Priority setting within health systems has not led to accountable, fair and sustainable solutions to improving population health. Providers, users and other stakeholders each have their own health and service priorities based on selected evidence, own values, expertise and preferences. Based on a historical account, this article analyses if contemporary health systems are appropriate to optimize population health within the framework of cross cutting targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We applied a scoping review approach to identify and review literature of scientific databases and other programmatic web and library-based documents on historical and contemporary health systems policies and strategies at the global level. Early literature supported the 1977 launching of the global target of Health for All by the year 2000. Reviewed literature was used to provide a historical overview of systems components of global health strategies through describing the conceptualizations of health determinants, user involvement and mechanisms of priority setting over time, and analysing the importance of historical developments on barriers and opportunities to accomplish the SDGs. Definitions, scope and application of health systems-associated priority setting fluctuated and main health determinants and user influence on global health systems and priority setting remained limited. In exploring reasons for the identified lack of SDG-associated health systems and priority setting processes, we discuss issues of accountability, vested interests, ethics and democratic legitimacy as conditional for future sustainability of population health. To accomplish the SDGs health systems must engage beyond their own sector boundary. New approaches to Health in All Policies and One Health may be conducive for scaling up more democratic and inclusive priority setting processes based on proper process guidelines from successful pilots. Sustainable development depends on population preferences supported by technical and managerial expertise.