Salvation in the
Old Testament, Part 1
By Bob Wilkin
There is probably more confusion over the terms save and salvation than any other terms in the Bible. Even solid Free Grace believers are sometimes confused by the use of these terms in Scripture.
Most people think that the vast majority of uses of the words save and salvation in Scripture refer to salvation from eternal condemnation. Actually, the exact opposite is true. Biblical salvation rarely refers to salvation from hell (even in the New Testament). This is especially evident in the Old Testament.
During my doctoral work, I looked up every Old Testament occurrence of the various words which mean save and salvation. I found that over 90% of the references concern salvation from enemies and from other difficulties in this life.
In this article we will consider the Old Testament uses of the two major New Testament words for salvation: sōzō (save) and sōtēria (salvation). How are those words used in the Greek Old Testament (also called the LXX)? I have limited my focus to seven of the historical books: Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. There are 109 uses of sōzō and sōtēria in these books, giving us a good sampling of the words. In future articles we will consider the use of these words in the Psalms and Proverbs and in the Prophets.
National Salvation from Hostile Nations
The Book of Judges
In the LXX the verb save (sōzō) occurs 19 times in Judges.1 All of these references concern national salvation from Gentile nations.
God raised up a series of Judges, including Othniel, Shamgar, Gideon, Tola, and Samson, all of whom saved or delivered Israel from her enemies: “Nevertheless, the Lord raised up judges who delivered [sōzō] them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (2:16).
For example, “Then the Lord turned to him [Gideon] and said, ‘Go in this might of yours, and you shall save Israel from the hand of the Midianites’” (Judg 6:14). Gideon then responded, “O my Lord, how can I save Israel?” (Judg 6:15). Clearly this salvation was not salvation from hell, but from enemies. Similarly, “After Abimelech there arose to save Israel Tola the son of Puah” (Judg 10:1). All of the judges were deliverers, or saviors, of Israel. They all foreshadowed Israel’s ultimate Deliverer/Savior who was (first coming), and is to come (second coming).
There are no other types of uses of sōzō and sōtēria in Judges. All concern national deliverance from enemy nations.
Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles
The same is found to be true in 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1- 2 Chronicles, though on occasion the salvation from enemies switches from national to individual, as we shall see below.
“Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that He may save us from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam 7:8).
“I will send you a man [Saul] from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him commander over My people Israel, that he may save My people from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Sam 9:16).
“By the hand of my servant David, I will save My people Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (2 Sam 3:18).
“The Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria” (2 Chron 32:22).
Individual Salvation from an Enemy
As mentioned above, there are some references to individual salvation from enemies in these books. For example, when King Saul sought to kill David, his wife Michal warned him, “If you do not save your life4 tonight, tomorrow you will be killed” (1 Sam 19:11). Here we are dealing with individual salvation, but not from eternal condemnation!
Similarly, David wrote and delivered a song to the Lord “when the Lord had delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul” (2 Sam 22:1). David said, “I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised; so shall I be saved from my enemies” (2 Sam 22:4).5 Once again this is the salvation of an individual from earthly enemies.
Hannah also received salvation from an enemy. However, in her case the enemy was not literally seeking her life. Rather, her enemy was seeking to destroy her morale.
Hannah was one of two wives. The other wife had many children. Hannah was barren. When finally she bore a child, Samuel, she prayed, “I rejoice in Your salvation” (1 Sam 2:1). This might at first glance appear to be a reference to her rejoicing in eternal salvation. However, a look at a whole quote makes this unlikely: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation.” The immediately preceding words in the very sentence make clear that this salvation concerns deliverance from enemies: “I smile at my enemies.” In context Hannah was rejoicing that God saved her from her childless condition and from the provocation of her “enemy,” Peninnah, her husband’s other wife (see 1 Sam 1:2-7), and others like her who wagged their tongues at her.
There are no uses of the words save or salvation in these books which refer to individual salvation from eternal condemnation. (Indeed, there is not one such reference anywhere in the Old Testament!)6
As we shall see in future articles, there are a few verses in the Old Testament which refer to the national eternal salvation of Israel (e.g., Zech 9:9). However, even those uses are consistent with the ones we have seen here. One day God will give Israel her ultimate Savior. He will provide final salvation from all her enemies. He will set up His eternal kingdom in Israel.
The thing to keep in mind whenever you see the words save or salvation in the Old Testament is that they concern salvation from some difficulty in this life, and most often from national or individual enemies.
God is our only hope of salvation from our “enemies” today as well. He does not deliver by our guns, our might or our wisdom. He delivers by His hand, at His discretion. As believers we must recognize that our salvation from problems in this life comes from God.
1Judges 2:16, 18; 3:9, 31; 6:14, 15, 31, 36, 37; 7:2, 7; 8:22; 10:1, 12, 13, 14; 12:2, 3; 13:5.
2I give all of the references here for those who wish to do a very profitable word study: First Samuel 4:3; 7:8; 9:16; 10:1 [in the LXX, though not in most English Bible versions], 27; 11:3; 14:6, 22 [14:23 in English version], 39, 47; 17:47; 19:11, 12, 18; 23:2, 5; 25:26, 31, 33; 27:1 (twice); 30:17; Second Samuel 3:18; 8:6, 14; 10:11, 19; 14:4; 22:3, 4, 28; First Kings 13:31; 18:40; 19:17 (twice); 20:20 [21:20 in the LXX]; Second Kings 6:26, 27(twice); 14:27; 16:7; 19:19, 34, 37; 20:6; First Chronicles 11:14; 16:35; 18:6, 13; 19:12; Second Chronicles 14:11 [14:10 in LXX]; 16:7; 18:31; 20:9, 24; 32:8, 11, 13, 14 (twice), 15 (twice), 22.
3First Samuel 2:1; 11:9, 13; 14:45; 19:5; Second Samuel 10:11; 15:14; 19:2 [19:3 in the LXX]; 22:3 (twice), 36, 47, 51; 23:5, 10, 12; First Kings, none; Second Kings 13:5, 17 (twice); First Chronicles 11:14; 16:23, 35; 19:12; Second Chronicles 6:41; 12:7; 20:17.
4This is the Greek expression sōzein tēn psychēn, which refers to saving the soul [or life].
5The expression calling on the Lord is used here, as always in Scripture, of believers only. And the deliverance which the believer who calls upon the Lord receives is always temporal. Compare Ps 18:3.
6Of course, there are references to individual justification or regeneration in the Old Testament. See, for example, Genesis 15:6. However, the words save and salvation are not used there or in any Old Testament context dealing with individual justification/regeneration.