Does the Prophet Isaiah hold any hope for the Gentile Nations?
The book of Isaiah played an important role for the new followers of Christ, both Jew and Gentile. The New Testament quotes from, alludes too, and echoed themes that are found in the writings of the prophet. There is a tendency, therefore, to read the book backwards, considering the Christ event. However, as a stand-alone work, the prose and poetry of Isaiah, before Christ, did pronounced salvation through judgement for both Israel and the gentile nations. The extent of the hope which is included in the prophecies, is the focus of this essay. The undoubted hope for Israel, as proclaimed by Isaiah, paints a complicated picture for the gentile nations.
A Diverse Historical Context with a Unified Focus
Duhm distinguished between three major corpora within the book itself; although scholars remain divided on the partitioning within the text, there is agreement that Isaiah’s writing is not the product of a single author. These authors remained aligned in their prophecy and focus. The mention of Uzziah King of Judah (Is.1:1) and Cyrus, King of the Persian Empire, (Is.44:28) gives two chronological markers which suggest the book covers more than 200 years of history. Despite academic debate around the composition, Peterson notes that there is consensus that the multiple authors share a unified theme within the text: that is Jerusalem, and its significant role in a coming Kingdom.
At the times of Proto-Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah, and the potential Trito-Isaiah, Jerusalem was subject to geopolitical pressures from larger Empires and nations, yet prophecy contained within the book indicated that these very nations would in turn become subjects to a restored Jerusalem; this would occur once the judgement of Yahweh unfolded. However, is Isaiah’s hope for Jerusalem really a cause for hope within the gentile nations? This paper will argue that in Isaiah, hope remains for the non-Jew, but that there will first be a period of subjugation. The hope that is to come, will be achieved by Yahweh but through the means of human military campaign.
The Gentile Nations relationship to a victorious Yahweh
For the early Israelites it is axiomatic that a Kingdom with Yahweh as founder would be purely positive, but Davies highlights a potential problem for those peoples not inclined toward Yahweh’s dominion.
‘The prominence of the “nations” theme in ch. 40-55 is well known, and goyim and close synonyms occur no less than 22 times in these chapters. The problem here is the diversity of interpretations of this material, which was recently summarised by D.W van Winkle. Alongside the common picture of Deutero-Isaiah as a prophet who proclaims universal salvation, there are those who have held that the position reserved for the nations is purely a subservient one, if not worse’.
Whybray too, writes concerning this subservient condition. He states that for much of the Old Testament prophets, salvation for Israel could be read as victory for Israel. A victory for one, invariably requires the defeat of another; however, the victory of Yahweh is not best perceived in human military terms, but rather in spiritual terms. Victory over the spiritual oppression of sin is the reason Yahweh goes to war, not only on other nations, but also on His own people. His motivations are not to enslave people but to liberate them, which is a source of hope for all. In pursuit of this, and as biblical history shows, collateral damage is expected. Whybray highlights chapter 43 v3-4, which could indicate that all other nations are expendable in the eyes of Yahweh. The named nations of Egypt, Cush and Seba were all historically conquered by Persia, yet Yahweh says they were given as ransom for Israel; the Hebrew word kopher means ‘price of life’, indicating a deeper purpose to Yahweh’s victory through the Persians, and likely what Isaiah sought to express.
Fuelling Whybray’s notion of subservience, and much more difficult to reconcile, is chapter 45 v14. The same nations, mentioned above, acknowledge Yahweh as the only god, yet they do so as prisoners in chains; Whybray implies an Israelite imperialism, both spiritual and military, are at the heart of Isaiah proclamations concerning the nations. However, he also concedes that Isaiah speaks of individuals that seek membership to the chosen people, of their own freewill, upon witness of Israel’s prosperity under Yahweh’s direct rule. Chapter 44 v14 draws attention to this, Whybray deems it the ‘admission of proselytes.’ These people will take on a servant like role and thus be subservient in a sense, but the word ‘servant’ in the Old Testament should not presuppose a lower status:
‘In the OT and aNE generally those who served, that is acknowledged or worshipped a particular deity were commonly referred to as that deity’s servants. In the OT it was particularly used to designate individual persons whose attachment to Yahweh was noteworthy: Abraham, Moses, or David. It is used of the prophets in 1Kings 18:36, Amos 3:7 and Jeremiah 7:25.’
The themes discussed above come from the writings of Whybray with his specific focus on Deutero-Isaiah. Looking at the hope for the nations, throughout the scroll of Isaiah, requires further investigation into the earlier chapters.
Proto-Isaiah’s Hope for the Gentiles
Peterson believes that Isaiah Chapter 1 reads as a prologue to the rest of the book, noting that perspectives that appear therein extend beyond Chapter 39.This poses an issue for Duhm’s thesis on the individual corpora, but does not rule out hope for the gentile nations from the pen of Proto-Isaiah. Near the beginning of the book, we read that a time of peace will be ushered in; Davies suggests that chapter 2 was the original beginning of the book, where we read the following:
‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’ (Is. 2:3c-4)
For Proto-Isaiah the coming new age will be a messianic one, notable for the peace and safety that extends beyond human society and into nature itself; we read of lambs and wolves, leopards and goats, calves and lions living together and being led by children (Is. 11:1-9). This is undoubtably symbolic language being used to further express a time of peace between all nations.
In chapter 11 we find further allusion to the messianic figure, first mentioned in chapter 7, that is Immanuel, or God with Us. In v 10 he is spoken of as the Root of Jesse, a messianic title closely connected with the Davidic Kingship. In v10 Isaiah writes that this person will become something of a guiding figure for all the nations who will flock to his banner. This stands in a contrast to Is 2:3, where we read the saving grace, that is the word of the Lord and the rule of justice, goes out from Zion; yet here, we read it is the representatives of the nations that will seek out Zion; this is a theme furthered in chapter 66. This does not diminish the hope for the nations, merely anchors the hope in Jerusalem. However, it does raise the question of the hope being actively given, or passively provided. As Davies highlights, the poetry of v1-9 does not indicate the messianic rule of justice over all nations, if ‘land’ is used as the translation for eres, but v10 clearly shows a broader intention for that rule extending beyond Israel, where the nations take the pro-active response.
What follows however, is not good news for the gentile nations, a series of oracles with a heavy emphasis on judgement. Between chapters 13 and 20, the NIV headlines these judgements: a prophecy against Babylon; a prophecy against Moab; an oracle against Damascus; a prophecy against Cush; a prophecy against Egypt and Cush, each concerning a coming Day of the LORD; 13:9 states it will be a cruel day with wrath and fierce anger. Amid these oracles, hope for Israel remains. Chapter 14 mentions the compassion Yahweh maintains for the House of Jacob; foreigners will unite with Israel, yet carry them away, but the idea of subservience for the gentiles emerges once more: captives will be made captors and those who once oppressed shall be ruled over (Is. 14:1-3).
Proto-Isaiah, therefore, speaks of hope on the one hand but highlights the judgement of nations that must come first. Chapter 24, and the headline provided within, by the NIV, certainly pose a challenge: The Lord’s devastation of the Earth. It brings up the same question on the intended use of the Hebrew word eres: is Isaiah speaking of judgement at a local level or beyond? Chapter 27 v 6 speaks of future blessings and employs tevel, a far clearer indication of blessings on a broader scale.
The Work of Oehler as cited by Van Winkle
Both Proto and Deutero Isaiah contain themes of salvation, yet subservience, for the gentile nations. Van Winkle notes this was a thesis put forward by, amongst others, G. F. Oehler, in 1882, in his Theologie des Alten Testaments 2. Working with this theory, Van Winkle examined three oracles within Isaiah: Is. 51:4-6, 49:22-23 and 42:5-9. He writes that these verses show the ‘clearest conception of the prophet’s relationship of the nations to Israel and to Yahweh’.
51:4-6 clearly ties together the ideas that Yahweh’s justice and righteousness contained in His rule, are the foretold salvation, upon which the nations await; so, it is not merely an expected military victory over the gentiles but something that can also be viewed positively. Themes of justice and righteousness are common attributes for the God of Israel. This oracle indicates that the other nations are not only seeking them but are deserving of them. The idea that God will reach out His hand towards them could be taken as a gesture of His divine grace. However, recognised in the next prophecy, we must note that there are conditions applied, or at least, a less than favourable response from the nations expected.
The strong words of 49:22-23 clearly indicate a submission to Israel. The use of licking dust and bowing down is used elsewhere in the OT, in psalm 72:9 and Micah 7:16-17. There is no obvious insinuation that this submission would be perpetual, but it is clear there will be subjugation. This aligns with Whybray’s conclusion. However, subjugation to God’s rule is a common theme throughout scripture and is not only reserved for the gentiles, but at times, for the chosen people themselves. As noted earlier, perhaps the idea of servitude carries connotations today that were never present in OT society. Servitude was for many a way of life then, and was viewed more neutrally.
42:5-9 uses the phrase a light for the gentiles. Light is a strong biblical metaphor for order in creation and for salvation. Isaiah proclaims that Israel will once more take on the role of a guiding figure, personified in the Immanuel of chapter 7, and act as a mediator for the gentile nations; there is a presupposition that the gentiles, through lacking knowledge of Yahweh, are corrupt or missing truth. The light will bring enlightenment. The hope for the gentiles lies herein: they will ultimately be absorbed into the covenant family and thus redeemed. The light may draw people to it, once more indicating that the pro-active approach becomes incumbent on the nations.
In the end Isaiah looks toward the future with a sense of hope, that extends over all the nations. Koch writes:
'He looks forward to a time when human beings will acquire true trust and freedom from fear, the reliable wisdom that makes a person capable of true living…Before that, people and nations will have to be humiliated. But in the end Isaiah has an optimistic view of the future.'
Isaiah was undeniably aware of the political landscape around Israel and Judah; the gentile nations vied and plotted in various alliances during the sweep of Isaiah’s writing. To him, all human political machinations seemed superfluous, as he trusted in Yahweh so deeply. The grace of God, for Isaiah, clearly extended into the gentile nations; this he understood and proclaimed, but the works of God he made no claim on. For the nations, salvation was the hope they were included in, but it would not occur on human terms.
Davies G.I, ‘The destiny of the Nations in the Book of Isaiah’, in The Book of Isaiah, ed J. Vermeylen, (Leuven: Leuven UP, 1989)
Koch Klaus, The Prophets Vol 1: The Assyrian Period, (London:SCM Press, 1978)
Peterson David L, The Prophetic Literature, (Louisville, Westminster: John Knox Press, 2002)
Van Winkle D.W, ‘The relationship of the Nations to Yahweh and to Israel in Isaiah 40-55’, Vetus testamentum, Vol 35.4 (1985)
Whybray R.N, The Second Isaiah, (Sheffield: JSOT Press,1983)
 Chapters 1-39 (740-700 BC); Chapters 40-55 (550-515 BC); Chapters 56-66 (515-480 BC)  David. L Peterson, The Prophetic Literature, (Louisville, Westminster: John Knox Press, 2002) p48.  Peterson, The Prophetic Literature, p49.  G.I Davies, ‘The destiny of the Nations in the Book of Isaiah’, in The Book of Isaiah, ed J. Vermeylen, (Leuven: Leuven UP, 1989) p102  R.N Whybray, The Second Isaiah, (Sheffield: JSOT Press,1983) p65.  Whybray, The Second Isaiah, p63.  Whybray, The Second Isaiah, p65.  Peterson, The Prophetic Literature, p48.  Davies, ‘The Destiny of the Nations in the Book of Isaiah’, p95.  Davies, ‘The Destiny of the Nations in the Book of Isaiah’, p97.  D.W Van Winkle, ‘The relationship of the Nations to Yahweh and to Israel in Isaiah 40-55’, Vetus testamentum, Vol 35.4 (1985) p448-458.  Van Winkle, ‘The relationship of the Nations to Yahweh and to Israel in Isaiah 40-55’, p448.  Van Winkle, ‘The relationship of the Nations to Yahweh and to Israel in Isaiah 40-55, p452.  Klaus Koch, The Prophets Vol 1: The Assyrian Period, (London:SCM Press, 1978) p150.