The two places where we are likely to see examples of covenants today are in our wedding vows, marriage is described as a solemn covenant and in the exchange of property. Within the exchange are likely to be mini covenants so that many deeds have what are known as restrictive covenants against them meaning that the purchaser is not as free to do as they wish with the land as you might assume. For example, we have a restriction in our deeds on the production of alcohol. Meanwhile my parents are not allowed to mine for minerals as those rights remain within the possession of the Low Moor Ironworks. Also, I suspect if my dad digs a mineshaft in hunt for coal it will leave my mum and their neighbours a little worried about subsidence. The exchange of the property itself is a form of covenant.
In the Bible, it is these two covenants that often provide a model for how God relates to his people. First of all it is portrayed as a marriage covenant so that in the Old Testament God is portrayed as the husband of Israel. In Ephesians 5, Paul tells us that whilst teaching on marriage, he is also pointing us to the relationship between Christ and church.
Here in Deuteronomy 29, the model covenant is focused on land. God is giving the people of Israel a land to enjoy but there are covenant conditions for its enjoyment. I want to suggest that those conditions are all to do with faith or trust that leads to true obedience.
V1-6 Trust in the Shepherd God who leads and provides
V1 – This chapter is introduced in legal form. These are the terms of the covenant. In other words, the focus now is on the terms of the arrangement
The focus quickly turns to God’s side of the bargain (v2-6). God has already fulfilled it in delivering the people from Egypt. The language here is of provision and protection. These first 6 verses tell us how God has provided for the people, feeding and clothing them. Here, it is described in negative terms, the people did not eat bread or drink wine. This reminds them that instead, they ate manna and quail from heaven and drank the water provided from a rock. The emphasis is on God’s supernatural provision and their utter dependence on him and this is reflected also in the preservation of clothing and footwear. Note that this provision occurred even as they wandered for 40 years so that even at the point of discipline, they still experienced God’s grace.
It is now and only now that they can truly understand what God has been doing. Why is this? I want to suggest three reasons. First of all, there is the benefit of hindsight. They are looking back at the whole story. Things that did not make sense in isolation now make sense in context. Secondly, there is hope, it is in the context of looking over the land that past events make sense. They now see where God has been bringing them to and why the trials along the way were necessary. Finally, they now have revelation. The Law and The Covenant explain what God has been doing and why
V7-8 Trust in the Warrior God who protects his people
We now see how God protects. God has been the one who fought for Israel and defended them against enemy attack again and again. Moses reminds them of the two characters we met at the beginning of Deuteronomy who had come out to fight against Israel and hinder their progress to the promised land, Sihon and Og.
V 9-15 Trust in the Gracious God who offers an inclusive Covenant
The people are called to obey the terms of the Covenant. This will lead to them prospering. Remember that this means material prosperity for the Israelites because their covenant at this stage is focused on a physical place where they enjoy being in God’s presence.
Included within the Covenant are all the people, leaders and priests, men, women and children. However, the provision goes further. Not only does it include future generations (v15) but it also includes those who are not physical descendants of Abraham but are foreigners brought in whether voluntarily or involuntarily to serve the people.
The Covenant is a solemn one marked with an oath. It arises out of the promise made to their ancestors, the patriarchs, to Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Here we see the continuity of Covenant. This is not a new deal but rather the setting out and enlargement of the terms agreed in the previous covenant with the patriarchs.
V16-21 Trust in the jealous God who demands exclusive worship
Along the way, the Israelites had seen the idolatry of the nations they passed through. They were meant to have seen both the uselessness of these gods that could not fight for their worshippers and their hideous ugliness too. Any cheap imitation of the living God lacks his beauty. Absence of beauty and goodness is not a mere empty, neutral position but instead offers ugliness and wickedness.
Having witnessed the ugliness and futility of idol worship, they are denied any excuse and so must remain faithful and loyal to God. You cannot claim the protection and blessing of God whilst also seeking comfort from other gods. Such a belief is presumptuous, foolish and will lead to catastrophic judgement.
V22-29 Trust in the just God who judges faithlessness
Judgement will fall in individuals who go astray from the Lord. However, sin will also bring consequences on the whole people and on the land when it is not dealt with or extends beyond a few. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah provide graphic typology for the effects of the judgement. The land that has been a place of provision and protection will become a place of desolation. Instead of being amazed at God’s blessing upon Israel, onlookers will be bewildered at the tragedy that has befallen them. Even judgement acts as a witness to God’s goodness and greatness.
Unfaithfulness is about abandoning. It is about turning your back on God and his kindness and love. The result is holy anger. Death comes. Death is seen in the desolation of the land and exile for the people. This may also help us reflect back on the imagery in Genesis 3 where God drives Adam and Eve out of the garden and places an angel with a flaming sword guard at its gate. This suggests to me that what Adam and Eve saw as they left was not simply an angel with a light-sabre standing as sentinel but a similar fiery destruction coming to Eden leaving it desolate and arid. Eden is not simply hidden away somewhere, it is gone.
The chapter closes with the words
29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
The point is that things that had not been known and had previously not been understood have now been clearly revealed. There is no excuse for ignorance or disobedience.
Seeing through New Covenant Eyes
At the start, I referred us to Ephesians 5 where Christ’s relationship to us is portrayed in terms of the marriage covenant. The other covenant is also present in Ephesians. Have a look at Ephesians 5:3-14 with me and notice the language that focuses us on place and presence.
The dominant theme is that every blessing we enjoy is “In Christ.” To be in God’s place is to be in him. You will notice as well that inheritance language is used in verse 11-12 with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee or deposit.
This is important for two reasons. First, because we may be tempted to see the land covenant as simply a transaction where property is exchanged. In such a scenario, one party receive the land and the other party receive money relinquishing all claims to the land. Restrictive covenants do imply that there may not always be a complete giving up to claims on the property though.
If we think like this about salvation, then we are likely to see it as something we receive to enjoy on our own. This leads to the sorts of questions that are very real to us but seem non-sensical to the New Testament writers, does it matter if I continue to sin after I have been saved and can I lose my salvation. Those questions make a lot of sense if we see eternal life as this kind of transactional gift. However, the Biblical model is much less about such a transaction and much more about an invitation to come and join in with God and to enjoy the place of his blessing with him. The covenant then is a description of how we enjoy life in his presence in his place. It is impossible then to have a mindset of enjoying it on our own terms without relinquishing the right to sin. Similarly, this means that we are not talking about a substance we can carelessly lose but a relationship and one where God is very much in control. He sets the terms for our continuing in his covenant place and he tells us that those terms are met by and in Christ. That’s why justification is so important.
Remember that sin and disobedience are linked to the loss of physical blessings for Israel in the land. Well look at Ephesians 1:7, the basis of out entry into and our remaining in Christ is that he has redeemed us and forgiven us. Forgiveness is linked to justification in Romans 4:1-8. The obedience that keeps us in the covenant is Christ’s obedience (imputed righteousness).
The second reason why this is important is because the form of blessing we enjoy is linked to the context of place. For Israel, the blessings they enjoyed were the blessings of fruitful, prosperous life in the land. Therefore, the blessings we enjoy now are those linked directly to being in Christ. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Paul closes the paragraph by talking about the Holy Spirit as the deposit, guarantee or seal. There is the future blessing of being in the New Creation to look forward to. However, in the meantime, we have a foretaste of that enjoyment and the enjoyment is found in being filled with the Holy Spirit. This also explains a little of why in Ephesians 5, Paul contrasts being filled with the Spirit with the futile pleasure we seek in alcohol. We enjoy life now in God’s presence through the Holy Spirit and the fruit and gifts he brings with him into our lives.
The priority for us as believers today is to know what it means to be In Christ. Are you hungry to know the presence of God in your life? Does this take priority over all else? If it does then I believe that will help us make sense of the trials and tests we face along the way.
Similarly, it will help us to find unity. We may be in different places, we may come with different traditions and outlooks. We may be facing different circumstances but the covenant points us to the great truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus.
I started by saying that it is all about trust. This is because it is not just about obedience and definitely not about an arms-length transaction. Rather, the whole point of our salvation is that we are called into a close relationship with the living God. To be able to enjoy that relationship, we need to learn to trust him.