We recently discussed Rom. 11:26 in my Romans class: “And in this way all Israel will be saved.” I told the class that even though this expression is disputed, the majority opinion among contemporary biblical interpreters — an assessment I tentatively support — is that Paul is predicting a mass turning to the Lord at the end of the age among ethnic Jews. “This doesn’t mean,” I added, “that every single ethnic Jewish person living at that future moment will be saved.” I cited Douglas Moo’s example, “the whole school turned out to see the football game” (Rom. 7:23) ... even if a few of the students stayed home to study for their upcoming chemistry exam.
Then I said something that — unintentionally on my part — stirred up some consternation in the classroom: “The word ‘all’ does not always mean ‘every single person or thing’ in the Bible.”
That comment lit up the classroom with push-backs and questions. One student remarked, “When I was growing up, I was told that ‘all’ in the Bible always means ‘all’.” Another student (appropriately) asked for evidence. (Professor brain freeze #1 ... ). The only example I could think of was when Jeremiah told the people not to go down to Egypt, because “all ... there shall die.” When a few stragglers came back, it was obvious he didn’t mean “every single person” (Jer. 42:17; 44:14, 27-28). But I couldn’t think of any other examples off the top of my head.
Another student appropriately asked for examples from the New Testament where “all” doesn’t mean “every single one.” (Professor brain freeze #2 ... ) I confess that in that moment I couldn’t recall a single example — despite being certain that I had encountered numerous examples in the Bible.
So, after class, I consulted my Accordance Bible Software, and ran a search on the word “all.” A half hour later, I had created two long lists: a couple dozen examples where “all” does mean “every single one,” and another where it doesn’t. And these examples were only from the book of Genesis!
This is going to take way too long if I survey the entire Bible, I thought. Maybe I should go straight to the New Testament. Since by this time I had already thought of two examples from 2 Tim. where “all” doesn’t mean “every single one,” I moved to 2 Tim., noted the examples I had thought of already in that letter, discovered a couple more, then ran out of time.
I awoke the following morning with the thought: Wait a minute, Ken, the discussion in class concerned a verse in Romans. Why didn’t you start in the book of Romans?
So early that morning I carefully began looking up every appearance of “all” in Romans. Guess what? “All” (unsurprisingly) often refers to every single one in Paul’s letter to the Romans, but sometimes it doesn’t. Here are a few examples of each:
When “All” Does Mean “Every Single One” in Romans (only a few examples)
3:22-23, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...
8:38-39, For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
14:10, Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God ...
When “All” Does Not mean “Every Single One” in Romans
I will add a few extra examples in this case, since this is the disputed category.
1:8 (cf. 10:18; 16:26), …your faith is proclaimed in all the world. (Japan? The Americas?)
15:14, I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. (Every single bit of knowledge ever known?)
16:3-4, Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. (Did every church know what Prisca and Aquila had done? In North Africa? In Parthia?)
16:15, All the churches of Christ greet you. (Paul is writing from Corinth. Did he send a note 815 miles away to Jerusalem to ask them whether they wanted to send greetings to the church in Rome?)
16:19, For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. (Every single person in the world? Or even every single Christian in the world?)
“All” obviously doesn’t always (excuse the pun) refer to every single person/thing, even when we examine “all” in the Letter to the Romans alone. Since that morning, I have now looked at enough examples to know that this pattern is true throughout the Bible.
What about “All Israel”?
But as I continued to deliberate over the next couple of days, I remembered that the original question wasn’t about what “all” means, though that is where the class got sidetracked; rather, the question was what “all Israel” means. (Remember, we started with Romans 11:26 ... )
So, I searched on all Israel (both words functioning together) throughout the whole Bible. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to get 148 hits when I combined the words “all” and “Israel”! As an expression, “all Israel” appears especially in the narrative sections of the Old Testament. And, unsurprisingly, some of the references referred to every single person in Israel while others did not.
Here is one example where “all Israel” does in fact refer to every single person in Israel.
2 Sam. 8:15, So David reigned over all Israel.
But in most cases, this expression is used collectively (in a collectivist society) to indicate that many people from Israel shared in the same activity, the same attitude, the same sin, or the same fate. Here are ten clear examples where all Israel cannot mean every single person in Israel.
Joshua 7:25 (cf. 1 Kings 12:18), And all Israel stoned him with stones.
Josh. 8:24, …all Israel returned to Ai and struck it down with the edge of the sword.
1 Sam. 2:22, Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
1 Sam. 18:16, But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them.
2 Sam. 4:1, When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed.
2 Sam.16:22, Absalom went in to the concubines of his father before the eyes of all Israel.
2 Sam. 17:13, If he withdraws into a city, then all Israel will bring ropes to that city, and we shall drag it into the valley, until not even a pebble is to be found there.
1 Kings 14:18, And all Israel buried him and mourned for him, according to the word of the LORD, which he spoke by his servant Ahijah the prophet.
1 Chron. 15:28, So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD ...
Dan. 9:11, All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice.
What can we take away from this? Words mean what they mean because of how they are used. We should not impose a modernistic insistence upon precision when we engage in linguistic analysis. It is an exegetical fallacy to superimpose “every single person/thing” upon every instance that the word “all” appears in the Bible.
In the case of Rom. 11:26, if you insist upon doing so (and take the mass turning of ethnic Israel at the end of the age position), you end up with a type of universal salvation, at least for one ethnic group (which certainly will not do). Rather, it is probably better to read Rom. 11:26 (“all Israel will be saved”) as pointing to a time at the end of the age when there will be a mass turning to the Lord from those who are ethnic Israelites, though not of every single person in Israel.
In conclusion, we should avoid superimposing modernistic precision upon biblical passages where “all” does not mean every single one, including Rom. 11:26.