THE COVENANT TREATY IN SACRED SCRIPTURE

In the ancient world relationships between people and between nations were bound by Covenant. In a similar fashion, God's relationship with man has always been defined through the sacred bond of the covenant, from the Covenant with Adam and Creation to the covenant established with the blood Jesus Christ. Like ancient human covenant treaties, God's covenants are formed by oath swearing, promised blessings, sacred ritual, and covenant obligations. But God's covenant's always results in the formation of a unique covenant family bond with God fulfilling the role of both suzerain or dominant king and the patristic head of the covenant family [it should be noted that in ancient covenants it is implied that the dominant king also occupied the role of "father" to the subservient vassal state just as he occupied the same patristic role to his own people]. In the Sinai Covenant and the creation of the nation of Israel, God joined Himself to Israel in a Covenant that is expressed as both a marriage between Yahweh and His bride Israel and as the adoption of Israel as "firstborn" sons of Yahweh as divine Father. The formal covenant treaty arrangements of the Biblical covenants bear a striking resemblance to the structure of peace treaties of the city-states and Empires of the Ancient Near East (see Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1963).

In the formation of a Covenant both the dominant King and his vassal swear an oath in Treaty form, thereby creating a covenant binding the 2 parties. The standard covenant had 5 parts (Kline)

1. Preamble: Identifying the Lordship of the Great King & stressing his greatness, dominance & eminence
2. Historical Prologue: Recounting the Great King's previous relationship to his vassal (with special emphasis on the benefits or blessing of that relationship).
3. Ethical Stipulations: Enumerating the vassal's obligations to the Great King (his guide to maintaining the relationship)
4. Sanctions: A list of the blessings for obedience and the curses that will fall on the vassal if he breaks the covenant.
5. Succession Arrangements: Arrangements and provisions for the continuity of the covenant relationship over future generations.

Covenant Treaties of Old Testament:

One of the best examples of a Covenant Treaty in the Old Testament is the covenant renewal treaty found in the Book of Deuteronomy written by Moses just before the new generation of the Sinai Covenant took possession of the Promised Land (the original Exodus generation had died during the 40 years between the giving of the Law at Sinai and arriving at the plains of Moab and the entrance into the Promised Land). The book naturally divides into 5 sections that correspond to the 5 parts of ancient covenant structure. (Kline: Treaty of the Great King; also Sutton That you may Prosper: Dominion by Covenant: Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987).

1. Preamble Deuteronomy 1:1-5
2. Historical Prologue Deuteronomy 1:6 4: 49
3. Ethical Stipulations Deuteronomy 5:1 26:19
4. Sanctions Deuteronomy 27:1 -1 30:20
5. Succession Arrangements Deuteronomy 31:1 34:12

In the ancient Near East when a vassal kingdom violated the terms of the covenant agreement, the Great Lord would send emissaries to warn the offenders of the coming judgment and enforcement of the curse sanctions. If the covenant relationship could not be reestablished and the violations continued the great king's emissaries would call a "covenant lawsuit" against the offending vassal. In the Bible it was the mission of God's holy Prophets (who acted as God's emissaries) to bring a restoration of covenant obligations or, when failing in restoration to act as Yahweh's prosecuting attorneys and to bring the message of the covenant Lawsuit against the offending nation. In Hebrew a covenant lawsuit is called a 'rib' or riv. For example: Isaiah and Hosea brought a Covenant Lawsuit against Israel in the 8th century BC. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel brought a Covenant Lawsuit against Judea in the 6th century BC. In every case the holy prophet acting as Yahweh's emissary addressed the generation on which the Covenant curses would fall. Some examples in Scripture are found in:

  1. Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 32:1
  2. Psalms 50:4-7
  3. the Book of Isaiah 1:2 &21
  4. the Book of Hosea 4:1 "Israelites, hear what Yahweh says,

for Yahweh indicts (literally brings a 'riv', covenant lawsuit to) the citizens of the country: there is no loyalty, no faithful love, no knowledge of God in the country..."i

The covenant lawsuit in the book of Hosea is laid out in the classic Covenant Treaty format:

1. Preamble:

Hosea chapter 1

2. Historical prologue

Hosea chapters 2-3

3. Ethical Stipulations:

Hosea chapters 2-7

4. Sanctions:

Hosea chapters 8-9

5. Succession Arrangements:

Hosea chapters 10-14

The book of the prophet Ezekiel is especially noteworthy as a Covenant Lawsuit

since it parallels the visions of John in Revelation (please see the list of visions in Ezekiel/ John). It is very important to note that each of the Old Testament Covenant Lawsuits is addressed to the current generation in the context of the Covenant relationship. When the covenantal context of prophecy is ignored, the message the prophet was told to communicate is either lost or distorted.

Jesus the Messiah came fulfilling the prophecies of the Prophets of Yahweh. He came as prophet, priest, and king to form the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 13:13-14 but He also came as Yahweh's prosecuting attorney against an apostate Old Covenant people. See Matthew 21:43-46 for Jesus' covenant lawsuit announcement against the Old Covenant people: Jesus speaking to the Priests, scribes, and Jews at the Temple: "I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.... the chief priests and the scribes realized he was speaking about them..."

Compare Jesus' statement of a Covenant Lawsuit in Matthew chapter 24 with the Prophets Isaiah 8:14 and Daniel's vision in 2:34-44. Also please see the chart comparing the Covenant Lawsuit Jesus calls against Judah in Matthew 24 with John's Covenant Lawsuit in Revelation in the Charts section in the document titled "Biblical Covenant Treaty Format: Comparison of the Judgments of John's Apocalypse Versus Matthew's Mini Apocalypse" in the Charts section.

 

Michal Hunt 2001