THE OLD COVENANT
God has always dealt with humanity by way of covenant. The Catechism for Young Children teaches that a covenant is “an agreement between two or more persons” (Q. & A. 22). Covenant is often compared to contract, treaty, or alliance.
Many theologians downplay the contractual aspect of the Biblical covenants. They prefer to think of a covenant as a testament rather than as a bargain. In other words, like a “last will and testament,” the blessings of the covenant are bequeathed as free gifts. Thus O. Palmer Robertson calls covenant “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” Similarly, John Murray defines it as “a sovereign administration of grace and of promise.”2
Even a gracious covenant, however, calls for a response on the part of God’s people. For this reason, Robert Davidson says that covenant is “a relationship rooted in God’s initiative, in what he has done for the people, but it looks for a response from the people.” The classic covenant theologian Herman Witsius (1636–1708) also highlights man’s responsibility to respond to God’s grace: “A covenant of God with man, is an agreement between God and man, about the way of obtaining consummate happiness; including a commination of eternal destruction, with which the contemner of the happiness, offered in that way, is to be punished.”4 Perhaps a shorter definition is possible: A Biblical covenant is a binding relationship of eternal consequence in which God promises to bless and his people promise to obey.
The history of God’s people is a story of covenants. In the covenant of works, Adam was bound to obey God perfectly. For his part, God promised to reward Adam with life if he obeyed and threatened to punish Adam with death if he disobeyed (Genesis 2:16–17). God made a covenant of safety with Noah and every living creature (Genesis 9:8–17). The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant promise that he will never again destroy the world with a flood.
God made a covenant of destiny with Abraham (Genesis 12:1–3; 15:1–21; 17:1–27). He promised to give him a land populated with descendants as numerous as the stars (15:5). God said, “This is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.… I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you” (17:4, 7). He also promised that through Abraham’s offspring all nations on earth will be blessed (22:18; cf. 12:3). For his part, Abraham was bound to obey God by circumcising every male in his household (17:9–14). Every one of these covenants was a personal bond in which God promised to bless and his people promised to obey.
In Jeremiah 31 God refers to “the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt” (v. 32a). For Jeremiah, therefore, the Old Covenant meant the covenant God made with his people at Mount Sinai. The Mosaic Covenant was for a people already saved by grace. “God spoke all these words: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ ” (Exodus 20:1–2). Once they were saved, God’s people had to keep God’s covenant in order to receive God’s blessing. They had to worship God alone, keep the Sabbath holy, preserve the sanctity of human life, tell the truth, and obey the rest of the Ten Commandments (vv. 3–17). The Mosaic Covenant was a good and gracious covenant.
THE BROKEN COVENANT
There was only one problem with the Old Covenant—sin. The covenant was broken even before it could be ratified. By the time Moses came down from the mountain, the people had cast a golden idol in the shape of a calf. “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).
So God reissued the covenant (Exodus 34), only to see his people break it all over again. The history of the Old Testament is one of idolatry, immorality, discontent, and disobedience. According to the Old Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad, “The reason why a new covenant is to ensue on the old is not that the regulations revealed in the latter have proved inadequate, but that the covenant has been broken, because Israel has refused to obey it.” J. A. Thompson goes one step further: “They had not merely refused to obey the law or to acknowledge Yahweh’s complete and sole sovereignty, but were incapable of such obedience.”6
Jeremiah rightly identified sin as the problem with the Old Covenant: “ ‘They broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the LORD” (31:32b). Robertson explains that here “Jeremiah does not condemn the old covenant. He condemns Israel for breaking the covenant.” And not just breaking it! The first twenty-eight chapters of Jeremiah are an exhaustive record of how Judah shattered the covenant and ground the fragments into dust.
The shocking thing was that this agreement was actually a marriage covenant. More than once Jeremiah stated that God was like a husband to his people. But the day finally came when the Almighty filed for divorce. Israel “fell out of love” and committed spiritual adultery “on every high hill and under every spreading tree” (2:20b). She stood up in court to deny the charges, but God made them stick. His virgin bride had become a spiritual whore.
Here is the real shocker, however: If every sin is an act of covenant-breaking, then every sinner is a covenant-breaker. Every time you sin, you are being unfaithful in your marriage to God. That is why sin is so tawdry, cheap, and degrading. As the Apostle Paul so carefully explained, there is nothing wrong with the Law, the commandment, or the Old Covenant (Romans 7:7–13). The problem is with us. We are covenant-breakers by nature.
Failure to keep the covenant brings a curse (cf. Jeremiah 11:8, 10–11). Jeremiah cited the conventional wisdom of his day: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (31:29b). This must have been a popular saying because the prophet Ezekiel quoted it as well (Ezekiel 18:2). It is a memorable proverb. When a father bites into an unripe grape, the lips of his children pucker in disgust. This refers to the curse of the Old Covenant, in which God threatened to “punish the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 20:5).
How the people of Judah resented that curse! “While in exile the people concluded out of self-pity and fatalistic despair that they were being punished unjustly for sins of previous generations.” They felt sorry for themselves. The sour grapes their fathers ate left a bitter taste in their mouths. Why should they suffer for the spiritual adultery of their parents?
What the prophet Jeremiah taught them, however, was that they deserved God’s curse for their own sins as well as for those of their parents: “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge” (31:29–30). Corporately or individually, everyone who breaks covenant is under God’s curse.
Ryken, P. G. (2001). Jeremiah and Lamentations: from sorrow to hope (pp. 464–468). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.