The Doctrine of the Remnant in the Prophets
A Faithful Remnant in an Unfaithful World - Part 3
In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at some signs in our culture that evangelical, biblical Christianity is being increasingly marginalized as a minority, and started a look at the Bible to understand why God’s people seems consistently portrayed as a beleaguered hold-out. This week, we turn to the Old Testament prophets to see what they have to say about this concept.
The doctrine of the remnant is picked up perhaps most prominently in the accounts and writings of the Old Testament prophets, beginning with Elijah in 1 Kings 19. In this passage, Elijah petulantly and repeatedly complains to God about how hard he’s worked and how he has stood alone for God against everyone: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away (v. 10, and again in v. 14).
Elijah’s sense of self-importance and pride in his resistance is cut down, however, by God’s response a few verses later: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (v. 18). Here, God not only encourages Elijah by assuring him that he isn’t alone, but also rebukes him: God is the one who leaves the seven thousand—and by extension, preserves Elijah as well. God is in control, not Elijah, and God is not dependent in any way on Elijah. Here, then, not only is God’s sovereignty in keeping a remnant stressed, but God’s people are both encouraged and humbled: encouraged that they are not alone, and humbled by being reminded that God has others he is working in as well.
Amos presents the future reality of judgment on Israel as being almost, but not quite total. In chapter five, he says, “The city that went out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel” (5:3). The theme is reiterated in chapter nine: “‘Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground, except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,’ declares the Lord” (9:8).
Even in these dark news of destruction, God is merciful, refraining from utterly destroying Israel. The doctrine of the remnant, then, needs to be understood as an expression of God’s mercy even in judgment. Again, like we saw in Genesis, this mercy comes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Those who survive do so only at his will, and it is therefore God’s will that this remnant are but a small part of what stood before.
Micah, prophesying a generation after Amos, revealed a new wrinkle in the remnant motif:
I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel;
I will set them together like sheep in a fold,
like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men. He who opens the breach goes up before them; they break through and pass the gate,
going out by it.
Their king passes on before them, the Lord at their head (Mic. 2:12-13)….
In that day, declares the Lord, I will assemble the lame
and gather those who have been driven away
and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant,
and those who were cast off, a strong nation;
and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore. And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem (Mic. 4:6-8).
Again, Micah underlines the theme of judgment, and stresses that there will be only a “remnant” left of Israel. This remnant, however, though “driven away” and scattered, needing to be “assembled,” will have its circumstances changed. Once judged, they will be shown mercy; once punished, they will be made a “strong nation.”
Micah’s new wrinkle is the “king” placed over the remnant, who passes before them as “the Lord at their head,” who will “reign over them in Mount Zion forevermore.” With Micah, then, the doctrine of the remnant is firmly coupled to the doctrine of a coming King, or Messiah. This future King will lead his remnant to peace and prosperity.
The doctrine of the remnant was made a very precious and dear truth to Isaiah, as this incident in Isaiah 7 demonstrates:
When the house of David was told, “Syria is in league with Ephraim,” the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind. And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer's Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. (7:2-4)
The smaller, weaker southern kingdom of Judah was quaking in fear at the news that their two most bitter enemies, Syria and the northern kingdom of Israel, had formed an alliance against them. To reassure them, God sends Isaiah to the king with a prophecy—and with his son Shear-Jashub in tow. The name of Isaiah’s son is most significant, both in the big picture and here in this emergency: “a remnant shall return.” By bringing his son, Isaiah was to proclaim that God would, indeed, preserve his people and his promises, both in this crisis and in the future. However, the very fact that the name stresses a “remnant” implies the harsh reality that God will not delay judgment forever. Judah might survive the Syro-Ephriamitic war, but a war is coming that will result in a destroyed and exiled kingdom. What God preserves in that judgment will be, in human terms, but a fraction of what stood before. Again, both the mercy and justice of God are underlined and upheld in the name of Isaiah’s son.
In chapter 4, Isaiah takes the messianic element of Micah’s proclamation of a future remnant and fleshes it out even further:
In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. (4:2-4)
Here Isaiah speaks of a future after inevitable judgment, reassuring the people that even though destruction and exile is coming, God will restore his people. A remnant shall be preserved, and crucially will have been cleansed through this judgment. They will be called “holy.” But this promise of a sanctified remnant in judgment is coupled with the promise of a beautiful and glorious “branch of the Lord,” a concept that elsewhere points forward to the messiah, Jesus Christ. Isaiah 11:1 speaks of a “branch” from the “root of Jesse,” thus identifying this coming individual as a descendant of David’s royal line—an identification confirmed later by Jeremiah 23:5-6, which talks about a king reigning and prospering and executing justice—and confirming Micah’s association of God’s remnant with God’s king. This is vital to understand, lest we needlessly separate God’s people from God’s king; in God’s plan, the final, eschatological remnant is joined to God’s King.
The prophet Zephaniah confirms these ideas, and elaborates on what the holiness of this remnant will look like in practice:
But I will leave in your midst
a people humble and lowly.
They shall seek refuge in the name of the Lord,
those who are left in Israel;
they shall do no injustice
and speak no lies,
nor shall there be found in their mouth
a deceitful tongue.
For they shall graze and lie down,
and none shall make them afraid.
This remnant, then, will show its holiness in several ways. First, it is humble and lowly, which only makes sense as God gives grace to the humble (cf. James 4:6). Second, it is honest, eschewing deceit and by implication exercising control of the tongue and practicing pure speech. Third, they will be unafraid—because of a fourth characteristic: they will seek refuge in the name of the Lord. The identity of God will be their shelter and home. In New Testament terms, they will have faith in God. Unlike the physical remnants of Old Covenant judgments like the Exile to Babylon, or the Flood, or even the rump of Judah that survived Assyrian invasion, this remnant will be marked by faithfulness. The “mixed people” idea in the doctrine of the remnant gives way, in the future, to a purified people.
An Application from the Prophets
In review, then, before turning to the New Testament, I just wanted to highlight one very practical application of this doctrine of the remnant as portrayed in the prophets: humility.
Elijah’s self-importance in thinking he was God’s only servant was shattered when he learned that God was in control of what remnant he keeps. Indeed, the stress on God's sovereign care of his people and control of who is his remnant is intended to remind us that God, not we, are in control of history and our circumstances. Zephaniah reminds us that God’s remnant will be marked by a lowly spirit. God saves a remnant from judgment not simply to have them avoid destruction for its own sake, but in order to see a people that is humble.
So one lesson to take home as we see the culture rising against us is this. We have this faith given to us by God in order to keep us for himself, because he wants a people humble and lowly in heart. So let us guard our sense of entitlement as our legal rights and privileged place in society are increasingly attacked and stripped away. This suffering is not God's way of making us arrogantly assert our entitlement to better treatment, as if we deserve better than our own Lord and Master. Rather, it is our opportunity to show that our hope and trust is in God's promises, and that our treasures are laid up elsewhere. That doesn't mean we don't speak out--we have a chance to share the Gospel in the face of persecution. But our motivation is not to grasp our "rights," but rather to see God's own real and genuine right to praise and glory respected and established.
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