Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
In both Calvinist and Catholic theology, God’s “elect” are often understood to be the people that God has chosen to be saved on the last day.
The basis of this divine choice is much discussed in theology.
However, before considering the way a term is used in theology, it’s important to understand the way it’s meaning has changed over time.
Recently we saw that the term “elect” in older texts—like the early Christian document 1 Clement—is used differently than it in later theology.
What about the way the term is used in the Old Testament?
Election in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, both God and humans are said to “choose” (Heb., bakhar, Gk., eklegomai) things.
Once this selection has been made, a thing is described as “chosen” (Heb., bakhir, Gk., eklektos, eklogē).
There are many references to humans making choices in the Old Testament, such as the famous example where Moses exhorts the Israelites to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
Because our subject is divine election, these references to human choices are generally not relevant to our purpose.
However, we should note an aspect of the terminology that is easier to illustrate in the references to human choices and that may shed light on the divine choices.
Choices usually aren’t random. When people choose something, they usually have a reason for their choice—why they preferred one thing to another.
Consequently, when something is said to be “chosen,” it often conveys the idea of being special, superior, or more fit for its purpose than alternatives that could have been selected.
This usage carries into English in the word “elite,” which is derived from the Latin word for “choose” (eligere).
Thus in the Old Testament we read about kings gathering “chosen men” (i.e., specially skilled warriors; 1 Sam. 24:2, 26:2, 2 Sam. 6:1) or about “choice gifts” (Gen. 24:10), “choice gold” (Pr. 8:10), “choice silver” (Pr. 8:19), and so on—indicating the high quality of the things in question.
In looking at Old Testament passages dealing with election, we will regularly ask two questions about the kind of election under consideration:
- Does it have a basis?
- Can it be lost?
The reason for the first question is that some later theologies (both Calvinist and Catholic) have proposed that election is “unconditional”—that is, God’s choice is not based on anything other than his own will.
On this view, God has no reason for including one specific person among the elect and not another. It is, to put it somewhat negatively, an arbitrary decision.
The reason for the second question is that some later theologies (including Calvinism and certain other strands within Evangelicalism) have proposed that one’s elect status cannot be lost. If one is ever elect, this remains true no matter what one does or what sins one commits.
Asking the two questions will thus reveal to what extent Scripture refers to election as unconditional and unlosable.
It should be noted that this will not settle the question of whether election—as that term came to be used in later theology—should be seen as unconditional or unlosable. Those are separate questions.
Here we are only asking about how election was conceived in the Old Testament period.
Rather than being a person or group of persons, one of the most frequently mentioned things God is said to choose is a location.
Deuteronomy, in particular, speaks repeatedly of a place that God will one day choose (Deut. 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 21, 26, 14:23-25, 15:20, 16:2, 6-7, 11, 15-16, 17:8, 10, 18:6, 26:2, 31:11). It is also spoken of this way in Joshua (9:27).
Later, this location is revealed to be the city of Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:44, 48, 11:13, 32, 36, 15:21, 2 Kings 21:7, 23:27, 2 Chron. 6:6, 34, 38, 12:13, 33:7, Neh. 1:9, Tob. 1:4, Ps. 132:13, Sir. 48:6, Zech. 1:17, 2:12, 3:2).
The purpose for which God chooses Jerusalem is said to be to put his name there (Deut. 12:5, 21, 14:23-24, 16:2, 6, 11, 26:2, 1 Kings 11:36, 14:21, 2 Chron. 12:13) and to dwell there (Deut. 12:5, Ps. 132:13).
Placing his name in a location and dwelling in a location, though notionally different, appear to be functionally the same thing. In concrete terms, they refer to God’s dwelling in his temple. Jerusalem is God’s chosen city because it is where his temple is to be.
We naturally thus find references to the temple itself being chosen (2 Chron. 7:12, 16, 1 Macc. 7:37).
There are several purposes for which the temple is said to be chosen. It is to be the place where God puts his name (2 Chron. 7:16), to be a house of sacrifice (2 Chron. 7:12), and to be called by his name and to be a house of prayer for his people (1 Macc. 7:37).
An interesting aspect of divine election in this case is that it is functional: Jerusalem and the temple are chosen to fulfill specific functions.
Another interesting aspect is that this divine election does not appear to have been unconditional.
The temple was initially proposed by David, and God chose his son Solomon to carry out the project (2 Sam. 7:1-13, 1 Kings 8:14-20, 1 Chron. 17:1-12, 2 Chron. 6:3-10).
The reason it was built in Jerusalem is because David had made this city his capital.
Consequently, Jerusalem was where David was located when he selected the site of the temple (1 Chron. 22:1). He did so because he saw God responded positively to sacrifices offered there (1 Chron. 21:28) following David’s disastrous census.
This election can be lost. This is revealed in the book of Zechariah, which contains oracles urging that the temple be rebuilt following its destruction by the Babylonians.
In encouraging the people, the prophet assures them that God will “again choose Jerusalem” (Zech. 1:17, 2:12).
This indicates that, by allowing the temple to be destroyed on account of Judah’s sins, God had revoked his election of the city. During the time the temple lay in ruins, Jerusalem was not elect, but it would be again when the temple was rebuilt and God again dwelt there.
In addition to the choosing of places, the Old Testament frequently speaks of God choosing particular individuals.
It thus mentions God choosing Abraham (Gen. 18:19, Neh. 9:7). The former passage, though it uses the verb yada‘ (lit., “know”) rather than bakhar, indicates the function for which Abraham was chosen: “that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
Moses is also said to be chosen by God (Ps. 160:23, Sir. 45:4). The function for which he is chosen is not explicitly stated, but it may be inferred to be his role as Israel’s deliverer and lawgiver.
Moses’ brother, Aaron, is also said to be chosen (Ps. 105:26; cf. Num. 16:5-7, 17:1-8), and his elect functions are specified: “to stand and minister in the name of the Lord” (Deut. 18:5), “to be my priest, to go up to my altar, to burn incense, to wear an ephod before me” (1 Sam. 2:28), and “to offer sacrifice to the Lord, incense and a pleasing odor as a memorial portion, to make atonement for the people” (Sir. 45:16).
Israel’s kings are said to be chosen by God (Deut. 17:15).
Thus its first king—Saul—is said to be chosen as king (1 Sam. 10:24).
So is his successor, David (1 Sam. 16:6-13, 2 Sam. 6:21, 1 Kings 8:16, 11:34, 1 Chron. 28:4, 2 Chron. 6:6, Ps. 78:70, 89:3, 19).
And David’s son Solomon is said to be chosen (1 Chron. 29:1). In particular, he is said to be chosen in three ways: to be king (1 Chron. 28:5, Wis. 9:7), to be God’s son (1 Chron. 28:6), and to build God’s temple (1 Chron. 28:10).
After the exile, the governor Zerubbabel (a descendant of David) is said to be chosen (Hag. 2:23).
In addition to the selection of these rulers, there are other references to individuals being chosen.
In Isaiah, God’s Servant is said to be chosen (Isa. 42:1, 43:10, 49:7).
While the New Testament reveals that the Servant Songs have a Christological dimension, it is not always clear who the Servant is meant to signify in the literal sense of the text.
Thus in Isaiah 43:10, God appears to address Israel collectively as the Servant: “‘You are my witnesses’ [note the plural], says the Lord, ‘and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he.’”
Finally, Psalm 65:4 pronounces blessedness on those whom God chooses and brings near to dwell in his temple. Scholars have been divided over whether this refers specifically to priests or to Israelites in general.
It is clear that many of these elections are not unconditional, for reasons behind them are stated.
Aaron is chosen as priest because he is the head of the tribe of Levi (Num. 17:1-3), which had consecrated itself to God’s service as a result of its actions during the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:29).
The fact that Saul’s election was not unconditional is indicated in Samuel’s announcement of him as king, when he declared, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people” (1 Sam. 10:24).
The statement there is none like him is a reference to Saul’s impressive stature and charismatic qualities (1 Sam. 9:2, 10:23).
David’s election as king also is not unconditional.
When Samuel is sent to anoint him as king, he initially thinks that David’s older brother Eliab is the chosen one, but God tells Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
David’s election is thus based on qualities God sees in his heart—qualities which he did not see in Eliab.
Similarly, even before David was anointed king, Saul had been told that the kingship would be given “to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28).
Finally, Solomon’s election to build the temple is not unconditional. David was specifically rejected for this role because of a quality he had: he was a “man of blood.”
David was told: “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me upon the earth” (1 Chron. 22:8).
Conversely, Solomon was elected to this task because he was a “man of peace.”
Thus David was told: “Behold, a son shall be born to you; he shall be a man of peace. I will give him peace from all his enemies round about; for his name shall be Solomon, and I will give peace and quiet to Israel in his days. He shall build a house for my name” (1 Chron. 22:9-10).
Election to the kingship could be withdrawn due to sin.
We see this in the case of Saul. After he fails to destroy the Amalekites, God tells Samuel: “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments” (1 Sam. 15:11).
Samuel consequently tells Saul: “The Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel” (1 Sam. 15:26) and “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day” (1 Sam. 15:28).
Despite this loss of election, Saul continued to function as king of Israel until his death, and he was regarded by David as still “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:6, 26:9, 11, 16, 23, 2 Sam. 1:14, 16).
We will see further examples of loss of kingly election in our next post.
From what we have seen, it is apparent that God chooses both places and people in the Old Testament to fulfill specific functions.
These elections are not presented as unconditional or as unlosable.
However, we have not yet considered what the Old Testament has to say about God choosing groups of people, including—most famously—Israel as his “chosen people.”
That is the subject to which we will turn next.