This idea that "the nations" are important to God is not some fleeting idea in the Bible. It laces every story, every context, and is intertwined throughout the entire epic. It is simply because as westerners we are individualistic that we miss this emphasis. We make the perilous mistake of thinking that God's story is only about salvation, and then we reduce that to individual salvation.
One of my favourite verses in the Bible, I think sums up very well the purposes that are in the heart of God. Habakkuk is complaining to God about the violence and injustice surrounding Israel. The Lord responds that he can use any nation for his glory, even the Babylonians.
The Lord goes on to explain to Habakkuk that in a future time all will be clear:
This vision is for a future time,
it describes the end and it will be fulfilled,
if it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place.
It will not be delayed.
What sorrow awaits you who build cities with money gained through murder and corruption!
Has not the LORD of Heaven's armies promised that the wealth of nations will turn to ashes?
They work so hard but all in vain!
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
God is very interested in the behaviour of nations. The Lord wants to see his world transformed in every way to bring glory to him. He desires people every where to worship him and to display their love for God and for people through righteous and just living. It is glorifying to God when the nations live in the way that he desires.
It is not enough for individuals to simply live righteously. People exist in families, clans, tribes, communities and nations. These social structures must be transformed by the gospel. It is when this happens that God is glorified.
God's heart for nations is the very reason that God decided to use a nation as part of his plan. He spoke to Abraham and told him that he would be come a great nation that would bless all nations. Sadly, this plan is not fully revealed in the old testament. We see a hint of this during the time of Solomon. During Solomon's reign, his wisdom and fame spread to other nations of the world. Kings and Queens from around the world came to him. It is clear to see that God wanted this to work better than it did. Nevertheless, there is still an example here. The Queen of Sheba came up to Israel during Solomon's reign. She took Judaism back to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian people became believers of the old covenant. These facts can be verified by studying Ethiopian history and archaeology.
The story did not stop with the Queen of Sheba for the Ethiopians. Later on, in the story of Acts, Philip shares the completion of the gospel with an Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch already understood the old covenant. Philip explained to the Eunuch who Jesus was from Isaiah. The Eunuch became a believer in the New Covenant and went back to Ethiopia to explain the rest of the story to them. This is probably the best example in history of a "Jewish" people becoming Christian en masse.
There are so many examples in the old testament that speak about the nations. I will not try to quote them all. Many of them can be found in the prophets, because it was something that God was trying to teach his people.
If we are to obedient to our Lord, then we should of course pay attention to Jesus' words to his disciples before he ascended into heaven:
All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.
Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
If we are to understand these words of Jesus, we need to pay attention to what he said. He asks us to make disciples. Disciples are followers of Jesus. But pay attention, he doesn't speak just of individuals, but of nations too. They are very important to Jesus. I consider it to be an interesting and vital note at this point that Jesus did not ask his followers to start churches or to build temples, he asked them to make more followers and to teach them to obey Jesus' commands. Again, in Jesus' commands there is nothing about planting churches, building churches or establishing a priestly temple system. (But, that is probably for another post.)
There is a parallel in Jesus' words, from the very first command that God gave in Genesis. God told people to "go out into all the world and multiply". This is exactly the same principle that Jesus applied to his disciples- "go out into all the world and multiply followers of me and of all nations." There is an eternal godly principle here of multiplication to the point of filling the earth with God's glory. And I believe that God deserves nothing less than the earth being full of his glory.
If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is that the nations have always been a massive part of God revealing his glory in the earth, and that he will get his desire, but is very patient in doing so.
More in part 3 about how to define a nation, and whether every nation has a part to play in God's eternal glory.