The Covenants of Scripture
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The doctrine of the covenants in Scripture runs parallel to that of the dispensations, but emphasises a different aspect of the Lord’s dealings with mankind. For, whereas in the dispensations of God with man we find God testing man under many kinds of discipline with a view to the ultimate proof of man’s incorrigibly sinful nature and hence the need for an entirely new creation after the destruction of the present one, in God’s covenants with mankind we find that, after the disruption of God’s original fellowship with Adam and Eve at the very outset of human history, He has been constantly laying the basis for the restoration of that original fellowship in the new creation. Thus, while the doctrine of the dispensations deals with the negative side of the story of redemption, that of the covenants deals with the positive side of the story.
Definition of the word ‘Covenant’
The word ‘covenant’ as used in the Scriptures denotes a relationship between two or more parties based on certain promises and in some cases ratified by certain blood sacrifices. There are basically two kinds of covenant, namely, conditional and unconditional. A conditional covenant is dependent upon both or all parties to the covenant fulfilling their side of the promises. Covenants between individuals like David and Jonathan, marriage partners and nations are usually conditional and resemble employment contracts. The unconditional covenants are dependent upon only one party fulfilling their promises and resemble a will. Covenants between God and man have usually been unconditional, dependent upon God’s faithfulness to His promise alone. They have been sovereign promises of God to bring certain people into definite blessings unconditionally. The one exception to this rule will be considered below.
Translations in the Authorised Version
The Old Testament word for ‘Covenant’, Berith, is found first in Genesis chapter 6 verse 18 in connection with God’s covenant with Noah to save him from the flood in the ark. Berith is sometimes translated ‘league’, ‘confederacy’, or ‘confederate’, usually referring to nations. The New Testament word for ‘covenant’, diatheke, is sometimes translated ‘testament’ and is last found in Revelation chapter 11 verse 19 in connection with the ark of God’s covenant seen by the apostle John in the heavenly temple at the climax of the great tribulation judgements.
Major Divine Covenants in Chronological Order
Although some Bible expositors refer to the Edenic and Adamic covenants, the present writer notes that the word ‘covenant’ does not occur in connection with these earliest relationships of God with man, but rather that it is first used of the Noahic Covenant in Genesis chapters 6 to 9 made with all mankind at the beginning of the dispensation of human government. All later covenants are connected with the nation of Israel and include the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Palestinian, Davidic, Solomonic, and New Covenants. Nearly all the later covenants were unconditional promises. The Mosaic Law was the only full exception to this, and there was a conditional element in the Solomonic Covenant. Romans chapter 9 verse 4 lists ‘the covenants’ among the special privileges of Israel and distinguishes them from ‘the giving of the law’.
The Noahic Covenant
This covenant was unconditional. In Genesis chapter 6 verses 17-18 Noah and his family were promised protection from the flood judgement in the ark. In Genesis chapter 8 verse 20 to chapter 9 verse 27 God promises Noah that He would never again destroy the entire earth with a flood judgement and gave the rainbow as the pledge of this promise. But the covenant also included the establishment of human government with the power of capital punishment for murder as restraint upon sin. God also guaranteed the regularity of time periods and seasons and allowed man to add animal meat to his previous vegetarian diet. Concerning Noah’s family, God cursed Ham’s son, Canaan, to be a servant to Shem and Japheth. Shem was favoured to produce the line of Christ, and Japheth was promised blessing in association with Shem. This covenant has never been rescinded, so that believers in the age of God’s grace today should not interfere with its outworking wherever they live in the world, although as God’s heavenly people, the church, they may find that they cannot personally implement all the clauses of the covenant.
The Abrahamic Covenant
This covenant was foundational for God’s earthly people Israel, being entirely unconditional and everlasting in its promises to Abraham and his seed. Also, by it all nations both have benefited and will benefit in Christ, who is in Galatians chapter 3 demonstrated to be the ultimate promised Seed of Abraham. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1-3 promises personal blessing for Abram, national blessing for his descendants, and universal blessing for all mankind. In Genesis chapter 15 the covenant is ratified by sacrificial blood, in which God alone passed between the pieces while Abram was asleep, thus signifying the unconditional character of the covenant. Abram was promised a seed in old age and the land of Canaan for that seed from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. Israel’s bondage in Egypt was here foretold also. In Genesis chapter 17 the everlasting character of this covenant with his seed was confirmed and the land given as an everlasting possession. Circumcision was given as the sign of this covenant, and Isaac named as the promised seed. In Genesis chapter 22 verse 18 the promise is clearly extended to all nations, ‘In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed’, which is taken up in Galatians chapter 3 in spiritual application of blessings for all who believe and thus become ‘in Christ’.
Gentile believers today participate in the spiritual blessings given to Abraham, but not the material blessings of the land. In Christ they are Abraham’s seed and heirs to the promises of spiritual blessings. The Law given four hundred and thirty years later cannot cancel that promise, nor can Israel’s disobedience to the later Mosaic Law cancel the earlier promises to Abraham regarding either the land or the spiritual blessings.
The Mosaic Covenant
This covenant, unlike the earlier one with Abraham, was entirely conditional on Israel’s obedience to the whole law, embracing not only the Ten Commandments, but also every detail of the wider moral and religious ordinances. In Exodus chapter 19 verses 3-8 Israel foolishly promised to obey the law, but almost immediately broke it in the making of the golden calf. Galatians chapter 3 verses 17-29 explains that the period of the Mosaic Law was temporary and designed primarily to prepare men to receive the gospel of justification by faith in Christ alone by revealing sin and convicting mankind of it. The law could never give life because it was ‘weak through the flesh’ in man, Romans 8. 3. The Old Testament is named after this conditional covenant with Israel, because it prepared the way for the New Testament gospel of God’s grace.
Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament (the exception being that of the keeping of the Sabbath), but not as law with penalty attached, but as behaviour befitting those saved by grace. The Holy Spirit indwelling every believer today enables them to fulfil the righteous requirement of the law under grace as being ‘enlawed’ to Christ, 1 Cor. 9. 21, which is a higher standard than that of the Mosaic Covenant.
The Palestinian Covenant
Deuteronomy chapter 29 verse 1 indicates that this covenant with Israel was additional to the Mosaic Covenant. It was quite unconditional and concerned Israel’s eventual occupation of the land in its entirety from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates. In Deuteronomy chapter 30 verses 1-20 the Lord confirmed the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant regarding the land even after predicting the dispersion and discipline of Israel for disobedience to the law. The needed inner power to obey the law is promised, as well as the punishment of all their enemies. This covenant was not fulfilled even in Solomon’s reign, but is still future to us, being fulfilled only in the millennium. New Testament believers have no part in this covenant regarding the land of Canaan, which was made with Israel after they had wandered for nearly forty years in the wilderness.
The Davidic Covenant
This covenant was God’s reply to David’s desire to build Him a house. David’s desire was refused because he had been a man of war, but instead in 2 Samuel chapter 7 verses 12-16 God promised unconditionally to build David a house. It was in effect an extension of the earlier promise regarding Abraham’s seed. David’s seed was to have an everlasting kingdom; the line of Davidic kingship was never to be lost, unlike Saul’s line before David became king. This promise was not fulfilled by Solomon, but will be fulfilled only by Christ in the millennial kingdom. Christ is the legal heir to the throne through Solomon, as Joseph’s genealogy in Matthew chapter 1 proves, but He was the lineal descendant of David through Nathan and Mary, as Luke chapter 3 demonstrates.
The Solomonic Covenant
Although the Davidic Covenant was entirely unconditional regarding the kingdom, 2 Samuel chapter 7 verses 12-15 makes it clear that Solomon’s descendants would only continue to rule if they obeyed the Lord. Both Solomon himself and many of his descendants disobeyed the Lord in later years, so that Coniah – also called Jeconiah – was barred from having any physical descendant to sit on David’s throne, Jer. 22. 30. Christ is not a physical descendant of Solomon and so does not fall under God’s curse on Coniah. However, despite this discipline for disobedience, the Lord promised never to remove His mercy from Solomon entirely as He had from Saul before him, 2 Sam. 7. 15.
The New Covenant
This last major covenant of Scripture was made with Israel and Judah in Jeremiah’s prophecy, chapter 31 verses 31-37. It was future to Jeremiah’s days and entirely unconditional, unlike the Mosaic Law, which it replaced as the basis for God’s spiritual blessing upon Israel. It is an extension of the wider blessings promised to all nations through the Abrahamic Covenant. In Jeremiah the covenant is confirmed despite Israel’s apostasy and consequent tribulation predicted earlier. God promises again the inner power to obey His laws and forgiveness of sins. Instead of ‘thou shalt’, the Lord now says ‘I will’. Israel, as a nation, has not yet received the blessing of this New Covenant, but will do so at Christ’s second coming in glory to reign on earth from Jerusalem. The New Testament is named after this last covenant with Israel because believers today enter into the good of its spiritual aspects before God’s earthly people Israel will do so.
The Church’s Relationship to the New Covenant
The fact that the church is related to the New Covenant is proved in connection with the Lord’s Supper, where the cup is explicitly said to represent the covenant and the blood by which it was ratified, Matt. 26. 28. Also, Paul spoke of himself and the other apostles as ministers of a New Covenant, 2 Cor. 3. 6. The nature of this relationship has, however, been disputed. Probably C. I. SCHOFIELD’s view is nearest to the truth; namely, that there is only one New Covenant made with Israel, but that this covenant has a twofold application: first, the final fulfilment to Israel in the future; secondly, a partial fulfilment of its spiritual aspects to the church today. The church is to be distinguished from God’s earthly people Israel, although there are clear parallels in Scripture which allow spiritual application in various references, such as Hebrews chapter 10. Romans chapter 11 proves that there is a future for Israel separate from the church, and thus that the church has not taken over the Old Testament promises to God’s earthly people in any way. Israel’s blessing has simply been postponed until the age to come is inaugurated at the Lord’s return to reign.
Thus we have seen that throughout the history of mankind since the fall of Adam in the garden of Eden, God has steadily been working to achieve the re-establishment of a righteous relationship with man, so that He can be in true fellowship and spiritual harmony with him again. God’s purpose will ultimately be realised in eternity future despite our sin and all Satan’s attempts to thwart it down the centuries. The full cost was the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son on Calvary’s cross. How thankful should we, as New Testament believers, be in our own day and age of grace for this wonderful plan of redemption. Let us worship Him for it every time we partake of the emblems of Christ’s sufferings at His appointed supper, by which we, sinners of the Gentiles, have been brought into an eternal and unbreakable relationship with the Lord our God.
This article was first published in Precious Seed, Volume 44, No. 3, May-July 1993, pp. 79-84. The author has corrected the end of the last sentence of the section on the Noahic Covenant from its edited form, because the sentence as published led to a reader pointing out a serious implication of the edited form. The sentence now reads as in the original manuscript, to which the reader had no objection.