As God worked to redeem a people throughout history, he has done so by making promises, establishing covenants with people. Seeing the whole of redemptive history, particularly the Old Testament, through the grid of the unfolding of the covenants is very helpful. The idea of a covenant was prominent in many cultures that existed in the time of the Old Testament. A covenant was usually seen as a treaty or contract between two parties binding them to certain benefits and consequences should one party prove unfaithful to the deal. In his book Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson defines a covenant with firm sobriety: A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond of life and death, sovereignty administered.9 In other words a covenant is a bond between two parties in relationship that is not casual in nature but has commitments of a life and death nature.10 As such this relationship and its terms are conveyed to us and established by the Sovereign God of the universe. It is both a privilege and a responsibility before God to be his people by covenant.
A complete discussion of the nature of the covenants God has established with people is well beyond the scope of this paper. I will refer the reader to the aforementioned work by Robertson for that treatment. For our purposes here I simply want to present the work of God in the Old Testament as an unfolding of relationship with us through various covenants he established. Seeing the people associated with each covenant displays God’s working at various times and places to call a people back into relationship. As we walk through each of the major biblical covenants, we will be able to locate the Minor Prophets, specifically that of Habakkuk, in its proper redemptive historical context.The Covenant with Adam
The first covenant with man takes place in the Garden of Eden in the first chapters of Genesis. God created a man (Hebrew for “man” is adam) and told the man he may eat of whatever he wishes except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If man obeys, he will live. If he transgresses the command he will die. Sometimes people get hung up on the “the fruit tree” part of the story and fail to see the significance of God’s work with the first humans. He did not desire to withhold from them, he was providing the best of relationship with himself. God wants them to trust his word, heed his voice and receive thereby the promise of his blessing. If the man uses his god-given capacity of choice to turn from God, he will be necessarily choosing evil. As we read in the Bible, the man and his wife do indeed ignore the voice of God and reap the consequences of their sin and the breaking of covenant with God. Death will now visit the human race until the end of the age. The prophet Hosea recounts this sin specifically as a transgression of covenant:
4 What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away. 5 Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light. 6 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.7 But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me. Hosea 6:4-7 ESV
In addition, God makes promises to the first man and woman after they sinned and broke covenant. This involved consequences for their sin and a promise to crush the serpent through the offspring of the woman. In Genesis 3 we see the initial promise of redemption, through a human being, who would smash the enemy rather than succumb to his temptation. This was the first promise of the gospel (which some have called the proto evangelion or first gospel); one day God would reverse the curse now upon the world through a human being, born of a woman, who would crush the head of the serpent. Now when you see Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, one of the first scenes depicts the head of a snake being crushed by the foot of Jesus. Now you will understand the imagery in this scene.The Covenant with Noah
Many will remember Noah due to his Ark full of animals that was displayed throughout their childhood. Others may recount him as the man acting like a guy pledging a frat, getting drunk and naked after the flood. But what many fail to see is that God specifically describes his relationship with Noah as covenantal. At the beginning of the narrative of Noah and the flood, God utters the following words:
17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. Genesis 6:17-18 ESV
God’s covenant with Noah was one of protection and provision. God would protect and then reestablish the human race through Noah’s family and their descendents. After the flood God does several things. First, he established the sanctity of life and the consequences for taking it in Genesis 9:6. Second, God assigns meaning to a common occurrence after the rains. The rainbow, the dividing of the spectrum of light into its beautiful array of colors, would be a reminder for all time of God’s covenant promise to protect and to sustain the earth and human beings.The Covenant with Abraham
Think for a moment. What makes the people of Israel distinct? Is it ethnicity, is it language, or is it merely geographical location? It is not so simple. In fact it can be argued that Israel is defined as the people related to God by covenant. Quite frankly one cannot speak of the history of Israel without speaking of God. The origin of this people can be traced to a lone nomadic figure in the Old Testament whom God called to himself and made covenant with. God promises this man that he would be the father of nations with innumerable descendents. His promise is that through his offspring the whole world would be blessed. This man was named Abraham and it is through the promise that he believed God and was counted righteous. God’s faithfulness would be expressed to this man and his offspring as it would be from the people of Israel that salvation would come for the whole world. Jesus the savior would come; he would come from the seed of Abraham.The Covenant with Moses
The next major event in the Old Testament is the Exodus. From Abraham until the Exodus many events had taken place. God had brought his people into Egypt through the faithful leadership of a person named Joseph. That story is a great place to do some reading. You can find it in Genesis chapters 37-50. The people had greatly prospered and became numerous while in Egypt. Due to this population explosion, the Egyptian leadership had made slaves of the Jews and had kept them in a cruel state of oppression and servitude. From this point God raises up perhaps the greatest of the Jewish prophets, a man by the name of Moses. Through Moses’ direction, the people of Israel are taken from slavery in Egypt and set free by many miraculous and providential acts of God. The two things which took place in this time which are of great importance were the promise of a land11 and the giving of the law. The land would be the place of provision and blessing from God and the law would teach them of the holiness and right ways of God and ultimately point to their need of forgiveness. These two themes, land and law are huge throughout the Old Testament. The covenant made with Moses was simple. If the people of God walked in his ways and kept his laws there would be covenant blessing. If the people turned away from God and broke his laws there would be covenant curses upon them (see Deuteronomy 28). It is at this time that God also gave the people the priesthood and covenant mediation through a blood sacrifice and worship at the tabernacle. The blood of animals would be offered for sin; not simply to appease God but as his gracious gift to temporarily cover the sins of the people.
The land represented provision, protection and blessing to the people of Israel. The law would be their guide for faithful living in the land before God. These themes will be important when looking at the Minor Prophets. For as Moses and Joshua guided the people to the land, the voice of the prophets were to guide them into exile from the land under God’s discipline for their rebellion and law breaking.12 We will come to that in a moment.The Covenant with David
After the Exodus, the conquest of the promised land (see the book of Joshua), and a time of chaos, (see the book of Judges) God creates a monarchy in Israel. After the people ask God for a king to be “like the other nations” God finally gives them their wishes despite his warnings. God in his wisdom knew that an unrighteous king will bring them great burdens and trouble (see 1 Samuel 8). The first King of Israel was a guy named Saul. He turns out to be a loser so God chooses another King named David who would be called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). It is to this king that God makes an additional covenant promise. In 2 Samuel 7 God promises David that his throne, his lineage of rule would be established and one of his offspring would sit on his throne forever. An eternal king would come and take his place on the very throne of David. This King will bring an eternal and righteous rule to the world and the age of crooked human politicians and governments will finally end.
After David things just fall apart for Israel. They undergo a bitter split into a Northern (Israel) and Southern Kingdom (Judah). Their kings and priests become corrupt and wicked to the point where God brings foreign nations to conquer them and thereby bring his judgment upon them. It is in the latter days of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms that God sends some of the Minor Prophets to speak both judgment and hope to the disobedient people.The Organic Nature of the Covenants
At this point in redemptive history God had promised Adam to crush the head of the serpent through the offspring of a woman, he had promised to protect and maintain the human race to Noah, he had made a great nation through Abraham through which his blessing would flow to the world, he had given his people a land and a law through Moses, and promised an eternal, good, covenant King to his man David. These covenants were in no way arbitrary, they were building, one after the other towards the covenant which would fulfill and bring them all into fullness. The following diagram is helpful in seeing the connection between the covenants.
God, before creating the world had decreed or purposed that he would redeem a people for his very own possession. For his glory and their joy he had created the world. This decree had to be worked out in time and through history with a building from one covenant to the next. Like a large wave gaining momentum as it moves closer to the shoreline, the plans of God would crest and find their ultimate fullness in what Scripture calls the New Covenant. To this final covenant we turn.
The New Covenant in Jesus Christ
History marched forward under the direction of God until the arrival of what the Scriptures describe as the fullness of time. Of this time, the book of Galatians tells us a beautiful truth:
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
- Fulfilling the covenant with Adam, the Son of God would be born of a woman, the seed promised in Genesis 3, the second Adam (see Romans 5) whose victory secures our destiny.
- Fulfilling the covenant with Noah, God had protected humanity for this very purpose.
- Fulfilling the covenant with Abraham, a great nation had now given birth to the Savior of the World.
- Fulfilling the covenant with Moses, this person would be born under the law and he would fully obey all its demands, himself becoming the blood sacrifice for the people’s sins.
- Fulfilling the covenant with David, this person was from the royal line of David and would be crowned by God as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Yes, the fullness of time had come. God the Father had sent God the Son into the world as a fulfillment of all of God’s covenant promises over the ages. His coming was foretold by prophets, his work unfolded in the covenants, and his love would fulfill the hearts of his people. It is no wonder that Nehemiah, when the people were retuning from exile from the land, described God in his prayer as follows:
O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments Nehemiah 1:5 ESV
So when we come to the New Testament, the Old Testament is the only backdrop by which we can understand the identity and work of Jesus. He is the promised 2nd Adam and seed of the woman, he is fully human protected from the time of Noah, he is the descendant of Abraham, a fully obedient servant of God following all his commandments, he is the King descended from David, he is the sacrificial lamb provided by God to take away the sins of the world. He is the final and greatest prophet who brought us the word of God, he is the great high priest whose ministry mediates the New Covenant, he is our covenant King who will govern the nations in righteousness when the fullness of his Kingdom comes at the end of time.
The New Covenant is the culmination of the works of God to redeem a people for himself. It was decreed from eternity, set in motion throughout history, culminated in Jesus, lived today through his church. One enters this covenant by grace through faith – fully trusting in the person and work of Jesus. The entry into the covenant is signified by baptism and God’s faithful maintaining of the covenant is celebrated at the Lord’s Table. For Jesus said of this celebration: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20)
So now we return full circle. The Old Testament is a story about the work of God the Father to bring glory to himself through God the Son by the ministry of God the Spirit in redeeming a people to be his own. If you are interested in getting a great overview of each book in the Bible, I highly recommend Mark Dever’s new volumes Promises Made the Message of the Old Testament and Promises Kept the Message of the New Testament.13 These volumes are tremendous in getting the big ideas of the two testaments and every individual book of Scripture. Now that we have flown the plane high over the Old Testament, it is time to zero in on the Minor Prophets, the group of writings in which the prophecy of Habakkuk finds its home.
9.O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 4.
10.Ibid., 14, 15.
11.There are some who separate a covenant of the land or Palestinian covenant, from the Mosaic covenant. I am treating them as one here. The promises relating to the land are found in Deuteronomy 29 and 30.
12.The exceptions being Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are post-exilic Minor Prophets and they address the nation returning form exile to the land.
13.Dever. Promises Made: The Message of the Old Testament (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006) and Mark Dever, Promises Kept: The Message of the New Testament (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).
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