The Nations in Isaiah: Friend or Foe; Servant or Partner -- By: John N. Oswalt

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 16:1 (NA 2006)
Article: The Nations in Isaiah: Friend or Foe; Servant or Partner
Author: John N. Oswalt


The Nations in Isaiah:
Friend or Foe; Servant or Partner

John N. Oswalt

Wesley Biblical Seminary

The book of Isaiah contains a more comprehensive treatment of the rest of the nations of the world than do most of the other biblical prophetic books. It addresses the nations in a variety of ways, but when this variety is looked at in the light of the present structure of the book, it may be argued that Israel’s relationship to the nations becomes the skeleton around which the book’s theology is structured. This article seeks to explore how that structuring takes place and how it affects both the purpose and the message of the book in its present form.

Key Words: Isaiah, nations, restoration, worship, glory of God

Like many of the so-called “writing prophets,” the book of Isaiah views the momentous political and military events of the ninth through the fifth centuries b.c.e. through the lens of the sole lordship of Yahweh in the world.1 In this respect it is no different from Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or for that matter, Habbakuk. Each of these books represents all the nations as existing under the direction of Israel’s God and acting according to his purposes.

Yet, it can be argued that Isaiah’s view of the nations is much more comprehensive and nuanced than the other prophetic books’ views of the nations. Isaiah in its present form is not content merely to insist that the nations move at Yahweh’s behest or that the activities of the nations are directed to achieve Yahweh’s purposes on behalf of his people. It also argues that Israel has a mission to the nations and that the nations will eventually join Israel in Jerusalem, where they will not only serve Israel but also share with Israel in the worship of God. This complex understanding has sometimes been seen as a result of the book’s recensional complexity.2 Thus, differing editorial viewpoints contributed to different views concerning the nations. In this article, I will seek to examine how the present shaping of the book conditions our reading of the relationship of the nations to Israel.

The total picture presented may be stated in the following way:

  1. Israel should not be seduced by the glory of the nations into trusting them.
  2. If Israel trusts the nations instead of Yahweh, these very nations will turn on Israel and destroy it.
  3. When Israel has been destroyed, God will call the destroying nations to account.
  4. God will deliver Israel from the nations.
  5. This deliverance will be an expressio...
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