It seems fairly clear that John Calvin thought of the “new heaven and new earth,” or the “new creation,” primarily in terms of restoration and purification of the original, good creation. I’ve cited several passages from his commentaries to that effect previously. But as I continue to come across more statements of his that tend in the same direction, I continue to pass them along.
What follows below is from his comments on Psalm 96:11-13. First, the passage:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it!
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he comes,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
In his remarks on the gladdening of the heavens, the roaring of the sea, the exultation of the field, and so on, Calvin is clear that he believes that the psalmist’s exhortations here really do refer to the irrational creation, and not the rational parts of it by metonymy (angels and men). He then glosses these descriptions of the natural world as expressing in exaggerated terms the blessedness of faith in God.
But, though the psalmist speaks hyperbolically in order to make that point, he has “a more literal foundation” as well for his descriptions of the rejoicing of the irrational parts of the world: the groaning of creation as it awaits release from its bondage to decay. Calvin, in other words, sees this passage as linked to what Paul says in Romans 8. Man, together with “all things,” will be in the end restored.
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad. With the view of giving us a more exalted conception of the display of God’s goodness in condescending to take all men under his government, the Psalmist calls upon the irrational things themselves, the trees, the earth, the seas, and the heavens, to join in the general joy. Nor are we to understand that by the heavens he means the angels, and by the earth men; 93 for he calls even upon the dumb fishes of the deep to shout for joy. The language must therefore be hyperbolical, designed to express the desirableness and the blessedness of being brought unto the faith of God. At the same time, it denotes to us that God does not reign with terror, or as a tyrant, but that his power is exercised sweetly, and so as to diffuse joy amongst his subjects. The wicked may tremble when his kingdom is introduced, but the erection of it is only the cause of their fear indirectly. 94 We might notice also, that the hyperbole here employed does not want a certain foundation of a more literal kind. As all elements in the creation groan and travail together with us, according to Paul’s declaration, (Romans 8:22) they may reasonably rejoice in the restoration of all things according to their earnest desire. The words teach us how infatuated that joy is, which is wantonly indulged in by men who are without God. From the close of the psalm, we learn that it is impossible to experience the slightest measure of true joy, as long as we have not seen the face of God, Rejoice before the Lord, because he cometh And if the very sea and land mourn so long as God is absent, may we not ask what shall become of us, who are properly the subjects of God’s dreadful curse? The Psalmist, to remove all doubt regarding an event which might seem incredible, repeats his assertion of it, and states, at the same time, in what that rectitude consists, which he had formerly mentioned, when he adds, that God shall govern the world with righteousness and truth. This shows us that it is only by the light of God’s righteousness and truth that the wickedness and hypocrisy of men can be removed and dispelled.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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