Covenants Between God and Man
IF IT were possible, would you be willing to make an agreement with a tiny ant? Would you enter into a covenant with a flea? If such creatures had sufficient intelligence to reason and to communicate with you, would you promise things to them for their betterment and then keep your promise? Or would you disdain them, refusing to make a covenant with them because they are so small, weak and insignificant?
The insignificance of man in comparison to God is much more striking than that of an ant or a flea in comparison to man. To God whole nations are as less than ants, even less than fine dust particles. “Look! The nations are as a drop from a bucket; and as the film of dust on the scales they have been accounted.” (Isa. 40:15) Despite the fact that the nations are smaller than fine dust particles in the eyes of God, he has been willing to make covenants with men who exercise faith in him.
A covenant can be either a mutual agreement between two parties or a promise on the part of one party to do something for another. The Hebrew word for it stems from a root that means “he cut.” This undoubtedly comes from the ancient custom of cutting or dividing a sacrificial animal to ratify a covenant. The practice is mentioned at Jeremiah 34:18 in these words: “They did not carry out the words of the covenant that they concluded before me with the calf that they cut in two that they might pass between its pieces.” This explains what is meant by the expression ‘cut a covenant.’—Gen. 15:18, footnote a.
COVENANT WITH NOAH
The great Ruler of the universe gave a promise to Noah before the flood that can be considered as the first direct mention of a covenant between man and God. “I do establish my covenant with you, and you must go into the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.” (Gen. 6:18) This was a covenant that pertained to the survival of Noah and his household. Noah showed his faith in God’s promise and his worthiness of having it fulfilled toward him by building the ark and entering it with his household. If he had failed to do as God commanded, his disobedience would have made the covenant invalid and he would not have been preserved. Men who break agreements with God are “deserving of death.”—Rom. 1:31, 32.
After the flood Jehovah made another covenant with Noah, using him as a representative for the human race. The covenant contained a promise that Jehovah God would never again destroy all flesh by means of a flood. Because the rainbow was given as a visual symbol and reminder of it, the covenant came to be known as the rainbow covenant. “I do establish my covenant with you: No more will all flesh be cut off by waters of a deluge, and no more will there occur a deluge to bring the earth to ruin. My rainbow I do give in the cloud, and it must serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”—Gen. 9:11, 13.
Although the fulfillment of this covenant promise did not hinge upon human actions, this does not mean man can break the divine law stated in Genesis 9:4-6 about the sacredness of blood or life without punishment. Without breaking his promise about another global flood, God can destroy, by other means, humans who willfully violate his laws.
THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT
As it has been noted, the men with whom God has made covenants have been men of faith, men who obeyed him. Abraham was such a man. He was born 352 years after the Flood, and at the age of seventy-five he had the honor of being brought into covenant relationship with the Ruler of the universe. Jehovah made a covenant with him, saying: “I shall make a great nation out of you and I shall bless you and I will make your name great; and prove yourself a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and him that calls down evil upon you I shall curse, and all the families of the ground will certainly bless themselves by means of you.”—Gen. 12:2, 3.
Jehovah’s covenant with Abraham became operative when Abraham obeyed the divine command to leave his country and go to the land of Canaan. At various times thereafter God confirmed this covenant. One such occasion was when Abraham had passed a severe test of faith that involved his beloved son Isaac.—Gen. 22:15-18.
The Abrahamic covenant has its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He is the Seed of Abraham that brings blessings to all nations of the earth that exercise faith in him and the Greater Abraham, Jehovah God. “The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham might come to be by means of Jesus Christ for the nations.”—Gal. 3:14.
Because of his faith Abraham was counted righteous in the eyes of God. As a sign or seal of this Jehovah made with him the covenant of circumcision. This was a covenant that required Abraham and all his male offspring, as well as his servants, to be circumcised. Regarding it the apostle Paul said, many centuries later: “He received a sign, namely, circumcision, as a seal of the righteousness by the faith he had while in his uncircumcised state, that he might be the father of all those having faith while in uncircumcision, in order for righteousness to be counted to them.”—Rom. 4:11.
THE LAW COVENANT
Jehovah made a covenant with the descendants of Abraham 430 years after the Abrahamic covenant. It was made with them at Mount Horeb in Arabia while they were assembled in a vast crowd at the base of the mountain. This memorable covenant came to be known as the law covenant. It is an outstanding example of how the great Ruler of the universe shows undeserved kindness, toward humans.
The law covenant did not replace the Abrahamic covenant but was an addition to it. It directed the people toward the Seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ. “As to the covenant previously validated by God, the Law that has come into being four hundred and thirty years later does not invalidate it, so as to abolish the promise.”—Gal. 3:17.
For Abraham’s fleshly descendants the law covenant was designed to serve as a protection from the bad influence of pagan nations as well as to make them conscious of their sinful condition and their need for a perfect, sin-atoning sacrifice. “Why, then, the Law? It was added to make transgressions manifest, until the seed should arrive to whom the promise had been made.”—Gal. 3:19.
The law covenant was bilateral or two-sided. Jehovah promised to make the nation of Israel his special property and to give them certain blessings provided they remained obedient. “‘If you will strictly obey my voice and will indeed keep my covenant, then you will certainly become my special property out of all other peoples, because the whole earth belongs to me. And you yourselves will become to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ . . . After that all the people answered unanimously and said: ‘All that Jehovah has spoken we are willing to do.’” (Ex. 19:5, 6, 8) The agreement was validated by the blood of sacrificial animals. “So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people and said: ‘Here is the blood of the covenant that Jehovah has concluded with you as respects all these words.’”—Ex. 24:8.
THE COVENANT WITH LEVI
When the people of Israel made a golden calf for an object of worship while encamped at Mount Horeb, the sons of Levi were the first ones to stand with Moses in opposition to this wrong conduct. Out of zeal for pure worship they promptly obeyed Moses by destroying 3,000 idolaters. The blessing Jehovah conferred upon them after this was a covenant for the priesthood. They were separated from the rest of the people for special service to Jehovah. “Jehovah continued to speak to Moses, saying: ‘As for me, look! I do take the Levites from among the sons of Israel in place of all the first-born opening the womb of the sons of Israel, and the Levites must become mine.’”—Num. 3:11, 12; Ex. 32:26-29.
It was similar zeal for Jehovah’s pure worship that moved the Levite Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, to execute an Israelite and the Baal-worshiping Midianite woman that the man had taken for himself, contrary to the law of God. Because of this zeal Jehovah made with Phinehas a covenant of peace, promising him that the priesthood would remain in his family. It appears that he became a leader over the family of Korahites who guarded the entrances of the sacred tent and the camp. Since this was a covenant for the priesthood, it might be considered as part of the covenant with Levi. “Here I am giving him my covenant of peace. And it must serve as the covenant of a priesthood to time indefinite for him and his offspring after him.”—Num. 25:12, 13.
THE KINGDOM COVENANT
Due to his faith and obedience, King David was singled out by Jehovah to become party to an outstanding covenant. It was a kingdom covenant that backed up the covenant with Abraham, for it made certain the fulfillment of the promise to bless all nations and families of the earth. “I shall certainly raise up your seed after you, which will come out of your inward parts, and I shall indeed firmly establish his kingdom. He is the one that will build a house for my name, and I shall certainly establish the throne of his kingdom firmly forever.”—2 Sam. 7:12, 13.
The seed that God raised up from David, and whose kingdom he firmly established, is Jesus Christ. “This one will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and Jehovah God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will be king over the house of Jacob forever, and there will be no end of his kingdom.”—Luke 1:32, 33.
The kingdom covenant is of vital importance to mankind, for it insures the establishment of permanent peace upon earth and just rule for all peoples. God will not fail to keep it.—Ps. 89:33-37.
THE NEW COVENANT
Long in advance, Jehovah foretold the establishment of a new covenant to replace the law covenant after it had served its purpose. Since the purpose of the Law was to lead descendants of Abraham to the promised Seed, Jesus Christ, it was due to end when Christ fulfilled its purpose by laying down his life as a ransom. “Christ is the accomplished end of the Law.”—Rom. 10:4.
It was through the prophet Jeremiah that Jehovah foretold the new covenant. “‘Look! There are days coming,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘and I will conclude with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah a new covenant.’” (Jer. 31:31) Jesus announced this covenant to his followers on the night before his death by saying: “This cup means the new covenant by virtue of my blood.” (1 Cor. 11:25) The blood of his perfect sacrifice validated it, putting it into force. Fifty days after his resurrection it became fully operative when the first of 144,000 spiritual Israelites were brought into it.
The new covenant was not made with fleshly Israel but with spiritual Israel, consisting of Jews and non-Jews. “Moreover, if you belong to Christ, you are really Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise.” (Gal. 3:29) These spiritual Israelites were given the marvelous promise of being made priests and kings with Christ in his heavenly kingdom. Their being taken out of the nations as a people for God’s name fulfilled the purpose of the covenant. The perfect sin-atoning merit of Christ’s sacrifice makes possible for them the fulfillment of the promise: “I shall forgive their error, and their sin I shall remember no more.” (Jer. 31:34) On the basis of that sacrifice their errors and inherited sin are forgiven and righteousness is imputed to them so they can be begotten as spiritual sons of God.—Ps. 50:5.
The new covenant does not cancel the Abrahamic covenant or the kingdom covenant but is a valuable addition to them that makes their fulfillment possible. Although the 144,000 spiritual Israelites are the only ones taken into it, they are not the only ones it benefits. In due time it will cause blessings to come to a great crowd of faithful people.
By means of these various covenants God has manifested his great unselfishness and love, proving that his greatness and exaltedness do not mean he is not interested in lowly humans. Instead of ignoring them he shows them undeserved kindness. The covenants he has made with faithful humans give us hope for a glorious future on a beautified earth. His word will not return to him “without results.”—Isa. 55:11.