Covenants means very little if anything in our contemporary culture. The word is used rarely, and when used generally the meaning has been completely stripped away. In God’s court, which is the entire created universe, the meaning remains unaltered. We see this meaning of covenant from the beginning in Genesis and we can trace its thread all through redemptive history and see it continue into the infinite future. The meaning of covenant is so foreign to us, that we must look at a fairly radical example of covenant in order for us to begin to grasp the weight of its importance in the mind of God. In 2 Samuel 21, David was near the end of his life. Most of his enemies had been dealt with including the insurrection of his son Absalom, and he had the reigns of the nation well placed under his rule. However there was one more major hardship that the nation was waiting to overcome. Picking up in 2 Samuel 21:1-9 we read
Now there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD. And the LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” So the king called the Gibeonites and spoke to them. [Picking up in v. 5] They said to the king, “The man who consumed us and planned to destroy us, so that we should have no place in all the territory of Israel, let seven of his sons be given to us, so that we may hang them before the LORD at Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of the LORD.” And the king said, “I will give them.”
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Saul's son Jonathan, because of the oath of the LORD that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them on the mountain before the LORD, and the seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.
Three very important things to observe from this text. 1) The nature of a famine. In verse one we read that ‘...there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the LORD’ A famine is not simply missing a meal, or two or three, or ten. Remember that a famine is what caused the children of Israel to leave their land and settle in Egypt for four hundred years. Famines drove parents to each their children near the end of Israel’s reign. A famine an event where the memory of abundance is erased from the minds of the people. The weather acts as the chief adversary on the land and crops and causes nothing but dust to grow. It literally controls the population levels because people and animals don’t simply miss dinner, but they die because of the prolonged exposure to starvation. This was happening for three years in David’s time. No body knew what it was from, so David inquired of the Lord.
2) Notice how the Lord answers David. ‘the LORD said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.”’ This is a curious statement since both David and Saul put many people’s to death, and many of those peoples were put to death because of a direct command from the Lord their God. To understand what’s going on here we must travel backwards in time some 500 years to Joshua 9. Here we find Joshua after the exodus from Egypt on the conquest of Canaan. He already defeated Jericho and Ai, and the response of the remaining enemies of the land is either to rise up in battle or lose heart because of fear. One particular group of people in Joshua 9:3-6 takes a different approach.
...when the inhabitants of Gibeon heard what Joshua had done to Jericho and to Ai, they on their part acted with cunning and went and made ready provisions and took worn-out sacks for their donkeys, and wineskins, worn-out and torn and mended, with worn-out, patched sandals on their feet, and worn-out clothes. And all their provisions were dry and crumbly. And they went to Joshua in the camp at Gilgal and said to him and to the men of Israel, “We have come from a distant country, so now make a covenant with us.
At first the Israelites were doubtful and interrogated these strangers, but the Gibeonites responded by pointing to their worn-out provisions. Picking up in v. 14-15
So the men [the Israelites] took some of their provisions, but did not ask counsel from the LORD. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live, and the leaders of the congregation swore to them.
So the Israelites, even though they did not seek the counsel of the Lord, and that this was in fact disobeying the command of the Lord to destroy the inhabitants of the land, made a covenant with the Gibeonites. This covenant is what God was referring to when David inquired of Him. Remember he said it was on behalf of the Gibeonites whom Saul killed. He was pointing back to that. It could be asked: ‘But God, that was 500 years ago, and the people who made that covenant on both sides have long since died. Why are you punishing us for that?’ The answer is covenant. (By the way, notice in v.7 that the only thing that saved Mephibosheth was the covenant that David made with Jonathan.)
3) Lastly observe how the famine in 2 Samuel 21 ended. After these ‘innocent’ men were hanged on the mountain before the Lord for all to see. After Rizpah wept and protected her sons from the elements and the beasts of the field. After David went and collected their bodies and the bodies of Saul and Jonathan and had them buried, THEN v. 14 records
...after that God responded to the plea for the land.
God remembers covenant. Even after 500 years. Even after the people who made the covenant died. He fulfills the covenant and punishes the guilty party. He even punishes those on the side of the guilty party, though they might not have been directly responsible for breaking the covenant. God always remembers and upholds the covenant.
So the scope of this teaching will focus on the nature of divine covenants.
The Definition of Covenant
The Bond of Covenant
The Administrator of Covenant
THE BIG IDEA is that a DIVINE covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered.
Divine v. Human Covenants
The children’s catechism says that a covenant is ‘an agreement between two or more persons.’ That is true. Left alone, that would be an adequate definition for a human covenant. It is a bi-lateral agreement. It can be initiated by one or both parties and conditions need to be met on both sides. This definition of a divine covenant is a unilateral agreement, meaning that it is initiated by God, and in the case of the covenant of grace which is the covenant that brings unity to the diversity, the terms are set, and the conditions are met by one. What we’re going to discover is that a human covenant finds it’s beginning and meaning inside of the divine, whether it’s acknowledged or not. The penalty for breaking such covenants, sacred or pagan, is still death regardless if it is acknowledged or not. “The wages of sin is death...” Just because death doesn’t occur immediately does not mean that judgement is forgotten. The only way out, is for Jesus to substitute Himself for us, thereby freeing us from the penalty and curse of breaking any such covenant.
The Definition of Covenant
The Scripture uses the term covenant in a fairly broad sense. Some would suggest that nailing down a specific meaning of the word would be a near impossible task. In spite of the apparent diversity of it’s usage, the Scriptures provide us with an overall unity in the definition. O. Palmer Roberson says that “In its most essential aspect, a covenant is that which binds people together. Nothing lies closer to the heart of the biblical concept of the covenant than the imagery of a bond inviolable.”
To have a bond inviolable means that it is a bond that is secure from violation. It, by definition, cannot be violated. So covenant is a bond and the result of that bond is the establishment of relationship between two or more persons.
One important aspect to keep in mind during this study of covenants is that when a covenant is made between God and man, it is always, without exception a gracious act on God’s part. The creator owes us nothing but wrath. For God to covenant with us, is always an act of pure condescension on his part. He binds Himself to us in an agreement by grace and not by necessity or compulsion. This idea must be retained. It is at the very heart of understanding what covenants between God an us are, and is the very fuel for worship and gratefulness which God delights in. Having said that, a divine covenant is defined as a bond in blood sovereignly administered.
Now Biblical covenants often look different from case to case, like the leaves of the forest look different from each. However there is unity in the diversity. A synonym for covenant could be expressed in terms of a binding oath, which also could be parsed out in different forms. One example of a verbal oath is found in Genesis 21:23. Abimelech who was the commander of Abraham’s army spoke to him this way
...swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” And Abraham said, “I will swear.”
Some might contend that a Biblical oath is not the same as a covenant, but evidence proves otherwise. Ezekiel the prophet rains down cursing on Zedekiah, king of Judah, for violating both oath and covenant. Ezekiel 17:19 says
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head.
Many other places could be cited to show that binding oaths and covenants, Biblically speaking are interchangeable. Other forms which a binding oath or covenant might include are symbolic actions like gift giving. After Abraham swore to Abimelech, he gave him sheep and oxen to seal the covenant. Robertson goes on to say that other actions could be attached to covenants such as “...the eating of a meal (Exodus 24:11), the setting up of a memorial (Josh 24:27), the sprinkling of blood (Exodus 24:8), the offering of sacrifice (Psalm 50:5), the passing under the rod (Ezekiel 20:37) or the dividing of animals (Genesis 15:10, 18)”
The point is, is that all these oaths, and symbols that accompany them are indicative of a covenant. These things point to the fact that a commitment has been made which binds people together into a relationship of some type.
The Bond of Covenant
Biblically speaking, the terms of the covenant are life and death. That’s why Robertson calls it a ‘bond-in-blood.’ It is a commitment that will result in life or death. If the terms of the covenant are kept, life results, if not then death follows. He says this “God never enters into a casual or informal relationship with man. Instead, the implications of his bonds extend to the ultimate issues of life and death.”
Making a covenant in the O.T. means literally “to cut a covenant.” This meaning is applied Biblically to all three types of covenants: a covenant initiated by God with man, initiated by man with God, and lastly a covenant initiated by man with man. In Genesis 15, we see an example of this “cutting” covenant. God promised Abraham a son whose descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and the land to go along with it. Abraham responds by asking ‘O Lord GOD, how may I know that I will possess it?” (v. 7) God answers by telling him to bring animals and have them cut in half and laid opposite each other so that there were two columns of bloodied animals with a passage way in between them. Then the LORD said to Abraham in Genesis 15:13-18
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates...”
God passed through the cut up animals, in effect saying ‘that this oath that I’m making with you is binding. May this happen to me if I do not fulfill this covenant.’ If the terms were kept, life followed; if not then death. In other words, those animals represents what will happen if the covenant is broken. Is that the interpretation in all such cuttings? Is that what it always means Biblically? I would say yes. Jeremiah records for us an instance of this interpretation in 34:18, 20
the men who transgressed my covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts... I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth.
Translation: You break the covenant, and you end up like those pieces you cut up. Covenants are bound by blood. ‘The life of the flesh is in the blood’-- Leviticus 17:11. When a covenant is broken, blood must be shed. Robertson says “Once the covenant relationship has been entered, nothing less that the shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the even of covenantal violation.”
This reasoning is the justification for some more difficult Scriptures like that of Hebrews 9:22 which says ‘...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.’ The spilling of blood is THE ONLY WAY appeasement can be made for the breaking of a covenant.
What’s the difference between a covenant and a testament?
At this point chapter one Robertson seems to make an intrusion that makes no sense, but that’s not the case. He acknowledges similarities between a covenant and a ‘last will and testament’ in that they both involve death. Death inaugurates a covenant, and places before the parties involved the promise of life for fulfilling the covenant and death for breaking it. In the case of a testament however, death does not inaugurate it, the testament does not come into effect UNTIL a death occurs. The main point regarding these differences is this: The death of Jesus Christ is meant to be understood primarily in terms of covenant and not in testamentary death. “Christ died as a substitute for the covenant-breaker.”
A last will and testament has no category for substitution. The testator dies and that’s it. That death cannot be substituted for. Christ death was substitutionary for a covenant breaker, it was not testamentary. He became the curse of the covenant for us, on our behalf because we broke the covenant. The curse still must be carried out. One might argue at this point that we are heirs of Christ, and by definition that means we have been included into a testament of sorts. In fact the book of Hebrews is explicit in terms of Testament and how the testator must die in order for the effects of the testament to go into effect. All true. But it is not on the basis of a testament that we are included into the family of God. Covenant is the cause of us being adopted into Christ. Once in Christ, we are heirs, and we THEN take part in promises laid out in the testament. Point and case of this would be found at the last supper. In Matthew 26:26-28 Jesus said
“Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
In other words, ‘this is my blood, the blood that is required to relieve the curse of the covenant that is dreadfully resting on my people.’ A covenant is not the same thing as a testament. The formal is the cause of us being included in the later.
The Administrator of Covenant
The definition of a divine covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. In other words divine covenants were created, and are executed, and are managed by God. He created them, and he providentially governs them. The establishment of them was entirely God’s idea. Robertson is emphatic on this point by saying “Both biblical and extra-biblical evidence point to the unilateral form of covenantal establishment. No such thing as bargaining, bartering, or contracting characterizes the divine covenants in Scripture. The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth dictates the terms of his covenant.”
You can see this very clearly in the example of the covenant that opened up this session. A period of 500 years and many generations separated the covenant that Joshua made and with Saul who broke it. God who governs and watches over such things brings punishment on the people of Israel for breaking it BECAUSE it says something about Him. He’s not arbitrarily acting on behalf of a long forgotten human promise. He’s acting on behalf of Himself as the sovereign administrator of the covenant. As we are going to discover as we go through this study, this subject strikes very close to the very nature of God.
[The quotes were taken from O. Palmer Robertson's book The Christ of the Covenants. Bible quotes are taken from the ESV]