God’s words in 65:17–19 point us in two different directions. On the one hand, looking forward, they anticipate what the Apostle John records in Revelation 21. In a vision, he witnesses this world being replaced through the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. Importantly, this new heaven and new earth involves a holy city that is called Jerusalem.
Then 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. 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 the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev. 21:1–3)
As the last of John’s visions, this portrait of a new Jerusalem points toward the climax of God’s redemptive activity. On the other hand, looking backward, God’s words in Isaiah 65:17–19 echo the opening sentence of Genesis. They recall God’s creation of the world that we inhabit. Various elements in the opening chapters of Genesis reveal that when God created this world, He did so with the expectation that He would dwell on it alongside a human population that would experience His presence. God’s plan for the earth was the construction of a holy city where He would dwell surrounded by those who joyfully serve Him. What begins in Genesis 1 finds its completion in the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21–22.
According to the opening chapters of Genesis, despite being specially privileged by God above all other earthly creatures, Adam and Eve betrayed their Creator. As Genesis 3 reveals, by listening to the mysterious serpent, they alienated themselves from God. Subsequently, their descendants built a city that is the antithesis of what God intended. We have become accustomed to calling the city Babel, but we should note that the Hebrew name babel is translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as Babylon. Despite the brevity of the report, Genesis 11:1–9 reveals the hubris of humans who believe that they can usurp God. We witness the people of Babel/Babylon plotting to invade heaven through the construction of a high tower (Gen. 11:4). While God intervenes to limit human aspirations, nevertheless, from Genesis to Revelation, the city of Babel/Babylon features as a symbol of human defiance against God. In the Old Testament, the Babylonians are responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem, God’s temple city, in 586 BC. Against this background, however, the exiled Daniel foresees a time when Babylon will be destroyed through the coming of God’s kingdom (see Dan. 2:1–45). In the book of Revelation, Babylon is portrayed as a gaudy prostitute (Rev. 17:1–18:24), an image that stands in sharp contrast to the coming of the new Jerusalem, which is compared to “a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
The expectation of a future city of God runs throughout the Bible. The author of Hebrews observes that the patriarch Abraham looked forward to “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). This city is associated with “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). A little later, the author of Hebrews mentions “Mount Zion,” which he describes as “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). He later adds, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). The author of Hebrews perceives heavenly Jerusalem to be existing outside this world, in what we might consider to be the afterlife. Yet the city to come will ultimately take an earthly form.
In his vision of a new heaven and a new earth, the Apostle John speaks of the holy city descending from heaven. This brief comment recalls how the Apostle Paul draws a distinction in Galatians 4:25–26 between an earthly Jerusalem and a heavenly Jerusalem. Elsewhere Paul sees himself and other believers as citizens of this heavenly city (Phil. 3:20). While heavenly Zion is presently being populated by believers who have departed this life, the final reality of the city awaits God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth.
When we grasp the wonderful significance of the concept of Zion in the Bible, it is easy to understand why Newton passionately declared: “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.”