Biblical Studies

Contemporary Hermeneutical Theory and Conservative Interpretation (3)

Part Two

Ricoeur

Alongside Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur (d. 2005) stands as the most important philosopher of hermeneutics in the last hundred years. His work is often to be found discussed in evangelical circles today, and for that reason we shall devote a little more space to his work. Ricoeur is concerned with how language is used not with how it is structured.[53] As human existence is communicated through language, the study of the use of language is, therefore, the study of human existence. What is language but existence communicated in symbols or signs? Hence, the study of the way linguistic signs are used (semiotics) becomes a way to study the human being and his significance and self-understanding (semantics). It is hardly surprising to learn that for Ricoeur “man is language.”[54]

Ricoeur believes that contemporary man has become desensitized to symbol and metaphor, and so he is missing in some measure, the hub of his own significance by his failure to experience life in its fullest terms.[55] Ricoeur is a phenomenologist – stressing the activity of the reader once he is impacted by a text.[56] But he utterly rejects man as the starting point in interpretation, preferring a transcendent beginning.[57]His influence is to be seen in several areas.

First, his overall philosophical outlook was hopeful (in contrast to that of the existentialists like Heidegger and Sartre). This meant that he tended to read texts “optimistically” – as, for example, the story of the Fall, which he said contained nothing like “Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.”[58]

Second, he ironically stressed “the hermeneutics of suspicion” whereby one recognizes that, “preunderstanding does indeed influence every interpretive conclusion drawn with reference to the biblical text. Because the baggage brought by an exegete to the reading of Scripture can potentially hinder the hermeneutical process, one must always question every exegetical perspective.”[59]

The third thing Ricoeur is known for is calling particular attention to creative language such as metaphor, narrative and parable.[60] Through careful examination and refection on these language forms he has produced some important thoughts on some important issues within philosophy of religion such as the sort of relationship that exists between God and time.[61] He believed that these ways of expression point us to a fuller appreciation of ourselves and our significance. “The manifesto of hermeneutic philosophy is “existence via semantics”: self-understanding via textual interpretation.”[62]

Lastly, Ricoeur is noted for his focus on genre (the world of the text) and the impact of the text upon the reader’s world (the world in front of the text). The interplay of these “worlds” means abandoning what he calls “the first naivete”: the literal sense, in order to make way for “the second naivete”: finding oneself in and through the world of the text.[63] In other words, the reader must go through a sifting of his faith from a position of fear and emotion to a more level-headed critical understanding of the text (and so the world) in order to have a rational faith.[64] The literal sense cannot supply the truth of existence!

Of course, to comprehend signs truly one must move beyond the signs themselves and concentrate on discourse, hence his focus upon semantics as the key to self-understanding.[65]  Ricoeur also finds himself on the “conservative” side in his rejection of the Kantian idealism of liberalism, which forced churchmen into vainly trying either to prove Christianity to be inductively scientific[66], or to show that Christianity’s “inwardness” made the effort to make it scientific an exercise in missing the point.[67]  And he strikes a chord when he insists that the text must always take precedence over the interpreter.[68]

But he does not believe in the possibility of discovering authorial intention. There is and always will be a “distance” between reader and author. Moreover, the “hermeneutics of suspicion” that he learned from Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, always makes interpretation a risky business, with “truth,” in a sense far less than certainty but above doubt, being the final goal.[69] (more…)

The Sine Qua Non of Dispensationalism? – Ryrie and Feinberg (Revised)

I made a bit of a hash of the initial post on this because I was in a rush.  Here is an extended and revised version (which is what I should have posted).  It questions the third essential of Ryrie’s proposed sine qua non.

The picture of history that is constructed comes from the base of consistently applied principles of grammatico-historical (G-H) hermeneutics.[i]  The Bible is to read as one would read any other book.  The presupposition here is not that the Bible is like any other book.  Rather, when it is read like one would read another book it becomes apparent that it is unique.  But only plain sense, literal interpretation yields the self-attestation of Scripture with its corollary of ultimate authority.

It is the consistency with which G-H interpretation is employed that makes one a dispensationalist.[ii]  This has been admitted even by those who have opposed it.[iii]  Consistent application of the principles of G-H interpretation, then, is the foremost trait of a dispensational theology.  Ryrie, in his delineation of the essential aspects of the system, actually places this characteristic second behind a fundamental distinction between Israel and the Church.[iv]  This subject bears further investigation.

Ryrie, Feinberg, and the Sine Qua Non  

On pages 38-41 of Ryrie’s important book on Dispensationalism, the author provides what he believes are the three indispensable marks of a dispensationalist.  The first of these essential beliefs is a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church.  Ryrie states: “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive.  The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and the one who does will.”[v]

The other two components of Ryrie’s sine qua non are, as we have seen, a consistent use of normal, plain, or literal interpretation when studying the Scriptures, and, more controversially, a doxological (rather than a christological or soteriological) goal of God in human history.[vi]

However, it should be pointed out that not all dispensationalists completely agree with Ryrie.[vii]  One notable scholar who demurs is John Feinberg of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Feinberg believes Ryrie’s three essentials need nuancing.[viii]  He also thinks there are six things which, if properly defined, distinguish a consistent dispensationalist.[ix]  They are:

  • Multiple senses of terms like “Jew,” “seed of Abraham”
  • Hermeneutics
  • Covenant promises to Israel
  • A distinctive future for ethnic Israel
  • The Church as a distinctive organism
  • A distinct philosophy of history.
  •   Interestingly, and which pertains more to the present discussion, Feinberg breaks down the traditionally cast distinction between the Church and Israel into the following:

Multiple Senses of the Term “Seed of Abraham.”

  1. First, he defines what he calls the ethnic or national sense, which relates to physical Israel.
  2. Next is the political sense, which calls to mind the geo-political entity that was Israel. As a political state there were citizens who were not physical Hebrews.
  3. Then there is the spiritual sense. Under this identification are those who are the Seed of Abraham because they share like faith in God.  A person could be described this whether Jew or Gentile (Paul even uses this designation to distinguish saved from unsaved Jews in Romans 9:6ff.
  4. Feinberg refers to the typological sense, wherein Old Testament Israel may function as a type of the Church (e.g. 1 Cor. 10:1-6).[x] 

With these more refined senses of what it means to be one of Abraham’s seed, Feinberg writes,

“What is distinctive of dispensational thinking is recognition of all senses of these terms as operative in both Testaments coupled with a demand that no sense (spiritual especially) is more important than any other, and that no sense cancels out the meaning and implications of the other senses.”[xi]

This is a helpful development in view of the oft-cited passages routinely produced by covenant theologians to prove that the Church is now Israel (e.g. Rom. 2:28; 9:6-7;11,16-25; Eph. 2:11-18; Phil. 3:3, etc.).

Ryrie’s Third Sine Qua Non Revisited

In contrast to covenant theology, which, because of its slavish adherence to the “covenant of grace”, must view all things soteriologically, dispensationalists believe the over-arching plan of God is the promotion of His glory through multifaceted means.  As Ryrie puts it, “…covenant theology makes the all-encompassing means of manifesting the glory of God the plan of redemption.”[xii]  Elsewhere he declares that, “The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God.”[xiii]

In another place Ryrie comments:

Scripture is not human-centered, as though salvation were the principal point, but God-centered, because His glory is at the center.  The glory of God is the primary principle that unifies all the dispensations, the program of salvation being just one of the means by which God glorifies Himself.  Each successive revelation of God’s plan for the ages, as well as His dealings with the elect, nonelect, angels, and nations all manifest His glory.[xiv]

Nevertheless, we think Ryrie has overreached himself on this third point.  While the first two are certainly essentials if one is to be a normative dispensationalist, the third is not.  Stallard, for example, has shown that, “the doxological center for the Bible in Ryrie is replaced by a redemptive center in Gaebelein’s statements about the purpose of revelation.”[xv]

It is very clear that one can be a dispensationalist and not believe that the glory of God demonstrated in a multifaceted scheme is a critical belief of the system, just as one can be a covenant theologian and believe that it is – albeit the other matters definitely play second fiddle to salvation.[xvi]    In fact, I would argue that most dispensationalists are unsure just what the third strand of Ryrie’s sine qua non means!  (more…)

CONTEMPORARY HERMENEUTICAL THEORY AND CONSERVATIVE INTERPRETATION (2)

Part One

Footnotes follow on from last time.

The Hermeneutical Landscape

The philosopher of religion Gregory Clark admits that, “[some] sources regularly describe the variety of hermeneutical approaches practiced today as ‘dizzying’.”[22]

In closing his article Clark writes:

“Hermeneutics as a discipline is as wild and woolly as it has ever been, and its future shape and even its existence are impossible to predict.”[23]

Reading the “movers and shakers” in evangelical hermeneutics today is a little foreboding. It might be well to start off then by reminding ourselves of a standard definition of hermeneutics:

Hermeneutics…is both a science and an art. As a science, it enunciates principles, investigates the laws of thought and language, and classifies its facts and results. As an art, it teaches what application these principles should have, and establishes their soundness by showing their practical value in the elucidation of the more difficult Scriptures. The hermeneutical art thus cultivates and establishes a valid exegetical procedure.[24]

It would be helpful to add to this Ramm’s observation that it “stands in the same relationship to exegesis that a rule-book stands to a game.”[25]  In addition, Ramm added that what the interpreter is looking for is the single-meaning of any passage: “But here we must remember the old adage: ‘Interpretation is one; application is many.’ This means that there is only one meaning to a passage of Scripture, which is determined by careful study.”[26]

Contrast Ramm’s words with those of the prominent British Old Testament scholar David J. A. Clines who writes:

I have been impressed in this study [of Esther] by the value of as many strategies as possible for reading a text. As a critic of the text, I should hate to be restricted by a methodological purism. What I have noticed is that different strategies confirm, complement or comment on other strategies, and so help develop an integrated but polychromatic reading.[27]

Or again,

My experience with Psalm 23 was enough to convince me that ‘possible’ and ‘impossible’ are not categories to be applied to interpretations, that, as far as I could see, a text can mean anything at all, and that I myself was (oxymoronically) an absolute indeterminist.[28]

Clines exults that he can explore the text of the Bible with complete methodological abandon. This freedom has not come to him through the mere exercise of the imagination. It is a result of studying the philosophical hermeneutics of people like Roland Barthes and Richard Rorty, both of whom teach that subjectivity is desirable in reading a text.[29]  Objectivity is a mirage, a dream perpetuated by the sort of naiveté demonstrated only by intransigent ultra conservatives.

It behooves us then to briefly chart some of what has been going on in the world of mainline hermeneutics so that we might better access what conservative interpreters are being influenced by, not to mention what dispensationalists are increasingly likely to come up against.

Schleiermacher

Modern hermeneutics started with F. D. E. Schleiermacher (d. 1834). Operating from a background that mixed German Pietism and Kantian Idealism, Schleiermacher believed that to confine biblical hermeneutics to a set of previously drawn up “rules of interpretation” was to decide the outcome of ones exegesis before the text had been analyzed. He stated that for any interpretation to take place the interpreter must provisionally know something about text itself. This he referred to as “preunderstanding.”[30]  There must, he said, be some preliminary understanding of a subject, say, “love,” before that subject can be comprehended from the page. As R. E. Palmer puts it,

“Is it not vain to speak of love to one who has not known love, or of the joys of learning to those who reject it? One must already have, in some measure, a knowledge of the matter being discussed.”[31]

Schleiermacher, then, proceeded to divide hermeneutics into two components, the linguistic and the psychological.[32]  The linguistic or grammatical approach, with which we are all familiar, whereby, “the reader needs to use objective, grammatical methods to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of original languages and the historical and literary contexts of a text.”[33] This he believed in strongly, and, in fact, he made several important clarifications along this line.[34]  But this was not enough. For Schleiermacher, and for many mainline interpreters since his time, the reader has to become connected with the original author’s psyche at the time and place he wrote. This psychological aspect he called “divination.” As he himself said, “The divinatory is that in which one transforms oneself into the other person in order to grasp his individuality directly.”[35]

There must be an attentive acculturation of the reader to the personality of the writer. The reader must “reexperience the thoughts of the author”[36]  He must not only enter his world but, with imagination and empathy, read the author’s intellectual and emotional experience, even his sub-conscience.[37]  If there is any sympathy between subject and object there is an “inspiration” already in the reader which allows him to do this.[38]

Schleiermacher didn’t believe the interpretation ended at a certain point in the process. There would be constant interplay between the reader and the text and the world of understanding of both.[39]  Not only that, but the new understanding generated by the process teaches the reader’s understanding (that is, his “preunderstanding”) before he sits down to reread.

“The fuller (or more accurate) understanding “speaks back” to the preunderstanding to correct and to reshape it. This revision contributes to a better understanding. Hence, to reread a “difficult” book, or even to undertake successive readings, may bring about a deeper understanding of it”.[40]

There is no doubt about Schleiermacher’s influence upon hermeneutical theory. He prepared the ground for all the hermeneutics theorists down to the present day.[41]

Gadamer[42]

Hans-Georg Gadamer (d. 2002), was a student of both Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Bultmann. His work on hermeneutics, particularly his tome Truth and Method have been enormously influential. Gadamer is responsible, perhaps more than any other, for shifting the emphasis of interpretation away from authorial intention and on to the reader.[43]  He did this through the rhetorical device of the “two horizons” – the horizon of the biblical text and the horizon of the modern interpreter. The horizon of the reader (also called the “Horizon of Meaning”) involves not only the reader, but the methodological parameters set down, usually unconsciously, by the community of which he is a part. Possible meanings, then, are circumscribed by the interpretive community. As the complexion of the community changes, so do the parameters of viable interpretation and thus the range of possible meanings.[44]  By contrast the “Horizon of the Text” is that “set of assumptions that underlie a text and establish its point of view within its own historical circumstances.”[45]

The aim of hermeneutics is to seek “for the place where the horizons of the text and the interpreter intersect or engage.”[46]  This concept may at first seem innocent enough, since one cannot deny that because of the different historical, cultural and psychological life-situations of ancient author and modern reader one can never be certain that one has fully understood the author’s meaning, only that one has very probably understood it.[47]

But this isn’t what Gadamer means, for he goes on to say that each reader’s situation is different: One cannot affirm the existence (and importance) of one horizon and not others. When we – as twenty-first century American evangelicals – understand Scripture, we do so on the basis of our own horizon.[48]

Thus, one must take into consideration the cultural context of the reader, and, since we all have a cultural context, my interpretation of a biblical passage has no more right to validity than, say, a different interpretation by someone from India.[49] As one writer illustrates the matter,

A linguist asks a group made up of Africans and missionaries to tell him the main point of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. The Europeans speak of Joseph as a man who remained faithful to God no matter what happened to him. The Africans, on the other hand, point to Joseph as a man who, no matter how far he traveled, never forgot his family.[50]

Where does this leave us as interpreters?  For many followers of modern hermeneutical theory it casts more or less doubt upon the idea of objectivity in Bible interpretation.[51]  For this reason Gadamer has been described as standing “on the boundary-line between modern and post-modern thought.”[52]


[22] Greg Clark, “Contemporary Hermeneutics,” in Scot McKnight & Grant Osbourne, editors, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Apollos, 2004), 115.
[23] Ibid, 117.
[24] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 20.
[25] Ramm, 11.
[26] Ibid, 113.
[27] Quoted by Craig G. Bartholomew, “Postmodernity and Biblical Interpretation,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 604.
[28] Ibid.
[29] See W. Randolph Tate, Interpreting the Bible: A Handbook of Terms and Methods, (Peabody, MT: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006).
[30] Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons, (Exeter, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1980), 103. This book, more than any other, is responsible for much of the re-thinking about hermeneutics that has been going-on within evangelical scholarship. Thomas contends, “This… work radically altered the way that many evangelicals interpret the Bible.” – Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), 18.
[31] Cited in Thiselton, 104.
[32] David K. Clark, To Know And Love God: Method For Theology, (Wheaton, Ill, Crossway Books, 2003), 104-105.
[33] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” in, eds., Scot McKnight & Grant R. Osborne, The Face of New Testament Studies, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 109.
[34] David S. Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 163. Hirsch called Schleiermacher’s aphorisms, found in the first part of his lectures on Hermeneutik, “among the most profound contributions to hermeneutics.” – E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), 263.
[35] Cited in Thiselton, The Two Horizons, 107.
[36] Greg Clark, “General Hermeneutics,” 109.
[37] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation Then and Now, 163.
[38] Roy A. Harrisville and Walter Sundberg, The Bible in Modern Culture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 72-73.
[39] Thiselton, 104.
[40] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Hermeneutical Circle,” in Gen. Ed., Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 281.
Note. Schleiermacher spoke of a hermeneutical circle, but the idea of a “spiral” was seen as closer to the mark. A good definition of the hermeneutical spiral is found in Thiselton’s conception of it when he states that “the emphasis lies not only on the inter-action between the parts and the whole, but on a process of revision which modifies the interpreter’s exploratory understanding in the light of the text.” – Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992), 222.
[41] Schleiermacher gave hermeneutics a much wider brief than it had enjoyed prior to his time. He basically made it a way of knowing, not just the text before the reader, but the reader’s world. He moved it into the realm of epistemology.
[42] I move straight from Schleiermacher to Gadamer to save time.A fuller study would have to take into account the work of Dilthey, Heidegger, and Bultmann.
[43] Gadamer emphasizes the text as a distinct voice independent of the author.In his hands this ends up handing interpretive authority to the reader.Hence, the radical form of “reader-response” theory.
[44] Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 170.
[45] Ibid, emphasis added.
[46] Harvie M. Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” in ed., Harvie M. Conn, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 188.
[47] Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, 17-18, 255, 263.
[48] Bruce Ellis Benson, ‘“Now I Would Not Have You Ignorant”: Derrida, Gadamer, Hirsch and Husserl on Authors’ Intentions,” in eds., Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez and Dennis L. Okholm, Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, (Downers Grove, Il: IVP, 2004), 189.
This is the text of a Symposium held at Wheaton College in 2001. The essays in the book clearly illustrate the kind of “downgrade” which is in process within at least some evangelical institutions.
[49] Thus, there arises the problem of “contextualization.” Upon which see, David K. Clark, To Know And Love God, 99-131. In my opinion Clark goes too far in his development of an “Evangelical” approach to contextualization by not sufficiently seeing the need to critique differing evangelical “cultures.” An even more surefooted appraisal of contextualization which takes the whole “Seeker-sensitive” phenomenon into consideration is David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).
[50] Conn, “Normativity, Relevance, and Relativism,” 188-189.
[51] One might think of postconservative theologians like F. LeRon Shults.
[52] Anthony C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 314.

Following Jesus’ Guidance in Two Important Subjects in Matthew 24

The Olivet Discourse has been a battleground for interpreters from the various schools of eschatology for aeons.  Even futurist premillennial writers offer different opinions on the passage.  Nothing is going to be solved for everyone here, but I do want to call attention to the way that Jesus introduces two themes and later comes back to them again.  If we allow that the Lord is referring to these themes by recapitulating them in His discourse then we have a helpful guide to some sticky problems, particularly the matter of the people “taken” in Matthew 24:40-42.

The Arrival of False Christ’s and False Prophets

And Jesus answered and said to them: “Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. – Matt. 24:4-5

At first glance it might appear that Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples, but if that is true can we say this prophecy was fulfilled?  And why would the disciples be fooled by them anyway?

It is better to take seriously the inclusion of proleptic language, which is used by Jesus throughout the chapter.  Proleptic language is anticipatory language, usually in light of far future events.  John 14:1-4.  In those famous verses Jesus uses the pronoun “you” to refer to His disciples in verses 1 and 4.  But in verses 2 and 3 “you” does not refer to the disciples but to those believers who will be living at the time of Christ’s return. Certainly we can see that “you” is used proleptically in Matthew 24:15, 33, 42, and 44.

Once we think about the verses as proleptic they can be matched up with these later verses which are set in the days just before the Lord’s coming:

Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand.Matt. 24:23-25

In this later passage the false christs and false prophets deceive, not by lamely claiming to be such, but by impressively demonstrating great power to perform signs and wonders.  This means that in the early part of Matthew 24 Jesus is skipping the first question of the disciples (in v.3) and is focusing on the question about “the end” and His coming.

The Taking Away of the Man in the Field and the Woman at the Mill

Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. – Matt. 24:40-42

As noticed above, this text has often been thought by Dispensationalists to relate to the “days of Noah” (vv. 37-39).  In that scenario the comparison is drawn between those who stayed (in the Ark) and those who were swept away by the judgment of the flood.  The trouble with this view is that it would seem to demand that the angels gather every sinner and bring them to judgment.  Christ will be along soon to dispense wrath and destruction at Armageddon.  Some have even thought up the ingenious position that the pretribulation rapture is inserted here in retrogressive fashion.

But if we permit this text to be interpreted by these words of Jesus we get something different (and I would argue, more natural):

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.  And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. – Matt. 24:29-31.

As stated above, the text has often been interpreted as implying the ones taken are taken to judgment, but I have always felt that it was counter-intuitive.  What we have if we allow verses 40-42 to be interpreted by verses 29-31 is an angelic rescue right before the Lord descends in wrath (cf. Isa. 63:1-6 and Rev. 19:11-16).

This both makes sense of the passage and allows one part of Jesus’ speech to be interpreted by another part.  I rather like that.

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.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (4)

Part Three

g. The Rule of Righteousness, Justice, Peace, and Safety

When will this world know peace? When will things that could be fair actually be fair? When will justice stop being perverted? The answer to these questions is in the reign of the coming King (Isa. 32:1). He will judge righteously, “and decide with equity[1] for the meek of the earth.” (Isa 11:4). Only when His judgments are in the earth, will the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. (Isa 26:9). Once this occurs there will exist the wholeness and tranquility that is shalom, for the King is Himself, “Yahweh our righteousness” (Jer. 23:5-6), “the Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6).

In numerous places God has promised “peace and safety” to His people. In Hosea 2:18 “safety” is guaranteed because both human beings and the beasts of the earth become non-violent (cf. Ezek. 34:25).  Micah 4:4 declares “everyone shall sit under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” Isaiah 26:12 reveals a wonderful theological truth:

LORD, You will establish peace for us,
For You have also done all our works in us.

The inner work of peace is wrought by Yahweh. Peace is His gift (cf. Jn. 14:27). The pervasiveness of justice coming from Jerusalem provides for “quiet resting places” (Isa. 32:18 cf. Zech.9:10). The settings are this-worldly[2] and always eschatological, because they can only be eschatological. The difference is made by the One on the Davidic throne in Jerusalem, and in the ministry of the Spirit.

h. The Promise of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is not an unknown character in the Old Testament. He is there at the creation of the world (Gen. 1:2). The Spirit who superintended the beginning of the Creation Project is the One who will conclude it. His presence in the world insures this conclusion (cf. Psa. 139:7). The great change is to be brought about by the Spirit of God (Isa. 32:15). It is He who “adorned the heavens” (Job 26:13a). He will open the eyes of Israel (Zech. 12:10; Joel 2:28-32), and restore her (Ezek. 37:14 cf. Zech. 4:16). It is by the Spirit that the coming King will judge the earth (Isa. 11:2); that human nature will be changed so as to love righteousness and seek wisdom (Ezek. 36:27; Psa. 51:6). The Spirit of God is the one who will pour out the benefits of the New covenant, thus ensuring that the covenants with Abraham, Phinehas, and David are fulfilled to the letter (cf. Zech. 4:6).

i. The Blessing on the Nations

Zephaniah 2:10-11 says that the nations will one day worship Yahweh (cf. Psa. 87:4, 6; Am. 9:12; Isa. 19:19-25; Mal.1:11). Their salvation is guaranteed within one of the provisions of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 12:3c). In the days of the King the people of the nations will journey to Zion (Isa. 2:2; Zech. 14:16). This turning of the nations will in part be affected by the transformation and witness of Israel (Isa. 43:1-21). In short, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isa. 11:9). The Old Testament pictures independent nation-states upon earth governed in line with the great Ruler in Zion (cf. Dan. 7:13-14; Zech. 14:16).

The Compelling Force of Expectation

A crucial aspect of reading the Hebrew Bible that often escapes attention is the wave of expectation that its promises raised in the minds of believers before the New Testament era. Identifying that expectation is absolutely essential. I have done some of that in the examples given above.[3] Whatever a person may think about the priority of the New Testament in understanding the Bible, if one has not given thought to the subject of Old Testament expectation in the absence of the New Testament then I believe that he has not yet read the Old Testament truly. Whatismore, he is in no condition to comprehend the mind of a Jewish Apostle writing the New Testament. What God’s covenants do is to increase faith in certain outcomes. They raise expectations to another level. They become the firm basis for hope!

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[1] The word “equity” has been co-opted by critical race theorists (CRT) to mean “an assured equality of outcome” rather than a level playing field. In CRT “equity” is imposed based upon the decisions of those few in positions of power. It becomes rooted in man’s sinful nature rather than in a transcendental justice based on God’s character (Psa. 119:142). In the Bible equity is never equality of outcome, but universal conformity to God’s justice. Hence, the Messiah “shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears.” (Isa 11:3).

[2] Many amillennialists are now promoting a this-worldly final state instead of eternity in heaven. This has required them to stop spiritualizing texts which point to a kingdom upon earth after the return of Christ. But it also forces them to exacerbate their use of dual hermeneutical methods, often in the same passage. Moreover, while they have become more literal in interpreting e.g. Mic. 4:1-5; Isa. 11:1-12; 60:1-14, 19-22, they persist in spiritualizing the covenantal land promise to Israel, often turning it into a type. A good study of this trend is Steven L. James, New Creation Eschatology and the Land: A Survey of Contemporary Perspectives (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017).

[3] The reader would be well advised to study the Appendix in the book by J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 325-336 for a more detailed list of prophecies designed to raise specific expectations in the hearts of Old Testament believers.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (3)

Part Two

c. The Coming of the Great King

I have commented on this matter above, but here let us focus on the royalty of the Messiah. As far as the Old Testament is concerned this aspect of His person seems incompatible with His coming in humility as the suffering Servant (Psa. 22; Isa. 53). When He comes to reign, He comes with irresistible power (Dan. 2:44-45; Isa. 63:1-6). Much of the “Day of the Lord” language reflects His arrival (e.g. Isa. 34:8; Zeph. 3:8; Joel 3:9-16). Psalm 2:6, 9 has Him reigning on Yahweh’s holy hill (cf. Isa. 2:2). Isaiah 11:1-10 has David’s heir reigning in power and righteousness (cf. Am. 9:11; Mic. 2:12-13; Isa. 32:1a). Genesis 49:10 predicts this, as does Psalm 110:1-2 and Micah 5:2. The great prophecies of Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-16 set this reign in an era when Jerusalem is the great city of God; or as Ezekiel calls it, “Yahweh is there” (Ezek. 48:35). Zechariah 14 has the great King ruling in Israel and all the peoples worshipping Him.

There is no doubt that this Figure is the main character in God’s Creation Project. All creation’s hopes are wrapped up in Him. All the promises to Israel wait for Him. The calling of the nations, depends upon Him. And the defeat of the great Enemy can only be achieved by Him. And because, as I believe, He embodies the New covenant, the coming King is even essential to the fulfillment of all God’s covenants with man.

d. The Salvation of Israel through the New Covenant

Israel was established to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:6). They never attained their high calling. But when the King comes to rule the earth “the Gentiles will seek Him” (Isa. 11:10 cf. Isa. 2:2), in part because Yahweh has redeemed Israel (Zech. 8).

But while they languish under the strictures of the Mosaic covenant, Israel can never be what they ought to be. Israel needs salvation. In those Israelites designated as the “remnant” the covenants of Yahweh will find their eventual fulfillment. In Jeremiah God speaks positively to Israel as “Virgin of Israel” (Jer. 31:4).[1] This is the same chapter as the promise of the New covenant with all Israel (cf. Jer. 31:1, 31). This New covenant will change the remnant (Isa. 37:31-32; Jer. 31:7; Zeph. 3:13; Joel 2:32). It will make them godly and obedient from the heart (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:24-30 cf. Isa. 46:13). They will want to go up to Zion to worship God (Jer. 31:6; Isa. 35:10).

In point of fact, God will make Israel a blessing to the nations:

And it shall come to pass
That just as you were a curse among the nations,
O house of Judah and house of Israel,
So I will save you, and you shall be a blessing. – Zechariah 8:13

This is when Israel can rightly act as “witnesses” for God (Isa. 43:9-12). In Micah 4:2 the nations decide to come to Yahweh. Isaiah tells us that the wonder of what Zion has become provokes this turning (Isa. 62:1-2). The New covenant is first and foremost the covenant of reconciliation of a lost humanity and a cursed earth to the Creator. It revitalizes the ground and redeems the elect of all ages. In so doing it clears the way for Yahweh to make good on what He has sworn to perform in His covenants to Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David. God’s covenants stand firm. They are to be trusted till the end. They cannot be changed out of recognition due to our impatience and near-sightedness. The New covenant is the key that will open them up in all their fullness and specificity.

e. Jerusalem, the City of Righteousness

There is little doubt that in the Prophets Jerusalem or Zion is beloved by Yahweh (see e.g. Isa. 62:1, 3; Zech. 1:17; 8:2). It is “the apple of His eye” (Zech. 2:7-8). Psalm 132:13 declares “the Lord has chosen Zion; He has desired it for His dwelling place.” After Yahweh purges away all of its dross, He will redeem it with justice, and shall call it “the city of righteousness” (Isa. 1:26-27; 4:2-5). Zechariah refers to the future Jerusalem as “the City of Truth” (Zech. 8:3). This will be the center of the Kingdom of God (Mic. 4:7-8). Jeremiah says it this way:

At that time Jerusalem shall be called the Throne of the LORD, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the LORD, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts. – Jeremiah 3:17

Zion is to be comforted (Isa. 51:3), and favored as the dwelling-place of God on earth (Zech. 14:16). A capital city is to be expected in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant (Psa. 89:27, 34-37).

f. The Rebuilding of the Temple

Perhaps the most controversial teaching of the Old Testament is that the sanctuary of Yahweh, the temple at Jerusalem, will be rebuilt in the times of Messiah’s worldwide reign. From the perspective of many readers of the New Testament, particularly of the book of Hebrews, this is intolerable.

But I am not here concerning myself with the conclusions of those who “correct” the Old Testament picture with their understandings of the New Testament. Lord willing, at a later date I will be able to show that there is no contradiction between the covenant requirement of a new temple and the finished work of Christ at Calvary. But here we looking at the Old Testament and are allowing it to speak to us clearly in its own voice. Once this is permitted one runs into passages such as this:

Now it shall come to pass in the latter days
That the mountain of the LORD’s house
Shall be established on the top of the mountains,
And shall be exalted above the hills;
And all nations shall flow to it. – Isaiah 2:2

Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore. – Ezekiel 37:26

Many will instinctively turn the House of Yahweh and the sanctuary into Christ and the Church, but that is not what a Jew of the 8th or 6th Century B.C. would do. No reader of Haggai 2:6-9 (let alone the prophetic author!) would do that. In fact, no one familiar with Numbers 25 would have expected anything else but a new temple in the Kingdom of the Branch, just as we see in Ezekiel 37; 40 – 48; Zechariah 6 and 14. A rebuilt kingdom-temple is covenantally assured. Any accurate account of Old Testament theology must admit this fact.

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[1] There are places where this term is used to show regret at what Israel has become (e.g. Am. 5:2; Jer. 18:13), but Jeremiah 31 is a crucial eschatological setting.

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (2)

The Old Testament gives us a picture of a coming great Deliverer who will one day defeat the serpent and break his power (Gen. 3:15). We have seen that this prophetic picture is quite extensive, providing one puts the pieces of the “Scepter,” the “Star,” the son of David, the despised substitute Sufferer, the Branch, the donkey Rider, the Messiah, etc. together in one person. This portrait of the coming King of the Earth, who reigns in Jerusalem, is there so that He can be identified when He appears. And when He is identified through these prophecies it will eventually be seen that the Old Testament was spot on. The only question in light of for example, Psalm 22, Isaiah 53, and Zechariah 12 would seem to be, when would His own people recognize Him? This problem deepens because of the perceived mismatch between the victorious Ruler and the suffering Servant referred to above.

In similar fashion, what the Prophets have to say about the divine covenants paints a vivid picture of the Kingdom that is to come. The Prophets develop the unilateral covenants; the Noahic, Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic, and weave them together. The instrument they use to do this is the New covenant, which does not alter a word of the oaths which Yahweh took in the other covenants, but instead revitalizes these great covenants as they pass through the redemptive grace within it. This revitalization guarantees the literal fulfillment of the oaths of Yahweh, there being no sin standing in the way of their full realization.

But the New covenant is not just a means, it is a Man. It is none other than the promised One, the coming King Himself. This amounts to saying that the entire Creation Project, propelled by the covenants of God, is dependent upon this Man! Our comprehension of the Creation Project depends a lot upon our reading of God’s covenants, not to mention the nature of those covenants.

What, therefore, is the picture drawn by the Prophets? I think it best if I break the prophetic picture down into basic categories.[1]

a. A Future Time of Intense Trouble for Israel

Amos in the 8th century B.C. says that Yahweh will sift Israel (Am. 9:9), but after that He will “raise up the tabernacle of David,” that is to say, the reinstitution of the Davidic monarchy that would fizzle out at the Babylonian Captivity with Zedekiah of Judah will be seen. This sifting is tied to the Mosaic covenant, especially its elucidation in Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 30:1-6 is pertinent here, as is Leviticus 26.

Having said this, nothing is solid enough in Amos’s time for a reader to determine whether there will be an end-time tribulation upon the Jews. Hosea 2:9-13 indicates a punishment upon Israel followed by an era of kingdom blessing (Hos. 2:14ff.). If I am correct in placing the two acts of God together, this necessarily puts us in the last times. Hosea 5:15 and 6:1-3 could well be referring to this same situation.

The theme of a future intense affliction upon Israel is not to be found stated plainly until Jeremiah 30:5-7 where something called “the time of Jacob’s trouble” is mentioned. The difficulty in the “time” is that it is not dated, other than in relation to the raising up of David and Israel being told that she will have no cause to fear anymore (Jer. 30:9-10). Is this the Holocaust? That might reasonably qualify as the time of Jacob’s trouble (cf. Hos. 2:6-13; 5:15; Isa. 1:25). But no restoration of the Davidic monarchy followed World War II. The only way that David, whether personally or through his heir, could rule over Israel is in the resurrection era (Isa. 26:19? Ezek. 37:12?). Terrible as was the Holocaust, something worse yet awaits the people of Israel.

The book of Daniel furnishes more information on a future time of tribulation. As brought out in Daniel 7 and 11, a mighty foe will persecute Israel for three and a half years (“a time, times, and half a time” – Dan. 7:24-27), during which time Israel will have to endure it’s greatest travail (Dan. 12:1). Ezekiel 38 refers to distress brought upon God’s people by a person named Gog. And Zechariah 11:15-17 is an oracle about a careless shepherd who is to be recognized by certain marks upon his body. Whether all of these passages apply to the end time of trouble is uncertain, but a fair case can be made in the affirmative.

b. The Regathering of Israel to their Promised Land

Many times, the Old Testament predicts the restoration of the Jews to their land. The ten northern tribes were carried off by the Assyrians, and no leader ever issued a decree for their return. But many from the north would have been dwelling in Judah long before Tiglath-Pileser defeated Hoshea of Israel in 723 B.C.[2] Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy about the reunification of all the tribes in their books. Daniel’s reading of Jeremiah 25:11-12 persuaded him to expect the southern nation to return from Babylon, which led to him beseeching Yahweh on behalf of his people (Dan. 9).

Another Exile

But closer study of the Prophets reveals that another exile and a greater regathering is to come, and it is to be looked for at the close of history. For example, if the “little horn” of Daniel 7 persecutes the Jewish saints (Dan. 7:21) when they are in their land (cf. Dan. 11:39), and the limit of the persecution in Daniel 7:25 corresponds to Daniel 11:36 (cf. Dan. 9:26-27), this would entail that they are driven out of the land again before being regathered at the time of Messiah’s arrival to set up His Kingdom (Dan. 7:22). They will return in repentance (Jer. 50:4-5). Ezekiel 37:11-14 has God bringing Israel into the land and granting them the Spirit. Earlier, in the context of God’s blessing on their productivity, Amos 9:14-15 refers to the same thing. Zechariah 8:8 has a great promise of return and blessing. In Isaiah 11:11-16; Jeremiah 16:14-15, and Jeremiah 23:7-8 there is a second exodus promise that is non-figurative. (more…)

The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (1)

From the forthcoming book ‘The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation’

If one surveys the contents of the Old Testament with both eyes upon the divine covenants, what one comes away with is a massive sense of expectation. The simply-worded Creation chapter (Gen. 1) displays a purpose and goal for the world which God is moving forward. The simplicity of the wording conveys an important hermeneutical truth; that what God does is directly in line with what He says (i.e. God’s words equal God’s actions). This can be tested in numerous points throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 1:3, 6-7, 11-12, 26-31; 6:7-13; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 4:16, 25, 32-33).

This movement towards a goal is seemingly interrupted by the calamitous fall of our first parents and the autonomous thinking that it brought about. While seeming innocuous, this default of naive independence from the authority of God and His words has led mankind to every false notion and violent act in our bloody history. It has also caused God’s people to recalibrate what God has said by passing it through the apparatus of independent interpretation. In the long term this is what is chiefly responsible for the varied schools of thought in Christian theology. But in the Hebrew Bible it was a major cause, through reevaluation of God’s word, for Israel’s defection.

The covenants that Yahweh made were intended to counter man’s sinful default of independence by drawing attention to the grand motifs within the Creation Project that He is sustaining. These covenants may be seen as amplifications of God’s plain speech about central planks in His program of history. Because they express the outline of the Creation Project, which in turn is embedded in God’s decrees, the covenants that God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David are unalterable, their oaths being unilaterally entered into by God alone. Although conditions were appended to the covenants, it is crucial to understand that these conditions were not included within the oaths. Therefore, although they could and did hinder the fulfillment of the covenants, they could never force their cancellation or their reallocation. The bilateral Mosaic covenant, being a covenant of law given to law-breakers, could only stem the tide of Israel’s sin and provide a sense of community and belonging which would sustain the Jewish race, although not forever.

Aside from Yahweh, there are two main protagonists in the Hebrew Bible; the nation of Israel and the coming King who would arise out of Israel. Israel was given the Mosaic covenant, but had to be rescued from its condemnation. The person of the King would do that by fulfilling its demands of righteousness, and suffering vicariously (Isa. 53:4-6; 10-12), and by ushering in a New covenant to replace the one made at Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 49:6-8).

The need to replace the Mosaic covenant with another “New” covenant can be found as far back as Deuteronomy 30:6, and is found repeated at several junctures, including Psalm 98:3; 130; Isaiah 25:8-9; 46:13; Ezekiel 36:24-28, and Zechariah 13:1. The outstanding promise is in Jeremiah 31:31-34. There it becomes clear that this New covenant will supersede the Mosaic covenant. The New covenant brings with it the essential ingredient of salvation which it alone possesses.

But there is a fascinating twist regarding the New covenant, for whereas the other covenants contain a divine pledge to a person or persons, and may have included animal sacrifice (certainly in regard to the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants), the New covenant goes further by designating God’s Servant as the covenant itself (Isa. 42:6; 49:8)! As already said, this Servant is a person, not Israel, and this person must face death on behalf of others (Isa. 53). So, the extraordinary connection of the New covenant with the Servant becomes something to watch as revelation unfolds.

The Servant is the Branch is the Promised Seed

Since the temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden and the fall of Adam, God has promised to send a Conqueror who would destroy the Serpent (Gen. 3:16). This Conqueror is referred to as the Seed of the Woman in Genesis 3, but He appears in the prophecies of Jacob as a King from Judah (Gen. 49:10), as a “Star” out of Egypt who routs His enemies in Numbers 24:8-9, 17, and as the “Branch” who will subdue, judge and beautify the earth and exalt Jerusalem (Isa. 4:2-3; 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6; Zech. 3:8), seeing to it that the lines of David and Levi are maintained, although not in an unbroken succession[1] (Jer. 33:14-26). It is also He who will build the last temple (Zech. 6:12-13).

This man is also called Yahweh’s “Servant” in, for example, Isaiah 42:1-7 and 49:5-7, who will save the Gentile nations and redeem Israel,[2] restoring the entire earth. Amazingly, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 portray Him as reigning in justice, yet suffering the indignation of men and God. He suffers and dies innocently, yet as part of the plan of Yahweh (Isa. 53:10). And He will be rewarded and highly exalted. Daniel also speaks of His demise on behalf of others in Daniel 9:26, where He refers to Him as Messiah (anointed).

It is this coming King who as the Servant is said to be given “as a covenant to the people” (Isa. 42:6; 49:8). Once these passages are linked with the substitutionary nature of His suffering and its relation to securing pardon and justification “for many” (Isa. 53:11), it starts to appear that this great One is the pivot around which the whole Creation Project and its associated covenants turn. This King Messiah pulls every covenant hope into His orbit.

The coming of the Messiah is normally presented as Him vanquishing Israel’s enemies and bringing in justice and peace. Isaiah has Him coming in avenging might (Isa. 63). Daniel has Him smashing the kingdoms of man (Dan. 2). After crushing His enemies, He comes to rule from Jerusalem (Jer. 33:14-15; Zech. 1:17).

A “problem” arises between this unimpeded picture of His arrival and the occasional references to His suffering and death (Psa. 22; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:25; Zech. 13:6). How can He come in such irresistible power and yet be overpowered? The Old Testament does not tell us directly, though it provides us with clues which subsequent revelation will fit together. The closest thing to an outright explanation is perhaps Zechariah 12:10 where, in the common setting of God’s future judgment, we are suddenly told “they will look on Me who they pierced.” This implies that the people “pierced” Him previous to His coming in judgment and salvation. To step into a New Testament vantage-point for a moment, what we find is that the first and second comings of Christ are merged in the Old Testament, with the emphasis usually placed upon things that occur at the second coming.

One more vital consideration; we must never forget that according to Psalm 110:1, Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 9:6-7 the promised King is divine. Therefore, to the standard messianic passages we must add those texts which speak of Yahweh Himself as dwelling with men in the Kingdom of God. We must also not avoid the inclusion of passages like Ezekiel 43:1-7; 48:35; Joel 3:17, and Zechariah 1:16; 8:1-3; 14:9, 16-21 as pointing to Messiah. As one author has stated, “The Old Testament has its own messianic light.”[3] And it is a good deal brighter than many people realize.

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[1] The curse upon Jehoiachin (Coniah) in Jeremiah 22:28-30 essentially illustrates this. Although Jehoiachin lived on in captivity and had seven sons (1 Chron. 3:17-18), he was written as childless. This appeared to defeat the Davidic covenant, but God would find a way around the problem. Compare John Bright, Covenant and Promise, 180-181.

[2] Redeeming Israel, He cannot be Israel.

[3] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 238.

My Take on the New Covenant (Pt. 10): In Summary

Part Nine

In this final part I want to gather things together and summarize what has gone before.  In the latter half of the full piece I interact with some other views.  I shall not concern myself with running over that ground here.  I shall only outline the major pillars of my position on the New Covenant:

  1. Jeremiah 31 is not to be thought about as definitive of the New Covenant.  There are many other passages which, although they don’t name the covenant as the NC, are rightly considered as important OT New Covenant passages (e.g. Deut. 30:1-6; Isa. 32:9-20; 42:1-7; 49:1-13; 52:10-53:12; 55:3; 59:15b-21; 61:8; Jer. 32:36:44; Ezek. 16:53-63; 36:22-38; 37:21-28; Hos. 2:18-20; Joel 2:28–3:8; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 9:10; 12:6-14.; 59:15-21).
  2. None of the great theistic covenants of the Bible (i.e. the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic covenants) have a provision of redemption set within them.  That means they can never be fulfilled!  Sin bars the way.
  3. However, the problem of unfulfillment is overcome by Jesus Christ in the New Covenant.
  4. Since it deals with sin and salvation, the NC deals with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Two key NC passages, Isaiah 42:1-6 and Isaiah 49:1-8, speak both to Israel and to the nations.  Isaiah 42:1-3 is quoted by Matthew 12:17-21, and is applied especially to “the Gentiles.”  He might have quoted Isa. 11:10; 42:15; 60:3; Jer. 16:19, and Mal. 1:11.
  6.  Further, Isaiah 42 and 49 identify a person as a covenant who will bring salvation to both Israel and the Gentile nations. The NC is the “salvation covenant.”
  7. The Apostle Paul uses NC terminology and applies it to Christian redemption in Colossians 2:11-14 and Philippians 3:3.
  8. Not only that, but Paul explicitly says that Christians taking the Lord’s Supper are celebrating “the blood of the New Covenant” (1 Cor. 11:25).  Paul also declares that his ministry is a ministry of the New Covenant in 2 Cor. 3.
  9. Jesus said that His blood was NC blood (e.g. Lk. 22).  His disciples partook of the symbolism of it, and they formed the foundation of the Church (Eph. 2:20).
  10. Hebrews 7 – 10 names Jesus as our High Priest, which He can only be on the basis of the New Covenant, since that is the covenant He mediates as High Priest.
  11. Jesus Christ and the New Covenant are One.  He is the covenant mentioned by Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8; as the Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29), He is the covenant “animal” that makes the NC with His own body and blood (Heb. 9:16-17).  There is (and never was) any salvation outside of Him.  Therefore, the NC is not to be viewed as an agreement external to Him Who made it.
  12. We must beware of impeding our own understanding of God’s Word by wandering away from Scripture to fragmentary pagan notions of treaty and covenant.  We will be in poor shape to “hear” the Scripture if we fail listen with both ears and read with both eyes.  This is all the more important when the matter under consideration is the oaths of God!