I. The DEFINITION of a covenant:
What is a covenant? We see human covenants scattered throughout the pages of the Old Testament Scriptures. We know about the divine covenants, such as the ones that God establishes with Noah, Abraham, and David. And we're familiar with the Last Supper, when Christ spoke of inaugurating the new covenant in His blood. But what actually is a covenant? How does Scripture define for us what a covenant actually is? Theologian O Palmer Robertson gives what is perhaps the best definition (and possibly also the shortest!) when he says: “A covenant is a bond in blood, sovereignly administered.”1
A) A BOND: In other words, a covenant is “an oath-bound commitment.” When we examine the more prominent human covenants in Scripture, it's clear that this aspect of oath-bound commitment is what is at the absolute forefront of the covenant. Indeed, it would seem that the giving of a solemn oath isn't just something that takes place in the context of a covenant, but is rather the very thing that constitutes the essence of a covenant. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this is in the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21. Here, Abimelech asks Abraham to swear to him that he would deal faithfully with him and his posterity after him (verse 23). Abraham then swears to him (verse 24); and we're told that “the two of them made a covenant” (verse 27). Then, to sum up what had just taken place, Scripture goes on to tell us in verses 31-32: “Therefore he called that place Beersheba, because there the two of them took an oath. So they made a covenant at Beersheba. . .” Another example is the covenant between Isaac and Abimelech in Genesis 26. Here, we're told that Abimelech comes to Isaac, saying: “Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you” (verse 28). And though we don't hear anything more in the text about a covenant,Scripture implies this is exactly what took place the next day when “they arose early and exchanged oaths” (verse 31). And we see the same thing in the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Here, the Gibeonites come to Joshua and all Israel asking them to enter into a covenant with them (vv6,11);and when Joshua and the people agree, this is how Scripture describes what happened: “Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them.”(verse 15). And again, a few verses later, the covenant is directly equated to the oath that they “had sworn” (verse 18). From all these passages, it's clear that an oath is at the heart of a covenant. Indeed, a covenant is an oath-bound commitment.2
It's in light of passages such as these that theologian John Murray concludes: “When all the instances of merely human covenants are examined, it would definitely appear that the notion of sworn fidelity is thrust into prominence in these covenants. . .It is not the contractual terms that are in prominence so much as the solemn engagement of one person to another. . .It is the giving of oneself over in the commitment. . .It is the promise of unreserved fidelity, of whole-souled commitment that appears to constitute the essence of the covenant.” And O Palmer Robertson writes: “Scripture would suggest not merely that a covenant generally contains an oath. Instead, it may be affirmed that a covenant is an oath. . .'Oath' so adequately captures the relationship achieved by 'covenant' that the terms may be interchanged (Psalm 89:3, 34f; 105:8-10).” Indeed, the oath that was taken was so much a part of the covenant that it can truly be said,“in the Bible, promise and oath are often synonyms for covenant.”3
There's a beautiful illustration of this in the covenant between Israel and the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. The Gibeonites were a tribe of Canaanites who were living in the land of Canaan; which was the land that God had promised to give to Israel—and was commanding them to go in and possess. Well, the Gibeonites got word that Israel was coming. They had heard all about the Lord; they knew Israel was coming to take possession of the land; and they realized they didn't stand a chance against them. So, they came up with a plan. A few of them traveled down the road to where Joshua and Israel had set up camp. And when they came to them, they pretended to live in a far away land, and asked Joshua and all Israel to enter into a covenant with them. Joshua and the people forget to ask the Lord about it; and so they agree and make a covenant with these Gibeonites—an oath-bound commitment of total fidelity. It's three days later they find out the truth, that the Gibeonites were actually living in the land. But at that point there was nothing they could do, because they had already given their word. There was no going back now. So when the people grumble about it, Joshua and the leaders of Israel say in response: “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them.” They even go on to say: “This we will do to them, even let them live, so that wrath will not be upon us for the oath which we swore to them.” (vv19-20). Once you make a covenant, there's no going back.4
This is a solemn thing—and it's also a precious thing as we think about what this means for us as God's covenant people.Old Testament scholar J. Alec Motyer sums it up beautifully when he writes: “The covenant idea in the Old Testament can be very simply expressed in the wordsGod makes and keeps promises.” How do we know that God will continue to be faithful to us in the midst of all our sin and failure? How can we be sure He won't get fed up with us and cast us away? Because of His covenant promises: When God enters into covenant with us,He's binding himself with a solemn oath to be our God. What we're going to see as we continue our study is that at the heart of God's covenant with His people are solemn promises He's sworn to uphold; and when He makes promises, He keeps them.5
B) A Bond IN BLOOD: So, a covenant is the giving of a solemn oath; an oath-bound commitment. But as we examine the Scriptures, what we're going to find is that it's also more than that. A covenant is the kind of oath that carries life and death consequences. Life or death was at stake in a covenant. This is why we say that a covenant is “a bond in blood.” It's not just an oath—it's a blood-bound oath.
We can see this even in the terminology that's used for “making a covenant” in the Hebrew language. In Scripture, the English phrase “to make a covenant” is literally in Hebrew,“to cut a covenant.” And though other Hebrew phrases can also be used for God's covenant dealings (see chart below), it seems that this phrase, to cut a covenant, is consistently used for the inauguration of a covenant relationship. When God first made a covenant, He literally cut a covenant. And this phrase, “to cut a covenant,” vividly describes what would happen when a covenant was inaugurated. Both in extra-biblical sources, as well as in the Scriptures themselves, we have accounts of covenants ceremonies. And what would happen in covenant ceremonies is that animals were slaughtered and then cut into pieces. Those who were entering into a covenant would then symbolically walk between the pieces of the slain animals. What was the significance? “By walking between the pieces, they were taking what is known as a self-maledictory oath. . .In other words, 'Be it done to us, as we have done to these animals if we are not faithful to our commitments that we have made to you in the covenant. Slaughter us. . .just like we have slaughtered these animals, if we break our commitments that we have made in the covenant.'”6
We see one example of this in Jeremiah 34:1-22. Here in this passage, the Babylonians had come up against Jerusalem to capture it; and the people in the city are terrified. Many of them had been living lives that didn't honor the Lord, but suddenly the people decide they want to follow God. One of the ways that they had been violating God's Word had to do with keeping their Hebrew slaves. The Law permitted them to do so for six years—and no more—but many of the people had been keeping them for much longer; so when the Babylonians come up against the city, the people decide to let them go. They come to the temple and make a solemn covenant before God(verse 15);and as they do so, they slaughter animals and pass between the pieces, telling God that they would be faithful to do what they had said (vv8-10,18). But what happens? The Babylonians go away. And when they do, the people remember that life is hard without their slaves; so they take their slaves back, breaking their word with God (vv10-11,15-16). And Jeremiah comes to them with this message: Do you not remember those animals which you slaughtered and walked between the pieces? God is going to make you like one of them, and the birds of the air are going to feast on your dead bodies; because you have broken your covenant with God (vv17-20). Indeed, a covenant is a life and death commitment—a bond in blood.7
There's another example in Genesis 15:7-21. Here, God had promised to give the land of Canaan to Abraham and to his descendants after him. But when Abraham asks for some kind of confirmation, the Lord tells him to bring a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtle-dove, and a pigeon. Abraham cuts them in two, laying the pieces opposite of each other; and we read in verse 17: “It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I have given this land. . .'” (vv17-18). It's the same covenant ceremony with the self-maledictory oath; but in this case, it's not Abraham—but God himself who passes between the pieces. Abraham had actually fallen asleep (verse 12)! It's God, and Him alone, who takes the solemn vow. When Abraham asks,“How do I know?” God tells him, in effect,“It's this certain.” And it's so certain that the Lord uses the past tense: “To your descendants I have given this land” (verse 18); because in making this covenant,God was taking upon himself the blood-bound oath, calling down upon himself the curses of the covenant if He fails to make good on His word:“By this action. . .the Lord assumes to himself the full responsibility for seeing that every promise of the covenant shall be realized.” And friends, this is exactly how certain every one of the promises are that God has made to us in Christ.8
C) A Bond in Blood, SOVEREIGNLY ADMINISTERED: This is the last part of the definition for a covenant. In our survey of human covenants, we learned that a covenant is an oath; and in our brief study of the covenant ceremonies in Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34, we saw that it's not just an oath, but a blood-bound oath. So far, so good. But when it comes to the covenants that God makes with man, there's also one more aspect that we need to include. Divine covenants are sovereignly administered.
What does that mean? It means, first of all, that it's God alone who initiates His covenant with man. It's not man who chooses to enter into covenant with God. Nor is it a mutual agreement, as it is in the case of human covenants. Rather, in divine covenants, God alone establishes His covenant with those whom He chooses. We see this in God's covenant with Noah, where the Lord comes to him and tells him that He's going to destroy the earth; and He says to Noah: “But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife, and your sons' wives with you. . .” (Genesis 6:18). It's not Noah who chooses to establish this covenant with God; rather, it's God who draws near to Noah and enters into this covenant with him, for his own salvation, and the salvation of
his household. God is the One who initiates the covenant. And it's the same thing in God's covenant with Abraham, for it's the Lord who comes to him in Genesis 12, telling him to leave his country, his relatives, and his father's house, for the land that He would show him (vv1-3). It's not Abraham who initiates this covenant with God, but God who initiates the covenant with Abraham. Old Testament scholar Alec Motyer sums it up well when he says: “The covenant men were what they were because God chose them to be so. . .What happened to Noah and Abraham happened by divine decision.”9
Secondly, it's God alone who sets the terms of His covenant with man. In other words, God alone is the One who decides what He is requiring in the covenant, and what He is promising in the covenant. When God established His covenant with Noah, He didn't ask for suggestions; nor did He leave any room for negotiations. He simply came to him and told him: “This is how it's going to be.” Again, it was the same way in His covenant with Abraham. The Lord sovereignly imposes both the promises and the requirements:Abraham is to leave behind everything he knows and journey to the land which God would show him; that was the requirement. There were also promises that were set before him: God would make him a great nation; and bless him; He would make his name great; and bless all the families of the earth through him. But Abraham has no say in any of it; it's God who sets the terms.10
II. The ELEMENTS of biblical covenants:
Often, in biblical covenants (both human and divine) there were certain elements that were connected with the making of the covenant. Probably the best example we have to help us understand this today is a wedding ceremony. At the heart of the wedding is the marriage covenant—the solemn oath-bound vows that are exchanged between husband and wife. But there are often other elements that go along with the wedding as well. For instance, these oath-bound vows, which we just mentioned, usually take place in the context of a marriage ceremony. And in the context of the marriage ceremony there is (at least in the west)the symbolic giving of rings, which function as covenant signs—tokens of the marriage covenant. Often, the ceremony is also connected with the giving of a feast—the guests are summoned to partake together of what you could call a covenant meal. And just as these elements are included as part of the wedding, biblical covenants often include similar elements in the making of a covenant.
A) A covenant was at times accompanied by a covenant CEREMONY: This is what we described in the passages from Genesis 15 and Jeremiah 34, where the animals were slain and cut into pieces, and those who were making the covenant passed between the parts. It served as a visible representation of the oath that they were taking: “May what has happened to these animals also happen to me if I don't make good on my promise.” We've already talked about the significance of the ceremony and how it served to show that a covenant was a bond in blood. But here we can note that though the ceremony was a stark reminder of what a covenant oath really was, it wasn't something that was truly essential for the making of a covenant. It wasn't the ceremony that was the heart of the covenant, but the oath.11
B) A covenant was often accompanied by a covenant MEAL: Earlier we referenced the covenant that Isaac and Abimelech made with each other in Genesis 26. In this passage, Abimelech and his advisor come to Isaac, saying: “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we said, 'Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you. . .'” (26:28). And we read of Isaac's response in verses 30-31: “Then he made them a feast, and they ate and drank. In the morning they arose early and exchanged oaths, then Isaac sent them away and they departed from him in peace.” As we've seen, the oath is the heart of the covenant. But this feast that Isaac prepares for Abimelech also plays a significant role in this covenant between them, because what they're doing is sitting down to partake of a covenant meal. We see the same thing in the covenant between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31. When Jacob tries to get away from his father-in-law, Laban goes after him and overtakes him in the hill country. After they both argue their cases, Laban proposes they make a covenant. And when they do, this is what we read in verses 53-54: “So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain.” Here again, what we see is a covenant meal.12
C) A covenant could be accompanied by a covenant SIGN: In the context of the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21, we're told that Abraham takes seven ewe lambs of the flock and sets them aside by themselves. When Abimelech asks about them, Abraham says to him: “You shall take these seven ewe lambs from my hand so that it may be a witness to me, that I dug this well.” (verse 30). In other words, these ewe lambs were functioning as signs of the covenant between them. We see another example once again in the covenant between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31. For in the context of this covenant, Jacob gathers stones together and makes them into a heap (vv45-46), and Laban says: “This heap is a witness between you and me this day. . .” (verse 48). And Laban repeats these words again, saying: “Behold this heap and behold the pillar. . .This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.” (vv51-52). Again, the heap of stones was functioning as a sign of the covenant. And it's the same thing in the covenant that Joshua makes with all the people in Joshua 24. Here,Joshua urges Israel to serve the Lord, and when they assure him they will,Scripture tells us: “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day. . .And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, 'Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.'” (vv25-27). Again, the stone Joshua set up functioned as a covenant sign.
And these covenant signs also serve an important role in divine covenants. When God establishes the covenant with Noah and his sons in Genesis 9, for example, He sets the rainbow in the clouds as “the sign of the covenant” He was making with them(9:12,13,17). The rainbow was the sign of the Noahic Covenant. And in the same way, when God comes to Abraham to confirm His covenant with him in Genesis 17, He gives circumcision as “the sign of the covenant” between them (17:11). Circumcision was thus the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant. And later, in the context of His covenant with Israel at Sinai, it seems that the Lord also institutes the Sabbath as the sign of the Mosaic Covenant(cf.Exodus 31:12-17). What's the function of these signs? When it comes to the divine covenants, these signs are meant, first of all, to give assurance to God's people. As one put it: “covenant signs declare covenant promises to covenant people. [They're]a token and guarantee of the word of God.” The reason God set the rainbow in the clouds was to remind Noah and his sons of the promise He had made to them.
Earlier we mentioned that our sacraments are founded on the reality of covenant signs: Baptism and the Lord's Supper are tangible pictures of God's covenant promises to His people. They're meant to remind us of the promises God has bound himself to uphold. God's covenant signs are also meant to exhibit consecration to the world. When Abraham received the sign of circumcision, not only did it remind him of God's promises, but it forever marked him as a man who was now set apart, belonging to the Lord. So it is again with our sacraments: Baptism is a statement of allegiance. And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:16 that when we partake of the Lord's Supper, we proclaim the gospel to the world.13
SUMMARY: So then, these are the primary elements involved in the making of a covenant. But we should note here that though a covenant could certainly include all these elements, it wasn't necessary for all these things to be present in order for a covenant to be established. This is true in the realm of human covenants, for there's neither a ceremony nor a meal in the covenant that takes place between Abraham and Abimelech (Genesis 21); there's neither a ceremony nor a sign in the covenant between Isaac and Abimelech (Genesis 26); and there's no ceremony recorded in the covenant between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31). It's also true of divine covenants, as there's no ceremony recorded in God's covenants with Noah or David; there's no meal that takes place in God's covenants with Noah, David, or Abraham; and there's no sign that we're told about in the context of God's covenant with David.14
1 Robertson's definition is found in his Christ of the Covenants (p4). Ligon Duncan also follows Robertson's definition in his Covenant Theology course. One thing we should note is that though this is Robertson's definition for a covenant in general, it's clear from the context that he's speaking especially of divine covenants. Though we can say all covenants in Scripture are “bonds in blood”; human covenants are mutually entered into, while it's the divine covenants that are sovereignly administered.
2 The phrase “oath-bound commitment” comes from Ligon Duncan's Covenant Theology course. We could also reference a few other examples that highlight the fact that a covenant was, in its essence, a solemn oath. We see the same truth in the covenant between Laban and Jacob in Genesis 31:44,53; as well as in that between Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 20:16-17.
3 The last quote is from Zach Keele's Sacred Bond. Murray's quote is from his pamphlet, The Covenant of Grace. He's reacting to the notion that a covenant is merely a pact or agreement; he argues it's much more—a wholehearted commitment of relational fidelity. Robertson likewise notes: “While the divine covenants invariably involve obligations, their ultimate purpose reaches beyond the guaranteed discharge of a duty. Instead, it is the personal interrelation of God with his people that is at the heart of the covenant.” (p5). And again, he writes: “The prominence of oaths and signs in the divine covenants underlines the fact that a covenant in its essence is a bond. . .In several passages of Scripture the integral relation of the oath to the covenant is brought out most clearly by a parallelism of construction (Deuteronomy 29:12; 2 Kings 11:4; 1 Chronicles 16:16; Psalm 105:9; 89:3-4; Ezekiel 17:19). In these cases, the oath interchanges with the covenant, and the covenant with the oath. This closeness of relationship between oath and covenant emphasizes that a covenant in its essence is a bond.” (pp6-7). Along with the passages already quoted, we could also reference Genesis 9:11 with Isaiah 54:9; 2 Samuel 7 with Acts 2:30; and Luke 1:72-73.
4 Ligon Duncan gives this illustration in his course on Covenant Theology. He also goes on to draw out the implications of this oath even 400 years later, during the time of David, in a passage recorded in 2 Samuel 21. At this time, there is a famine in the land of Israel for three years in a row; so David goes about seeking the presence of the Lord as to why it was happening. When he does so, God tells David that the reason for the famine is that Saul had put some of the Gibeonites to death during the course of his bloody reign (verse 1). What this tells us is that even 400 years later—God still hadn't forgotten the oath.
5 Alec Motyer's quote is from his article, Covenant and Promise, Part 1 (Evangel, January, 1983). Witsius says: “God, by this covenant, acquires no new right over man. . .Because God is the blessed, and self-sufficient Being. . .But man. . . does acquire [the] right to demand of God the promise; for God has, by his promises, made himself a debtor to man. Or, to speak in a manner more becoming [of] God, he was pleased to make his performing his promises, a debt due to himself, to his goodness, justice, and veracity. And to man in covenant, and continuing steadfast to it, he granted the right of expecting and requiring, that God should satisfy the demands of his goodness, justice, and truth, by the performance of the promises.” (Volume 1, p48).
6 The quote is from Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology. O Palmer Robertson notes here: “Particularly striking is the fact that the verb to cut may stand by itself and still clearly mean to cut a covenant (cf. 1Sam.11:1,2; 20:16; 22:8; 1Kings 8:9; 2 Chron.7:18; Ps.105:9; Hag.2:5). This usage indicates just how essentially the concept of cutting had come to be related to the covenant idea in Scripture.” (p9). And again: “As the covenant is made, animals are 'cut' in ritual ceremony. The most obvious example of this procedure in Scripture is found in Genesis 15, at the time of the making of the Abrahamic covenant. First Abraham divides a series of animals and lays the pieces over against one another. Then a symbolic representation of God passes between the divided pieces of animals. The result is the 'making' or 'cutting' of a covenant. What is the meaning of this division of animals at the point of covenantal inauguration? Both biblical and extra-biblical evidence combine to confirm a specific significance for this ritual. The animal-division symbolizes a 'pledge to the death' at the point of covenant commitment. The dismembered animals represent the curse that the covenant-maker calls down on himself if he should violate the commitment which he has made. . .It is in this context of covenant inauguration that the biblical phrase 'to cut a covenant' is to be understood. Integral to the very terminology which describes the establishment of a covenantal relationship is the concept of a pledge to life and death. A covenant is indeed a 'bond in blood,' or a bond of life and death.” (Christ of the Covenants, pp9-10). Nor is this notion an idea invented by more modern thinkers. Long ago, Thomas Boston noted: “It was an ancient custom, in making of covenants, to cut a beast in twain, and to pass between the parts of it; and that passing between the parts, respected the falling of the curse of the covenant upon the breaker: Jeremiah 34:18,'. . .I will make the men that have transgressed my covenant—the calf which they cut in twain, and passed between the parts thereof'; that is, I will make them as that calf which they cut in twain; I will execute the curse on them, cutting them asunder as covenant-breakers (Matthew 24:51).” (View of the Covenant of Grace, pp60-61). And Witsius had written: “Making a covenant, the Hebrews call, karat berith, 'to strike a covenant'. . .Which doubtless took its rise from the ancient ceremony of slaying animals, by which covenants were ratified. Of which rite we observe very ancient traces (Genesis 15:9-10). . .They also used to pass in the middle between the divided parts of the victim cut asunder (Jeremiah 34:18). . .Nor were these rites without their significancy. The cutting of the animals asunder, denoted, that, in the same manner, the perjured and covenant breakers should be cut asunder, by the vengeance of God. And to this purpose is what God says [in] Jeremiah 34:18-20: 'And I will give the men that have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant, which they had made before me, when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof. I will even give them into the hands of their enemies, and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth'. . .But when God in the solemnities of his covenants with men, thought proper to use these, or the like rites, the significancy was still more noble and divine. They who made covenant with God by sacrifice, not only submitted to punishment, if impiously revolting from God, they slighted His covenant; but God likewise signified to them, that all the stability of the covenant of grace was founded on the sacrifice of Christ, and that the soul and body of Christ were one day to be violently separated asunder. All the promises of God in him are yea, and in him amen (2 Corinthians 1:20). His blood is the blood of the New Testament (Matthew 26:28), in a far more excellent manner than that, with which Moses sprinkled both the altar and the people[who]entered into covenant (Exodus 24:8).” (V1, pp43-45).
7 Example taken from Ligon Duncan, Covenant Theology.
8 The quote is from Robertson, Christ of the Covenants, p145. He describes it in this way: “Contrary to what might be expected, Abraham does not pass between the divided pieces representing the covenantal curse of self-malediction. The Lord of the covenant does not require that his servant take to himself the self-maledictory oath. Only God himself passes between the pieces. . .It is not that Abraham has no obligations in the covenant relation. . . But as the covenant is instituted formally in Genesis 15, the Lord dramatizes the gracious character of the covenantal relation by having himself alone to pass between the pieces. This covenant shall be fulfilled because God assumes to himself full responsibility in seeing to its realization.” (p145). And Alec Motyer says: “[N]otice that in this ceremony, which now centers upon these slaughtered animals, God is the sole agent. 'A deep sleep fell upon Abraham' (15:12). He is immobilized in order that God might be the only one active in this situation. When Abraham was so immobilized and when the sun had gone down a furnace that smoked and flashed passed between these pieces (15:17). To pass between the severed pieces was the taking of a very vivid and terrible oath: 'So may it be done to me if this oath is broken.' God alone passes between these severed pieces. Not only does Abraham not pass, but he is disallowed from passing. God takes upon himself the total obligation of the covenant.” (Motyer, Covenant and Promise).
9 As you might guess, the fact that God initiates His covenant with those whom He chooses leads us inevitably to the doctrine of election; the truth that God chooses those whom He saves (rather than the other way around). This is what Motyer was saying as well; his full quote comes in the context of declaring that Noah and Abraham were “The objects of divine election: The covenant men were what they were because God chose them to be so. Noah was the man immersed in the world's corruption until grace found Noah. Abraham was the man to whom God said, 'I brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees.' What happened to Noah and Abraham happened by divine decision.” (Covenant and Promise). Roberts says: “God alone is the author of the covenant; and His free grace or favor, is the only inward impulsive, or moving cause why He makes a covenant with His people. It's His gratuitous agreement with them. God is a most free agent, and works all things according to the counsel and good pleasure of His own will. It is an act of His grace and mercy to make covenant with His people; but having made a covenant with them, it is an act of His justice, truth and faithfulness to make good and perform covenant. God freely makes himself our debtor, by covenanting. . .” (p15). And Boston draws out how each member of the Trinity is at work in this sovereign administration: “All hands of the glorious Trinity are at work in this building. The Father chose the objects of mercy, and gave them to the Son to be redeemed; the Son purchased redemption for them; and the Holy Ghost applies the purchased redemption unto them. But it is specially attributed to the Son, on the account of his singular agency in the work: Zechariah 6:12, 'Behold, the man whose name is the Branch—He shall build the temple of the Lord'”(Covenant of Grace, p2).
10 As O Palmer Robertson writes: “A long history has marked the analysis of the covenants in terms of mutual compacts or contracts. But recent scholarship has established rather certainly the sovereign character of the administration of the divine covenants in Scripture. . .The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth dictates the terms of his covenant. The successive covenants of Scripture may emphasize either promissory or legal aspects. But this point of emphasis does not alter the basic character of covenantal administration. Whatever may be the distinctive substance of a particular covenant, the mode of administration remains constant. A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” (Christ of the Covenants, p15).
11 A covenant was always an oath, but a covenant oath didn't always include a ceremony. As Zach Keele says, “There is more to the covenant ceremonies than just the cutting of animals. Clearly, the verbal oath-taking of the parties was the central part.”
12 We've mentioned only examples of human covenants here, but we could also think of the Passover (Exodus 12) and the meal which Moses and the elders ate before the Lord (Exodus 24:9-11) as examples of covenant meals in the context of divine covenants. Zach Keele notes: “A common gesture was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. Often, they ate the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. Such a meal was reflective of their committed relationship.” (Sacred Bond). And Witsius says: “It was likewise a custom, that agreements and compacts were ratified by solemn feasts. Examples of which are obvious in Scripture. Thus Isaac, having made a covenant with Abimelech, is said to have made a great feast, and to have eat[en] with them (Genesis 26:30). In like manner acted his son Jacob, after having made a covenant with Laban (Genesis 31:54). We read of a like federal feast (2 Samuel 3:20), where a relation is given of the feast which David made for Abner and his attendants, who came to make a covenant with him in the name of the people. . .These feasts were tokens of a sincere and lasting friendship. But when God in the solemnities of his covenants with men, thought proper to use these, or the like rites, the significancy was still more noble and divine. . .Those sacred banquets, to which the covenanted were admitted before the Lord, especially that instituted by the Lord Jesus, under the New Testament, do most effectually seal or ratify that intimate communion and fellowship there is between Christ and believers.”(Economy of the Covenants, V1, pp44-45). As Witsius here implies, the Lord's Supper is to be understood as a covenant meal—indeed, it is the covenant meal of the New Testament church. When we partake of the Lord's Supper, we're eating a covenant meal before the Lord. And each time we partake of the Lord's Supper, the Lord is renewing His covenant promises to us. He wants us to know that His promises are just as real as the bread and wine we can smell and taste. Further, every time we partake of the Lord's Supper, we're also pointed to the greatest covenant meal, still yet to come—an eternal feast—the marriage supper of the Lamb (Isaiah 25:6-8; Revelation 19:6-9).
13 The quote is from Alec Motyer, Covenant and Promise. On covenant signs and assurance, Ligon Duncan says: “When we waver in our faith, about the purposes of God towards us, what has God given us to be strengthened in assurance? The signs of the covenant: Communion, The Lord’s Supper, the covenant meal; and Baptism, which we see administered from time after time, reminding us of God’s initiative for us.” And on the covenant signs as consecration, Alec Motyer notes: “Abraham cannot look at the mark of circumcision and glory in the promises without at the same time being reminded over and over again in his commitment to God — 'Walk before me and be thou perfect.' ” (Covenant and Promise). And Ligon Duncan says: “this sign serves—not only to assure the believer, but it serves a witness function, to show the world whose you are.”
14 As Zach Keele notes: “It is necessary to remember that, even though these covenant ceremonies had numerous common elements, they were still flexible. Parts could be added, subtracted, or fashioned to fit the specific relationship and occasion. We should not impute a false rigidity to the ceremonies, for the form and ceremony of the covenant matched the relationship. . .