by O Palmer Roberton
Quite amazing is the fact that even in the midst of repeatedly announcing the devastation that neighboring nations will bring on Israel, the preexilic prophets regularly proclaim the blessings from God that will come to these same nations. Hosea describes Israel’s severest judgment in terms of their being turned back to their original state of “gentilishness.” They will become Lo-Ammi, “Not-my-people” (Hos. 1:9). But then God in his sovereign grace will transform these newly made Gentiles back again into Ammi, “My-people” (Hos. 2:1, 23). When this declaration of transformation from Israelite to Gentile to Israelite again is taken seriously, then it becomes understandable that this prophecy of Hosea properly functions as a basis for Paul’s ministry to the Gentile nations. The ten tribes that constituted the northern kingdom have been swallowed up, assimilated into the vast world of the Gentiles. But by Christ’s calling Gentile peoples to himself, the promised restoration of the Israel of God is being accomplished (Rom. 9:24–26).
Amos mercilessly pounds Israel with the message of God’s coming judgment on them. But in the end he predicts the restoration of the fallen booth of David and the conversion of alien Edom into people called by God’s name, making them participants in God’s electing grace in the same way as was Israel (Amos 9:11–12; cf. Deut. 28:9–10, where the identical phrase indicates Israel’s election). This declaration of Gentile inclusion as proclaimed by Amos ultimately provides the church of the new covenant with a basis for resolving the question regarding how Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit are to be received into the community of the new covenant (Acts 15:15–19).
In Jonah’s case, every instinct of national loyalty forbids him to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian kingdom that will ultimately devastate Israel’s northern tribes. Yet as a consequence of his preaching, the whole city repents, and the Lord shows his mercy by sparing its populace (Jon. 3:6–10).
But the award for the most glorious description of the inclusion of the Gentile world by a prophet anticipating Israel’s exile must go to Isaiah. In all the various sections of the book the grand expanse of the coming kingdom of God incorporates the teeming multitudes of the Gentile nations. Early in the first portion of his prophecy, Isaiah declares that in the last days many peoples will come to the mountain of the Covenant Lord. He will judge among the nations and settle disputes for many peoples, turning their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isa. 2:2–4). The second half of the book opens with the announcement that at the time of the new exodus, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind will see it together (Isa. 40:5). The messianic king of David’s line will serve as light for the darkened land of the Gentiles, and “will stand as a banner for the peoples”; and “the nations will rally to him.” He will not only gather the exiles of Israel; he will also “raise a banner for the nations” (Isa. 9:1–2, 6–7; 11:10, 12; cf. Matt. 4:12–17).
The second great figure of Isaiah that stands alongside the restored Davidic ruler is made known through the songs of the servant. This servant of the Lord will not only restore the people of Israel; he will also serve the Gentile world. He will bring justice to the nations, and in his law the most distant islands will put their hope (Isa. 42:1, 4). If it appears to be too small a thing for this select servant to restore the tribes of Israel, he will have an even larger task to perform. God will make him a “light for the Gentiles” that he may bring salvation “to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Despite his being brought so low, he will be highly exalted, so that he will “sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isa. 52:13, 15). All these songs of the servant bear testimony to the universalistic dimension of God’s intention in restoring a fallen world, and are regularly cited for this very reason by various portions of the new covenant documents (Matt. 12:13–21; Acts 8:32–35; 13:46–48).
And yet there is more. This visionary prophet looks squarely at Egypt and Assyria, the prime national enemies of his day to the south and the north, and dares to place them alongside his own nation of Israel as belonging to the Lord. Can you imagine it! An altar to Yahweh the Covenant Lord of Israel “in the heart of Egypt” (Isa. 19:19). A highway running directly from Egypt to Assyria, so that these two enemies of Israel conveniently travel back and forth, bypassing Jerusalem, to worship the Covenant Lord together in their own countries (Isa. 19:23). As a consequence: “Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. Yahweh the Covenant Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritances’ ” (Isa. 19:24–25).
Still further confirmation of this universalistic dimension of the futuristic expectation of Isaiah is found in his declaration that God’s house will be called “a house of prayer for all nations” (Isa. 56:7b; cf. Mark 11:17). No foreigner will ever be excluded from belonging to his people. For God himself will take the initiative in bringing to his house all foreigners who love his name, and will give them joy in his house of prayer (Isa. 56:6–7a).
That these predictions of the wholehearted inclusion of Gentile nations with his people should be offered during the very days in which the brutal nation of Assyria was invading the land of Israel is nothing less than astounding. Yet it would not be appropriate to arbitrarily assign these predictions of the inclusion of the Gentiles to a subsequent era of Israelite history. In any event, these passages from the different portions of Isaiah offer strong testimony to the genuine expectation of Israel’s prophets regarding the future inclusion of the Gentile world into the very heart of the chosen nation’s worship and life.3
This tradition of Gentile inclusion in the Lord’s future blessings is continued unbroken in the testimony of the seventh-century prophets who were even closer to the reality of exile. Now the kingdom of Judah is on the brink of devastation by the Babylonians. Because the nation in its hour of deepest distress became the object of Moab’s ridicule, Jeremiah pronounces the Lord’s “Woe to you” over that nation (Jer. 48:1–46). Yet after forty-six verses of the severest condemnation, a sudden turn of perspective introduces the prediction that the Lord will “restore the fortunes of Moab in days to come” (Jer. 48:47). The same startling projected turn in the future appears in the Lord’s word concerning Ammon and Elam (Jer. 49:6, 39).
This concept of the Lord’s restoring the fortunes of non-Israelite nations is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that Jeremiah regularly uses this same expression to describe the restoration of his people Israel (Jer. 30:18; 32:44; 33:11, 25–26). Whatever blessings of restoration belong to the nation of Israel, the Lord offers equally and exactly to every other nation and people that come into existence across the history of the world.
The anticipation of God’s restoring the fortunes of non-Israelite nations is not restricted to these specific cases, but finds programmatic expression. Jeremiah applies his key term uprooting to all the wicked neighbors who have seized Israel’s land. “But,” says the Lord, “after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to his own inheritance and his own country. And if they learn well the ways of my people and swear by my name … then they will be established among my people” (Jer. 12:15–16).
How amazing is this perspective on the future by the prophet Jeremiah! Unequivocally offered to all nations without discrimination is the opportunity to be restored to God’s favor and established among his elect people. Particularly those nations that have sinned most heinously in their brutal treatment of God’s people in their hour of greatest need are declared to be the prime recipients of these promises of restoration. Still further, the Lord announces that if at any time any nation or kingdom repents of its evil, then the Lord will not inflict on it the disaster he had planned (Jer. 18:7–8). These people were altogether worthy of destruction at the hand of the Lord, but in his compassion he stood ready to forgive them if they would only repent of their evil. Jeremiah personally witnessed their ruthless treatment of God’s own people, and yet in the Lord’s name he offers them the same salvation as Israel.
Little if anything in terms of this promise of restoration for the nations of the world is found in Nahum and Habakkuk. But in a fashion similar to Jeremiah, his contemporary Zephaniah predicts the Lord’s judgment that will fall on Moab and Ammon. Yet he concludes that “the nations on every shore will worship him, every one in its own land” (Zeph. 2:11b). But looking even further to the most distant horizons, this prophet anticipates the day in which after the purging judgments of the Lord, the lips of the peoples will be purified, “that all of them may call on the name of the Covenant Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder” (Zeph. 3:9). Deep into the continent of Africa, “beyond the rivers of Cush,” the Lord’s true worshipers will present to him their offerings (Zeph. 3:10).
So despite their certain experience and expectation of the devastations heaped on God’s people by brutal neighboring nations, the preexilic prophets uniformly testify to the grace of God in ordering restoration for these same nations. Israel will by no means be the only people restored after divine judgment. This promise and this hope are available to all the nations of the world, even the cruelest of peoples.
Source: The Christ of the Prophets by O. Palmer Roberton