A FAITHFUL FEW
The Biblical Concept of the Remnant
Malchiah knew that things had changed in the land of Israel. He recalled that his nation had previously been faithful to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for a great many generations. But in his day, most of the people seemed disinterested in worshipping Adonai, and chose instead to express their belief in the G-d Baal. Adonai, who had revealed Himself to Moses and had guided Israel to the land of Canaan, had become unpopular among the people. But Baal, a nature deity who was adopted from the surrounding Canaanite nations, was now embraced by seemingly every Israelite in the land.
Malchiah was one of the few who had remained faithful to the G-d of his fathers. Nothing could cause him to waver, even when other Israelites ridiculed him for holding on to his outdated beliefs. But he was truly bothered by what was happening around him. And now things seemed to be coming to a dramatic collision between the two belief systems. On this day, as he stood atop Mt. Carmel along the coastline of Israel, he saw a distinctive figure moving across the summit. It was the prophet Elijah, a man whom G-d had raised up to confront Israel's idolatry. Malchiah could not stop thinking about the words that Elijah had just proclaimed to the people:
The current condition of the people is depicted in the actual Hebrew words spoken by Elijah. His question was literally, "How long will you hop back and forth between branches like a bird?" In a ceaseless cycle of dissatisfaction, the Israelites were trying to perch themselves on two very different religious "branches."
Then to illustrate the urgency for the nation, Elijah challenged the wayward Jewish prophets of Baal to a test that would reveal the legitimacy of the two deities. Sacrificial offerings were placed on altars to see which G-d would answer with supernatural fire. The prophets of Baal first called upon their G-d without success. But in reply to the prayer of Elijah, Adonai sent fire upon the offering which consumed it entirely.
Malchiah, as one of the few witnesses to the event, fell upon his face and proclaimed the sovereignty of the True and Living G-d. "Adonai is G-d! Adonai is G-d," he cried out along with those gathered around him. His heart was filled with feelings of both awe and vindication. And as he returned to his home later that day, his hopes rose for his fellow countrymen. Perhaps now there would be a revival that would sweep the land and the people would never again forsake the G-d of their forefathers.
Sadly, Malchiah's hopes would never materialize. The nation, which had already been divided into two kingdoms—Israel in the north and Judah in the south—was continually ruled by corrupt kings who encouraged idolatry. Even under the reigns of Asa and Jehoshaphat, two godly kings of Judah, Baal worship continued in the land. Finally, after the numerous warnings of Moses (cf. Deut. 28) and all the prophets went unheeded, G-d raised up the Assyrians to take Israel captive, followed by the Babylonians who took away Judah.
But in the midst of this saga, an interesting concept is revealed, one that is rich in meaning and bears implications for our own day. It is the concept of the "remnant." After Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, Scripture records this declaration from G-d:
In spite of the widespread waywardness of the people, some individuals like the fictitious character Malchiah in this account resisted the temptation. Seven thousand people is indeed a significant number, but when you consider the fact that over three million Jews lived in the combined kingdoms at that time, this group was truly in the minority. The bottom line is this: most Jews in the day of Elijah either completely rejected the G-d of their fathers or they mixed biblical worship with idolatry.
While the percentages vary from generation to generation, the history of Israel is marked by this notion of a believing sub-group within the greater nation. Noah and his family was the first example of a faithful minority that survived a time of apostasy and judgment. At a time when the population of the world likely numbered in the hundreds of millions, only eight persons were found righteous on earth. Later, the most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon took place during the exodus from Egypt. Except for Joshua and Caleb, who demonstrated a genuine faith in the L-rd, every Israelite who was at least twenty years old when they left Egypt ultimately perished in the wilderness. We are also told that only 50,000 people accompanied Ezra and Nehemiah back to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity. The majority of the nation stayed behind in the comfortable surroundings of their new homes in Babylon.
For centuries this trend continued. In each case, a faithful few were the ones who carried on with the calling and blessing of God. Thus the remnant, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, can be described as the collective persons within the nation of Israel who faithfully believe in the True and Living G-d and keep His ordinances.
The Hebrew word for remnant is sh'ar or its variant sh'erit, from a root meaning, "to swell up." From this same root we get the word "leavening." This associated word picture is helpful to our understanding: In the ancient near east, when making bread, yeast could be added to flour and water to make it rise or swell up. Or, alternatively, a lump of dough from a previous mixing could be added to new flour and water, and the yeast would multiply throughout the batch and cause it to rise. This latter practice is the way that modern sourdough bread is made. In this manner, a small portion—a remnant—of the original dough continues on and recreates a new batch that has the traits of the original batch.
In the same way, the biblical record reveals that a small portion—a remnant—of the original faithful men and women of Israel continued on and continually recreated new generations that had the traits of the original generation. This is the underlying meaning of the remnant—a remainder or a portion with the imprint of the original. If we survey the full scope of the Bible, three valuable principles related to the remnant emerge that provide us with a key to understanding G-d's message of redemption.
It is the believing remnant
that secured the continuity
We know from history that the ultimate warning from Deut. 28 came to pass when both Jewish kingdoms were taken into captivity. First Israel in the north was taken captive by Assyria in 722 B.C. And then Judah was taken captive by Babylon in 586 B.C. They, like most nations when completely uprooted and enslaved, should have been annihilated as a distinct people and blended in to the world of their captors. But this is no ordinary nation. They were people who had a unique promise from God.
Here is what Isaiah had to say prophetically:
And again in Isaiah 1:9,
In other words, in light of the sinfulness of the nation, they should have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah, but G-d preserved a remnant and thus the nation was still alive. Then, at the end of his ministry, Isaiah describes the unchanged corrupt state of affairs in Israel:
Isaiah compared Israel to a cluster of grapes. Some grapes in a cluster may be spoiled and others may not yet be ripened, but others are sweet and will produce wine. So just as the owner of a vineyard wouldn't discard a partially flawed cluster of grapes because it can still be productive, G-d has promised to preserve Israel through the faithfulness of a believing remnant.
By preserving a believing remnant down through the generations, G-d could remain steadfast in keeping His promises to both preserve and purify Israel. Based on the Abrahamic Covenant, G-d had sworn by His own name that Israel would exist as a nation before Him forever (Gen. 17.7; Heb. 6:13). But based on the Mosaic Covenant, He also had promised that because they were called to be a "holy nation" (Exod. 19:6), disobedience would lead to their destruction (Deut. 28:63). The answer to this dilemma was the remnant. In the midst of great chastening and judgment by G-d, a remnant of believers would survive and thus keep intact the substance of G-d's promises to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In the day of Yeshua (Jesus) it was no different. Most people did not believe in Him as Messiah. But some Jews did believe. In the book of Romans the Apostle Paul applies the term remnant to Jewish believers in Jesus. He begins the eleventh chapter with these confident words: "I say then, G-d has not rejected His people." And he bases this statement on the faithfulness of a select group of Jewish men and women. After recalling the existence of seven thousand faithful Jews in Elijah's day, he observes:
Paul also demonstrates his familiarity with the underlying meaning of the word remnant by saying, "If the first piece of dough is holy, the lump is also" (Rom. 11:16). He saw with clarity the vital role of the remnant in G-d's plan for Israel. The majority of Israel may have rejected Jesus as Messiah, but G-d would not reject Israel as a nation because of the presence of the remnant who believed in Him.
This concept of the remnant is the key to understanding topics throughout the New Testament. For example, when Paul refers to "all are not Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6), we can readily recognize the principle of the remnant—a believing minority within the physical nation. This concept also enables us to understand, in part, Paul's later declaration that "all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26). When viewed in the broader context of Scripture, which portrays a great revival among Jews in the End Days (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 37:1-14; Zech. 12:10), we can envision a coming expansion of the remnant to its fullest measure.
G-d is the one who raises up the remnant
There are two parallel phrases in these foundational passages that emphasize the primary role of G-d in the conception of the remnant:
Notice the identity of the active agent in these passages—G-d. The biblical record confirms that the nation of Israel had not earned G-d's favor. It's all about His sovereignty. G-d who chose the complete nation of Israel in the first place (Deut. 7:6-8) and preserved it throughout the generations, is also the G-d who called forth a believing Jewish remnant in every age and continues to do so in our own day. This important consideration is consistent with the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. We know from Genesis 15 that G-d pledged by His own initiative to keep His agreement with the descendants of Abraham. G-d alone obligated Himself and He gave His word that it would not be broken. Thus by raising up a remnant of believers in every generation, He has continually fulfilled His promise to Abraham made long ago.
But the implications do not end with the Jewish people. There is another dimension to the concept of the remnant...
A remnant also exists among Gentile Christians
In the second half of Romans 11, Paul turns his attention to Gentile believers in Jesus. Paul demonstrates how the spiritual stumbling of the majority of the Israelites led to the expanded inclusion of Gentiles within the kingdom of G-d (vv. 11-15). It might be said that G-d has not rejected Israel, He has added to Israel. He describes the subsequent unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus by using the metaphor of the olive tree (vv. 16-24). Like wild branches grafted onto a natural olive tree, believing Gentiles share in the same root system as believing Jews and produce fruit that is like their fellow Jewish "branches." The respective branches may grow and appear slightly differently, but by and large they exist as one living entity. Here we have a depiction of the cultural differences of believing Gentiles and Jews, yet the sharing of a common salvation, the blessing of common gifts, and the exhortation to unity in Messiah.
Paul further shows how G-d's dealings with Gentiles after Calvary hold similarities to the ways in which He has historically dealt with Israel. Continuing with the metaphor of the olive tree, and referring to G-d's chastening of Israel, Paul warns:
Since the earliest days of the Church, many people have called themselves Christians. They may have attended Sunday school as children or go to church today. They may be able to recite prayers and give monetary contributions. But like the Israelites of old, a great many "Christians" today have not given their hearts totally to the L-rd. In His place stands modern day Baals—false gods of gold and spirit and values that betray G-d's principles. A believing remnant exists in the Church—persons who refuse to hesitate between two opinions, who recognize the L-rd of their life and are resolutely committed to follow Him. It is a sobering thought to ask the question—do I fear G-d? Like a thriving branch on G-d's olive tree of faith, am I truly part of G-d's redeemed body? The fear of G-d is a healthy attribute that can greatly contribute to our spiritual well-being.
God’s preservation of Israel
through the remnant
Without a doubt, the way of salvation is the same for all—through the atonement that comes from belief in Yeshua as Messiah. And G-d unites Jew and Gentile together into one household of faith, commonly called the Church. But there is a parallel in the way that G-d has protected Israel from earthly annihilation, and the way that G-d will protect His saints from eternal annihilation.
Did Israel earn the right to be chosen by G-d? They didn't deserve it, but G-d did it anyway. Likewise, how many of us merit our salvation? The answer is none. No man or woman can ever earn eternal life. No amount of works can ever secure it. Salvation is an incomparable gift from the Sovereign of the Universe. It is only through atonement—the covering of our sins (Lev. 17:11), and the creation of a new heart within us (Ezek. 36:26), that people can become redeemed and thus inherit eternal life. And that great gift from G-d comes through Messiah. His death provides the flawless atonement that is applied to our lives when we believe in Him as Savior. And it is a salvation that we can assuredly depend upon. It is a blessing that cannot be broken, and a hope that is secure. And Israel is a reminder to us of that assurance.
The prophet Jeremiah foretold a future New Covenant in which G-d's truth and righteousness would be permanently written on the hearts of people (Jer. 31:31-34). This covenant was ultimately fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua. But the amazing thing is that G-d has linked it to the preservation of the Jewish people. At the conclusion of the prophecy of the New Covenant, He declared:
The message is clear. We have been given some magnificent signs that God’s promises are rock solid secure, just as enduring as the universe itself. As long as the sun is shining and the stars are twinkling and the waves are roaring, God has promised to preserve Israel in an earthly sense and to preserve our salvation in an everlasting sense.
We recall in Romans 11 how Paul warned Gentile believers with the words, "Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if G-d did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you" (Rom. 11:20-21). His warning for our attitude is wisely given. But what we need to notice here is that He did physically spare the natural branches! Likewise, He will spiritually spare all of us who believe!
All of us have gone astray one time or another. And that is one time too many. But just as G-d has promised and given grace for Israel, those of us who have trusted in Yeshua as our Savior are promised the grace and forgiveness on the same terms. When we want to study an example of grace in action, we can find it in the history of Israel and we can count on it in the future of Israel. When we want to look for an application, we need only look at our own hearts.
We all need to know for ourselves where we stand before G-d. The answers lie in the only source that speaks to every generation—the sacred Scriptures. The promises of God recorded there are still valid today. And He continues to raise up a believing remnant from every walk of life. So may we all be found faithful, just our Heavenly Father is faithful in keeping His promises.
Dr. Galen Peterson, © 2008 American