Isaiah, The Nations, and Our Witness Among Them

In the book of Isaiah, God is consistently depicted as being sovereign over the nations of the world. The place that this is most clearly displayed is Isaiah 10:5-15. But what exactly does it mean that God is sovereign over the nations? How does His sovereignty play out? And what sort of implications might this have for us now?

Isaiah 10:5-15

Isaiah 10:5-15 is an oracle that God’s prophet gave concerning the nation of Assyria.

Verses 5-11 are in the first-person perspective. It’s as if God is speaking directly to a listening audience. Verses 8-11 seem to be recitations of the thoughts of the current Assyrian king. In verse 12, Isaiah cuts in to give a brief interlude, and the prophet quotes the king once more in verses 13-14. But God begins to speak in the first-person again in verse 15 through the rest of the chapter.  

The content?

YHWH is using the nation of Assyria to bring about His purposes. He is using this foreign power to judge the nation of Israel. The king of Assyria is not aware that this is happening (10:7-11, 10:13-14), but it is happening, nonetheless. The king of Assyria sees himself as an ax raised up, ready to strike any nation that gets in his way. But YHWH (10:15) asks the question: “does an ax raise itself?” In other words, Assyria is merely a tool in YHWH’s inventory, one which He is currently using in judgement against His nation Israel.

God’s Rule over the Nations  

But this is merely one example of a reality that is found all over scripture. God is sovereignly in control of the nations of the world.

The nation(s) of Israel and Judah are Isaiah’s primary audience. But God’s prophet does talk at length about Israel’s neighbors. Chapters 13-23 of the book are addressed not to Israel but to Babylon (13:1-14:23, 21:1-10), Philistia (14:28-32), Moab (15:1-16:13), Syria (17:1-14), Cush/Ethiopia (18:1-7), Egypt (19:1-20:6), Assyria (14:24-27, 19:16-20:6), Edom (21:11-17), and Phoenicia (23:1-18). The language found in these chapters is primary judgmental. God promises to bring destruction upon these nations because of their violence, arrogance, and their negative treatment of God’s people.

But, again, God, as cosmic king, reserves the right to use these nations however He pleases. YHWH “changes times and seasons. He removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21). And He does all this for the eventual good of His people; but in the moment, it isn’t always viewed so favorably (see the book of Habakkuk).

God’s Purpose for Israel and the Nations

So why is it that Israel and Judah seem to have a special relationship with God over and above other nations? What is God’s purpose for these other nations? And what is Gods people’s role amidst them? Isaiah is also illuminating for such questions as these.

If we were to survey the text of Isaiah, we see that Israel/Judah…

  • 42:6 – Are to keep their covenant with God in order to be an example of God’s goodness to the nations of the world.
  • 43:10 – Are witnesses to the nations of God’s uniqueness.  
  • 44:8 – Shouldn’t be afraid of the nations as God has appointed Israel as His witness among them.
  • 49:6 – Within their exile, Israel should not attempt to take back their land or restore their people on their own. That’s too small of a task for them. What’s more important is to be a light to the nations where they’re currently at.
  • 55:4-5 – The nations of the world will one day come to Israel to know YHWH.  
  • 60:3 – Kings and nations will seek out Israel because of their witness to God.
  • 60:10-12 – Foreigners and kings will rebuild Israel’s destroyed cities. Those who look unfavorably upon them will be judged.
  • 60:14-16 – The children of the nations that once oppressed Israel will in turn bless Israel with riches.
  • 66:18-21 – All people will come to Israel to see God’s glory. The nations in which God’s people were exiled to will bring God’s people back to Jerusalem along with treasures. At that time, some from the nations might also be allowed to become priests to the Lord.

So, according to Isaiah, Israel and Judah’s primary function among the nations is as a witness to God’s goodness. This is accomplished by following Torah and enacting social justice within their own land (see previous post on Isaiah). If they are successful in doing so, the nations of the world will clearly see a picture of God’s loving rule and wish to join in on worshiping YHWH as the one true God.

But Isaiah also helps us see God’s intentions for the other nations of the world too.

They are to keep justice within their lands. We know this because they are judged by God when they don’t. They’re also the tools in which God uses to enact His justice within other lands. God doesn’t use Israel to bring judgement upon foreign powers,[1] but He does use the nations to enact justice in both Israel and in other foreign powers when they disobey Him.

In other words, it is the nations that are the agents meant to bring about basic human thriving. It is their responsibility to make this current world a better place.[2] And through them, God keeps sin in check.

Said in a different way, Israel and Judah aren’t called to be the police of the nations. God’s people aren’t called to fix the social ills of foreign powers. They aren’t the ones meant to enforce God’s judgement on others. Their primary role is to be witnesses of God’s goodness, love, and cosmic rule. They aren’t called to fix this world. They are heralds of the better world to come.

Does this mean that Israel had no role in pointing out sin and evil?

No. God’s prophets often point out the sin and injustice being committed by other nations. The prophetic literature in the Old Testament is full of God’s people condemning the atrocities committed by their neighbors. However, Israel is not called to be the agent who actively fix such atrocities. They weren’t to wield the weapons of power and coercion given to the nations to do battle with. That’s “too small of a task” for them (Isaiah 49:6).

Their job is to lament the sins of violence, arrogance, and injustice that are happening in both their land and amidst the nations. And they are to cry out to God hoping that He would bring healing within the nations. But they themselves aren’t called to take up the sword of judgement to force that healing to happen. Instead, they’re to be a “city on a hill” and a witness to God’s better way. They’re to celebrate their festivals and feasts amidst the world’s violent atrocities (Nahum 1:15), and corporately proclaim through their community life together that God is bringing about a new creation and an end to sin (Isaiah 25:6-11; 65:17; 66:22).

They themselves are to *become* that better world, and then invite the nations of the world to join in.[3]

Thinking Deeper   

The nations of Israel and Judah are no longer God’s missional arm within the world. The Church is. Because of that, we need to take seriously the words of Isaiah when we think about the Church’s role.

Israel was meant to bear witness to God’s goodness like a city on a hill. They failed. That calling has now been given to God’s new people. And like Israel once was, we too have been called to be heralds of God’s new creation coming. We’re to proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand, that Jesus is bringing about the fullness of that kingdom at His return, and that all who pledge their allegiance to Christ as Lord can become citizens of such.

But, and especially within the Western church which has enjoyed centuries of power, we are often tempted to be that which we haven’t been called to become.

Like Israel wasn’t, the Church isn’t the police of the nations.

We do not bring judgement to the world. We aren’t agents called to force change upon society. In fact, when we demand justice from the world and work towards making that happen ourselves, we make an unholy association. Because the Church is God’s appointed missional arm, only He decides what it can or cannot do. To supersede God and to marry the Church to a political party, secular social institution, a particular nation, or anything else in the attempts to enact justice ourselves is idolatry. It’s to break the Third Commandment. It’s to grasp for a calling that’s been given to the nations, not to the Church.

Yet, it is noble and good to want to see societal change happen and justice enacted.

And the Church certainly has been called to be both a people of justice and of godly change. But the Church hasn’t been called to use power, coercion, influence, violence, or any of the tools of the world to bring about such things. Our tools are prayers of lament over societal ills, corporate confession of sin, a life together that reflects the goodness of God, and a prophetic witness among the nations that stands in contrast with the evil in the world.

To want to do justice like the nations is “too small of a task” for us (Isaiah 49:6). We’ve been called to bigger and more important things.


[1] At least here in this time period. During the taking of the Promised Land, Israel was used as judgment upon Canaan, Philistia, etc.

[2] John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 49.

[3] See: John Howard Yoder, “God’s People and World History” in Revolutionary Christian Citizenship, (Harrisonburg, VI: Herald Press, 2013), 66-77 and John Nugent, Endangered Gospel: How Fixing the World is Killing the Church, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), 86-108.  

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