God’s Elect in the Old Testament

Throughout the Old Testament, God chose specific people for special functions—but not unconditionally.

Alexander Heubel, “Moses, Aaron and Hur”, 1837
Alexander Heubel, “Moses, Aaron and Hur”, 1837 (photo: Public Domain)

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.

Recently, we looked at individual places and people God “chose” in the Old Testament.

However, in theology “the elect” are often considered as a group, so what does the Old Testament have to say about groups of people that God chooses?


Corporate Election

In addition to choosing locations and individuals, God also chooses groups of people in the Old Testament. We may refer to this form of choosing as “corporate election.”

The patriarch as said to be chosen by God (2 Macc. 1:25), and their election plays a special role in God’s relationship with Israel later on, as we shall see.

The priests and Levites are also chosen by God.

King Hezekiah tells the priests and Levites, “The Lord has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him” (2 Chron. 29:11). This names several functions which the groups perform.

Elsewhere, the priests are said to be chosen “to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord,” as well as to perform judicial functions (Deut. 21:5).

Meanwhile, the Levites are said to have been chosen to carry the ark before the Lord and to minister to him (1 Chron. 15:2).

The descendants of David are also said to be chosen to rule over Israel (Jer. 33:23-26).

And the tribe of Judah, from which David came, is said to have been chosen to be the leader of the tribes of Israel (1 Chron. 28:4; cf. Ps. 78:68).

By far the most common subject of corporate election, however, is Israel itself.

Its election is stressed in numerous passages (Deut. 4:37, 7:6, 7, 10:15, 14:2, 1 Kings 3:8, 1 Chron. 16:13, Esth. 16:21, Ps. 33:12, 105:6, 43, 106:5, 135:4, Sir. 46:1, Isa. 14:1, 41:8-9, 43:20, 44:1, 2, 45:4, 65:22, Jer. 33:23-26, Ezek. 20:5).

The function or purpose of the election is repeatedly stated for Israel to be God’s people (Deut. 7:6-7, 10:15, 14:2, Ps. 135:4; cf. Ps. 33:12)—i.e., a nation with which he has a unique relationship, different than the way he relates to other nations.


Not Unconditional

As with the other forms of election we have seen, corporate election can be conditional.

We have already noted that the Levites (including the priests among them) were consecrated to God’s service because of their actions following the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:29).

The descendants of David were chosen to rule based on the fact that David pleased God, who then made a dynastic covenant with him (2 Sam. 7:16, 1 Kings 2:4, 2 Chr. 6:16, 7:17-18, Ps. 132:12; cf. 1 Sam. 13:13, 1 Kings 11:38).

The choice of Judah to lead the tribes (Gen. 49:8, 10) is based on the fact that Reuben disqualified himself because he defiled his father’s bed (Gen. 49:3-4; cf. 35:22), while Simeon and Levi disqualified themselves when they slew the Hivites (Gen. 49:5-7; cf. 34:25-31). With the three oldest sons having disqualified themselves, authority then passed to the fourth-born, Judah.

The basis for the selection of Israel as God’s chosen people is interesting. God specifically tells them what the choice was not based on: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut. 7:7).

Instead, Israel was chosen “because the Lord loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers” (Deut. 7:8).

Here two factors are cited: The Lord’s love and his oath to the patriarchs. Deuteronomy elsewhere links God’s choosing of Israel to his love for the patriarchs (Deut. 4:37, 10:15).

Later, in the New Testament, Israel’s election is directly stated to be based on God’s love for the patriarchs (“as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers,” Rom. 11:28).

Although it is common today to speak of unconditional love, love is often conditional (based on something). The fact a woman is beautiful may kindle a man’s love for her; the fact someone is a relative or friend prompts love; etc.

What about God’s love for the patriarchs? The New Testament attests that the patriarchs pleased God (Heb. 11:1-2, 8-9, 17-21), but more to the point, God makes the initial oath concerning Abraham’s descendants specifically as a reward for what Abraham has done.

After rescuing his kinsman Lot from Kedorlaomer and the kings with him, after paying tithe to Melchizedek, and after refusing to be rewarded by the king of Sodom (Gen. 14), Abraham receives the promise of a reward from God. He is specifically told, “your reward shall be very great” (Gen. 15:1).

When Abraham questions how this will be since he has no descendant (Gen. 15:2-3), God makes a covenant with him, promising numerous descendants who will have a glorious destiny (Gen. 15:4-21).

It is when he believes the promise regarding his numerous descendants that God “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6), which the New Testament links to him being called “the friend of God” (Jas. 2:23)—a designation elsewhere given him in the Old Testament (2 Chron. 20:7, Isa. 41:8).

The patriarchal promise electing Israel thus is not an arbitrary choice but is based on the fact Abraham—God’s friend—pleased the Lord by his actions, as did the other patriarchs.


Not Unlosable

These forms of election also could be withdrawn from individuals. This did not happen to the patriarchs, who were long dead by the time the texts were written, but it did happen to individuals belonging to the other groups.

Thus two of the original priests—Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu—were rejected as priests when they offered “unholy fire” before the Lord, and they died as a result (Lev. 10:1-2).

Similarly, Eli and his sons profaned their office and died (1 Sam. 2:12-17, 22-36, 4:11-18).

God rejected the priests who ministered in Hosea’s day, saying, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me” (Hos. 4:6).

Individual descendants of David also were able, through sin, to lose their places as ruler of God’s people.

Many say that God’s covenant with David was “unconditional,” but this is manifestly not true.

It was based on the fact David pleased God (cf. 2 Sam. 13:13, 1 Kings 11:38), and his descendants were only guaranteed the kingship on condition they obeyed God (1 Kings 2:4, 8:25, 9:4-5, Ps. 132:12). Otherwise, the Davidic line would fail—as it eventually did (Jer. 36:30).

The fact that the line would later be restored (Jer. 33:14-16)—most notably through Jesus, the “son of David” (Matt. 1:1, etc.)—did not stop individual descendants of David as being rejected as kings or the line being suspended because of sin.

The same is true of individual Israelites. They also can lose their place in the chosen people.

Numerous passages indicate that an offending Israelite is to be “cut off from his people” (Gen. 17:14, Ex. 30:33, 39, 31:14, Lev. 7:20-21, 25, 27, 17:4, 9, 18:29, 19:8, 20:18, 23:29, Num. 9:13, 15:30).

Eventually, the sins of the nation grew to such proportions that God would declare, “you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hos. 1:9), though he prophesied that he would take them back (Hos. 1:10, 2:1, 23).

The New Testament also reflects on the way God preserves his relationship with Israel, noting that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6) and that within the people as a whole there are both sinners and a righteous “remnant” (Rom. 11:5), who can be described as “the elect” (Rom. 11:7).

Is this understanding of just the righteous as the elect found in the Old Testament?


Three Special Passages

Each passage we cited above identifying Israel as God’s chosen people makes it clear in one way or another that the passage is speaking of the nation as a whole—e.g., by referring to them as “Israel,” as “Jacob,” as “the sons of Jacob,” as the “chosen people.”

However, there are three texts in the deuterocanonicals—Tobit 8:15 and Wisdom 3:9 and 4:15—that simply speak of God’s elect without indicating that the people of Israel as a whole are in view.


The Elect in Tobit

Tobit 8:15 appears to refer to Israel as God’s people in the Revised Standard Version because it speaks of God’s “chosen people” blessing him forever. However, the word “people” is not in the Greek.

Actually, the Greek of this passage varies in different manuscripts, but two factors weigh in favor of its reference to God’s “chosen” being a reference to the people of Israel in general.

First, this is by far the most common collective use of the term, as we saw above.

Second, the text is commonly reconstructed to read: “let all thy angels and thy chosen . . . bless thee for ever.”

The parallel between God’s angels and his chosen suggests that the verse should be understood as wishing for the angels to praise God in heaven and for Israel to praise him on earth (especially in the temple, given the parallelism between God’s heavenly and earthly temples).


The Elect in Wisdom

When we come to the passages in Wisdom, however, the situation is different.

Both occur in contexts in which the Jewish people as a whole is not under discussion. Instead, the righteous are.

Of course, Israelites are often spoken of as God’s holy ones, and they are commanded to behave righteously. The Israelites are even spoken of as “the nation of the righteous” (Esth. 11:7). However, this is not a common usage. Normally “the righteous” are contrasted with the wicked or with sinners, who very well may be of Israelite origin.

We find such contrasts in Wisdom.  Chapter 3 of the book begins with a meditation on the righteous and how they are “in the hand of God” (v. 1) even though they have died (vv. 2-3). The same chapter also reflects on “the ungodly” who despise the righteous (v. 10).

In this context that the author writes, “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones” (Wis. 3:9).

Although it is not impossible that here “his elect” means Israelites, such a nationalistic conception is definitely not in the foreground.

Instead, “the elect” are identified with “the faithful” and “those who trust in him” (mentioned in this verse) and with “the righteous” (the subject of the overall meditation).

The same is even more evident in the next chapter, which continues a meditation on the wicked before resuming consideration of the righteous in verse 7.

Specifically, the author begins contemplating the righteous who die early (vv. 7-8, 10-11, 13-14, 16-17). Throughout, the righteous man is noted for is avoidance of evil and is contrasted with “sinners” (v. 10) and “the ungodly” (v. 16).

In that context, the author writes: “Yet the peoples saw and did not understand [the righteous man’s death], nor take such a thing to heart, that God’s grace and mercy are with his elect, and he watches over his holy ones” (Wis. 4:15).

One might suspect that here “the elect” could refer to Israelites based on the contrast with “the peoples,” but the word used in Greek is not ethnoi—the normal word used for “Gentiles”—but laoi, and it likely includes everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike (as would be expected in a mixed-race community like Alexandria, where Wisdom was likely written).

Even if the reading “Gentiles” were preferred, however, the focus would still be on the fate of the righteous Jew, in contrast to wicked ones, and this passage would still seem to be using “his elect” as a reference to the ethically righteous.

It thus appears that the concept of “the elect” as the righteous, rather than simply as Israelites, does occur in the Old Testament, albeit in what was likely the very last of its books to be written.


Not Unconditional

If we are correct that Wisdom sees the righteous as God’s chosen, it does not present this election as unconditional. In the text, the ground for choosing is not God’s arbitrary will.

The focus instead is on the ethical behavior of the righteous in contrast to the unethical behavior of the wicked. In this context, the former are pronounced “elect.”

The election is grounded in individual’s righteous behavior. Being righteous makes one elect; being elect does not here make one righteous.


Not Unlosable

Since the text is discussing righteous people who have died, the question of whether righteousness—and thus election—can be lost does not arise in Wisdom 3-4.

However, other passages in the Old Testament make it clear that the Hebrew worldview saw righteousness as losable.

Notably, Ezekiel contains repeated warnings to the effect that “if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die” (Ezek. 3:20; cf. 18:24, 26, 33:12-13, 18).

The possibility of losing righteousness is far from being unique to Ezekiel. The possibility of the righteous turning to sin is envisioned in many passages and is applied even on the level of whole nations (cf. Jer. 18:9-10).

If one thing is sure, the Old Testament does not have a “once righteous, always righteous” viewpoint.



In this study and the previous one, we saw that God chooses specific places, people, and groups in the Old Testament.

These are generally chosen to fulfill specific functions: to be where sacrifice is offered to him (the temple), to minister to him (Aaron), to rule his people (David), to be the people uniquely consecrated to him (Israel).

These elections are not presented in the text as unconditional or based on God’s arbitrary choice. Instead, reasons for the choice are commonly given.

The elections also are not presented as unlosable: God unelected Jerusalem as the place of sacrifice by allowing the Babylonians to destroy the temple, he allowed the Davidic line to end because of the kings’ sins, and he declared that the Aaronic priests were not his priests and that Israel was no longer his people.

In his mercy, he eventually restored each of these elections, but the point remains that individuals could lose their elect status through sin.

At the end of the Old Testament period, we find passages in Wisdom that conceive of the righteous as God’s elect—an election based on one’s fidelity to God rather than one’s national identity.

To what extent does this carry over into the New Testament?

That is the subject we will look at next.