Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 4)

Part Three

In this final installment of my review of Covenant we turn to look at Daniel Block’s discussion of covenant in the NT. This is the section of the book that I was most looking forward to as many scholars (e.g. I. Howard Marshall) have written about the relative unimportance of covenant in the Gospels, Paul and General Epistles. In one sense (a rather superficial sense) they are right; the NT writers do not seem as concerned with covenants as their OT counterparts. But this is only on the surface of things. Upon closer examination, and provided one has not forgotten about the covenants, it becomes apparent that the Apostolic authors thought much in covenant terms. With this in mind I eagerly read Block’s Part Four, “Covenant in the New Testament.”

Block gives 229 pages to the study (394-623), and even though he insists upon using his (to my way of thinking) confusing outline of Cosmic and Adamic (i.e. Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite (i.e. Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New) covenant, and the Davidic covenant I could still mostly follow his argument, but I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them too tame; they simply don’t look influential in Block’s presentation. And this creates a problem for his presentation of covenance in the Gospels and Paul; it’s all rather pedestrian (which is epitomized in his Conclusion on pages 615-623).

In his treatment with the first three parts of his “Israelite covenant,” which we have to remind ourselves are the Abrahamic/Mosaic “covenant” with its renewal in Deuteronomy, the author returns to his insistence that the Torah was/is not “Law” in itself and so is a way of life.

The Torah as Grace

Central to his understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus and Paul’s mind when they talk about the folly of law-keeping. For example, consider these three quotes:

“The postexilic community was indeed Torah based, but with the elevation of the Torah to virtual idol status, Second Temple Judaism had become a meritocracy in which the Oral Torah regulated every detail of life and for which the Pharisees considered themselves not only definers but also models of Torah piety.” (465).

“Paul’s reference to the Torah as pedagogue was a full frontal attack on the Judaizers. They and their Pharisaic predecessors in Judaism had robbed this precious gift of its heart- and life-giving power and transformed the Torah into an enslaving and stifling institution. The Torah was intended as a gracious gift, defining the will of the divine Suzerain and symbolizing the nearness of God and His invitation to them to flourish under his favor, thus stirring up the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:5-9). Instead, with all the man-made accretions of the Oral Torah, the Torah as nomos (law) had become a noose around their necks, dealing death instead of life.” (491-492).

“As early as the Decalogue we learn that obedience was to be the response to grace, not the precondition of it…” (493).

From this understanding of nomos (Law) in the NT Block believes that when Paul inveighed against the Law he was referring to its Pharisaic caricature, not the Torah itself (494 cf. 496). I am thoroughly unconvinced. I cannot reconcile Paul’s strident words in Romans 4 and Galatians 2 with Block’s thesis. Just consider Paul’s argument about the circumcision of Abraham in Romans 4:9-12. It is well nigh impossible to squeeze into the argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. No, the Apostle simply argues that Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised thereby being justified by faith; and this was centuries before the deadly accumulation of rabbinic codes had even been devised. (By the way, the author’s treatment of Romans 4 is disappointing – 448-452, including his handling of Rom. 4:10! – 451). I will be very surprised if Block’s views on the Law go unchallenged by subsequent reviewers, (although one never can tell nowadays).

No Supercessionism But…

The author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. And he even speaks against supercessionism when he says that those who hold that because of the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory those elements are no longer important, “often leads to a doctrine of supercessionism, according to which God’s commitment to the church universal eclipses his interest in the physical descendants of Abraham.” (512). This is a good basic definition of the matter which sadly many who are guilty of teaching it try to hide it with euphemisms. Block declares that given the language of hesed and fidelity (emuna) in God’s covenants such a thing is inconceivable (512-513).

But it doesn’t take him long to muddy the waters, for like most modern historic premillennialists he believes that “one of the key motifs in the book of Romans is that gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the olive tree and are now full members of a redeemed humanity.” (515, cf. 480, 523). Using a hermeneutics of charity I want to say that Block is not teaching that Israel and the church merge into one people of God with no separate traits, but it’s not easy to be confident about it. He leaves the exegesis of Romans 11 alone which is a shame.

The Davidic Covenant in the NT

Block recognizes the importance of the Davidic covenant in the NT, not just explicitly, but often times how it underpins many statements (e.g. 545), especially the messianic ones. He takes time to expound the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There is good material here but again one can get a bit bogged down in the detail. He appears to think the seventy weeks ended with the birth of Jesus (544), has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also the Transfiguration (562-566), although he spoils it unnecessarily by quipping that although Moses was a major figure, “the historical Elijah was a regular – if not marginal – rather than paradigmatic prophet.” (564).

When it comes to the Passion narratives we once more get a mixture of the good and the bad. Yes, there are good insights littered here and there, and occasional background information can be of help, but did Jesus redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Again, his interpretation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not from this world”, etc.) as John looking back and recognizing it “as the moment of Jesus’ coronation and exaltation” seems bizarre (578-579). And when the author asserts that Pilate would have interpreted Jesus statement “You would have no power over me if it were not given you to you from above” (Jn. 19:11 his emphasis), in a political sense I think he does Pilate a disservice. Was the Governor really that dim as to think Jesus was employing tautologies? Pilate may not have believed in Yahweh but he did believe in gods above him.

When he reaches the NT letters we get more solid though, brief, but not world-shaking stuff. I liked his brief but insightful recognition of 2 Timothy 2:8 (604), and I liked the observations on 1 Peter 1 (608-611). I do not think John borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).

Elsewhere

There are some fine moments in this section dealing with the NT that I want to call attention to. Firstly, he believes that Romans 8:18-25 clearly alludes to the “Cosmic” (Noahic) covenant (398). He rightly points out that agapao is a covenant-related term (399, 417), which is just one indicator that the notion of “covenance” underlies the thought of the inspired writers. He repeats the assertion that the relationship between God and Adam in Eden “did not involve a covenant” (416), offers a detailed breakdown of Mary’s Magnificat (430-434), and a decent one of Zacharias’s prophecy (434).

Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of “thumbs-down” moments. On pages 394-395 he claims that diatheke in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 carries a testamental significance. That is not unusual in itself (though I strongly disagree with it). But he gives no justification for these perturbances from the normal Apostolic meaning of “covenant.” Moreover, later he appears to me to contradict himself by saying “Gal. 3:15 is not about God’s covenant with Abraham, but a generic statement about how human covenants operate.” (435). Well which is it? Is Galatians 3:15 talking about a testament or a covenant? As Block seems to acknowledge the context of Galatians 3 points quite decisively to the latter.

After spending the last several weeks reading Covenant and note-taking I came away a little exhausted and sadly underwhelmed. As I stated earlier, the treatment of the divine covenants lacks dynamism, and the author does not trace the oaths that Yahweh took and produce a big picture of all of His promises. His repeated insistence that the Torah was “grace” not “law” is singularly unconvincing. If God gave only instructions not to pick up wood on the Sabbath because it was a gift of rest it is hard to see why the individual in Numbers 15:32-36 was stoned to death. Not following instructions may lead to harm but it does not lead to punishment. Breaking the Law does!

Shameless Plug: My Book is Out!

Roll up, roll up, look this way to see a new and amazing sight! Well, not quite. The truth is more in the region of “Oh, Henebury’s book that he’s been promising since Gutenberg is actually out now.”

I got my advance copies in the mail a couple of weeks ago. It was a strange feeling looking down at the thing I had spent over five years writing and nearly twelve years studying. I asked a friend who has himself published many books about this weird feeling and whether he ever felt that way. “Every time!” he replied.

Anyway, The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Volume one is released today. It is a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Volume two will deal with the New) centered on the expectations that God raises by His oaths and promises. It is available from many outlets including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is published through Xulon. I managed to get Dr. Michael Vlach, now at the Shepherd’s Theological Seminary; Dr. Kevin Zuber of The Master’s Seminary; Dan Phillips who used to be a regular part of the Pyromaniacs blog, and Fred Butler of Hip and Thigh to write nice blurbs for the book. Since they have each taken an interest in what I’ve been doing I knew they could write something meaningful.

Answers to Some Questions I have Been Asked:

  1. What led to “Biblical Covenantalism?” – I completed my doctoral dissertation on Method and Function in Dispensational Theology in 2006. Around the same time I found myself in the unenviable situation of being let go from an institution I had sweated blood for during many long and sometimes highly stressful hours. Finding myself with a lot of time on my hands and with several unanswered questions about Dispensational methodology I plunged anew into the study of the Bible. One main question bothered me throughout. It was a simple question that I could not find any scholar even asking. The question was “Why does God make covenants?” Pondering a biblical response to that question led me to see the importance and vitality of the six covenants of God.
  2. What is “Biblical Covenantalism”? – At the most basic level it is the answer to the question “Why does God make covenants?” and finally seeing how God’s covenants provide a dual eschatological/teleological pathway for God’s Creation Project. It became apparent that the Person of the Promised Redeemer, King-Messiah could not be separated from those covenants. Indeed, He was pivotal to everything God is doing in Creation. As I state in the book: “

“I mean by it that the covenant oaths found plainly within the pages of our Bibles, and more particularly the covenants of God (i.e. associated with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Phinehas, and David, and mediated by Christ in the New covenant) compose together the main argument of Scripture. They pick up and carry forward creation’s teleology and eschatology. Every teaching of Scripture is subordinated to the divine covenants. Therefore, interpreting and following the iteration of the covenants is what Biblical Covenantalism is all about.”

3. Am I trying to find another middle path between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology? In his commendation Fred Butler asks this question. The answer is a very definite “No!” I believe Dispensational Theology (DT) is built upon different presuppositions than Covenant Theology (CT), and, for that matter, Progressive Covenantalism (PC). CT and PC are both mainly erected upon prior assumptions that are inimical to DT. Both are highly inferential systems, especially with regard to eschatology and the covenants of God. I believe Dispensationalism has got a lot of things right due to its hermeneutics. This includes the eternal importance of the nation of Israel, the Millennium, and the Rapture of the Church. My issue with DT is its method (which has hardly ever been thought through). As I see it DT is wrong in emphasizing Divine stewardships and defining itself through them and superimposing them on the covenants. I also think it is in error about DT only needing to focus upon eschatology and ecclesiology (and sometimes soteriology). Therefore Biblical Covenantalism (BC) as I see it is a corrective to DT in terms of its method and its vision. But, I hasten to add that I never started with Dispensationalism and then tried to tweak it. I believe I got BC from Scripture and can back it up from Scripture; hence the book!

4. What is the Place of Jesus Christ in Biblical Covenantalism? In line with what I said above, I was not happy with the method of DT. One problem with DT as I see it is the place it gives to Jesus Christ. The genius of Covenant Theology is its focus on Christology. Now what they do with Christ in finding Him in OT texts via types and shadows and by interpreting the OT on the basis of the NT (or rather their understanding of it), cuts right across what God has declared in His covenants and must therefore by in error. But DT’s emphasis is too often upon the Israel-church distinction (which is real) and the End Times (e.g. the Rapture, the Mark, and the Kingdom) and not upon the centrality of Christ in the whole Creation Project. In BC Jesus is the reason Creation exists and is preserved. He is also the One who redeems Creation and restores and will reign over Creation to the glory of God. He combines the promises of the covenants in Himself as the embodiment of the New covenant. It’s really all about Him.

5. (A Question I wish I had been asked) – Do You see Yourself as an Outsider? When I first saw clearly that DT had issues which were not being addressed I asked myself, “Do you want to put yourself beyond the pale by chasing this down?” My response was to forge ahead regardless, trusting the Lord to help me and to correct me as I went. So yes I know I am somewhat at the periphery and may stay there. I do harbor faint hopes that my work will be seen as a help and not a challenge and that more dialogue would be opened up as a result of people thinking through The Words of the Covenant.

Volume Two, “The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation” is being written as we speak.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 3)

Part Two

The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded

As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”

But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,

“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.

On the next page he avers,

“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265).

But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:

Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? – Acts 15:10.

Peter calls the law a yoke which doesn’t sound very promising. And James writes,

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10 (cf. Gal. 5:3).

So this “doable” torah required absolute and unwavering conformity if it was to work. Block says that “they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law.” (265). But surely that was because they were sinners! I think Block is trying to show that God’s “demands” were reasonable, but the law of the offerings (Lev. 1-7) was there because they were so stringent. Moreover, those offerings did not have the power to clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9). This was not an ideal setup, which is why Paul says that the law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), since the law kept us under guard “synkleio” (Gal. 3:23). The metaphor is very apt. Torah living is not “freedom” (Gal. 5:1).

The New Israelite Covenant (i.e. New covenant).

Block’s name for the New covenant is “the New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). I understand that Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the OT where the term is used (276), and that even there the prophet does not call it “the New covenant”; he simply speaks of “a new covenant.” That said, the OT doesn’t call it “the New Israelite covenant” either. But Block’s term does assist him in tying “the New Israelite covenant” to the “Israelite covenant.” (AKA the Abrahamic cum Mosaic covenant).

Block’s way of unifying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic covenants with the “New Israelite covenant” (New covenant) does not persuade me. For one thing, the NT does speak of this covenant as the New covenant (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 12:24 with the definite article).

Before he gets into his exposition of the “New Israelite covenant” the author stops to remind his reader that the “Cosmic” (“Noahic”) covenant and the Abrahamic covenant were characterized as berit olam (everlasting covenant). But he says the same thing about the “Israelite” (Mosaic) covenant too, by referencing Lev. 24:8 and Exod. 31:16-17 (276 cf. 288). But Lev. 24:8 is about the bread offering on the Sabbath and Exod. 31:16-17 is about keeping the Sabbath. Neither reference is about the (Mosaic) covenant itself! As a matter of fact the Bible never calls the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant “everlasting.” But it is necessary for Block’s view that his “New Israelite covenant” be the fourth part of his one “Israelite covenant.”

He rightly asks concerning Jeremiah 31:31-34, “What is new here?” (283). His answer is that,

“There had always been “new-covenant” Israelites who had the Torah of God in their hearts/minds,” who delighted in covenant relationship with God (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12), who knew God (Exod. 33:13; cf. Judg. 2:10), and who rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven.” (285).

A closer look at these texts reveals that Block is reading more into them than they say. For instance, both Exod. 29:45 and Lev. 26:12 concern God dwelling in the Tabernacle, not in people’s hearts. Exodus 33:13 is Moses’ plea for God’s presence to go with Israel, while Judges 2:10 is a statement about Israelites who “did not know the LORD”, whose opposite is not that some did know Him in the Jeremiah 31 sense. To Block the “New Israelite covenant” was “not like” the Mosaic covenant only in the fact that with this “New” covenant all Israelites would know God. Better therefore to think of it as “a renewed covenant” (286 his italics); the “ultimate realization of the same covenant that God had made long ago with Abraham, established with the exodus generation…at Sinai, and renewed with the conquest generation on the plains of Moab.” (Ibid).

I know the author believes this, and argues for it in several places (e.g. 288, 292), but I cannot follow him there. For one thing this would make “the New Israelite covenant” a second renewal covenant after the Deuteronomic covenant in the plains of Moab (which failed). If people had the new birth in the OT and these covenant still failed why what would ensure the success of this one? For another thing, neither the Abrahamic covenant nor any covenant apart from the New covenant is soteriological, whereas the New covenant is (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 49:6; Ezek. 36:26-27). The New covenant is also Christocentric (Isa. 49:8; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15), whereas the Mosaic covenant is not (cf. Jn. 1:17).

I’m afraid I am not buying what Block is selling here, even though I respect him and good material abounds. E.g., he is a consistent supporter of the land being given to Israel, and he warns against spiritualizing (287). But I also have to report that the author considers the “Gog and Magog” chapters (Ezek. 39-39) to be “hypothetical” (296). Let us move on.

The Davidic Covenant

The chapter on the Davidic covenant (300ff.) includes a number of good studies and solid assertions. The coverage is extensive, taking in the Historical and Prophetic books and Psalms. He is clear that the Davidic covenant “is never retracted” in “the prophets, psalmists, and NT writers.” (310), although “the benefits could be suspended for a time.” (310, 317). In fact, the very existence of the Psalms “testifies to the significance of the Davidic covenant.” (367). The importance of Zion is stressed (391). There are good things here.

Sadly though, it’s another mixed bag. The collective understanding of Genesis 3:15 is “preferable” to the singular Messianic view (304); the Book of Ruth was composed long after the fact; probably in the seventh century B.C. (306, 334). Micah 5:2 is best viewed as an ancient decree “calling David to kingship” (334); The covenant with Levi [probably related to Num. 25] is downplayed in Jeremiah 33:18 (349); and in an odd translation Zechariah 12:10 no longer has men looking at “me whom they pierced (daqar).” Block has the poor individual needlessly “stabbed,” thus destroying the Messianic implications (364, despite Rev. 1:7). There is also a curious mention of “David’s Melchizedekian Priesthood” (387).

Finally, Block fails to interact in any way with the crucial Messianic covenantal texts in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. I was looking forward to seeing how he tackled these verses and to discover that they went untreated was a big let down.

So ends the “First Testament” part of Covenant. The detail is there, making the book important for anyone wanting to dive into the biblical concept of covenant, but as Spurgeon might have said, there is a good deal of dross mixed with the gold. The overall impression on this reviewer is that this approach to the covenants of God, though a vast improvement over Covenant Theology, still lacks the dynamism that I find in the Hebrew Bible.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 2)

Part One

Block’s Definition of Covenant

Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption is a big book around 700 pages long. It is very noteworthy when a prominent OT scholar takes up the challenge to write a book on the biblical covenants, and I am grateful to have such a work to study and repair to.

One of the most important tasks that lies before a writer of such a book is that of definition. If you are going to be writing about the covenants then it is well to put forward a decent definition of just what a covenant; a biblical covenant no less, is. Here is Block’s definition:

A covenant is a formally confirmed agreement between two or more parties that creates, formalizes, or governs a relationship that does not naturally exist or a natural relationship that may have been broken or disintegrated…Covenants typically involve solemn commitments establishing the privileges and obligations that attend agreements. (1).

This definition is somewhat unlike what one usually finds, but it includes the important items such as formality, the relationship between the parties, and the solemn commitments (read oath). In Covenant Theology the covenants that we read about in the Bible, such as those involving Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are understood to be manifestations of other covenants which, confusingly, are not to be found in the Bible. These covenants are the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the latter of which is instanced in the covenants we can see; i.e. Noah, Abraham, etc. Block is having nothing of this. although he is nice about it, on several occasions he makes it clear that he sees no covenants in the early chapters of the Bible. On page 46 he writes,

I]f covenants involve formal procedures to create a relationship that does not exist naturally or to reestablish relationships that have been ruptured, then we cannot define Adam and Eve’s relationship with God in Genesis 2 – 3 as covenantal.

He says something similar regarding Genesis 1 on page 24 (cf. 40). In fact he calls life in Eden “precovenantal” (3). This will not endear him to Covenant Theologians, Progressive Covenantlists, or indeed many Dispensationalists who, despite their professed literal hermeneutics insist upon finding Edenic and Adamic covenants in these early chapters of Genesis.

The “Cosmic” and “Adamic” Covenants of Genesis 9.

For Block the first covenants we can identify in Scripture are found in Genesis 9 (37). And this is where things start to get a bit debatable, for Block thinks he sees two covenants there; the first with the world, which he calls the “Cosmic covenant”, and the second with Noah himself, which he calls the “Adamic covenant.” (I know, just keep reading). As for the “Cosmic covenant” he states plainly that this is usually referred to as the “Noachian covenant” (39), but because “Noah’s role is unclear” and there are real cosmic dimensions to the covenant Block thinks “Cosmic covenant” is a better name.

But then there is his “Adamic covenant.” By the term “Adamic” Block means “humanity” not merely Adam. He believes he finds this second covenant in Genesis 9. This is necessitated because Noah and his family were given administrative roles as guardians of the creation (62).

How does one respond to this? I have to admit that I remain unconvinced. For one thing, on the same page (62), and in several other places Block presents Noah as a “second Adam.” But if he is a new Adam then surely he is given dominion and responsibility in similar ways to Adam? And this is borne out by Genesis 9:1-2. Well then, as God’s vice-regent Noah was the representative of creation to God and so the usual term “Noahic covenant” seems entirely appropriate. Accepting this, there is no reason to introduce a novel covenant with Noah called the “Adamic covenant.” Furthermore, although he extracts a lot of data from the text, Block does not hone in on the central verse for this covenant, namely Genesis 9:11, where the oath of God is to be found.

The author tells us a few pages on that, “After Genesis 11 the Adamic covenant recedes into the background.” (65). Well, I for one was not sorry to see it go. Yet when one reaches the NT portion of this book, the “Adamic covenant,” in tandem with its near twin, the “Cosmic covenant” raises its head again (see esp. 405-424), although in the case of the “Adamic covenant” I think this is as unnecessary as formerly. As a matter of fact it creates a contradiction because the qualifier “Adamic” in connection with the covenant means “humanity,” but Block will relate it to the man Adam in Rom. 5:12ff. You can’t have it both ways.

Saying this does not mean one cannot profit from Block’s material, but in my opinion they will have to reinsert it into the mold of the Noahic covenant. For certain, the covenant with Noah and creation forms the stage or backdrop of the history of the world until the New Creation (Rev. 21-22), but Block’s failure (as I see it) to zoom-in on the actual oath of God in Genesis 9:11 is what causes the confusion. The preamble and general descriptions that surround the oath (i.e. Gen. 8:21-9:10, 12-17) are not a part of the covenant itself. As Paul Williamson has said, “the most basic covenantal element” is “a promissory oath.” (Sealed with a Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, 59.) The Noahic covenant (as I and most others call it) concerns God’s promise to never flood the entire earth again, full stop. Block believes that Noah and his descendants were placed under conditions by God in Genesis 9:1-7, but these verses do not set out conditions. Maybe I am guilty of a lapse of memory, but I cannot recall one mainline or evangelical scholar who reads Genesis 9 this way. For sure, some like Bruce Waltke see a conditional covenant in Genesis 6, but even then they all state that the covenant in Genesis 9 is unconditional.

No Unconditional Covenants

Seeing conditions in what most heretofore have called an unconditional covenant with Noah and the world does not come as a surprise though. For Block has already made it clear that he rejects the idea of unconditional covenants (2-3). But it turns out that he does this because he includes the conditions that often surround God’s covenants within the covenant oath; or rather, he does not distinguish between the oath and the rest of the verbal context. This can be seen above and I believe it is a main cause of Block’s problematical constructions.

Miscellaneous Early Positives

In the first few chapters of Covenant there are numerous noteworthy comments and insights. The list would include:

Warning readers of the problems inherent in reading the NT back into the OT (9-10).

Calling attention to the fact that Creation is a “project” that God is committed to (13).

Noting that the presence of a Suzerain and a vassal does not make a relationship covenantal (15).

Insisting that Adam was a royal figure (20, 27), not a priestly figure.

Throwing suspicion upon the currently trendy “Cosmic Temple” readings of Adam in Eden (29ff.).

Identifying the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6 as most probably angelic (34).

Addressing and repudiating the Dumbrell/Gentry & Wellum view that heqim berit must mean “to confirm a preexisting covenant” and the interpretation of Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam (46).

Block’s statement that “Hebrew wisdom is first and foremost covenantal.” (66).

Asserting that the Bible “is our source of information on the covenants.” (5).

At the same time there are a few assertions that are open to question, they include, drafting into the discussion a lot of ANE parallels. Sometimes these are illuminating (e.g., 19, 77, 85, 87, 99-100, 124, etc.), but occasionally I think they are unhelpful and get in the way of what the biblical text is saying (e.g., 23, 48, 159, 161, 162). Another negative is Block’s opinion that the sequence in the opening chapter of Genesis has “an artificial flavor.” (18). Then there is his view that “nefarious external forces” were in Eden (25, 50), but we should expect that from a professor at Wheaton (are there any YEC’s at Wheaton?).

As for Block’s treatment of covenants per se and his exposition of his “Cosmic” and “Adamic” covenants, I think he unnecessarily muddies the waters, but there is much here worth thinking upon.

Renewing Dispensational Theology – Revised (Pt. 2)

Part One

This completes the thoughts offered previously.

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely content to append their eschatology on to the end of another system – most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

When DT is tagged onto an already developed system of theology it can only present itself as a correction to certain aspects of that system of theology. In so doing it tangles with the methodological presuppositions of that theology. But because it allies itself so often to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards Reformed formulations in areas other than ecclesiology and eschatology. For if it failed to acknowledge Reformed theology’s right to assert itself in these other areas – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man and sin, the doctrine of salvation, for example – it could not think of itself as Reformed. This is because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological corpora, save in regard to the Last Things (and perhaps the Church), Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate ALL its own doctrines independently of other theologies – just as Reformed Covenant Theology does! It would grow to dislike its assumed role as a beneficial parasite, cleaning up areas of another theological system, and would wish to be “Dispensational” in every area! Ergo, even if its formulations of all the theological corpora were closely aligned with Reformed theology here and there, they would be Dispensational formulations! This is precisely what I am pleading for!

Every knowledgeable person knows that Systematic Theology ought to be an outgrowth of Biblical Theology. The fact that most Dispensationalists are content to tack their views on to an already existing whole system doesn’t speak well for their Biblical Theology. For if Dispensational Biblical Theology cannot produce the impetus to formulate a distinctive and whole Systematic Theology of its own, perhaps the trouble goes deeper? I believe it does, and that reformulating Dispensational Theology from a Biblical Covenantalist viewpoint gives you all the main points of traditional Dispensational Eschatology and Ecclesiology, but it also gives you enough material from which to formulate clear and distinctive versions of Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Bibliology, Anthropology, Christology, and Pneumatology as well.

As I have said elsewhere, I do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview. If one is going to follow the standard definitions of Dispensationalism as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology.

The irony should not be lost on us. Dispensationalists are forceful in their claims for “a Dispensational hermeneutic”, but they fail to understand what they mean by it, and even if they do, they often fail to give it the theological sponsorship it deserves. The main problem here is one of methodology – a study of which is dearly wanting in Dispensational circles. Let me give an example: if a certain universally applied hermeneutic is necessary to have Dispensational eschatology, then one cannot cease applying it in all other areas. Our of a consistently applied reading of the Bible a full Systematic Theology will inevitable come!

5. Method

In the last part of my series Christ at the Center I tried to sum up the strong Christological emphasis of Biblical Covenantalism with some of the solid by-product from which robust doctrines in Systematic Theology could be constructed. Although I have recorded over two hundred lectures in Systematic Theology along conventional lines, I think if I were to try to write a volume I would use the triad God, Man and the World. Why? Because that triad is what we are confronted with as creatures in God’s image every day of our lives.

Beginning with the title “God Has Spoken” and introducing epistemological and ontological concerns, which in turn require ethical responses, I would ask questions about the knowability of God and (following Calvin) the knowability of ourselves in Creation. This introduces the doctrine of Revelation. Here I would want to press the joint reliance of the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture for the job ahead. That would open the door to hermeneutical questions.

Even so, dealing with Christ I would take up the same rubric: God, Man and the World. In this way I would attempt to discuss the pre-existence of Christ along with the incarnation and cross and resurrection. I would want to ‘lace’ the whole Systematics with Eschatological (and teleological) concerns, being careful to converge these themes in the section called “Eschatology” at the end of the work. This way one would hopefully see the inevitability of the convergence rather than now turning to “The Last Things.” The covenants of Scripture, dealing as they do with the same triad of God, Man and the World, could help accomplish this.

6. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on reality (viz. God, Man and the World). It does not go cap-in-hand to worldly science and unbelieving philosophy because it knows that the Biblical Worldview is the only workable worldview.

Continue reading “Renewing Dispensational Theology – Revised (Pt. 2)”

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. Continue reading “The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament (2)”

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.