God Made a Promise

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, December 31st 2015
Jan/Feb 2016

Promises are powerful. God made a promise, a worldwide, game-changing promise, and every story in the Bible finds its way back to this promise of hope. Yet, when we consider the Old Testament, it can be confusing to dip into one part of it, especially without knowing much about the other parts. The thread that ties it all together is a single promise, repeated in various ways and with slightly different emphases, from Genesis to Revelation. These sidebar articles trace the history of this promise in the Old Testament.

In sharp contrast to their pagan neighbors, Israel's relationship with God was covenantal. To be related to God covenantally means that he is the Lord and his people are his servants; and when God sought to establish this sort of relationship with Israel, he chose a political arrangement that was familiar throughout the region and beyond: treaties.

When a lesser kingdom or city was invaded by enemies, a greater king might come to the rescue. In view of the rescuer's mercy, the lesser kingdom would acknowledge the rescuer as their lord. In many cases, the lord would create a treaty (covenant) and seal it in a public ceremony by making the lesser king pass through the pieces of severed animals. In doing this, the servant was assuming the same fate as the animals if he should fail to keep the terms of the covenant. The treaty or covenant itself typically followed a set pattern. It began by identifying the lord who was imposing the covenant and giving the reasons why he should be obeyed as lord. This was followed by various commands, after which came sanctions that listed blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Finally, a copy of the treaty was deposited in the shrine of both parties. Henceforth, the lesser kingdom could live in security, but only as long as it was a loyal member of the empire.

God set up a covenant at creation, and when he did, he issued only one stipulation to Adam: Not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There were also sanctions: Life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam and Eve violated the terms of the covenant. But even after the Lord arraigned them for their transgression, he promised that the seed of the woman one day would crush the serpent's head (Gen. 3:15). That began the war of the "seed of the woman" and the serpent, who is assisted by his retinue of fallen angels and earthly emissaries.

The Abrahamic Covenant

Much later, God called Abraham out of a moon-worshiping family and made a covenant with him (Gen. 15). In this covenant, God promised to give Abraham an inheritance: an innumerable multitude of physical descendants in their own land and nation and an innumerable multitude of spiritual descendants for a spiritual kingdom taken from all the nations of the earth. Abraham believed the promise and was justified through faith. Then, with Abraham asleep, God himself passed between the animal pieces. He alone swore the oath and assumed the sanctions. God did indeed provide a son, Isaac, to the nearly century-old couple. But then he tested the patriarch's loyalty by commanding him to sacrifice Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his son, God stopped him. In Isaac's place, God provided a ram for the sacrifice.

In a similar episode, in Genesis 28, God reaffirmed his oath to Isaac's son Jacob. While asleep, Jacob had a vision of a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. Actually, it was a stairway from heaven to earth. God then reaffirmed his pledge to Abraham. Genesis 37-47 tells the story of Joseph, the eleventh of Jacob's twelve sons. Jealous of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery, and Joseph ended up in Egypt under Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh's guard. Through a series of intriguing twists and turns, Joseph was brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams of coming disaster. Pharaoh accepted Joseph's interpretation and advice and made Joseph prime minister of Egypt.

Through a dramatic series of events, Joseph was reunited with his family, and they all came to Egypt, where Jacob's descendants multiplied rapidly and grew wealthy. Joseph assured his brothers, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20).

After Joseph's death, Israel's fortunes turned. "Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph" (Exod. 1:8). For the next four centuries, the Hebrews were slaves.

The Sinai Covenant

Moses led the people to Mount Sinai, where God delivered the law to Moses as the mediator of this covenant. Besides the Ten Commandments, God delivered detailed commands governing every aspect of Israel's life in the land that he was giving them.

The Holy Spirit led the people on their route toward the Promised Land, but they longed for Egypt where at least they'd had water and food rations. They forgot the Lord's mighty acts of liberation from Egypt. Ultimately, their quarrel with Moses was an attack on God's leadership and plan, and his goodness and power. Yet God remained faithful.

True to his word, the Lord did not let this faithless generation enter Canaan to possess the Promised Land. Moses died having viewed it only from the mountain. Joshua, Moses' lieutenant, led the people into the land that God had promised in Genesis 15 to Abraham's descendants.

After the conquered land had been divided among the twelve tribes, Joshua reminded the people of the covenant that God had made with Abraham: "Not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you, not one of them has failed" (Josh. 23:14). This was an important announcement. Joshua emphasized the complete fulfillment of the land-promise. Yet, according to the covenant made with Moses at Sinai, God was under no obligation to let them remain in the land. In fact, Joshua added, "The Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God" (Josh. 23:15-16).

The people quickly renewed their allegiance to the covenant, "but Joshua said to them, 'You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins'" (Josh. 24:19). This was not exactly an inspirational pep talk! There is nothing in the Sinai covenant itself that obligated the Lord. The commands were to be fulfilled by Israel, and the sanctions of blessing or curse depended on the nation's obedience. It was a precarious covenant, based on the loyalty of sinners’hence Joshua's warning.

The book of Judges picks up the story. As soon as Joshua died, Israel turned away from the Lord "and served the Baals. They abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. . . . Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them" (Judg. 2:11-16).

Later God raised up Samuel who called Israel to return to God as king. If they would renew their loyalty to the God of Sinai, then God would deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. They did so. In his old age, Samuel made his sons judges over Israel. But they were corrupt, taking bribes and perverting justice (1 Sam. 8:3). Then Israel wanted "a king like all the nations" (v. 5)’a king they could see. Samuel was dismayed with this plea, but God told him to allow it, "For they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them" (v.7). Isn't it amazing that God mercifully allowed this demand and continued to work graciously among his rebellious people?

The Davidic Covenant

Saul was chosen to be king, but he offered an unlawful sacrifice, and his heart turned from the Lord. Finally, the Lord rejected him, and David was anointed king of Israel (1 Sam. 13-16).

Years later when David wanted to build a temple, God replied, "Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling" (2 Sam. 7:4-6). Instead God said, "The Lord will make you a house" (v. 11).

Eventually, David indulged his sinful heart, and his reign was strewn with episodes of violence. Although David's whole house was a mess, God once again was gracious. Like the promise he had made to Abraham, the oath he had made to David was unbreakable. The spotlight was now on the office of the king, the representative head of the Lord's people. The house of David would have an everlasting throne. David's last words extol the Lord's promise: "He has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure" (2 Sam. 23:5).

The reign of David's son Solomon began well, but his heart turned from the Lord, mainly through his many foreign wives. He even welcomed idolatrous shrines and festivals. Yet God continued to keep his promise to David. Under Solomon's foolish and oppressive son Rehoboam, the nation divided. "There was none that followed the house of David but the tribe of Judah only" (1 Kings 12:20). So there was now Israel in the north and Judah in the south. As the story unfolds, we meet no king again quite like David. In most cases, the record shows no loyalty to the Lord. In others, it is mixed. Only in a few instances do we find kings with a heart for the Lord. Yet it is God's promise that keeps the story moving forward, with a Davidic heir on the throne. Even with the best of kings, there was always a "nevertheless." The recurring question is this: When will there be a righteous king to reunite Israel and Judah and reign as God's own emissary?

Covenant Curses and Future Blessings

Eventually, Israel and Judah were sent into exile. The part of the Bible called "the Prophets" spans the period from just before the exile to just after the exiled people were released to return to Israel and rebuild the temple.

These prophets were God's covenant attorneys, bringing his lawsuit against Israel and Judah on the basis of the Sinai covenant. Yet on the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, there was the promise of a future beyond their wildest dreams.

We saw in the trial of Adam and Eve that the sentence was followed by a surprising and glorious announcement of the gospel: a Redeemer who would crush the serpent's head (Gen. 3:15). Later, too, after God arraigned his people and issued his sentence, he promised "a new covenant" that would be "not like the covenant that I made with their fathers" at Mount Sinai, "my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord'" (Jer. 31:31-32). The new covenant would not be like the Sinai covenant. Like the promise that God made to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Sarah, and to David, this pledge transcended the infidelity of the people. Its fulfillment depended not on the people, but on God.

Israel's promise-breaking brought history to a standstill. Yet God's promise-keeping pushed history forward, toward its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In its darkest days of exile, Israel heard God vow, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God" (Jer. 30:22).

The prophets continually returned to this promise of one who would rule on David's throne forever in righteousness, blessing, and peace (Isa. 9:7-10). He would be the prophet greater than Moses’the greater Joshua who would cleanse the whole earth and give his people rest on every side. He would be the good shepherd who gathers his holy nation from a remnant of Israel and the nations (Jer. 3:15-17; John 10:11). He would be the Son of Man’a clearly divine as well as human figure in the book of Daniel. Israel would be expanded beyond their wildest dreams, and the Lord would remove the death-shroud that lay over the world (Isa. 25:8). There was to be feasting with God forever.

Something lay ahead that was far greater than the Exodus from Egypt and the glorious days of the conquest of the Promised Land. It was far greater than a renewal of the Sinai covenant with its geopolitical theocracy. It would be a far greater covenant, with greater promises and a greater mediator. So while Adam and Israel’all of us have failed to keep our promise, God's promise remains.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, December 31st 2015

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