The Hebrew sha·maʹyim (always in the plural), which is rendered “heaven(s),” seems to have the basic sense of that which is high or lofty. (Ps 103:11; Pr 25:3; Isa 55:9) The etymology of the Greek word for heaven (ou·ra·nosʹ) is uncertain.
Physical Heavens. The full scope of the physical heavens is embraced by the original-language term. The context usually provides sufficient information to determine which area of the physical heavens is meant.
Heavens of earth’s atmosphere. “The heaven(s)” may apply to the full range of earth’s atmosphere in which dew and frost form (Ge 27:28; Job 38:29), the birds fly (De 4:17; Pr 30:19; Mt 6:26), the winds blow (Ps 78:26), lightning flashes (Lu 17:24), and the clouds float and drop their rain, snow, or hailstones (Jos 10:11; 1Ki 18:45; Isa 55:10; Ac 14:17). “The sky” is sometimes meant, that is, the apparent or visual dome or vault arching over the earth.
This atmospheric region corresponds generally to the “expanse [Heb., ra·qiʹaʽ]” formed during the second creative period, described at Genesis 1:6-8. It is evidently to this ‘heaven’ that Genesis 2:4; Exodus 20:11; 31:17 refer in speaking of the creation of “the heavens and the earth.”
When the expanse of atmosphere was formed, earth’s surface waters were separated from other waters above the expanse. This explains the expression used with regard to the global Flood of Noah’s day, that “all the springs of the vast watery deep were broken open and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” (Ge 7:11; compare Pr 8:27, 28.) At the Flood, the waters suspended above the expanse apparently descended as if by certain channels, as well as in rainfall. When this vast reservoir had emptied itself, such “floodgates of the heavens” were, in effect, “stopped up.”
Outer space. The physical “heavens” extend through earth’s atmosphere and beyond to the regions of outer space with their stellar bodies, “all the army of the heavens”
“Midheaven” and ‘extremities of heavens.’ The expression “midheaven” applies to the region within earth’s expanse of atmosphere where birds, such as the eagle, fly. (Re 8:13; 14:6; 19:17; De 4:11 [Heb., “heart of the heavens”]) Somewhat similar is the expression “between the earth and the heavens.” (1Ch 21:16; 2Sa 18:9) The advance of Babylon’s attackers from “the extremity of the heavens” evidently means their coming to her from the distant horizon (where earth and sky appear to meet and the sun appears to rise and set). (Isa 13:5; compare Ps 19:4-6.) Similarly “from the four extremities of the heavens” apparently refers to four points of the compass, thus indicating a coverage of the four quarters of the earth. (Jer 49:36; compare Da 8:8; 11:4; Mt 24:31; Mr 13:27.) As the heavens surround the earth on all sides, Jehovah’s vision of everything “under the whole heavens” embraces all the globe.
The cloudy skies. Another term, the Hebrew shaʹchaq, is also used to refer to the “skies” or their clouds. (De 33:26; Pr 3:20; Isa 45:8) This word has the root meaning of something beaten fine or pulverized, as the “film of dust” (shaʹchaq) at Isaiah 40:15. There is a definite appropriateness in this meaning, inasmuch as clouds form when warm air, rising from the earth, becomes cooled to what is known as the dewpoint, and the water vapor in it condenses into minute particles sometimes called water dust. (Compare Job 36:27, 28; see CLOUD.) Adding to the appropriateness, the visual effect of the blue dome of the sky is caused by the diffusion of the rays of the sun by gas molecules and other particles (including dust) composing the atmosphere. By God’s formation of such atmosphere, he has, in effect, ‘beaten out the skies hard like a molten mirror,’ giving a definite limit, or clear demarcation, to the atmospheric blue vault above man.
“Heavens of the heavens.” The expression “heavens of the heavens” is considered to refer to the highest heavens and would embrace the complete extent of the physical heavens, however vast, since the heavens extend out from the earth in all directions.
Solomon, the constructor of the temple at Jerusalem, stated that the “heavens, yes, the heaven of the heavens” cannot contain God. (1Ki 8:27) As the Creator of the heavens, Jehovah’s position is far above them all, and “his name alone is unreachably high. His dignity is above earth and heaven.” (Ps 148:13) Jehovah measures the physical heavens as easily as a man would measure an object by spreading his fingers so that the object lies between the tips of the thumb and the little finger. (Isa 40:12) Solomon’s statement does not mean that God has no specific place of residence. Nor does it mean that he is omnipresent in the sense of being literally everywhere and in everything. This can be seen from the fact that Solomon also spoke of Jehovah as hearing “from the heavens, your established place of dwelling,” that is, the heavens of the spirit realm.
Thus, in the physical sense, the term “heavens” covers a wide range. While it may refer to the farthest reaches of universal space, it may also refer to something that is simply high, or lofty, to a degree beyond the ordinary. Thus, those aboard storm-tossed ships are said to “go up to the heavens, . . . down to the bottoms.” (Ps 107:26) So, too, the builders of the Tower of Babel intended to put up a structure with its “top in the heavens,” a “skyscraper,” as it were. (Ge 11:4; compare Jer 51:53.) And the prophecy at Amos 9:2 speaks of men as ‘going up to the heavens’ in a vain effort to elude Jehovah’s judgments, evidently meaning that they would try to find escape in the high mountainous regions.
Spiritual Heavens. The same original-language words used for the physical heavens are also applied to the spiritual heavens. As has been seen, Jehovah God does not reside in the physical heavens, being a Spirit. However, since he is “the High and Lofty One” who resides in “the height” (Isa 57:15), the basic sense of that which is “lifted up” or “lofty” expressed in the Hebrew-language word makes it appropriate to describe God’s “lofty abode of holiness and beauty.” (Isa 63:15; Ps 33:13, 14; 115:3) As the Maker of the physical heavens (Ge 14:19; Ps 33:6), Jehovah is also their Owner. (Ps 115:15, 16) Whatever is his pleasure to do in them, he does, including miraculous acts.
In many texts, therefore, the “heavens” stand for God himself and his sovereign position. His throne is in the heavens, that is, in the spirit realm over which he also rules. (Ps 103:19-21; 2Ch 20:6; Mt 23:22; Ac 7:49) From his supreme or ultimate position, Jehovah, in effect, ‘looks down’ upon the physical heavens and earth (Ps 14:2; 102:19; 113:6), and from this lofty position also speaks, answers petitions, and renders judgment. (1Ki 8:49; Ps 2:4-6; 76:8; Mt 3:17) So we read that Hezekiah and Isaiah, in the face of a grave threat, “kept praying . . . and crying to the heavens for aid.” (2Ch 32:20; compare 2Ch 30:27.) Jesus, too, used the heavens as representing God when asking the religious leaders whether the source of John’s baptism was “from heaven or from men.” (Mt 21:25; compare Joh 3:27.) The prodigal son confessed to having sinned “against heaven” as well as against his own father. (Lu 15:18, 21) “The kingdom of the heavens,” then, means not merely that it is based in and rules from the spiritual heavens but also that it is “the kingdom of God.”
Also because of God’s heavenly position, both men and angels raised hands or faces toward the heavens in calling upon him to act (Ex 9:22, 23; 10:21, 22), in swearing to an oath (Da 12:7), and in prayer (1Ki 8:22, 23; La 3:41; Mt 14:19; Joh 17:1). At Deuteronomy 32:40 Jehovah speaks of himself as ‘raising his hand to heaven in an oath.’ In harmony with Hebrews 6:13, this evidently means that Jehovah swears by himself.
Angelic dwelling place. The spiritual heavens are also the “proper dwelling place” of God’s spirit sons. (Jude 6; Ge 28:12, 13; Mt 18:10; 24:36) The expression “army of the heavens,” often applied to the stellar creation, sometimes describes these angelic sons of God. (1Ki 22:19; compare Ps 103:20, 21; Da 7:10; Lu 2:13; Re 19:14.) So, too, “the heavens” are personified as representing this angelic organization, “the congregation of the holy ones.”
Representing Rulership. We have seen that the heavens can refer to Jehovah God in his sovereign position. Thus, when Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that the experience the Babylonian emperor was due to have would make him “know that the heavens are ruling,” it meant the same as knowing “that the Most High is Ruler in the kingdom of mankind.”
However, aside from its reference to the Supreme Sovereign, the term “heavens” can also refer to other ruling powers that are exalted or lifted up above their subject peoples. The very dynasty of Babylonian kings that Nebuchadnezzar represented is described at Isaiah 14:12 as being starlike, a “shining one, son of the dawn.” By the conquest of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., that Babylonian dynasty lifted its throne “above the stars of God,” these “stars” evidently referring to the Davidic line of Judean kings (even as the Heir to the Davidic throne, Christ Jesus, is called “the bright morning star” at Re 22:16; compare Nu 24:17). By its overthrow of the divinely authorized Davidic throne, the Babylonian dynasty, in effect, exalted itself heaven high. (Isa 14:13, 14) This lofty grandeur and far-reaching dominion were also represented in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream by a symbolic tree with its height ‘reaching the heavens.’
New heavens and new earth. The connection of the “heavens” with ruling power aids in understanding the meaning of the expression “new heavens and a new earth” found at Isaiah 65:17; 66:22 and quoted by the apostle Peter at 2 Peter 3:13. Observing such relationship, M’Clintock and Strong’s Cyclopaedia (1891, Vol. IV, p. 122) comments: “In Isa. lxv, 17, a new heaven and a new earth signify a new government, new kingdom, new people.”
Even as the “earth” can refer to a society of people (Ps 96:1; see EARTH), so, too, “heavens” can symbolize the superior ruling power or government over such “earth.” The prophecy presenting the promise of “new heavens and a new earth,” given through Isaiah, was one dealing initially with the restoration of Israel from Babylonian exile. Upon the Israelites’ return to their homeland, they entered into a new system of things. Cyrus the Great was used prominently by God in bringing about that restoration. Back in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel (a descendant of David) served as governor, and Joshua as high priest. In harmony with Jehovah’s purpose, this new governmental arrangement, or “new heavens,” directed and supervised the subject people. (2Ch 36:23; Hag 1:1, 14) Thereby, as verse 18 of Isaiah chapter 65 foretold, Jerusalem became “a cause for joyfulness and her people a cause for exultation.”
Peter’s quotation, however, shows that a future fulfillment was to be anticipated, on the basis of God’s promise. (2Pe 3:13) Since God’s promise in this case relates to the presence of Christ Jesus, as shown at verse 4, the “new heavens and a new earth” must relate to God’s Messianic Kingdom and its rule over obedient subjects. By his resurrection and ascension to God’s right hand, Christ Jesus became “higher than the heavens” (Heb 7:26) in that he was thereby placed “far above every government and authority and power and lordship . . . not only in this system of things, but also in that to come.”
Christian followers of Jesus, as “partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1), are assigned by God as “heirs” in union with Christ, through whom God purposed “to gather all things together again.” “The things in the heavens,” that is, those called to heavenly life, are the first to be thus gathered into unity with God through Christ. (Eph 1:8-11) Their inheritance is “reserved in the heavens.” (1Pe 1:3, 4; Col 1:5; compare Joh 14:2, 3.) They are “enrolled” and have their “citizenship” in the heavens. (Heb 12:20-23; Php 3:20) They form the “New Jerusalem” seen in John’s vision as “coming down out of heaven from God.” (Re 21:2, 9, 10; compare Eph 5:24-27.) Since this vision is initially stated to be of “a new heaven and a new earth” (Re 21:1), it follows that both are represented in what is thereafter described. Hence the “new heaven” must correspond to Christ together with his “bride,” the “New Jerusalem,” and the “new earth” is seen in the ‘peoples of mankind’ who are their subjects and who receive the blessings of their rule, as depicted in verses 3 and 4.
Third heaven. At 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 the apostle Paul describes one who was “caught away . . . to the third heaven” and “into paradise.” Since there is no mention in the Scriptures of any other person having had such an experience, it seems likely that this was the apostle’s own experience. Whereas some have endeavored to relate Paul’s reference to the third heaven to the early rabbinic view that there were stages of heaven, even a total of “seven heavens,” this view finds no support in the Scriptures. As we have seen, the heavens are not referred to specifically as if divided into platforms or stages, but, rather, the context must be relied upon to determine whether reference is to the heavens within earth’s atmospheric expanse, the heavens of outer space, the spiritual heavens, or something else. It therefore appears that the reference to “the third heaven” likely indicates the superlative form of rulership of the Messianic Kingdom. Note the way words and expressions are repeated three times at Isaiah 6:3; Ezekiel 21:27; John 21:15-17; Revelation 4:8, evidently for the purpose of expressing intensification.
Passing away of former heaven and earth. John’s vision refers to the passing away of “the former heaven and the former earth.” (Re 21:1; compare 20:11.) In the Christian Greek Scriptures, earthly governments and their peoples are shown to be subject to Satanic rule. (Mt 4:8, 9; Joh 12:31; 2Co 4:3, 4; Re 12:9; 16:13, 14) The apostle Paul referred to “the wicked spirit forces in the heavenly places,” with their governments, authorities, and world rulers. (Eph 6:12) So the passing away of “the former heaven” indicates the end of political governments influenced by Satan and his demons. This harmonizes with what is recorded at 2 Peter 3:7-12 regarding the destruction as by fire of “the heavens . . . that are now.” Similarly, Revelation 19:17-21 describes the annihilation of a global political system with its supporters; it says that the symbolic wild beast is “hurled into the fiery lake that burns with sulphur.” (Compare Re 13:1, 2.) As for the Devil himself, Revelation 20:1-3 shows that he is hurled “into the abyss” for a thousand years and then “let loose for a little while.”
Abasement of That Which Is Exalted. Because the heavens represent that which is elevated, the abasement of those things that are exalted is at times represented by the overthrow or the ‘rocking’ or ‘agitating’ of the heavens. Jehovah is said to have “thrown down from heaven to earth the beauty of Israel” at the time of its desolation. That beauty included its kingdom and princely rulers and their power, and such beauty was devoured as by fire. (La 2:1-3) But Israel’s conqueror, Babylon, later experienced an agitation of her own “heaven” and a rocking of her “earth” when the Medes and Persians overthrew Babylon and her heavenly gods proved false and unable to save her from the loss of her dominion over the land.
Similarly, it was prophesied that the heaven-high position of Edom would not save her from destruction and that Jehovah’s sword of judgment would be drenched in her heights, or “heavens,” with no help for her from any heavenly, or exalted, source. (Isa 34:4-7; compare Ob 1-4, 8.) Those making great boasts, wickedly speaking in an elevated style as if to “put their mouth in the very heavens,” are certain to fall to ruin. (Ps 73:8, 9, 18; compare Re 13:5, 6.) The city of Capernaum had reason to feel highly favored because of the attention it received by Jesus and his ministry. However, since it failed to respond to his powerful works, Jesus asked, “Will you perhaps be exalted to heaven?” and foretold instead, “Down to Hades you will come.”
Darkening of the Heavens. The darkening of the heavens or of the stellar bodies is often used to represent the removal of prosperous, favorable conditions, and their being replaced by foreboding, gloomy prospects and conditions, like a time when dark clouds blot out all light day and night. (Compare Isa 50:2, 3, 10.) This use of the physical heavens in connection with the mental outlook of humans is somewhat similar to the old Arabic expression, “His heaven has fallen to the earth,” meaning that one’s superiority or prosperity is greatly diminished. At times, of course, in expressing divine wrath, God has employed celestial phenomena, some of which have literally darkened the heavens.
Upon Judah such a day of darkness came in fulfillment of Jehovah’s judgment through his prophet Joel, and it reached its culmination in Judah’s desolation by Babylon. (Joe 2:1, 2, 10, 30, 31; compare Jer 4:23, 28.) Any hope of help from a heavenly source seemed to have dried up, and as foretold at Deuteronomy 28:65-67, they came into “dread night and day,” with no relief or hope by sunlit morning or by moonlit evening. Yet, by the same prophet, Joel, Jehovah warned enemies of Judah that they would experience the same situation when he executed judgment upon them. (Joe 3:12-16) Ezekiel and Isaiah used this same figurative picture in foretelling God’s judgment on Egypt and on Babylon respectively.
The apostle Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy on the day of Pentecost when urging a crowd of listeners to “get saved from this crooked generation.” (Ac 2:1, 16-21, 40) The unheeding ones of that generation saw a time of grave darkness when the Romans besieged and eventually ravaged Jerusalem less than 40 years later. Prior to Pentecost, however, Jesus had made a similar prophecy and showed it would have a fulfillment at the time of his presence.
Permanence of Physical Heavens. Eliphaz the Temanite said of God: “Look! In his holy ones he has no faith, and the heavens themselves are actually not clean in his eyes.” However, Jehovah said to Eliphaz that he and his two companions had “not spoken concerning me what is truthful as has my servant Job.” (Job 15:1, 15; 42:7) By contrast, Exodus 24:10 refers to the heavens as representing purity. Thus there is no cause stated in the Bible for God’s destroying the physical heavens.
That the physical heavens are permanent is shown by the fact that they are used in similes relating to things that are everlasting, such as the peaceful, righteous results of the Davidic kingdom inherited by God’s Son. (Ps 72:5-7; Lu 1:32, 33) Thus, texts such as Psalm 102:25, 26 that speak of the heavens as ‘perishing’ and as ‘being replaced like a worn-out garment’ are not to be understood in a literal sense.
At Luke 21:33, Jesus says that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will by no means pass away.” Other scriptures show that “heaven and earth” will endure forever. (Ge 9:16; Ps 104:5; Ec 1:4) So the “heaven and earth” here may well be symbolic, as are the “former heaven and the former earth” at Revelation 21:1; compare Matthew 24:35.
Psalm 102:25-27 stresses God’s eternity and imperishability, whereas his physical creation of heavens and earth is perishable, that is, it could be destroyed
The words of Psalm 102:25, 26 apply to Jehovah God, but the apostle Paul quotes them with reference to Jesus Christ. This is because God’s only-begotten Son was God’s personal Agent employed in creating the physical universe. Paul contrasts the Son’s permanence with that of the physical creation, which God, if he so designed, could ‘wrap up just as a cloak’ and set aside.
Various Poetic and Figurative Expressions. Because the physical heavens play a vital part in sustaining and prospering life on earth
This aids one in understanding the picture presented at Hosea 2:21-23. Having foretold the devastating results of Israel’s unfaithfulness, Jehovah now tells of the time of her restoration and the resulting blessings. In that day, he says, “I shall answer the heavens, and they, for their part, will answer the earth; and the earth, for its part, will answer the grain and the sweet wine and the oil; and they, for their part, will answer Jezreel.” Evidently this represents Israel’s petition for Jehovah’s blessing through the chain of things of Jehovah’s creation here named. For that reason these things are viewed as personified, hence, as if able to make a request, or petition. Israel asks for grain, wine, and oil; these products, in turn, seek their plant food and water from the earth; the earth, in order to supply this need, requires (or figuratively calls for) sun, rain, and dew from the heavens; and the heavens (till now “shut up” because of the withdrawal of God’s blessing) can respond only if God accepts the petition and restores his favor to the nation, thereby putting the productive cycle in motion. The prophecy gives the assurance that he will do so.
At 2 Samuel 22:8-15, David apparently uses the figure of a tremendous storm to represent the effect of God’s intervention on David’s behalf, freeing him from his enemies. The fierceness of this symbolic storm agitates the foundation of the heavens, and they ‘bend down’ with dark low-lying clouds. Compare the literal storm conditions described at Exodus 19:16-18; also the poetic expressions at Isaiah 64:1, 2.
Jehovah, “the Father of the celestial lights” (Jas 1:17), is frequently spoken of as having ‘stretched out the heavens,’ just as one would a tent cloth. (Ps 104:1, 2; Isa 45:12) The heavens, both the expanse of atmosphere by day and the starry heavens by night, have the appearance of an immense domed canopy from the standpoint of humans on earth. At Isaiah 40:22 the simile is that of stretching out “fine gauze,” rather than the coarser tent cloth. This expresses the delicate finery of such heavenly canopy. On a clear night the thousands of stars do, indeed, form a lacy web stretched over the black velvet background of space. It may also be noted that even the enormous galaxy known as the Via Lactea, or Milky Way, in which our solar system is located, has a filmy gauzelike appearance from earth’s viewpoint.
It can be seen from the foregoing that the context must always be considered in determining the sense of these figurative expressions. Thus, when Moses called on “the heavens and the earth” to serve as witnesses to the things that he declared to Israel, it is obvious that he did not mean the inanimate creation but, rather, the intelligent residents inhabiting the heavens and the earth. (De 4:25, 26; 30:19; compare Eph 1:9, 10; Php 2:9, 10; Re 13:6.) This is also true of the rejoicing by the heavens and earth over Babylon’s fall, at Jeremiah 51:48. (Compare Re 18:5; 19:1-3.) Likewise it must be the spiritual heavens that “trickle with righteousness,” as described at Isaiah 45:8. In other cases the literal heavens are meant but are figuratively described as rejoicing or shouting out loud. At Jehovah’s coming to judge the earth, as described at Psalm 96:11-13, the heavens, along with the earth, sea, and the field, take on a gladsome appearance. (Compare Isa 44:23.) The physical heavens also praise their Creator, in the same way that a beautifully designed product brings praise to the craftsman producing it. In effect, they speak of Jehovah’s power, wisdom, and majesty.
Ascension to Heaven. At 2 Kings 2:11, 12 the prophet Elijah is described as “ascending in the windstorm to the heavens.” The heavens here referred to are the atmospheric heavens in which windstorms occur, not the spiritual heavens of God’s presence. Elijah did not die at the time of such ascension, but he continued to live for a number of years after his heavenly transportation away from his successor Elisha. Nor did Elijah upon death ascend to the spiritual heavens, since Jesus, while on earth, clearly stated that “no man has ascended into heaven.” (Joh 3:13; see ELIJAH No. 1 (Elisha Succeeds Him).) At Pentecost, Peter likewise said of David that he “did not ascend to the heavens.” (Ac 2:34) In reality, there is nothing in the Scriptures to show that a heavenly hope was held out to God’s servants prior to the coming of Christ Jesus. Such hope first appears in Jesus’ expressions to his disciples (Mt 19:21, 23-28; Lu 12:32; Joh 14:2, 3) and was fully comprehended by them only after Pentecost of 33 C.E.
The Scriptures show that Christ Jesus was the first one to ascend from earth to the heavens of God’s presence. (1Co 15:20; Heb 9:24) By such ascension and his presentation of his ransom sacrifice there, he ‘opened the way’ for those who would follow
How can persons in “heavenly places” still be on earth?
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of Christians then living on earth as though they were already enjoying a heavenly position, being raised up and “seated . . . together in the heavenly places in union with Christ Jesus.” (Eph 1:3; 2:6) The context shows that anointed Christians are so viewed by God because of his having ‘assigned them as heirs’ with his Son in the heavenly inheritance. While yet on earth, they have been exalted, or ‘lifted up,’ by such assignment. (Eph 1:11, 18-20; 2:4-7, 22) These points also shed light on the symbolic vision at Revelation 11:12. Likewise it provides a key for understanding the prophetic picture contained at Daniel 8:9-12, where what has previously been shown to represent a political power is spoken of as “getting greater all the way to the army of the heavens,” and even causing some of that army and of the stars to fall to the earth. At Daniel 12:3, those servants of God on earth at the foretold time of the end are spoken of as shining “like the stars to time indefinite.” Note, too, the symbolic use of stars in the book of Revelation, chapters 1 through 3, where the context shows that such “stars” refer to persons who are obviously living on earth and undergoing earthly experiences and temptations, these “stars” being responsible for congregations under their care.
The way to heavenly life. The way to heavenly life involves more than just faith in Christ’s ransom sacrifice and works of faith in obedience to God’s instructions. The inspired writings of the apostles and disciples show that there must also be a calling and choosing of one by God through his Son. (2Ti 1:9, 10; Mt 22:14; 1Pe 2:9) This invitation involves a number of steps, or actions, taken to qualify such a one for the heavenly inheritance; many of such steps are taken by God, others by the one called. Among such steps, or actions, are the declaring righteous of the called Christian (Ro 3:23, 24, 28; 8:33, 34); bringing him forth (‘begetting him’) as a spiritual son (Joh 1:12, 13; 3:3-6; Jas 1:18); his being baptized into Christ’s death (Ro 6:3, 4; Php 3:8-11); anointing him (2Co 1:21; 1Jo 2:20, 27); sanctifying him (Joh 17:17). The called one must maintain integrity until death (2Ti 2:11-13; Re 2:10), and after he has proved faithful in his calling and selection (Re 17:14), he is finally resurrected to spirit life.