This is the second of three parts of the description in verses 22-27; it deals with the relationship between the “new Jerusalem”, and the light of God’s presence in it (cf. the previous note on vv. 22-23), with the surrounding nations. This mention of “the nations” (ta\ e&qnh) is a bit surprising, given the apparent elimination of non-believers—their defeat, judgment, and destruction—in the preceding visions (16:12-21ff; 19:11-21; 20:7-15). Before dealing with this aspect of the interpretation, let us consider verses 24-26 themselves:
“And the nations will walk about through her light, and the kings of the earth will bear their honor/splendor [do/ca] into her—and her gate-ways shall not be closed (at all) by day, and there will be no night there—and they [i.e. the kings] will bring the honor [do/ca] and value of the nations into her.”
This language and imagery derives from the oracle of Isaiah 60 (vv. 3, 5, 11), even as verse 23 alluded to Isa 60:19 (cf. the previous note). It is thus traditional, drawing upon a key Scripture passage understood as a prophecy of the Messianic period and future New Age. How does it relate to the vision in chapter 21, and to the visionary narrative of Revelation as a whole? Here it may be worth considering just how much this description depends on Isa 60:3ff; note the wording in each phrase:
“And the nations will walk about through her light, and the kings of the earth…” (v. 24)
“And (the) nations will walk to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (Isa 60:3, translated from the Hebrew)
“…nations…kings… (they) carry their honor/splendor into her” (v. 24)
“…the strength of the nations will come to you” (Isa 60:5)
“and her gate-ways shall not be closed (at all) by day, and…night…” (v. 25)
“Your gates shall be open continually day and night, they shall not be shut up [i.e. closed]…” (Isa 60:11a)
“…and they shall bring the splendor/honor…of the nations into her” (v. 26)
“…for (the) bringing (of) the strength of the nations to you…” (Isa 60:11b)
The Greek do/ca (“esteem, honor, splendor”) corresponds here to the Hebrew ly]j^, which generally means “strength”, but can also connote “wealth, worth, value”, especially when used of people. The main difference between verse 25 and Isa 60:11a is that, in Isaiah the gates are open “day and night”, i.e. continually; however, in Revelation it is always daytime—there is no night in the city. This particular detail derives from Zech 14:7:
“And there shall be one day, known to YHWH, (that is) not day and not night; but it shall be (that), at the setting (of the sun) [i.e. evening], it will be light.”
As a Messianic and eschatological prophecy, the oracle in Isaiah 60 draws upon the fundamental idea of the future restoration of Israel—a time when once again, as in the kingdom of David and Solomon, the nations will give honor and homage to Israel. From a Messianic standpoint, it relates to the motif of the defeat and subjugation of the nations, who will bring tribute to the Israelite kingdom, centered at Jerusalem (Isa 45:14 [note also v. 23]; 49:23; 60:5-16; 61:6; Mic 4:13; Zeph 2:9; 3:9-10; Zech 14:16; Tobit 13:11; Ps Sol 17:34-35; 1QM 12:13f, etc). Along with this portrait, there developed the more positive tradition of the nations coming to join Israel in worshiping the one true God (YHWH), at the Temple in Jerusalem; this tradition even allowed for the idea that many in the nations would be converted, becoming part of God’s holy people. All of these themes are highlighted in the verses (3, 5, 11) utilized here in the book of Revelation. Of the many other Old Testament passages which express the hope that the nations will come to learn the truth of God, along with Israel herself, cf. Isa 2:2-4; Mic 4:1-4; Jer 3:17; Psalm 22:27-28; 86:9; 138:4; Isa 45:22; 49:6; 56:6-8; 60:3 (also 66:19); Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; (cf. also 14:16ff); and, in later Jewish writings, e.g., Tobit 14:6ff; 1 Enoch 90:30-33, etc.
Among early Christians, this nationalistic portrait was given an entirely new interpretation—now the idea of the restoration of Israel, and, with it, the inclusion of the nations, was understood almost entirely in terms of the mission to the Gentiles. This is certainly the case in the book of Acts (cf. my earlier article in the series “The Law and the New Testament”), and is also reflected in the Lukan Gospel, by the incorporation of Isaian prophecies into passages such as 2:29-32. Paul had much the same understanding of his own mission, as can be seen in his preaching and at many points in his letters.
The tendency in early Christianity was to see believers in Christ—Jews and Gentiles both—as the true people of God, with believers becoming in the new Covenant what Israel was in the old. Given the importance of this theme in the book of Revelation, and especially here in chapter 21, the symbolism of the nations must be understood and interpreted in this light. The closest parallel is found in the vision of chapter 7, with its two-fold vision of believers as the people of God: