A Breathtaking Hint of Universalism in Isaiah

Text: Isaiah 19:24-25

Sometimes I stumble upon a passage in the Bible that stops me in my tracks. It may do so because of its exquisite beauty. Sometimes because it says something I don’t expect the Bible to say. And sometimes because of its breathtaking vision.

One such passage is Isaiah 19:24-25. In it the prophet looks into the future. Whether that future is the Eschaton, or just some far future time, is not clear. But what he sees in that future is an astonishing act of God in reconciling bitter enemies.

The passage reads like this:

In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” (Revised Standard Version)

What takes my breath away is the language the prophet uses. Egypt is called God’s people. Assyria is the work of God’s hands. And Israel is God’s heritage.

 In all three cases the prophet is using language that applies to the concept of God’s chosen people. Throughout the Old Testament, those words—God’s people, the work of God’s hands, God’s heritage—are applied exclusively to Israel. They are titles that grow out of God’s special covenant with Israel.

Yet here Israel’s special covenant terms are be applied as well to Egypt and Assyria, Israel’s traditional enemies. All three peoples are called a blessing in the midst of the earth. The circle of God’s people has expanded to include Egypt, Assyria, and Israel as equals.

Christians often argue that it is Christianity that turns the nationalistic religion of ancient Israel into a universal faith that embraces all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews. That often makes us Christians feel superior. But we need to be more humble. There are hints in the Old Testament itself that God’s vision has been universalist all along. And this passage in Isaiah 19 is one such hint.  God’s purpose in calling Israel is to liberate the whole earth, not just a select few.

I have never heard any preacher preach on this passage. Why has it been largely ignored?

I also can’t help reading this passage without thinking of the bitter conflict between Israeli and Palestinian over the land of Israel/Palestine. Does not this passage suggest that God intends the land to belong equally to both? In that future day that Isaiah foresees, both Israeli and Arab will belong to God’s people. And so both share the gift of the land.

That will mean both Arab and Israeli will have to give up their exclusive claim to the land. Neither side is ready to do that in the current political climate. Yet Isaiah points to the radical transformation of national spirit in both peoples that could make peace a reality.