Friday, May 21, 2010

The Big Picture, Part I: The Covenants

For the last few days, I’ve been reading on Old Testament Theology (to prepare for my final exam in this course). Within his work on the Israelite kingship, evangelical theologian Bruce Waltke makes statements like the following:

“I AM will be his father [Solomon] and he will be God’s son (vv.14-15)---that is, God will discipline David’s son according to his son’s covenant fidelity (v.14), but I AM will never take his ‘hesed’ (“lovingkindness,” entailing His preserving Solomon’s kingdom and throne) away from him (v. 15). In other words, WHILE THE COVENANT IS UNCONDITIONAL, THE KING’S EXPERIENCE OF ITS BLESSINGS DEPENDS ON HIS OBEDIENCE TO THE MOSAIC COVENANT. The unconditional Davidic covenant is not a carte blanche to David’s descendants to do as they please without regard to the moral boundaries of the Ten Commandments" (Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, “An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach.” Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, page 661).

In his remarks on kingship in Deuteronomy, Waltke writes:

“His message regarding the land is that I AM UNCONDITIONALLY grants the patriarchs the land, but their descendants’ entrance into it and retention and enjoyment of it DEPEND ON THEIR KEEPING THE the heart of his covenant was Israel’s obligation to be totally loyal to Yahweh” (Waltke, 690).

What about Solomon’s downward path into sin?

“In his anger, He Who Shapes History by his Word first foretells and then tears away a substantial part of the kingdom from David’s dynasty (1 Kings 11:9-13). I AM preserves Judah as a lamp burning in Jerusalem---a lamp burned all night in wealthy homes---to keep his commitment to David, AND HE TAKES FROM HIM TEN OTHER TRIBES TO KEEP THE MOSAIC covenant (11:29-39)” (711).

The prophet Elisha’s miracles even confirm both the unconditional and conditional natures of the covenants:

“Elisha’s first two miracles confirm Israel’s covenants. The first miracle, involving salt, SPEAKS OF THEIR UNCONDITIONAL AND ETERNAL NATURE (2 Kings 2:19-22); the second, bringing judgment upon children, CONFIRMS THEIR CONDITIONAL ASPECT OF BLESSINGS AND CURSES (2:23-25)” (739).

Next comes Waltke’s discussion of covenant obligations and rewards:

“I AM’S UNCONDITIONAL COVENANT commitments to Israel, unlike the vagaries of human dedication, are steadfast, constant, and far-reaching. Nevertheless, the enjoyment of those covenants DEPENDS ON ISRAEL’S OBEDIENCE TO THE MOSAIC COVENANT (1 Kings 2:3). THAT OBEDIENCE IS ABOVE ALL A MATTER OF HEART, such as found in the matchless faith of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:5) and incomparable love of Josiah (2 Kings 23:25). Those virtues in the heart vouchsafe obedience to the covenant and its material blessings (2 Kings 18:5-8). On the other hand, THEIR SPIRITUAL LACK entails disobedience and the retribution of the covenant’s material curses: loss of the land (2 Kings 10:32) and even grisly cannibalism (Lev. 26:29; Deut. 28:52-57; 2 Kings 6:28-31; cf. Lam. 2:20; 4:10; Ezek. 5:10)” (743, 744).

One of the themes of Ruth is God’s “hesed,” or covenant faithfulness. Regarding God’s role in the book of Ruth, he writes:

“I AM’s (God) hesed to national Israel is UNCONDITIONAL, BUT IT IS CONDITIONAL TO THE INDIVIDUAL as signified by Boaz’s explanation, ‘May I AM repay you for what you have done’ (Ruth 2:12)” (863).

As has been shown from a few examples above, Waltke has done a remarkable job of emphasizing the unconditional and conditional natures (or aspects) of God’s covenants. God’s unconditional decision to protect and preserve Israel show’s God’s unfailing love; but the God of Love, the God of the Scriptures, will not operate without justice. In His eyes, love and justice go hand in hand: if one does not chastise, one does not love (Hebrews 12: 5-6; Proverbs 3:11-12).

Studying the Old Testament, in a way, sheds light on concepts and principles we find in the New Testament. One New Testament passage that confirms Waltke’s words on the Old Testament covenants is Romans 11. In it we find both unconditional and conditional natures to God’s covenant with his people. If you remember, the context regards Israel’s failure to obtain the righteousness of God, while the Gentiles obtain the righteousness of God by faith:

“And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God; on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, IF YOU CONTINUE IN HIS GOODNESS. OTHERWISE YOU ALSO WILL BE CUT OFF” (Romans 11:17-22, NKJV).

Paul responds to the Gentile claim “branches were broken off that I might be grafted in” (v.20) with the response that “do not be haughty, but fear...He may not spare you either” (v.21). The Gentiles themselves only stand in the goodness of God “by faith” (v.20), and if the Jews give up their unbelief, the Lord can bring them back (v.23). So we see the conditional nature of the Gentile nations (and the conditional nature of the Jews’ brokenness from the vine, v.17).

But then, in verses 25-29, we see the unconditional nature of God’s covenant with His people, the Jews:

“For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. AND SO ALL ISRAEL WILL BE SAVED, as it is written:
‘The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ Concerning the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but concerning the election they are beloved for the sake of the fathers. FOR THE GIFTS AND THE CALLING OF GOD ARE IRREVOCABLE” (Rom. 11:25-29).

Paul references Isaiah 59:20, 21 as proof that “all Israel will be saved” (v.26). This then, tells us that Israel will not be loss (contra the Gentile view). Paul reveals that God’s covenant with Israel is “unconditional”: she did nothing to place herself in it in the first place...rather, she was chosen by God, independent of any merit on her part (Deut. 7:6-8).

In verse 29, Paul says that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” which means that once God gives them, He does not “take them back.” Therefore, although Israel is currently in disbelief, because of God’s unconditional covenant with the nation, she will be given a chance to turn back to the Lord once more. God is not through with Israel just yet.

So here, we see both unconditional and conditional natures to God’s covenant with His people: while His covenant to the nation is UNCONDITIONAL, individual covenant partakers must follow certain CONDITIONS in order to remain under the covenant. With Israel and the Gentiles, the condition is faith; each individual must continue to believe.

In another post, I’ll discuss what Waltke’s view of covenant (and Romans 11) to see how this impacts the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Stay tuned...

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