THE COVENANT OF PROMISE IN CHRIST TO ABRAHAM
Purpose of the covenant; the original promise; its repetition with
an oath of God; renewal and transfer of the covenant to Isaac;
to Jacob; to Judah; to David; its identity in every repetition;
the same in its purposes, and its promises, with the covenant in
Eden, and the covenant of redemption.
The promises of God in the covenant of Eden, sustained triumphantly, the piety of his saints, until the covenant in Christ was announced to Abraham. Up to this time all that had been certainly revealed as to the person of Christ, was that he was to be of the human race, eminently the seed of the woman; but of what particular family, or nation, had not as yet transpired. Where men were to look for him, whether in Egypt, in Babylon, in Assyria, or in some other land, no one was informed. The object of the covenant now to be considered, was not more to renew the former promises of a Saviour, than it was to make known his family and place. For this great honor Abraham, the friend of God, was selected; and Canaan, that land of vine clad hills, and blooming vallies, was designated as the scene of Messiahs glorious mission.
Abrahams place was “Ur of the Chaldees.” There he received a divine command indicative of some future purpose of Jehovah, what he knew not. The God of glory appeared to him, and said, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and go into the land which I shall show thee. Promptly he obeyed, and went out, not knowing whither he went. Providence directed his steps to Haran, where he remained until he had performed the last sad rites of sepulture for his aged father. Then again, The Lord said to Abraham, Depart to a land that I will shew thee, And I will make thee a great nation. And I will bless thee, and make thy name great. And thou shalt be a blessing. And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee. And in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.1 In this simple narrative we have the original promise made to Abraham, which Paul calls the covenant of God, in Christ, or the pledge that Messiah should come of his family. The promise was made when the patriarch was seventy-five years old, in the year of the world two thousand and eighty-two, and nineteen hundred and twenty-two years before the advent of Messiah. He received and embraced it with unwavering faith, and devoutly and promptly complied with the command with which it was associated. He departed as the Lord had spoken to him, with all his family and substance. And as Moses instructs us, They went from Haran, to go into the land of Canaan ; and into the land of Canaan they came. And Abram passed through the land, to the place of Sychem, to the plain of Moreh,2 a beautiful valley between the mountains Ebal and Gerizim, where he fixed his residence, and builded an altar unto the Lord,” who there again appeared to him, and said, To thee will I give this land.3 Upon these events, and in explanation of the full import of the covenant, an inspired apostle says, Now to Abraham and his seed, were the promises made. He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, and to thy seed; which is Christ. 4
But Abraham had subsequently, assurances on this subject, still more full, and emphatic. More than forty years he had resided, as a pilgrim and a stranger, in Canaan, when the covenant was renewed, “and ratified with an oath. Mean time his faith had been subjected to various trials of the severest character. He and his wife had now both reached a very great age; he about a hundred and his wife ninety years, and they were still without issue. In the ordinary course of things, as respects posterity they were both, as Paul justly remarks, as good as dead. The promised son came not! How could he believe that he would come, or that the promise would, or could, ever be fulfilled? We are assured however, that Abraham staggered not. His faith was unshaken. “With God nothing is impossible.” Isaac at length was born! And under the circumstances, his birth was as truly miraculous, as was that of the Saviour himself. All his cherished hopes were realized, and this son so dear to his heart, was now verging towards manhood, when occurred another trial of his faith, infinitely more painful and appalling than the former. Take now thy son,” said God to the aged patriarch, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering! But could this command be really from on high! Had he not in this case, every reason to distrust the evidence of even his own senses? Could infinite goodness require of a father, a deed so horrible? Thus Abraham might have reasoned. But no such inquiries were in his heart. It was enough that God had spoken. Of this he was assured. He therefore, hesitated not to obey, but hastened to the appointed mountain; builded there the prescribed altar; placed upon it the necessary wood; bound his son, laid him upon the pile, grasped the knife, and stretched forth his hand to strike the fatal blow; when his proceeding was arrested by a voice from above! Abraham, lay not thy hand upon the lad; neither do thou any thing to him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld from me thy son, thine only son.5 Another glorious victory was achieved. Faith had again triumphed. Paul illustrating this cardinal grace, thus refers to the incident before us:- “By faith Abraham when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, In Isaac shall thy seed be called; accounting that God was able to raise him up even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”6 When these and other scenes had passed, and which are recorded, that “we upon whom the ends of the earth have come,” may imitate the unwavering confidence in the word of God, which characterized “the father of the faithful,” then Jehovah said to Abraham:- ” By myself have I sworn,” “that blessing I will bless thee; and multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies. And in thy seed shall all the earth be blessed.” 7 These trials of Abrahams faith, and repetitions in the strongest forms, to him of ” the covenant of promise,” were, like the sufferings of Job, not especially necessary on his account, but were for our advantage. Therefore said Paul, “When God made promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself, saying, Surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee.” “Men verily swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is to them, an end of all strife.” So “God, willing more abundantly to show unto [us the true] heirs of promise, the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it with an oath, that by two immutable things [the promise in the original covenant, and the oath in its repetition] in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us; which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the vail, whither our forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus Christ. 8
“The covenant of promise to Abraham, of God in Christ,” is now before you. It is said by the apostle, to have been “the preaching of the gospel to Abraham.” “The scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.” 9 To Adam also, was this covenant as announced in Eden, no less “the preaching of the gospel,” since it was “the glad tidings” of a Deliverer from sin, and of eternal life, and salvation. I will also remark in passing, that the blessings promised in all these covenantsthe covenants of redemption, of Eden, and of Abrahamwere in their spiritual import, never designed to be, nor are they truly, confined to any one family, or nation. The possible impression of their partial or Hebrew bearing, is carefully guarded against, in the very language of the covenants themselves, and earnestly denied by both prophets and apostles. They embraced specifically, “all the families of the earth,” and revealed a Saviour, who is “a light to lighten the Gentiles,” as well as “the glory of his people Israel 10 “Of a truth,” “God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation,”and this has been ever so” he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him. 11
We now pass from the period of Abraham, and proceed to consider the frequent repetitions to his successors, at various times, during more than eight hundred years, of this same “covenant of promise confirmed before of God in Christ.” 12
To Isaac, his son, and heir, this covenant, about a hundred and fifty years afterwards, was solemnly renewed, and transferred. In the narrative of this transaction by Moses, you are informed that a famine prevailed in Canaan, and that to find sustenance for himself, and his family, Isaac was obliged to leave for a time, the place of his residence. He went therefore “unto Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, unto Gerar. And the Lord appeared unto him and said, Go not down into Egypt;”whither it seems, he was disposed to direct his steps;” Dwell in the land which I shall tell thee of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with thee. For unto thee, and unto thy seed, will I give all these countries. And I will perform my oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father. And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven; and will give unto thy seed all these countries. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” 13The identity of this covenant with that of Abraham, cannot be questioned, since in the covenant itself, this fact is expressly declared :” I will perform unto thee my oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father.”
Forty-four years after this event, the same covenant was repeated, and transferred to Jacob, the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham. Jacob had now reached the age of manhood. Painful events had occurred in his fathers house. He was about to leave the scenes of his early days, and enter the great theatre of life, preparatory to which his father gave him his formal blessing. How full of tenderness and affection was that prayer! “God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people; and give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land in which thou art a stranger, which God gave to Abraham. And Isaac sent away Jacob.”14 And “Jacob went out from Beersheba and went towards Haran. And he lighted on a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set. And he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed; and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending, and descending upon it! And behold the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed. And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth. And thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in thee, and in thy seed, shall all the families of the earth be blessed.15 Such is the form and language, in which the covenant is transferred to Jacob. This also, contains within itself, as did that to Isaac, the declaration that it is identically the same covenant previously given to Abraham. Jacob is now assured that he is to be the Father of Messiah.
The scenes in the life of Jacob, were many and various, and not a few of them of the most touching character. When “his pilgrimage upon earth” was about to close, seventy one years after he had been honored with the covenant, he assembled in his chamber, in Goshen, his twelve sons, and in an address replete with affection, faith, piety and eloquence, constituted them into “the Twelve Tribes of Israel” Upon each of the tribes he pronounced an appropriate blessing, prophetic of its future circumstances, and character; he assigned them all their places in the promised land; but to Judah alone, and especially, he transmitted the covenant received from his fathers. “The promised land,” Bishop Newton justly observes, “Jacob might divide among all his children. But the promise of being the progenitor of Messiah, must be confined to one only.” That distinction, by divine direction, was conferred upon Judah. Thus he blessed that favored tribe:- “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a Lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” 16 The sense of the covenant in the form which it here assumes, need not be mistaken, and yet it has been somewhat embarrassed, partly perhaps, because the authors of our common version of the scriptures seem not to have understood it; and partly because expositors generally, appear not to have comprehended its true relations. A few remarks in explanation from me, is therefore necessary. I may just observe that the word translated scepter 17 means literally a rod, and does not, as so many have imagined, refer here to the regal rule of Judah, but is used metaphorically, to represent the tribe. The substance of this part of the passage is therefore, an assurance that whatever may become of the other tribes, the rod, or tribe of Judah, shall endure in its distinct, and separate, and full existence, until the Messiah promisedthe Shilohspringing from that tribe, shall come and accomplish his mission upon earth. I may also remark that the term rendered Lawgiver18 here means simply, a teacher, or prophet, and nothing more. With these corrections, the whole text will read truly, and plainly thus:- From Judah his distinct existence as a tribe shall not depart, nor among his offspring shall a teacher be wanting, till Messiah come, and unto him shall all people be gathered. God here pledges that he will himself watch over and preserve this tribe, until “the desire of all nations shall appear.” And how faithfully, in his good providence, this pledge was redeemed, is in the subsequent history of his people, familiar to all who study the sacred records. The other tribes, as is well known, fell into the grossest idolatry, from which no admonitions, or judgments, could recall them. They were at length abandoned to the fury of their enemies, by whom they were overcome, and carried into hopeless captivity. More than seven hundred years before Shiloh appeared, they were all irrecoverably lost, among the nations of the east. Judah by the evident intervention of almighty power, was indestructible, until the promise in this covenant, was gloriously accomplished.
Six hundred years had now passed away since the transfer of the covenant to Judah. Israel had taken possession of the promised land. Every foe was conquered, and all the tribes, united, prosperous and happy, lived securely under the government of the “man after Gods own heart.” Under these circumstances God appeared to David, and “swore with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ.”19 The form of inspired language, ever after this renewal of the covenants, connects Messiah with the throne of David; his throne being plainly a metaphor employed to express with emphasis, Christs spiritual reign. “Thy seed,” said Jehovah to David, “will I establish forever, and [thus] build up thy throne to all generations.20 It was in allusion to these promises, that David himself said, in his last moments, “The God of Israel hath made with me, an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things, and sure.”21 The exposition of this covenant is beautifully given by one of the prophets. Referring to the coming of Christ he says:- ” In that day [the opening of the gospel] there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek; and his rest shall be glorious.22 Previous to this transaction, Messiah was known only as “The seed of the woman,” who should redeem us by suffering; the substitute for man to divine justice; the Deliverer appointed by the Father; the seed of Abraham; the Shiloh, in whom it all the nations and families of the earth should be blessed. Thenceforward he is known as “the Prince;” the “Ruler of the people ;” “the David ;” the “King of Israel ;” and by one or another of these, or similar titles, he is constantly designated. This is the style of Jeremiah, for example, through whom God said to Israel :” If ye can break my covenant of the day, and my covenant of the night, and that there should not be day and night in their season, then may also my covenant with David be broken, that he should not have a Son [the Christ] to sit upon his throne.”23It is the style of Daniel, to whom it was said by the angel: “Understand that from the going forth of the commandment to restore, and to build Jerusalem, unto Messiah the prince, shall be seven weeks, and three score and two weeks; [of years] “and after three score and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off but not for himself.” 24Take Micah as another example “Thou Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me, that is to be Ruler in Israel! whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting.” 25
It is necessary to pause here, until I have justified the remark made a moment since, that “the throne of David” upon which Christ is to sit, is employed always, as a metaphor to represent his spiritual reign. A mistake on this point has led to a false philology in religion, by which a full impression of the sense of the covenant with David, has been turned aside, and painfully weakened. It has been supposed to be, not what it really is, the repetition and transfer to him of “the covenant of promise” to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Judah, but another and distinct covenant, which they have been pleased to call “The Covenant of Royalty!” And what do they mean by “the covenant of royalty?” If simply that David had the promise of God, that Messiah who will reign over spiritual Israel forever, should come of his family, and consummate the covenant, then they but perplex the subject by new, and unexplained terms, without any corresponding advantage. But if they mean, as I understand them, that this covenant guarantied to David the occupancy of his throne, by one of his own descendants, until the coming of Messiah, and that Christ at his second coming, or at some other period, would occupy it literally, their interpretation is contradicted by the facts in history, and by the explanations of both Christ himself, and of his apostles.
The facts in history contradict this interpretation. David transmitted the kingdom of Israel to Solomon, and Solomon to Rehoboam. This last king, by he haughtiness of his bearing, and the cruelty of his measures, forfeited the attachment of his people. Ten of the tribes revolted under Jeroboam, became completely dissevered from their brethren, and were never afterwards recovered to the government. Here the reign of the family of David over all Israel, actually, and forever ceased. Indeed, from beginning to end, it continued at most, but three generations, or about one century. Over Judah alone, his descendants continued to reign for several centuries more. At length however Nebuchadnezzar invaded and conquered the nation, destroyed Jerusalem, burned the temple, carried the people into captivity, and desolated the whole land. With this overthrow, which occurred five hundred and eighty nine years before the coming of Christ, ended finally, the reign even over Judah itself, of the family of David. His literal throne existed no more. It is true that after the Babylonish captivity, which continued seventy years, a remnant of the people returned, and Judah was ruled a hundred and twenty eight years, by Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The first of these was of the house of David, but both the others, were of the tribe of Levi. None of them however, were kings in any sense, but simply governors under foreign authority. During the two hundred and forty two years next succeeding, Judah was governed by her High Priests, all of whom were of the house of Aaron. Mean time the nation was tributary successively, to the Persians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Syrians. From the close of this period until Judea became a Roman province under Herod, and Christ was born, the Jews were under the government of the Asmonean family, known as the Maccabees, all of whom belonged to the priestly tribe. History thus rebukes the interpretation in question. Does the covenant promise David, that his natural sons should reign upon his literal throne, until the coming of Messiah? If so, then it was not fulfilled. But “Gods word cannot be broken.” It was fulfilled. Therefore the promise is to be understood not in a literal sense, but as a metaphor.
The other part of the interpretationthat Christ ever will occupy Davids literal thronewill be found upon examination, to fail in a manner equally signal. Recur if you please, to the exposition of this covenant by Peter, in a passage, a part of which is already before you. He said to the Jews, in his sermon at Pentecost, “The patriarch David,” was “a prophet: and he knew “that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne.”26 Did he mean however, his literal throne? that at his second coming at least Christ will reign in Jerusalem, or elsewhere, not only over gathered, and restored, Israel and Judah, but over all the nations of the earth? Then he directly contradicts the Saviour himself, since at that time, the kingdom of Christ, will certainly be “of this world.” But repeatedly, as you well know, does the Saviour declare the contrary. He affirms and without conditions, or limitations, “My kingdom is not of this world.”27 It is not of this world in its origin ; it is not of this world in its nature; it is not of this world in its ends. It indeed, extends to every creature, since “all authority is committed into his hands, both in heaven and on earth,” but it is exclusively spiritual, and evangelical. He was “Davids son, and Davids Lord;” the spiritual David himself; the king who shall reign over spiritual Israel forever. It was therefore over no literal empire; no nations of men; that he was to reign. The covenant promised no such dominion. Twenty four hundred years has Davids literal throne been buried. It will never be resuscitated. The promise is figurative, and pledges a spiritual dominion, and a spiritual people. With these facts before us, how glorious is the inspired language on this subject of the inimitable Ethan! “Thou,” O Lord, “didst speak in vision, to thy Holy One, and say, I have laid help upon one that is mighty.” “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him; [made him Christ] with whom my hand shall be established; my arm also shall strengthen him.” “And I will beat down his foes before his face; and afflict them that hate him; but my faithfulness, and my mercy shall be with him.” “I will set his hand also in the sea, and his right hand in the rivers. He shall cry to me, Thou art my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. Also I will make him my first born, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him forever more, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also, will I make to endure forever, and his throne” [his spiritual government] as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; if they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then [will I not cast them off, as I did the literal sons of David, whom I rejected for their sins, but] I will visit their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes. Nevertheless my loving kindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that hath gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness, that I will not lie to David [the exalted Messiah.] His seed shall endure forever, and his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established forever, as the moon; and as a faithful witness in heaven.” 28 Daniel uses language in the same sense, when he says, “There was given unto” “the Son of Man; Messiah ;” “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, and nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” 29We have now seen what is usually called “the Abrahamic covenant,” or more properly, “the covenant confirmed to Abraham, of God in Christ,” and we have considered the repetition, and transmission of that covenant, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and to Judah, and to David. Its promises are, as is apparent, identical in their spiritual import, with those developed in the covenants by which it was preceded. Indeed it refers to those covenants in direct terms. Was it, as Paul declares, a “covenant confirmed to Abraham, of God in Christ ?” That which was simply confirmed, must have had a previous existence. And where shall we look for this covenant, at any previous time, but to Eden, in which two thousand years before, it was made known to our first parents? And in all its developments, whether in Eden, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, or to David, it rested firmly, upon the gracious engagement of Christ for us, in the glorious covenant of redemption, “before the foundation of the world.”
The uncertainty which had until now, marked the nation of which Messiah should come, and the scene of his achievements, was here dissipated. The family of Abraham is designated, and of that family the tribe of Judah, and of the tribe of Judah the house of David. Each successive development narrows down the circle, and makes the investigation of Christs claims to the divine mission, when he shall come, more simple and certain. Yet many centuries are to pass before his advent. Other measures must therefore be adopted, such as that on his appearing, it shall be known beyond the possibility of a doubt, that he is the very Christ promised to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to Judah, and to David. Of these measures, what are to be the nature and character?
- Gen xii : 1, 3
- Gen xii : 1 3
- Ib. 4 6
- Heb xi : 12
- Gen xxii : 1, – 13
- Heb xi : 17, 18
- Gen xxii : 15, 16
- Heb vi 13 20
- Gal. iii : 16, 17
- Luke ii : 32
- Acts x : 34, 35
- Gal. iii : 17
- Gen. 26 : 1 5
- Gen xxviii : 3 5
- Gen xxvii : 11 14
- Gen xlix : 10
- shebet (Hebrew)
- chaqaq (Hebrew)
- Acts ii : 30
- Psalm lxxxix : 3, 4
- 2 Sam xxiii : 5
- Isa xi : 10
- Jere xxxiii : 20, 21
- Danl ix : 25, 26
- Mich v : 2
- Acts ii : 29, 30
- John xviii : 37
- Ps lxxxix : 19 37
- Danl vii : 14