God had always desired the happiness, prosperity, and peace of His people. The Sinai Covenant was designed to provide those benefits to previously-enslaved people, insignificant in world history at the time. The Law was flawless in its design--incorporating justice for the oppressed, encouraging health in the community, providing for forgiveness of covenant violations by the people, differentiating Israel from her neighbors (giving a sense of uniqueness), and fostering tight community values through religious festivals and celebration.
But the Law between God and man had one major weakness--us! The historical unfolding of humanity's failure to keep even our limited part of the bargain was well documented in the OT. The failure of the very institutions created to perpetuate covenant loyalty (i.e. civil leadership, the priesthood, prophetic schools, lay sages, family education) brought about the awesome consequences spelled out (and agreed to by Israel) in the Treaty: Captivity and Exile.
As the prophets--sent by YHWH to call His people back to the Law--consistently warned, begged, ridiculed, challenged Israel to 'seek the Lord while He may be found', they also began announcing the NEW covenant--a NEW way for YHWH to bless his people IN SPITE OF THEIR limitations.
Probably the most famous statement of this shift in God's program for Israel is in Jeremiah 31:
"The time is coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them," declares the LORD. 33 "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer 31.31ff)Notice a couple of elements in this:
This is staggering in its implications. This LOOKS LIKE a departure from the very criteria of what constitutes authentic messages from God. It looks like a departure from the Law of Moses (although that would be ENTIRELY acceptable for the Suzerain, but not for the vassal, and this passage represents YHWH's message, not Israel's.)
But let's ask the question--how far back can we trace this promise of a 'new covenant'? How far back can we see the elements of this new treaty or relationship between God and His precious people?
To look at this, we need actually to go FORWARD in time first, to see how the later prophets 'fleshed' this promise out. In other words, how did other passages in Jeremiah speak of this, and how did Post-Exilic prophets understand this?
- I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. 38 They will be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. (Jer 32.37ff)
- It is after the Return from Captivity.
- God will do SUBSTANTIAL "in-heart" work.
- It is called an 'everlasting covenant' and said to be in the FUTURE.
- The people will be loyal.
- Then the word of the LORD came to me: 5 "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Like these good figs, I regard as good the exiles from Judah, whom I sent away from this place to the land of the Babylonians. 6 My eyes will watch over them for their good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not tear them down; I will plant them and not uproot them. 7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart. (Jer 24.5)
- The time is sometime AFTER the Return.
- God will do SUBSTANTIAL in-heart work, even to the point of giving them a new heart: "a heart to know me".
- The people will return to God with 'all their heart'.
- "`My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children's children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the LORD make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.'"(Ezek 37.24)
- An eternal reign of "David" is connected with this!
- This is connected to the promises of the land to the Patriarchs.
- The covenant is YET future to Ezekiel (during the exile).
- This future covenant is called an 'everlasting covenant' (as in Jeremiah).
- "`This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. 60 Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. ... So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the LORD. "(Ezek 16.59)
- Israel had broken the old covenant.
- God will remember some OLDER covenant (during Israel's youth--the Patriarchal covenant).
- On the basic of this pre-Mosaic covenant, God will establish a FUTURE covenant.
- This future covenant is called an 'everlasting' covenant (as in Jeremiah).
- The establishment of this covenant is yet future.
- The future covenant also produces a knowledge of YHWH.
- "Therefore say: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.' 18 "They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. 19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.(Ezek 11.17)
- God will do some VERY SUBSTANTIAL in-heart work, including real heart-transplants!
- This will happen AFTER the Return.
- Not only do the people get new hearts, but God promises a 'new spirit' IN THEM as well!
- As a result of this inner change, God's people will actually follow God's will!
- "`For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.(Ezek 36.24ff)
- This will occur AFTER the Return.
- God will give his people the heart-transplant, from stone to flesh.
- He will put a "new spirit IN them".
- He also says that He will put "His Spirit" in them! (YHWH's Spirit was normally reserved ONLY for the leadership in Israel!).
- God will "move" His people to obedience (guaranteeing the covenant blessings!)
- God refers to the Patriarchal promise of the Land.
- I will no longer hide my face from them, for I will pour out my Spirit on the house of Israel, declares the Sovereign LORD."(Ezek 39.29)
Notice that the future scenario includes the 'pouring out of the Spirit'.
Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed. `And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. 30 I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 31 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 32 And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; (Joel 2)
- This phenomenon will occur LATER THAN the Return.
- It involves an 'outpouring of YHWH's Spirit' (as in Ezeky)
- The scope of the outpouring is ALL people--not just some leadership.
- It manifests itself as an advanced knowledge of God (i.e. prophetic insight)
Notice that the main problem was a "heart and will" issue.
Israel was supposed to take the Law of Moses and 'install it' into their hearts THEMSELVES. This shows up in both the instructions INSIDE the Law, and in the prophet's injunctions to do so as well.
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deut 6.6f)
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth. (Deut 11.18ff)
When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, 46 he said to them, "Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. 47 They are not just idle words for you -- they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess." (Deut 32.45ff).
"Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. 31 Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezek 18.30)
"Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. (Is 51.7)
The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. 31 The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip. (Ps 37.30)
8 I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart." (Ps 40.8)
But we still have the question of the relationship of the Patriarchal, Mosaic, and New Covenants--how are they related?
To see this we have to look at the pre-cursors to the announcement of the NEW covenant in Jeremiah, and its explication in the later prophets. We have to look for those common and distinguishing elements in early passages (even though the phrase 'new covenant' will not appear). Let's look at some of these now:
When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, 2 and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. 4 Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. 5 He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. (Deut 30).
- that the promise of a 'circumcised heart' occurs AFTER the covenant would be broken (e.g. 'dispersed', 'banished')
- that the promise is after a Return.
- that the promise is related to the Patriarchal promises--'the land that belonged to your fathers'.
- that the In-heart work applies to the whole population.
- that the In-heart work produces the love and fulfillment of that the Law demanded (cf. Romans 8.4)
Thus the major component of the New Covenant was already promised to those who would break the Old covenant!
These are the last words of David:..."Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part?
The LORD had promised David that one of his sons would enjoy an eternal kingdom and have a very special and close relationship with GOD:
"`The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. (2 Sam 7.12ff)
And in Isaiah 9.6, this Davidic figure is quite exalted in description, and the eternal aspect is mentioned explicitly:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The Davidic covenant was in NO WAY dependent on the Mosaic one (just as the Abrahamic one was not dependent on it either). [There was ONE very important connection, though; if David's sons did NOT obey the Law to the fullest, then they would be deposed (I Chr 28.6)...this points interestingly to the need for a 'perfect human' to fulfill this--one certainly matching the exalted portrayal in Is 9!]
Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David. 4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples. (Is 55.3)
Notice how the TWO are somehow flip sides of the same coin! The everlasting covenant with the people IS BOUND UP WITH the 'other side' of the everlasting covenant with David! The blessing of a non-mediated relationship with YHWH for the common folk is accompanied by the blessings of a Davidic leader unparalleled in wisdom, power, kindness, justice, and sensitivity! Such a future for His beloved Israel!
Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. 19 You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. 20 You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. (Micah 7.18f)
- So the Psalmist:He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations, 9 the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. 10 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: (Ps 105.8)
- And Jeremiah:This is what the LORD says: `If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed laws of heaven and earth, 26 then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.'" (Jer 33.25f)
What seems to emerge from this...
God made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, promising to give the land to his chosen posterity, and to bless the entire world through his posterity. Because Israel was in the line of Abraham, God chose them to establish a special Suzerain-Vassal conditional treaty (known as the Sinaitic/Mosaic covenant). Israel had the responsibility of loyalty to the Suzerain, but failed in their voluntary treaty commitments. The Suzerain sent many messengers (prophetic voices) to them, warning them of the consequences of betrayal and treason. But God had foreseen the failure of these descendants of Abraham, and began making other covenants with them that would be 'more secure' than the one based upon Israelite spirituality of the time. He established an everlasting covenant with David. He also blessed the Levites with an everlasting covenant of service (Jer 33.18). And as the days for the consequences of betrayal and disloyalty got closer (in the Exile), the prophets who warned of this legal judgment by the Suzerain ALSO spoke to the faithful of a NEW covenant, based on the promises to Abraham and to David, in which the limitations of the old one would be eliminated. In other words, the promise of the New, everlasting covenant was the hope of new and faithful hearts from YHWH for His people!........................................................................................
Thus the prophets, far from introducing 'new gods' or encouraging the people to disobey the Law, stood firmly in the center of the Abrahamic commitments and revelation. Even as they increasingly held out the hope of the New Covenant, they relentlessly confronted God's people with the urgent demands of the Mosaic law. Micah's famous passage pointed out the simplicity of the requirements: And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6.8), but even this was too difficult for people with deep-seated propensities to disloyalty [not much different from us, I might add], as Jeremiah lamented: Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jer 13.23)
For those who consistently confessed (and probably despaired of ) this failure (e.g. Nehemiah, Daniel), the hope of New Hearts must have been a source of deep encouragement and endurance.
But this was not a surprise to YHWH somehow...
He had told His precious ones in Deut that they would fail, and that He would do 'in heart' work in the future. And from the beginning He had promised another Moses, another servant, another messenger in the future:The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. ... 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. 19 If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account. (Deut 18.15ff)and at the close of the OT, in the book of Malachi, YHWH proclaims that this messenger (now the very Angel of YHWH Himself!) will come to fulfill this:"See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3.1)YHWH would come to His people, and the messenger/Angel of this new Covenant--desired wholeheartedly by Israel-- would come to His dwelling place to take up residence among the descendants of Abraham.
The implications of this discussion on the issue of canonicity boils down to this: