Universalism in the Prophets
by Melvin Sensenig
Universalism in the prophets does not refer to the idea among some Christian theologians that all people will be saved at Judgment Day. Rather, it refers to the idea that the religious message of the prophets is directed to all nations. Some have argued that universalism began with the gospels and Paul. In fact, it begins in the Hebrew Bible.
What universal themes appear in the Hebrew Bible?
In Genesis, the names used for the first human beings—Adam (Human) and Eve (Living)— may show that their real identities have been deliberately submerged so that they can represent all of humanity in its relationship to Yahweh. Of Abraham, it was said that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him (Gen 18:18), a vision repeated to Jacob (Gen 27:29, Gen 28:3-4) and the patriarchs Judah and Zebulun (Gen 49:10, Deut 33:19). In 2Sam 22:44, David’s kingship rises to the level of other ancient Near Eastern kings who aspired to world rulership. Similarly, 1Kgs 4:34 records that people came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon, king of Israel. The God of the Hebrew Bible is also said to rule over all the kingdoms of the nations (e.g., Exod 19:5, Deut 32:8, Jer 10:7), a notion that becomes even more pronounced in the Psalms (see, e.g., Ps 22:27, Ps 46:10, Ps 96:1-13). Such universalism fits well within their ancient Near Eastern context. Since the beginning of civilization, rulers dreamed of creating an empire under which all human beings would unite. This vision was said to receive fulfillment in the temple of Solomon (1Kgs 8:43, 1Kgs 8:60, 2Chr 6:33, 2Chr 7:20). The failure of the monarchy, however, led to the failure of that first vision and the need for its restoration, a task the prophets undertook.
What universal themes appear in the prophets?
The Hebrew prophets placed the universalism of Yahweh’s rule at the center of their vision for the future. They commonly understood Yahweh to be a universal ruler, not merely a local god who reigned in Jerusalem; they understood prophets to be messengers of Yahweh to the nations; they expected a universal messiah who would bring all the nations to Yahweh; and they lived through historical circumstances that seemed to be fulfillments of this promise, but fell short, and needed to be recast in the future.
Micah envisions nations streaming to Yahweh in Jerusalem. Habakkuk said that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). Zephaniah sees a day when “all of [the peoples] may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord” (Zeph 3:9). Zechariah spoke of many peoples and strong nations coming to seek the Lord in Jerusalem (Zech 8:22, Zech 12:3).The prophet Isaiah dreamed of the day when all the nations would stream to the house of God (Isa 2:2-4) and finally be delivered from death itself (Isa 25:6-8). In Isa 9 and Isa 11, the prophet dreams of the day when the nations will see a great light, a prophecy that has often been read with messianic expectations (e.g., Luke says the prophecy was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus). Yahweh’s house was to be a house of prayer for all peoples (Isa 56:7). Indeed, Isa 40-66 is filled with universalistic themes. In one of the most universalistic passages in the prophets, Joel sees a day when the Lord will pour out the Spirit on “all flesh” (Joel 2:28-29).
Jeremiah’s title is “prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). He was given power, through his prophetic messages, to destroy and build nations, with the end goal that all nations would eventually gather in Jerusalem to worship the Lord (Jer 3:17). Similarly, Isaiah spoke to Cyrus, the world ruler at the time, to say that he, Cyrus, was God’s appointed leader leading to worldwide conversion (Isa 45).
In Zech 9:9-10, the future messiah is promised to bring peace to the nations, a vision echoed in Mic 4. In Isa 42, the Servant of the Lord, a messianic term, is promised as a light to the nations. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel talk of a “new covenant,” which will supersede the covenant of Moses. The idea seems to be that a new people will be created or re-created from the old, and this is how Yahweh will display his holiness before the nations (see, e.g., Ezek 36:24).
Daniel believed that this vision was fulfilled when King Nebuchadnezzar and Darius the Mede each proclaimed the universal rule of Yahweh (Dan 4; Dan 6:25-27). Yet this was only temporary since they were superseded by other rulers. The Persian king Cyrus was said to fulfill this vision in the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem (2Chr 36:22-23, Ezra 1:1-4, Isa 44:28). Yet he too eventually passed, and the temple itself was a disappointment (Ezra 3:12). It appeared that vision might come to fruition in the startling triumph of the Maccabees in the second century BCE, yet that hope also perished under the Roman Empire.
Yet the prophetic vision did not die; it continued in the hope of the rabbis for a new restoration in Jerusalem and the followers of Jesus in his proclamation of a spiritual kingdom for all nations. The Hebrew prophets crafted a compelling vision of an all-nations universal message that continues to persist today.
Chaplain and Adjunct Assistant Professor , Albright College
Rev. Dr. Melvin Sensenig (MDiv Yale, PhD Temple) currently serves as chaplain and adjunct assistant professor in the religious studies department at Albright College. He is the founder of TIRoutreach.org, a theologian-in-residence service for least-served pastors in Reading, PA, and is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is the author of Jehoiachin and His Oracle: A Jeremianic Scribal Framework for the End of the Deuteronomistic History (Gorgias, 2020); “Jeremiah, Jehoiachin and ‘the Branch’: King Jehoiachin in Jeremianic Interpretive Tradition,” in Jeremiah in History and Tradition (Routledge, 2019); and “Duhm, Mowinckel and a Disempowered King: Protestant Liberal Theological Agendas in Jeremiah’s Construction of Jehoiachin,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 49 (2019): 60–70.
Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.
The king of the Persian Achaemenid Empire at its peak, from 550-486 B.C.E. His decree to continue the rebuilding of the Temple appears in Ezra 6.
A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
separate from the ordinary or profane.
A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.
The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.
An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.
religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.
The territories ruled by ancient Rome, from roughly 27 B.C.E. to 476 C.E., encompassing terrorities in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.
18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?
29Let peoples serve you,
and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may your mother's sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you, ... View more
3May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.4May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and ... View more
10The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
and the obedience of the peoples is his.
19They call peoples to the mountain;
there they offer the right sacrifices;
for they suck the affluence of the seas
and the hidden treasures of the sand.
44 You delivered me from strife with the peoples;
you kept me as the head of the nations;
people whom I had not known served me.
34 People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.
5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine,
8When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
7 Who would not fear you, O King of the nations?
For that is your due;
among all the wise ones of the nations
and in all their kingdoms
there is no ... View more
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
1 O sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare ... View more
43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and ... View more
60 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.
33 may you hear from heaven your dwelling place, and do whatever the foreigners ask of you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fe ... View more
20 then I will pluck you up from the land that I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and will mak ... View more
14 But the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
9 At that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call on the name of the Lord
and serve him with one accord ... View more
22 Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and to entreat the favor of the Lord.
3 On that day I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it shall grievously hurt themselves. And all the nations of the earth shall ... View more
2In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations sha ... View more
6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of wel ... View more
The Righteous Reign of the Coming King
1 But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebul ... View more
The Peaceful Kingdom
11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on hi ... View more
7these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
fo ... View more
Chapter 41Chapter 42Chapter 43Chapter 44Chapter 45Chapter 46Chapter 47Chapter 48Chapter 49Chapter 50Chapter 51Chapter 52Chapter 53Chapter 54Chapter 55Chapter 56 ... View more
God's Spirit Poured Out
28 Then afterward
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
... View more
5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
17 At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall n ... View more
45 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open do ... View more
9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on ... View more
4 In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples ... View more
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He ... View more
24 I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.
Nebuchadnezzar's Second Dream
1 King Nebuchadnezzar to all peoples, nations, and languages that live throughout the earth: May you have abundant prosperity!2The ... View more
25 Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world: “May you have abundant prosperity! 26 I make a decree, that i ... View more
Cyrus Proclaims Liberty for the Exiles
22In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord stirred ... View more
End of the Babylonian Captivity
1In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, t ... View more
28who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose”;
and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,”
and of the temple, “Your foun ... View more
12But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw th ... View more