Israel was a person and His God’s name is YHWH. God made a covenant with Israel’s dad and grandpa, and promised to establish them as a nation, to remain in covenant with their offspring, to give them the land of Canaan, and to be their God (Gen 17:6-8). Israel had sons, and they moved to Egypt. They were called the Sons of Israel. This phrase “Sons of Israel” is quite common in the OT. It refers to the people descended from Israel. Exodus starts its first chapter with the words: “These are the names of the Sons of Israel…” So in the initial stage of the nation of Israel, the text’s meaning is quite clear: Israel refers to the nation of Israel.
On Mount Sinai, God commissions them to follow his ways and to worship Him in the land of promise. While the patriarchs had already received the rite of circumcision and other sanctifying (in the sense of setting them apart) qualities, God’s Law given on the mountain of Sinai supplied Israel with a thorough set of rules, which set the nation apart for God. This made the nation distinct from other people groups, so that even upon entering the promised land, the people remained unique. God planted Israel in the Land with what she needed to grow in to a prosperous nation who walked according to His ways and be a light to the gentile nations. What if a son of Israel rebelled against the Lord? He was cut off from the people. But what if the entire nation rebelled against the Lord?
After some time in the Land, Israel’s frequent rebellion against YHWH crumbled the nation. She had a flourish of glory under David, but this transient phase gave way to a divided monarchy. Moving farther away from their God, Israel was cast into exile for her sins. Her temple was destroyed, the monarchy ended, and the people scattered abroad to foreign gentile nations.
During this confusing time, a line begins to be drawn, a redefinition of Israel where we would not expect it- within Israel itself. Here is where we learn an extremely important concept, namely the “remnant”. The word remnant in Hebrew has a punitive ring to it. Its basic meaning refers to that which is not destroyed, the survivors, the ones who are left from some great disaster. It was for instance used to describe the remaining people not destroyed in the conquest of Canaan (Deut 3:11 for instance). God had pronounced judgment on the nations living in Canaan, and commanded the Israelites to destroy them upon entering the Land. Noah’s family also, for instance, could be thought of as a remnant, or survivor of the pagan rebellious pre-flood world. Enslaved Israel, rescued from the wrath of God upon Egypt retained the qualities of a remnant. Theologically, the remnant is composed of those who fear the Lord and find refuge in Him during the day of His wrath.
Eventually the word became a proper name referring to a particular set of righteous Jews. Some first century Jewish sects, such as the Qumran desert community, saw themselves as a group destined to be God righteous remnant, reviving the glory of Israel. True, the nation had been made desolate and under the rule of a foreign power, but the Qumran remnant sought to nevertheless exist, faithful to God’s covenant. And someday, this group hoped it would be the building block of the restored Israel, after which the messianic age would occur, with the Qumran remnant vindicated with the rest of the faithful remnant from ancient times of Abraham Isaac, and Jacob. The Kingly Messiah, having arrived in splendor, would rule in peace and prosperity, though all those, Jew or Gentile, disobedient to God’s Sovereign rule be destroyed.
In Isaiah 10:20-23 God describes the remnant as a diminished amount of the whole of Israel. Although the nation of Israel be as numerous as sand, the remnant will not include all the nation. The return of the Remnant to the Promised Land will be likened to the exodus from Egypt as in Isaiah 11:16. Jeremiah 23 describes the remnant of a scattered flock, whom the Lord will gather and provide shepherds over them. Jeremiah 31:17-21 speaks of the remnant like a disciplined youth returning to his loving father. And later in the same chapter, verse 27, the Lord speaks of sowing the house of Israel like seed.
The remnant is believing Israel; the Israel that is responsive and humbled by the discipline of the Lord, who look to Him and call for His mercy for the nation. The part of the nation that does not return and is not responsive is unbelieving Israel.
So here we have a more defined picture of what Luke presents in his first chapter. Zechariah, at first disbelieves the angel’s report. Why? Because it is incredible. But it is hard to say which part of the angel’s message was more incredible, birth from a barren woman or the coming of a man who would turn the “Sons of Israel” to the Lord their God. The outcome of his disbelief is dumbness, muteness. How could the word of the angel be true? But when the unfruitful womb brings forth life, Zechariah believes the angel’s report, and instead of a mute tongue, his mouth is opened, and opened to prophesy. Zechariah says: this is it, the Lord has begun his work, His salvation is come, and the remnant shall return, like the exodus, as he promised to Israel’s father and grandfather.
Zechariah does not know what to expect at this point in the story. There is more to the gospel than Zechariah understands, but I do not think Luke wants us to understand any farther at this point in his narrative. It is very easy to read the end into the beginning, but patience bears many children.
A hope is presented to the reader, is now the time for the remnant of the believing Sons of Israel to return?
But what about the believing gentiles? Are they part of believing Israel? Luke addresses these exact questions.