The Salt of the Earth
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. (Matt. 5:13)
We quite often hear the expression used today when a person wants to pay another a compliment. “So and so,” it is said, “is the salt of the earth.” What the individual is saying is that this person is regarded by him as one of the fine and noble people of the world. He’s one of the good people. A choice example of what people ought to be like. Not mean or base at all, but almost dignified because of his good nature. Hence, the expression is used today as a high compliment that commends a person’s goodness and refined traits.
The world’s use of this expression comes from the Lord’s use of it in Matthew 5:13, in which it is part of His sermon on the mount. But it should come as no surprise that the world’s use of the expression, though it contains a semblance of what the Lord was referring to, in reality fails to understand what the Lord was actually talking about and as such misuses the expression. But unfortunately, the same needs to be said about the way in which many Christians take and use this expression of the Lord. For quite often today, because of a failure to be “rightly dividing the word of truth,” this expression is taken as if the Lord was talking about Christians today in this dispensation of God’s grace. It is taken as if it described what God has designed for us to be in His plan and purpose. But such is not the case. For the Lord is not talking about us today in Matthew 5, but Israel. And “the salt of the earth” is an expression which perfectly describes what Israel is in this earth in God’s plan and purpose with them as His nation.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SALT
Salt served a number of important functions in former days, some of which it still possesses and always will. For example, salt was used as a preservative to keep things from spoiling and rotting. In addition to this, salt was also used as a purifier, or purger, and as a cleansing agent. In a similar manner it was added to things already considered clean to prevent the intrusion of anything defiling. It was even used in connection with the making of covenants or contracts between two parties, and seasoned the covenant with mutual acceptance and fidelity to its terms. In truth, each of these issues has an appropriate application to Israel and God’s plan and purpose with them. But there is one other matter regarding salt that it is known for above all others, and that more than any other issue is the fitting reason for why the Lord refers to Israel as “the salt of the earth.”
Salt more than anything else is a savoring or flavoring agent. It adds taste or flavor to food. It seasons food and gives it a good taste and makes it savory. It is this function of salt that is particularly in the mind of the Lord when he speaks of “the salt of the earth,” for He specifically refers to the issue of salt’s savor in so speaking. It is this particular function of salt that so aptly fits Israel in God’s plan and purpose with them as the nation of His own creation on this earth. For in creating them, God covenanted with them to flavor the earth with the knowledge of Him.
ISRAEL AS SALT
When God separated Abraham unto Himself and covenanted with him and his seed to make of them a “great nation” in the earth, He previous to this had judged the world as a whole and given up the nations to walk in their own ways. God’s overall purpose with Israel as His own nation is to provide for the establishing of God’s kingdom on this earth. Israel is to be God’s “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” for both the establishment of God’s direct dominion on the earth, and for mediating the administration of God’s will and His ways among the nations of the world. The given-up-nations are to be affected by Israel functioning as “the kingdom of priests and holy nation,” and accordingly are designed to be blessed through Israel.
Moses in particular described to Israel the positive influence that they ought to have in the earth, and the savor that they ought to give to the earth, by functioning as the holy nation which God called them to be.
“Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it.
Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for?
And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)
Flavoring the earth with the knowledge of truth; both the truth that the LORD is the true and living God, and the truth of His ways and what is righteous in His sight; is indeed what Israel is designed to do in God’s plan and purpose with them. Being “the salt of the earth” as that flavoring agent is a perfect description of them in accordance with the Divine design.
The ultimate description of Israel’s flavoring of the earth is set forth in passages which describe the establishment of God’s kingdom in them on the earth and the affect that it will have.
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
But though Israel with its savor of the knowledge of the LORD is “the salt of the earth,” it needs to be noted that when the Lord declares this unto them in Matthew 5:13 He does so in a rebuking and forewarning manner. For instead of fulfilling God’s plan and purpose with them, Israel’s history was one of rebelliousness against God and contrariness to Him. In view of this the nation was already under the progressive courses of chastisement specified in the Law covenant in line with their rebelliousness, and at the time the Lord was among them they were on the verge of experiencing the climactic judgments of the prophesied Lord’s day of purging wrath. The kingdom of heaven was at hand, but before it was established the Lord would purge out from among His nation all the rebellious element and would leave only a remnant. It is in view of this that the Lord speaks in such a rebuking manner about the salt that they were, and declares the judgment that is fitting for useless salt.
As the Lord declared to Israel, “but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” This is exactly what had happened to Israel in view of all their rebelliousness against God, and especially in view of the vain religious system that had developed in them and was centered in the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes. Israel had lost its savor as “the salt of the earth.” Its condition was one of being “good for nothing” seeing it was unable to function as the salt it was designed to be. Israel with its vain religious system couldn’t flavor the earth with the knowledge of the LORD at all. For in vain they worshipped God and taught for doctrines the commandments of men. With its savor gone it was fit for nothing and was ready to be “cast out.” The Lord was going to soon judge and purge His nation, and all the useless salt was going to be cast out and destroyed from among the people.
Those in Israel who believed the “gospel of the kingdom” which was preached to them at this time, became beneficiaries of the prescription for cleansing that God had said He would bring upon His nation, as He had set forth in the prophets. Being so cleansed from Israel’s uncleanness God also disassociated them from apostate Israel and they were constituted the remnant and called out seed of Jacob to whom God would give the kingdom. [Note: For a more detailed treatment of the doctrine of the remnant see the author’s articles on The Kingdom Church and John the Baptist.] These in particular are who the Lord is addressing in Matthew 5:13 and in all that He says in the sermon on the mount. As Israelites they were “the salt of the earth” because that is what Israel is in God’s plan and purpose. But in view of Israel’s vain religious system and their standing before God as useless salt, these who have now been constituted as the cleansed remnant of Israel are “the salt of the earth” in truth. God’s plan and purpose with His nation would be fulfilled in a called out remnant, and therefore the Lord addressed the remnant accordingly calling them “the salt of the earth.”
The Lord, though, not only addressed the remnant as such, but He also went on to exhort them to conduct themselves in accordance with who they are. For this reason the balance of the Lord’s teaching to them charged them not to participate in either the thinking or practices of Israel’s vain religious system. He taught them the hypocrisy and vanity that pervaded the teachings and doings of the useless salt, and He instructed them on how to conduct themselves differently and in line with the truth. This they needed to do both so as to continue on and avail themselves of the marvelous provisions for their protection which would be given to them in the day of the Lord’s purging wrath, but also for the obtaining of rewards in the kingdom once it was established.
The Lord not only called the remnant “the salt of the earth,” but He also called them “the light of the world.”
“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
“The light of the world” is also a fitting designation for Israel in view of God’s plan and purpose with them. The world of the nations was given up to wander in darkness when God separated Abraham unto Himself. But God was nigh unto Israel and they had the light of the truth both in them and deposited with them. As such Israel was to be the glorifier of God and the light of His glory in the world. By being set in the world like a city on a hill that cannot be hid, Israel ought to have provided for an attraction to the life and light of God. But again, in view of the nation’s rebelliousness against God and the development of its vain religious system it did not function as “the light of the world” at all. As God had said to them through Jeremiah, they failed to be what He designed them to be.
“For as the girdle cleaveth to the loins of a man, so have I caused to cleave unto me the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah, saith the LORD; that they might be unto me for a people, and for a name, and for a praise, and for a glory: but they would not hear. (Jeremiah 13:11)
Though the nation as a whole failed to function as “the light of the world,” the cleansed remnant that the Lord was speaking to would fulfill that function when the kingdom was established. They would be the ones, as the gospel of the kingdom heralded, who would see the fulfillment of such prophecies as, “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) Accordingly, therefore, they were exhorted by the Lord to function right then as “the light of the world” with the kingdom of heaven being “at hand.” They were to have the light of their good works glorifying God right then and there in view of who they were as the cleansed remnant of Israel, and not be part of the dishonoring of God that was being produced by Israel’s hypocritical and blind leaders, along with their vain religious system.
It is Israel, once again, who is described by God as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” And Israel is appropriately so described because of who they are in God’s plan and purpose. Which plan and purpose, though temporarily suspended by this present dispensation of God’s grace to us Gentiles, will yet be fulfilled on this earth when God resumes His program and dealings with them. The “new creation” the church the body of Christ which God is forming in this present dispensation is not the fulfiller of God’s program with Israel, nor is it being used by Him to establish His kingdom on this earth. Rather, the purpose of God with His “new creation” pertains to the heavenly places, while His purpose with Israel pertains to this earth. – K.R. Blades