Hitherto in this set of posts I have called our attention to several issues tied together with the word “disingenuous.” To be disingenuous is to lack candor or sincerity. To be less than forthcoming. I have applied this term to those who, for whatever reason, will not clearly tell people exactly what it is they are doing with Scripture passages; for example, whether they are interpreting a passage allegorically or typologically or symbolically. These are all forms of spiritualizing the text. We saw also how the imagination can be engaged to concoct a scenario which then becomes the basis for proceeding along a theological line without due recourse to problematical prophetic texts. I tried to demonstrate how these scenarios often fail to reflect what the interpreter is really doing with the Bible.
Another thing I did was to cast suspicion upon the recent expedient of claiming that supercessionist reinterpretations of OT promises, which they say comes from reading the NT, may legitimately be called “expansions” of those OT promises. In truth, what is happening is not expansion but transformation and mutation of these texts into something other than what they mean when taken in context at face value.
Most seriously, I called attention to the real dilemma that such hermeneutical abandon, if sanctioned by God, would cause the honest theologian to conclude that equivocation would have to be raised to the rank of an attribute of God, with all the ensuing philosophical fallout which that would bring with it. I understand that even raising this problem would be bound to annoy those believers who have a God who enters into oaths which, as their view of the NT permits Him to do, He never intended to carry out in the way He covenanted to do. But you can’t have your symbolic cake and eat it. If you posit such a deity all the pious rhetorical flourishes in the world will not alter the fact that he prevaricates when swearing oaths. I proved this with several examples in the three posts about “A Disingenuous God?”
The next post was not intended to be part of the series, but I suppose it ought to be included since it addresses itself to the supercessionist claim that the NT is necessary to rightly interpret the Old.
That brings me to this final article in the series. This one asks what God Himself thinks of those who make a covenant and fail to fulfill it to the letter. Surely God does not hold His creatures to a higher standard of fidelity in these matters than He holds Himself to? Let’s see.
God’s Covenant Pledges in Jeremiah 33
Remember God’s oath in Jeremiah 33?
14 ‘ Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘that I will
perform that good thing which I have promised to the house of Israel
and to the house of Judah:
15 ‘In those days and at that time I will cause to grow up to David
A Branch of righteousness; He shall execute judgment and
righteousness in the earth.
16 In those days Judah will be saved, And Jerusalem will dwell
safely. And this is the name by which she will be called: THE
LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’
17 “For thus says the LORD: ‘David shall never lack a man to sit
on the throne of the house of Israel [Davidic Covenant];
18 ‘nor shall the priests, the Levites, lack a man to offer burnt
offerings before Me, to kindle grain offerings, and to sacrifice
continually.’ [Priestly Covenant]“
19 And the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying,
20 “Thus says the LORD: ‘If you can break My covenant with the
day and My covenant with the night, so that there will not be day
and night in their season,
21 ‘then My covenant may also be broken with David My servant,
so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and with the
Levites, the priests, My ministers.
22 ‘As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, nor the sand of the
sea measured [Abrahamic Covenant], so will I multiply the descendants of David My
servant and the Levites who minister to Me.’ “
23 Moreover the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, saying,
24 “Have you not considered what these people have spoken,
saying, ‘The two families which the LORD has chosen, He has also
cast them off’? [Like many supercessionists have said] Thus they have despised My people, as if they
should no more be a nation before them.
25 ” Thus says the LORD: ‘If My covenant is not with day and
night, and if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and
26 ‘then I will cast away the descendants of Jacob and David My
servant, so that I will not take any of his descendants to be rulers
over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will
cause their captives to return, and will have mercy on them.’ “
I have highlighted certain parts of the passage to show what is at stake, hermeneutically speaking. Three things come to notice:
1. It is scarcely possible to conceive of a more thorough attempt to convince others that the speaker means to do exactly what He has promised to perform.
2. In this passage you will see I have called attention to no less than four covenants which God made. God is putting His own credibility on the line here. Either He will perform “the words of the covenant” or He will not.
3. There is no doubt that readers of this stirring pledge had every reason to take God literally and no reason at all to believe He would alter His covenant promises.
I want to come back to one aspect of these truths in a minute, but it’s time to think through the significance of what comes up next in the Book of Jeremiah.
The Words of the Covenant
Now turn over to the very next chapter. There, in Jeremiah 34 we read of the covenant which Zedekiah and the nobility made with the people to release their Jewish bond-servants in belated obedience to provisions in the Mosaic Covenant (Exod. 21:2). But after a little while the inconvenience of this arrangement began to tell on the princes and they violated their covenant oath and brought their former slaves back into bondage. God does not allow them to get away with this covenant-breaking and sends the prophet to reprove the king and his nobles for their u-turn (see Jer. 34:15-16). He then announces judgment (v.17).
Then come verses 18-20:
18 ‘And I will give the men who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the
parts of it —
19 ‘the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs,
the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the
parts of the calf —
20 ‘I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand
of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for
the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth.
Notice carefully here that God expects these men to perform “the words of the covenant” (v.18)! The words spoken in the covenant-making ceremony mean what they say! If Zedekiah and the princes did not intend to actually perform these words they oughtn’t to have SAID them. That is the clear message from God to them (and to us). Covenants are not things you can manipulate later to suit yourself. They were and are inflexible things. The very unyielding quality of covenants underlined their solemnity. That is precisely why God makes covenants. He wants us to know that He means what He says!
What sort of covenant is described here? One of precisely the same kind as the one God made with Abraham in Genesis 15. Both were unconditional. Both were one-sided. Viberg (Symbols of Law) has drawn attention to the fact the walking through the pieces of animals is unknown from extant covenant texts outside the OT, but since the word berith is in both contexts we shall not bother too much about ANE parallels and concern ourselves with what Scripture declares. The self-maledictory element is clearly implied by the mention of animals eating (thus tearing up) the bodies of the covenant-breakers (vv.19-20). But the point of interest is clear enough: God would hardly be in a position to blame anyone else for not fulfilling “the words of the covenant” if He made the same covenant and failed to do perform what He had vowed to do!
The implications of all this for biblical hermeneutics will be spelled out more in my discussion of Jeremiah 34 etc. in the fourth “rule” of my Parameters of Meaning (which will appear here soon).
Will God Bring Another Flood?
It would be jolly nice if I could call to mind many prominent dispensationalists who held that the Noahic covenant was the first covenant in Scripture. Once more, liberal scholars take this covenant as the first, but older dispensationalists, like Scofield and Chafer – no doubt because they were trying to stay within their confessional boundaries, and more contemporary dispensationalists like Fruchtenbaum – for no good reason I can divine, insist that God made covenants in Eden with Adam and Eve.
Still, we’ll let that slide and think about the covenant with Noah. This covenant is cited in Jeremiah 33:25. Now all would agree that God has kept this covenant literally (even those who want to believe it was a local flood – they can explain the inconsistency when they stand before the Lord!). As this promise in Jeremiah 33 hinges on God sticking to “the words of the [Noahic] covenant” it is a safe bet that He means to stick by His other covenants too!
And to assist us in coming to this sensible and obvious conclusion we can read Isaiah 54:9.
For this is like the waters of Noah to Me; For as I have sworn
That the waters of Noah would no longer cover the earth, So have I
sworn That I would not be angry with you, nor rebuke you.
Again I ask, do we believe God meant what He said in His covenant with Noah? Then what do we do with Isaiah 54:9? It is God speaking to Israel (see vv.5-7), with a New Covenant promise (vv.10, 17) of redemption and restoration. And He draws attention to the fact that He will perform this promise of showing Israel His “everlasting kindness” (v.8) by pointing to how He has done what He covenanted to do in the Noahic Covenant!
I’m persuaded! I think the obvious interpretation of these passages, and of the other passages we have examined in this series, are the ones God wants us to make. God is glorified when we take Him at His Word! We fool ourselves that He is glorified when we refuse to believe that He means what He says.