Understanding God’s Everlasting Covenant
Israel’s Breach of Covenant Contract
In the following sections we will examine a condensed assessment of the political history of Israel as it pertains to the suzerain covenant. Throughout the time of the divided kingdom, we find various suzerain contracts being made with surrounding nations. Along with the religious apostasy, these were a direct violation of the stipulations of the suzerain covenant made with Yahweh at Sinai, opening the way for a covenant lawsuit against them. It as period of great political instability, treachery, and war. David’s reign is purposely skipped; it will be discussed in a later section of this study.
Covenants of Israel with Assyria
During the tumultuous years after the kingdom was divided into Israel on the north and Judah on the south, we read of various covenants and treaties being made between Israelite kings and the sovereigns of the surrounding nations, and between Israel and God (the people were the initiators). Many of these self-initiated treaties were hastily made and short-lived. In 2 Kings 15:13-20 we read of a usurper to the throne of Israel who, in a political alliance, paid heavy tribute to Pul (Tiglath-pileser III) the king of Assyria. Menahem paid this tribute for the express purpose of maintaining his uncertain position as the ruler of Israel. However, by this time Assyria had ventured deeply into Palestine, and the Philistines were pushing from the west. Tiglath-pileser used wholesale transplantations of his conquered foes as a means of destroying nationalistic spirit and political sentiments. Many Israelites were being transported out of Israel as Assyria over-ran the area (2 Kings 17:20-27). It was a highly unstable political era.
When Pekah, a usurper to the throne of Israel, challenged Ahaz, king of Judah, Ahaz set about to buy assistance from Tiglath-pileser by sending him the sacred vessels from the Temple of Yahweh (2 Kings 16:7-9). Through this act Ahaz insulted the Lord and proved to the world that he thought an earthly king had more power than the King of the universe. As a result, “the Lord brought Judah low because of Ahaz king of Israel; for he made Judah naked, and transgressed sore against the Lord.” (2 Chronicles 28:19). Tiglath-pileser responded by invading Israel and Damascus and capturing much of that territory. While Tiglath-pileser was still at Damascus, Ahaz went to meet him and paid him tribute as his vassal (2 Kings 16:10).
Back in the northern kingdom, Hoshea assassinated Pekah and captured Israel’s throne while Tiglath-pileser was campaigning in southwestern Palestine against the Philistines. Shortly thereafter, Tiglath-pileser was succeeded by Shalmaneser V. When Shalmaneser arrived in Palestine, Hoshea paid his suzerain tribute and was confirmed in the kingship (2 Kings 17:3). Hoshea paid tribute to Assyria for several years, then formed an alliance with Egypt in an effort to be free from Assyrian domination. After three years of constant siege against Samaria (the northern capital), Shalmaneser captured Hoshea and took him to Assyria where he died. There was never another king in the northern division. Their continual violation of the suzerain covenant made with Yahweh at Sinai brought the curses upon them and destruction of their nation.
Hosea poignantly portrays this through his marriage to Gomer as recorded in his book. The final judgment of Israel is consequent upon the sin of Jehu in making a suzerain covenant with Assyria, which was the ultimate insult to the true Suzerain of Israel.
The sin of Jehu turns out to be Israel’s entry through Jehu into an alliance with Assyria, to which in its enduring form Hosea, more than a century later, is implacably opposed. The birth of a second child, “Not pitied,” spells the end of the northern kingdom; the future hope lies with Judah (vv. 6-7). However, the birth of the third child, “Not my people,” spells the end of the covenant with Israel as a whole (1:8-9). The name is the ultimate word of judgment, the ultimate breach of the marriage relationship.
Because of the promise He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Lord had been longsuffering with His rebellious vassal. “And the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence as yet.” (2 Kings 13:23). Later, Jeremiah declared that Yahweh’s very name is a pledge of His fidelity to His promise. Yahweh not only makes the promise but is more than able to establish and carry out His promise to mankind. The “great and mighty things” that He desired to show His people was salvation from their sins, salvation from their dependence upon themselves, and the power of life everlasting through faith in His promise (see Jeremiah 33:2-3). This was a lesson the people never seemed to learn. Because of their stubborn iniquity, eventually divine forbearance was exhausted, “and the king of Assyria did carry away Israel unto Assyria, and put them in Halah and in Habor by the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes: because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord their God, but transgressed His covenant, and all that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded, and would not hear them, nor do them.” (2 Kings 18:11-12).
Contracts of Judah with Assyria and Chaldea
While lingering for nearly 150 years after Assyria destroyed the northern division, as the northern tribes had done before them Judah repeatedly broke the covenant they made with Yahweh at Sinai by forming alliances with the nations around them. This would bring them down to captivity to Babylon. Ahaz’s son Hezekiah attempted to overturn his father’s deplorable subservience to Assyria. Through faith in Yahweh’s power and ability to protect the nation, Hezekiah regained control over the Philistine lowlands (2 Kings 18:8), restored the sheepfolds and storage towns (2 Chronicles 32:27-29), fortified the wall around Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:10), and built the pool of Siloam to provide water to Jerusalem during war-time siege (2 Kings 20:20). However, for all his good deeds, Hezekiah refused to listen to the word of the Lord through Isaiah (Isaiah 30:1-5; 31:1-3), and formed an alliance with Egypt and Ethiopia. This resulted in a speedy retaliation from Sennacherib who had succeeded to the throne of Assyria in 705 B.C. When Hezekiah witnessed what Assyria did to his brethren in the northern division of the nation, he repented. However, he committed the same sin Ahaz had committed. He foolishly sent Sennacherib silver and gold from the house of the Lord (2 Kings 18:13-16). Sennacherib ascertained this to be a weakness in Hezekiah that he could exploit. While Sennacherib was occupied at Lachish, he sent emissaries to Hezekiah in an effort to persuade him to return fully to his allegiance and avoid outright war (2 Kings 18:17-35). This time Hezekiah appealed for assistance to the King of heaven—the original Suzerain of Israel—and in one night the angel of the Lord killed 145,000 Assyrians as they encamped around Jerusalem.
Hezekiah’s son was more evil than any of his predecessors. “Moreover Manasseh shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another; beside his sin wherewith he made Judah to sin, in doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (2 Kings 21:16). As a result of his wickedness, judgment was promised against Jerusalem and Judah. “Because Manasseh king of Judah hath done these abominations, and hath done wickedly above all that the Amorites did, which were before him, and hath made Judah also to sin with his idols: therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Behold, I am bringing such evil upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whosoever heareth of it, both his ears shall tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab: and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish, wiping it, and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of Mine inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies; because they have done that which was evil in My sight, and have provoked Me to anger, since the day their fathers came forth out of Egypt, even unto this day” (vv. 11-15).
Manasseh apparently felt compelled to pay homage to his overlord’s gods and filled Judah with idolatrous worship practices, including wizardry, Baal worship, and human sacrifice to Molech. His rampant persecution of God’s faithful witnesses and prophets led Josephus to report of daily executions. Much like Israel in the days of Ahab and Elijah, confusion reigned regarding who the true God really was. Apostasy creeps in through slow increments and neglect of truth.
It is, to be sure, probable that much of this represented no conscious abandonment of the national religion. The nature of primitive Yahwism had been so widely forgotten, and the rites incompatible with it so long practiced, that in many minds the essential distinction between Yahweh and the pagan gods had been obscured. It was possible for such people to practice these rites alongside the cult of Yahweh without awareness that they were turning from the national faith in doing so. The situation was one of immense, and in some ways novel, danger to the religious integrity of Israel. Yahwism was in danger of slipping unawares into outright polytheism . . . the decay of the national religion brought with it contempt of Yahweh’s laws and new incidents of violence and injustice (Zeph. 1:9; 3:1-7), together with a skepticism regarding Yahweh’s ability to act in events (ch. 1:12). Hezekiah’s reform was canceled completely and the voice of prophecy silenced; those who protested—and apparently there were those who did—were dealt with severely (2 Kings 21:16).
Under Manasseh’s rule, the foreign powers of Moab and Ammon began to revolt. To settle the political unrest in the area, the Assyrians bound Manasseh in chains and transported him to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33:11). While imprisoned in Babylon and hating the miserableness of his predicament, Manasseh had a change of heart. The God of his fathers heard his supplications and restored him to the throne in Judah. However, after his death Manaseh’s reformation was rapidly undone by his wicked son, Amon, who was so vile that even his own people detested him. They murdered him after a two year reign and placed his eight year old son, Josiah, on the throne. While accomplishing his religious reform, Josiah was apprized of the discovery of “the book of the law” which had been hidden in the Temple walls (2 Kings 22:8-11). As a result of this finding, Josiah reinstated the suzerain covenant with God through the reading of the law before all the people (2 Kings 23:1-3). However, the curse against Judah for her rebellion against their Suzerain could not be reversed, but Josiah would be spared of seeing it fulfilled (2 Kings 22:15-20; cf. Deuteronomy 29:10-28).
Desperate Attempts at Political Stability
During Josiah’s reign, Assyrian domination of the Near East was crumbling from internal political intrigue and over-extension of its military powers. When Egypt began to push from the west for supremacy in Palestine, Judah was once again caught in the middle. Josiah died in battle defending the remnants of Judah from Pharaoh Neco, who was attempting to bring Judah under his subjugation. The next three kings of Judah, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin, all fell into the hands of the rising power of the Chaldeans pouring down upon them from the east, either as vassals or captives.
Mattaniah, the sole remaining son of Josiah (later named Zedekiah by Nebuchadnezzar), was only a puppet to Babylon. In a miscalculated attempt at freedom, he formed an alliance with Egypt. In the suzerain treaty, it is the vassal that makes the oath of obedience to the stipulations of the treaty (from the lesser individual to the greater), and the suzerain treaty invariably contained curses against the vassal for violation of the contract stipulations—disobedience or rebellion against the suzerain. Zedekiah broke his suzerain contract with Nebuchadnezzar when he formed an alliance with Egypt. God condemned Zedekiah for breaking his covenant (Ezekiel 17:11-21). It revealed a rebellious, untrustworthy and treacherous heart. Nebuchadnezzar recognized Zedekiah’s alliance with Egypt as a declaration of enmity against the suzerain contract he had made with him and promptly invaded Judah.
In 587, king Zedekiah was taken into captivity during the final siege against Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s army. “Zedekiah with some of his soldiers fled in the night toward the Jordan (II Kings 25:3f.; Jer. 52:7f.), no doubt hoping to reach temporary safety in Ammon, only to be overhauled near Jericho and brought before Nebuchadnezzar at his headquarters at Riblah in central Syria. He was shown no mercy. Having witnessed the execution of his sons, he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon, where he died (II Kings 25:6f.; Jer. 52:9-11). A month later (II Kings 25:8-12; Jer. 52:12-16) Nebuzaradan, commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard, arrived in Jerusalem and, acting on orders, put the city to the torch and leveled its walls.”
Through all of its turbulent history, God constantly brought covenant lawsuit against His rebellious people for breaking the stipulations of the suzerain covenant they made with Him at Sinai. Though He used it, there were differences in God’s suzerain covenant with Israel and the world’s form of suzerain contract. These differences were based on His promise to Abraham. God used the suzerain covenant as a way to make the people accountable to Him, to bring them back to remembering His promises to Abraham. Deuteronomy is replete with His pleadings to the children of Israel “to love the Lord with all thine heart” as their father Abraham had done. It had ever been God’s desire to bring Israel to full restoration of the blessings of His everlasting covenant—the one He had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The suzerain contract formula was used only because of the hardness of their hearts; He always wanted better for them.
Why did God allow this? For one reason: knowing that the people were ignorant of their true condition, God accepted the promise of the people at Sinai in an effort to get the people to see their arrogance and inability to perform as promised. By showing them all the good things He wanted for them which they couldn’t do for themselves, He hoped to bring them to contrition and humility in appreciation of His gifts. By entering into a suzerain contract with God, they are entering into a what constituted a marriage contract. Standing at the foot of Sinai in their immature affection for Him, they promised their Lord obedience, little knowing the true condition of their hearts. However, when Israel began making contracts with other nations it showed their true character and lack of interest and devotion to God. The children of Israel had shown themselves to be dishonest in their covenant with Yahweh. Truly did the Lord speak: “Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me.” (Matthew 15:7-8).
Covenant Lawsuit Proclaimed
God allowed the children of Israel to go into captivity because repeatedly they had transgressed the stipulations of the suzerain covenant they made with Him before entering Canaan. In addition, they had never learned to appreciate the covenant He had made with their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which was the foundation for their acquisition of the Promised Land. Yahweh called them to task over this breach of contract. “And the Lord said unto me, A conspiracy [an illegal alliance] is found among the men of Judah, and among the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They are turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, which refused to hear My words; and they went after other gods to serve them: the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken My covenant which I made with their fathers.” (Jeremiah 11:9-10; 31:21).
Characterizing the national religious attitude, Zedekiah proved himself unfaithful and deceitful in his political covenant with Nebuchadnezzar. Had be remained trustworthy in his promises to Nebuchadnezzar, he might not have been taken into captivity. Because of his breach of contract, he and Judah were denounced by Yahweh for their rebellion (Ezekiel 17:11-18). The nation of Israel had proven that they could not be honest in their dealings with men or with Yahweh. In Ezekiel 17:19-20, God mentions both His covenant with Abraham (His oath) and the covenant He entered into at Sinai as being broken by the rebellious nation. Covenant lawsuit brought imprisonment for the lawbreakers, that they might learn repentance. “Therefore thus saith the Lord God; as I live, surely Mine oath that he hath despised, and My covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head. And I will spread My net upon him, and he shall be taken in My snare, and I will bring him to Babylon, and will plead with him there for his trespass that he hath trespassed against Me.”
In a withering denunciation of her unstable character, God condemned Judah not only for breaking the covenants she had repeatedly made with foreign nations, but also for her whoredoms against His covenant with her. Israel repeatedly refused to live up to her agreement with Yahweh, and refused to believe Yahweh’s promise to her (Isaiah 1:2-15; 24:5), thus provoking the Lord to bring a covenant lawsuit against His people.
“Thou hast also committed fornication with the Egyptians thy neighbours, great of flesh; and hast increased thy whoredoms, to provoke Me to anger. Behold, therefore I have stretched out My hand over thee, and have diminished thine ordinary food, and delivered thee unto the will of them that hate thee, the daughters of the Philistines, which are ashamed of thy lewd way. Thou hast played the whore also with the Assyrians, because thou wast unsatiable; yea, thou hast played the harlot with them, and yet couldest not be satisfied. Thou hast moreover multiplied thy fornication in the land of Canaan unto Chaldea; and yet thou wast not satisfied herewith. How weak is thine heart, saith the Lord God, seeing thou doest all these things, the work of an imperious whorish woman; in that thou buildest thine eminent place in the head of every way, and makest thine high place in every street; and hast not been as an harlot, in that thou scornest hire; but as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband!” (Ezekiel 16:26-32; see also vv. 22-43).
As the remnants of Israel were being carted off to Babylon, Yahweh declared: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that 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 that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: but this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The suzerain covenant He had made with Israel at Sinai was not the one He desired to make with them. That covenant was a defective covenant, based on the faulty promises of the people (Hebrews 8:7-12). Yahweh desired to write His covenant on His people’s soft, pliant hearts, just as He had done with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He’s still awaiting His opportunity, when Israel will finally heed the True Witness’s counsel (Revelation 3:14-22).
Persistence of the Vassal Mentality
Even while He was sending them into captivity, God was planning His people’s redemption. “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob, saith the Lord; neither be dismayed, O Israel: for, lo, I will save thee from afar, and thy seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be in rest, and be quiet, and none shall make him afraid. For I am with thee, saith the Lord, to save thee: though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, yet will I not make a full end of thee: but I will correct thee in measure, and will not leave thee altogether unpunished.” (Jeremiah 30:10-11). Continuing with his good news, Jeremiah announced: “The Lord hath appeared unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee.” (Jeremiah 31:3).
When they return from Babylon, the children of Israel take up where they left off, a bit more subdued perhaps, but still thinking like a vassal. Reviewing their history to them, Nehemiah praised God for His faithfulness to His promise to Abraham in delivering the children of Israel to the Promised Land (Nehemiah 9:7-8). He recounted the protection and provision God had given to the infant nation, but was honest in his reiteration of their sordid history; they were only evil continually. “Many times didst Thou deliver them according to Thy mercies; and testifiedst against them, that Thou mightest bring them again unto Thy law: yet they dealt proudly, and hearkened not unto Thy commandments, but sinned against Thy judgments, (which if a man do, he shall live in them;) and withdrew the shoulder, and hardened their neck, and would not hear.” (Nehemiah 9:29). At the end of his discourse, Nehemiah and the people again made a solemn vow before the Lord and promised God they would be obedient. “And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.” (v. 38).
Having learned their lessons about covenanting with the surrounding nations, Israel set about to isolate themselves from temptation. They not only built walls around their cities, but around their dealings with men in general, hedging themselves in by erecting a wall of partition that would remain until the coming of Christ. “The effort to earn salvation by one's own works inevitably leads men to pile up human exactions as a barrier against sin. For, seeing that they fail to keep the law, they will devise rules and regulations of their own to force themselves to obey. All this turns the mind away from God to self. His love dies out of the heart, and with it perishes love for his fellow men.” Israel never got past seeing God other than in relationship to law—do’s and don’t’s—that they thought pleased Him. Never could they see that He was trying to teach them fidelity, loyalty, responsibility, and true devotion. They remained in their vassal-slave mentality, never recognizing God as the loving, kind, and merciful God that He is.
When He appeared on earth as their Saviour, their vassal mentality led them to reject and crucify their Lord. Tragically, the freedom He spoke about, they could not comprehend, preferring their bondage to the law which condemned them. To the leadership of the church, the teaching of Jesus was antinomian and opposed to everything in which they had trust and confidence. “Israel had not perceived the spiritual nature of the law, and too often their professed obedience was but an observance of forms and ceremonies, rather than a surrender of the heart to the sovereignty of love. As Jesus in His character and work represented to men the holy, benevolent, and paternal attributes of God, and presented the worthlessness of mere ceremonial obedience, the Jewish leaders did not receive or understand His words.”
[Jesus] declared that the righteousness upon which the Pharisees set so great value was worthless. The Jewish nation had claimed to be the special, loyal people who were favored of God; but Christ represented their religion as devoid of saving faith. All their pretensions of piety, their human inventions and ceremonies, and even their boasted performance of the outward requirements of the law, could not avail to make them holy. They were not pure in heart or noble and Christlike in character. … A legal religion is insufficient to bring the soul into harmony with God. The hard, rigid orthodoxy of the Pharisees, destitute of contrition, tenderness, or love, was only a stumbling block to sinners. … The prophet Hosea had pointed out what constitutes the very essence of Pharisaism, in the words, “Israel is an empty vine, he bringeth forth fruit unto himself." Hosea 10:1. In their professed service to God, the Jews were really working for self. Their righteousness was the fruit of their own efforts to keep the law according to their own ideas and for their own selfish benefit. Hence it could be no better than they were. In their endeavor to make themselves holy, they were trying to bring a clean thing out of an unclean. The law of God is as holy as He is holy, as perfect as He is perfect. It presents to men the righteousness of God. It is impossible for man, of himself, to keep this law; for the nature of man is depraved, deformed, and wholly unlike the character of God. The works of the selfish heart are “as an unclean thing;’” and “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” Isaiah 64:6.
“The spirit of Phariseeism is the spirit of human nature,” and it dogged Israel just as much as it tenaciously clings to all of us today.
The record is clear. The covenant the people had promised to keep while standing at the foot of Sinai was only sporadically kept, if at all. Our Lord’s wistful comment is sadly proven to be true, “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).