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“A Light to the Nations”: Israel’s Mission to the World

Author: Paul Watson
Published: August 2013

MD 4.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Though different than programatic notions of mission, Israel’s calling and self-understanding lends itself to a conception of her mission in relation to God’s creation. Beginning with Isa 42, the article explores the nature of Israel’s missional existence during various periods of her history. The vision of Israel’s mission that emerges from the text resonates with the calling and self-understanding that Jesus gives his disciples, challenging the church to reimagine her mission among the nations.

“Did Israel have a mission to the other nations and peoples of the world? If so, what was that mission?” These are complex and difficult questions. So much depends upon what one means by mission. If by mission one means evangelism and conversion—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19)1—then the answer is no. Evangelistic, missionary proclamation of the kind found in the New Testament is unknown in the Old Testament.2

On the other hand, there is in the Old Testament a clear sense of Israel’s self-awareness of having been “called” by God to be his agent in the world for the benefit of other nations and peoples. This is not to say that such self-awareness was equally strong in all parts of the Hebrew canon or at all times throughout Israel’s history.3 It is to say that, canonically speaking, Israel had a sense of God-given responsibility to “others.” Again, what that responsibility entailed for Israel is not spelled out precisely, but the sense of “calling”—to a purpose beyond the maintenance of her own existence—is certainly present in Israel’s Scriptures. In that sense, Israel did see herself as having a mission to the world. Perhaps the best way to get at that sense of having been called to serve God by serving the world is to start with a specific text: Isa 42:1–9.

God’s Sovereign Love and Care for All Creation

Isaiah 42:1–9 is the first of four passages in Isa 40–55 that scholars regularly identify as “servant songs.”4 In this first song, vv. 1–4 focus on the quiet but constant nature of the servant.5 Verses 5–9 then turn to the servant’s call and commissioning by God, beginning with these words in verse 5:

Thus said God, the Lord,

who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and all

that it brings forth,

who gives breath to the people on it

and life to those walking in it.6

The song could not be clearer: the God who calls the servant is the Creator of heaven and earth and all humanity. That is the starting point for understanding Israel’s mission to the world. The world and all who live in it belong to God, who cares for all.

God resounds this affirmation in the second servant song when he says to the servant, “I will also make you a light to the nations, that my salvation will reach to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6b). As Childs observes, the servant’s “mission as a light to the nations forms the true climax of his divine calling as servant to the God of all creation.7 In a similar vein, the grand vision of Isa 2:2 // Mic 4:1 promises:

It will happen in the latter days

that the mountain of the house of the Lord

will be set over all other mountains,

and will be lifted high above the hills;

and all the nations will stream to it.

In the words of Gene Tucker, the vision “is universal in the expectation that all nations will come to Jerusalem to know the one true God, and the result will be peace.”8

Such creation-wide promises are in keeping with the many specific examples in Israel’s Scriptures of God’s loving care for individuals who were not Israelites. The two Egyptian midwives come to mind—two women who thwarted the genocidal intentions of Pharaoh by preserving the lives of newborn Israelite males. “So God dealt well with the midwives . . . and because the midwives feared God, he gave them families”(Exod 1:20–21).9 Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who protected the two Israelite spies, was subsequently spared, along with her family, when Jericho was conquered and burned (Josh 6:22–25). A Sidonian widow was provided for by Elijah, who also raised her son from the dead (1 Kings 17:8–16). Na’aman, the Syrian military commander, was cured of leprosy by Elisha (1 Kings 5:1–19).

Perhaps the most famous non-Israelite to be blessed by God is Ruth the Moabite.10 Ruth was not “converted” by her mother-in-law Naomi; indeed, Ruth returned to Bethlehem with Naomi over Naomi’s objections. But Ruth soon integrated herself into the community, showing Torah-kindness to Naomi, accepting Israelite customs, and ultimately—with the help of God (Ruth 4:13)—conceiving and delivering a son who would become the grandfather of King David.

And then there are the people of Nineveh, to whom God sent Jonah, that slow learner when it came to grasping God’s providential care for all peoples. When the people of Nineveh repented of their sins, after Jonah had proclaimed God’s judgment to them, God relented of his intended punishment. Jonah was hurt and angry. Then, when the shade bush that God had provided for Jonah withered, Jonah was ready to die himself, not realizing that his concern for the bush was paralleled by God’s much larger concern for the 120,000-plus inhabitants of Nineveh and for their animals.

God’s Calling and Equipping Israel to Serve the World on His Behalf

In the next two lines of the first servant song this Creator-God identifies himself as “the Lord”—Yahweh, Jehovah—the One who has both called and sustained Israel:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness.

I have taken you by the hand and kept you. (42:6a)

Three things stand out in these two short lines. First is the self-identification of the God who does these things, repeated from v. 5: “I am the Lord.” Second, God has called Israel, “in righteousness,” for God’s own righteous purposes. Israel has not sought this commission; God has ordained it. Third, God has provided the care and direction necessary to bring Israel to the point where Israel can effectively, faithfully carry out her God-given task.

While the language is quite different, the theological import of verse 6a is similar to that of two other significant Old Testament texts, the first of which is Gen 12:1–3—the call of Abraham. There, as here in Isa 42, it is not a matter of someone looking for God; instead, God comes calling for Abraham. Likewise in Gen 12 there is the promise of God’s providential care, in this case the provision of both land and progeny for Abraham. Finally, and most importantly for our purposes, there is God’s stated intention to use Abraham as his agent for blessing others: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and the ones who curse you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2b–3).

The other equally significant passage is Exod 19:1–6. Once again it is God who initiates the interaction with Israel, by securing Israel’s release from Egyptian oppression: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians” (Exod 19:4a). Once again it is God who has guarded and guided Israel: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” (Exod 19:4b), which is the functional equivalent of “I have taken you by the hand and kept you.” Finally, as with the “servant” in Isa 42, so here God announces a mission for Israel: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6a). It is to the mission of the “servant” that we now turn.

God’s Inclusion of “Others” in Israel’s Community of Faith

Now this creating, calling, enabling God announces his special purpose for his special servant:

I have given you as a covenant for the peoples,

and a light to the nations,

to open eyes that are blind,

to free captives from prison,

from the dungeon those sitting in darkness. (42:6b–7)

Here, as elsewhere, the precise nature of the servant’s “mission” is more opaque than transparent. Especially difficult is the phrase “covenant to/for the people” (berit {am), which appears only here in the Old Testament. Taking the phrase in close parallel with the next phrase, Westermann paraphrases:

“I make you the covenant-salvation . . . for all mankind /

through you the nations are to experience light, illumination, and salvation.”11

Childs notes that “the one commissioned does not form a covenant, but rather embodies a covenantal relationship with the nations.”12 Hanson elaborates as follows:

The referent of “people” ({am) is most plausibly the same as that found in the preceding verse, namely all the inhabitants of the earth, a meaning supported by the parallel “nations” that immediately follows. When we recall the universal dimension to the Servant’s task in the preceding unit, the phrase strikes us as entirely befitting the spirit of Second Isaiah’s vision. The community called and upheld by God, by discharging the patient faithful witness assigned to the Servant, becomes the instrument through which the nations are drawn into the covenant relationship marked by God’s reign of justice, the covenant relationship of which Israel already had been a part because of God’s gracious activity on Israel’s behalf and which now was to be extended to the wider family of the nations.13

As for the phrase, “a light to the nations,” Hanson, in agreement with Westermann, adds, “The parallel phrase ‘a light to the nations’ amplifies the vision, that is, Israel is to become the instrument through which nations come to share the light of God’s salvation.”14

Two other prophetic passages are worth noting in regard to the inclusion of “outsiders” in the covenant-community of Israel, the first of which is Isa 56:1–8. This passage begins the third and final section of the book of Isaiah, a section often called Third Isaiah, with the promise that God’s salvation is coming soon and is coming specifically to the “eunuch” (vv. 4–5) and to the “foreigner” (vv. 6–7)—two groups who together represent all the “outcasts” whom God will gather to himself (v. 8). Specifically, as regards the “foreigner,” the prophet says:

As for the foreigners

who join themselves to the Lord,

to serve him, to love the name of the Lord

and to be his servants,

all who keep the Sabbath

without profaning it,

and who hold fast to my covenant

these I will bring to my holy mountain

and let them rejoice in the house of prayer.

Their burnt offerings and sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar,

for my house will be called

a house of prayer for all peoples.

For our purposes two things are worthy of note in this passage. First, those “outsiders” who had formerly been excluded from Israel’s worship assemblies (cf. Deut 23:3–6) are now welcome to participate fully in those assemblies—welcomed by Israel, presumably, as well as by God. But second, those former “outsiders” are now expected to “keep the Sabbath” and “hold fast my covenant” (v. 6b). In other words, they will have both the privileges and the responsibilities that God’s people Israel have always had.

The second prophetic passage to note is Zech 8:20–23:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, “Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.” Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”

This passage comes as a climax to a series of oracles, beginning in Zech 8:1, that envision a restored, renewed Jerusalem, to which God will gather his people from “east and west” and in which everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, will live happily and securely. And not only will Israel, the original people of God, live there; but other peoples will stream to Jerusalem in order to “seek the Lord of hosts” and “entreat the favor of the Lord.” They will not have been actively “evangelized” by Jews; instead, they will seek out Jews and beg to accompany them, based on the now common knowledge that “God is with you.” But the net result will be their new identity as worshipers of Yahweh God, for “to seek God is to make him the object of one’s allegiance and desire.”15

It should be added that such acceptance and inclusion of “outsiders” in the community of Israel was not without precedent in Israel’s experience. When Israel left Egypt, “a mixed crowd also went up with them” (Exod 12:38; cf. Num 11:4). Commenting on this, Fretheim says:

They were a “mixed crowd,” consisting of more than the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Many non-Israelites had been integrated into the community of faith, and other communities no doubt took advantage of the opportunity to choose freedom. . . . When the people of God are liberated, not only their own kind can come along.16

And when Israel prepared to celebrate the first Passover, what of these “tag-longs?” “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the Passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exod 12:48). Again, Fretheim says:

This is not a new level of exclusivism but a recognition that Passover is a festival for persons who have faith in this God. These others are invited to join that community by being circumcised, a sign that they have made the confession of this “congregation” their own.17

Israel the servant who is to be “a covenant to the peoples, a light to the nations” is thus one with the Israel of the Exodus. Israel was to be that open, healing, redeeming community into which “others” were invited, accepted, and brought near to God.

The Final Result of God’s Action: Praise for Him Alone

In the final lines of the first Servant Song, God reaffirms his identity, claims “glory” for himself alone, and affirms the newness of this announcement to Israel:

I am the Lord, that is my name.

I will not give my glory to another

or my praise to idols.

Look, the former things have come to pass,

and now I foretell new things;

before they spring forth,

I announce them to you. (42:8–9).18

The song thus ends where it began: with a recognition of—and implicit praise for—the one true God who shares his glory with no one but who shares his beneficence with everyone. The true goal of Israel’s “mission” is the worldwide glorification of the Lord God; and it is on that note that the book of Isaiah ends:19

As for me, knowing their works and their thoughts, the time has come to gather all the nations and tongues; they will come and behold my glory. I will set a sign among them, and send from them survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud who draw the bow, to Tubal, Javan, and the distant coastlands that have not heard of my fame nor seen my glory. They shall proclaim my glory among the nations. (Isa 66:18–19)

Summary and Conclusion

We end where we began: with the question of whether or not Israel had a mission to non-Israel. If by mission we mean an organized program of foreign evangelism, the answer is no—no strategic plans or missionary trips; no para-church organization (think “missionary society”); no church planting teams willing to relocate among the “unchurched;” no benevolence programs specifically designed for non-Israelites.

And yet, there runs throughout Israel’s canon of Scripture an awareness that Israel did not exist simply for her own sake but for the sake of “s” also. Using Isa 42:5–9 as our template, we saw that:

  • Israel’s sense of mission began not with her perception of human needs but with God the Creator’s concern for his world and all who lived in it (Isa 42:5).
  • God called and equipped Israel to have a special role in his redemptive, restorative plan for all the world, a role that was sometimes designated “servant,” sometimes designated “kingdom of priests” (Isa 42:6a; cf. Isa 49:3; Exod 19:6).
  • God charged Israel with being a “covenant for the peoples”—a receptive, inclusive community of faith—and a “light to the nations”—showing the one true God to all who lived in darkness, thus drawing them to worship God themselves (Isa 42:6b–7).
  • The end result of such mission would be the worldwide recognition and celebration of God’s unique glory (Isa 42:8–9).

Such a sense of mission was more visionary than practical, more imaginative than programmatic, but it was no less real.

And it still is. Christ himself said that his disciples were “the light of the world,” and he called them to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14, 16). To that mission Christ calls us even today.

Dr. Paul L. Watson completed his BA in Bible at Abilene Christian University, his MDiv at Yale Divinity School, and his PhD in Old Testament at Yale University. Paul taught at Erskine College, Pepperdine University, and the Institute for Christian Studies (now Austin Graduate School of Theology) before becoming senior minister for the Cole Mill Road Church of Christ in Durham, North Carolina. Paul served as preacher and elder for twenty-four years at Cole Mill Road, during which time he and his wife Kay made five teaching-mission trips to St. Petersburg, Russia. After his retirement from preaching, Paul began serving as professor of Bible for Amridge University. He and Kay continue to worship with the Cole Mill Road congregation, where they serve as co-chairs of the church’s missions ministry.


Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.

Fretheim, Terence. Exodus. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Goldingay, John. “Servant of Yahweh.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville, 700–707. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Hanson, Paul. Isaiah 40–66. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995.

McComiskey, Thomas E. “Zechariah.” In The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Vol. 6, Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Baruch; Letter of Jeremiah; Lamentations; Ezekiel. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

Oswalt, John N. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. A Biblical Theology of Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002.

Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969.

1 Scripture quotations except for Isaiah will be taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 The apparent exception of Jonah is, in fact, not an exception, as will be discussed below.

3 For example, there is a higher concentration of “mission” messages in Isaiah than in Jeremiah or Ezekiel. As for historical development, Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 135, argues that after the exile “Israelite communities recognize that they are tools of God’s transformative justice and mission.”

4 The relationship of these four songs to one another and the identity of the “servant” who appears in them are much debated. For the purposes of this paper it will be assumed that the servant in all four songs is essentially the same and that this servant is, in whole or in part, Israel. For the issues involved, consult John Goldingay, “Servant of Yahweh,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, ed. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 700–707; Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001); John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40–66, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40–66,” in New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, Introduction to Prophetic Literature; Isaiah; Jeremiah; Baruch; Letter of Jeremiah; Lamentations; Ezekiel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 307–553; and Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40–66: A Commentary, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).

5 Westermann, 101, emphasizes the disjunction between vv. 1–4 and vv. 5–9, whereas Childs, 326, argues that whatever the redactional history of the two units, “the two passages clearly supplement each other” as they now stand.

6 Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Isaiah are those of Childs.

7 Childs, 385; emphasis added.

8 Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1–39,” in New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 69. For other examples in the book of Isaiah of declarations of God’s universal sovereignty and love, note the following:

  • Isa 11:6–9. The “peaceable kingdom” passage that promises, “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
  • Isa 19:19–22. One day “there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt,” for “the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them.”
  • Isa. 19:23–25. In the following two oracles, God promises that Assyria, Egypt, and Israel will be united, and God pronounces his blessing on them: “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”
  • Isa 25:6–10. In this “banquet on the mountain” vision, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food . . . and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud cast over all peoples . . . he will swallow up death forever.”
  • Isa 42:10–13. In this passage, “the coastlands and their inhabitants” and “the desert and its towns,” the villages that Kedar inhabits” and “the inhabitants of Sela” are all invited to join in a “new song” of praise to the Lord.
  • Isa 45:20–25. Here God invites the “survivors of the nations” to abandon their worthless idols and “turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.”

9 Interestingly enough, Christian interpreters generally understand the two midwives to be Hebrew women, whereas Jewish interpreters regularly take them to be Egyptian.

10 Note how often Ruth is said to be a “Moabite” or from “Moab” (Ruth 1:6, 22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10), as if to underscore Ruth’s foreign origins.

11 Westermann, 100.

12 Childs, 326.

13 Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 46–47.

14 Ibid., 47. For the phrase “light to the nations,” cf. also Isa 49:6; 60:3; and Tobit 13:11.

15 Thomas E. McComiskey, “Zechariah,” in The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 1156.

16 Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 143.

17 Ibid.

18 Some commentators take v. 9 as a misplaced fragment: “This saying about the former things and the new things gives the impression of being a fragment out of its proper context, the ‘you’ in the last clause having nothing to which it relates.” (Westermann, 101). Others see v. 9 as integral part of the unit: “Even v. 9 serves a coherent purpose in contrasting the former things that God the creator had once brought forth (v. 5; cf. 41:22) with the new things that are about to emerge. The shift to a plural pronoun reflects only a rhetorical device, consonant with the plurality of witnesses to the things shortly to come (43:10; 44:8).” (Childs, 326). On balance, the latter view seems preferable.

19 Note that the Psalter ends the same way: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Ps 150:6; cf. Ps 86:8–9).

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