The Covenantal Landscape of the Old Testament, Part 1

A view of the Valley of Jezreel as seen from Mt. Carmel

From the forthcoming book The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation. Read the series.

If one surveys the contents of the Old Testament with both eyes upon the divine covenants, what one comes away with is a massive sense of expectation. The simply-worded Creation chapter (Gen. 1) displays a purpose and goal for the world which God is moving forward. The simplicity of the wording conveys an important hermeneutical truth; that what God does is directly in line with what He says (i.e. God’s words equal God’s actions). This can be tested in numerous points throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Gen. 1:3, 6-7, 11-12, 26-31; 6:7-13; 11:7-9; 2 Ki. 1:3-4, 16-17; 5:10, 14; Dan. 4:16, 25, 32-33).

This movement towards a goal is seemingly interrupted by the calamitous fall of our first parents and the autonomous thinking that it brought about. While seeming innocuous, this default of naive independence from the authority of God and His words has led mankind to every false notion and violent act in our bloody history. It has also caused God’s people to recalibrate what God has said by passing it through the apparatus of independent interpretation. In the long term this is what is chiefly responsible for the varied schools of thought in Christian theology. But in the Hebrew Bible it was a major cause, through reevaluation of God’s word, for Israel’s defection.

The covenants that Yahweh made were intended to counter man’s sinful default of independence by drawing attention to the grand motifs within the Creation Project that He is sustaining. These covenants may be seen as amplifications of God’s plain speech about central planks in His program of history. Because they express the outline of the Creation Project, which in turn is embedded in God’s decrees, the covenants that God made with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David are unalterable, their oaths being unilaterally entered into by God alone. Although conditions were appended to the covenants, it is crucial to understand that these conditions were not included within the oaths. Therefore, although they could and did hinder the fulfillment of the covenants, they could never force their cancellation or their reallocation. The bilateral Mosaic covenant, being a covenant of law given to law-breakers, could only stem the tide of Israel’s sin and provide a sense of community and belonging which would sustain the Jewish race, although not forever.

Aside from Yahweh, there are two main protagonists in the Hebrew Bible; the nation of Israel and the coming King who would arise out of Israel. Israel was given the Mosaic covenant, but had to be rescued from its condemnation. The person of the King would do that by fulfilling its demands of righteousness, and suffering vicariously (Isa. 53:4-6; 10-12), and by ushering in a New covenant to replace the one made at Sinai (Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 49:6-8).

The need to replace the Mosaic covenant with another “New” covenant can be found as far back as Deuteronomy 30:6, and is found repeated at several junctures, including Psalm 98:3; 130; Isaiah 25:8-9; 46:13; Ezekiel 36:24-28, and Zechariah 13:1. The outstanding promise is in Jeremiah 31:31-34. There it becomes clear that this New covenant will supersede the Mosaic covenant. The New covenant brings with it the essential ingredient of salvation which it alone possesses.

But there is a fascinating twist regarding the New covenant, for whereas the other covenants contain a divine pledge to a person or persons, and may have included animal sacrifice (certainly in regard to the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants), the New covenant goes further by designating God’s Servant as the covenant itself (Isa. 42:6; 49:8)! As already said, this Servant is a person, not Israel, and this person must face death on behalf of others (Isa. 53). So, the extraordinary connection of the New covenant with the Servant becomes something to watch as revelation unfolds.

The Servant is the Branch is the Promised Seed

Since the temptation of Eve in the garden of Eden and the fall of Adam, God has promised to send a Conqueror who would destroy the Serpent (Gen. 3:16). This Conqueror is referred to as the Seed of the Woman in Genesis 3, but He appears in the prophecies of Jacob as a King from Judah (Gen. 49:10), as a “Star” out of Egypt who routs His enemies in Numbers 24:8-9, 17, and as the “Branch” who will subdue, judge and beautify the earth and exalt Jerusalem (Isa. 4:2-3; 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6; Zech. 3:8), seeing to it that the lines of David and Levi are maintained, although not in an unbroken succession1 (Jer. 33:14-26). It is also He who will build the last temple (Zech. 6:12-13).

This man is also called Yahweh’s “Servant” in, for example, Isaiah 42:1-7 and 49:5-7, who will save the Gentile nations and redeem Israel,2 restoring the entire earth. Amazingly, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 portray Him as reigning in justice, yet suffering the indignation of men and God. He suffers and dies innocently, yet as part of the plan of Yahweh (Isa. 53:10). And He will be rewarded and highly exalted. Daniel also speaks of His demise on behalf of others in Daniel 9:26, where He refers to Him as Messiah (anointed).

It is this coming King who as the Servant is said to be given “as a covenant to the people” (Isa. 42:6; 49:8). Once these passages are linked with the substitutionary nature of His suffering and its relation to securing pardon and justification “for many” (Isa. 53:11), it starts to appear that this great One is the pivot around which the whole Creation Project and its associated covenants turn. This King Messiah pulls every covenant hope into His orbit.

The coming of the Messiah is normally presented as Him vanquishing Israel’s enemies and bringing in justice and peace. Isaiah has Him coming in avenging might (Isa. 63). Daniel has Him smashing the kingdoms of man (Dan. 2). After crushing His enemies, He comes to rule from Jerusalem (Jer. 33:14-15; Zech. 1:17).

A “problem” arises between this unimpeded picture of His arrival and the occasional references to His suffering and death (Psa. 22; Isa. 53; Dan. 9:25; Zech. 13:6). How can He come in such irresistible power and yet be overpowered? The Old Testament does not tell us directly, though it provides us with clues which subsequent revelation will fit together. The closest thing to an outright explanation is perhaps Zechariah 12:10 where, in the common setting of God’s future judgment, we are suddenly told “they will look on Me who they pierced.” This implies that the people “pierced” Him previous to His coming in judgment and salvation. To step into a New Testament vantage-point for a moment, what we find is that the first and second comings of Christ are merged in the Old Testament, with the emphasis usually placed upon things that occur at the second coming.

One more vital consideration; we must never forget that according to Psalm 110:1, Micah 5:2 and Isaiah 9:6-7 the promised King is divine. Therefore, to the standard messianic passages we must add those texts which speak of Yahweh Himself as dwelling with men in the Kingdom of God. We must also not avoid the inclusion of passages like Ezekiel 43:1-7; 48:35; Joel 3:17, and Zechariah 1:16; 8:1-3; 14:9, 16-21 as pointing to Messiah. As one author has stated, “The Old Testament has its own messianic light.”3 And it is a good deal brighter than many people realize.

Notes

1 The curse upon Jehoiachin (Coniah) in Jeremiah 22:28-30 essentially illustrates this. Although Jehoiachin lived on in captivity and had seven sons (1 Chron. 3:17-18), he was written as childless. This appeared to defeat the Davidic covenant, but God would find a way around the problem. Compare John Bright, Covenant and Promise, 180-181.

2 Redeeming Israel, He cannot be Israel.

3 John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 238.

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