God, Man and Covenants

By David M. McNabb

My dear friends, I do not want you to be ignorant of this one thing: that “the Lord thy God, He is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9).  For God to be a “keeper of covenants,” He must also be a maker of covenants.  That truth is made absolutely clear throughout the pages of Holy Scripture.

After God had destroyed the earth with a flood, He made a covenant with its inhabitants that He would never again destroy the earth with water (Gen. 9:1-17).  When God was preparing to raise up a people for His name, He made two covenants with Abram, one giving him the land of Canaan (Gen. 15:18-21), and another promising to make him the father of many nations, changing his name to Abraham and requiring that every male member of the family be circumcised (Gen. 17:1-14).

God confirmed the covenants with Abraham’s descendants also: Isaac and Jacob.  When the children of Israel were in bondage in Egypt, they cried unto the Lord, “and God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.  And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them” (Ex. 2:24-25).  It was because of God’s covenant that He put into motion His plan to deliver them out of Egypt, and bring them into the Promised Land: the land their fathers had been given by God’s covenant.

Coming up out of Egypt, they were led to the foot of Mount Sinai.  Why?  They were brought to Sinai so that God could make a covenant with them, as He had with their fathers before them.  God gave the Israelites the covenant at Sinai through His servant Moses.  The Scriptures tell us that the words of this covenant were the ten commandments (Ex. 34:28).  This was the marriage covenant between God and the children of Israel (Jer. 3:14), as Exodus 19:3-8 shows.  “And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’ And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, ‘All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.’ And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord” (Ex. 19:3-8 ).

The Lord presented the vows to Moses, and Moses presented them to the people, asking, “Do you promise to obey the words of the Lord?”  Their response greatly resembles that of the bride or groom of modern wedding ceremonies:  “I do.”

Though it sounds funny to say, God was offering to dwell with the children of Israel, and He does not just “shack up.”  If God is going to move in, He requires that they enter into a covenant with Him.

There was a time in this country when a man’s word was his bond.  There was a time when it was socially unacceptable to move in with a person of the opposite sex without first being joined in the bond of matrimony.  There was a time when Americans understood that business comes before pleasure, and that some relationships require commitment, and not just mere consent.

In today’s society, commitment is a predator which we all fear, and from which we all should flee.  We are told, “If it feel’s good, do it!” and if it no longer feels good, we are encouraged to abandon it.  Divorces are easily obtainable.  All one must do is cite “irreconcilable differences,” and the two parties are “free” to go their separate ways.

In the eyes of the Lord God, however, there is an irreconcilable problem: God not only makes covenants – and keeps them Himself, He requires that anyone entering into a covenant do the same.  “When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed.  Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.  Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands?” (Eccl. 5:4-6).  And again, the word of Lord came unto the children of Israel saying, “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth” (Num. 30:2).

Of course, these seem to be about vows to God, but what about covenants between men?  John wrote, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).  Likewise, how can you claim that you will keep your promises to God, when you fail to do so with your promises to your fellow man?

Look what Paul said in Galatians 3:15, “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto” (Gal. 3:15).

One may well say that this argument is theoretically sound, but not practical.  How or why would God hold His people responsible for a covenant they made without His permission or consent?  Is it not true that such a covenant is invalid?

The Catholic Church declares that marriages outside of the Church are not valid.  Some Muslims subscribe to the idea that Mohammed’s actions in making the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah with the Quraysh tribe in 628 A.D., and then conquering them two years later after a skirmish occurred, showed that a covenant with infidels is automatically invalid since infidels are unable to keep their promises.  Are these accurate suppositions in the eyes of the Almighty God?

For the answer, we must turn to the source of truth: the Word of God itself.  In Exodus 34:11-16, God commanded the Israelites, saying, “Observe thou that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite. Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee.”

Before they ever arrived in the land of Canaan, God warned them not to make any leagues with the Canaanites.  Forty years later, as recorded in Joshua chapter nine, Joshua led the armies of God to conquer the Promised Land, and the Canaanite nations were assembling themselves to fight the Israelites.  One nation – the Gibeonites – had worked up a different plan.  They dressed in old clothes, took stale, dry, moldy bread, and came to Joshua.  They told the children of Israel that they came from a very far country, had heard the fame of the Israelites, and wanted to make a league with them.  Joshua and the elders of Israel interrogated the ambassadors from Gibeon, but “asked not counsel at the mouth of the Lord.  And Joshua made peace with them, and made a league with them, to let them live: and the princes of the congregation sware unto them” (Jos 9:14-15).

Three days later, the Israelites discovered that the Gibeonites were not from afar, but were in fact neighbors, and the children of Israel were angry with the elders.  “But all the princes said unto all the congregation, We have sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel: now therefore we may not touch them. This we will do to them; we will even let them live, lest wrath be upon us, because of the oath which we sware unto them. And the princes said unto them, Let them live; but let them be hewers of wood and drawers of water unto all the congregation; as the princes had promised them” (Josh. 9:19-21 AV).

The Israelites knew that God held them responsible for the vow which they had made, even though that vow was contrary to His own commandment!

Did God, in fact, expect the Israelites to honor this covenant?  Consider 2 Samuel 21:1-14.  “Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.  (Now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.)”  As a result, David delivered seven sons of  the house of Saul to the Gibeonites to be hanged, sparing Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son, “because of the Lord’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul” (2 Sam. 21:7).

Once King David had made things right with the Gibeonites, “God was entreated for the land” (2 Sam. 21:14).  God is a covenant making, covenant keeping God, and He demands the same qualities of His people!

I would like to draw your attention to two items in Paul’s litany of sinful behaviors and conditions in the first chapter of Romans: covenant breakers and implacable.  These two, both found in the 31st verse, show two sides of the same coin:  The covenant breakers show no respect for the oath they have made, and casually dismiss their obligation and defraud the other party.  On the other hand, one who is implacable cannot be persuaded to enter into a covenant in the first place.  Of both of these types, as with all of the other conditions listed in Romans 1, Paul said, “They which commit such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32).

Such words declare a notion that is foreign in our post-modern world of cohabitation and random divorce.  God mandates that man be determined to both make covenants, and to keep them.  If you said, “I do,” then you had better, for “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

The same is true of your financial vows.  Have you used a credit card lately?  Did you read the words beneath the dotted line?  It says something like, “I agree to pay above total amount according to card issuer agreement.”  When you sign your receipt, you are signing a contract.  If some minister tries to tell you that God does not expect you to pay back money you have borrowed, that man is nothing more than a false prophet – and you can take that to the bank!  God said in His word, “The wicked borroweth, and payeth not again” (Psa. 37:21a). 

Brethren, we are in the last days, and the times in which covenant-breaking and implacable “Christians” are abundant.  If, however, we are to be true sons and daughters of God, we must repent of our sins, in which we have defrauded our fellow man, and fulfill the vows we have made, whether before God, or men: lest we should be found liars and children of disobedience, worthy of the wrath of God.                     

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