A “covenant” is a sovereign pronouncement of God by which He establishes a relationship of responsibility (1) between Himself and an individual (e.g., Adam in the Edenic Covenant, Gen. 2:15-17); (2) between Himself and mankind in general (e.g., in the promise of the Noahic Covenant never again to destroy all flesh with a flood, Gen. 9:9 ff.); (3) between Himself and a nation (e.g., Israel in the Mosaic Covenant, Ex. 19:3 ff.); or (4) between Himself and a specific human family (e.g., the house of David in the promise of a kingly line in perpetuity through the Davidic Covenant, 2 Sam. 7:16 ff.).
A covenant of one category may overlap others: that is, the Davidic Covenant, where a continuing kingly house is promised with ultimate blessing, not only to David but also to the whole world in the reign of Jesus Christ.
The covenants are normally unconditional in the sense that God obligates Himself in grace, by the unrestricted declaration, “I will”, to accomplish certain announced purposes, despite any failure on the part of the person or people with whom He covenants. The human response to the divinely announced purpose is always important, leading as it does to blessing for obedience and discipline for disobedience. But human failure is never permitted to block its ultimate fulfillment.
In the case of the Mosaic Covenant, the fulfillment of all the promises was made conditional upon Israel’s obedience, as implied by the words, “…if you will obey … then you shall be…” followed by “…all the people answered… All that the Lord has spoken we will do” – Ex. 19:5, 8.
The three universal and general covenants are: the Adamic, the Noahic, and the Edenic – in that the whole race is represented as present in Adam in his failure. All the other covenants are made with Israel or Israelites and apply primarily to them, although with ultimate blessing to the whole world.
There are eight major covenants of special significance in explaining the outworking of God’s purposes with man. They are: the Edenic (Gen. 2:15-17); the Adamic (Gen. 3:15); the Noahic (Gen. 9:16); the Abrahamic (Gen. 12:2); the Mosaic (Ex. 19:5); the Palestinian (Deut. 30:3); the Davidic (2 Sam. 7:16); and the New Covenant (Heb. 8:8).
The Edenic Covenant required the following responsibilities of Adam (Genesis 1:28-29; 2:17):
(1) to propagate/populate the human race;
(2) to subdue (bring under control) the earth for man;
(3) to have dominion/rule over the animal creation;
(4) to care for the garden and eat its fruits and herbs; and
(5) to abstain from eating of one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on penalty of death for disobeying.
The Adamic Covenant conditions the life of fallen man (Gen. 3:14-19) – conditions which must remain until, in the kingdom (Millennial) age, “the creation itself also shall be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). The elements of the covenant are:
(1) The serpent, Satan’s tool, is cursed (Gen. 3:14; Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 11:3, 14; Rev. 12:9) and becomes God’s graphic warning in nature of the effects of sin – from the most beautiful and subtle/crafty of creatures to a loathsome reptile. The deepest mystery of the cross of Christ is strikingly pictured by the serpent of bronze, a type of Christ “made sin for us” in bearing the judgment we deserved (Num. 21:5-9; Jn. 3:14-15; 2 Cor. 5:21).
(2) The first promise of a Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). Immanuel-Christ (Isa. 7:10-14; Matt. 1:1, 20-23; Jn. 12:31-33; 1 Jn. 3:8).
(3) The changed state of the woman in three particulars: multiplied pain in pregnancy, pain in giving birth to children, and the headship of the man in marriage (Gen. 3:16). Sin’s disorder makes necessary a headship; it is vested in man (Eph. 5:22-25; 1 Cor. 11:7-9; 1 Tim. 2:11-14).
(4) The light occupation of Eden (Gen. 2:15) is changed to burdensome labor (Gen. 3:18-19) because of the earth’s being cursed (Gen. 3:17).
(5) The brevity of life and the tragic certainty of physical death to Adam and all his descendants (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 5:12-21).
The Noahic Covenant (Gen. 9:1-17) reaffirms the conditions of life of fallen man as announced by the Adamic Covenant, and institutes the principle of human government to curb the outbreak of sin, since the threat of divine judgment in the form of another flood has been removed. The elements of the covenant are:
(1) Man is responsible to protect the sanctity of human life by orderly rule over the individual man, even to capital punishment (Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:1-7).
(2) No additional curse is placed upon the ground, nor is man to fear another universal flood (Gen. 8:21; 9:11-16).
(3) The order of nature is confirmed (Gen. 8:22; 9:2).
(4) The flesh of animals is added to man’s diet (Gen. 9:3-4). Presumably man had been a vegetarian prior to the flood.
(5) A prophetic declaration is made that Shem will have a peculiar relation to the Lord (Gen. 9:26-27). All divine revelation is through Semitic men and Christ (descendants from Shem).
(6) A prophetic declaration is made that descendants of Canaan, one of Ham’s sons, will be servants to their brethren (Gen. 9:25-26).
(7) A prophetic declaration is made that from Japheth will descend the enlarged races (Gen. 9:27). Government, science, and art speaking broadly are and have been Japhetic, so that history is the indisputable record of the exact fulfillment of these declarations.
The Abrahamic Covenant as formed (Gen. 12:1-4) and confirmed (Gen. 13:14-17; 15:1-7, 18-21; 17:1-8) is in three aspects:
(1) The promise of a great nation:
“I will make of you a great nation (Gen. 12:2). This had primary reference to Israel, the descendants of Jacob, to whom the everlasting possession of the land is promised (Gen. 17:8), to whom the everlasting covenant is given (Gen. 17:7), and to whom God said, “I will be their God” (Gen. 17:8).
Abraham was also promised that he would father other nations (Gen. 17:6, 20), principally fulfilled through Ishmael and Esau.
(2) Four personal promises are given to Abraham:
(a) to be the father of numerous descendants (Gen. 17:16);
(b) to receive personal blessing, “I will bless you” fulfilled in two ways: temporally (Gen. 13:14-15, 17; 15:18; 24:34-35), and spiritually (Gen. 15:6; Jn. 8:56);
(c) to receive personal honor, “and make your name great” (Gen. 12:2), fulfilled in recognition by all who honor the Bible;
(d) and fourth, to be the channel of blessing (Gen. 12:2), fulfilled: in blessings to others through his seed, Israel, who became the instrument of divine revelation; through Abraham as an example of pious faith (Rom. 4:1-22); and pre-eminently through Christ, Abraham’s Seed (Gal. 3:16).
(3) Promises to Gentiles:
(a) “I will bless them that bless you” (Gen. 12:3). Those who honor Abraham will be blessed;
(b) “And curse him that curses you” (Gen. 12:3). This was a warning literally fulfilled in the history of Israel’s persecutions. It has invariably fared ill with the people who have persecuted the Jew and fared well with those who have protected him. For a nation to commit the sin of anti-Semitism brings inevitable judgment. The future will still more remarkably prove this principle (Deut. 30:7; Isa. 14:1-2; Joel 3:1-8; Micah 5:7-9; Hag. 2:22; Zech. 14:1-3; Matt. 25:40, 45);
(c) And lastly, “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This is the great evangelistic promise fulfilled in Abraham’s Seed, Christ, and in all the spiritual seed of Abraham, who, like Abraham, are justified by faith (Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6-9, 16, 29; Jn. 8:56-58). It gives added revelation and confirmation of the promise of the Adamic Covenant concerning the Seed of the woman.
The Abrahamic Covenant reveals the sovereign purpose of God to fulfill through Abraham His program for Israel, and to provide in Christ the Savior for all who believe. The ultimate fulfillment is made to rest upon the divine promise and the power of God rather than upon human faithfulness.
The Mosaic Covenant (Ex. 19:3, 5; 20 – 30, 34) is given “to Israel” in three divisions, each essential to the others and together forming the Mosaic Covenant: the commandments, judgments/ordinances, and statutes/decrees. Together they form the moral, social, and religious life of Israel. These three elements form the “law”, as that expression is generally used in the New Testament (Matt. 5:17-18). The commandments were a “ministry of condemnation” and “of death” (2 Cor. 3:7-9); the statutes gave, in the high priest, a representative of the people with the Lord; and in the sacrifices a cover for their sins in anticipation of the cross (Heb. 5:1-3; 9:6-9; Rom. 3:25-26). The Christian is not under the conditional Mosaic Covenant of works, the law, but under the unconditional New Covenant of grace (Rom. 3:21-27; 6:14-15, Gal. 2:16; 3:10-14, 16-18, 24-26; 4:21-31; Heb. 10:11-17). The law did not change the provision of the Abrahamic Covenant but was an added thing for a limited time only – until the Seed should come (Gal. 3:17-19). The Mosaic Covenant was made “with Israel” in pursuance and fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (Ex. 2:24; 3:16; 6:4-8; Psa. 105:8-12, 42-45; 106:45).
The Palestinian Covenant (Deut. 30:1-9) gives the conditions under which Israel entered the land of promise. It is important to see that the nation has never as yet taken the land, under the unconditional Abrahamic Covenant, nor has it ever possessed the whole land. (Gen. 15:18 with Num. 34:1-12). The Palestinian Covenant is in seven parts:
(1) dispersion for disobedience (Deut. 30:1; 28:63-68).
(2) the future repentance of Israel while in the dispersion (Deut. 30:2).
(3) the return of the Lord (Deut. 30:3; Amos 9:9-15; Acts 15:14-17).
(4) restoration to the land (Deut. 30:5; Isa. 11:11-12; Jer. 23:3-8; Ezek. 37:21-25).
(5) national conversion (Deut. 30:6; Hos. 2:14-16; Rom. 11:26-27).
(6) the judgment of Israel’s oppressors (Deut. 30:7; Isa. 14:1-2; Joel 3:1-8; Matt. 25:31-46).
(7) national prosperity (Deut. 30:9; Amos 9:11-15).
The Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:8-17) upon which the future kingdom of Christ (of the seed of David according to the flesh, Rom. 1:3) was to be founded, provided for David:
(1) the promise of posterity in the Davidic house.
(2) a throne symbolic of royal authority.
(3) a kingdom, or rule on earth.
(4) certainty of fulfillment, for the promise to David “shall be established forever”.
Solomon, whose birth God predicted (2 Sam. 7:12) was not promised a perpetual seed, but only assured that:
(1) he would build “a house for my name” (2 Sam. 12:13);
(2) his kingdom would be established (2 Sam. 7:12);
(3) his throne (royal authority) would endure forever;
(4) if Solomon sinned, he would be chastised but not deposed.
The continuance of Solomon’s throne, but not Solomon’s seed, shows the accuracy of the prediction. Israel had nine dynasties; Judah had one. Christ was born of Mary, who was not of Solomon’s line (Jer. 22:28-30); Christ was a descendant of Nathan, another son of David (Lk. 3:23-31). Joseph, the husband of Mary, was descended from Solomon and through him the throne legally passed to Christ (Matt. 1:6, 16). Thus the throne, but not the seed, came through Solomon, which is in precise fulfillment of the Lord’s promise to David.
In contrast with the irrevocable promise of perpetual fulfillment made to David, Solomon illustrates the conditional character of the Davidic Covenant as applied to the kings who followed him. Disobedience on the part of David’s descendants would result in chastisement, but not in annulment of the covenant (2 Sam. 7:15; Psa. 89:20-37; Isa. 54:3, 8, 10). So chastisement fell, first in the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam, and finally in the captivities (2 Ki. 25:1-21). Since that time only one king of the Davidic family has been crowned at Jerusalem, and He was crowned with thorns. But the Davidic Covenant, given to David by the oath of the Lord and confirmed to Mary by the angel Gabriel, is immutable (Psa. 89:20-37); and the Lord will yet give to that Christ “the throne of His father David” (Lk. 1:31-33; Acts 2:29-32; 15:14-17). Both David and Solomon understood the promise to refer to a literal earthly kingdom (2 Sam. 7:18-29; 2 Chron. 6:14-16).
The New Covenant (Heb. 8:7-13):
(1) is better than the Mosaic Covenant (Ex. 19:5), not morally but efficaciously (Heb. 7:19; Rom. 8:3-4);
(2) is established upon better – unconditional – promises. In the Mosaic Covenant God said., “If you will” (Ex. 19:5); in the New Covenant He says, “I will” (Heb. 8:10-12);
(3) under the Mosaic Covenant obedience sprang from fear (Heb. 2:2; 12:25-27); under the New it issues from a willing heart and mind (Heb. 8:10);
(4) secures the personal revelation of the Lord to every believer (Heb. 8:11).
(5) assures the complete oblivion of sins (Heb. 8:12; 10:17, 3).
(6) rests upon an accomplished redemption (Matt. 26:27-28; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 9:11-12, 18-23). Bear in mind, that the same Greek word is rendered both as “testament” and as “covenant” in the New Testament.
(7) secures the perpetuity, future conversion, and blessing of a repentant Israel, with whom the New Covenant will yet be ratified (Heb. 10:9; Jer. 31:31-40).
The New Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 5, 7, 15, 19, 95, 251, 365.
The eight “covenants” summary:
(1) Edenic (Gen. 2:15-17; 1:28-29) conditions the life of mankind in innocence.
(2) Adamic (Gen. 3:15-19) conditions the life of fallen mankind and gives promise of a Redeemer.
(3) Noahic (Gen. 9:3-27) establishes the principle of human government.
(4) Abrahamic (Gen. 12:2-3) founds the nation of Israel and confirms, with specific additions, the Adamic promise of redemption.
(5) Mosaic (Ex. 19:5) condemns all men, “for all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23; 5:12).
(6) Palestinian (Deut. 30:1-9) secures the final restoration and conversion of Israel.
(7) Davidic (2 Sam. 7:8-17) establishes the perpetuity of the Davidic family (fulfilled in Christ, Matt. 1:1; Lk. 1:31-33; Rom. 1:3), and of the Davidic kingdom over Israel and over the whole earth, to be fulfilled in and by Christ (2 Sam. 7:8-17; Zech. 12:8; Lk. 1:31-33; Acts 15:14-17; 1 Cor. 15:24).
(8) New (Heb. 8:8-12) rests upon the sacrifice of Christ and secures the eternal blessedness, under the Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:13-29), of all who believe. It is absolutely unconditional and, since no responsibility is by it committed to man, it is final and irreversible.
The relation of Christ to the eight covenants is as follows:
(1) to the Edenic Covenant, Christ, as the “second man” and the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45-47), takes the place over all things which the first Adam lost (Col. 2:10; Heb. 2:7-9).
(2) to the Adamic Covenant, Christ is the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15; Jn. 12:31; Gal. 4:4; 1 Jn. 3:8; Rev. 20:10), and fulfilled its conditions of toil (Mk. 6:3) and obedience (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8).
(3) to the Noahic Covenant, Christ was the greatest Son of Shem, in Him was fulfilled the promise to Shem (Gen. 9:16).
(4) to the Abrahamic Covenant, Christ is the Seed to whom the promises were made, the Son of Abraham obedient unto death (Gen. 22:18; Gal. 3:16; Phil. 2:8).
(5) to the Mosaic Covenant, Christ lived sinlessly under it and bore for us its curse (Gal. 3:10-13).
(6) to the Palestinian Covenant, Christ lived obediently as a Jew in the land, and will yet perform its gracious promises (Deut. 28:1 – 30:9).
(7) to the Davidic Covenant, Christ is the Seed, Heir, and King (Matt. 1:1; Lk. 1:31-33).
(8) to the New Covenant, Christ’s sacrifice is its foundation (Matt. 26:28; 1 Cor. 11:25).
The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 1317.
“A biblical covenant is a clear statement of God’s purposes and intentions expressed in terms that bind God by solemn oath to perform what He has promised.”
Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, p. 194.
“The human response to the divinely announced purpose is always important, leading as it does to blessing for obedience and discipline for disobedience. But human failure is never permitted to abrogate the covenant or block its ultimate fulfillment.”
The New Scofield Reference Bible, p. 5.