Biblical Covenantalism

Jeremiah and Covenant

Another excerpt from The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology

A Concern for God’s Covenants  

The prophet Jeremiah is certainly concerned about covenant.  He refers constantly to the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Jer.11:1-12), especially as understood in Deuteronomy.  But chapter 3 shows him to be focused also on the Davidic covenant (Jer. 3:17), and the land aspect of the Abrahamic covenant (Jer. 3:18. Cf. 25:5).  Having noted this there are still signs of God’s allegiance to Israel, as when in chapter 10 Yahweh calls Himself “the Portion of Jacob” (Jer. 10:16), and the prophet follows this up by calling Him “the hope of Israel” (14:8).  So even though God knows how they have “defiled My land” (Jer. 16:18), and He will drive them out of the land for seventy years (Jer. 25:11), He will bring them back to it (Jer. 16:14-15).[1]

Jeremiah is also, (not so coincidentally), the prophet of “the word of the Lord” (dabar Yahweh), referring to it “or similar phrases 157 times out of the total of 349 times such phrases are used in the Old Testament.”[2]

Jeremiah 11 contrasts the integrity of Yahweh in bringing Israel into the land, and the rebellion of the people to the terms of the Mosaic covenant.[3]  It is obvious from chapter 11 that God wants to gift the land to Israel.  In Jeremiah 11:3-5 it is made perfectly clear that God wanted to “establish the oath” that He swore to the Fathers[4].  Verse 5 might encourage those who teach the fulfillment of the land promises in either the time of Joshua or Solomon.  But this conclusion confuses the Exodus promises with the Abrahamic promises which preceded them.  Although the prophet is harking back to Deuteronomy 27-28, the covenants with Abraham, Phinehas, and David figure strongly in this book in at least a few places.  The Mosaic covenant was bilateral, in that both God and the people uttered oaths, whereas these three covenants were not.  We must see how Jeremiah handles the unilateral covenants before we make our minds up about whether the land promises still await final fulfillment.  Chapter 11 is a depiction of the people’s idolatrous state despite Josiah’s reform and despite Jeremiah’s warnings about defection from the Mosaic covenant.  It is both an announcement and a vindication of the coming captivity.

Kingdom Ground                       

We are very definitely on kingdom ground in chapter 23.  Jeremiah 23:1-8 contains one of the relatively few Messianic predictions in the book of Jeremiah.  It begins with the prophet denouncing the false shepherds who mislead God’s people (Jer. 23:1-2).  Then comes another prophecy of a great regathering of “the remnant” from different parts of the world.  They will be given better shepherds (Jer. 23:3-4).  Following this is a beautiful restoration passage in which the person of “the Branch” is central:

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the LORD,
“That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness;
A King shall reign and prosper,
And execute judgment and righteousness in the earth.

In His days Judah will be saved,
And Israel will dwell safely;
Now this is His name by which He will be called:
THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” – Jeremiah 23:5-6

The Branch (tsemach) is again of the line of David, which links Him with the Ruler of Micah 5:2 and the Branch (netser) of Isaiah 11:1-10.  Just as in Isaiah 11:4-5 He is a righteous judge of the earth.  The mention of Judah and Israel reinforces the future unity of the divided peoples just as in Jeremiah 3:18.   Here the great King who is coming is called by a name: Yahweh Tsidkenu or “Yahweh our Righteousness.”  Present too are several of the same restoration ingredients that we have seen before.  What should not be missed is the eschatological reference to a reunited Israel dwelling safely (23:6).  This idea of peace and security is essential to grasp.  It is repeated in many prophecies of the coming aeon (e.g. Jer. 23:4; 32:37; 33:16. Cf. Mic. 4:4; Isa. 40:9; Zeph. 3:13; Ezek. 34:25, 28).  Until this pledge has been realized it cannot be said that God has fulfilled His oaths to Israel.

Jeremiah 23:7 and 8 contain a second Exodus motif such as the one we saw in Isaiah 11.[5]  This second Exodus is not, as is often claimed, a figurative contrivance.  It is rather a literal one; the surrounding context making this the wisest interpretation.  There is no reason, other than presumption, to consign these words to the pictorial-symbolic realm.  The future regathering of Israel (to be treated below) will feature another “exodus crossing” although not in the same place.  This time the people will come from the north (Jer. 23:8), as well as from the south and east (Isa. 11:11).

There is another possible reference to the future regathering in Jeremiah 29:11-14.

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.

I will be found by you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive.

This passage appears to match similar eschatological passages in the earlier prophets.  Admittedly, it is settled within the context of the Babylonian Captivity (Jer. 29:10, 15), but the verses do not reflect the situation experienced by those who returned home, so they could well be proleptic (anticipatory), having to do with the final regathering before the second advent.

——————————————————————————————

[1] This return to the land appears to be the return from the Babylonian captivity (e.g. Jer. 29:10).  But some of the wording looks beyond the late sixth century B.C. and points us forward to a time when they will “search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13b); a sentiment which echoes the eschatological leanings of Deuteronomy 30:1-10.

[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Promise-Plan of God, 197

[3] I do not think the covenant referred to as “this covenant” in Jer. 11:2-3 is the covenant sworn under Josiah in 2 Kings 23:1-3.  The connections with Exodus and Deuteronomy seem too strong.

[4] In view of the description of the land as “flowing with milk and honey” and the mention of the fathers in connection with the Exodus (11:4, 7), it is best to identify these “fathers” as those of the time of Moses.

[5] It is also found earlier in Jeremiah (Jer. 16:14-15).

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Contrasting Dispensationalism and Biblical Covenantalism

This is an older post which I have taken the opportunity to revise and update, hopefully in light of more mature thinking.

A Little Back-Story

As many of my readers will know, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to place Dispensational theology on what I believe is a more secure footing.  Dispensationalism has not produced many top-line academic works, especially in the last half century, and with only one or two exceptions it presents itself as static and unwilling to improve.  In the meantime it has been frozen out of mainstream evangelical scholarship and its influence has dwindled.  One example among many will suffice: The huge 8 volume IVP Dictionaries, which cover the entire Bible, and are written by hundreds of top scholars across the broad sweep of evangelicalism, include scarcely any contribution by dispensational scholars.  The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets has (as far as I can tell) only one entry by one dispensationalist (Robert Chisholm on “Retribution”, and I’m not sure Chisholm is much of a dispensationalist).

In reflecting on the reasons for this I eventually asked myself a rather obvious question: “does the Bible ground its biblical theology upon the dispensations or on something else?”  Re-reading the Bible with this question uppermost in my mind led me to the conclusion that the Bible does indeed base its theology in something other than changing administrations.  It roots itself in the divine covenants!  From this was born what I have called Biblical Covenantalism.  It retains all that makes Dispensationalism good, but refocuses it on the covenants of God.  The result is, I believe, a far more robust and intellectually promising system that is there to be developed.

Anyway, here are what I think are the main contrasts between my approach (BC) and traditional Dispensational theology (DT):

1. DT: is led by its very name to define itself by an aspect of its approach which is really tangential to its overall genius.  This definition then circumscribes the outlook and understanding of its adherents and places blinkers (blinders) on their theological vision.  Dispensations are just not that important: the biblical covenants are.  Dispensationalism is limited because of what dispensations can do (i.e. describe one aspect).

BC: defines itself by the covenants of God found within the pages of Scripture.  Because these covenants, correctly understood, comprehend God’s declared purposes for the creation (not just Israel, His chosen people), they expand ones theological vision.  Biblical Covenantalism is expansive because of what the covenants of Scripture can do (i.e. describe a purpose and prescribe God’s outlook).

2. DT: although I don’t expect everyone to see this, Dispensationalism derives its hermeneutics from “without” by asserting the normal or literal sense via grammatical-historical hermeneutics.  There is little attempt to derive this hermeneutics from the Bible itself.

BC: seeks to derive its hermeneutics (which correspond to traditional grammatical-historical hermeneutics) from “within” – from the Bible itself, in deference to the Biblical Worldview.  This acknowledges the comprehensive relation of revelation and knowledge.  There is a “God’s words = God’s actions” hermeneutical sequence in Scripture which is amplified by the covenants.

3. DT: often struggles with the New Covenant and its application.  Some believe the New Covenant is only for Israel; some that the Church somehow “participates” in the New Covenant without being a party to it.  A few believe Christ made the New Covenant with the Church, but usually they limit it to the salvation of the soul.

BC: because it pays special attention to the covenants and their inter-relationships, comprehends the Christocentric arrangement of the other covenants around the New Covenant.  Christ and the New Covenant are identified, allowing one to see how all beneficiaries of God’s grace have a covenantal relation to Him.  Thus, the terms of the other covenants are released to be fulfilled once the parties to those covenants (whether national Israel or the Gentiles or both) have passed under the New Covenant in Christ.

4. DT: is not redemptively focused, meaning it does not concentrate on the teleological goals of God in Christ for the future of the whole created realm.

BC: is redemptively focused in the sense given above.

5. DT: tends therefore, not to be as Christological as Covenant Theology.

BC: is just as Christological as Covenant Theology, though not artificially reading Christ into foreign contexts.  Stressing, as it does, the truth that this creation is made through and for Christ; is redeemed in Christ, and will be ruled over and restored by Christ.

6. DT: tends to restrict its remit to the areas of ecclesiology and eschatology, in consequence confining its thinking and hence productivity to those areas.  It cannot be developed into a worldview system under these confines (hence it is not prescriptive).  This confinement is only exacerbated by the way Dispensationalism defines itself.

BC: is far more expansive; focusing on every area of Systematic Theology and worldview through its reflection on the outcome and repercussions of the biblical covenants and the centrality of Christ.

7. DT: emphasizes the end of the Bible and places little importance on the doctrine of Creation and its outworking in God’s overall plan.

BC: does put a lot of stress upon Creation and sees history in terms of the combined outworking of the teleology and the eschatology which was built into Creation from the beginning.  The Bible is an eschatological (and also teleological) book from beginning to end.

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt.6)

Part Five

The Kingdom of God and the New Heaven and New Earth

The prediction of a new heaven and a new earth seems to throw a spanner in the works of those interpreters who think they see a kingdom-age after the second coming of Christ but before the New Creation.  I think McClain is right in saying that the prophet simply views the kingdom-age and the New Creation together.[1]   And it is true that the Prophets do place events together which consequently are seen to be separated by millennia.  The prophecies concerning the first and second comings of Christ are cases in point.  Isaiah 65:17-25 predicts not only a new heaven and earth, it also predicts death and sin, though in a greatly modified setting where children and sinners die at a hundred years of age (Isa. 65:20).  But Isaiah has already said that God will abolish death (Isa. 25:8).  What is to be done?  I think both should be taken literally, although they don’t seem to belong together.  Are we to believe that death and sin are still in evidence in the New Creation?  But what of the efficacy of the finished work of Christ?

Let me admit that I feel the weight of inquiry from those who would pressure me into answering these points.  They would rather make the passage metaphorical or else gloss over verse 20 completely.[2]  If the death of a child and of a sinner at a hundred years old is a metaphor, what can it possibly signify?[3]  And if it is not, how can it be fitted into an eschatology where the new heavens and earth follow on directly from Christ’s return?  Better then to adopt the interpretation of Saucy who explains,

The blending by the prophets of a future restored Jerusalem and the final eternal city corresponds with their picture of the future of the entire earth and heavens.  The hope of the Old Testament was ultimately for an eternal state of things, for the prophets knew that the present “heavens will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment” (Isa 51:6).  Consequently, along with the portrayal of the rule of the Messiah over an imperfect world (cf. Isa 2:1-4; Zech 14:16ff), they looked forward to the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22).[4]

The reference to Isaiah 51 in the quotation above is instructive, for although Isaiah 51:6 states that this present creation order will disappear, Jerusalem (which God is preeminently concerned about in this book[5], and which often in Isaiah stands also for the whole nation), is promised continuance:

So the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness; sorrow and sighing shall flee away. – Isaiah 51:11 (cf. 65:18; 66:22)

The city’s permanence is grounded upon the covenant God Himself, who laid the foundations of the present earth (Isa. 51:13), and who will establish a new foundation (Isa. 51:16).  The glorious yet imperfect kingdom of Isaiah 65:20-25 is the kingdom envisaged in chapter 11.  There are children (“offspring”) present (Isa. 65:23).

The conjunction of comfort upon Zion and judgment upon God’s enemies returns in the last chapter of this great book.  In the midst of this is an enigmatic declaration of the birth (rebirth) of the nation of Israel:

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall the earth be made to give birth in one day? Or shall a nation be born at once? For as soon as Zion was in labor, she gave birth to her children. – Isaiah 66:8

Zion is said to bring forth a nation in one day. The suddenness of this “birth” is meant to tell the reader that it is God who will work a miracle for Israel.[6]  This suddenness corresponds with the impression already made of healing (Isa. 58:8) and comfort (Isa. 61-62).  Isaiah leaves us with an expectation of national renewal for Israel (cf. Isa. 46:13). (more…)

The “Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament

The Day of the LORD in the Old Testament[1]

     The expression “the Day of the Lord” is sometimes thought to refer to the time of the end of this age.[2]  Unquestionably, there are passages which do refer to the eschaton, and we shall look at them, but not every usage of the phrase can be slotted into the last days; the locust plague in Joel 1 being a case in point.  In Joel 1 the Day of the Lord speaks of Yahweh using things in the natural world to punish His people.  Four descriptions of the locusts are given in Joel 1:4 and 2:25 (which could describe four separate varieties of locust).  This appears to tie together Joel 1 and 2.  Additionally, Joel 1:6 depicts the teeth of the locusts as lion’s fangs, which is figurative, so we must take into account similes when reading about the appearance of the army in Joel 2:4 as like horses.[3]  For reasons such as these Thomas Finley believes that Joel 1:5- 2:25 describes a contemporary locust infestation.[4]

Finley may be right, but some things in Joel 2 don’t fit his view easily.  The last reference to the Day in Joel 2:31 speaks of the sun and moon being blacked out before the Day of the Lord.  And Joel 3:14 -16 includes the same phenomena, as well as Yahweh Himself coming to deliver His remnant; and He comes to “dwell” in Zion (Joel 3:17).  These are eschatological uses of the phrase and describe events surrounding the second coming.

Regarding the circumstances of Joel 2:1-15 the first thing which strikes the interpreter is the shift to the future tense in chapter 2.[5]  The change in verb tenses does not of itself mean that the prophet is peering into the far distant future, but it strongly indicates a different set of circumstances than those in chapter 1.  Joel still uses the locust imagery, but now more for analogy.  Most striking is Joel’s use of similes.  For example,

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses; and like swift steeds, so they run.

With a noise like chariots over mountaintops they leap, like the noise of a flaming fire that devours the stubble, like a strong people set in battle array.

Before them the people writhe in pain; all faces are drained of color.

They run like mighty men, they climb the wall like men of war – Joel 2:4-7a (my emphasis)

 

If this is a description of a coming trained army why say they are “like horses,” “like a strong people in battle array,” “like mighty men”?  The usual answer is the employment of the caph veritatis where the expression refers to the way something actually is (or ought to be).[6]  This may be so, but it is not easy to claim this use in verse 4.  One could say that the men were indeed mighty (Joel 2:7), but you could not say that they were horses and actually galloped (Joel 2:4).

Another point worth considering is Joel 2:6; a trained soldier (say an Assyrian or Greek) would try to kill the enemy, not mame them so that they writhed in agony.  Perhaps this is the grisly part about an invasion that Joel chose to mention, but why not mention all the corpses (e.g. Jer. 41:9)?  Just maybe it is because this army inflicts pain but not death?  Such is the infernal army described in Revelation 9:1-10.

Far-off Eschatological Uses

After the Day of Yahweh in Joel 2:11 comes blessing from God reminiscent of New covenant blessing (Joel 2:15-27 cf. Amos 9:13-15; Hos. 2:16-23; Isa. 55:10-13; 66:10-13).   This indicates the real possibility that Joel 2 is a prophecy of the tribulation, second advent, and restoration of Israel.  The Day of the Lord in this context covers the first two, just as it does in Joel 3.

If we are reading through the Bible we first encounter the phrase in Isaiah 2:12-22.  In that place the Day of Yahweh (Isa. 2:12) connotes a time when men will be humbled and Yahweh alone will be exalted (Isa. 2:17).  The earth will be shaken, and people will behold “the glory of His majesty” (Isa. 2:21).  At that time people will “go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the crags of the rugged rocks” (Isa. 2:21) to hide themselves from God.  So there is good reason to think that “the Day of the Lord” in Isaiah 2 refers to the second coming.  The setting of Isaiah 13:6, 9 is likewise eschatological (e.g. Isa. 13:10), and Isaiah 58:13 can be situated in the same general context, although there it is part of an ethical charge.

Amos 5:18, 20 and Obadiah 15 are a little harder to decide.  Obadiah 15-21 is reminiscent of Zephaniah’s usage in Zephaniah 2 (see below).  It appears that the fulfillment of Obadiah’s oracle on all nations will occur in the eschaton.[7]  Amos alludes to the people foolishly wishing that the Day of the Lord would come, which implies that they thought it was the time when Yahweh would put everything to rights; doling out punishments to Israel’s enemies while rewarding the Jews.  Hence, they must have believed it was the great Day of Yahweh’s coming. But Zechariah 14:1 and Malachi 4:5 are eschatological.  In fact, they both focus in on specific events in the future time of trouble.  Zechariah has Yahweh coming in person and fighting for Israel, His feet even touching the Mount of Olives (Zech. 14:1-4).  Malachi 4:5 promises the arrival of Elijah “before the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord.”  Hence, for Zechariah and Malachi, the Day of Yahweh is a shortened period prior to and including the second coming.  Zephaniah’s use of the term looks out to the time of the end.  His book is saturated with the theme of God’s Day of wrath coming before New covenant blessing.

Although in Zephaniah 2 there is a list of many cities and states that will experience the Day of the Lord, the tenor of the book implies that the prophet is looking at judgments to come in the last days.[8]  At the beginning of the third chapter God castigates Jerusalem, calling her that “rebellious… polluted …oppressing city” (Zeph. 3:1).  The doom-laden language continues until Zephaniah 3:9 when a new theme of hope is assumed.  Thus, Zephaniah 3:1, while it could be viewed in light of its ANE setting, still relates to the closing Day before the kingdom era.

Clear Near-at-Hand Uses

Nonetheless, there are places in the Prophets where the term “the Day of the Lord” refers to matters which were not centuries away from the time of the prophet.  That is to say, the “Day of the Lord” is not an eschatological concept in certain places.  In Jeremiah 46:10 the expression is used for the devastation of the Egyptians at Carchemish at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar’s army.  The two uses in Ezekiel (Ezek. 13:5; 30:3) make sense in an ancient setting, and can only with manipulation be thrust into our future.

Additionally, the geographical markers in Zephaniah 1:11; 2:4-8, 12-13 could be read in terms of close at hand fulfilment in Old Testament history.  But these markers (e.g. cities) are dealt with in such a way as to point to the final consummation.  For example, in Zephaniah 2:11 the nations are said to turn to Yahweh after He has “reduced to nothing” all of their idols.  So here contemporary issues are answered in terms of final outcomes.

In Summary

The expression “the Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament refers to the appearance of Yahweh in judgment[9] and is applied in general in two ways.  It is used to describe God’s impending judgment against a nation in Old Testament times.  The form the judgment took varied, but the outcome was devastating.  The other use of the term refers to the final time of God’s judgment before the New covenant kingdom is inaugurated.  It can refer to the whole time of tribulation, or to a part of it.  It may even include the second coming itself.  The instances of the Day of Yahweh that occurred in the past (e.g. the locusts in Joel 1) are sometimes adumbrations of the eschatological Day.[10]

——————————————————————————-

[1] See also the treatments of the individual books.  I appreciate that it might well be rendered “the Day of Yahweh,” but I shall mainly retain the more common terminology

[2] E.g. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come, 230-231; Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, “Day of the Lord,” in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), general editor, Mal O. Couch, 87-88

[3] Patterson notices that both the Italian and German words for locusts refer to their horse-like appearance.  See Richard D. Patterson, “Joel,” in EBC, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 7, 249 n. 4

[4] Thomas J. Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 41

[5] Duane A. Garrett, Hosea, Joel, 333-334

[6] Ibid, 338-339

[7] Thomas J. Finley, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, 370-371

[8] This does not rule out contemporary judgments against these places

[9] See William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 108, although Dumbrell allows the possibility of blessing in connection with the Day of the Lord.

[10] Interestingly, the New Testament uses of the term only concern themselves with the second, eschatological sense of “Day of the Lord,” although again the term covers several occurrences.

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt. 5)

Part Four

God and Israel: A Special Bond

Isaiah 54 is a reminder to Israel that she bears a special relationship to Yahweh, who is both her Redeemer and Husband (Isa. 54:5).  This role of husband has been seen already in Hosea (2:16), and will be repeated in Jeremiah (Jer. 3:14; 31:32).  It is no coincidence that what might properly be labelled “New covenant blessings” follow the atoning work of the Suffering Servant.  The overtures of God to Israel ought to be taken for what they plainly are; a promise of a perpetual bond guaranteed by the covenant faithfulness of God.  Like all the prophets, Isaiah is not backward in showing Israel her sin.  But again, like the other prophets, he is a prophet of hope: “But My kindness shall not depart from you, nor shall My covenant of peace be removed” (Isa. 54:10).[1]  The “covenant of peace,” which is an expression that is appended to the redeemed priesthood in Numbers 25:12 and Ezekiel 37:26; or to restored Israel depicted as a haven in Ezekiel 34:25, is in Isaiah 54:10 a reference to God’s people as restored and protected (Isa. 54:17).  But each use of the phrase is prophetic and concerns the things to come when the New covenant is enacted.  The prophet makes reference to the Noahic covenant (Isa. 54:9) to underscore the unwavering commitment of God to Israel.  A great theme of Isaiah is what might be called “the Glory of God in a gloriously restored Israel.”  The nation will be restored in their own land, with their own king and with their priesthood.  Jerusalem (Zion) will become the most prestigious city in the world.  This is the word of God in the prophets.  It cannot be reinterpreted to say something it didn’t mean when it was uttered.

This unalterable word accomplishes what it was sent out to do (Isa. 55:11).  I have made the strong claim that there exists a natural connection between God’s thoughts, God’s words, and God’s actions.  If I am right about this then the purpose for which God sends out His word (Isa. 55:11) matches the content of the words He chooses to utter.  To put it another way, the result of the word of God closely corresponds to the words He “sends out.”  In fact, to believe that the accomplishment of God’s word does not match the words He uses is just as absurd as trying to test a prophet while neglecting the words he uses when speaking a prediction.  The fulfillment is in the words; the purpose resides in what is said.  It is folly to interpret Isaiah 55:8 as saying “My meaning is not your meaning.”  If that were true, there would be no logical reason for God to say anything to the creature.

Justice 

The vital connection between the Lord and the nation He created for Himself means that social justice is never too far out of the mind of God’s servants (e.g. Mic. 6:8; Isa. 1:16-17).  Perhaps the clearest example of this concern is found in Isaiah 58:

Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? – Isaiah 58:6-7    

A true people of God must reflect the character of God.  All of life is moral.  A life that mirrors God will understand why the character of God is both the source and the goal of their humanity.  This is aptly put in a recent publication:

There is no moral thought that is not, quite simply, human thought, no human being that was not born to think responsibly about being, living, and doing; yet there is no moral thought that does not depend for whatever effect it may have upon a gift for which no human source can be credited.  The relation of the self to God may or may not be consciously recognized, but whether it is or not, it underlies the sense of responsibility which gives the moral its character of urgency.  But to the extent that it becomes conscious, it becomes explicit.  Developed and self-conscious moral thinking begins and ends by calling on God.[2]     

The question in verse 6 resonates with the heart cry of God.  He calls His people to care for others like He does.  They don’t, we don’t.  That is another reason why Christ will come to spread justice and mercy over the face of this world.  He will “come to Zion” (Isa. 59:20), and, with echoes of the New covenant portents of Deuteronomy 30:6, He will pour the Spirit upon His people so that they shall indeed be motivated to fulfill their moral calling (cf. Isa. 59:21).

When the Deliverer finally comes, He will initiate the ascendency of Israel and of Jerusalem (cf. Isa. 49:13; 62:1-4, 12): that is the theme of chapter 60.[3]  God is shown bidding His city to take its rightful place at the top of the future world’s government (Isa. 60:9-14).  This same prediction will come from the prophet Zechariah after the Exile.  God still intends to make Israel “the head and not the tail” (Deut. 28:13).  Isaiah even states that, “the nation and kingdom which will not serve you shall perish, and those nations shall be utterly ruined” (Isa. 60:12).  True, interpreters often like to qualify this idea by speaking of the glorified Zion as a means to the end of turning the nations to God.[4]  But this is not what the texts say, and in my opinion the sentiment is encouraged by a nascent unbelief in the preeminence of the nation of Israel in the new order.  If Israel is indeed the bride of Yahweh (Isa. 54:5) it would not be surprising if one of God’s aims is to glorify her (Isa. 62:5).  I see no reason to deflect the away from where God Himself places it.  The affinity between bride and husband ought to be considered in such contexts.  Then there will be no confusion created by the nations coming to glorify Israel in the new kingdom.  The Lord’s presence will only make it more natural.

The two chapters 61 and 63 have common eschatological themes within them.

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, 
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD… – Isaiah 61:1-2a

Readers of the Gospel of Luke are very familiar with these verses.  They were quoted by Jesus Himself at the synagogue at Nazareth right after His baptism and temptation[5].  Here in Isaiah they clearly refer to the One whom God calls to bring deliverance.  He is the Messiah (Psa. 2:2; 45:7).  And He is the ‘Branch’, the man of the Spirit (cf. also Isa. 42:1), who shall rule in righteousness and peace in the kingdom, and whom the Gentiles will seek (Isa. 11:1-10).  And this is surely Isaiah’s Servant (“He has sent Me”), and He is Moses’ Prophet (“To proclaim liberty… to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”).  This passage ties in the roles perhaps more conclusively than any that have gone before.  The Spirit of God, who will give Him His mission and empowerment, endows the Servant to “heal”, (actually to ‘bind up’, chabash), and to “set free.”  This Deliverer also speaks for God sui generis.  Meditation of this text alone should have rid all doubts from the minds of Jesus’ auditors about His claims.

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[1] The word translated “kindness” in Isaiah 54:10 is the familiar hesed, perhaps better translated “loyal love.”  Anderson refers to this word “one of the most important theological terms in the Old Testament.” – Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology, 60.  Leon Morris, “It is too much to that the word originates in the usages of covenant…It is possible to have hesedh without a covenant, but it is not possible to have a covenant without hesedh.” – Testaments of Love: A Study of Love in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 69

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 38

[3] McClain wrote, “Nothing in the whole field of Old Testament prophecy could possibly surpass the brilliance and grandeur of the 60th chapter of Isaiah; and its central theme is the restoration and world supremacy of the nation of Israel.” – Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, 211

[4] See, e.g., James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 211 n.145.  A fuller summation of Isaiah 60 is found in Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Glory, 340.  However, Schreiner’s eschatology makes him look for a non-literal fulfillment of the promises (Ibid, 341).

[5] See Luke 4:16-21.

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt.4)

Part Three

The Suffering Servant

God’s Servant reappears in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This passage is of great significance because in it the Holy Spirit puts emphasis not on the reign of Messiah (if I may at this place call Him that), but upon His sufferings.  It is a singular fact that the Old Testament prophecies are more concerned with the reign of the coming Ruler than with his death.  This point has even caused interpreters to question whether we are dealing with the same person or with two “servants”, a sufferer and a conqueror.  This passage answers that question decisively I think.

It starts with the exaltation of the Servant (Isa. 52:13), but immediately the mood changes to His degradation (52:14ff.).  Since Philip identifies the Suffering Servant as Jesus in Acts 8:35, and 52:13-15 is really part and parcel of that portion of the prophecy in chapter 53, we might look at these verses as a kind of prelude to it.  Verse 13 certainly draws a parallel with what has been spoken of the great King to come in Isaiah 9:7 and 11:2-5.  The exalted One who shall “deal with prudence” over the earth’s affairs will also have to undergo great humiliation in the earth.  As we know that His reign will be eternal (Isa. 9:7), we are compelled to conclude that His degradation will occur prior to His being coronation (hinted at in Isa. 53:12a).

Even without seeing Jesus in the remarkable words of Isaiah 53 one feels sympathy for the man being described.  Oppressed and afflicted, yet having the meekness not to object (53:7).  A man despised by men (53:3) and “smitten and bruised by God (53:4, 10), and yet one who bears our iniquities so successfully (53:5, 6, 11, 12) that He can be made a sin offering to God (53:10), even making intercession on behalf of sinners in a way impossible for any mere animal (53:11).  This again is the Servant (53:11), but it is not Israel by any stretch of the imagination!  In no believable circumstances could Israel, who remember were under a complex sacrificial cultus, ever be thought of in this fashion.  This impression is intensified when we consider that those justified by the Servant (who though afflicted by God was nevertheless serving God – 53:4, 10), included Israel (“My people” in 53:8).

While the Servant is subjected to terrible treatment at the hands of men the prophecy makes it clear that it is for mankind that the transaction was allowed to happen.  No wonder then that after all He has to endure God exalts Him (53:12).  What a wonderful verse is verse 11:

He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. – Isaiah 53:11

The righteous servant does all this not only for God but for Himself!  “The labor of His soul” is such a beautiful phrase.  Once we couple this together with the developing portrait of the Messiah and we recall His connection, in fact His identification with the New covenant, and we remember how the New covenant gives new vigor to the other covenants I think we begin to see how the covenantal Creation Project comes together in and through the Person of Christ.

Humiliation before Exaltation

We might do well to pause here for a moment to reflect on the remarkable fact that the Old Testament dwells far more upon the victorious ascendancy and rule of the Promised One than with His being dishonored and put to shame by His enemies before coming to the throne.  Even in the first promise in Genesis 3:15 the serpent is said to crush the heel of the woman’s seed before He vanquishes the serpent.  In Genesis 49:10 and Numbers 24:17 speak only of His glory, as does Micah 2:13 and 5:2.  Psalm 22:1-21 is the only other passage so far in the progress of revelation where a similar shameful treatment is recorded, but there the specific individual remains prophetically uncertain until the death of Jesus.  In Isaiah the prophecies in 7:14; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 32:1; 40:10 all refer to the reign of the Lord, there is no mention of any suffering.  This will be the consistent theme of Isaiah from chapter 54 onward.

We shall observe the same phenomenon all the way through the Prophets.  Zephaniah 3:15-17 and Jeremiah 23:5-6 and 33:14-16 teach us to expect someone who will usher in righteousness under His purview.  The “smiting stone” of Daniel 2 and the great Ruler of Daniel 7:13-14 again draw the reader’s attention to the glory of the Coming One, not to His misery.  Zechariah’s post-exilic visions do briefly mention that Yahweh will be valued at thirty pieces of silver (Zech. 11:13), and then there is the enigmatic pronouncement that “they will look on me whom they pierced” in Zechariah 12:10, but otherwise that writer’s more Messianic predictions follow the descriptions of splendor we find nearly everywhere else (e.g. Zech. 2:10; 3:8; 6:12-13; 8:3; 9:9; 14:3-5, 9, 16-17).  Finally, Malachi 3:1-3 and 4:1-3 raise the same expectations. (more…)

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt.3)

Part Two

The Intertwining of the Covenants: A Little Summary of the Coming Kingdom

In these kinds of passages Isaiah presents a picture of the future kingdom of the Branch that is glorious in many respects.  It is fair and just and safe and beautiful.  After the initial battles, there will be a realization of the dream of world peace, brought about by the great mass of people turning to the true God; a New covenant era.  Additionally, the beautification of the earth, the desolate places made verdant, and the increase in natural productivity, will be matched by the pacification of the animal world.  This might readily be seen as a New covenant effect on the Noahic covenant.  Peace, both outward and inward, will not be the elusive thing for which men have unsuccessfully sought throughout history.  It will be present as a felt reality.  It will be a natural part of human experience.  And humanity will not be left to itself, but will know itself to be under the benevolent and judicial eye of the everlasting One.  For God Himself, through “Immanuel,” will dwell on the earth in Jerusalem,[1] and all eyes will be on the great nation of Israel.  This is where the first two parts of the Abrahamic covenant, together with the Priestly and Davidic covenants come in.

What happens in the Prophets is that the covenants of God intertwine.[2]  Even parts of the Mosaic covenant are refocused in the New covenant.  The New covenant is the key, because through it the other divine covenants can be realized.  The great obstruction of human sin is dealt with.[3]

This is the outlook of the prophetic witness we have studied so far.  It will be repeated and expanded as we move forward.  The future kingdom will be wonderful in many ways.  The believing will find “perfect peace” (Isa. 26:3) and “learn righteousness” (26:9).  In fact God will work it all within them (26:12. Cf. 35:17).

Many of these great themes are present in Isaiah 32.  There is the pouring out of the Spirit in 32:15, which is followed by the revitalization of the wilderness and super abundance of the field.  But a noteworthy thing is that these normally uninhabited places will be places of justice and righteousness (32:16).  The ethical and the physical are beautifully intertwined in the passage.

Until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever.  – Isaiah 32:15-17

In his Religio Medici, the 17th Century polymath Sir Thomas Browne supposed that while there is only one world open to the senses, there are two open to the reason; the visible and the invisible.[4]  It is my belief that the end of the Creation Project is where the two worlds unite in our sensory experience as well as in our understandings.  That is what is portrayed by the Prophet here.  “Peace,” that elusive dream often rather rudely confronting us on preachy bumper-stickers and placards, will indeed be “felt” in the former nether regions of the earth when the righteous King reigns (Isa. 32:1).

But it will not be completely perfect.[5]  Already we have read that the Messiah, if I may at this point call Him by that title, will still have to keep sin in its place.  When the last book of the Bible tells us that this “Lord of lords and King of kings” will rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Rev. 19:15-16), it is because it is picking up on the language of Psalm 2.  Isaiah has also described how “He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth” (Isa 11:4).  Micah, in the midst of predicting a scene of the kingdom (Mic. 4:1-8), has to report the continuance of idolatry (Mic. 4:5a. cf. Zech.13:2-6).

The “Little Apocalypse”

What has been called “the little apocalypse” in Isaiah 24-27 begins with a description of God’s wrath upon earth (24:1-23),[6] before introducing an era when God “will swallow up death forever, and… wipe away tears from all faces” (Isa. 25:8).  Yahweh says that He will expand “all the borders of the land” (Isa. 26:15), which obviously recalls the Abrahamic oath of Genesis 15:18-21.  Judgment gives way to blessing.  There is even a mention of resurrection (Isa. 26:19 cf. Job 19:25-26), places this section at the time of the Lord’s establishment of His kingdom.  Pain is substituted for joy because God “will establish shalom,” having done all their works within the redeemed (Isa. 26:12; 27:9).  This will be an era of true justice, not just politics under the name of justice (Isa. 26:9); an era of a resurgent and resplendent Israel (Isa. 27:6).

In sum, Isaiah’s Little Apocalypse shows that a global kingdom follows global tribulation.[7]

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[1] So many covenant theologians assume that these prophetic references to a glorified Jerusalem are to New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven (Rev. 3:12; 21:2), because their theological covenants force them to.  However, “heavenly Jerusalem“ is not a concept that occurs in the Old Testament.” – See Andrew T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul’s Thought with Special Relationship to His Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 18-19

[2] Thomas E. McComiskey refers to the way the “redemptive” or “promise covenants” (e.g. Abrahamic) work in tandem with what he calls the “administrative covenants” (e.g. Mosaic).  Hence the covenants function “bicovenantally.”  – The Covenants of Promise, 139-177.  His work is stimulating, but the Abrahamic covenant is not a redemptive covenant.  Only the New covenant contains the means of redemption.  Furthermore, McComiskey holds a necessary correlation between Israel and the Church on this bicovenantal pattern (Ibid, 189-190).  This fails, for example, to account for the raising of specific expectations by God in the three strands of the Abrahamic covenant and the repetition of these expectations under New covenant conditions.

[3] As we shall see, the New covenant itself is embodied in the Messiah, making Him the center of the covenantal picture of the Bible.

[4] Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and The Garden of Cyrus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), edited by R. H. A. Robbins, 37

[5] Note, for example, that not until the creation of the new heavens and new earth is there “no more curse” (Rev. 22:3).

[6] In Isaiah 24:5 we read of the earth’s inhabitants breaking “the everlasting covenant.”  The phrase is found in relation to the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9:16, and I believe that is the covenant Isaiah mainly has in mind here (John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1 – 33, 318).  Still, I think Motyer is correct in saying that human beings have failed to live in right relationship to God within the terms of every divine covenant.  See his discussion in Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, 199.  Less likely in view of the Noahic connections is the view that it may convey a less technical sense meaning the relationship between man to the Word of God under which he is to live, as in e.g. Harry Bultema, Commentary on Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1981), 236-237.  The term is also found in reference to the New covenant in, for example, the Book of Hebrews (Heb. 13:20).  In each of its usages the onus is not on “eternity past” but upon the future.  It will take a work of God Himself to rectify the persistent failure.

[7] Michael J. Vlach. He Will Reign Forever, 167

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt. 2)

Part One

Isaiah 11

A great monarch, called the “Branch” (Isa. 11:1. Cf. 4:2) will be possessed of the Holy Spirit (11:2).  His wisdom and justice will be equal to Yahweh (11:2-4).  Already Isaiah has taught us that this person will be miraculously conceived by a virgin (7:14 cf. Gen. 3:15); and no wonder, because He will be “Immanuel” – God with us.

Now we understand more clearly the import of Micah’s words about the coming One, “Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic. 5:2), and our thoughts are turned to “the one who breaks open” of Micah 2:13.  In Isaiah chapter 9 we come across an extraordinary personage “called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6).  He is of Davidic origin (9:7), just as this mighty and benevolent king in Isaiah 11:1 (cf. the Ruler from Bethlehem in Micah 5:2).  The details are clamoring for attention: the Prophets speak together of a great Potentate who will hail from Judah (Gen. 49:10; Mic.5:2), from David’s line (1 Chron. 17:12-14; Isa. 9:7).  He will rule in wisdom and righteousness and equity, aided by God’s Spirit (Isa.11:2, 4-5).  As Dumbrell indicates, His concern with righteousness and faithfulness (Isa. 11:5) shows His allegiance to God’s covenants.[1]

The Gift and Names of a King

But this person will be more than just an ideal human king.  His ancient provenance (Mic. 5:2), and special titles (Isa.7:14; 9:6) show Him to have close affinities with Yahweh Himself.  He will be “wonderful,” like no other ruler in human history.  Isaiah 9:6 refers to Him as “mighty God” (El Gibbor).[2]  Whoever this person of Isaiah 2 and 11 is then, even from the prophet’s perspective, He is very possibly divine!  By “everlasting Father” or “Father of eternity” is probably meant “protector of the people,” although He will remain so in perpetuity.[3]  The verse ought never to be misconstrued as equating this king with God the Father.  Although the description of Him as “everlasting” points to His divinity, the name “Father” does not.[4]

The first three names of Isaiah 9:6, along with the promise of the virgin born “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14,[5] could easily lead someone to the conclusion that God Himself will be this promised Ruler, this “great light” (Isa. 9:2).  Who else could preside over a world where the reaper could overtake the sower? (Amos 9:13).  Or bring about shalom among men and among the animal kingdom? (Hos. 2:18).  And if one is making connections with previous revelation, then who else could vanquish Satan (Gen. 3:15)?  The Psalmist had spoken about an individual so exalted that He was seated at God’s right hand until the kingdom was given to Him (Psa. 110:1).[6]  In fact Psalm 45:6 alluded both to His divine nature and the “scepter of righteousness” that He would wield (cf. Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17; Psa. 2:8-12).

The fourth name of Isaiah 9:6 is “Prince of peace.”  This peace is what Micah 4, Isaiah 2 and 32 envisage.  The Prince of peace doesn’t negotiate peace, He exudes peace!  His shalom influences the coming New covenant Kingdom which He is present in.

The early chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy bring many strands of hope together, and they all coalesce around one man, whom the prophet speaks of variously as the Branch, Immanuel, the Servant.  Further on in the Book more information will be added, although some of it will be perplexing in light of what has been said (i.e. Isa. 53).  Yet it will not be contradictory.  But the strong kingdom promises within the great covenants (Abrahamic, Priestly, and Davidic), require a special key to unlock them.  That key is salvation from sin.

There is no kingdom or participation in the kingdom without atonement.[7]

Will atonement too be accomplished by this Divine Ruler?  And if so, how will He accomplish it?

The Man who is the “Branch”

The answer to these questions lies ahead of us.  The reintroduction of the “Branch” from the Davidic line alludes to a kingly figure who will rule, not only over Israel, but the whole created order.[8]  As such the person of the “Branch” is a king par excellence.[9]  But in the setting of Isaiah 11 there are more extraordinary things of which to make mention.

After the opening description of the Branch of verses 1-5 there comes an enthralling description of a transformation of the instinct and temperament of the wild beasts of the earth:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.  They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. – Isaiah 11:6-9 (more…)

Covenant in Isaiah (Pt. 1)

This post and those to follow are extracts from a draft chapter in the book ‘The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology’ Vol. 1 (forthcoming d.v.)

The prophet Isaiah prosecuted his ministry between around 755 to 685 B.C.[1]  Isaiah has a lot to say about both the developing picture of the Creation Project and the person of the promised King who will reign upon the earth.  His presentation of both of these broad themes furthers the developmental picture of the covenant program greatly.

The Prophet before his God

Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord in chapter 6 of his book helps us to understand the rest of what he had to say.[2]  The prophet is confronted by the unimaginably majestic vision of the throne room of God, being brought face to face with the King of the universe (Isa. 6:5b).  In this environment he quickly becomes acutely aware of his own decrepitude and unworthiness.  He is a sort of microcosm of the people of Israel to whom he is sent, and to every reader of his work.

The vision of the holy King in Isaiah 6 grants a glimpse of God, albeit terrifying, but with a lining of hope, that not only enables us to make (some) sense of God’s difficult words in the book, but also invites us to examine ourselves personally and corporately…[3]

The prophet sees his own sin before denouncing the sins of Israel, and is given many indications of sin’s vanquishing by the Judge on the throne.  Restoration, salvation, healing, and harmony are brought before the chosen race in this book; especially in and through the Messiah, whom Isaiah likes to call God’s “Servant,” in the second main division of the work.  Although there is an irony in that the prophet’s message will only accelerate Israel’s decline.[4]

Be that as it may, the hope which punctuates this book originates directly from the One who sits exalted on the throne.  If there was no hope from that quarter there would be no point in asking “Who will go for us?” for it would only be a fool’s errand of one doomed sinner telling every other doomed sinner what bad things God had in store for them all.  The vision of God in chapter 6 may be strategically placed so that, as Oswalt comments: “Just as the man of unclean lips had to abandon all hope before being cleansed by fire, so too must the nation.”[5]

The Lord (‘adonay) is seen in a temple (Isa. 6:1),[6] and the whole vision concerns the created earth (6:3).[7]  The fact that the Almighty cleanses the prophet before He asks for a volunteer (6:7-8) shows that a redemptive mission is in His mind.[8]  Isaiah goes forth “for Us” (the plurality that is the Lord[9]).  And even though there will be judgment against willful sin (6:9-10), yet in the end some, the “holy seed,” will be saved (6:13 cf. 4:3).

The Introduction to the Book

As Isaiah’s prophecy begins he wastes no time in coming to the point about Israel’s (i.e. Judah and Jerusalem’s) spiritual condition.  Isaiah employs several memorable images to show the people their abandonment of God: they are “laden with iniquity” (Isa. 1:4), “the whole head is sick, the whole heart faints” (1:5).  The trouble is the people don’t think (1:3).  Still, God tries to reason with them:

Come now, and let us reason together,” says the LORD, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.  If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. – Isaiah 1:18-19

It is unclear whether this is simply a statement that we reap what we sow, or is also a prophetic oracle, looking at the cleansing action of God that will qualify His people to inherit what was promised to them many centuries earlier.  But as the first chapter draws to a close, Isaiah foresees a time when God will turn His people back to Himself.

I will turn My hand against you, and thoroughly purge away your dross, and take away all your alloy. I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.  Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and her penitents with righteousness. – Isaiah 1:25-27 

With the benefit of hindsight we know that at no time was there a national repentance that led to Jerusalem being known as a “city of righteousness.”  The prophet is definitely on predictive ground again.  Furthermore, although it is not given the name, these are New covenant words; true righteousness will only come once the Law is satisfied. (more…)

The Cosmic Temple and Spiritualized Eschatology (Pt.4)

Part Three

Block’s Challenge

Recently the Old Testament scholar Daniel Block has vigorously challenged the whole Cosmic Temple thesis.[1]  Even if his counter-arguments are somewhat provisional[2], and he retains certain questionable positions on some matters (e.g. the presence of a covenant in Eden[3]; violence beyond Eden[4]; Jesus replacing the Jerusalem temple[5]), I think he has banged more than a couple of nails into the coffin.  Allow me to set out several of his major criticisms[6]:

  1. The depiction of Eden in Genesis 1 and 2 stresses, says Block, not a sacred space, but a “royal world, with the man being cast as a king.”[7] I may add that the concept of sacred space may be present, but it need not include a priesthood[8], and there are reasons to think it does not. The office of priest seems to make sense only whe,n others are excluded from the priesthood.  But that cannot be maintained out of what we read in Genesis.  There is no reason to believe that all Adam’s offspring would follow their father in a priestly function, but then who would they represent?  The existence of a priesthood presupposes not a congenial divine-human economy but a broken relationship.[9]  Hence it is simply out of place in Eden.[10]
  2. God’s “walking” (hithallek) in the garden in Genesis 3:8 relates much more to His relationship with man than to the garden as a “sanctuary.”[11]
  3. The presence of cherubim guarding the tree of life need not imply that Eden was sacred space. Block notes that strange composite creatures are found in other settings in ANE parallels like palaces and gates.[12] They are not confined to sanctuaries, so appeals to ANE parallels won’t work.  On top of this is the fact that no presence of these creatures is recorded until after the entrance of sin into the world.
  4. The clothing given to Adam by God was also given to Eve. If Adam wore priestly garments then so did Eve. But the Old Testament knows nothing of women priests.[13]  This incongruity has not been addressed by the promoters of the theory.  But neither has the change of wardrobe from glorious apparel before the Fall to animal skins afterwards.  An explanation is required if Ezekiel 28:13 is truly a description of Adam as Beale insists.
  5. Genesis 3 is silent on whether the entrance to the garden was located in the east.[14] It may have been, but we will never know for sure.
  6. Block notices that the tripartite nature of the primeval environment (garden, Eden, beyond) does not match that of the sanctuary, which had Holy of Holies, Great Room, Court, and beyond. Hence the analogy breaks down upon closer inspection.[15]
  7. Block asks if Genesis 1-3 ought to be read in light of later texts, as the espousers of the Eden/Temple-as-microcosmos approach assert. He replies that “By themselves…the accounts of Gn 1-3 offer no clues that a cosmic or Edenic temple might be involved.” He rather indicates that the sanctuaries of Israel recall what was lost in the garden through the Fall.[16]  He continues by observing that Genesis 1-3 is not based upon the concept of temple theology, but the other way round; temple theology is based in Creation theology.[17]  That is to say, the later temples memorialize the lost Paradise.
  8. Neither Eden nor the Cosmos are described in language which defines temples as places of worship.[18] He points out that the Old Testament calling Israel “the holy land” does not make it a temple, and even if we retain the terminology of calling Eden a “sacred space” it does not make it a temple also.[19] Furthermore, God does not require a dwelling place.[20]  I might add that in this scenario the cosmos is a defiled temple (as evidenced by the presence of evil) and hence the garden becomes a sacred temple within a defiled temple which it is meant to picture.

Even if Block is right about all this, and I think he is, this does not require us to back completely away from linking Eden and the Temple.  But it is best to view the tabernacle/temple as containing a remembrance of God’s paradise, and the ready access to God that was squandered.  I fully endorse the following sentiment of Block’s:

In its design as a miniature Eden the Israelite temple addressed both the alienation of humanity from the divine Suzerain and the alienation of creation in general.[21]

I think this is a crucial point.  The note of alienation is what pushes against the notion of an expanding and finally inclusive cosmic temple.  And alienation is central to the meaning of the physical temples of Israel.

We may expect more scholars to poke holes in the Cosmic Temple thesis in the coming years.

The Cosmic Temple and the Sufficiency of Scripture

As I have shown, several advocates of this Temple > Eden > Cosmos thesis inform us that it is nowhere spelled out in the Scriptures themselves.  We have also seen that interpreters old and new do not always agree with each other about what symbolizes what.  But this could be lived with if the Cosmic Temple imagery were kept as an interesting speculative feature of the Bible, say like the presence of certain chiasmic patterns, or even the view that the early chapters of Genesis comprise a microcosm of Bible history.[22]  Unfortunately this is far from the case.  Leading lights of Covenant and New Covenant theology have pressed this concept into doing major work in service of their eschatological preferences.  The logic is attractive: If the church is now the “true temple” which is to expand as God’s dwelling, and the garden of Eden and the physical Jewish temples were merely anticipations of this actual “end times temple”, then there appears to be no need for a millennium after Christ returns.  All that remains is the consummation of God’s temple in the New Heavens and New Earth.  Premillennialism loses.  But so, I would argue, does the sufficiency of Scripture.    (more…)