The Development and Significance of the Remnant

In the Old Testament Prophets

© Lionel Windsor (2003)

Synopsis

There are two concerns fundamental to the prophetic writings. The first is the relationship between the judgment and blessing by God of his covenant people. The second is the meaning of ‘the people of God’. The idea of ‘remnant’ is a key to the exploration and transformation of these ideas in the prophets. This essay takes a synchronic approach to both the Former and the Latter Prophets. It investigates the OT texts in their present form, but aims to be sensitive to the explicit historical character of those texts and the historical framework in which ‘remnant’ is developed in the texts. ‘Remnant’ is a dynamic concept, defined as ‘what is left of a community after it undergoes a catastrophe’ at various stages in Israel’s history.

Remnant has origins in the Deuteronomic covenant, which promises both judgment for disobedience and blessing of the elect people of God. In the Former Prophets, the Elijah-Elisha narrative shows a transformation from national to faithful Israel by means of the ‘remnant’ idea. The pre-exilic writing prophets Isaiah, Micah and Zephaniah trace the transformation of ‘remnant’ from historical to faithful to eschatological through the Syro-Ephraimite, Assyrian and Babylonian crises. The exilic prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel show a stark dichotomy between national Israel (who is left behind and judged) and the exiles, who form a basis for an eschatological remnant. In the post-exilic period, there is a demarcation between the post-exilic community and a future remnant which will survive the coming, eschatological judgment.

In all of this, as God both saves and judges, the meaning of God’s covenant people is transformed from ‘national Israel’ to a faithful group which even includes other nations.


Introduction

A fundamental concern of Israel’s prophets is the relationship between God and his people. God establishes this relationship in the form of a covenant. Because Israel is God’s elect people, they will be blessed. Yet when they sin, they will be judged. The prophets explore the tension which inevitably arises in Israel’s history between blessing and judgment, and in doing so describe the transformation in the meaning of ‘the people of God’. The key to this transformation is the idea of ‘remnant’.

Methodology

There has been a variety of approaches to the task of tracing the remnant idea in the OT.1 Diachronic, ‘historical’ approaches attempt to reconstruct the history of Israel’s religious thought by dissecting the OT books and assigning the origin of each section (with its associated concepts) to a particular historical period. Due to the popularity of these approaches, the degrees of antiquity of certain passages, once ‘established’, are widely accepted in the literature as a basis for making conclusions, often unchallenged and frequently not footnoted.2 Taken to the extreme, this has led to the presentation of the remnant idea as little more than a set of varying responses to the accidents of Israel’s history.3 Yet, positively, historical approaches take seriously the OT’s original setting.

Nevertheless, diachronic approaches have a serious disadvantage when they are used to trace the development of an OT idea. Since the evidence for the degree of antiquity of each passage must be found within the text, the historical critic must begin with a theory about how ideas develop (e.g. from simple to complex, or from historical to eschatological). However, the way in which an idea develops is the very object of study in this case; so the premises largely determine the conclusions. For example, one author assigns eschatological remnant thought to the post-exilic period on the basis of post-exilic ‘supplements’ to pre-exilic books, when it appears that their very eschatological flavour is the criterion by which these verses have been labelled ‘supplements’.4

Synchronic approaches to the OT seek to examine the ‘final form’ of the OT books. Childs’ ‘canonical criticism’, which involves reading the OT with regard to the context in which the canon was formed rather than the posited original source’s context, has been influential.5 This ‘final form’ criticism informs Noble’s investigation of ‘remnant’ in Amos6 and Cuffey’s approach to Micah.7 This approach has the advantage of an objective starting point for thematic development, i.e. ‘the text as we have it’.

However, synchronic approaches must not be allowed obscure the historicity of the texts. Most of the Former and Latter Prophets explicitly bind themselves to Israel’s history (e.g. Josh 1:1, Judg 1:1, 1 Sam 1:1, Amos 1:1, Isa 1:1, Mic 1:1, Zeph 1:1, Jer 1:2–3, Ezek 1:1–2; Hag 1:1, 1:15, 2:1, 2:10). Furthermore, many books span large swathes of Israel’s history. For example, Isaiah’s vision spans from Uzziah’s reign to the Eschaton. Isaiah may have been fully compiled before the exile,8 and it was obviously relevant in the canon’s formation. Nevertheless, it must be understood in the context of the expanse of history in which it presents itself.

Therefore this essay will approach the prophets as coherent texts within the broad framework of Israel’s history as presented in those texts. It will attempt to trace the development and significance of the idea of ‘remnant’ in this historical framework, treating each prophetic book in turn as appropriate for the time period it spans. It will examine those books designated both ‘Former’ and ‘Latter’ Prophets in the Hebrew canon (Joshua–Kings and the ‘writing’ prophets).

Definition

Whilst ‘remnant’ is related to particular terminology, it is not inextricably bound to this terminology. The Hebrew roots which carry the (verbal and nominal) idea of ‘remnant’, are: shin-aleph-resh (remain, remnant),9 yod-taw-resh (remain, remnant),10 mem-lamed-tet/pe-lamed-tet (escape, deliverance, fugitive),11 sin-resh-yod-dalet (survivor),12 aleph-chet-resh-yod-taw (after-part, end).13 However, the idea is both broader and narrower than this terminology. It is broader because these concepts (and their negations) can appear without the terminology (e.g. Zeph 1:2–3)14. It is narrower, because even when the words appear there is no guarantee that they are referring to something ‘left over’ (e.g. Ezek 48:23). However, there is sufficient overlap between concept and terminology to make word studies worthwhile. Heaton contends that, since shin-aleph-resh is not used consistently by the prophets, we cannot speak of a prophetic ‘doctrine’ of the remnant.15 This is anachronistic, presupposing that the existence of a ‘doctrine’ is accompanied by fixed, well-defined vocabulary in the style of modern systematic theologies.16

The remnant idea develops throughout the prophets, even within prophetic books. In Isaiah, for example, ‘remnant is not a static concept with a single stable semantic content’.17 Hence static definitions are inadequate. We may define remnant as, ‘What is left of a community after it undergoes a catastrophe’18, provided we understand the changing nature of the ‘community’ and the ‘catastrophe’ at various stages of Israel’s history. Hasel, whose work on ‘remnant’ from Genesis to first Isaiah is comprehensive and foundational,19 elsewhere delineates three broad categories of remnant: the historical remnant (survivors of a catastrophe), the faithful remnant (distinguished by a genuine trust in God) and the eschatological remnant (purified and saved through the final end-time judgment).20 Each category, in turn, contains its own internal nuances, which we shall presently explore. Remnant may be negative, denoting the scarcity of survivors, or positive, being the basis for hope.21 As we shall see, there is dispute over the priority of the positive and negative aspects of the remnant in particular contexts.

Origins: history and covenant

The existence of the remnant idea can be found in a wide variety of Ancient Near Eastern literature which predates the OT. Hasel posits that a universal theme is humanity’s existential concern with life and death.22 Some of the earliest OT appearances in Genesis also exhibit an existential concern (e.g. Noah, Abraham/Lot, Jacob/Esau, Joseph) but place the remnant idea within the framework of salvation history.23

It is the book of Deuteronomy, however, which provides the bulk of the conceptual basis of the prophetic ‘remnant’ idea. This is not surprising given that several decades of scholarship have shown the importance of Deuteronomy’s influence on the prophetic writings.24 Deuteronomy presents Israel, poised to enter the promised land, being addressed by Moses. This group is itself a kind of ‘remnant’. Those with whom the Sinai covenant was originally made have now been destroyed for their unbelieving apostasy and this is the next generation who survived, along with the faithful Caleb and Joshua (1:35–39).25 Yet Moses emphatically applies the Sinai covenant to the new generation and their descendants (5:2ff, 29:14–15). The conditional nature of the covenant is clear: obedience to the stipulations will lead to blessing by Yahweh, while disobedience will lead to judgment by Yahweh, including deportation (4:25–28, ch. 28). Yet, despite this terrible judgment, there is hope for those who call upon Yahweh, because Israel is his elect, treasured nation and he will display faithfulness (chesed) to those who obey him (7:6–10). He will not forget the covenant he made with Israel’s fathers (4:29–31). Deuteronomy envisages restoration from the deportation (ch. 30).

This gives rise to two immensely significant questions: Firstly, how can God honour his covenant both to bless his elect people and to judge his rebellious people? Secondly, who are the ‘people of God’, the ‘Israel’ to whom this covenant applies? The prophetic answer to these covenant-related questions is inextricably bound to the idea of ‘remnant’. This essay will argue that, in the prophets, ‘remnant’ is the vehicle by which God faithfully keeps his covenant (in blessing and judgment) and, in so doing, determines the nature of Israel, the people of God.

Remnant in the Former Prophets

The remnant idea appears in a variety of contexts in the former prophets. In Joshua, the terminology is used negatively of the nations Israel invaded: none remained from their military campaigns (8:22, 10:28, 10:30, 10:33, 10:37, 10:39, 10:40, 11:8, 11:11, 11:14, 11:22); but those who did became a snare to Israel (Ch. 23). By contrast, Judges 21 shows the survival of a remnant for Benjamin after the civil war despite the anarchy in the confederacy. Samuel presents David as a fugitive from Saul (1 Sam 25:22) who is prevented from destroying the remnant of his Israelite enemies (1 Sam 25:34, 2 Sam 9:1, 2 Sam 14:7). In all these instances, God’s gracious preservation of his covenant people as a whole is on view.26

The books of Kings present a new development. The political order of the Northern Kingdom is apostate. Two purges of Israelite dynasties occur without leaving a remnant (1 Kgs 15:29, 16:11), which is interpreted as God’s judgment (15:30, 16:13). When the powerful Omride dynasty also turns after Baal, the prophet Elijah confronts it and wins a victory for Yahweh (1 Kgs 18). Yet Elijah has a problem. The nation, he complains, has forsaken the covenant, and he is the only one left (19:10). How can God possibly achieve his purposes when the nation has utterly forsaken him? God’s response (19:11–13), highlighted by the rich Mosaic typology in these chapters, effectively points Elijah back to the Sinai covenant as his basis for hope.27 Elijah himself will constitute a ‘faithful remnant’ along with 7,000 others, and will be the means by which God both judges and restores Israel.28  Elijah is to anoint a new political and prophetic order which will destroy the old. There will be no remnant for the Omrides (19:17–18).

The Elisha narrative demonstrates the implications of the reconstitution of Yahweh’s covenant people on the basis of a faithful remnant. Elisha and those who believe his word are repeatedly shown to be the heirs of the covenant over and against the political order. Elisha’s miracles recall Israel’s wilderness experience, e.g. a new Exodus (2 Kgs 2:14), the miraculous feedings (2 Kgs 4, 7), power over water (2 Kgs 6:1–7) and the revelation of God’s hosts fighting for the nation (2 Kgs 6:8ff). Even the young girl who trusts in Elisha’s powerful word, thus initiating healing and blessing for a foreigner, may be seen as a ‘one person remnant’, in contrast to the completely ineffective king (2 Kgs 5:1–14).29 Jehu eventually destroys the Omrides utterly (2 Kgs 9–10).

Hasel summarises: ‘A religio-cultural threat leaves a remnant after a past catastrophe and climaxes in the survival of a remnant in the future judgment that has characteristics qualifying it to become the nucleus of a new Israel faithful to Yahweh.’30 That is, the catastrophe is religious before it is physical and the remnant is not from the political order but ‘a remnant loyal to Yahwistic covenant faith’.31 This provides a basis for hope in the light on the total destruction of all successive ‘remnants’ of Israel’s political order (2 Kgs 17:18, chs. 19–20, 21:14, 24:14, 25:11–12, 25:26).

Remnant in the pre-exilic prophets

Through Amos, Yahweh promises judgment to a nation that has forsaken his covenant stipulations of justice and pure worship (3:10–15). Refuting the popular ‘remnant’ notion which made the nation feel secure, Amos invests the ‘remnant’ idea with connotations of hopelessness and despair.32 If any remnant survives, it will be insignificant (3:12, 4:2, 5:19, 6:9). Yet there appears to be a possibility of hope for this remnant, should they repent (5:15). The themes of total destruction and hope for a remnant coexist even more starkly later in the book (9:8–15). Noble, using canonical-critical methods, points to this ‘prophetic paradox’ and theorises about its importance for the post-exilic community but cannot see its relevance for Amos himself.33 Hasel, however, points out that this tension can be resolved if we see the remnant as a fundamentally eschatological entity, different to the nation.34 Yahweh will irrevocably judge national Israel, but he will bless the faithful remnant, the new Israel, continuous with yet distinct from the nation.

‘Remnant’ is fundamental to the structure and themes of Isaiah. Webb demonstrates how the whole of Isaiah 1–66 is concerned with the transformation of Zion, and ‘the emergence and eventual perfection of a faithful remnant is the key to the transformation of Zion’.35 ‘Remnant’ therefore takes on a number of meanings as a vehicle to transform the people of God: the historical remnant; the faithful remnant; the eschatological remnant. Following the Syro-Ephraimite declaration of war on Judah, the nation is exhorted to trust Yahweh rather than Assyria. Yet only a small group, which includes Isaiah, his children and disciples, does so (8:16). The name of Isaiah’s son (7:3) is instructive: sh’ar yashub, because of the priority of the noun, literally means ‘it is [only] a remnant that shall return/repent’.36,37 This ‘faithful remnant’, formed around the prophet and trusting God’s word, is significant.38 However, it should be remembered that it is simply a ‘sign’ of God’s redemptive activity, not the direct object of it.39

After Assyria destroys the northern kingdom, a similar judgment is pronounced against Judah, from which will emerge ‘chastened survivors who lean on Yahweh rather than Assyria’ (10:11).40 Following Webb’s analysis, we see that this is fulfilled in two increasingly significant ways. Firstly, the Assyrian invasion of Judah in Hezekiah’s day is thwarted—a chastened historical remnant survives in Jerusalem (37:31ff). However, there is worse to come. Chapters 38–39 record the events leading up to the Babylonian captivity. There will be nothing left (lo-yiwwater) in the storehouses of Jerusalem (39:6–7). The scene is set to look for a remnant beyond the Babylonian exile, and hence beyond the existing structures of national Israel.

In the second half of Isaiah, the exiles are identified as the remnant (46:3). Having been refined and chastened, these exiles will return to Zion (51:11) as a restored community. However, in chapters 56–66, the remnant idea is pushed even further. The returned remnant is distanced from an eschatological remnant by an intervening final judgment (chs. 56 and 57).41 This final judgment will be an ultimate fulfilment of God’s covenant: those who trust him will be blessed; those who reject him will be judged. God’s people will simply be defined in terms of trust (and conversely, rejection) of Yahweh, regardless of nationality (66:16–21). In the meantime, the returned remnant will be Yahweh’s servant who, having suffered, is ready for his purposes, equipped for universal missionary activity (49:1–3, 53:2, 66:18–19).42

Micah presents a similar development of the remnant idea. Cuffey’s analysis of the structure of Micah demonstrates that it is comprised of four sections of judgment, each followed by a promise for a remnant which emerges from that doom.43 Investigating this structure in more detail, we see that the nature and purpose of the remnant is refined in each successive section. In chapters 1–2 we read of the destruction of Israel/Samaria and the almost complete annihilation of Judah/Jerusalem in the Assyrian crisis. Interestingly, the ‘remnant of Israel’ which emerges (i.e. Jerusalem) is identified with ‘all of Jacob’ (2:12). The second section (3:1–4:8) moves beyond the Assyrian crisis. Jacob/Israel is now situated in Zion/Jerusalem, and is thus the remnant of the previous section (3:9–10). However, it will be judged for its own injustice (3:11–12). The ‘remnant’ which emerges from this judgment is, in fact, those who were taken into exile, the afflicted ones (4:6–7). This remnant, with its king, will be a source of blessing for the nations around about (4:1–5). It is eschatological (4:1). In the third section (4:9–5:14) the same remnant appears to be in view, but the remnant’s task is retribution for God’s enemies (e.g. 5:15).44 In the final section (chs. 6–7) the ‘faithful remnant’ is in view. The prophet himself, who waits for God’s forgiveness and salvation in the midst of the judgment of his people (7:7) is a member of the remnant, whom God forgives (7:18). To those who love God’s chesed (6:8), God will display chesed—i.e. faithfulness to his ‘inheritance’ (7:18, 7:20). It is specifically linked to covenant in 7:20: God will show chesed to his promise to Abraham and the fathers of Israel.

Zephaniah, like Amos, exhibits a ‘prophetic paradox’ as he addresses Judah during Josiah’s reign.45 There will be total destruction with no survivors (1:2–3, 1:18, 3:8), but also the possibility (2:1–3), even certainty (2:7, 3:12), of the salvation of a remnant. The remnant is an existing faithful core of the nation which will survive the coming calamity on Judah. Those who will survive the coming calamity are specifically identified as those disadvantaged by the present unjust political system, whose only hope is in Yahweh.46 Again, the ideas of faithful and eschatological remnant are in view.47 The remnant is the basis for hope for the covenant nation; the new, genuine people of Yahweh through whom he intends to accomplish his covenant purposes.48

Remnant in the exilic prophets

The exile marks a crisis for the idea of remnant. Although anticipated by the pre-exilic prophets, the distinction between national Israel and the faithful core which goes into exile becomes acute at this time. There is an entirely negative ‘remnant’: those who stay behind after the exile (e.g. Jeremiah 21:7, 24:8, 38:4, 38:22, Ch. 40, 42:15&17, 44:7, 44:12). There is also a positive remnant invested with future hope: the exiles who will return (e.g. Jer 23:3, 29:1, 31:7). Eschatologically, God will punish Babylon and restore Israel—and the ‘remnant’ of Israel will be pardoned (Jer 50:18–20). Remnant becomes, even more prominently, the vehicle for establishing the new covenant of a forgiven, faithful community from the old covenant with national Israel (31:31–34).49

For Ezekiel, both of these ‘remnant’ ideas exist as proof of Yahweh’s faithfulness. The remnant left in the land is totally destroyed to prove Yahweh’s faithfulness to his threat of judgment: the refrain ‘X will know that I am Yahweh’ occurs in almost all of these contexts (5:10–13, 6:10–14, 7:16 & 27, 9:8–9, 17:21). The ungodly character of the exiled remnant also vindicates Yahweh, the faithful judge (6:8–10, 12:16, 14:21–23, 24:26–27, 33:21–22 & 27–29). However, at significant points in the book, God promises that he will not destroy the remnant but will restore them with a heart of flesh. This occurs at 11:13–25 (the end of a vision sequence) and 39:28 where, just before the vision of the restored temple, the remnant’s restoration is proof that ‘I am Yahweh their God’!

Remnant in the post-exilic prophets

Some claim that for Haggai and his postexilic contemporaries, the ‘remnant’ consists of those faithful members of the restored community.50,51 However, another alternative is more in keeping with Isaiah’s distinction between the returned and the eschatological remnants. Heaton helpfully points out that sh’eriyt is more likely to refer to ‘the people as opposed to the leaders’ and has no theological significance ( 1:12, 1:14, 2:2, cf 2 Ch 9:29).52 However, in 2:3, Haggai appeals to another remnant—those taken into exile who have not yet died (hannish’ar) and who remember the temple in its former glory. The admission by the ‘remnant’ that the present temple is disappointing becomes the stepping stone towards the expectation of future glory and the eschatological fulfilment of covenant promises (2:4–5ff).

Zechariah’s and Malachi’s uses of remnant are more explicitly eschatological. In Zechariah, Yahweh will deal with a future remnant differently to the way he dealt with Israel in former times. Cursing and judgment will give way to blessing (8:11–13). Even the Philistines can join this remnant (9:7).53 The remnant is that which survives the eschatological battle against the nations (ch. 14).54 In Malachi, the remnant is identified, not with those who survived the exile, but with those who are faithful in the postexilic community and will thus survive the coming wrath (3:16–18). In this way, God is shown to be faithful to those whose hearts are turned to the fathers’ covenant (4:6).

Conclusion: remnant and covenant

The development in the idea of ‘remnant’ in the prophets is thus a vehicle to develop the ‘covenant’ concept. It shows how Yahweh can be truly Yahweh who is both a just judge, totally destroying his disobedient people, and a faithful saviour, blessing his elect people. The definition of ‘God’s people’ is transformed from national Israel to those who trust and obey Yahweh, including members of the surrounding nations. God’s people are chosen by him and useful for his purposes.55 The historical circumstances of Israel become the vehicle for expressing the prophetic, eschatological hope that a holy remnant will be created by God beyond the post-exilic period.


Bibliography


Footnotes