Celebration of the Covenant
The Hebrew Scriptures breathe a spirit of celebration which at times is extraordinary for its exuberance. The reason for this spirit of celebration is the covenant.
The covenant gave life its real meaning. Man was created to be a covenant creature. Man is true man only when he is in covenant partnership with God. Life has no meaning outside the covenant, because apart from fellowship with God death stands over man to negate everything. In himself man possesses no great value, for he is only dust. Yet the covenant invests this "dust" with infinite worth. Just as a wife is the glory of her husband, so God's covenant community is the object of His supreme regard.
The Kingdom of God
In the first place, the covenant establishes the kingdom of God. We see this in Eden. God is the great Suzerain whose covenant invests Adam with the dignity and status of lord over all the created order (Gen. 1:28, 29; Ps. 8:6). In covenant union with God, Adam is king. Out of covenant union he dies and returns to the dust.
When Israel was elected as God's covenant partner, she was incorporated into a kingdom (Ex. 19:5, 6). If she had remained a faithful covenant partner, God would have invested her with status, leadership, and dominion over all the earth (see Deut. 28-30).
The purpose of the Davidic covenant was also the establishment of an ideal kingdom. In this kingdom man would not only be subject, but he would be ruler over the works of God's hands.
The biblical expression, "kingdom of God," is a dynamic expression which means "the rule of God." To be in God's kingdom means to live under His rule. It means to be part of the covenant community which lives under the authority of God's law. On the part of man the covenant requires exclusive, wholehearted obedience. On the part of God the covenant means that He is pledged to protect and succor (aid, assist, comfort) His covenantal subjects.
Of Israel the prophet Balaam declared, ". . . the Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them" (Num. 23:21). The Hebrews were often moved to heights of great joy as they celebrated the wonder of having God as their King. A number of the Psalms are known as "enthronement Psalms" (Ps. 47, 81, 93, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99). In them we hear the glad strains of acclamation as the people celebrate the enthronement of Yahweh as Israel's King.
According to Mowinkel, ancient Israel's neighbors enthroned their gods and kings at the New Year's festival in the autumn. So it was that in the climactic feasts of the seventh month (Trumpets, Atonement and Tabernacles) Israel celebrated the enthronement of Jehovah.
The seventh month opened with the feast of blowing of trumpets, which lasted ten days (Num. 10:10; Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1). On the tenth day, which was the Day of Atonement, the jubilee trumpet was sounded1 (Lev. 25:9). The expression, "blowing of trumpets," is from the Hebrew word teruah, which is also translated as joy, joyful sound, jubilee, rejoicing, shouting, high sounding. Teruah is preeminently used for the acclamation given at the appearance, presence or enthronement of the king (see 1 Kings 1:34, 39; 2 Kings 9:13).
The festival complex of the seventh month depicts the triumphal entry of Yahweh as King into His capitol city and His enthronement amid the acclamations of His people. The words of the teruah are, "Yahweh is become King" (Mowinkel's translation of Ps. 93:1; 97:1; 99:1; cf. 2 Sam. 16:16; 2 Kings 9:13). Yahweh then begins His reign, His rule, His judgment. He enters His temple and thereby consecrates it and renews the covenant with His faithful vassal subjects. He "covers" His people with covenantal blessings and assures them of their inheritance. Israel's unbounded joy in God their King is expressed in the following Psalms, which are a sample of the Old Testament spirit of celebration:
O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto Him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods. —Ps. 95:1-3.
O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth. Sing unto the Lord, bless His name; shew forth His salvation from day to day. Declare His glory among the heathen, His wonders among all people. For the Lord is great, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens. Honour and majesty are before Him: strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Give unto the Lord, 0 ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name: bring an offering, and come into His courts. 0 worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before Him, all the earth. Say among the heathen that the Lord reigneth: the world also shall be established that it shall not be moved: He shall judge the people righteously. Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof. Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein: then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for He cometh, for He cometh to judge the earth: He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His truth. —Ps. 96.
The Righteousness of God
Closely associated with the concept of God's kingship was God's righteousness. The King was Judge, and as Judge He was covenantally pledged to deliver His people. God's acts of saving and rescuing His people from Egypt, from Babylon, or even from their sins were celebrated as His acts of righteous judgment. They were justice because God was showing Himself to be true to His "covenant of mercy."
It is in the Old Testament that we first meet this idea that the justice of God means salvation to all who put their trust in Him. Those who are children of the covenant have the right to appeal to the Judge for deliverance. The penitent Psalmist can even appeal for forgiveness on the grounds of God's justice (see Ps. 51:14). Daniel pleads for Israel's restoration to divine favor on the grounds of divine justice (see Dan. 9:16). The same idea also appears in the Qumran literature. A few quotations will illustrate the point:
In passages like Psalm 71:1-3,15, 24, Isaiah 51:5 and Isaiah 45:8 the "righteousness of God" means the saving acts of God on behalf of His people. Again we say, God's justice means salvation to all those who put their trust in Him (as Paul later proclaimed in Romans 1:16,17).
By His righteousness He has wiped out my transgression. —1 QS 11:3.
And I, if I stumble the steadfast love of God is my eternal salvation, and if I totter in fleshly iniquity my justification will be in the eternal righteousness of God. —1 QS 11:1 lb.
For You will forgive iniquity and purify men of guilt through Your righteousness. . . . I will take courage in Your covenant. —1 OH 4:37ff.
These saving acts of God are the theme of constant celebration.
In Thee, 0 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. . . . 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. 71:1-3, 15, 24.
Chapters 40 to 66 of Isaiah constitute one great celebration of God's righteousness in delivering His people from Babylon and renewing His covenant through the sin-bearing work of His suffering Servant.
Access and Fellowship
The covenant meant that Israel had access to God and the privilege of fellowship with Him. True, Israel was sinful and could not in herself stand in the presence of Yahweh. But God had provided a way of access (taught in the tabernacle ritual) by substitution (the sacrifice), representation (the high priest) and imputation (the sweet incense). By these God-ordained means the worship of sinful beings could be acceptable to Him. The Old Testament reflects the spirit of celebration in the covenant privilege of worshiping God.
O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God; and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. —Ps. 95:6, 7.
Honour and majesty are before Him: strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. Give unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people, give unto the Lord glory and strength. Give unto the Lord the glory due unto His name: bring an offering, and come into His courts. O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: fear before Him, all the earth. —Ps. 96:6-9.
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing. Know ye that the Lord He is God: it is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise: be thankful unto Him, and bless His name. For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting; and His truth endureth to all generations. —Ps. 100.
Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in Thy presence is fulness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. —Ps. 16:11.
The whole texture of Old Testament religion was marked by the spirit of joyful celebration. Covenant life was a life of celebration. If Israel did not serve the Lord with "joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things" (Deut. 28:47), she did not serve the Lord in a way acceptable to Him. God had loved His people freely, fervently and unstintingly. Any insipid response would be an insult to divine love.
The numerous Hebrew festivals were to be grand occasions of celebration. Israel was to call to mind God's marvelous acts in electing and saving His people. She was to remember and give thanks (see Ps. 106 & 107). In the feast of Tabernacles at the end of the year the people were commanded to put aside their work. God had said, ". . . ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days" (Lev. 23:40; see also Deut. 14:26).
The Sabbath was a weekly covenantal celebration. At the creation, when God's work was finished, "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7). Adam had nothing to contribute to God's perfect work. He had nothing to do on that first Sabbath (Gen. 2:1-3) but to be thankful and celebrate. This day of celebration became a sign and seal of the covenant by specific command of God (Gen. 2:1-3; Ex. 20:8-11; 31:16,17). So the fourth word of the covenant commands the people of God to "remember." But further, the God who created does something to preserve His created order. He has not left His people to their own devices nor to the bondage of Pharaoh. So when the covenant is repeated to Israel on the plains of Moab, the Lord says, "And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day" (Deut. 5:15).
On the seventh day Israel must cease her work. She must not find her satisfaction in what she has done. She is to find her joy and satisfaction in God's work. The God who created heaven and earth has created Israel a nation by His redemptive activity, and she has nought to thank but His electing love, which is wholly unmerited. The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant (Ex. 31:16,17), the pledge that Israel's salvation and welfare are God's business. The sign and the covenant are inseparable (Isa. 56:4, 6).
The unbounded exuberance with which the Old Testament saints celebrate having God as their King and Judge is astounding. Consider the following:
Let Thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let Thy saints shout for joy. —Ps. 132:9.
Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds. —Ps. 149:5.
We may recall to mind the occasion of David's dancing before the ark of God in the spirit of fervent celebration. Yet this was no light, frothy exuberance. It was a joy that was conspicuous for its fear and reverential awe before the holy One of Israel.
Covenant Life Is Praise
It is plain to see that the essence of life to these Old Testament saints was the praise of God. Life was to trust God and celebrate.
When King Hezekiah faced premature death through sickness, he "wept sore." To the Hebrews death was a horrendous evil.2 Hezekiah gives us an insight into this when he declares: "For the grave cannot praise Thee, death can not celebrate Thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise Thee, as I do this day (isa. 38:18, 19). The Psalmist also says, "For in death there is no remembrance of Thee: in the grave who shall give Thee thanks?" (Ps. 6:5).
The reason why the Hebrew saint abhorred death was because life was celebration of God. He wanted to go on praising God. (We must remember that the full New Testament light on Christ's conquest of death had not dawned on the Hebrews.)
If life means to praise God and continually celebrate His goodness, it follows that those who do not praise God and live in this spirit of celebration are already dead.
The Great Disruption and the Grand Renewal
The Old Testament spirit of celebration is not unclouded, however. It was disrupted when the covenant was broken. Only in covenant union with God can the people of God celebrate. So when the great disaster of the captivity overtook the Jews, the covenant was broken, and they had nothing to celebrate:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? —Ps. 137:1-4.
Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet because it was his doleful task to pronounce God's judgment upon His people. Yet with the prophetic spirit of unspeakable joy Jeremiah foretells that the time would come when God would renew His covenant:
Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all. Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, both young men and old together: for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. And I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and My people shall be satisfied with My goodness, saith the Lord.
Chapters 40 to 66 of Isaiah take up the same grand theme of covenant renewal. The most sublime literature of all time appears in Isaiah's inspired poetry. He saw beyond the restoration which took place in the postexilic period and caught the inspiration of that great covenant renewal which would take place in the coming of God's Messiah. The old songs of celebration would never do. A new song of unparalleled joy must accompany God's ultimate act of intervention—an act which would renew His covenant with the remnant of Israel and provide salvation for the Gentiles unto the uttermost bounds of the earth.
Thus saith the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not. Thus saith the Lord; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the Lord; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy. And there is hope in thine end, saith the Lord, that thy children shall come again to their own border. . . .
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an Husband unto them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. —Jer. 31:12-17,31-34.
The New Testament Celebration
Jesus' announcement of the kingdom was "glad tidings" or "good news." He had come to fulfill all that was promised by the prophets (Acts 13:32, 33; 2 Cor. 1:20). With Him and in Him the hour of God's ultimate act of intervention and salvation had arrived. Christ declared, "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound . . . " (Isa. 61:1). Of course, Isaiah goes on to declare that this day of Yahweh would also be a "day of vengeance of our God" (vs. 2). But Christ did not quote this portion of the scripture in sounding the good news (see Luke 4:18,19). He came to bear God's wrath Himself so that sinners might bear God's favor. He would endure the curses of the covenant so that His people could have its blessings.
Jesus refused to allow men to make His disciples fast when He was with them. In Him were all the blessings of God's covenant. His presence was therefore an occasion of celebration. The gospel was likened to an invitation to a great banquet. Jesus went about eating and drinking. God's gift had come down to men. It was time to celebrate.
As the Master stood in the shadow of the cross, He did not invite His disciples to mourn but to rejoice (see John 16:33). His death was not to be mourned as some disaster. True, it was a baptism of infinite suffering for the Son of God, but this was the Father's gift and Christ's own gift to sinful man. As a true gift, it was poured out with a fullness of divine joy. Christ's death was to be the sealing of the new covenant which the prophets had promised. Therefore it must be celebrated.
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom. —Matt. 26:26-29
If the Old Testament's spirit of celebration was great, the New Testament's must surely be greater. God's act of redemption in Jesus has been completed. All things necessary for our full and free acceptance with God have been worked out and settled. We cannot contribute or add anything to what God has done on Calvary any more than Adam could add anything to God's original creation. What else can we do but rest in that completed work, give thanks, and celebrate the glorious benefits of this grand covenant renewal. We can only go on in the Christian life as we remember what has happened and what has been given to us.
The last book of the Bible appropriately ends the Bible story of the triumph of God's covenant. How fitting that its vision was on the Lord's day appointed by God for celebration! (Rev. 1:10; cf. Isa. 58:13,14). With the apostle we are permitted to stand on the threshold of the eternal world and hear the unceasing songs of the inhabitants of heaven as they celebrate the victory and triumph of the Lamb.
And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation; and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth. And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. —Rev. 5:9-13.
And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to Him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready. —Rev. 19:6, 7.
If we expect to celebrate when God makes all things new, we must learn to celebrate here and now. But let us be sure that we celebrate the right thing. None of the songs in the book of Revelation are celebrating the worshipers' own religious experiences. They do not celebrate their changed lives, their victory over sin, or even their sinless state. Not one thing is heard about what they have done or suffered. They do not glory in their Spirit-filled existence. This book of praise is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it makes almost no mention of the Holy Spirit. Where Christ and Christ alone is celebrated, the Spirit's work is complete.
1 0n every fiftieth year.
2 Luther often remarked on this and pointed out that in itself death is an unspeakable disaster. To be sure, it has become a light thing because Christ has conquered it; but in itself it must not be treated lightly.