Although there is no scholarly consensus on the origin of the remnant motif, the best explanation was offered by Gerhard Hasel, who traced the remnant motif in Ancient Near Eastern literature beginning with Sumerian times through the biblical text down to the time of Isaiah. According to Hasel, the origin of the remnant motif predated the writing of the Bible. The “common denominator” of all its usages is “the life-and-death problem, i.e., man’s existential concern.” Thus, it did not arise as part of a particular biblical context, and was “originally not eschatological.”2
Its usage in extra-biblical and biblical materials indicates that it arose out of the human existential concern to secure life and existence. In the Hebrew Bible, it was from the start incorporated into salvation history and became gradually employed to express future expectations of Yahwistic faith. In Amos, it received for the first time a distinctly eschatological emphasis. Isaiah of Jerusalem solidified the eschatological usage. The eschatological or holy remnant, purified by a divine purging, was for Isaiah an object of faith and a future reality. This element of the Isaianic remnant motif proved to be of great importance for later prophecy and the further development of Israelite eschatology.
The remnant motif can be found throughout the Old Testament, either explicitly or implicitly, but is most prominent in the prophetic books. It has been argued that the entire book of Micah is structured around the theme of God’s promises to the remnant.3 “Amos is the first Hebrew writer to connect the remnant motif with eschatology,”4 and this motif becomes even more prominent in Isaiah.
The terminology of the Old Testament remnant motif is represented by six Hebrew roots. One word is more often used in a context of total destruction (Amos 4:1-3), but the others are more frequently used in a positive context, e.g., “the escape . . . from a mortal threat.”5
The presence of one of these words does not automatically mean that the remnant motif is present. For example, in 1 Samuel 20:29, Jonathan does not quote David as requesting to save his life (since the danger was not yet obvious), but only requesting a dismissal from court services. Conversely, the remnant motif can also be present implicitly, even where these words are not used (Gen. 4:1-15).
Furthermore, the remnant motif may be used negatively. A passage may state the absence of a remnant, rather than its presence. For example:
“A fire consumes before it [the locust swarm]
And a flame burns behind it.
The land is like the garden of Eden before it,
But a desolate wilderness behind it,
Having not even a survivor” (Joel 2:3).6
According to Hasel, the remnant motif is applied to three groups, which he named “historical,” “faithful,” and “eschatological.” The historical remnant consists of any group that escaped a catastrophe that threatened its survival. This aspect of the remnant motif is applicable regardless of their faith or commitment to God.
An example of the historical remnant occurs in the first implicit reference to a remnant in the Bible, in Genesis 4:1-15, “which left only Cain as the progenitor of the human race.”7 Likewise, the remnant of the Canaanites who were not destroyed and later became a source of trouble for Israel (Judges 3:1), are also a historical remnant. “‘If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell’” (Num. 33:55).8
The second type of remnant, the faithful remnant, may be characterized as a community that exhibits genuine spirituality and a true faith relationship with God; this remnant is the carrier of all the divine election promises—though a faithful community may include members who are not faithful. An example of a faithful remnant can be found in the very first explicit reference to the remnant in the canon, Genesis 7:23, in which “Noah and his family represented a righteous remnant.”9
“This is the genealogy of Noah. Noah was a just man, perfect in his generations. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). “And God said to Noah, ‘The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with violence through them; and behold, I will destroy them with the earth’” (vs. 13). “‘But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you’” (vs. 18). “Thus Noah did; according to all that God commanded him, so he did” (vs. 22). “Then the Lord said to Noah, ‘Come into the ark, you and all your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before Me in this generation’” (7:1). “Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive” (vs. 23).
The motif of the remnant can be applied either to individuals or to communities. However, when the faithful remnant motif is applied to a community, whether a family or a nation, it must be recognized that a faithful community may also include some unfaithful individuals. For it is only on the eschatological Day of the Lord that the remnant will consist of only the faithful (Mal. 3:16–4:3), at which time it becomes the eschatological remnant.
“Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name. ‘They shall be Mine,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘On the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him’” (Mal. 3:16-18). “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says the Lord of hosts” (4:1-3).
In the context of this passage, people were complaining that God treated the faithful and the unfaithful alike (3:13-15). God responds by promising that He will separate the two groups (visibly, vs. 18) on the day of the Lord, i.e., the “day when I act” (vs. 17, NLT), the day “burning like an oven” (4:1).
In the meanwhile, the instances of faithful remnant communities in the Old Testament often include members who are not completely faithful, nor are the faithful ones necessarily perfect. Although Noah and his family were a faithful remnant that survived the flood (Gen. 6:9; 7:23), Ham later uncovered Noah’s “nakedness” (9:20-27). Also, in Genesis 19, Abraham’s intercession for God to spare Sodom for the sake of the “righteous” and Lot’s hospitality to the strangers indicate that Lot and his family were a faithful remnant that escaped Sodom. Yet Lot’s wife looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt (vs. 26), and Lot’s daughters gave birth to sons fathered by Lot (vss. 30-38).
Therefore, since a faithful remnant community may include some unfaithful members, one must go beyond the narrow context of the passage in which the words for remnant are used to the larger context of the book or even the entire canon, to determine whether a surviving community in the Bible is a faithful remnant or simply a historical remnant.
Although the preservation of Jacob’s family in Egypt through Joseph is not ascribed to their faith or commitment (Gen. 45:7), the context of Genesis makes clear that they are the recipients of the divine promises made to faithful Abraham. That is, Abraham’s descendants through Jacob constitute a faithful remnant, though the family members were not always faithful to God. As Hasel noted, the Joseph cycle demonstrates a “connection between the remnant motif and the election tradition.”10
The third group, the eschatological remnant, consists of those of the faithful remnant who go through the cleansing judgments and apocalyptic woes of the end time and emerge victoriously after the Day of Yahweh as the recipients of the everlasting kingdom.
“The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the remnant whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:31, 32).
This threefold grouping of the remnant is useful, but “it must not be pressed too hard, for the distinction between the groups is sometimes blurred in the biblical portrayal.”11 For one thing, there is an overlap in the groupings. The faithful remnant is also a historical remnant, and the eschatological remnant is also a faithful remnant. In addition, the pre-exilic prophecies about the return from captivity sometimes blur the distinction between the faithful and the eschatological remnant. Even the terms historical, faithful, and eschatological, should not be understood as precise definitions, but only as approximate labels.
The Remnant Motif and the Postexilic Community
Kenneth Mulzac has argued that Jeremiah applies the term remnant not to the survivors who remained in the land of Judah, but to those who were taken captive, who would be the recipients of the new covenant and undergo the new Exodus.12 Therefore, those who returned from the exile constitute the faithful remnant (Jer. 31:7-9), the recipients of the Lord’s new covenant (vss. 31-34), the “carriers of the ancient covenant blessings.”13
Nevertheless, as already mentioned, the pre-exilic prophets did not always clearly distinguish between the faithful remnant who would return from the captivity and the eschatological remnant. Isaiah’s description of the return of the exiles in Isaiah 11, for example, occurs in the context of an eschatological restoration.
“‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’” (Isa. 11:6-9, NRSV).
It is in the context of this promise that we find the promise of the return of the captives: “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea. He will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth. The jealousy of Ephraim shall depart, the hostility of Judah shall be cut off; Ephraim shall not be jealous of Judah, and Judah shall not be hostile towards Ephraim” (vss. 10-13, NRSV).
Thus, in the prophecies of the pre-exilic prophets, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the faithful remnant who would return from captivity and the eschatological remnant. Therefore, the postexilic experience of the Jewish people helped to refine further this important Old Testament motif by more clearly highlighting the distinction between the faithful and eschatological remnants. Even though the post-exilic community consisted of a faithful remnant that emerged as a fulfillment of prophecy, it was also a community that did not claim to be the eschatological remnant.
After the time allotted for their captivity, the Jewish captives were told to escape from Babylon (Zech. 2:7), and the term remnant is applied to the post-exilic community that returned from Babylon (Ezra 1:4; 9:8, 13-15; Neh. 1:2). It is also clear from the context of these passages that the postexilic community is more than just a historical remnant, but is a faithful remnant.
“‘Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: . . . Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.’ The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2–5, NRSV).
“Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the Lord their God had sent him; and the people feared the Lord. Then Haggai, the messenger of the Lord, spoke to the people with the Lord's message, saying, ‘I am with you, says the Lord’” (Haggai 1:12, 13, NRSV).
These returnees—only a remnant—are the ones who were moved by God’s Spirit to obedience to return and rebuild God’s temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:5). In their work of rebuilding, they were encouraged by God’s prophets (5:1, 2), and received God’s blessing (Haggai 2:19). Moreover, the genealogical lists establish a linkage between God’s promises to Abraham and the post-exilic community. The fact that those whose priestly lineage could not be demonstrated were barred from serving as priests (Ezra 2:62) also shows their concern for maintaining spiritual purity.
In fact, the application of the faithful remnant motif to the post-exilic community is clear even from passages that do not use the word remnant: “Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand” (Neh. 1:8-10, NRSV).
In the above passage, Nehemiah cites God’s promise in Deuteronomy 3:1-4 to restore those who return to the Lord, and applies them to the post-exilic community. Thus, for Nehemiah, the post-exilic community is clearly a faithful, though not perfect, community.
Although the remnant motif is applied to the post-exilic community, however, the post-exilic prophets also made reference to a remnant still to come in the future, an eschatological remnant (Zech. 8:6, 11, 12; 13:8; 14:2; Joel 2:32).
“In the whole land, says the Lord, two-thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one-third shall be left alive. And I will put this third into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God’” (Zech. 13:8, 9, NRSV).
Zechariah also includes those who are left of the other nations among those who will worship the Lord (8:22, 23), a hint that the eschatological remnant will include individuals outside the nation of Israel: “It shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (14:16, NKJV)
Thus, although the post-exilic prophets saw their community as the historical and faithful remnant, they did not see themselves as the final eschatological remnant.
This future remnant expectation is present not only in the post-exilic prophets but also in the post-exilic historical writings. Though explicit references to eschatology are absent from Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles, this is probably due to their genre, which is primarily historical in nature rather than prophetic. One can also detect a distinction in perspective between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, insofar as Ezra-Nehemiah presents a community whose very survival is at stake, whereas Chronicles portrays the past as a promulgation of a vision for the present and the future. McConville, arguing against those that denied the presence of eschatological expectation in these historical books, proposes that Ezra-Nehemiah “allow for a continuing hope that prophecy may be completely fulfilled, while deliberately avoiding the claim that this has already occurred.”14
Among the evidences cited for dissatisfaction with their situation are the lamentation of the elders at the laying of the foundations of the temple (Ezra 3:11–13) and the re-emergence of the problem of mixed marriages placed at the end of both Ezra and Nehemiah, with its associated threat of national slavery (Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9), which McConville links with their bondage to Persia. Conversely, he finds allusions in Ezra to Jeremiah 31 and Isaiah, including Ezra’s appropriation of the remnant motif in 9:13 (Isa. 10:10-12) and 9:14 (Jer. 31:7). McConville suggests that Ezra interprets the promises not as fully fulfilled, but in process of fulfillment.
Though McConville’s assessment is certainly correct, it could be further refined by distinguishing the faithful remnant from the eschatological remnant. That is, although the post-exilic community did not see itself as the eschatological remnant, it certainly did see itself as the faithful remnant. Besides the temporal distinction between the two types of remnant, there is also a qualitative distinction between them. A faithful remnant community is composed of both faithful and unfaithful individuals, whereas the eschatological remnant will be composed of only faithful individuals.
“And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since you our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, should we again break your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?” (Ezra 9:13-14, NRSV).
In this passage, Ezra refers to the post-exilic community as a “remnant,” whose persistent problem of intermarriage placed their remnant status in jeopardy and raised the threat of extinction. Then again, the need to struggle to maintain their faithfulness would be a moot issue if the community were not the “faithful remnant.” Therefore, it is clear that Ezra considered his community the faithful remnant, but not the eschatological remnant.
As for Chronicles, current scholarship has turned away from the outdated view that Chronicles is anti-Samaritan. Those of the northern kingdom willing to return to the Lord and come to His sanctuary were welcomed (2 Chron. 30:7, 8), and individuals from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun did accept Hezekiah’s invitation (vs. 11). In fact, James Newsome argues that this welcoming attitude was extended to all foreigners.15
Chronicles does not deny that there were others outside the direct lineage from Adam to postexilic Judah who were faithful to God, for example, faithful individuals among the northern Israelites (2 Chron. 34:9). But the lineage of the faithful remnant was not continued through them. Therefore, for Chronicles, the post-exilic community of Judah has both an exclusive and non-exclusive self-identity. They were exclusive in the sense that they saw themselves as the sole heirs of the long lineage of the faithful. On the other hand, they were also non-exclusive in two senses: First, the existence of spiritual forefathers meant that their status was not unique in world history; second, they were open to being joined by others who might choose to be faithful to God.
The remnant motif in the post-exilic writings appears in both prophetic (post-exilic prophets) and historical contexts (Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles). Individual writers differed on the emphasis given to the remnant motif and on whether it was more often applied to the then-current faithful remnant community or the still-to-come eschatological remnant. Nevertheless, both prophetic and historical post-exilic texts indicate that the postexilic community considered itself to be the faithful remnant that, with God’s providential blessing, returned from Babylonian captivity and was in the process of rebuilding the nation, but did not consider itself to be the eschatological remnant.
And this distinction between the faithful remnant and the eschatological remnant is relevant in another sense. Whereas the eschatological remnant is of necessity exclusive in that it is not only composed solely of the faithful, but consists of all the faithful at the end of time, the faithful remnant, in contrast, feature a tension between exclusivism and non-exclusivism, a tension that is exhibited in the post-exilic community’s remnant self-understanding. On the one hand, as the exclusive heirs of God’s faithful heritage, they were struggling to retain their status by remaining faithful. On the other hand, they realized that other individuals might be willing to join them in obedience to God, and looked forward to an eschatological remnant that would even include others outside their nation.
Parallels Relevant for Adventist Ecclesiology
In many respects, the self-identity of the post-exilic community of Judah is similar to the Seventh-day Adventist self-identity. Both the post-exilic community and the Adventist movement see themselves as remnant communities that came into existence in fulfillment of prophecy. Just as the post-exilic community consisted of the faithful remnant who returned from the Babylonian captivity, so Adventists see themselves as having come out of spiritual Babylon and as heirs of a long lineage of the faithful of all ages. Thus, they give God’s final message to the world, which announces the fall of spiritual Babylon and the call to come out of it.
Nevertheless, just as the post-exilic community included individuals who were not fully faithful to God, so Adventists recognize that not all members of the Adventist Church are faithful. This recognition also indicates that though Adventists are the faithful remnant of the time of the end, they are not—at least not yet—the eschatological remnant. That is, just as the post-exilic Jewish community looked forward to the visible revelation of an eschatological remnant, which would include others who were not yet part of the community, so Adventists also look forward to the day when spiritual Babylon will be completely fallen, and the eschatological remnant will emerge.
Likewise, just as the post-exilic community was both exclusive and non-exclusive, so are Adventists. Adventism is exclusive in that, as the faithful remnant of the time of the end, it claims to be the visible heir of God’s covenant promises to the faithful of all ages. It claims to be “the remnant church.”
Nevertheless, as with the post-exilic community, there is also a sense in which Adventists are not exclusive. That is, we acknowledge that we have spiritual forebears, that there are other faithful individuals currently outside our church, and that such faithful individuals will one day join the faithful among us to form the eschatological remnant.
Hans LaRondelle aptly applied the term remnant to the faithful spiritual forebears of Adventism: “Throughout Christian history different groups have arisen, in a sense remnant groups, with a burden to draw Christians of their day back to a more scriptural faith. While some have insisted that their faith was not entirely new, they held the Bible as their prime authority and longed to call the believers back to it. Although Seventh-day Adventists differ from these groups in various respects regarding doctrine and practice, they have in common with them the image of the remnant in the sense of bringing their contemporaries to a faith closer to the Scriptures.”16
All this is not to suggest that Seventh-day Adventists are like the post-exilic community of Judah in all respects—nor should we be. Besides, the New Testament brings to light aspects of the remnant motif that go beyond what is available in the Old Testament alone. That, however, is beyond the scope of this study. Nevertheless, the remnant self-identity of the post-exilic community sheds light on the delicate balance between our appropriation of the remnant motif and the alleged exclusivism of such a claim.
Tarsee Li, Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, Oakwood University, Huntsville, Alabama.
NOTES AND REFERENCES