The various terms used to express the concept of remnant in the Bible represent two closely linked ideas. On the one hand, the word indicates those who are “left over” after some great catastrophe; on the other, those who have “escaped” the disaster and are able to continue the community's life. In a theological sense, the emphasis can fall primarily either on God's judgment on his sinful people or on his mercy in still preserving a nucleus of them as a hope for the future, and these differing emphases are reflected in various biblical writers.
Perhaps the earliest occurrence of the idea is in the Flood story (Gen. 7.23), where the stress is on the scale of the judgment, although with the implication that the survivors will constitute a new beginning. But it is with the prophets that the concept of remnant is really developed. In Amos, the remnant is above all the hopeless residue of the nation's utter destruction (Amos 3.12; 5.3), although there is a faint hint that repentance may yet avert the fullness of judgment (Amos 5.15).
It is in the book of Isaiah that the idea of remnant assumes particular prominence. In the basic message of the prophet, it is a sign of doom (Isa. 10.19; 17.5–6), and the name of his son, “a remnant shall return” (Isa. 7.3), originally signified the same. However, in what are probably postexilic supplements, the remnant is the group that returns to God and so embodies hope for the future (Isa. 10.20–21), where the son's name is reinterpreted (11.11–16). This group consists of the “needy,” who trust in God alone (Isa. 14.32), as is most clearly brought out in Zephaniah (2.3; 3.12). Jeremiah and Ezekiel display the same phenomenon as Isaiah, the remnant as evidence of utter destruction (Jer. 8.3; Ezek. 14.21–23) but also as a promise of a future hope (Jer. 23.3; Ezek. 11.13–20).
Hence those who survived the exile identified themselves as the remnant (Ezra 9.15). But, in the postexilic period, dissident groups emerged, such as the Qumran community, who saw themselves as the true remnant to be vindicated at the end (e.g., 2 Esd. 12.34). So Paul, in the long argument of Romans 9–11, citing biblical prophecies, concludes that the Jews who follow Christ are the remnant of Israel, “chosen by grace” (Rom. 11.5).
J. R. Porter