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The Theme of Covenant
One would expect the covenants to have a marked presence in the Psalms, and indeed they do.1 Psalm 25:14 announces “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him, and He will show them His covenant.” Although the covenants are for the most part clearly set out in Scripture, they are overlooked by the human parties. Those who fear God know that these covenants direct history behind the scenes. Even if they do not connect what the covenants are saying to the hermeneutical flow of the Bible, many of God’s people realize that the world’s hopes are fastened to them.
We don’t see much of the covenant with Noah in the Psalter, but Psalm 74:16-17, with its recollection of God’s governance over the seasons, certainly seems to allude to it (especially the preamble in Gen. 8:21-22). The Mosaic covenant is featured in Psalm 135:4, where it says, “The Lord has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure” (cf. Exod. 19:5; Deut. 7:6; Psa. 114:2; Zech. 9:16), although the Lord’s choice has its roots in the promises to Abraham (Gen. 17:7-8).
This is seen in the recounting of history in Psalm 105:
O seed of Abraham His servant, you children of Jacob, His chosen ones!
He is the LORD our God; His judgments are in all the earth.
He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations,
The covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac,
And confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant,
Saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan as the allotment of your inheritance…” (Psalm 105:6-11)
According to Jacob Jocz “such a remarkable recitation of Heilgeschicte would be unthinkable without the covenant background.”2 In this text, and indeed in the whole psalm, the land is Israel’s covenanted inheritance (cf. Psa. 105:42. Cf. Lev. 26:42-45).3 The psalmist’s memory is filtered through a covenantal grid, and he wants his reader to employ the same filter. That is, he wants us to see Yahweh–Israel–Land as a covenantally bound “eternal triangle,” to use Allen’s term.4 The “land of Canaan” that is granted to Israel (Gen. 12:5, 7; 17:6) everlastingly (Psa. 105:10-11), although God pushes out the borders of the land considerably (Gen. 15:18). There is also an allusion to the Abrahamic covenant in Psalm 72:17.5
This is seen in several places too, most notably in Psalm 106:28-31 which retells the story of Baal-Peor and the zeal of Phinehas in Numbers 25:10-13. There is a blessing upon the priests in the context of salvation in Psalm 115:12 and 132:16, the latter of which speaks of the covenant with David.6 Whether one does what I have done and brought together the future blessings of the priesthood (e.g. Jer.33:18; Mal. 3:3-4) with the promise to Phinehas, or prefers to separate them, the fact is that priests will serve God in the coming kingdom (cf. Ezek. 43:19; 44:10-16; 48:10-15).
Then we have the Davidic covenant, which we see particularly clearly in Psalm 89. It is here rather than in 2 Samuel 7 or 1 Chronicles 17 that we discover that the word to David was covenanted. The psalm is notable among other things for its logical flow.7
This is not a psalm of David. The writer is one Ethan the Ezrahite who is mentioned in 1 Kings 4:31 as a wise man. Verses 3 and 4 declare the faithfulness of God to His covenant:
I have made a covenant with My chosen, I have sworn to My servant David:
“Your seed I will establish forever, and build up your throne to all generations.” (Psa. 89:3-4)
Verse 4 alludes to 2 Samuel 7:8-16. God’s covenant cannot be rescinded (see Psa. 89:28, 34).
Even when the party with whom the Lord makes the covenant breaks the terms, its binding nature obligates the Lord to fulfill its terms (cf. vv.34-35)…The Lord Himself will secure the Davidic dynasty.8
In verse 27 the promise is to make David “the highest of the kings of the earth.” This is accomplished first by the fact that God chose David.9 But there may be another way of fulfilment which sees David lifted-up to an exalted role in the Messiah’s kingdom. This is a straightforward way of reading texts like Jeremiah 30:9 and Ezekiel 34:23 as we have seen. This would entail some sort of arrangement in the coming regency where Christ the God-man in Jerusalem is King over the whole planet, while David is king over Israel, which is to be the most exalted nation (Deut. 28:13; Zeph. 3:20). Such an arrangement could work in a world envisaged by the Prophets.10
There is a beautiful line in 89:33 where the Lord gives assurance that His hesed (lovingkindness) and emuna (faithfulness) to His pledge to David will never fail. He follows this up with these words:
My covenant I will not break,
Nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips.
Once I have sworn by My holiness;
I will not lie to David:
His seed shall endure forever,
And his throne as the sun before Me;
It shall be established forever like the moon,
Even like the faithful witness in the sky. (Psalm 89:34-37)
The Lord only needs to make an oath “once” and it will be carried through. His holy character is the guarantee of its accomplishment. His covenant is like His creative and sustaining word to the Sun and the moon.11 They have been placed there to fulfill a specific function (cf. Gen. 1:15-18), even though they achieve their goal by various and impressive means. In the same way God’s covenant oath to David conveyed a specific intent to David and to Israel. It is found in verse 36:
His seed shall endure forever,
And his throne as the sun before Me
God will make sure that a descendent of David will sit upon his throne forever. We should be careful to say what this does not mean. It does not have to mean that there will be an unbroken line of kings from David through to Christ. Only that when Israel is enjoying the favor of Yahweh there will be a Davidic presence reigning in Jerusalem. And this last item is especially important. It is quite clear that God has promised to perpetuate an earthly throne in Jerusalem (e.g. Psa. 2:6; 48:2; 149:2; Isa. 24:3; Zech. 8:3).12 This means that attempts to remove the location of the Davidic throne to heaven, where there is one throne, and it did not materialize in the 11th century B.C. God’s throne and David’s throne are very different.13 Attempts to alleviate the difference through the use of typology only obscures the matter.
1 In fact I would argue that there is a strong sense of covenant in places even where there are no direct references or allusions to it. Psalms 46 and 47 are a case in point.
2 Jakob Jocz, The Covenant, 55
3 Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, 57
5 Merrill, Everlasting Dominion, 579-580
6 The hopes of the Davidic and Levitical lines are also joined in the New covenant passage in Jeremiah 33:14ff.
7 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant, 116
8 Willem VanGemeren, “Psalms,” EBC, 576
9 Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 2 (42-89), 834-835
10 I am aware that most commentators assume that “David” here may have a prophetic sense betokening Messiah, but I struggle with that as an explanation in every case where it is appealed to.
11 Hillers says “this hymning of God who created and established all things, firmly and unshakably, meshes with the theme that the rule of David’s line is an order of creation.” (Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant, 116-117)
12 “It is apparent that David understood the covenant as literal, and its future fulfillments as literal … And David was so led by God to interpret it.” (J. Dwight Pentecost, Thy Kingdom Come, 144)
13 Daniel J. Estes, Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms, 187
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.