What Is a Biblical Covenant?

What Is a Biblical Covenant?

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In the Old Testament the word covenant comes from the Hebrew berit. It means "'covenant; league; confederacy.' This word is most probably derived from an Akkadian root meaning 'to fetter'; it has parallels in Hittite, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Aramaic. Berit is used over 280 times and in all parts of the Old Testament" (W.E. Vine, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "Covenant").

God's covenants contain two especially important components: terms and duration. Although humans may reach covenants or other agreements through their own devices, God's covenants with people are usually unilateral. He alone determines the terms and conditions; humans choose whether to accept them.

For example, after God clearly defined the aspects of the covenant He was making with the nation of Israel, including the blessings for honoring it and the consequences for ignoring it (Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28-30), both parties—God and the people of Israel—accepted it.

Through this process God and Israel entered into a covenant relationship, a binding commitment to honor and fulfill their respective roles.

A second important concept for us to understand about God's covenant with Israel is its continuing relevance to our day. In reaffirming the covenant with the generation of Israelites who were poised to enter the Promised Land, Moses explained that they were doing this "that [God] may establish you today as a people for Himself, and that He may be God to you, just as He has spoken to you, and just as He has sworn to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant and this oath, not with you alone, but with him who stands here with us today before the LORD our God, as well as with him who is not here with us today" (Deuteronomy 29:13-15). The covenant clearly applied to Israel's descendants as well.

Understanding the continuing nature of the covenant, King David, on the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem, wrote: "Oh, give thanks to the LORD! Call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk of all His wondrous works! ... He is the LORD our God; His judgments are in all the earth. Remember His covenant always, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which He made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, to Israel for an everlasting covenant" (1 Chronicles 16:8-17).

Covenants are simply binding agreements between two or more parties. God Himself designed the covenant He made with Abraham and his descendants. When God makes a covenant, He will always perform what He has bound Himself to do.