The Prophets and the Covenants
Throughout the Old Testament, God has made several agreements or covenants with the people he loved. He gives commands and makes promises. Even thought these covenants are made with the descendants of one same nation, their deep nature and effects are similar in some points but extremely different in others. A study of all the covenants would be enormous, that is why we will concentrate on some of these different covenants made in the Old Testament between the people of Israel and God through some of the prophets that we studied in class. This analysis will bring some light into the ultimate goal of the Lord.
We find the first Covenant in the book of Genesis, it is maybe the greatest today because it is respected by three major religions around the world: Judaism, Christianism and Islam. This first Covenant is a covenant to Abraham (called Abram in the beginning): God called him and promised to give his offspring the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:1-7) and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (15:5). This was a phenomenal promise, but “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (15:6).
The reason why we find renewal of the covenant to the people of Israel is that God promised to renew the covenant with Abram’s descendants; not only that they would be numerous, but also that he would be their God (17:7). This is more than the original covenant promised.
The second great covenant and probably the most popular was made with Moses. God remembered the covenant he had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and he brought their descendants out of slavery in Egypt. While they were on their way to the land of Canaan, God made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. As their ruler, he gave laws, and they agreed to keep them. “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant,” he told them through Moses, “then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession…. You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).
The people said they would do everything the Lord had said (19:8). After God spoke the Ten Commandments, the people asked Moses to be their mediator for the remainder of the covenant (20:1-19). Through Moses, God then gave regulations about altars (20:22-26), servants and slaves (21:1-11), murder and sins against others (21:12-32), sins against personal property (21:33-22:15) and other laws of social responsibility (22:16-27; 23:1-9). There were rules about blasphemy, cursing, offerings, firstlings (22:28-30), Sabbath years and days, Holy Days and offerings (23:10-19). God spoke all these laws, and then promised to give the people the land of Canaan (23:20-31).
The difference between these two covenants is that the Abrahamic covenant, although it included obligations, stressed God’s promise. The Sinaitic covenant, although it included mercy and promises, stressed human responsibilities. Moses told the people the laws, and the people said, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” (24:3). And Moses wrote it all down.
The next day, they had sacrifices, Moses read the book of the covenant and the people again agreed to obey (24:4-7). So Moses sprinkled blood on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (24:8).
The Ten Commandments formed the core of this covenant. “The words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments” — were written on tablets of stone (Ex 34:28). Although the covenant was equated with the Ten Commandments (Ex 34:28; Deut 4:13), the covenant included all of Ex 20-23. The Lord wrote “the law and commands I have written for their instruction” (Ex 24:12).
The tablets of stone were called the “tablets of the covenant” (Deut 9:9, 11, 15). They were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:16, 21; 31:18), thus giving a name to the ark, and the covenant was said to be inside the ark (1 Kings 8:21; 2 Chron. 6:11).
In this covenant, the people agreed to be servants of God, and he agreed to protect them. The covenant was made not only with Israel as a nation, but also with Moses as its leader (Ex 34:10, 27). Many of the laws in Ex 34 are quoted from Ex 23. It was a covenant renewal or restatement with some variations. Although the Sabbath was part of the Ten Commandments (20:8-11), and part of the larger covenant (23:12), it was made its own covenant in Ex 31:16. Just as circumcision was an everlasting covenant and a sign of Abraham’s covenant (Gen. 17:10-11), the Sabbath was also called a sign and an everlasting covenant (31:12, 16-17). Just as circumcision was a covenant in conjunction with the Abrahamic covenant, the Sabbath was a covenant in conjunction with the Sinaitic covenant.
Also in conjunction with the Sinaitic covenant was the weekly showbread, which was also called an everlasting covenant (Lev 24:8). An everlasting covenant was made with the priesthood, too (Num. 18:19; 25:13). Grain offerings were covenantized, too, since God commanded, “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings” (Lev 2:13).
When the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses repeated to them the laws of God (Deut 1:1-5). He rehearsed some history, reminded the Israelites to obey God and worship him only, and he repeated the Ten Commandments. Although the people he was talking to were either not yet born or only children at Horeb (Mt. Sinai), Moses said that God had made the Sinaitic covenant with them, not with their parents (5:2-3).
Moses not only repeated the Ten Commandments, but gave numerous other laws as well (Deut 6-26). After he described blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, he led the people to covenant anew with God to be his people. Most of the book of Deuteronomy then forms the “terms of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb” (29:1). The covenant was renewed and expanded. This Deuteronomic covenant was built on the foundation of the Sinaitic covenant, the Ten Commandments.
Moses reminded the people that they were making a covenant with the Lord not only for themselves but also for their descendants (29:12-14), and he exhorted them to be faithful to this covenant (29:9). This was a confirmation of the covenant God had made with the patriarchs (29:13) – it was a development from that patriarchal covenant. Moses wrote down the Deuteronomic law, and it was placed beside (not in) the ark of the covenant (31:9, 24-26).
The covenant was renewed in the days of Joshua (Josh 24:1-24), Asa (2 Chron. 15:12) and in the days of Joash (23:16). Hezekiah planned to make a covenant with God (29:10). Josiah and the Jews renewed the covenant, apparently the Deuteronomic law (2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chron. 34:31-32). Jeremiah called the people to obey the terms of the covenant they had made when their forefathers came out of Egypt (Jer. 11:2-6). In Jeremiah’s day, the people made a covenant with God (34:15), but they were going back on it, and God would treat them “like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces” (34:18).
Throughout Israel’s history, covenant was an important concept. They were the “people of the covenant land” (Eze. 30:5); their ruler was “the prince of the covenant” (Dan 11:22). An attack on the Jews was considered an attack “against the holy covenant” (11:28, 30).
Therefore, God predicted a new covenant. He hinted at it even in the old – he said that, after his people had been sent into captivity because they had broken the covenant, he would regather them and “circumcise your hearts” (Deut 4:25-31; 30:4-10).
Isaiah noted that God would make the Servant “to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6; 42:7 is similar to 61:1). The Servant himself would be the covenant.
Isaiah again predicted that God would make the Servant to be a covenant for the people in the day of salvation (Isa. 49:8). Just as God had sworn to Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood, he will never remove this “covenant of peace” (54:9-10). “The Redeemer will come to Zion,” Isa. 59:20 prophesies, “to those in Jacob who repent of their sins.” God will make a covenant with these repentant people. His Spirit will be upon them, and his words will remain in them (59:21). They will keep the covenant because they will be changed on the inside.
We are familiar with Jeremiah because he predicted a new covenant, which the people will not break, because God’s law will be in their minds and hearts. All the people will know the Lord, their sins will be forgiven (31:34), and God will never reject the people (31:35-37).
In other prophecies of regathering, Jeremiah predicted an everlasting covenant (32:40), in which the people will never turn away from fearing God (32:38-40; 50:5). Jeremiah is one of the most interesting Prophets because he did not believe in David s covenant because that one is a gift from God without any conditions while the other covenants are under a certain condition: faith.
Ezekiel also foresaw that God would remember the covenant and regather the people; he will then “establish an everlasting covenant with you.” He will make atonement for the people, and they will be repentant (Eze. 16:60-62). After gathering them, he will make “a covenant of peace” with them, an everlasting covenant (34:25; 36:27; 37:26). Hosea 2:18 describes a similar covenant.
All these prophets predicted a new covenant, a new basis of relationship with God. This covenant will repair the defective hearts of the people, and will therefore not need to be replaced. It will be an everlasting covenant of peace, a covenant of reconciliation. Is it the ultimate goal of God? To answer this question, we must look deeper into the variety of the Divine Covenants and into the main condition to respect the covenants: the need to be faithfull.
Just as human kings made agreements with other kings or with their nations, God also has made agreements with individuals and with nations. Hosea 6:7 indicates that God had a covenant with Adam. Gen. 6:18 and 9:9-17 tells us about God’s covenant with Noah and all living creatures. It was a unilateral covenant, for God promised to do his part without any requirement that Noah do his except that he has to keep the faith. God established the rainbow as the sign of his covenant, a reminder of his promise not to destroy all life with a flood.
God made another covenant with the Levites that they would receive meat from sacrifices (Num. 18:19). He made a covenant with Phineas, guaranteeing the priesthood for his family (25:12-13). The covenant with David mentioned earlier guarantees the kingship for his family (2 Sam 23:5; 2 Chron. 13:5; 21:7). Jeremiah affirmed the permanence of the Davidic covenant (Jer. 33:20-25), but it was temporarily suspended during the captivity, and a psalmist wondered if the covenant had been renounced (Ps 89:39, 49), but he concluded with a statement of faith in God (89:52). Faith is the agreement between God and the people and it should be kept. God promised to keep his part of the covenant (Lev 26:9); he remembers it (26:45; 1 Chron. 16:15-17; Psalms 105:8; 106:45; 111:5). He will not break the covenant ( Judges 2:1) or forget it (Deut 4:31); he promised to keep his “covenant of love” (Deut 7:9, 12; 1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chron. 6:14; Neh. 1:5; 9:32; Dan 9:4). His covenant people are special to him (Ps 50:5). His covenant will endure forever (111:9); he swears it with an oath (105:9-10; Eze. 16:8).
He confirms his covenant by giving blessings (Deut 8:18). He blesses those who obey (Ps 25:10, 14). A psalmist, asking for intervention, asked God to have regard for the covenant (Ps 74:20). Jeremiah asked him to remember the covenant (Jer. 14:21). The Israelites were exhorted, “Be careful not to forget the covenant” (Deut 4:23; 2 Kings 17:38). They were told to be monotheistic (2 Kings 17:35). And some Israelites did keep the covenant (Ps 103:18). Levi was commended for guarding the covenant (Deut 33:9); a psalmist claimed to be true to the covenant (Ps 44:17). God commended the eunuchs and the foreigners who held fast to the covenant (Isa. 56:4, 6).
But Israel was for the most part unfaithful, just as God told Moses they would be (Deut 31:16, 20, 27). He pronounced curses on those who would violate the covenant (Lev 26:15, 25; Deut 17:2; 29:21), and the resulting national disasters would be a witness that the people had abandoned the covenant (29:25).
They violated the covenant soon after entering the Promised Land because they wanted to go back to Egypt (Josh 7:11, 15) and were again warned of the curses of rebellion (23:16). But they violated the covenant (Judges 2:20). Apostasy reigned throughout the period of the judges and again in the reign of Saul. David was faithful, and Solomon began that way, but he eventually stopped keeping the covenant (1 Kings 11:11).
The nation became so corrupt that Elijah thought he was the only faithful one left (1 Kings 19:10, 14). The history of the Northern Kingdom is summarized as follows: “They rejected his decrees and the covenant” (2 Kings 17:15; 18:12; Hosea 6:7; 8:1). So they were sent into captivity; God was faithful to his promised curses but people were not faithful in God. They were criticized for unfaithfulness (Psalms 50:16; 78:10, 37; Isa. 24:5; Jer. 11:3, 8, 10). They forsook the covenant, violated it, did not fulfill its terms, broke it, despised it (Jer. 22:9; 34:18; Eze. 16:59; 44:7). So God promised to punish the nation (20:37-38), fulfilling the covenantal curses. But the violations will continue even to the end (Dan 11:30, 32).
God also considers the breaking of human agreements as a breaking of his covenant, (Eze. 17:18-19). He requires his people to be faithful to the agreements they make with one another.
If people respect God s covenants, they are more than encouraged to respect each other and live in peace and harmony and this is the everlasting covenant of reconciliation and peace. If this is the ultimate divine goal, we then understand why sacrifices were necessary throughout Israel s history: Judgement and Salvation pull the people back to the road of justice and righteousness.