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God's Covenant with Ancient Israel

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God made other promises recorded in the Bible. Often He gave them in the form of covenants. A covenant is an agreement, compact or contract between two or more parties. In the Bible, however, the term implies more of a formal treaty like commitment to a relationship. In the covenants God initiates, no negotiation of terms is allowed. God defines all of the conditions. The people could only accept or decline God’s offer. They had no say in determining the framework of the covenant.

It should be obvious why God’s covenants could not be negotiated agreements between equal parties. God is the Creator, and we are His creation. Our well-being is dependent on His love and favor. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines the theological use of covenant as “an agreement which brings about a relationship of commitment between God and his people.”

One of the most important covenants God made was with the Israelites, Abraham’s descendants through his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (renamed Israel). The apostle Paul says of them: “They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah” (Romans 9:4-5 Romans 9:4-5 4 Who are Israelites; to whom pertains the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; 5 Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.
American King James Version×
, New American Bible).

Writing to gentiles in Ephesus, how did Paul describe the covenants between God and Israel?

“. . . At that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12 Ephesians 2:12That at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
American King James Version×
).

Note that Paul calls them “the covenants of promise.” Through them God offered great promises and blessings to the Israelites. If they obeyed, God promised to make of them a great nation and to protect, prosper and provide for them (Leviticus 26:3-13 Leviticus 26:3-13 3 If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; 4 Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. 5 And your threshing shall reach to the vintage, and the vintage shall reach to the sowing time: and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. 6 And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. 7 And you shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. 8 And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. 9 For I will have respect to you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you. 10 And you shall eat old store, and bring forth the old because of the new. 11 And I set my tabernacle among you: and my soul shall not abhor you. 12 And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. 13 I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves; and I have broken the bands of your yoke, and made you go upright.
American King James Version×
; Deuteronomy 28:1-14 Deuteronomy 28:1-14 1 And it shall come to pass, if you shall listen diligently to the voice of the LORD your God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command you this day, that the LORD your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth: 2 And all these blessings shall come on you, and overtake you, if you shall listen to the voice of the LORD your God. 3 Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. 4 Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep. 5 Blessed shall be your basket and your store. 6 Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. 7 The LORD shall cause your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before your face: they shall come out against you one way, and flee before you seven ways. 8 The LORD shall command the blessing on you in your storehouses, and in all that you set your hand to; and he shall bless you in the land which the LORD your God gives you. 9 The LORD shall establish you an holy people to himself, as he has sworn to you, if you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, and walk in his ways. 10 And all people of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD; and they shall be afraid of you. 11 And the LORD shall make you plenteous in goods, in the fruit of your body, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your ground, in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you. 12 The LORD shall open to you his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain to your land in his season, and to bless all the work of your hand: and you shall lend to many nations, and you shall not borrow. 13 And the LORD shall make you the head, and not the tail; and you shall be above only, and you shall not be beneath; if that you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day, to observe and to do them: 14 And you shall not go aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
American King James Version×
).

What were the terms of God’s covenant with ancient Israel?

“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people . . .” (Exodus 19:5 Exodus 19:5Now therefore, if you will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then you shall be a peculiar treasure to me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
American King James Version×
).

“Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exodus 19:8 Exodus 19:8And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD has spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people to the LORD.
American King James Version×
).

The Israelites agreed to God’s terms, and He confirmed His commitment to them. “. . . This is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’ ” (Jeremiah 7:23 Jeremiah 7:23But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people: and walk you in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well to you.
American King James Version×
).

What did God say would happen if the Israelites failed to live up to their obligations under the covenant?

“But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant . . . I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases and fever that will destroy your sight and drain away your life. You will plant seed in vain, because your enemies will eat it. I will set my face against you so that you will be defeated by your enemies; those who hate you will rule over you, and you will flee even when no one is pursuing you. If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over” (Leviticus 26:14-18 Leviticus 26:14-18 14 But if you will not listen to me, and will not do all these commandments; 15 And if you shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that you will not do all my commandments, but that you break my covenant: 16 I also will do this to you; I will even appoint over you terror, consumption, and the burning ague, that shall consume the eyes, and cause sorrow of heart: and you shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. 17 And I will set my face against you, and you shall be slain before your enemies: they that hate you shall reign over you; and you shall flee when none pursues you. 18 And if you will not yet for all this listen to me, then I will punish you seven times more for your sins.
American King James Version×
, New International Version).

Most covenants include and define the duties and responsibilities each party is expected to perform. As with the covenant God made with Abraham, the covenant God made with Israel contained conditions, duties and obligations. The people’s acceptance of those conditions cemented their relationship with God. But their later disobedience cut them off from the blessings God had promised.

Did God promise to make a new covenant between Himself and Israel?

“ ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when 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, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them,’ says the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:31-32 Jeremiah 31:31-32 31 Behold, the days come, said the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: 32 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 broke, although I was an husband to them, said the LORD:
American King James Version×
).

What was the flaw in the first covenant between God and Israel?

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: ‘Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ ” (Hebrews 8:7-8 Hebrews 8:7-8 7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. 8 For finding fault with them, he said, Behold, the days come, said the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
American King James Version×
).

Israel violated its covenant with God. The fault in that covenant relationship was with the people , not with the covenant . God fulfilled His part. The Israelites simply failed to live up to the commitments they had made to God.

How and why did the Israelites fail to fulfill their obligations under the covenant?

“They did not keep the covenant of God; they refused to walk in His law, and forgot His works and His wonders that He had shown them” (Psalms 78:10-11 Psalms 78:10-11 10 They kept not the covenant of God, and refused to walk in his law; 11 And forgot his works, and his wonders that he had showed them.
American King James Version×
).

“And may [they] not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation that did not set its heart aright, and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Psalms 78:8 Psalms 78:8And might not be as their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation; a generation that set not their heart aright, and whose spirit was not steadfast with God.
American King James Version×
).

“Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments, that it might be well with them and with their children forever!” (Deuteronomy 5:29 Deuteronomy 5:29O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!
American King James Version×
).

By disobeying God—flouting His laws—Israel violated the terms of the covenant. The Israelites simply did not have a desire, commitment or willingness to follow God’s ways and instructions. They did what comes naturally for mankind, which is to disobey God and hate His law (Romans 8:7 Romans 8:7Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
American King James Version×
).

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