COVENANT: Why does God enter into covenant with people?
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it ton their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Jeremiah 31:33
As the story develops throughout the Old Testament, covenant love is referred to in various terms, but the main one is hesed. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the word hesed in essence summarizes the entire history of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel.
Hesed is God’s lovingkindness—the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, one-way love of God. It is often translated as covenant love, lovingkindness, mercy, steadfast love, loyal love, devotion, commitment, or reliability.
Hesed turns up regularly in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. It is typically translated “love” and sometimes as “mercy.”1 However, hesed has a much narrower definition than the English term love conveys. In the Hebrew Scriptures, hesed refers to a sort of love that has been promised and is owed—covenant love—as in Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
Covenant love is the love God promised to give to his covenant people, and which they in turn were to respond in kind, loving God with all their hearts, minds, and strength. Hesed does not suggest some kind of generic love of everyone. Rabbi Kamsler suggests that the best English word to use as a translation for hesed is loyalty, which refers to God’s covenant loyalty because of his love for his people.2 Perhaps The Jesus Storybook Bible for children says it best of all: “God loves us with a Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.”3
Malachi 1:1–5 is a clear presentation of hesed. Malachi opens with the declaration of the word of Yahweh: “I have loved you.” The people were not immediately convinced of this declaration; to them, because of their state of spiritual rebellion, it sounded good but was not convincing, because things had not worked out to their satisfaction. “How have you loved us?” they asked.
The prophet’s response reminded them of their status as the chosen people of God: “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” Yahweh says. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” Malachi was stressing that their existence as the people of God was the clearest evidence of the love of God. God chose the Israelites to be his kingdom of priests in the world. He gave them the Scriptures, the temple, the priests, the prophets, the covenants, and the Messiah. And his love for them was an everlasting love—even though they failed him again and again, he still retained his covenant with them. Not only did God choose Israel (“Jacob”), but he also cared for the Israelites whenever they were in trouble. The simple fact was that God protected Israel down through the ages even though they were wicked like the nation of Edom (“Esau”) which he destroyed in his justice is a supreme example of his hesed.
Being God’s people is a repeated theme throughout Scripture: “I will live among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people.”4 The Christian story begins with creation in harmony, unity, and peace, and it ends with a restored creation. In between these two bookends is the drama of redemption. The covenants are major acts of this drama.
The goal is to see the work and person of Christ in light of the Old Testament and to highlight aspects that we have possibly overlooked. Christ’s work is intimately related to and fulfills each of the four covenants (with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David) that God initiated in the Old Testament. New dimensions are brought to light when Christ’s covenant is understood in the context of the previous covenants. Covenants are about God’s activity and intention to redeem us, and the covenants tell us about ourselves—our condition, our brokenness, our dignity, our role as images of God, our suffering, and our calling.
Regarding our calling, Christopher J. H. Wright says of God’s covenant people (Israel and the church):
This people also has a mission, derived from the mission of God. Again the word is used to mean that this people exists for a purpose, or more precisely, have been brought into existence for the sake of the purposes of God. But, in their case, especially in the New Testament (though not absent from the Old Testament), the concept of mission as “sending and being sent” is an essential component in that overall orientation towards the goal of God’s mission.5
Indeed, one way of walking through the story of God in Scripture is to see God sending his Son and his people into the world through covenants as an act of worship in relation to himself and as an act of witness in relation to the nations.
When God speaks of his covenant relationship with his people throughout the Bible, the language is often that of marriage. God is like a groom. God’s people are like a bride that he loves and is devoted to. In response, God desires that his people respond to his loving devotion with fidelity. Isaiah 62:5 says, “For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”
Some people wonder why God’s people cannot also worship other gods, and participate in other religious and spiritual practices. The reason is simply because God sees such behavior as spiritual adultery. In the same way that a devoted husband does not want to have an open relationship with his wife where she can include others in intimate relations, so too God wants a faithfully devoted loving covenant relationship. For this reason, Christians need to be careful that they do not see God’s requirements of fidelity as intolerant or narrow as the culture would decry. Instead, we need to look at our covenant with God in the most loving and serious of terms, and be grateful that God wants our loving union to flourish by being fully devoted to one another. Love, by definition, is exclusive. And, that is the kind of love that God and His people are supposed to have for one another forever.
What are the first few things that come to mind when you consider how God has blessed you?