God's Plan and Purpose for the Nations

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Isaiah – God’s Plan and Purpose for the Nations

(What does the canonical book of Isaiah teach about the place of the nations in the plan and purpose of God?)

The book of Isaiah has extensive teaching on the place of the nations in God’s plans and purposes. There are more than sixty direct references to the nations, the first in 2:2, the last in 66:20,[1] with thirteen full chapters being devoted to oracles or denunciations against other nations.[2] Isaiah’s teaching about the nations can be summarized thus: Israel’s trust in the nations instead of in God will result in her destruction, following which God will in turn destroy the nations and deliver Israel, bringing glory to himself. God’s rule of justice will be delivered to the nations through Israel’s witness to God’s glory; the nations will bring gifts to God and his people in Jerusalem and will be required to serve Israel.[3] Those among the nations who will learn and follow God’s ways will be participants with Israel in the worship of God; those who refuse will be destroyed.[4]

The prophecy of Isaiah is a long and complex book containing not only some of the most loved and well known passages in Scripture, but also some of the most difficult to understand. The book is written in a variety of styles: prophecy, poetry and narrative. The scope and arrangement of the material is wide-ranging and comprehensive, sometimes straightforward, at other times bewildering. Some arguments are difficult to unravel, notably chapters 28-33.[5] Scholars have identified various themes for the book: salvation;[6] [7] [8] redemption, justice, servanthood;[9] punishment and restoration;[10] the city of Jerusalem;[11] complete obedience;[12] Christology.[13] Oswalt writes, “it may be argued that Israel’s relationship to the nations becomes the skeleton around which the book’s theology is structured.” [14] In a sense this hypothesis draws together all the themes that others have postulated. The final outcome of Israel and the nations gathered together before God’s throne in worship (66:18-24) is achieved through all of these means. Bates’ view is that “the book of Isaiah has a complex stance vis-à-vis the nations, sometimes envisioning the subjugation of the nations (45:14; 49:23-23; 60:12-14), at other times the incorporation of the nations (49:6-7; 56:3-8), and at still other times the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion (2:2-4; 45:20a; 66:8).[15] Another alternative is suggested by Van Winkle (after Oehler, pp. 205-8) using three selected oracles as giving “the clearest expression of the prophet’s conception of the relationship of the nations to Israel and to Yahweh.” According to Van Winkle, the first oracle (Isa. 51:4-6) envisions the salvation of the nations, the second, (49:22-23) deals with their submission to Israel and the third, (42:5-9) with Yahweh’s call for Israel “to become an agent of salvation for the nations.”[16]

The overarching premise is God’s sovereignty over all the earth – God is not just Israel’s God, he is Lord of the whole world (42:5) and infinitely superior to all other so-called gods (42:17). In bringing the promise of deliverance to the exiles in chapter forty Isaiah declared that their future “did not depend upon man but upon the sure word of Yahweh (40:8) ….. (he) was simply saying, ‘Yahweh’s purpose in the world cannot and will not be thwarted …..’”.[17]

Perhaps the key passage for this essay is from Isaiah 14:24,26-27: “The LORD Almighty has sworn,

'Surely, as I have planned, so it will be,
and as I have purposed, so it will happen …..
This is the plan determined for the whole world;
this is the hand stretched out over all nations.
For the LORD Almighty has purposed, and who can thwart him?
His hand is stretched out, and who can turn it back?'”

The Jews saw themselves as a favoured nation and Gentiles as excluded from any part in God’s concern or future blessing. Perhaps they had forgotten God’s promise to Abraham that all...
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