:1-4; cf. Psalm 110:5-6) will face the destruction. Hence in Isaiah 63:1-6 (and 34:5-6), “Edom is mentioned as a representative of the powers that oppose God and in its destruction we see their destruction” (Young 1972: 476).

This inference is confirmed by the book of Obadiah, which is a prophecy against Edom for its “violence” (injustice) against Judah (Obadiah 10-14). Though the focus is God’s judgment on Edom in history—it would be overthrown and cease to exist—the prophecy concludes with God’s judgment on all the nations on “the Day of the LORD” (Obadiah 15-21). We know that this judgment will be at the end of history because it is not only comprehensive (“all the nations”), but it is also at the conclusion of the New Exodus (see especially verse 21).

We have seen that “the Day of the LORD” refers to the times when God executes His justice in a way that we expect Him to: disciplining sins and unrepentance in Israel; punishing evil in the world; bringing salvation to Israel and the world. In the context of the end of history it involves the second and third aspects. Isaiah’s “day of God’s vengeance” (which Paul calls “the Day of Christ”) thus refers to the final manifestation of “the Day of the LORD” at the end of history (cf. 2 Peter 3:10). And God frames this judgment against the world as, “Just as you [Edom]… all the nations will…” (Obadiah 16; cf. Isaiah 63:6), thus affirming that Edom is representative of the nations.

Why then is Edom representative? The Edomites were descended from Esau, the brother of Jacob, from whom the Israelites descended. As all humanity descended from Noah, all nations are ultimately related to the Israelites, but the Edomites were their closest relatives. So when even your closest relative, or “brother” (Obadiah 10; Amos 1:11), takes advantage of you, it reveals how unrepentant fallen humanity is, and thus deserves God’s judgment at the end of history.

Coming back to Isaiah 63:1-6, it is explicitly stated that “the day of vengeance” is also “My year of redemption,” when “My own Arm brought salvation to Me, and My wrath upheld Me” (verses 4-5). Hence “vengeance” and “wrath” go hand-in-hand with “redemption” and “salvation.” Thus God’s judgment of the world, motivated by His wrath against wickedness, is a means to God’s redemption of the world. But how can God judge the world and save the world at the same time? God’s judgment will only fall on people from every nation of the world who did not repent, in order that people from every nation of the world who did repent will be saved.

Why then is God’s judgment on the unrepentant necessary to God’s salvation of the repentant? And how can God’s wrath be instrumental to His redemption? The redemption we are talking about is salvation in the New Heavens and New Earth. To appreciate how necessary God’s judgment is in order to accomplish this redemption we need to catch a glimpse of what the New Jerusalem is like.

In his vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth, the apostle John saw the city of the New Jerusalem in the form of a large cube (Revelation 21:10-27). Like the Tabernacle and the Temple, the city has the glory of God shining in it (verse 11). But there is no more temple in the city, “for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple”; the glory of God fills the city as its source of light and so there is no need for even the sun or the moon (verses 22-23; cf. Isaiah 60:19).

There are twelve gates bearing the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, three on each of the four walls (verses 12-13; cf. Ezekiel 48:30-35). And the walls of the city have twelve foundation stones bearing the names of the twelve Apostles of Christ (verses 14, 19-20). The city is thus the eternal home of both the (repentant) remnant of Old Testament Israel and of every member of the true Church of the New Testament.

We do not suppose the New Jerusalem is literally as described in Revelation 21:10-27. No human language can really describe what the eternal home is like (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). The fact that the city is depicted as a cube with twelve foundation stones bearing the names of the twelve Apostles reminds us of the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. For the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence was manifested, was a cube; and once a year the High Priest would risk his life and enter it, wearing a breastpiece with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel (Exodus 28:17-21; 39:8-14).

The fact that God is present in the New Jerusalem, another cube like the Holy of Holies, already shows that the city is the equivalent of the Holy of Holies (cf. Beale 2011: 639-44). The corresponding two sets of twelve stones, representing respectively God’s people under the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, give us a better glimpse of the New Jerusalem.

Under the Mosaic Covenant only once a year on the Day of Atonement, with all the attending cleansing rituals, the nation of Israel, represented by the High Priest bearing the twelve stones, could enter into God’s presence in the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16). When Christ died on the cross as the ultimate Sacrifice for sin, the veil that separates the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place in the Temple was torn apart, signifying that under the New Covenant God’s people have free and direct access into God’s presence (cf. Gurtner 2007: 199-201). This explains why in the New Heavens and the New Earth, there is no need for a temple with three compartments; all that is left is the equivalent of the Holy of Holies—the New Jerusalem.

Unlike the twelve stones on the breastpiece of the High Priest representing Israel, those representing the Church are fixed within New Jerusalem. This means the Church will dwell permanently with God in the equivalent of the Holy of Holies! In fact the Church can “already” draw near to God by faith and enter into His presence “within the veil” (Hebrews 10:19-22). However this “already” experience of God’s presence is only spiritual in nature and partial.

As we saw above, the dead will be raised physically. According to Paul the new body of believers will be like that of the resurrected Christ—immortal and sinless (1 Corinthians 15:20-24). Thus the salvation through the New Exodus is also ultimately physical—the “not yet” redemption of the body (Romans 8:23). This means the believers will eventually dwell with God in the New Jerusalem with their (resurrected) bodies; the “not yet” experience of God’s presence will therefore be both spiritual and physical.

If the “already” experience of God’s presence “within the veil” and of worshipping God now “in the splendor of His holiness” (Psalm 96:9) is already so splendid, believers can marvel in longing anticipation at their “not yet” encounter with the living God in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Now God’s wrath, which is a manifestation of His absolute holiness, consumes all that is ritually and morally impure. If the New Jerusalem is the equivalent of the Holy of Holies, how then can there be any trace of unrepentant fallen humanity in the New Heavens and the New Earth, “in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13) and where “nothing unclean … shall ever come into it” (Revelation 21:27)?

In other words there can be no Heaven (redemption) without Hell (judgment), which is depicted as the “Lake of Fire” in Revelation 20:11-15. Daniel reveals that at the end of history not only the righteous, but also the unrighteous, will be resurrected physically; the difference is that the righteous will be raised “to everlasting life,” whereas the unrighteous to “disgrace and everlasting contempt” (12:2-3). Thus just as eternal life in Heaven involves both body and soul, so does the “second death,” eternal death in Hell (Revelation 20:14; cf. Matthew 10:28).

Hence the depiction in Isaiah 63:1-6 of the final judgment of unrepentant humanity in the form of a bloodied massacre, which involves only physical death, is not to be taken literally. In line with the Messianic redemption being portrayed as the New Exodus, this depiction is reminiscent of the redemption through the Mosaic Exodus in terms of the Holy War under Joshua, which we have shown was about judgment on the wicked Canaanites (destroy them) so as to accomplish redemption for the Israelites (dwelling with God through the Tabernacle in the Holy Land).

Also, we read in Isaiah 63:5 that God’s salvation, which presupposes God’s destruction of the unsaved, is “upheld” or supported by God’s wrath. Depicting the judgment as a relentless massacre thus helps to create graphically the sense that the judgment is an expression of God’s wrath.

However we must not overlook the fact that it is salvation, not just destruction, that is said to be supported by His wrath. What does this mean? Now salvation, especially one as splendid as that in the New Jerusalem, is an expression of God’s unfailing love. Hence insofar as this salvation requires destruction (an expression of God’s wrath), God’s wrath is instrumental to salvation (an expression of God’s love). In other words, God’s wrath is a function of God’s love (cf. Heschel 2001: 378-80), even when it comes to destruction in Hell.

Hence, “cruel though the wrath of God be, yet it is transcended by His love” (379). Unlike God’s love, God’s wrath is not “an attribute,… a basic disposition … inherent in the nature of God” (381); it is the manifestation of His holiness when mercy is withheld. God’s wrath is thus “suspended love,” and may even be “prompted by love” (378), as in the case of His disciplining His people for their good through the Exile.

Last but not the least, the New Jerusalem is also depicted as a city with “a river of the water of life” flowing in it (Revelation 22:1-5; cf. Zechariah 14:8-11). And on each side of the river is the Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (verse 2; cf. Ezekiel 47:12). Hence the conclusion of the New Exodus is reminiscent of Eden, and the New Jerusalem is depicted as the New Eden. Since the original Creation Mandate is about expanding Eden to cover the whole earth, this depiction means the New Exodus will accomplish the pre-Fall Creation Mandate even in terms of a place perfect for human inhabitation.

Therefore in the New Heavens and the New Earth the Creation Mandate will be perfectly fulfilled, with a global civilization that is perfectly in fellowship with God and perfectly consistent with His will. This is how history will end, and ends most meaningfully.