The Practical Meaning of Covenant
It would be difficult to exaggerate the overwhelming significance that the covenant concept had for Israelite religion. The people's relationship with God was based on a covenant, and He would have no dealings with man outside of the covenant. "It is not too much to say that the covenant conception came to dominate Israel's thought about her relationship to God."—Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p.81.
Every religion has to do with some form of union, fellowship, friendship or relationship with the Deity. This is not peculiar to the Hebrew religion. What is peculiar to the Hebrew religion is that this union, fellowship and partnership with the Deity is based on a legal arrangement called a covenant. " ... covenant is a legal conception. . . . a legal basis is inherent in the very nature of the covenant." — Ibid., p.257. This means that God's union, fellowship and partnership with man are based on a legal contract. Further, God will have no relationship with His people outside of this legal contract.
It may help us to grasp the significance of this point if we observe that the covenant between God and His people is often likened to a marriage contract (see Ezek. 16:8, 60; Hosea 2:16; Isa. 54:5; Jer. 3:14; 31:32). In some respects Israel's solemn promise before Mount Sinai ("All that the Lord hath spoken we will do," Ex. 19:8) sounds like a bride making her wedding vow. The marriage contract, of course, is only one illustration and by no means exhausts the meaning of God's covenant with His people. But since this concept of a marriage contract is still with us moderns, it does help us to understand the biblical thought that our union with God is first of all a legal union. Just as the most sacred human relationship is based on a legal covenant, so God's union with man must be based on a legal covenant. God, being holy love, will have nothing to do with spiritual fornication.
Here we touch on a principle which has vital significance for today. There has been a strong tendency in modern times to move away from the legal categories of the Bible. It is thought by many that legal and religious concepts are inimical to each other. But in the covenant framework of the Bible the legal and the religious aspects of the God-man relationship are bound inseparably together. Covenants are always legal and always religious.
We today tend to equate what is legal with legalism.1 There is a tendency to think that legal categories are inferior notions which are transcended by a truly spiritual religion. But the covenant theme of the Bible shows us clearly that the religion which comes from God has its roots in the law of God and the perfect order of divine jurisprudence. Says Leon Morris:
. . . the men of the Old Testament seem to go out of their way to use legal illustrations when they have the divine activity in mind. Today we are inclined to be suspicious of "legalism." Indeed, if we can convict an opponent of too great an interest in law we are half way to confuting him. No one today is interested in a legalist. But we should not read this attitude back into antiquity. . . . Yahweh and law went well together. —Ibid.
The current religious scene is dominated by the philosophy that the only thing really important in religion is "a religious encounter," "an experience of Christ in the heart," "an exciting discovery of the Spirit-filled life," etc. Even the more sober discipline of theology tends to develop doctrine from experience and to reduce everything to an experience. (Some even want to call God's act of justification an experience.2) This process, if allowed to continue, would end up destroying everything really distinctive about the Christian faith so that ultimately all religions could unite on the common denominator of a religious experience "in the cave of the heart." In the final analysis this sort of religion will be found to be as immoral and as unstable as conjugal union without legal basis.
The covenant concept, however, provides for a very unique and distinctive kind of fellowship with God.
1. It is a Lawful Fellowship.
The covenant concept taught the Hebrews that their God was the God of law, who called them into a lawful fellowship. As Creator, He is the Author of law. Not only is law the way in which He administers His universe, but He Himself can be relied upon to act according to law.
The Old Testament consistently thinks of a God who works by the method of law. This is not the conception of one or two writers but is found everywhere. It is attested by a variety of conceptions, many of them taken straight from forensic practices. Among the heathen the deity was thought of as above all law, with nothing but his own desires to limit him. Accordingly his behaviour was completely unpredictable, and while he made demands on his worshippers for obedience and service, there were few if any ethical implications of this service, and none of a logically necessary kind. Far otherwise was it with the God of the Hebrews. The Old Testament never conceives of anything outside Him which can direct His actions, and we must be on our guard against the thought of a law which is over Him. But Yahweh was thought of as essentially righteous in His nature, as incorporating the law of righteousness within His essential Being. Accordingly He works by a method which may be called law — He inevitably punishes evil-doing and rewards righteousness. He himself acts righteously, and He demands that His people do the same. This is the consistent teaching of the Old Testament. —Ibid., p.258.
2. It is a Stable Fellowship.
The concept of fellowship with God based on a legal covenant meant that there was a stable and dependable element in the religion of the Old Testament. The covenant provided for a "firmly regulated form of fellowship between God and man or man and God." —Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p.109. The "legal concept is introduced to show that there is an established pattern in the dealings between God and man." —lbid., p.110. "There is no firmer guarantee of legal security, peace or personal loyalty than the covenant. . . . It means legitimate order as opposed to caprice, uncertainty and animosity." —lbid., p.115.
The advantages of having marriage based on a legal contract with sacred guarantees are plain to see. Marriage has to be based on something more than fluctuating human emotions. We must also appreciate that a believer's union and fellowship with God rest on something more durable and stable than the actual experience of the believer in the fellowship.
The covenant spells out the terms and conditions of the relationship. The covenant partner may know where he stands. He knows his rights and titles as well as his obligations and responsibilities. This means that the fellowship in the partnership is both dependable and predictable.
It is important that a man may know where he stands in relationship with His God. He does not need to be in jeopardy and uncertainty every hour. But he would stand in great jeopardy if he had nothing to depend on save his own religious experience. The sort of cotton-candy, sentimental evangelicalism that offers nothing deeper than the experience of "Christ in the heart" is not to be compared with the true freedom that a believer may enjoy in true covenant relationship with God.
3. It Is a Faith-Inspiring Fellowship.
The concept of a covenant fellowship with God gave the men of the Old Testament a mighty anchor to their faith. We may even say that it put them on vantage ground with God. God was obligated to them by the covenant (such is the love and condescension of God). He was their God. They were His people. He was bound to be loyal and merciful to His people. This is why we see examples of remarkable boldness to claim God's blessings. It was the covenant background which enabled Jacob to say to the Angel, "I will not let Thee go, except Thou bless me." Outside of the covenant relationship this demand would have been presumption.
We must not, of course, get the idea that the covenant operated automatically or that Israel could rest on God's pledge while she herself flouted her own covenant obligations. Yet if she sincerely turned from her sins, she could always claim God's favor (1 kings 8:31-53; Ps. 106:43-47). This reminds us of St. Paul's words: " ... if we are faithless, He remains faithful — for He cannot deny Himself" (2 Tim. 2:13, RSV).
This same covenant concept is important for us today. In Romans the apostle Paul teaches us that our salvation is grounded in God's justice as much as in His mercy. This is a great encouragement for faith. If in view of his weakness and sinfulness the believer is sometimes tempted to think that God's mercy may run out, he never wonders whether God's justice will run out. Instead of inexorable justice terrifying the believer, he knows that God's justice is salvation (Rom. 1:16,17). The covenant gives the believer a claim on God that makes him bold to rest his case, not only on God's mercy, but on a justice which means that God must be loyal and merciful to every child of the covenant.
4. It Is an Exclusive Fellowship.
The covenant concept taught the Hebrews that fellowship with God was an exclusive fellowship. They alone were His chosen people. Yahweh alone must be their God. When we say that the covenant relationship with the Deity was peculiar to the Hebrews, this is not to deny that other nations may have thought of themselves as having some form of covenant with the gods.
It seems, however, that the covenantal idea was a special feature of the religion of Israel, the only one to demand exclusive loyalty and to preclude the possibility of dual or multiple loyalties such as were permitted in other religions, where the believer was bound in diverse relationships to many gods. The stipulation in political treaties demanding fealty to one king corresponds strikingly with the religious belief in one single, exclusive deity. —Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, Vol.2, p.278.
This idea of exclusive loyalty in the relationship between God and His people is well illustrated by the marriage relationship. The prophets, especially Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, seize on this thought and use it again and again to charge Israel with adultery.
Furthermore, the formula expressing the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people" (Lev. 26:12; Deut. 29:12, ; etc.) is a legal formula taken from the sphere of marriage, as attested in various legal documents from the ancient Near East (cf. Hosea 2:4, ). The relationship of the vassal to his suzerain, and that of the wife to her husband, leave no place for double loyalty in a monotheistic religion. —Ibid.
This helps also to explain why prophets like Isaiah frowned upon any alliance which Israel might make with surrounding nations. Such alliances were forbidden by Israel's covenant with Yahweh.
1 Legalism is a perversion of the legal just as rationalism is a perversion of the rational. Legalism is not really legal (lawful and right) but illegal, because it makes an improper use of law.
2 See Present Truth Magazine, art. "The Legal and Moral Aspects of Salvation," Part 1.