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What does the Bible mean by “heaven of heavens”?
D.S. from Brazil asked:
What’s the “heaven of heavens” of the Bible? Nehemiah 9:6 says God created it, and it can’t be the third heaven, since 1 Kings 8:30 says it’s God’s dwelling place and, therefore, eternal, not created. So some translations and Christians say it’s either the outer space we can’t see or the part of the sky where we can see the Moon and stars. Which view is more likely to be correct?
CMI’s Keaton Halley responded:
I believe there are seven references to the “heaven(s) of heavens” in Scripture, but it’s possible I missed some. Here are the ones I found in my search: Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 2:6; 6:18; Nehemiah 9:6; Psalm 68:33; 148:4.
There is also Psalm 115:16, which may or may not be an eighth reference. The Hebrew construction there is rather unlike the others (though the others are not all identical either). Most translations render the phrase there as something like “heaven, even the heavens” or “heavens are the heavens”. But some have “heaven of heavens” or “highest heavens”. I’ll ignore this verse in my analysis below, since it doesn’t really contribute anything unique to the discussion.
The translation “heaven of heavens” is a fairly literal rendering. The reason many translators render the expression as “the highest heavens” is because “X(s) of Xs” is a Hebrew way of expressing a superlative. For example, the holy of holies means the most holy place. The king of kings means the most supreme king. Lord of lords means the greatest lord. Slave of slaves means an abject slave (Genesis 9:25). The Bible even refers to “clouds of clouds” in 2 Samuel 22:12 and Psalm 18:11, which translations typically render as “thick clouds”. So, “heaven of heavens” likely refers to the most distant portion of the physical heavens. It is the high extremity of the heavenly realm. Therefore, “highest heavens” would be a pretty good translation that helps to make clear the conceptual meaning, though it gets away from a strict word-for-word rendering.
With this background, we can examine the context of the above passages and offer interpretations. I’ll also respond to your specific questions and assertions.
Deuteronomy 10:14 - Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.
This means God owns the entire universe—including both the earth and the heavens with all its highest extremities.
1 Kings 8:27 - But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!
2 Chronicles 2:6 - But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him? Who am I to build a house for him, except as a place to make offerings before him?
2 Chronicles 6:18 - But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!
These verses all point out that God is transcendent, saying He’s so metaphorically ‘big’ that there’s not enough room in the physical heavens for Him, even the farthest reaches of the heavens. You mentioned that 1 Kings 8:30 says heaven is God’s dwelling place, which you thought meant it must be “eternal, not created”. But I think you’ve misunderstood the meaning there. God doesn’t literally live in the physical heavens, as Solomon’s prayer in this passage recognized. Yet, when the Bible speaks of God being in heaven, it is often referring to the physical heavens, not some completely separate non-physical realm. This is why prayers go ‘up’ to God in heaven (Exodus 2:23) and why God ‘comes down’ from heaven at various times (Genesis 11:5; Exodus 19:20; 2 Samuel 22:10; Psalm 18:9). God is clothed with the light of the sun and stars (Job 37:22; Psalm 104:1–2), and His abode is above the clouds, among the stars (Job 22:12–14; Psalm 104:13; Isaiah 14:13–14). Heaps of similar examples could be supplied. None of this language ought to be pressed for literalism, as if God really is a physical, embodied being who lives in the sky. But it is the sky which we can see that is symbolically associated with God in these passages, not some entirely different, uncreated heaven.
This is similar to God calling Jerusalem his “dwelling place”, or the Jewish temple His “house”. God doesn’t literally live at these locations, but identifies with them for symbolic reasons. The Shekinah glory was manifested in both the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple to represent God’s unique kind of ‘presence’ in these places. But these were not eternal and uncreated. Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that references to God dwelling in Jerusalem must refer to some other, eternal Jerusalem rather than the one in the physical land of Israel.
Moreover, it would be very problematic to posit a literal, uncreated heaven in which God dwells. God isn’t a physical being who requires any space at all, so He doesn’t need a dwelling place. He is also the Creator and Sustainer of all things, but this would not be the case if there was some eternal realm outside of Him, which contained Him and always existed alongside Him.
So, I don’t think the “heaven of heavens” refers to some other dimension. This highest of the physical heavens is what cannot contain God, according to Solomon.
Nehemiah 9:6 - You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.
You noted that this verse says God created the “heaven of heavens”. Yes, it recognizes that God created and sustains three physical realms that together make up the entire world, along with their inhabitants. Here, the universe is treated as tripartite, not merely bipartite as in Deuteronomy 10:14 above. So God made the land with its occupants, the sea with its occupants, and the heavens—including the highest heavens—with their occupants.
The “host” or armies/occupants of heaven are a little bit trickier to identify, since the expression “host of heaven” can refer to both stars and angels. In this case, both senses are likely intended, since the Scripture often associates angels with the stars. This doesn’t mean they are literally the same, but the stars were often treated as symbols for angels (e.g., Revelation 1:20). The first mention of the host in this verse likely has stars in view since the context seems to be about the physical creation. But, given that the host are also said to worship God, I doubt it is merely personifying the stars, but also intending to refer to angels as the heavenly ‘host’. If so, then both angels and stars could be said to be present in the highest heavens.
Psalm 68:33 - to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
The ESV translation here conceals the fact that in Hebrew this verse appears to have another reference to the “heaven of heavens”. As far as I can tell, that is the case despite there being some textual (manuscript difference) questions about this verse. So, what would it mean for God to ride in the highest heavens? Well, this is another common motif in the Bible which portrays God as one who rides through the sky as if He were in a chariot or mounted on an animal, engaging in divine warfare. God is said to ride on the wind, on the clouds, and on a cherub through the heavens (Deuteronomy 33:26; 2 Samuel 22:7–15; Psalm 18:9–14; 68:4; 104:3–4; Isa 19:1). These references are also typically describing thunderstorms. Scripture often depicts thunderstorms as manifestations of God’s presence and power, which is why the above verse also mentions God’s voice as a veiled reference to thunder. Other passages that associate God’s voice with thunder include Exodus 19:19; 2 Samuel 22:14; Job 37:2–5; 40:9; Psalm 18:13; 29:3–10; 104:7.
This motif of God engaging in warfare through storms and riding on the clouds can be found outside the Bible as well. One of the titles of the Canaanite storm-god Ba’al was ‘cloud-rider’. So, some even see these biblical passages as polemical against Ba’al.
In any case, all of this suggests that the highest heavens need not refer exclusively to distant outer space. If God can ride through the highest heavens as He is manifesting His presence through a thunderstorm, then it appears the highest heavens begin relatively nearby, up in the atmosphere where storm clouds would be present. At least, that’s how I see it.
Today, we have a better understanding than the ancients did of just how vast the heavens are, but there is no mistake here on the part of the psalmist who apparently included atmospheric phenomena within the highest heavens. It just means that what he called the highest heavens begins nearby and extends out to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Storm clouds might not be very high compared to galaxies billions of light-years away, but they are extremely high compared to the height of a human being, tall trees and so on. The trees extend into a part of the heavens that is nearby, but storm clouds could be said to belong to the distant, furthest parts of heaven in that sense.
Psalm 148:4 - Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
In this verse, we don’t get any more specificity about the highest heavens, but the first 6 verses of the psalm are focused on the heavenly realms, and the understanding of the “heaven of heavens” as the distant heavens fits well here. The identification of the “waters above” is a debated issue, but that’s outside our concern anyway. For various interpretations and discussions of the “waters above”, search creation.com, and check out a few key articles on the subject:
- The ‘waters above’ in Genesis 1—a brief survey of competing interpretations
- Were “the waters above” a vapour canopy?
- The ‘waters above’ do not surround all galaxies
- A more biblical cosmology (This paper is not yet available for free, but was published in the December 2022 Journal of Creation.)
So, I hope that answers your question. The “heaven of heavens” refers to the highest heavens and includes the realm of the stars, but at least in some uses it arguably includes part of the atmospheric heavens where storm clouds might gather as well.
I hope that is satisfying. Best wishes as you continue to study God’s Word.