Sunday’s post, the first in this series looking at the themes of Advent through the lens of the Book of Isaiah, saw how, after Isaiah opens with an oracle of incredible destruction for Judah, this is followed at the start of chapter 2 with a beautiful image of a time when not only would the people of Jerusalem return to God’s ways, but also the whole world would seek God and live in the ways of peace. This juxtaposition of images of destruction and salvation is a common one in the prophets, and especially in the first section of Isaiah, which addresses the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis of the mid-to-late eighth century BCE. In today’s post, I’d like to explore one of the recurring motifs that leans most heavily into these juxtapositions: the remnant.
The first place I’d like to look in on this motif is from Isaiah 4. The near-destruction of Judah is described in 4.1 with a vivid description of life in a patriarchal society that has lost almost all of its men: Seven women are seen begging the same man to marry them to remove from them the shame of being unmarried and childless. (To paraphrase the common saying, Patriarchy gonna patriarchy…) But the second verse jumps in with that apocalyptic “On that day” language with a vision of a new beginning:
Here we have a vision of a remnant, “whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem,” that will be holy. Having been purified by the experience of judgment (”once the LORD has … cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem”), Zion will once again be the special dwelling place of God. Isaiah describes this as “a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night,” language that echoes the way God’s presence was experienced in the Exodus story.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.”
(The holy seed is its stump.)
Here we see the huge scale of the troubles befalling Jerusalem: If even a tenth is spared, they can expect more to come. But even here, it ends with this hopeful message: from the burned out husk of the tree of Judah will sprout the “holy seed” out of which the nation’s future will arise.
The final passage I’d like to look at today comes from chapter 10, which could very easily act as a summary of the whole of the section of Isaiah dealing with the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis. It begins with an extensive woe against Judah’s ruling elite, for their “iniquitous decrees, and “oppressive statutes,” devised to “turn aside the needy from justice” (10.1-4). Then it moves on to a woe against a self-satisfied and predatory Assyria, whose king brags about “removing the boundaries of peoples” and “plundering their treasures” which he has gathered “as one gathers eggs” (10.10-14). Against them God will send a raging fire that will leave the lands barren: “The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child take account of them” (10.19). But then comes the message of hope for that small remnant:
While God’s judgment upon Israel and Judah will be severe, God’s judgment upon Assyria will be far worse, and Isaiah insists that, again echoing the Exodus, God will act to free God’s people from this foreign oppression (10.24-27).
What are we to make of all this, and what might it say to us today? For many of us, these images of divine judgment are pretty shocking and uncomfortable. But the thing is we don’t need an angry or punishing God for this kind of devastation to happen; all we need is to be left to our own human devices. We are very good at creating our own hells when we turn away from God’s peace-making ways. Whatever we may make of the judgment imagery, tragedy comes for all of us. Every nation, every community, every person will undergo times of destruction — whether through war, political upheaval, decay of social institutions, experiences of grief and loss, of physical, psychological, or spiritual disability or illness, of Dark Nights of the Soul and Spirit, or difficult transitions.
In the prophet’s days, that time had come for Israel and Judah. Their justice systems were no longer just, their law-makers were serving only the powerful, and the safety net to support widows and orphans was being left to collapse. This left both states weak from within, and neither was up to the challenge of the rising Assyrian power, before which Israel prevaricated between subservience and rebellion, and Judah was utterly cowed.
Isaiah’s hopeful message for them was not that they would be spared what was coming, but that they still had a future despite their troubles. And, if they had the right understanding, they could use it as a time of national resurrection — not a return to the unjust status quo, but to turn to a fresh page where God’s ways of peace and justice for all would be lived out.
Ultimately this is the point of the remnant imagery in Isaiah: no matter how bad things look, this isn’t the end. There will still be a future for God’s people.
But from the Scriptures and our own experiences, we can have very different reactions to the experience of being the ‘remnant’. The first is to draw the line between the ‘remnant’ and those who either didn’t survive, or who didn’t persevere. Elijah’s complaint on Mount Horeb comes to mind: “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19.10). The problem with this reaction is similar to what we saw the other week in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector: Just as the Pharisee’s approach to spirituality focused outside of himself, allowing him to be self-satisfied as he called attention to others’ faults rather than the state of his own heart, so too does this way of thinking about the remnant experience focus on creating space between those who ‘made it’ and those who didn’t. As it happens, the text of 1 Kings suggests that God agrees with this interpretation, since God essentially tells Elijah to stop worrying about it, to stop focusing on the battle between gods, and get on with the job God set before him, traveling to preach and anoint kings and prophets.
What seems a better way of understanding ‘remnant’ experiences is to understand the difficult and destructive seasons of our lives as crucibles, places for our purification and, ultimately, growth. This experience is described in the texts we looked at today. In Isaiah 4, the remnant is called “holy” and the purification of the city is poetically paralleled with the raging fire, suggesting a refiner’s fire. And in Isaiah 10, a fire is likewise seen as destroying but also purifying the land, the end result being that the remnant will “lean on the LORD … in truth” instead of relying on their enemies for support. The refining imagery is less clear in Isaiah 6, but here it is still clear that the symbol of destruction (the stump of the felled tree) is also the source of new life — just as the fire destroys but also refines the metal in the crucible. Isaiah is not alone in his use of the refining imagery. God explicitly tells Jeremiah: “I have made you a tester and a refiner among my people so that you may know and test their ways” (Jeremiah 6.27). And, in a passage very resonant for Christians at this time of year, God spoke through the prophet Malachi, saying:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me …
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washers’ soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. …
Then I will draw near to you for judgment;
I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely,
against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan,
against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.
Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.
But you say, “How shall we return?” (Malachi 3.1-7)
The Malachi passage provides helpful context for how the image of the refiner’s fire is deployed, and how it connects to the idea of the remnant. What is it that is burned out of, or washed away from the God’s people? Precisely the kinds of things that break faith: sorcery (viewed in the Old Testament as a breaking of Israel’s national covenant with God), adultery (a breaking of faith within the home), liars (breaking faith of word), unjust labour practices (breaking faith with those over whom one has power), and lack of concern for the marginalized (breaking faith with ‘the least of these’ in the community). The refiner’s fire is viewed not as divine punishment as much as a summons to return home to God and God’s ways.
And this is the heart of the remnant imagery too.
This is not an exercise in ‘spiritual bypassing’ — it isn’t about a glib minimizing of suffering. These experiences are painful and traumatic and we need to be honest about that. What it is, though, is a vocation, a calling to choose to use our experiences of destruction as opportunities to grow back stronger and healthier.
In the next post, on Sunday, we will see how Isaiah connects this theme with the beginning sparks of messianic hope.