The concept of keeping covenant with God seems to be one not much considered by the modern Christian. Yet the Bible demonstrates in its pages that the idea of a covenant with God was that which guided the patriarch’s and the early believers’ relationship with the Almighty. It may be said that without a covenant there can be no relationship with God.
There are many definitions of covenant used by theologians to describe this important idea. Each definition offers valuable insight into the concept of what a covenant is. The Hebrew word for covenant, b’rith, denotes “a legally binding obligation” (Tenny, p.1001). The obligation of the covenant was far reaching beyond simply the person who made the covenant with God. As one example, when God made his covenant with Abraham he not only bound Abraham to the covenant, but he also bound his offspring who were yet to be born (Genesis 17:10). “Clearly a b’rith is a legal kind of arrangement, a formal disposition of a binding nature. At the heart of a b’rith is an act of commitment and the customary oath-form of this commitment reveals the religious nature of the transaction. The b’rith arrangement is no mere secular contract but rather belongs to the sacred sphere of divine witness and enforcement” (Kline, accessed online 8/7/09).
Because the covenant is enacted by God we may infer that its nature is always permanent. “It denotes, therefore, an irrevocable decision, which cannot be cancelled by anyone” (Brown, p.365). God binds not just man through the covenant process, but he also binds himself. Man’s offspring are bound generation after generation but God has no such offspring in the same sense that man has multiple generations of offspring; therefore we can say that when God initiates a covenant relationship he does so with permanent intentions. “A covenant is an unchangeable, divinely imposed legal agreement between God and man that stipulates the conditions of their relationship” (Grudem, p.515).
Robertson’s definition of covenant may be best. “A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenant relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignly administered” (Robertson, p.4). It is this definition, which takes into account the process of “cutting” a covenant. “The phrase ‘to cut a covenant’ seems to arise from symbolical actions by which the parties concerned passed through ‘cut up’ corpses of animals…It implied, not an ‘extension of blood-brotherhood’ but rather a threat of similar dismemberment for the one who violated the agreement” (Tenney, p.1002). Additionally, the animals were not only dismembered as in the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:9-10), but it takes into account the blood that was shed in the covenant as a type for the blood shed by Christ. When God promised redemption for Adam and Eve he shed the blood of an animal in atonement for their sin (Genesis 3:21). When he covenanted with Noah sacrifices were also made (Genesis 8:20-21). These events foreshadowed the coming of Christ who initiated the New Covenant with his own blood (Luke 22:20).
The Basics of Covenant Fidelity
Keeping covenant fidelity is an act of the whole person, not simply a matter of outward behaviors. Deuteronomy, which is viewed as a covenant renewal document (Dillard and Longman, p.92), lays the groundwork for covenant fidelity in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God and with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might.” Elsewhere, keeping a covenant and loving God from the heart are inseparably linked by application, such as in the case of King Josiah of whom it is said he “made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book” (II Chronicles 34:31). Breaking the covenant takes into account more than outward behaviors. One may break the covenant in thoughts and feelings as well as outward actions (Exodus 20:17), though clearly the full weight of breaking the covenant comes through outward actions, which reflect the pre-existing condition of the heart and mind.
Unlike man, who can break the covenant, God is always faithful to his covenants. We see this declaration in several Old Testament examples where God “remembers” his covenant with a person and initiates action in faithful keeping with his side of the covenant. After the waters of the flood had receded God declared that he would look upon the rainbow he put in the clouds and by looking would remember his covenant with all living creatures (Genesis 9:13-17).
In declaring the curses of disobedience to the covenant, God stated in advance that after times of disciplining Israel that, “I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land” (Leviticus 26:42). Indeed, it was because God remembered his covenant with Abraham that he initiated actions to save Israel from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 2:24-25). God’s promise to keep a line of kingly succession in David’s family provides another example of his covenant faithfulness.
Therefore, keeping the covenant is directly related to more than simply keeping the details of the law, rather, it is related to keeping the law from the heart, from the very innermost desires of the person. This kind of expression is similar to a marriage in that the deepest commitment is the surrender of the heart from one person to another. It comes as no surprise then that marital language is used when describing man’s habit of breaking covenant with God. “For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant” (Psalm 78:37). “Can a virgin forget her ornaments, or a bride her attire? Yet My people have forgotten Me days without number” (Jeremiah 2:32). Herein we see that the relationship of covenant fidelity is both legal and relational. One keeps covenant with God by remaining faithful in the relationship, obeying God’s commands. So too the covenant bond may be violated relationally. As already stated, a covenant establishes the parameters of the relationship between God and man.
The Rewards of Covenant Fidelity
True covenant fidelity is heartfelt faithfulness to the terms of the covenant. With covenant fidelity comes blessings from God. In fact virtually all covenants have blessings that God would provide if one were faithful to the covenant. Blessings for covenant fidelity were provided in the covenant with Noah when God declared covenant protection for the earth and its inhabitants (Genesis 9:11). God also declared blessings of multiplication through the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 12:2-3; 15:1, 17:4-8). A comprehensive set of “blessings” for covenant faithfulness were provided in Deuteronomy 28:1-14. Even God’s covenant with David contained provisions for blessings (I Chronicles 17:8-15).
Interestingly the blessings of the covenants all seem to be predicated upon ideas of multiplication. The first notion of the blessing of multiplication is found under the Adamic administration: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). This provision was carried over to the covenant with Noah: “As for you, be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 9:7). Abraham also received the form of this blessing, though stated differently: “I will make you a great nation” (Genesis 12:2). After God declared to Abraham his blessing of “Your reward shall be very great,” the conversation turned immediately to Abraham’s offspring (Genesis 15:1-5). Under the Mosaic administration the blessings in Deuteronomy 28 for covenant faithfulness were also multiplication oriented. God promised blessings on offspring: man and beast (v.4) and barns (v.8), all three were repeated (v.11), and followed by a declaration of economic blessing (v.12). The Davidic covenant also contained a form of multiplication blessing when God mentioned David’s descendants (I Chronicles 17:11). Even the New Covenant under Christ uses the multiplication motif found in Christ’s command to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The blessing of multiplication is squarely intended to multiply people who will be part of the covenant community. The blessings are therefore only available to those who are under the covenant.
Man’s Inadequacy for Covenant Fidelity
It has already been noted that keeping and breaking a covenant is both a relational act as well as a legal one. God always keeps his covenant in relation to himself and to people under the covenant. God is, by nature, a covenant keeper. “When God says, ‘you must,’ he is not saying, ‘My will is dependent on your action.’ God does not say, ‘You must do this, and if you don’t, I won’t do what I’ve promised.’ God does not act like that. God is sovereign. God is going to do what he will do” (Boice, p.582). God does not go back on his promises because he cannot commit the act of covenant violation. It might be said that God cannot do this because he does not have the ability to violate his own nature. To do so would be to deny the eternality of his nature of truth. “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good” (Leviticus 23:19).
While it may be rightly said that God is always a covenant keeper, we can say with equal force that, by nature, man is a covenant breaker in both heart and action. Man’s proclivity toward covenant violation is profiled heavily in the scriptures. Moses warned Israel about breaking God’s law as an act of the heart when he said, “If your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant…” (Leviticus 26:15).
Solomon warned in his temple prayer that, “There is no man who does not sin” (I Kings 8:46). Solomon repeated this charge in Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” A detailed account of Israel’s covenant breaking is found in II Kings, which recounts the captivity of the northern kingdom. The chapter goes into lengthy detail as to why God gave Israel over to Assyrian captivity. “They rejected His statutes and His covenant which He made with their fathers and His warnings with which He warned them. And they followed vanity and became vain…They forsook all the commandments of the Lord their God” ( II Kings 17:15-16). “In his proclamation of judgment and doom upon the nation as a punishment for apostasy and willful sin, Jeremiah was reminding his reluctant and hostile hearers that they had consistently disregarded the obligations of the Sinai covenant. The moral and ethical nature of God demanded that his rights in the covenant agreement be observed” (Harrison, p.139).
Covenant breaking by forsaking the commandments of God (the Law) is also a theme for the Apostle Paul. In his discussion of the role of the Law in faith Paul declares, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The picture being painted by Paul, as well as Solomon is that man is a sinner by nature, one who habitually breaks covenant if left to his own devices. “Christ the ‘second man’ stepped forward, representing certain sinners who could not themselves keep the covenant…and as the ‘last Adam’ he kept (where Adam had not) all of the requirements of the covenant in their behalf by meeting both the preceptive and penal demands of the covenant of work” (Reymond, p.440).
Where man’s nature is inadequate for keeping the covenant on his own, Christ’s nature is more than adequate to the task. It is only because the Christian has within him the expression of God’s nature through the Holy Spirit that he is able to keep the covenant. This is part of God’s gift to us through the deposit of the Holy Spirit.
The Curses of Covenant Infidelity
Just as covenant keeping resulted in blessings to the obedient, so too covenant breaking resulted in curses upon the Israelites for their unfaithfulness. “The covenant with its stipulations opens up the possibility of transgression and sin, with the consequences of judgment and punishment” (Douglas, p.241). Following the close of the Pentateuch, much of the Old Testament reads like an account of those who broke covenant with God, worshipping idols and committing other acts of sin against God; but not only during the period after the close of Deuteronomy. Indeed, God declared to Adam that if he violated his command regarding the tree of knowledge of good and evil he would fall under the curse of death. “In this statement to Adam about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil there is a promise of punishment for disobedience—death, most fully understood to mean death in an extensive sense, physical, spiritual, and eternal death and separation from God” (Grudem, p.516). Once Adam and Eve had broken the covenant, God declared a series of curses against man and his environment (Genesis 3:14-19). Though God had formerly pronounced a sentence of death for sin, Adam and Eve were spared physical death as God slayed an animal on their behalf, satisfying the penalty of immediate physical death (Genesis 3:21).
“Moses had commenced warning the people that their breaking of the older b’rith could serve only to bring about terror and disaster (Lev. 26:15,16): ‘the vengeance of the covenant’ (v.25), or ‘the curses of the covenant’ (Deut. 29:21; cf. Isa. 24:5, Jer. 11:8). Indeed, almost the entire 800 year course of Israel’s existence as an independent nation in Canaan was marked by God’s continuous and increasingly severe judgments, a course that would terminate only with the destruction of Judah in 586 B.C. and, ultimately, with a superseding of the older testament altogether” (Tenney, p.1012).
It is under the administration of the Mosaic covenant that we see the greatest example of the price for covenant breaking. Following a long history of covenant offenses God finally rolled out his judgment upon Israel and Judah. The writer of II Kings uses what can be described as covenant language and references to justify God’s actions against the northern kingdom. “Now this came about because the sons of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up from the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and they had feared other gods” (II Kings 17:7). Notices the usage of the phrase, “Who brought them up out of the land of Egypt.” This directly correlates with Exodus 20:2, “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” This Exodus passage is the beginning of the covenant declaration in Exodus. The writer makes it clear that the reason for Israel’s exile was the violation of the Mosaic covenant. The curses of covenant infidelity had come upon them (Deuteronomy 28:36 cf. II Kings 17:18,23). These same curses had also come upon Judah (Ii Kings 17:19-20) though their exile happened later through the agency of Babylon.
God’s covenant with David also contained a curses provision, though certainly not as well defined as the previous covenants. The punishment provision in the covenant with David foresaw the disobedience of David’s son and consisted of a simple, “When he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men” (II Samuel 7:14).
Just as the theme of covenant faithfulness seems to include blessings of multiplication, so also the curses seem to carry a theme of exile or death—the very opposite of multiplication. Breaking the Adamic covenant resulted in exile from the garden (Genesis 3:23-24). The punishment in the Noahdic covenant was death (Genesis 9:5-6); but death might also be defined as a form of exile—exile from life. The curse of the Abrahamic covenant was pictured in the theophany passing between the divided animals, illustrating the punishment of dismemberment, in other words, death to the one who would break the covenant. Exile for the breaking of the Mosaic covenant has already been mentioned.
God Takes Responsibility for Covenant Fidelity
In order to be true the covenant it is important that all of the covenant terms be fulfilled. It is not simply the blessings that need fulfillment, but the curses must also be fulfilled. Once God declared curses under the covenant it was only logical that those curses be fulfilled since, by nature, man is a covenant breaker. “By initiating covenants, God never enters into a casual or informal relationship with man. Instead, the implications of his bonds extend to the ultimate issues of life and death” (Robertson, p.7-8). The curses needed fulfilling by man, so that fulfillment came through a man in Jesus Christ. He kept the terms of the covenant, including the curses heaped upon him at his arrest and crucifixion.
As we have already shown, God is by nature a covenant keeper—he always keeps his side of the covenant. But God’s keeping of the covenants goes far beyond simply being faithful to his side. It can be shown that God not only keeps his side, but he also took steps to fulfill man’s side of the covenant. “There is not the slightest suggestion to the effect that the covenant could be annulled by human unfaithfulness or its blessing forfeited by unbelief; the thought of breaking the covenant is inconceivable. The confirmation given is to the opposite effect. In a word, the promise is unconditional” (Murray, accessed online 8/7/09). This must apply not only to the covenant blessings, but to the covenant curses as well.
Though man is by nature a covenant breaker, God demonstrates his mercy and grace by fulfilling the terms of the human side of the covenant. “All that God has done savingly in grace since the revelation of the Abrahamic covenant is the result and product of it…everything that God has done since to the present moment he has done in order to fulfill his covenant to Abraham (and thus his eternal plan of redemption)” (Reymond, p.513). God does this in two ways. First, he took the punishment provisions of the covenants upon himself. Second, he fulfills the terms of the covenant previously assigned to man. He performed both of these through his Son, Jesus Christ. Since the portions of the covenant assigned to man needed fulfillment, it was only logical that it would be through a man, the perfect man, that the covenant requirements should be met. In other words, God takes the responsibility and the punishments of the covenants upon himself, upon our behalf, as if he were the covenant breaker. In virtually all of the covenants there is a hint or foreshadowing of the punishments that would be fulfilled in Christ.
Genesis 3:15 presents a picture of battle between the seed of the woman, who would be Christ, and Satan. God declares, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” This is the first indication in scripture that a Savior would come, and that that Savior would be injured. Just as God slayed an animal for Adam and Eve, so also we see a picture of the coming of Christ. God clothed Adam and Eve, covering their shame. Christ, it might be said, clothes our shame of sin through his blood.
Under the covenant with Noah we see an even more interesting picture that God would take the punishments for sins upon himself instead of making man suffer for his own sin. In the declaration of the second covenant God established a bow in the clouds as part of his promise not to again destroy the earth through a global flood. Many commentators have noted that when the bow appears it is at rest. It does not point down toward man. It indicated that God was at peace and his wrath had been fulfilled. However, this only paints half of the prophetic picture. The bow is not merely at rest, rather, it is pointing upward as if to target God. Herein is a picture that God would pay the penalty for shedding man’s blood (Genesis 9:6). Most interesting is the language used to describe this curse. The text does not say if man sheds man’s blood, instead it indicates whoever sheds man’s blood. This is not to claim that God was guilty of sin when he killed the earth’s population through the flood. Rather it is an indication that man would point his bow toward the Almighty. In Christ, God accepted this punishment. The curse of capital punishment fell upon him.
There is an even more dramatic picture of God fulfilling the terms of the covenant on man’s behalf in the story of Abraham. “As Genesis 15:17,18 dramatically puts it, God committed himself to the covenantal threat of self-dismemberment; and thus God saves ‘because of the blood of my b’rith’ (Zechariah 9:11)” (Tenney, p.1003). The notion of dismemberment should not be taken over-literally. We can find examples of covenant breaking where dismemberment was visited upon the covenant breaker, such as Jezebel (II Kings 9:33-37). However, the emphasis here is probably on death. If we view Genesis 15 prophetically then God intended to take responsibility for the death of the covenant breaker.
Jesus Christ is the one who fulfilled the punishment terms of the covenant with Abraham. While he was not dismembered, he did suffer death as if he were the covenant breaker. In this way we see that God not only fulfilled the terms of his side of the covenant, he also fulfilled the terms of man’s side of the covenant as both the seed that receives the blessings (Galatians 3:16) and the covenant violator who must be punished.
The covenant under Moses also contained provisions for punishment that required fulfillment. Man could not endure these by himself. Therefore, God stepped in to take them on the covenant breaker’s behalf. “…the peace of the covenant was to come through the infliction of the curses on the Redeemer-Servant, sacrificed for the sins of God’s people” (Kline, accessed online 8/7/09). Thus, the covenant keeper suffered on behalf of the covenant breaker.
The account of God’s covenant with David also features a small declaration of punishment. “I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men” (II Samuel 7:14). Certainly Jesus committed no sin, rather, he was made in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3) to be the one upon whom God’s wrath would be placed. He would, literally, suffer “the strokes of the sons of men” (II Samuel 7:14, cf. Isaiah 53:8, I Peter 2:24).
The exception to curses under covenants is only found in the new covenant under Christ. There are no curses pronounced under the new covenant because the new covenant provides for the curses to be wiped away through the blood of Christ. There can be no permanent punishment for sin where the blood of Christ has been applied. This does not mean that God does not disciple his children when they sin. Rather, it means that the punishment of eternal death is erased. There will be no exile from God for the believer because Christ suffered both death and being “cut off” (Matthew 27:46) through the redemptive work of the cross.
Taken together the covenants are a unity. The principles upon which God governs his relationship with man are the same from covenant to covenant. The terms of the covenant(s) are so important to God that he took it upon himself to fulfill all of the terms of the covenants, including the curses. It is therefore required of man that we also fulfill the terms of the covenant under Christ. In him we find the fulfillment of God’s promises. It is he whom we must imitate in covenant faithfulness.
Boice, James Montgomery. Genesis: A New Beginning. Baker Books, 1998.
Brown, Colin. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Zondervan Corporation, 1975, 1986.
Dillard, Raymond B. and Tremper Longman III. An Introduction to the Old Testament,. Zondervan Publishing, 1994.
Douglas, J.D. New Bible Dictionary. InterVarsity Press, 1982.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. InterVarsity Press and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
Harrison, R.K. Jeremiah & Lamentations. InterVarsity Press, 1973.
Kline, Meredith, ed. C.F. Pfeiffer and E.F. Harrison. Deuteronomy. Wycliffe Bible Commentary, by. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962. Accessed online www.covopc.org/Kline/Kline_on_Deuteronomy.html, 8/7/0