Nebuchadnezzar was king over wherever the sons of men, beast of the fields, or birds of the sky dwell. His dominion reached to the sky and went to the end of the earth. At least, that’s according to Daniel in Daniel 2:37-38 and Daniel 4:22. But as we saw in the first article, which you should read before continuing, Nebuchadnezzar reigned over a relatively small area compared to other empires after himself. These expressions concerning his reign are hyperbolic, and if we aren’t careful, we may misunderstand how the prophets use this language elsewhere.
In Obadiah, the prophet pounces judgement on Edom (the descendents of Esau). This judgement is in response to violence done to Israel (Obadiah 10-14). In verse fifteen, Edom’s judgement stands as a warning to “all the nations” who have disturbed Israel.
For the day of the LORD draws near on all the nations. As you have done, it will be done to you. Your dealings will return on your own head.Obadiah 15
One may read this passage and think it is talking about a judgement future to us. After all, all the nations haven’t been judged, have they? That’s obvious, right?
Well, some have made this argument and then used this passage to weaken the statements of imminence in passages like Revelation 1:1, 3 which says that the events of Revelation had drawn near.
But this reading of Obadiah is unwarranted, especially when we consider how universal statements like “all the nations” are used in other prophetic texts such as the passages from Daniel.
In fact, Obadiah lists the nations under consideration:
“Then the house of Jacob will be a fire And the house of Joseph a flame; But the house of Esau will be as stubble. And they will set them on fire and consume them, So that there will be no survivor of the house of Esau,” For the LORD has spoken. Then those of the Negev will possess the mountain of Esau, And those of the Shephelah the Philistine plain; Also, possess the territory of Ephraim and the territory of Samaria, And Benjamin will possess Gilead. And the exiles of this host of the sons of Israel, Who are among the Canaanites as far as Zarephath, And the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad Will possess the cities of the Negev. The deliverers will ascend Mount Zion To judge the mountain of Esau, And the kingdom will be the LORD’S.Obadiah 18–21
Let’s check out another example of this.
In Joel 3, the Bible says,
For behold, in those days and at that time, When I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all the nations And bring them down to the valley of Jehoshaphat. Then I will enter into judgment with them there On behalf of My people and My inheritance, Israel, Whom they have scattered among the nations; And they have divided up My land.Joel 3:1–2
Again, the prophet tells us the nations he has in mind.
Moreover, what are you to Me, O Tyre, Sidon and all the regions of Philistia? Are you rendering Me a recompense? But if you do recompense Me, swiftly and speedily I will return your recompense on your head.Joel 3:4
Egypt will become a waste, And Edom will become a desolate wilderness, Because of the violence done to the sons of Judah, In whose land they have shed innocent blood.Joel 3:19
We are starting to see a pattern where “all the nations” refers to the nations surrounding ancient Israel. The prophets did not have in mind nations which exist within our day, but specific nations Israel dealt with regularly.
So, when we come to the New Testament and read passages like the following, we must consider how Jesus’ disciples, who were more familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures than we are, would have understood what Jesus said.
All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;Matthew 25:32
Why would Jesus suddenly be using this expression in a universal sense?
Consider the following passages:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.Matthew 11:21–24
The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.Matthew 12:41–42
These are the nations Jesus has in mind when He uses the expression “all the nations.” Under the Messiah, all of Israel’s old enemies and adversaries would become one with them.
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”Isaiah 19:23–25
Jesus is saying that there were sheep among people who Israel would never typically expect. People of Sodom, Assyria, Egypt, Tyre, and Sidon would receive tolerable treatment in the judgement. He doesn’t have in mind America, China, etc., etc.
When we read the Bible, we need to do our best not to make too many assumptions. Everyone of course does this. It is inevitable. But we need to at least make an attempt and not just read our worldview into the lives of the original audience. When we come across an expression such as “all the nations,” we can’t just assume Jesus is using that expression as we would.
Hopefully, you have enjoyed this exercise in how to read the Bible.