Understanding Covenant, Part II: Old Testament Covenants

Previously we began examining covenant by defining what a covenant is. We saw there that a covenant is an agreement between two parties with mutual obligations and promises, and we examined the nature of covenants in the world and in the Scriptures. Having therefore defined what a covenant is, and what underlies our English translations of “covenant,” let us begin examining the covenants in the Bible, starting with the Old Testament.

The Garden of Eden

Although the word “covenant” is not directly used in Genesis 1-3, the idea of covenant is certainly present. God says the following in Genesis 2:15-17:

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying,
“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”

We know from Genesis 3 that once Adam and Eve disobeyed this command, God cast them from the Garden. We can see, therefore, that God and Adam had some form of “covenant” establishing Adam living in and tending the Garden as long as he does not eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Once Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, the agreement was violated, and God decreed consequences against all parties involved.

The Covenant with Noah

The first covenant per se in the Bible is the one between God and Noah. When God comes to Noah and charges him to build the Ark, He makes the following promise in Genesis 6:18:

But I will establish my covenant with thee; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.

This promise is fulfilled in Genesis 9:9-17:

“And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you. Of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”
And God said unto Noah, “This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Let us note the following characteristics of the covenant between God and Noah (and the whole earth):

  1. The covenant is with all creatures on the earth.
  2. The covenant is unconditional– it is not dependent on the obedience of anyone.
  3. The covenant obliges God to never destroy all flesh from the earth by water.
  4. There is no obligation on the part of man or any other creature (God does issue commands to mankind in Genesis 9:1-7, but obedience to them or lack thereof does not mitigate this covenant).
  5. The sign of the covenant is the rainbow.

This is the last covenant in the Old Testament that considers all mankind, not just the descendants of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob.

The Covenant with Abraham

We are introduced to Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12, and we learn that he follows God’s charge to him and he travels to Canaan. We learn of the covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 15:18-21 and Genesis 17:1-14:

In that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite.

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him,
“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.”
And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, “As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
And God said unto Abraham, “And as for thee, thou shalt keep my covenant, thou, and thy seed after thee throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner that is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.”

Let us examine the various components of this covenant:

  1. The covenant is between God and Abraham and Abraham’s descendants (and spiritually, through Jesus Christ, the seed of Abraham, and through whom we as Christians are heirs of the promise to Abraham, Galatians 3:29).
  2. Contrary to the beliefs of many, this covenant is conditional, first on the obedience of Abraham (Genesis 17:1-2), and the continual obedience of his descendants (Genesis 17:9-10).
  3. The covenant obliges God to make Abraham a father of many nations, to be his and his descendants’ God, and to give to Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan.
  4. The covenant obliges Abraham and his descendants to obey God, specifically through circumcision.
  5. The sign of the covenant is the circumcision of all males over eight days old.

It must be re-emphasized that the covenant was conditional upon the obedience of those under it, and the disobedience of the Israelites led to the end of their possession of Canaan (cf. 2 Kings 17). This covenant finds its continuation spiritually through Christ Jesus, as noted in Galatians 3.

The Covenant with Israel

The direct, physical realization of the promises of God to Abraham are found in God’s covenant with the Israelites. The covenant is inaugurated and its contents listed in Exodus 19ff, and the following is said in Exodus 24:7:

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said,
“All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and be obedient.”

The components of the covenant are as follows:

  1. The covenant is between God and the nation of Israel (Exodus 19:1-6).
  2. The enactment of the promises of God is not conditional, since the promises were those made to faithful Abraham, but the continuation of the covenant and its blessings are conditioned on the obedience to the law (Exodus 20-23, Deuteronomy 4).
  3. The covenant obliges God to give the land of Canaan to the Israelites, to keep them there, to bless them and shield them from their adversaries, and to be their God and for them to be His people (Exodus 19:3-6, Deuteronomy 4)
  4. The covenant obliges the Israelites to fully obey the guidelines established in the Law of Moses (Exodus 20-Deuteronomy 31).
  5. The sign of the covenant, above and beyond circumcision, was the ark of the covenant (Exodus 35-40).

The Israelites, as we know, did not keep the covenant, and this led to God giving them over into the hands of their enemies (Judges, 1 Samuel), and finally, exile (2 Kings 17, 2 Chronicles 36). God renewed His covenant with the people many times, yet the covenant is superseded by the new and better covenant through Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18).

The Covenant with David

David says the following in 2 Samuel 23:5:

Verily my house is not so with God; Yet he hath made with me an everlasting covenant, Ordered in all things, and sure: For it is all my salvation, and all my desire, Although he maketh it not to grow.

David exclaims here that God has made a covenant with him; while no text gives the terms of the covenant and calls it as much, God’s message to Nathan in 2 Samuel 7:8-16 seems to fit the bill:

“Now therefore thus shalt thou say unto my servant David, ‘Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, that thou shouldest be prince over my people, over Israel; and I have been with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies from before thee; and I will make thee a great name, like unto the name of the great ones that are in the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be moved no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as at the first, and as from the day that I commanded judges to be over my people Israel; and I will cause thee to rest from all thine enemies. Moreover the LORD telleth thee that the LORD will make thee a house. When thy days are fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, that shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men; but my lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.'”

Let us examine the properties of this covenant:

  1. The covenant is between God and David and David’s descendants.
  2. The covenant was conditioned upon David’s obedience; the extent of the promise of physical rule over Israel by the House of David was dependent on the obedience of David’s descendants; when Solomon was unfaithful, God responded by removing 10 tribes from his son (cf. 1 Kings 11:9-13), and the House of David lost all political control after Zedekiah (cf. 2 Chronicles 36). The complete fulfillment of the promise is in Jesus Christ, who is the eternal king in the House of David.
  3. The covenant obliges God to make a dynasty from David, and to maintain a descendant of David on his throne.
  4. The covenant obliges David and his descendants to be obedient to the Law of Moses.
  5. There is not a sign listed for this covenant.

While there are many who have difficulties with the idea of having no physical king on David’s throne after Zedekiah, it must be remembered again that the physical promise was conditional, and the promise to David finds its fulfillment in Christ Jesus.

The Old Testament is full of other covenants, generally either re-ratifications of the covenant between God and Israel or covenants as agreements between men and between nations. The major covenants, however, are listed above. The details provided will be of great value as we continue in our study of covenant and begin to sort through the truth of God and the errors of men.

Next we will examine the matter of covenant during the life of Jesus Christ and the time between His resurrection and Pentecost.


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