COVENANT - PART 1
THE PROMISE DELAYED
Last week I spoke of the covenant that God gave to Noah as he was telling him of the conditions of the earth after the flood. Here again is what God said:
“Behold, I now establish My covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth—every living thing that came out of the ark. And I establish My covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between Me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set My rainbow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.
Whenever I form clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. And whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of every kind that is on the earth.”
So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and every creature on the earth.” (Genesis 9:9-17 BSB)
Covenants and Contracts
I am quite certain that you were not counting the times that God mentioned the word covenant in his instructions to Noah, but if you had been, you would have counted eight times. Notice that God does not use the word contract. What he spoke of was his covenant.
Actually, the word “contract” is not a word of the Old Testament. The word that is used for any kind of legal agreement in the Bible is “covenant.” But even given that fact, it is good to distinguish the difference in our understanding of these two concepts.
In our modern understanding of a contract, it is a legal agreement entered into by two parties to do or to not do something. There are penalties for breaking a contract, usually the payment of a predetermined amount of money. If one of the parties breaks his or her agreement in the contract, they will have to pay the penalty.
Breaking the contract is usually frowned upon, but this is not necessarily regarded as a moral failure. A contract assumes that the possibility could arise where one or the other could not fulfill their obligation. The penalties for this are written into the stipulations set by the contract. It is all within the legal agreement. A contract is an agreement based on the law.
A covenant however, carries more depth of meaning than does our understanding of a contract. Like a contract, a covenant is also an agreement that is made usually between two parties and which has penalties for breaching the agreement, but there is also an additional element that a contract does not assume. This additional element gives more serious ramifications to the breaking of the terms of a covenant than are with the breaking of a contract. With a covenant, besides a legal obligation, it also and especially carries a moral obligation with it.
With a contract, the possibility may arise where it becomes necessary to terminate the contract. Penalties are paid, and although the failure may be a disappointment to one or both parties, it is not necessarily regarded as a lapse of the moral character of the person.
Not so with a covenant. It is never considered morally acceptable to break a covenant. Even if one pays all penalties associated with the agreement, to break the terms of a covenant denotes a moral failure of the person. It is a breaking of an oath.
In a sentence, it could be said that the difference between the two lies in the fact that a covenant is an agreement that is based on love, rather than an agreement based solely on the law, as is a contract. It is the element of love that makes the covenant more binding than the contract.
A Single-party Covenant
I mentioned that a covenant is an agreement that is usually made between two parties, but there are also cases where there are single-party covenants. After the flood of Noah, God established a covenant with all of the creatures of the earth. His covenant was that there would never again be a flood of the same magnitude in which all life on earth would be destroyed. He signed the covenant with a rainbow.
There were no words or conditions in the covenant given to Noah, or to any creature of the earth. No one but God placed his or her signature to this covenant. It was a covenant that God entered into by his own volition without setting conditions on the other party.
Notice also in this covenant that there were no penalties stipulated in case of a breach of the conditions of the agreement. That is because this was a single-party covenant. Neither Noah nor any other creature of the earth had any obligations. This covenant was and is a promise of God who will not and cannot be unfaithful to his word. Thus, there was no need for stating of penalties for failure. God cannot fail.
Our God is the God of covenants. We may speak often of the promises of God, but when we see God making his promises, he very often seals this promise with a covenant. It is important to know some of these qualities of a covenant, because covenants become increasingly important as the plan of God for the ages continues to unfold.
The Nations Arise
In the many generations following Noah, the Bible briefly lists how the earth was populated and the various nations of peoples developed. Not every detail is given of course, but enough is told to us so that we can see that every nation of the earth now arose from the family of Noah, just as they had previously arose from Adam and Eve.
In those chapters, we also read of the tower of Babel, where the nations staged another rebellion of sorts against God. They banded together to build what amounted to an impressive and enormous monument to themselves in order to demonstrate the greatness of mankind, instead of the greatness and holiness of God.
God did not send another flood to annihilate them, but instead confused their tongues so that one group could not communicate with another. The nations were again scattered, despite the fact that it was the very thing that they were trying to avoid.
Then in Genesis chapter twelve, we are introduced to another man. It is from the story of the patriarch Abraham that we learn much about covenants. His introduction is quite suddenly, and without telling much of the background of the man. It is simply given like this:
Then the LORD said to Abram, “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 BSB)
From other Scriptures we eventually learn that Abraham was originally from the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldeans, which was one of the world’s earliest known developed societies and was located at the mouth of the Euphrates River on the Persian Gulf. We also learn that later and for unknown reasons, Abraham left Ur, along with his wife Sarai, who was later to be renamed “Sarah.” The couple was part of a small family migration that also included Abraham’s father and brother. They settled in Haran, which was another city far up country to the northwest, situated almost midway between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
It was while Abraham was in Haran that he received this call from God to leave the household of his father, and taking Sarah his wife, to travel to what was to him an unknown place. Coming also with the couple was their nephew Lot.
God directed Abraham south, into the land of the Canaanites, the very people who arose from the son of Ham, and whom Noah had cursed. When the small party of pilgrims arrived at the northern frontier of Canaan, to the Oak of Moreh at Shechem, the Lord again appeared to Abram and told him, “I will give this land to your offspring.”
But the time was not then, and as far as Abraham knew at that moment, God’s gift of the land did not actually apply to Abraham himself, but only to his children, or perhaps his later progeny. There was only one problem with this, Abraham and Sarah had no children, and the couple was already quite old, Abraham being 75 years old and his wife 65.
I said that there was only one problem with the promise of God, but there were actually two. As Abraham, Sarah and their household proceeded deeper into the land, a severe famine began to ravish the countryside. This land of God’s promise was not sustaining them.
Abraham decided to take his small band of travelers to the land of Egypt. This journey into Egypt was not in response to any word of the Lord, but was apparently Abraham’s own decision. In Egypt Abraham allowed his faith to falter.
Because of his wife Sarah’s great beauty, Abraham was afraid that if the Egyptians learned that Sarah was his wife, they would kill him so that Sarah could go to the Pharaoh. Fearing this, Abraham let it be known that Sarah was his sister, and not his wife. The result was that Pharaoh actually did take Sarah as part of his household because he did not know that she was Abraham’s wife. But Abraham was left alive. In addition to this, on account of Sarah, the Pharaoh treated Abraham well, giving to him great wealth in herds and flock of livestock, as well as servants and silver and gold
However, when Pharaoh learned of Abraham’s deceit and that Sarah was actually his wife, he expelled them all from his country. But even though they had been banished from the land, the Pharaoh had allowed them to take with them their substantial wealth and herds of animals.
Abraham returned to the land that God had promised. He was now a wealthy man, but it is important to see that his wealth was not attained legitimately. It had been gained outside of the promise of God, and the acquisition of this wealth had been based on deceit. So great in number were their herds that they had acquired in Egypt, that upon their return to the land of promise, Abraham and his nephew Lot found that they had to separate from one another so that there would be enough grazing for the animals.
God Renews His Promise
Nevertheless, it is as Paul wrote, “Let God be found true, though every man a liar” (Romans 3:4).
We hear of no word from the Lord to Abraham while he was in Egypt, but upon his return to the land that God had promised him, the Lord renews his promise. God speaks to Abraham: “Now lift up your eyes from the place where you are, and look to the north and south and east and west, for all the land that you see, I will give to you and your offspring forever.”
Was this the first time that Abraham learned that he was also included in the promise to receive the gift of the land? Perhaps. Before that time, the only words from God about the land that we have recorded were that he had given his promise to Abraham’s offspring, but nothing was said about Abraham himself.
God continued speaking of the blessings he was promising Abraham: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if one could count the dust of the earth, then your offspring could be counted. Get up and walk around the land, through its length and breadth, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14-17 BSB)
I do not know if the thought came to Abraham that perhaps their time and his actions in Egypt may have actually delayed God from answering this promise. All that we are told about the arrangement between the Pharaoh and Sarah was that Sarah was brought into the home of the Pharaoh. Whatever the situation actually was within that household where the Pharaoh kept a harem, at least from outside appearances, it would certainly seem that Sarah was one of the many women with whom the Pharaoh had physical intimacy (if I could put it that way).
Abraham must have known that God did not intend to fulfill his promise of an heir by having his wife bear the child of the Pharaoh! Indeed, we are not given details about the entire arrangement, but any child that would have been born even up to nine months after their departure from Egypt would have certainly be thought to be the Pharaoh’s own offspring, not that of Abraham. God decided to wait much longer than the minimum nine months.
The second promise concerned the land. In his first visit, the land had failed to sustain them. Now that had returned to Canaan from Egypt, they once more were trying to find grazing for their animals. He and his nephew Lot had to separate.
But here again, at this point of their stay in the land, the very reason that the land was not sustaining them was because Abraham had returned laden with herds and flocks of animals that he had acquired by illegitimate means. Abraham was wealthy, but the question must a least come up that if at this time this great wealth for him was the way that God intended to bless him. Perhaps also in this, Abraham did not allow God to bless him at the appropriate time because he had chosen to receive his blessings from the world.
Indeed, God was soon to prove him on this very point.
On the strength of the renewed promise that God again gave to Abraham, the patriarch again moved and next settled near the town of Hebron, near another grove of oak trees, the “Oaks of Mamre the Amorite.” There Abraham became powerful in the land. Now he was very wealthy and even had a small army of his own for protection. But he apparently lived at peace with the other inhabitants of the area, even sending 318 of his trained men to rescue Lot his nephew, along with some kings of the area who had also been captured, and whose cities had been plundered from an alliance of four outside kings.
It was when he returned that he was tested in this very question of wealth gained in a manner that God did not intend.
One of the kings whom Abraham had rescued was the king of Sodom. When Abraham had returned from rescuing the local kings and their people, he was met by this king of Sodom. The king wanted to give a great reward to Abraham, offering to him all the plunder that the foreign invaders had taken and which Abraham had recovered for the local kings.
Abraham refused, saying, “I have raised my hand to the LORD God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will not accept even a thread, or a strap of a sandal, or anything that belongs to you, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’” (Genesis 14:22-23 BSB)
Abraham was a different man than the Abraham who had put his wife in a dubious and probably immoral situation with the Pharaoh, and then accepted wealth as a reward.
The Promise Renewed
It was after these events that the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision. God told him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
But despite this third time hearing the promise of God, Abraham was downcast and discouraged. From his perspective, God had promised him two things. One of these was that Abraham was told that through his offspring, he would become a mighty nation. But as of yet, he and Sarah had no children at all of their own. Added to this was that with every tick of the biological clock, it seemed that this was becoming less and less likely.
The second promise was that of a land for this great nation that was supposed to begin with him. Certainly Abraham had become well established in this land, but it was far from what God had promised for him.
Abraham replied to God, “O Lord God, what can You give me, since I remain childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? Behold, You have given me no offspring, so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the LORD came to Abram, saying, “This one will not be your heir, but one who comes from your own body will be your heir.” And the LORD took him outside and said, “Now look to the heavens and count the stars, if you are able.” Then He told him, “So shall your offspring be.”
You will notice that there will be a part two to our examination of Abraham’s life. Even if I try to concentrate on only a single element of Abraham’s life, never have I been able to speak on the man and keep it to only a single sermon. Abraham was a complex person, and I have learned more from the examples of his life than I have most others in the Bible.
But I will end this sermon by putting this simple question to you: Seeing how Abraham actually delayed God from fulfilling his promise to him, is there some manner of living in your own life that is preventing God from blessing you at this time. Like Abraham, are you manipulating the world to try and receive the blessings of the world instead of waiting for the blessings from God?
I leave you with these verses from the book of James and from the Psalms, “Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer awaits the precious fruit of the soil—how patient he is for the fall and spring rains. You, too, be patient and strengthen your hearts, because the Lord’s coming is near.” James 5:7-8“Wait for the LORD; Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the LORD.” (Psalm 27:14)