The Calling of God

Lesson 7, Part 3


God's Covenant with Ancient Israel

God made promises in the form of covenants with ancient Israel.

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, 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).

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; Deuteronomy 28:1-14).

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).

“Then all the people answered together and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do’ ” (Exodus 19:8).

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).

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, 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).

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).

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).

“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).

“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).

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).

God's Relationship with Ancient Israel

God's invitation for a relationship sometimes extends beyond the personal level. He invited the whole nation of ancient Israel into a relationship with Him.

That association was based on a covenant that documented the promises, expectations and conditions important to the relationship.

Through Moses, God told the Israelites, “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; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a Holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

This relationship, to a certain extent, was patterned after the marriage covenant. But it was not in Israel’s heart to obey God. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told Israel, “Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel . . .” (Jeremiah 3:20). Earlier God had told Samuel, “. . . They have rejected Me, that I should not rule over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).

Notice God’s assessment of their rejection of Him as their God and Ruler.

“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider’ . . . They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of Israel, they have turned away backward” (Isaiah 1:2-4).

What was God’s response to this rejection? “. . . I raised My hand in an oath . . . that I would scatter them among the Gentiles and disperse them throughout the countries, because they had not executed My judgments, but despised My statutes, profaned My Sabbaths, and their eyes were fixed on their fathers’ idols” (Ezekiel 20:23-24).

Although the ancient Israelites rejected God and spurned His invitation for a relationship, He still deeply desires a relationship with human beings. Though God punished the Israelites, He has never completely rejected them or their descendants. Paul explains: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew” (Romans 11:1-2, New Revised Standard Version).

Paul continues: “. . . I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, ‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob’ ” (Romans 11:25-26, NRSV).

Paul concludes: “As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as [their] election [as people with whom God has established a special relationship] is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. Just as you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience, so they too have now become disobedient in order that they too may now receive mercy as a result of God’s mercy to you . . .” (Romans 11:28-31, New International Version).

Because of God’s great mercy He plans to bring the people of Israel to full repentance and, working through them, invite all other people into a similar relationship with Him.

God is faithful. He doesn’t give up on a relationship He establishes as long as there remains any hope for repentance and restoration of the parties involved.

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