The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (5)

Part Four

This is the final installment of the excerpts from my book ‘The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation,’ which I hope to get published by the end of 2020.  I would be grateful for those readers of this blog who have derived some benefit from these posts if you would please pray for God’s blessing on the publication and reading of the book.

The Durability of God’s Covenant Oaths

     All of the above categories fit nicely within a biblical covenantal framework.  Yahweh has freely entered into binding covenantal obligations by which His character and attributes can be seen for what they are.  There is no reason for humans to try to get God off the hook that He has put Himself on.  God wants to be held to His oaths.  He wants to be believed. For when He is believed by His creature they glorify Him.  When one traces a particular covenant oath through time it is clear that the oath does not undergo change.  Thus, the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:8-11 retains the same meaning for Isaiah many hundreds of years later (Isa. 54:9).  The three main parts of the Abrahamic covenant, of land (Gen. 12:7; 15:18-21), descendants (Gen. 15:4-5), and blessing on the nations (Gen. 12:3; 22:17-18) are interpreted to mean the same thing by Jeremiah (Jer. 32:36-41; 33:22, 25-26), Ezekiel (Ezek. 36:23-28; 37:12-14, 21, 26), Zechariah (Zech. 2:10-12; 8:1-7; 22-23), and Malachi (Mal. 1:11; 3:12).  There does not appear to be any wiggle room for reinterpreting or reapplying these promises, and the Hebrew Scriptures never indulge in it.

More than this, as I have documented above, Yahweh seems to have little or no patience with those who do not make good on their covenant vows.  He held Joshua and Israel to the words of the covenant that they foolishly made with the Gibeonites in Joshua 9, even sending a curse on Israel many years after because Saul had violated its commitments when he persecuted the Gibeonites (2 Sam. 21:1-2).  The prophet Jeremiah records a sentence of doom upon king Zedekiah and his nobles for not performing “the words of the covenant which they made before Me” in Jeremiah 34:18-20.  Ezekiel speaks similarly, although this time it involves a covenant that the king of Judah was forced to make with the king of Babylon (Ezek. 17:13), and which was reneged on.  The prophet then asks “Can he break a covenant and still be delivered?” (Ezek. 17:15).

The obvious conclusion one must draw from all this is that the Lord of the Universe despises covenant-breakers.  But this is instructive for us chiefly because Yahweh is Himself a covenant maker.  Unless we are going to become hopeless nominalists, we are faced with the inalterable truth that Yahweh intends to keep His covenants, understood by the normal canons of language, to the letter.

If this is what we are up against when it comes to the understanding of the divine covenants, then surely, we are justified in clinging to the oaths of God in faith, no matter how things appear to us in our times and places?  The burden of fulfillment falls on the oath taker; in this case God Himself.  It is the most sensible of all moves to believe that God means exactly what He says in these covenants and to leave the “problem” of fulfillment to Him.  This is all the more justified from an Old Testament perspective.  The question of whether the New Testament gives us a “new” meaning for God’s oaths will not be taken up here.  But on the face of things it needs to be said that any such assertion would have to be proven exegetically (and not just inferentially), and that anyone making such an assertion is duty bound to construct a theodicy which takes full account of what has been written above about oaths, oath-takers, and Yahweh’s attitude to those who do not perform “the words of the covenant.”

 The Future Kingdom of God in the Old Testament (What Are We Led to Expect?)

     There are many different parts to the big covenantal picture which gradually comes together on the large canvass of the Old Testament.  The basic elements are there: The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not just Abraham) have been made into the foremost nation on earth, and Jerusalem is the city of the great King.  The Gentile nations have for the most part joined themselves to Yahweh, although there are some rebels.  Jerusalem has been elevated, and the new expansive temple of God sits atop a great mountain, from which living waters flow down continually.  Yahweh Himself dwells in Zion.  The New covenant Law is known across the globe.  He will rule with absolute authority, but His reign will be just and merciful and happy.  There will be no need to search for God, for everyone will know Him.  All will behold the glory of Yahweh.

As to the effects of this, the primary thing is that shalom pervades every land; a sense of belonging to the world; of fitting in, because the world is made and blessed for us.  No one goes hungry because of the massive productivity of the ground.  Everyone feels safe.  The only people looking over their shoulders are those who oppose the Prince of Peace.  Peace will be felt in the city and in the countryside.  The animals of the wild will not harm each other, for rapacious and carnivorous beasts will no longer exist.  All will eat grass like the ox.  Transformations in nature and scenery will make the world delightful.

While sickness will need healing remedies will be on hand.  While deaths will still occur, they will only encroach upon a long life.  This is not heaven.  This is not the new heavens and the new earth.  This is the reign of the Branch, the Servant, the Stone that smote the unrighteous kingdoms of man.

The covenants of God, made mainly with Israel as the channel through whom Yahweh will realize His Creation Project, have an everlasting aspect to them that surely reaches beyond this blessed but not yet perfect environment into the eternal realm.  One writer sums it up well:

The story of Scripture is thoroughly Jewish.  To de-emphasize or omit this part of the story is to misunderstand the covenants and the manner in which God blesses all people through his Messiah…The line of Abraham, as seen in the nation of Israel, is the main earthly character in the entirety of the Old Testament.  It is their history throughout the Old Testament that we follow through times of judgment, yet with a constant reminder of the eternal, everlasting promises of God’s covenants.[1]

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[1] Mark Yarbrough, “Israel and the Story of the Bible,” in Israel, the Church, and the Middle East: A Biblical Response to the Current Conflict (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2018), edited by Darrell L. Bock and Mitch Glaser, 54.

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