Question: "What does the Bible mean when it refers to a remnant?"
Answer: A remnant is a left-over amount from a larger portion or piece, whether it is food, material from which a garment is fashioned, or even a group of people. Although remnants could be looked upon as worthless scraps, and many times are, God assigned high value to those of His people whom He had set aside for holy purposes, those He labels as “remnants” in several places in the Bible. To begin, in Isaiah 10 the story is told of the Lord’s judgment upon the Assyrians. In verse 12 God says, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.” He continues in verses 17-18: “The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy One a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briars. The splendor of his forests and fertile fields I will completely destroy, as when a sick man wastes away.”
God then relates how His people will turn back to Him as a result of this tremendous display of His strength—His utter destruction of most of Assyria: “In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of the house of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God” (Isaiah 10: 20, 21). He goes on to assure the remaining Israelites that they need not fear the Assyrians, for soon He will destroy them.
There are other remnants—those left over from a larger group—in the Bible, even though the word remnant isn’t used to describe them. Noah and his family were the remnant saved out of the millions on the earth before the flood (Genesis 6). Only Lot and his two daughters survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, a very small remnant, indeed (Genesis 19). When Elijah despaired that he was the only one left in Israel who had not bowed down to idols, God assured him that He had reserved a remnant of 7,000 “whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him" (1 Kings 19).
God’s sovereign choice as to whom He will save can also be seen in the New Testament: “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: ‘Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved. For the Lord will carry out His sentence on earth with speed and finality’” (Romans 9:27-28). This implies that great multitudes of the Israelites would be cast off. If only a remnant was to be saved, many must be lost, and this was just the point which Paul was endeavoring to establish. While the word remnant means “what is left,” particularly what may remain after a battle or a great calamity, in this verse, it means “a small part or portion.” Out of the great multitude of the Israelites, there will be so few left as to make it proper to say that it was a mere remnant.
Of course, the most blessed remnant is that of the true Church, the body of Christ, chosen out of the millions who have lived and died over the centuries. Jesus made it clear that this remnant would be small when compared to the number of people on the earth throughout history. “Many” will find the way to eternal destruction, but “few” will find the way to eternal life (Matthew 7:13-14). We who believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior can, with great peace, rest in the fact that we belong to the “remnant.”