God's grace in preserving a remnant
They became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years.
2 Chronicles 36:20-21
Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.
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.
1 Kings 19:18
The Old Testament is quite depressing in a sense. God gave Israel his law in the Torah through his prophet Moses. Even though God revealed how he wanted his people to live, corporately they didn’t keep his law. It seems like they never kept God’s law. Instead, they followed their own desires and did what was right in their own eyes. That they didn’t overall keep God’s law can be seen from 2 Chronicles 36.20-21. Whoever wrote Chronicles quotes Jeremiah’s prophecy that Israel would be exiled for 70 years. Why 70 years? Why not 30 or maybe 100? It is because God was filling up the full measure of Sabbath rests that Israel never gave the land. Every 7 years, they were supposed to give the land rest and not take the fruit from the trees or the ground. They were supposed to let the land lie fallow, and they didn’t. Instead they trusted in their own know-how to provide food for themselves and they did this in opposition to their God.
The law expected them to trust in the provision of their God, Yahweh, but instead, they trusted in their own ingenuity. The sabbatical year was simply one of many laws that the Israelites broke, and ultimately this displayed their lack of faith in their God. We can speak broadly about the nation as a whole, but what we must also say is that God preserved a remnant in every generation. In each generation through all of the unfaithful years, there were still men and women who lived by faith. From the foundation of the world, there has been a small contingent whom God has preserved. This is seen for instance in the time of Elisha. Elijah and Elisha, we must remember, lived and ministered to the northern kingdom. There was never a good king in Northern Israel; they all followed other gods. Yet even in the time of Elijah, God says that he has preserved a remnant of 7,000 men who had not kissed Baal. Elijah had thought he was the only one left. But God reserved in that evil northern kingdom more than Elijah could count.
We could say this about every generation in ancient Israel and Judah. Even though the situation looked dire, there were still those whom God had preserved. It is important that we say it this way because this is how the Bible describes it. So when Jeremiah is preaching, it doesn’t seem like anyone is listening. It was so rough that he was thrown into a cistern to rot, and eventually he is taken against his wishes to Egypt when he says that Israel should be willing to go to Babylon. So where are the faithful few? We only hear of them in passing in each generation. There were the leaders most of whom seem to be unfaithful, but there were the oppressed prophets, perhaps a handful of faithful priests and many lay Israelites who trusted in Yahweh and not in the whims of the leadership that were opposed to God’s law.
Isaiah the prophet reminds the Israelites that the Lord is waiting to be gracious to Israel. He accomplishes this through preserving a remnant and eventually we see that this remnant which lives by faith is looking forward to their salvation. They long for the answer to the curse of God because of Adam’s sin.
And so it is only through the work of Jesus Christ that the curse of sin and death is fixed. And the church of God is qualitatively different than Israel because it has the Spirit of God. Where Israel was composed of a remnant and unfaithful ethnic Israel, the church is composed of remnant only. Because members of the church are being renewed by the Spirit of God through the work of Christ, this remnant may live by faith and experience salvation in part today. So as we read the Old Testament and of the characters in the Old Testament, they are looking forward to this great work of the Messiah, Jesus (that is the Great king, the Savior), and are living in faith knowing that Yahweh will do what he has promised: preserve and ultimately save the remnant. And we who are a part of the church can rejoice in this salvation and the power of God which is at work in us through the person of God’s Holy Spirit.