The subject of this article has to do with how covenants clarify and underline specific terms about certain important (indeed central) theological topics. If we all spoke the truth and we all could hear it unimpeded by sin’s effects there would be no need of covenants. Covenants presuppose subjects (at least one) who have a propensity to diverge from an important truth. (It is for this reason that any pre-fall covenants, which are exegetically weak and empty in the first place, seem superfluous).
Covenants also assume the parties to the covenant (at the bare minimum) understand and acknowledge the terms of the covenant.
Paul Williamson’s recent work on covenants, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, emphasizes the central role of oaths in the covenants of Scripture. In his analysis the use of berit in the Hebrew Bible he expresses his conviction that the making of a solemn oath, “could well be described as the sine qua non of a covenant.” (39).
Oaths require forethought and careful composition. Failure to think-through the words used may lead to tragic consequences, as the story of Jephthah drives home to us. Along with solemnity, premeditation persuasively argues for clarity. For a covenant that isn’t clear is hardly competent to do its job, particularly after time slips by.
True, not every oath indicates the presence of covenant, as Williamson is careful to point out (36), but when it comes to the Bible, and especially God’s covenants with men, he writes,
a Divine-human berit may be defined as the solemn ratification of an existing elective relationship involving promises or obligations that are sealed with an oath. – Ibid, 43.
Since covenants include solemn oath-taking, they are not slapped together indiscriminately. So perhaps the single most important thing to work on is the problem of ambiguity. Sometimes one finds deliberate ambiguity in documents. One example is the wording on atonement in the Canons of Dordt, which had to be worded to accommodate both particular and universal redemptionists. But covenants cannot admit ambiguities without self-destructing. Thought aforehand is mandatory.
Covenants prescribe obligations and raise certain expectations. If either party is being led to expect specifically identified things included in the covenant and that expectation is wrong, then one of two things has occurred. Either the words of the covenant were not clear enough, or the other covenanting party was using premeditated terminology to mislead. This is to say, the words of the covenant unavoidably create an expectation.
The prophets understood the solemn duty they were under to communicate God’s intentions. One thinks of Micaiah who responded back to those who tempted him to speak words in agreement with the false soothsayers,
As the LORD lives, whatever the LORD says to me, that will I speak – 1 Kings 22:14
The words of God excite the expectations of creatures. And when God earnestly pledges something an covenants to perform it He places His own character on the line to do what He has led people to expect He will do by the words of His oath. God does not much like covenant-breakers. Zedekiah found that out according to Jeremiah 34:8-22. By the prophet Ezekiel God asked,
Can [a man] break a covenant and still be delivered? – Ezekiel 17:15c
The one who breaks the covenant midway after confirming it for one heptad (Dan. 9:27) has traditionally been thought to be a bad person, since bad people fail to carry out their covenant obligations.
The Christian Gospel contains specific promises which have created clear and well defined expectations sealed by Jesus’ New Covenant blood (1 Cor. 11:25). Covenants create expectations and when the God of Truth; the One “in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning” (Jam. 1:17), binds Himself by a covenant oath, there is no surer or clearer word upon which to trust.
What Happens if the Words Are Ambiguous?
In his influential little book According To Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, Graeme Goldsworthy assures us,
God’s promises to Israel, first expressed as the covenant with Abraham, are irrevocable. God cannot go back on his word. – 146.
This all sounds very comforting (What would it mean for God (or any one else) to go back on His word?) God’s covenant with Abraham involved two main aspects: first the provision of a specified land to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (e.g. Gen. 12:7; 15; Amos 9:13-15; Ezek. 36:22-35). The second main part of this covenant is the promise that “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:8).
The land grant within the covenant is repeated over and over again in the Old Testament, often in covenantal contexts. the fact that the New Testament does not really mention (at least directly) the land does not abrogate all these expectations. It simply means the New Testament writers do not broach the subject. That’s okay, because the Old Testament writers do! The New Testament does not, as far as I am aware, mention the fact that God will never again bring a great flood to destroy the earth. It doesn’t have to, as the stipulations in the Noahic Covenant are clear enough and we can, on that basis, expect no future global deluge like that in Noah’s day.
But what would happen to all these expectations if the covenant oaths God took were not clear but were ambiguous? In fact, not just ambiguous but downright misleading, so that, based on the repeated words of God in the Old Testament the expectation of God’s people was wide of the mark?
According to any dictionary, an ambiguity betokens uncertainty or even doubtfulness of meaning and intention. As such, ambiguous covenants are unreliable and slippery things. Ambiguity is the enemy of certainty, and if something is uncertain it is unreasonable to ask someone to have faith in it. They would not be sure just what they were supposed to believe.
As we all know, Hebrews 11:6 says,
But without faith, it is impossible to please [God]; for those who come to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
Faith needs to rest in clear and unambiguous words. It cannot rest in shadows and forms. Covenants reinforce plain and certain facts. They are aids to faith only to the extent that they are left alone to say what they say.