In one paragraph of The Theology of the Book of Isaiah John Goldingay lays out the historical bad news and good news for Jerusalem contained in Isaiah:
The destruction of Jerusalem in 587 is unreported but presupposed in the book; it is the more radical answer to the question of whether Yahweh will stay long-tempered forever. But that catastrophe, too, cannot be the end of the story. After fifty years of the city’s devastation and the exile of many of its people, Yahweh declares that its time of chastisement is over; the time of its comfort has come. Yahweh intends to return to the city, taking its exiles with him. The community is whithered like grass by Yahweh’s searing wind; but Yahweh’s word stands forever. Thus there is good news to be proclaimed to Zion-Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:1-11).
A part of this good news is the idea of a remnant. God punishes and brings what looks like an utter end to Jerusalem. Nevertheless, God actually keeps the people in existence in a diminished form so that new life can eventually blossom again. This allows God to keep to his promise of consequences for Israel’s rejection of him, and yet bring them back from ruin.
In the preaching of doom the prophet often leaves the possibility of restoration ambiguous. Will God allow enough left overs for a restoration? Sometimes the destruction prophesied seems so overwhelming as to preclude this possibility. Yet such prophecies stand among more hopeful oracles. The ambiguity confronts God’s people with a choice and demands that they respond to God’s call while keeping in mind his faithfulness.
Something Goldingay points out, which I had not considered, is that the concept of the remnant perhaps applies to the nations also. In the prophecies about the nations, it is often predicted that they will also suffer calamity but a remnant will survive (14:22, 30; 15:9, 16:14, 17:3, and 21:17). This allows Goldingay to interpret later prophecies about a remnant among the nations, not as about an Israelite diaspora, but about Gentile survivors whom God invites to turn to himself (45:20-25 and 66:19 ff.).
This idea might have arisen among Jerusalem priests who wrote about the desecration of the whole earth in the P source of Genesis according to Israel Knohl. Thus, God deals with the whole earth in parallel to the way he deals with Israel.
The destiny of the nations in relation to Yahweh is thus not so different from Israel’s destiny. Like Israel, they are expected to live in the light of their knowledge of God’s expectations of them in their attitude to God and one another. Like Israel, they are liable to God’s “attending” to them because of the shortcomings in their attitudes. Like Israel, they are liable to be cut down so that little of them remains. Like Israel, it is then open to these remains to turn to Yahweh, and ultimately the nations are indeed destined to turn to the God who lives on Zion and find their mutual relationships healed there.
If Goldingay is right about this, the apostle Paul deserves more credit as an exegete of Isaiah than he is usually given. He seems to have taken these ideas up into his mission to the Gentiles.