Saturday, December 5, 2015

Covenants Defined Part VI - Some Small Covenants

A covenant is when one or both heads of families freely promise to do good to the other. Ongoing faithfulness to the promises is essential for continuing the new relationship.
Optionally there can be a historic preamble; witnesses; a declaration of the blessings of continuing in, or consequences for breaking these promises; a sacrifice; a mediator; or a sign given.

For some reason when I was out running yesterday and thinking over this definition the engagement scene from the movie Corpse Bride came into my head. In it the female protagonist Victoria has yet to meet her betrothed, and out of nervousness asks her parents if they love each other, or at least have come to love each other after all the time they’ve been together. In response they look at each other and speak together in dour tone, “Certainly not!”

It occurred to me then that marriage is a wonderful every day example for understanding covenants. After the minister gives a brief history of the couple there are promises made between them at the altar, an exchanging of symbols, witnesses, a celebratory feast afterwards, and the requirement of fidelity to continue in covenant. But even better, it helps illustrate how someone can be in covenant and not be saved, since for the vast majority of human history arranged marriage was the norm, and for those people it was quite possible to be in a covenant with someone and yet have no real idea of who they were. Since they were in covenant it would only be a matter of time until they found out, but for part of the time there’s no knowledge. (Once at the courthouse I witnessed an Indian man getting married without knowing who his bride was. He was extraordinarily nervous). In the same way the children of Israel were in a covenant, and yet they did not know God in a personal, saving way. I suspect the same goes for us today—but let’s shelve that line of thought until we’ve finished compiling all the data. To that end let’s round up the few remaining mentions of covenant not connected with the new covenant and see what else we can learn from them.


Miscellaneous Mentions

  • Jehoiada the priest made a covenant between the Lord on one side and the king and the people on the other to serve Him (2 Kings 11:17). This is similar to what Joshua did when he gathered the people and demanded they be faithful, except now the people are also swearing to uphold the Davidic covenant as well as the Mosaic.
  • Ezra the priest covenants with God that the people will put away their foreign wives (Ezra 10:3).
  • God is displeased when a wicked man uses the covenant for wickedness (Ps 50:16), but blesses those who keep it (Ps 25:10).
  • Men break covenant with God because they desire to depart from Him (Ps 78:10, 37, Jer 11:8, 19). So while they can be near him with an evil heart, it will come out that they can eventually no longer be near Him, and desire to leave His presence.
  • The Mosaic covenant is spoken of as salvation itself, Ps 111:9. This seems to indicate that our suspicion of covenants being about Christ is once again confirmed.
  • The people made a covenant with death and hell that if they served them then no earthly calamity would come upon them (Isa 28:15, 18). God then tells them He will annul this and not let their agreement stand. Offhand this looks exactly like the deal with the devil we make today in trading temporal prosperity for avoiding temporal suffering.
  • God warns us that people who’ve broken covenants lie under His judgment (Is 33:8, Jer 11:3, 22:9, Hos 8:1, 10:4).
  • We’ve been working under the tacit assumption that men are unable to change the covenants because God issued them, and it’s nice to see this assumption validated in Jer 33:20, 21, 25. That’s why God (faithfulness excepted) is able to keep His covenants (Dan 9:4).
  • Zechariah broke the staves of favor and beauty to symbolize God was going to break His covenant with all the people (Zech 11:10). This seems to indicate that the covenant at Sinai was going to be destroyed or would pass away.
The sum of these seems to be that since the people have continually desired to flee from God and break His covenant, He’s going to expose them to the horrible consequences of their decision. His patience will one day run out and on that day He’ll break the covenant He’s faithfully held with them all this time. Because there’s no salvation outside of Him the people will perish in their sins and be damned.
Now for the two hard passages with which I’m holding with an open hand.


Possible Additional Covenants

In Isaiah 24:5 the prophet warns the people of Israel that judgment is about to come upon the whole earth for their disregard of the everlasting covenant. What that covenant is I’m actually not sure given the fact that the Nohaic covenant is spoken of in this way (Gen 9:16), as is the Abrahamic (Gen 17:7), the Davidic (2 Sam 23:5), and the covenant between the Levites and Israel (Lev 24:8). From this I can put a tentative line through Sinai as being in view, but if the Reformed trick of “all doesn’t mean all” is valid then world would mean Israel, and I can’t even do that much. But I’m not a big fan of this method in general and it seems like a stretch to say Sinai is in mind so I’ll rule it out anyway.
Desiring to narrow this down further I checked the opinions of the commentators, but they were pretty evenly divided, and you can find a good argument for each one except in my opinion John Gill who believes this is the new covenant being spoken of and the whole thing is a prophecy for the far future. So that wasn’t much of a help.
For myself I think it looks like our conscience is in view, but this would indicate there must have been a previously unnamed and unmentioned covenant with Adam to establish this, and that seems like an unnecessary leap.
So I’ll just say I don’t know and leave the door open for a covenant with Adam at his creation.

Hos 6:7 says “______ they have transgressed the covenant, there they dealt treacherously against Me.” The ESV has “Like Adam,” the NKJV has “Like men,” and the NIV has “As at Adam.”
Of these three options only one of them leads to something new, and that’s the ESVs rendering. If it’s the correct one then that means Adam was under a covenant with God, perhaps by dent of his creation (which would fit the conscience explanation in Is 24:5), or perhaps when given explicit instructions in the garden not to eat the fruit (Gen 2:17). Of these two however the garden option doesn’t seem very plausible given that the elements necessary for covenanting are not present.
The second choice, the KJV rendering of “like men,” matches up better with the larger context, particularly in that Hos 8:1 has the men of Israel breaking the covenant at Sinai. The meaning would be that men are inherently covenant breakers and are always unreliable partners, a statement validated by our work compiling all the instances of covenant.
The third choice is how the NIV renders it, that this text is referring to a place where there was some treachery done, and honestly, if you read the sentence with a blank and no preconceptions this makes the most sense. Firstly, the second phase of the sentence begins there they dealt, which speaks to a location. Secondly, in support of this Joshua 3:16 declares there was a city called Adam, so having something happen at Adam is not a stretch. And thirdly, the next verse is talking about another place, the city of Gilead where men work iniquity.

On balance I find there to be only a small amount of indication for a covenant with Adam. I also think our definition has proven resilient and effective, able to explain the Old Testament narrative pretty well.
So let’s go ahead to the final covenant in the Bible.

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