Key Words of the Covenant
The covenant concept is so fundamental in Old Testament theology that other important words derive their real force from the covenant context. In an excellent little book, Signals from the Bible, H. M. Kuitert shows how key words like righteousness, justice, kindness, truth, peace, sin and election are to be understood in relation to the covenant.
Righteousness is a covenantal word. When one does what is expected of him as a covenant partner, he is righteous. Righteousness is ascribed to the man who lives in a right relationship to God and acts as a true covenant partner. The law defines the terms of that relationship and spells out what is expected of the man in covenant with God. On the other hand, God is said to be righteous because His actions are true to His covenant relationship. When God delivers and saves His people, His righteousness is demonstrated because He proves true to His covenant pledge. From the human side faithful obedience is the content of righteousness (Deut. 6:25), but from the divine side the content of righteousness is salvation (Ps. 71:15,24; 103:6; Isa. 45:8; 51:5; 56:1).
It is the covenant which explains how God's justice can mean salvation to sinful men. We might well expect, as did the unenlightened monk by the name of Martin Luther, that God's justice means nothing but wrath and condemnation of sinners who are fully deserving of death. But God has made with the children of Abraham (i.e., repentant believers, Rom. 4:12; Gal. 3:7) a covenant of mercy (Deut. 7:12). He has pledged Himself to be kind and gracious to them in spite of their sinful state. Thus when God delivers the undeserving Hebrews from Egypt, it is an act of justice because He is showing Himself true to the covenant which He made with Abraham (Ex. 2:24, 25). When sinful Israel repents and cries unto the Lord for deliverance from her enemies, it is God's justice which delivers her by the hand of the judges (see the book of Judges).
Many times did He deliver them; but they provoked Him with their counsel, and were brought low for their iniquity. Nevertheless He regarded their affliction, when He heard their cry: and He remembered for them His covenant, and repented according to the multitude of His mercies. He made them also to be pitied of all those that carried them captives. Save us, 0 Lord our God, and gather us from among the heathen, to give thanks unto Thy holy name, and to triumph in Thy praise. —Ps. 106:43-47.
Many times does the Psalmist call upon God's righteousness (justice) to save him in his sore distress. Psalm 71, for instance, is a celebration of God's saving justice:
In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion. Deliver me in Thy righteousness, and cause me to escape: incline Thine ear unto me, and save me. Be Thou my strong habitation, whereunto I may continually resort: Thou hast given commandment to save me; for Thou art my rock and my fortress. Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. For Thou art my hope, O Lord God: Thou art my trust from my youth. . . . My mouth shall shew forth Thy righteousness and Thy salvation all the day; for I know not the numbers thereof. . . . My tongue also shall talk of Thy righteousness all the day long: for they are confounded, for they are brought unto shame, that seek my hurt. —Ps. 71:1-5, 15,24.
Nowhere is the saving justice of God more poignantly displayed than in Psalm 51. David had sinned grievously. He deserved to die and to be cut off from fellowship with God. But David repents and pleads for covenant mercy. He argues that the extension of divine mercy would be an act of God's justice, for he prays, 'Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of Thy righteousness" (Ps. 51:14). Again the Psalmist celebrates the joy of divine forgiveness in these words, "The Lord executeth righteousness [justice] and judgment for all that are oppressed" (Ps. 103:6; see context).
Isaiah describes Israel's deliverance from Babylon and her restoration to divine favor and privileges as an act of divine justice. It was not justice in the sense that Israel deserved to be the recipient of God's saving act (for the prophet complains that Israel's righteousness was like a filthy rag), but it was justice in that God was being true to His covenant in spite of Israel's obvious sinfulness. Isaiah 40 to 66 is mostly one inspired celebration of God's righteousness, which means salvation for His oppressed people.
Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the Lord have created it. —Isa. 45:8.
My righteousness is near; My salvation is gone forth, and Mine arms shall judge the people; the isles shall wait upon Me, and on Mine arm shall they trust. —Isa. 51:5.
Thus saith the Lord, keep ye judgment, and do justice: for My salvation is near to come, and My righteousness to be revealed. —Isa. 56:1.
When Paul proclaims that the gospel reveals the righteousness (justice) of God, which is salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16,17), he is setting forth the essential covenant message of the Old Testament. But he does it in the light of God's final and ultimate act of salvation, which has taken place in the death and resurrection of Christ. All who believe are incorporated into that saving event and are thereby forgiven, saved from well-deserved wrath, and justified unto life eternal — and all this as an act of divine justice. One main difference between the Old Testament era and the era of Paul's gospel is this: In the Old Testament it remained somewhat of a mystery how a just God could pardon sin and save sinners like David and the exiled Jews. But in Paul's gospel the secret is revealed, for he points to the propitiatory death of Jesus as the grounds of God's being able to pass over the sins of a former age while still being just (Rom. 3:25,26).
Biblical theology is covenant theology. Because it grounds man's salvation on God's justice, it gives an absolutely solid basis for a man's faith. While he may be tempted to think that God's mercy may run out, his own conscience tells him that God will be just. But instead of this terrifying him, he may look in faith to God's covenant pledge (now sealed in full view by the death of Christ) and know that a just God must forgive and save those who put their trust in the God of the covenant.
Unrighteousness or sin means failing to do what is expected as a covenant partner. Sin is an act of infidelity and unfaithfulness to the covenant responsibility. Man's covenant responsibility is spelled out in the Ten Commandments — the "testimony" or edut — which constitute the oath-bound covenant stipulations. The Westminster Confession, therefore, is quite right and biblically concrete when it defines sin as any lack of conformity to the law of God. The covenant Is a legally based fellowship, and the law of God merely spells out the terms of that covenant fellowship.
The covenant also helps us to understand the gravity of sin. All sin must ultimately be a sin against the God of the covenant (Ps. 51:4). The sinner is a covenant breaker who offers insult to the covenant Maker. He incurs the curse of the covenant, a curse that is so terrible that its weight and intensity can only be seen in the hell which was exhibited in the execution of Christ.
Kindness and Wrath
Another important covenant word is the Hebrew word hesed — often translated as kindness, goodness, loving-kindness or steadfast love. Says John Bright:
The word hesed cannot be exactly translated. . . . The word is intimately related to the idea of the covenant. When it is used of God, it is very nearly the equivalent of "grace." It refers to the favor of God which summoned Israel into covenant and the steadfast love which he shows them even in spite of unworthiness. When used of man, the word denotes that proper response to grace which is utter loyalty to the covenant of God and obedience to his will. —The Kingdom of God (Abingdon), p.28.
The covenant with Israel is likened to a marriage bond. Throughout the Old Testament God is represented as the hesed (faithful, gracious) Husband. Israel, on the other hand, is not hesed; she is like an unfaithful, disloyal wife. Hosea complains that her hesed is like a fickle morning cloud (Hosea 6:4). In Deuteronomy 7:12 God's covenant is called the covenant of hesed (mercy).
The wrath of God is also associated with the covenant. The covenant demands an exclusive fellowship between God and Israel as if they were marriage partners (Ezek.16; Hosea 1-3). God will tolerate no rivals God's faithfulness to His covenant is measured by the intensity of His jealousy (Ex. 20:5). "His wrath is measured by His love. If God did not love so strongly, He would not become so angry." —Kuitert, op. cit., p.57.
The biblical idea of election is closely bound up with the covenant. In fact, it would be safe to say that the idea of election is so completely covenantal that it cannot be understood apart from the covenant.
We have seen that God's covenant is unilateral in origin. The New Testament can even liken it to a will and testament. When God makes a covenant with man or with a nation, it is wholly of the divine initiative. And when God calls the human party into covenant fellowship, this is God's act of election. When God gave Israel His covenant, He thereby elected her to be His people.
Election is as unilateral in origin as a will and testament. The election of Israel, therefore, was wholly of grace. It was absolutely unmerited. (See Ezekiel 16:3-14 for a graphic portrayal of Israel's unmerited election.)
Moses made it clear to the Hebrews that they were not delivered from Egypt or given the land of Canaan because they deserved it in any way:
The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you, and because He would keep the oath which He had sworn unto your fathers, hath the Lord brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. —Deut. 7:7,8.
Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiff-necked people. —Deut. 9:6.
Israel knew that she was God's elect nation — the chosen people. In a sense she knew it too well. She utterly misinterpreted the meaning of her election. She assumed that her election was unconditional — that election gave her a mandate on the future irrespective of how she behaved. The Jews were so confident that they were God's elect people that the prophets' messages of doom were treated as an idle tale. The Israelites built themselves up in such a fatuous conceit about their election that even the iron fist of the prophet could not break through their insulated self-confidence. They failed to see that the covenant was bilateral in operation. It could therefore be broken, and its privileges could be forfeited. Israel lived in a fool's paradise, not realizing that election did not mean immunity from punishment. Rather, it decreed that punishment for sin would be greater. The Lord declared through Amos, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities" (Amos 3:2).
Any New Testament doctrine of election should be seen in the light of its Old Testament meaning. Alan Richardson is quite correct when he says, "The Old Testament standpoint is carried over into the New Testament and determines the meaning of the concept of election in the New Testament." —An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (Harper & Row), p.271. Paul points the church back to ancient Israel with this warning: "Now all these things happened unto them for example: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come" (1 Cor.10:11).
The election of the Jewish nation did not prevent her from being cut off. Although election was unmerited, it was not unconditional.1 The covenant relation implied reciprocity. Divorce was not impossible. So Paul again warns the elect gospel community:
And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest He also spare not thee. —Rom. 11:17-21.
Is it not still true that among those of us who are most confident of our election (either individually or corporately) we find the same arrogant spirit of triumphal ism as was found among the Jews? We may feel that we alone are the true heirs of the Reformers, the chosen people who have the orthodox faith (especially about election). We may feel that we can thank God that we are not like those "heretics" or "Babylonians." Yet we fail to see that our own dead churches and dry orthodoxy (as dry as the hills of Gilboa, which had neither dew nor rain) expose us to the same fate as the self-confident Jews who perished while glorying in their election. The whole of Peter's second Epistle (especially 1:5-12; 2:20-22; 3:14-17) is a warning against the notion of unconditional election,2 and it is perhaps significant that right in this context Peter speaks of the misuse of some of Paul's Epistles (see 2 Peter 3:15, 16).
Peace is the heart of the covenant, for covenant means union and communion in a peaceful relationship. So we should not be surprised to find that the words covenant and peace are often found together. The covenant is even called "a covenant of peace" (see Ezek. 34:25; 37:26; 1 kings 5:12; Ps. 55:20, 21). The Hebrew word for peace (shalom) is much broader than what may today be taken for a certain tranquility of mind. Shalom also means prosperity, abundance, fullness of blessing, health and well-being. Peace is the benefit of God's covenant, and its blessing is exceedingly great.
These are just some key words whose meanings are amplified and vitalized when seen in their relation to the covenant. There are many more words and ideas that the diligent student, wide awake to the importance of the covenant, could rediscover. If the books of the Bible are studied as covenant documents, they will yield many covenant treasures.
1 We suggest that it may be prudent to make a distinction between the adjectives unmerited and unconditional and that we should use the former and not the latter when we speak of election. The word unmerited preserves the gratuitous nature of election, but it does not pose the danger of implying that an elect person or nation can be in God's favor irrespective of his or her own course of action. So too we can say that salvation is unmerited, but it is dangerous to say that people are saved unconditionally. Of course, some use the expression unconditional election to mean unmerited election, and they do not mean that a man can be elect if he flagrantly sins. If nothing further is meant by unconditional than the meritorious cause, there can be no objection to unconditional election.
2 See footnote 1.