Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant
Israel and the Suzerain Covenant
Yahweh’s Original Purpose for His People
When the children of Israel were assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, God called Moses up into the mountain to give him instruction for His people. The instruction was fundamental. “And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel; Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine: and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3-6)
The Lord is simply saying: “Moses, tell My people that if they will remember how I have taken care of them in the past, then they will have faith that I can continue to deliver and protect them. If they will listen to my proclamation and cherish My promise that I gave to their fathers Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, then I promise them now that they will be My peculiar treasure, a kingdom of ambassadors who will declare My truths throughout all the earth, a sanctified and separate people, dedicated to My ways.” This instruction is unrhetorical, to the point, and easy to understand. God didn’t intend for His Gospel to be difficult or burdensome. In these words from the Lord, there are no curses, only blessings, and the blessings would come through the hearing of faith which remembers God’s power to deliver His people from all adversity and preserve them as a holy people consecrated to Him and His work.
How did we get from these few verses that are so full of promise and blessing, to the suzerain contract formula that followed only a few short verses later? Why did the people feel the need to promise God anything in return? Why does God seem to change His method (or did He change His method) for dealing with His people? Was it God’s original plan that His people would view Him as a demanding Suzerain who would rule them with an iron hand? A review of the events leading up to Sinai will help us understand the situation better.
The Call from Bondage
Moses told Pharaoh that he was to release the children of Israel from their bondage so that they could worship their God in the desert. Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh speaking the words of Yahweh to him: “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let My people go, that they may hold a feast unto Me in the wilderness. . .The God of the Hebrews hath met with us: let us go, we pray thee, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest He fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.” In his pride and arrogance Pharaoh retorted, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey His voice to let Israel go? I know not the Lord, neither will I let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-3). Thus begins a back and forth struggle between Pharaoh and Yahweh that results in ten plagues, including the death of the first born of all creatures, and the destruction of the Egyptian army. Our reason for mentioning this section of Scripture is not because we need a review of its history, but to examine the apparent disjunction between what was said and what actually occurred; between what Moses told Pharaoh about the length of the journey and the actual time it took the Israelites to get the Mount Sinai. Why did a three day journey into the desert end up taking seven weeks to reach the destination? Understanding this will assist our comprehension of the monumental problem Yahweh was facing in His effort to free His people from their slave mentality. Between Egypt and Mount Sinai we find a chiastic sequence of events which yields great insight into the spiritual condition of the children of Israel.
The children of Israel needed a radical new way of thinking about Yahweh and themselves as His special people. Not only were the people enslaved physically by Egypt’s mastery over their bodies, but they were mentally captivated as well by Egypt’s myriad spiritual deceptions. Their slave mentality had to be transformed into the ability to freely choose whom they would serve. “It is extremely difficult for a slave, even after having gained his freedom, to act or think like a free man. … The strain of their prolonged bondage and the fatigue of their daily routine had drained them of all spirituality. Specifically because of this bondage—Bnei Yisrael had grown instinctively dependent upon their Egyptian masters. Therefore, to facilitate their transformation—from Pharaoh's slaves to God's servants—they must change their instinctive physical dependence on Egypt to a cognitive spiritual dependence on God.” This was going to prove a difficult lesson for them to learn.
Conversion at the Red Sea?
Why did Yahweh lead the tribes of Israel in the circuitous route that resulted in them being trapped between the Egyptian army and the waters of the Red Sea? What was Yahweh’s purpose? If His purpose had been the destruction of the Egyptians, He could have accomplished that during the plagues. Yahweh had to bring the people to the place where, with death on both sides, there was no other option except total dependence upon Yahweh for their deliverance. Their reaction to this traumatic situation reveals the true condition of their heart. “And they said unto Moses, because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:11-12).
These words, spoken in fear, were an indictment against Yahweh’s credibility and competence as their Leader. Yahweh responds to this unwarranted complaint against His power to deliver them by commanding them to “fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord … for the Egyptians whom ye have seen today, ye shall see them again no more forever.” (Exodus 14:13). While this verse appears to be a promise, deeper examination of the intention of the Hebrew proves that it is actually a command. According to the Talmud “God here does not promise His nation that they will never face an Egyptian army again [we know from Scripture that they did]. Rather, He commands them to ‘never again’ look to Egypt for their salvation.”
Yahweh was inviting the slaves of Pharaoh to realize the profound freedom they could have if they would turn their affections and allegiance from Egypt to Yahweh. Centuries later, Ezekiel remembers Israel’s high calling and command to forsake all of Egypt’s enticements: “ In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up mine hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob, and made myself known unto them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up mine hand unto them, saying, I am the Lord your God; in the day that I lifted up mine hand unto them, to bring them forth of the land of Egypt into a land that I had espied for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands: then said I unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” But when Ezekiel wrote his words nine centuries after the hegira, the children of Israel had never learned this simple lesson: “But they rebelled against me, and would not hearken unto me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt.” (Ezekiel 20:5-8).
Their Journey Begins
There was only one reason that Yahweh delivered the Israelites from Egypt: to fulfill His oath to Abraham, which would vindicate His holy name, and which would teach the people that He alone was worthy of worship. He alone was their true covenant-keeping, sovereign Lord and Master (see Ezekiel 20:9-49). Relief from the strain of facing certain destruction, brought shouts of joy and celebration when all the people were assembled on the eastern bank of the Red Sea. Delivery seemingly produced the “correct” response from Yahweh’s chosen people and they spontaneously break out in the singing of praises. (see 15:1).
Having crossed the Red Sea on dry ground and celebrated their freedom with a victory song, the children of Israel began their journey to meet their God. As the liberated nation of slaves ventured deeper into the desert, they encountered various difficulties. For four hundred years they had been slaves to a dominating, demanding suzerain who severely punished them for any infraction of his decrees. Their mind was thoroughly bent in a slave mentality that could hardly imagine the meaning of freedom. Now as they wandered farther out into unknown territory, they began to doubt the promise of freedom proclaimed to them by Yahweh through Moses. Yes, they had miraculously escaped the horrors of the plagues, and the death threats of Pharaoh, but it seemed to them that it was only to face death by dehydration and starvation in the hot, sandy barrenness of the Sinai desert. To these barely liberated slaves, it seemed that they had only traded one despot for another, so blind were they to the true character of Yahweh.
Their lack of faith in God’s promises displays itself after only three days, when they arrive at Marah and find the water poisonous. Through a miracle, the water is made pure. This was their first test of faith and they failed because they forgot all the blessings they had previously received from God’s hand. Because of their lack of faith, God informs them that the only way they can survive is to “diligently harken” to His voice (Exodus 15:26). Here, near the shore of the Red Sea, God counsels them to listen to His commandments and His statutes (the ones already in existence). If they could exhibit even this small amount of faith, they would begin to find on every hand blessings instead of curses.
From Marah they move on, coming to the Wilderness of Sin where they once again sin against their Lord, accusing Him of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them. Moses warns them of their rebellious attitude: “Your murmurings are not against us, but against the Lord” (Exodus 16:8). Again, the people fail the test of their faith. And again, instead of punishing them for their doubting, rebellious attitude Yahweh blesses them with “angel’s bread” from heaven; food rains from the skies abundantly. Two beneficent miracles performed when, according to their slave mentality, they should have received curses and punishment for their querulousness toward their new Suzerain.
Pushing on toward their destination deep in the heart of the Sinai desert, the children of Israel come to Rephidim. Months of loving, personal attention from their Lord and Master have by this time taken place. Every day He blessed them with all they needed, even providing a cloud over their head to protect them from the blazing heat of the desert sun, and a pillar of fire at night to protect them from the night chill, yet they persisted in their unbelief. At Rephidim they stumble and fall over the same test regarding drinking water. They didn’t heed Yahweh’s counsel about “remembering” and it caused them again to sin against their Master.
Not only were these lessons designed to teach them about their physical dependence upon Yahweh, but also their spiritual dependence was brought home to them in the Sabbath rest (Exodus 16:22-26; Hebrews 4:2-6). Three trials and three failures on the part of the children of Israel. The lesson Yahweh intended to teach His people—that they were to give up on their dependence upon Egypt (as a symbol of sin and self) and recognize Yahweh for who He really was, the great I AM—was never actualized in their lives.
Foundation for the Suzerain Covenant at Sinai
Three months after departing Egypt and their slavery to Pharaoh, the children of Israel arrive at Sinai, the place where they were to meet their Sovereign Lord face to face. God speaks to Moses, telling him to remind the people again that if only they will remember all that He has done for them in the past (going all the way back to the call of Abraham, their father), they will find faith to perfect their characters (Exodus 19:3-6). Remembering all that Yahweh has previously done for us builds our faith in His future protection and blessings, and develops confident dependence upon His power to save. When Moses brings these glad tidings down from the mountaintop to the people, in their persistent unbelief in Yahweh’s power and lack of knowledge of His true character, they make an impetuous response. The promise of the people to meet the stipulations of what they supposed was an offer of a treaty between themselves and their Suzerain, was presumptuously declared even before they heard the conditions of the covenant (Exodus 19:8). The wording of the response was not wrong, except those words were not grounded in faith.
What was God’s response to their promise? Forty years later, as Moses rehearsed the history of Sinai to the children, he informs us of God’s response to their impetuous promise. “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me; and the Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee: they have well said all that they have spoken. O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children for ever!” (Deuteronomy 5:28-29). In His divine foreknowledge He looked down through the coming centuries and sadly said, “O, that this would be true!!” However, He knew that their promise was based on their unstable characters and stated without true faith in His power to deliver them. It indicated that the people were so full of pride in themselves that they couldn’t see their abysmal impotence in meeting any demands from their Sovereign Lord. If their pledge had been one of allegiance offered from a humbled heart that knew its complete dependence upon God for every power to obey, then the pledge would have been acceptable to God. However, it was not so with the unconverted Israelites. Their pledge was an old covenant promise, based in pride and self-sufficiency, which necessitated that God bring them under law until they learned their true condition.
To fully understand this section of Scripture it must be read in context. The use that has been made of it to support the idea that God was pleased with the people’s pledge to obey is not sustained by the contextual reading of the entire section beginning with verse 24. The narrative reports that the people “said” many things such as: (1) a recognition that their God was real, unlike any of the gods they had known in Egypt; (2) how great, powerful and magnificent God was; (3) that they were afraid of God as He had demonstrated Himself on Mount Sinai; (4) that no one could live in the presence of such a powerful Being; and (5) because of their fear, that they wanted Moses to speak to them in God’s behalf. However, only the very last clause of the verse immediately preceding is used by individuals who claim that verse 28 is indicating that God approved of and accepted the people’s promise to obey (“and we will hear it, and do it”).
The Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy has translated verses 27 and 28 thus:
You go closer and hear all that the LORD our God says, and then you tell us everything that the LORD our God tells you, and we will willingly do it. The LORD heard the plea that you made to me [Moses], and the LORD said to me, “I have heard the plea that this people made to you; they did well to speak thus. May they be of such mind, to revere Me and follow all My commandments, that it may go well with them and with their children forever.”
The commentary on these verses is this:
verse 27: we will willingly do it Literally, “we will hear [what you tell us] and do it.” This is a key moment in the narrative: the people pledge to accept Moses’ reports of what God commands and to perform whatever laws he transmits to them. They have voluntarily given up receiving the remaining laws from God personally, and they may not in the future disobey Moses or challenge what he reports to them.
verse 28: God appreciates the reverence that leads the people to make their request. He hopes that this reverence will remain with them and motivate them to observe the commandments. Implicit in His words is the concern that as the experience recedes from the people’s memory, so will their reverence.
From this commentary, it seems that what God is referring to when He said “they have well spoken” includes much more than simply the people’s willingness to “obey” (last clause of verse 27). It includes at least these three things: His acceptance (1) of their reverence for Him as the Almighty Monarch of the universe, (2) of His recognition of their fear of Him, and (3) of their decision to let Moses be their intercessor between them and God.
We must remember that this decision to use Moses as their intercessor came after God spoke the second commandment (Exodus 20:1-4). It was at this point, after witnessing the “lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking” that the people were so filled with fear of God that they ran away and said, “Moses, speak thou unto us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20 18-19). The Hebrew grammar of the text in Exodus 20 indicates that after the second commandment, the pronouns switch from first to third person as God was now speaking through Moses rather than to the people directly. In writing Exodus chapter 20, Moses didn’t break up the flow of the narrative to interject the people’s objections which later appear in verses 18 and 19, but he did change the grammar to indicate their change in attitude and God’s response to it.
The “implicit concern” that the JPS Commentary mentions would indicate that, while accepting what was valid of their words, God holds in reservation their promise to obey: “O, that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear Me, and keep all My commandments always …” Three times during the Sinai narrative, the people make the same promise to obey (Exodus 19:8; 24:3, 7). Significantly, all three times occur before the incident of the golden calf. After their sin with the golden calf, which violated the first two commandments, they learned what awaited them when they broke their vow of obedience. Though spoken in earnestness and with sincerity, through this experience they saw their utter inability to keep their promises. They also learned that their God was a God of mercy, grace, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth because He did not destroy the entire nation for their participation in this sin (which, based on their slave mentality, is what they deserved and expected).
In God’s omniscience and foreknowledge He knew that their promise of obedience was to be short-lived and would end in the episode of the golden calf. Nonetheless (as He expressed in Deuteronomy 5:29), it was His sincere desire that the people would know Him, and love Him, and appreciate Him for what He truly was—their only Saviour, Provider, Protector and Friend. It was a lesson that the nation as a whole never learned and which brought about their deportation to Assyria and Babylon, and finally after their rejection of the Messiah and His crucifixion, it brought about their destruction and dispersion by the Roman armies in A.D. 70.
If the people had held such an heart-softening, respectful opinion of God, they would never have fallen into sin again, and their entire history from Sinai to Calvary would have been completely different. This was what God was attempting to teach them as they traveled through the desert to Sinai, but they never learned the lesson. Arriving at Sinai, they held the same opinion of God as they had when they left Egypt, even though they had seen numerous miracles, and had been abundantly cared for by the Living Bread which came down from heaven and by the Living Water gushing forth from the riven Rock.
A wrong view of God’s character will always lead people to make mistakes in their theology. It caused the people of Jesus’ day to have difficulty in making a distinction between the truth and the traditions and maxims of the Pharisees. And it keeps the world today in bondage to the sins of both legalism and antinomianism because of our wrong view of God’s character.
Placed Under the Law
E. J. Waggoner made a clear statement regarding the propose of the law when he stated: “‘But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.’ Galatians 3:22-25. The law must be kept, and the terrors of Sinai were designed to drive them back to the oath of God [Genesis 15:17-18; Hebrews 6:16-18], which four hundred and thirty years before had been given to stand to all people in all ages as the assurance of righteousness through the crucified and ever-living Saviour.”
Concurring fully with Waggoner’s view on the covenant, A.T. Jones made the following comments regarding the promise of the people at Sinai:
Why was the covenant at Sinai a covenant of bondage? Didn’t they promise to obey and keep His law,—the Ten Commandments?—Certainly. And is not obedience to God in keeping of His law a good thing?—Unquestionably. Then wasn’t it a good thing that they promised?—Most assuredly.
Then what was the difficulty? Where was the fault?—The difficulty was not in the thing that they promised to do, but in their promise to do that thing. The covenant from Sinai is declared by the Scriptures to have been faulty: that it was faulty in the promises, and that the fault was found “with them.” Heb. 8:7, 8. Yet all that they did was to promise that they would obey the voice of God and keep the Ten Commandments. Therefore by the plain word of the Scriptures it was a fault for the people at Sinai to promise to obey God’s voice and keep His law in order to have God be their God, and they to be His people. And this simply for the reason that they could not do it. It was therefore a fault for them to enter into a compact of “Obey and Live.”
… Therefore, I now say deliberately and forever, that it is a fault for any person in the universe, either angel or man, at the beginning of his existence or at any other time, to promise to obey the law of God in order that he may have life or righteousness, or for any other purpose or for any reason whatever. It is a fault for either angels or men ever to enter into any compact of “Obey and Live,” or to offer to God obedience as the satisfaction of a “condition” upon which “only” they can secure the promise of life. And this for the reason that under such a “compact” and upon such “condition” their obedience and therefore their righteousness would be only of themselves and of the law. And self-righteousness is no more true righteousness, and no more acceptable to God in a heavenly angel than it is in an earthly Pharisee.
… Righteousness, whether to men, to angels, to bright seraphim, or to exalted cherubim, comes not by obedience of their own, from their own “promise” under a “compact,” upon “condition” and proviso. It comes only from the grace of God through the faith of Jesus Christ; never their own righteousness which is of the law, but always only “that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.”
And in this word “faith” I mean not a mere theoretical notion, but “faith” in its only true meaning of the will submitted to Him, the heart yielded to Him, and the affections fixed upon Him. This only is faith; and this itself by the grace and gift of God. And this faith, of the will submitted to God through Christ, of the heart yielded to God in Christ, and the affections fixed upon God by Christ—this is the faith of angels as truly as of men.
Yahweh’s Original Objective Thwarted
Yahweh was forced to deal with the people other than He had planned when they insisted on remaining under the old covenant, vassal (or slave) viewpoint. At Sinai, God’s original purpose was to meet with His people face to face, and the people were at first amenable to that event. In their pride, they assumed they were ready to meet the unveiled and unmediated presence of their Lord. “Although God knows full well that Bnei Yisrael cannot possibly sustain a direct encounter with the “Shchinah” [sic], He nonetheless concedes to their request to hear the Commandments directly.” God instructed Moses that the people were to spend three days in preparation for this divine appointment, and then He would descend on the mountain in their view. On the third day, the people assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, at the specified safety distance. Only Moses and Aaron were allowed to enter the actual vicinity of the mountain (Exodus 19:20-25). The mountain began to rumble with the glory of the Shechinah as He spoke His commandments, and the people were afraid (vs. 16). In response to their fear, Yahweh commanded Moses to descend the mountain and assure the people of their safety (vs. 25). According to a detailed linguistic analysis of the original Hebrew text, Exodus 20:18 should be understood as actually occurring after Yahweh spoke the first two commandments. That was all the people could tolerate of Yahweh’s magnificence before they cried out in fear, asking that Moses be the spokesman for Yahweh because they were afraid the presence of Yahweh would kill them. Moses transcribed the commandments without this interruption, but the original Hebrew indicates that the grammar shifts from the first to the third person after the second commandment, indicating that the first two commandments were spoken directly from Yahweh to the people, whereas the remaining commandments were related through Moses.
Why did the people change their minds? Why did the sight of the glory of God frighten them? Was there ever a time when a human being faced the Shechinah glory without fear? Abraham was visited by the same Shechinah when God sealed the covenant with him (Genesis 15:17). A “smoking furnace and a burning lamp” passed before Abraham and consumed the sacrifice while he gazed in rapturous wonderment. Moses also faced the Shechinah in the burning bush. Out of reverence and cautious trepidation, Moses at first hid his face from the mysterious sight, but he didn’t attempt to run and hide (Exodus 3:3-6). Prior to these events, Abraham and Moses both went through a reorientation program, which deepened and focused their faith in and dependence upon the one, true God.
In contrast, we see the children of Israel trembling and running away from the theophany on the mountain. The fear experienced by the children of Israel was a result of their own unconverted heart and piteous lack of faith in Yahweh’s love for them. Abraham and Moses stand in stark contrast to the unconverted condition of the children of Israel at Sinai. Abraham and Moses had true faith in God and were unafraid to be in His holy presence, friend with friend. Because the children of Israel had failed to learn the lessons God attempted to teach them on their way through the wilderness, He allowed them to experience this frightening event at Sinai to reveal to them their essential need of conversion. This incident exhibits to us how much He desired to bring them to a true knowledge of their spiritual condition—wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked, and in desperate need of everything Yahweh wanted to give them—if they only would have the faith of their father Abraham.
However, the children of Israel insisted on living like vassals instead of free children of the King of the universe. Despite all the blessings God had poured out upon them, He could not get them to change their inclination toward self-dependence, nor change their attitude of unbelief and grumbling. Now as He met with them at Sinai, ready to elevate them to the exalted position of His ambassadors to the lost world, He could do nothing else except meet them where they were in their slave mentality. During their three month’s journey to meet Him at His holy mountain, they had proven that their hearts were stone, resistant to the molding He’d attempted to do. God’s original desire was to write His laws upon their soft, pliant hearts, like He had done with their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, since they persisted in functioning from their vassal perspective, He would write His laws on tablets of stone to reflect their own condition of heart. What followed was the giving of a suzerain contract that matched what they, in their unbelief, thought they had been living under all along. The people had unitedly spoken: “All that You say, we will do.” Because of their sin of unbelief, the suzerain contract was made with them at Sinai to show them that they could not do what they promised they could do. Less than two months later, they were worshiping the golden calf and crying to return to Egypt.
While Moses was on the mountain, the people became restless. Though they failed to learn dependence upon Yahweh, they had learned dependence upon Moses and now he appeared to have deserted them in the desert. Facing Aaron they demanded that he craft them a god of gold; something tangible they could see and touch. This god would take the place of Moses; they would place their dependence upon a golden calf. Besides being a reversion to their Egyptian pantheistic notions and decadent behaviours, this act was a blatant violation of the first and second stipulations of the suzerain covenant they had arrogantly agreed to keep just a few weeks before.
When Yahweh instructed Moses to return to the camp, He told him: “Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And the Lord said unto Moses, I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people: now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10).
Our traditional interpretation of these verses has been that this was a test of Moses’ character, which indeed it was. However, it was also an accurate judgment and condemnation on the part of the Suzerain against His covenant-violating vassals. Yahweh no longer claimed the people as His own special possession—as He had expressed was His desire (Exodus 19:3-6). They were now Moses’ problem, which reflects the people’s attitude, as mentioned above. Under the suzerain covenant, there was no mercy for the violator of the stipulations. Yahweh had justification for saying that He was going to wipe this people from the face of the earth.
What changed—why were the people spared from sudden destruction? Moses reminded Yahweh of His everlasting covenant which He had made with Abraham and renewed with Isaac and then Jacob. “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Thy servants, to whom Thou swarest by Thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever” (Exodus 32:13). Yahweh is a covenant-keeping God; His everlasting can never be broken, and so He “repented” (Exodus 32:14).
Moses was concerned about Yahweh’s holy name, about His character, about what the surrounding nations would say about Him if He destroyed the people He had delivered from Egyptian bondage. “Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, for mischief did He bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?” Moses had no knowledge of what had been taking place below him on the plain around Mount Sinai while he was absent. He could know wonder at Yahweh’s change in attitude toward His people. “Why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, which Thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?” When Moses descended the mountain with Joshua, he soon understood Yahweh’s anger. In his disgust at the people’s abject disloyalty to their one true God, Moses smashed the tables which contained the stipulations of the covenant, a symbolic action signifying the broken covenant. One could analogize by saying that the “ink” wasn’t even dry on the contract before the people had broken every promise they had made to their Suzerain.
At Sinai the people promised to keep the given law. But in their own strength they had no power to keep the law. Mount Sinai “bore children for slavery,” since their promise to make themselves righteous by their own works was not successful and can never be …
Then did not God Himself lead them into bondage? Not by any means, since He did not induce them to make that covenant at Sinai. Four hundred and thirty years before that time He had made a covenant with Abraham which was sufficient for all purposes. That covenant was confirmed in Christ, and therefore was a covenant from above. See John 8:23. It promised righteousness as a free gift of God through faith, and it included all nations. All the miracles that God had wrought in delivering the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage were but demonstrations of His power to deliver them (and us) from the bondage of sin. Yes, the deliverance from Egypt was itself a demonstration not only of God’s power but also of His desire to lead them from the bondage of sin.
So, when the people came to Sinai, God simply referred them to what He had already done and then said: “Now therefore, if ye will obey My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people: for all the earth is Mine. Exodus 19:5, KJV. To what covenant did He refer? Evidently to the one already in existence, His covenant with Abraham. If they would simply keep God’s covenant, keep the faith, and believe God’s promise, they would be a “peculiar treasure” unto God. As the possessor of all the earth, He was able to do for them all that He had promised.
Leaving Sinai, never-ending rebellion remained the norm for the children of Israel as they marched onward to the border of the Promised Land. After the golden calf incident, we read about their pining for Egypt and its food; Miriam and Aaron’s insurrection; the evil report of the spies and the resulting forty years of wandering; the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abriam; and repeated bellyaching which sprang from their persistent unbelief and resulting discouragement. Through it all, Yahweh was giving and forgiving, but the people failed to comprehend either their true helpless, sinful condition or Yahweh’s mercy and love. The covenant made at Sinai could only perpetuate a vassal mentality and its consequent bondage.
Suzerain Covenant Restated to Israel
Forty years pass and Moses is standing before the people at Kadesh-Barnea, reminding the children of their dead fathers’ sins. “The Lord made this covenant with us at Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.” Deuteronomy 5:2-3. Moses says plainly that the covenant made with the people at Sinai was not the same one He made with “our fathers”— Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The original covenant was a promise founded on the solid Rock, which is Christ. The one made with the children’s fathers at Sinai was resting only on the unstable sands of human pledges. Careful reading of verses 2 through 4 reveals the corporate idea that the people assembled at Kadesh-Barnea were viewed as being the same ones who were standing at Sinai forty years before who promised God they would fulfill the covenant stipulations. Moses says the covenant made with them at that time—forty years before—was not the same covenant Yahweh made with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Scripture relates that it is the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which constitutes the reality of the everlasting covenant. Even in their rebellion, this promise is the basis for the children of Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan. Moses makes this clear whenever he discusses Israel’s history. Later in his address to the children of the rebels at Kadesh-Barnea, Moses said: “Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that He may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness; for thou art a stiffnecked people.” (Deuteronomy 9:5-6). By their continued rebellion , the people had proven themselves to be unworthy of any blessing, but God is faithful to His promise to the fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
As Moses concludes this section of his address, he turns his attention from a rehearsal of their sordid history to a prayer in their behalf. Again, he recalls the promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Speaking to God in behalf of the people he says: “Remember Thy servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; look not unto the stubbornness of this people, nor to their wickedness nor to their sin” (9:27). Why?—because Moses was concerned for God’s character; he was worried about what the people of the surrounding nations would say about Yahweh if He didn’t deliver on His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (verses 28 and 29).
After Moses finishes his farewell speech to the people he had shepherded for forty years, he is gently laid in his grave. The staff of leadership having passed to Joshua, the people march to the Jordan, where under the command of the Captain of the Yahweh’s army, the children of Israel had no difficulty in conquering Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15; chapter 6). However, by the time they approached Ai, pride had begun its work in their hearts. Their success at Jericho was viewed as being a result of their own power, not Yahweh’s. Therefore, following their own plans, they thought they could conquer Ai without consultation from the Captain of the Lord’s army (7:3-5). Additionally, the explicit command that everything in Jericho was dedicated to Yahweh (6:17-19) was scorned, which brought condemnation to the whole camp of Israel. Both of these factors brought defeat at Ai. Both reveal a lack of respect for and genuine knowledge about who Yahweh was. After cleansing the camp of its sin, Ai was taken through ambush. Following this victory, Joshua built an altar to Yahweh and read the Sinai covenant before all the people (8:30-35).
Joshua’s reading of the covenant before the people follows the suzerain contract formula for contract renewal, as discussed above in section one. It was the means for familiarizing the entire populace with their obligations to Yahweh, the great King of Israel. We find a few more instances in the Old Testament where the Sinai covenant was read before the people in a renewal ceremony. Josiah’s reformation is one example (2 Kings 23:1-3). However, all these efforts at reformation were short-lived, and the people soon forgot their obligations and turned back toward their self-centered interests and self-dependence. The covenant at Sinai was never strong enough to motivate the people to faithfully serve Yahweh.
New Testament Commentary on the Sinaitic Events
Paul tells us that the covenant made at Sinai was condemnable—full of fault—being founded on the faulty promises of the people. It could only keep the people bound in slavery. That this was not God’s intention is made plain in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Quoting Jeremiah, Paul writes:
“For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second. For finding fault with them [the children of Israel], He saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in My covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to Me a people: and they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.” Hebrews 8:7-13.
From these verses it is clear that God never intended to write His laws on tablets of stone at Sinai. He intended to write the laws on His people’s converted hearts, just like He had with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. However, the people’s persistent unbelief prevented that from taking place. The nation of Israel chose to live under the old covenant, living as a vassal to the mighty Suzerain while rejecting the spiritual rest God had planned for them as His adopted children. Paul appeals to the Jews of his day not to repeat this sin of unbelief. The appeal remains for us today, if we will hear His voice.
“The exhortation of the apostle applies to us as well as to those to whom this epistle was directed. ‘Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them.’ Christ taught the people the principles of Christianity, speaking from the pillar of cloud and of fire, by day and by night; but they did not obey his words, and the apostle presents before us the consequence of their disobedience, stating that they were overthrown in the wilderness because of their rebellion. He says, ‘For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them; but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.’ Shall we who are living near the close of this world's history ‘take heed’? Shall we heed the apostle's warning, ‘Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it’?”
“Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness: when your fathers tempted Me, proved Me, and saw My works forty years. Wherefore I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known My ways. So I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest.) Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; while it is said, To day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation. For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. But with whom was He grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware He that they should not enter into His rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.” (Hebrews 3:7-19).
Why was the law given in the written, hard copy form at Sinai? Paul tells us that the law was a schoolmaster to bring the people to Christ (Galatians 3:24). Because of the hardness of their hearts, it was required to write the law on tablets of stone as a visible reminder of what they couldn’t see by faith, and to convict them of their utter inability to live up to God’s standard.
“It is by the law of God that the sinner is convicted. He sees his own sinfulness in contrast with the perfect righteousness which it enjoins, and this leads him to humility and repentance. He becomes reconciled to God through the blood of Christ, and as he continues to walk with Him he will be gaining a clearer sense of the holiness of God's character and the far-reaching nature of His requirements. He will see more clearly his own defects and will feel the need of continual repentance and faith in the blood of Christ.” This was Yahweh’s intention when giving the children of Israel the law at Sinai, however, they persisted in unbelief thwarting the purposes of their Suzerain Lord. Determined minds and reliance on self, the essence of a contractual agreement, kept the people bound under faithless obligation to an external code of ethics. They remained “under law.”
“But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3:23-24).
Before faith came we were confined under the law, “shut up” unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. We know that whatsoever is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23); therefore, to be “under the law” is identical with being under sin. The grace of God brings salvation from sin so that when we believe God’s grace we are no longer under the law, because we are freed from sin. Those who are under the law therefore are the transgressors of the law. The righteous are not under it, but are walking in it.
The Revised Standard Version renders “custodian” in the place of the King James Version’s “schoolmaster.” The German and Scandinavian translations employ a word which signifies “master of a house of correction.”
The Greek word comes down to us in English as “pedagogue.” The paidagogos was the father’s slave who accompanied the father’s boys to school to see that they did not play truant. If they attempted to run away he would bring them back and had authority even to beat them to keep them in the way. The word has come to be used as meaning “schoolmaster, “ although the Greek word does not convey the idea of a schoolmaster. “Supervisor or “custodian” would be better. The one under this custodian, although nominally at large, is really deprived of his liberty just the same as though he were actually in a cell. The fact is that all who do not believe are under sin,” “shut up” “under the law,” and, therefore, the law acts as their supervisor or custodian. It is the law that will not let them go. The guilty cannot escape in their guilt. Although God is merciful and gracious, He will not clear the guilty. Exodus 34:6, 7. That is, He will not lie by calling evil good. But He provides a way by which the guilty may lose their guilt. Then the law will no longer curtail their liberty and they can walk free in Christ.
However, in it’s hard copy format, manifested under the old covenant suzerain contract formula, the covenant from Sinai could not countermand the original covenant God made with Abraham four hundred and thirty years before. “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.” (Galatians 3:17-19). (In a later section of this discussion we will examine in further detail the covenant significance of the inheritance promised to Abraham.)
Paul continues with his comparison of the old and new covenants in Galatians chapter 4. Here he states that Abraham lived under the old covenant idea when he took Hagar to be his wife, hoping to produce the son of promise through her; attempting by his own works of the flesh to gain the reality of God’s promise. However, Paul doesn’t stop with the mistakes of Abraham. He brings the issue right down to the blunder made at Sinai, calling that the old covenant “which gendereth to bondage,” which can never bring freedom to the ones who live under it. “For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” (Galatians 4:22-26).
And again, in Hebrews 12:18-24, Paul makes a clear distinction between the covenant made with the children of Israel at Sinai and the everlasting covenant made with Abraham. After his discourse relating the long list of individuals who had lived by faith in the promise of God, those who looked for “that better country, that is, an heavenly,” Paul concludes that section of his letter by admonishing us to heed the witnesses who have gone on before us. As these did, we are to look “unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” for the perfection of our characters. Paul says that we are not called to come up to the mount that “burned with fire,” but we are to “come to mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.” Sinai is here again associated with the covenant that passed away, not the new or everlasting covenant. Zion, the New Jerusalem, is emblematic of the everlasting covenant.
From this brief examination, we can see that it was a heart problem with ancient Israel, and it remains a heart problem with us today. God longed to give His people the spiritual rest they needed, but their unbelief prevented Him from doing all that He would. Their hearts remained unimpressible. “Today” persistent unbelief in God’s promises to save us continues to prevent us from entering into God’s eternal rest.
Persistence of the Suzerain Mind-set Throughout Ancient Israel’s History
As the children of the rebellion approached the border of the Promised Land for the second time, Moses rehearsed their history to them. Beginning with the promise made to the “fathers”— Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Moses briefly outlined the rebellion that occurred 40 years before at Kadesh-barnea.
“The Lord our God spake unto us in Horeb, saying, Ye have dwelt long enough in this mount: turn you, and take your journey, and go to the mount of the Amorites, and unto all the places nigh thereunto, in the plain, in the hills, and in the vale, and in the south, and by the sea side, to the land of the Canaanites, and unto Lebanon, unto the great river, the river Euphrates. Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.” Deuteronomy 1:6-8.
Continuing his narrative Moses relates how at Kadesh-barnea, unbelief was again the response to God’s promise. First the unbelief was manifested in the desire to scout out the territory, to determine if they possessed the manpower to capture the land already possessed by a fierce people. The spies returned with a mixed report. All declared that the land was wonderful, filled with a bounty of everything they could possibly want, crops ready for harvesting and houses already built and furnished. However, most of the spies brought a discouraging report of giants, high-walled cities, and ferocious warriors. Unbelief caused the fathers to reject the promise of God in favor of a return trip to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-4). Forty years later, God still had to deal with the same unbelief as He attempted to bring the children of the rebellion into the land promised to their fathers.
A pattern of unbelief is evident throughout the books of Joshua and Judges, finally ending with the declaration that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The books of Samuel open with an apostate priesthood and continued war with the Philistines. The Israelites had become as superstitious as their pagan neighbors, placing more confidence in the gold encrusted box than they had in the God of heaven. Repeatedly, this falsely placed confidence brought them defeat and disgrace. Throughout this period of prevailing unbelief one man arose to lead the people, continually calling them to “return unto the Lord with all your hearts, and put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you and prepare your hearts unto the Lord and serve Him only, and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7:3).
Three hundred years have passed since they came into possession of the Promised Land, but the people’s attitude of unbelief remained unchanged. If they had only believed in the power of God’s promise and the covenant He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He would have delivered the entire land into their hands without a fight. However, they insisted on doing things the hard way. Repeatedly, Moses had warned them that after they possessed the land they were to avoid all forms of false religion (see Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:6-9; 17:2-5, etc.). Bound in their unbelief, they were easy prey for the enemy of their souls and soon fell into idol worship, thus preventing God from working marvelously in their behalf. When finally for a time, they heeded the admonitions of the prophet Samuel and repented of their apostasy, the Lord delivered them from their enemies. “And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.” (1 Samuel 7:4, 14).
Shortly thereafter, the people lost their perspective again. Focused on men instead of Yahweh, they rejected the theocracy ordained by their Sovereign Lord and clamored for an earthly king who could lead them into battle, a demand which set up the next five hundred years of misery. Under the reign of kings, some of the worst apostasy and greatest evils took place in the nation of Israel, finally ending with their captivity in Babylon. As their own government and power were crumbling, this era was marked by political intrigue and numerous covenants with the surrounding nations as one Israelite king after another sought peace through alliance with the pagan kings around them. However, having turned their back on their true Sovereign, it was fruitless for them to seek peace through compromise with paganism.