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What Yahweh Thinks of Covenant-Breakers
Having just uttered what is undoubtedly one of the most unambiguous promises in literature, and coming on the back of an entire extended portion on the subject of Israel’s eschatological hope (Jer. 30 – 33), Jeremiah switches gear to relate an incident under the quickly ebbing reign of king Zedekiah.
The background to the story is the desperation of the king and his nobles over the engagement with the overwhelming forces of Nebuchadnezzar, and what was sure to follow (Jer. 34:1f.). In a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable, the king and his courtiers turn to Yahweh and, in a fit of religious zeal, they make a covenant before Him in the temple to implement the command contained within the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 34:13-14) to release Hebrew slaves (see Exod. 21:1-11; Deut. 15:12-18). Dishonorably they went back on their oath and took the slaves back (Jer. 34:8-11); an action that provoked the following response:
you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. ‘Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom you had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’ “Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD—‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. (Jeremiah 34:15-17)
All is clear. Because the king and his nobles initially respected God’s covenant stipulations about the liberating of slaves, but then shamefully went back on their word, they profaned God’s holy name. The crime was made more shameful by the fact that it was a Sabbatical year.1 God in return would proclaim a “liberty” to them – a pun on their treachery—to the instruments of destruction.
Then comes the theological hammer blow:
And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it… (Jeremiah 34:18, emphasis added)
Although most interpreters of Jeremiah pass over it, what Yahweh has just said in this verse is of supremest importance for the right treatment of the biblical covenants, and for the interpretation of Scripture. The basic lesson is that God takes a dim view of the leaders of Judah who went back on their covenant, and again subjugated those who they had sworn to set free.
But the profound truth which can be rightly inferred from Yahweh’s attitude is that He expects those who enter into a solemn covenant oath to “perform the words (dabar) of the covenant.” The words spoken in the covenant-making rite mean what they say! If Zedekiah and the princes did not intend to actually perform these words they ought not to have vowed to do them. That is the clear message from God to them (and to us). Covenants are not things you can manipulate after-the-fact to suit yourself. They were and are inflexible things. The very unyielding quality of covenants underlined their solemnity and reliability. That is precisely why God makes covenants. He wants us to know that He means what He says!
The stunning upshot from this is only fully seen once one has comprehended the fact that the Speaker pronouncing doom upon oath-breakers is a Covenant-Maker bar none! God Himself requires that those who enter into an oath perform their words (cf. Eccles. 8:2; 1 Ki.2:42-43; Psa. 89:34). As Ezekiel asks about Zedekiah’s abortive attempt to secure the help of Egypt, which involved him breaking the oath he took before Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek. 17:11-19), “Can he break a covenant and still be delivered?” (Ezek. 17:15c). A covenant that does not mean what it says and whose words are not binding on the one that made the oath is the most foolish and deceitful of things: it is the epitome of the abuse of language.
But it is just at this point that we are confronted by the obvious reference to what God did when making the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15. He alone passed between the divided animal parts and spoke the “words of the covenant” made with the sleeping patriarch as He did so (see esp. Gen. 15:17-21). Would the covenant God fail to perform the terms of an oath that He alone entered in to? If so, what would be the point of being a covenant God (cf. Heb. 6:13-18)? And if He is at least as faithful to His oaths as He expects others to be (in the midst of repeating His own pledges through the prophet – Jer. 31:31-37 & 33:17-26), then the recipients of a divine oath are on the most solid and unmovable ground imaginable! It all comes down to “the words of the covenant”! That is the heart of biblical covenantalism; the very underpinning of this book.
Excursus: What Is the Covenant in Jeremiah 34 (and Genesis 15)?
What sort of covenant is described here in Jeremiah 34? Parallels are inevitably drawn with the covenant rite between God and Abram in Genesis 15. Ake Viberg has drawn attention to the fact the walking through the pieces of animals to ratify a covenant is unknown from extant texts outside the Old Testament, and that the parallels that are often used “are of little or no real value, since they do not describe the same act as in Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34.”2 But since the term karat berith is in both contexts we would be justified in seeing that “non-parity” covenants are in both contexts. The self-imprecatory element seems to be implied by the mention of animals eating (thus tearing up) the bodies of the covenant-breakers (Jer. 34:19-20), although Viberg advises caution in identifying them as such.3
But the point of interest is clear enough: God would hardly be in a position to blame anyone else for not fulfilling “the words of the covenant” if He made the same covenant and failed to do perform what He had vowed to do!
An Illustration of Faithfulness
Many who have not read Jeremiah all the way through have some recollection of the Rechabites of chapter 35. The story surrounds the prophet being told to bring the house of Rechab into the temple and offer them wine (Jer. 35:1-5). The reply of the children of Rechab was that not since the time of Jonadab, son of Rechab, who commanded his posterity not to drink wine forever have any of the Rechabites disobeyed Jonadab’s word (Jer. 35:8).
The answer given by the descendants of Rechab is taken up by the Lord as an illustration of fidelity to a command. If the offspring of a man will heed his commandments, how perverse is it that the people of Yahweh refuse to listen to His commandments (Jer. 35:14-17). Then God announces that there will always be a man of Rechab to stand before Him forever (Jer. 35:19), so much does God value faithfulness.
The moral is that we ought to take God at His word and perform it. Coming as it does after the Book of Consolation where the faithfulness of God to Israel has been the predominant theme, this chapter drives home to the attentive reader that God means what He says. The problem is not in what God says, but in our willingness to listen to it and accept it.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.