Leftovers or remainders, whether of daily food ( Ruth 2:14 Ruth 2:18 ), food at the Passover ( Leviticus 7:16 Leviticus 7:18 ), anointing oil ( Le 14:17 ), or even and especially people who survive a major disaster. A remnant of people is what is left of a community following a catastrophe (e.g., Noah's family after the flood, Gen 6:5-8:22 ; Lot's family after the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, Gen. 19 those who remained in the land after the deportations of 597 b.c., Ezra 9:8 ; Jer 24:8 ; 52:15 ; those left behind under Gedaliah, Jeremiah 40:6 Jeremiah 40:11 Jeremiah 40:15 ; or the Jews who came out of exile Ezra 9:8 Ezra 9:13 ; Zechariah 8:6 Zechariah 8:11-12 ). Terms for remnant in the Old Testament derive from six roots and occur some 540 times (forms of Heb. sr, ytr, plt, srd; Gk., leimma, hypoleimma, loipos, kataloipos). Remnant, frequently in the sense of residue or refugee, takes on theological hues when it becomes the object of God's address and/or action.
Sociologically the remnant could be described variously as refugees, a community subgroup, or a sect. Canonically one may find language of remnant in the Pentateuch, in historical books (e.g., of groups subjugated or not yet subjugated), in the prophets, and in the New Testament. Historically, an illustration of remnant are the seven thousand in Israel who in times of apostasy of the Ahab/Jezebel era had not defected from the Lord ( 1 Kings 19:9-18 ). Theologically, remnant language clusters in several Old Testament books, the authors of which lived at some hinge point in history: Isaiah ( 37:31-32 ) and Micah ( 4:7 ; 7:18 ) near the time of Israel's collapse; Jeremiah ( 11:23 ; 50:20 ) and Zephaniah ( 2:7-9 ) near the time of Judah's fall; and Paul near the time of the emergence of the church ( Rom 11:5 ). Remnant language is associated with both judgment and salvation.
Remnant and the Oracle of Judgment. The language of remnant in announcements of judgment was used to emphasize the totality of the judgment whether of non-Israelites or Israelites so that no trace, no remnant would in the end remain. Obadiah, whose book targets Edom, asserts, "There will be no survivors from the house of Esau" (v. 18). Damascus will become a ruinous heap, and the remnant of Syria will cease ( Isa 17:3 ). Most conclusive is the statement against Babylon, which combines the ideas of reputation (name) and remnant, perhaps as an idiom for total destruction: "I will cut off from Babylon her name and survivors (sa'ar)" ( Isa 14:22 ; cf. 2 Sam 14:7 ). For Israel especially language of remnant was also invoked to disabuse any who might consider themselves exceptions to the predicted casualties. Should there be temporary survivors of a catastrophe, such as Nebuchadnezzar's siege, they would ultimately not be spared ( Jer 21:7 ). Such news of total destruction was evidence of God's determination to proceed in judgment, but the news was intended to persuade vacillating persons to spare their lives by defecting to the Babylonians ( Jer 21:8-9 ).
The name Shear-Jashub ("a remnant will return, " Isa 7:3 ), often thought to be seminal to the prophets' thought on remnant, is, even in context, ambiguous in meaning. Did the expression portend misfortune, or did it convey that all was not lost? The expression, "a remnant will return, " when applied later to Israel, became, even if marginally, a message of hope ( Isa 10:20-23 ; 37:31-32 ; = 2 Kings 19:30-31 ).
Remnant and Oracles of Salvation. Oracles of salvation may follow immediately on the heels of announcements of judgment, and paradoxically, both entail a remnant. In Amos 9 the destruction is said to be total (vv. 1-4, 10b); still there is a glimmer of hope: "I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob" (v. 8b). One frequent proposal at reconciling these opposites is to resort to the theory of editorial splicing, which softens the severity of the message but does not deal with the theological dissonance. A more acceptable answer takes God's justice into account. God will destroy the sinful kingdom not a territory, but the aggregate of wicked leaders. All these shall perish. But not all the populace is equally guilty, and while the pious do not escape the effects of the destruction, God in his justice spares them; they become the remnant. Paradigms for wholesale destruction in which some are nevertheless spared exist in the story of Noah's family in the flood and Lot's escape from Sodom.
Since acceptance with God is not based on merit, one dimension of remnant theology is its message of God's grace ( Isa 1:9 ; Amos 5:15 ). Judgment, whereby all is destroyed, is not the last word. Beyond judgment is God's readiness, because of his loyal love, to continue with his people. It is too mechanical to think of wrath and grace within God vying with each other for the upper hand, but given that hypothetical scenario, the message is that God's grace triumphs in the end.
The remnant is future-oriented. What pros- pects has the remnant that becomes, as in the exile, the carrier of God's promise? The prospect was for the exiles to be gathered together and to return to the homeland ( Jer 23:3 ; 31:7-9 ; Micah 2:12-13 ; 4:6-7 ). The exodus from the exile, like the exodus from Egypt, was accompanied with miracles ( Isa 11:11-16 ). The solution to the tension between God's earlier unchangeable promise and Israel's sad history lies in the remnant. Those returning with Zerubbabel ( Haggai 1:12 Haggai 1:14 ; Zechariah 8:6 Zechariah 8:11 Zechariah 8:12 ) and those returning at the time of Ezra ( Ezra 9:13-15 ) regarded themselves as that remnant. Isaiah had graphically depicted the Assyrian takeover with the image of God cutting down the tall trees and lopping off boughs with "terrifying power" ( Isa 10:28-34 ; NRSV ). Equally graphic was to be the recovery as "the outcasts of Israel" and the "dispersed of Judah" would be gathered together. Also, there would emerge a shoot (remnant?) from the stump of Jesse ( Isa 11:1 ). Upon this shoot, customarily interpreted as the Messiah, rests the sevenfold spirit (vv. 2-3a) with the promise that he would rule in righteousness (v. 5). The eschatological picture of the cessation of all hostilities among humans and among animal leans on the existence of a remnant. In the prophet's mouth, remnant language for Israel is hope-engendering.
The remnant was the recipient of other promises: granting of pardon ( Mic 7:18-20 ); God's everlasting love ( Jer 31:2 ); taking root ( 2 Kings 19:30 ; cf. Isa 37:31-32 ); removal of enemies and becoming established like a lion in the forest ( Mic 4:7-9 ); the Lord's promise to be a garland of glory for the remnant ( Isa 28:5-6 ); and a grant by God for the people to possess all things ( Zec 8:6 ).
The texts announcing salvation for the remnant raise the question of the relation of the remnant to its base group. Jeremiah addresses this question for his situation: God's future lay with those who had been taken to Babylon (the good figs), not with those who stayed in the land (the bad figs, Jer. 24). The Qumran community saw itself as the "remnant of thy people [Israel]" (1QM14.8-9; cf. CD 2.11). Paul clarified the relationship between the remnant, those who accepted the gospel, and the larger body of unbelieving Jews, by noting: (1) that the remnant represented the ongoing activity of God with the chosen people, "a remnant chosen by grace" ( Rom 11:5 ) since it is the spiritual Israel; (2) that the function of the Jewish remnant, to which are not attached the Gentile believers, is to serve as a vehicle of retrieval or recovery for the larger Jewish community; and (3) that the exclusion of the larger is for a limited time ( Rom 11:11-32 ).
One might ask, of course, how it is that God holds with the remnant, which is usually the small rather than the large body, the minority rather than the majority. Where is God's ultimate triumph? One answer is to examine the larger sweep of salvation history. The story of the primeval history was discontinued in favor of the election of Abram, a remnant, so to speak, from the larger group. Similarly the New Testament story discontinued the story of mainstream Israel and related the story of the faithful remnant. This remnant, however, received from Jesus a mission that was world-embracing ( Matt 28:18-20 ). The remnant was called to redemptive activity. The Book of Revelation depicts, as does the primeval history, a great diversity of people, people now in God's presence. The remnant has accomplished God's purpose. Questions on the order of majority/minority may be misplaced. By God's measure, more on the order of righteousness, his triumph is not in doubt ( Zep 3:11-13 ). The doctrine of the remnant is in part that failure of a larger body will not impair God's purposes.
Because the criterion is not ethnicity but righteousness, the Scripture applies "remnant" language to peoples other than Israel. In a pivotal text Amos speaks of a remnant of Edom, interpreted by James as referring to all humankind, which will come under the saving umbrella of David ( Amos 9:12 ). Philistines, like Judah, are envisioned as a "remnant for our God."
Elmer A. Martens
Bibliography. J. C. Campbell, Scottish Journal of Theology3 (1950): 78-85; R. E. Clements, Pauline Studies, pp. 106-21; W. Guenther and H. Krienke, NIDNTT, 3:247-54; G. F. Hasel, ISBE, 4:130-34; E. W. Heaton, JTS3 (1952): 27-39; V. Herntrich and G. Schrenk, TDNT, 4:194-214; B. F. Meyer, JBL84 (1965): 123-30; J. Watts, Perspectives in Religious Studies15 (1988): 109-29.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Remnant'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".