The Prophets

This is the first part of my essay on the Christian law.

The old law is a result of the second covenant made by God in the Old Testament. The first covenant was the covenant of circumcision made to Abraham. Here it is in full (note that I’ll be quoting from the NIV throughout):

“This is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The wholelandofCanaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.” (Genesis 17:4-10.)

Note how this covenant is eternal: God is not giving Abraham any indication that it will come to an end with the arrival of Jesus a few centuries later. The apostle Paul realizes this, and tries to explain it in his letter to the Galatians:

Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

This seems to be a bit of a stretch: the word “seed” is interpreted to mean a single person, which Paul conveniently identifies as Jesus, rather than all of Abraham’s descendents. This interpretation comes off as especially disingenuous when one reads a little of the context surrounding the use of the word “seed” in Genesis. Take Genesis 13:15, for example, in which God says to Abraham:

All the land that you see I will give to you and your seed forever.

Fair enough, “seed” could, at a stretch, refer to one person. However, the very next verse says:

I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. (Genesis 13:16.)

Paul appears to be just plain wrong in his interpretation.

But I digress.

The old law, which is the focus of this essay, is not part of the covenant of circumcision, but the covenant made with Moses, following the Israelites’ escape from Egypt:

This is what you [Moses] are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 9:3-6.)

The new covenant, which is to supersede the old,  is also mentioned in the Old Testament. Notably, Jeremiah has this to say (emphasis mine):

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34.)

This passage makes at least two claims relevant to this discussion. The first is that the new covenant will include the law. The second is that the new covenant will be directed at the people of Israel and Judah, just as the old one was. As a commenter below points out, though, Jeremiah does not explicitly tell us which laws will be written on the hearts of the people. It does, indeed, seem a little silly to think of laws regarding unclean foods and forbidden clothing combinations being written on people’s hearts.

God mentions the new covenant again when he speaks to Isaiah, saying that a special servant will one day appear who will actually be the new covenant. God says to this servant:

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles. (Isaiah 42:6.)

Here, God seems to be differentiating between “the people” (the Jews) and the gentiles. The covenant is for the people, but the servant will nonetheless be “a light” for the gentiles. Once again, this implies that the gentiles will not actually be bound to the new covenant. This is, however, a rather strict interpretation of the language and, as the commenter below suggests, the wording might be interpreted to mean an extension of the new covenant to the gentiles.

Can we reconcile the descriptions of the new covenant in Jeremiah and Isaiah? In the former, the new covenant is a state of being in which God’s people have the old law written on their hearts, and will no longer need to command one another to know God, because they will all know him. In Isaiah, however, the new covenant is described as a person, and it’s not clear (yet) what this person is expected to do or represent. Perhaps we could include both perspectives: the new covenant will be a state of being in which everyone knows God and his law, and it will involve the appearance of a special servant of God.

Putting the issue of covenants aside, let us look further at the law itself. Another Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel, hasthe following vision of the future Israel:

I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again. They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:17-20.)

and

My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever.My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD makeIsrael holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever. (Ezekiel 37:24-28.)

In these passages, there is no mention of a special servant, and the new covenant is one of peace. Importantly, the new covenant will require God’s people to follow his laws and decrees.

Malachi’s vision of the future also includes the law:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4.)

Finally, Micah too speaks of the law as lasting:

In the last days … The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Excerpt from Micah 4:1-2.)

In summary, no writer in the Old Testament suggests that the old law will be made obsolete. Certainly Jeremiah and Isaiah, as described above, predict the end of the old covenant, but they do not explicitly associate this with an end to the law itself. Indeed, Jeremiah sees the new covenant as a more permanent expression of the old law: it is to be written on the people’s hearts.

The eternal nature of the law is reiterated by the Psalmists:

All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal. (Psalm 119:160.)

The next part of this essay.

The introduction to this essay.

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5 Responses to The Prophets

  1. RuediG says:

    Keith,
    Some thoughts:
    Good point re the singular vs plural of “seed.” Still, jewish interpreters found this kind of metaphorical interpretation a lot less dubious than we do. See, for example, Isaiah’s description of God’s “Servant”: Christians see it as singular (= Jesus); jews see it as plural (= the nation of Israel.) My personal take is that this is an irrelevant distinction. It can, and is, a reference to either and both.
    As for a light to the gentiles, that’s an old thought. God had already told Abram that he would be a blessing to all nations of the earth (Gen 12:3), presumably ultimately through his descendant Christ (singular) and the worldwide church (plural).
    As for “my law in their minds and on their hearts,” the question becomes relevant, What exactly does he mean with “my law”? (see my comments to the previous section) What is clear is that even today, the people of God are to be marked as such by their purity and in their love for God and others. In that sense, much of the underlying reason for the OT laws finds fulfillment in the people of the NT.

  2. kpharri says:

    Ruedi

    I’m a little hesitant to conflate the ideas of “light” and “blessing” with the concept of a covenant. The two passages in Genesis seem to be indicating that Abram and his people will confer some sort of blessing or other benefit on the rest of the world, perhaps through their example of godliness or moral living. But nowhere does it explicitly say that the covenant itself will apply to the rest of the world. Perhaps I’m just being overcautious in my interpretation. I’ve modified the post accordingly.

    Your point about the law being marked on the people’s hearts is well taken: it’s not clear exactly what law is being spoken about. Of course, this problem (as I suggest in my reply to your comment in the introduction), extends to most other examples – the speaker often states explicitly which law, and which parts of it, he is referring to. Once again, I have modified the post accordingly.

    • RuediG says:

      Keith,

      “But nowhere does it explicitly say that the covenant itself will apply to the rest of the world. Perhaps I’m just being overcautious in my interpretation.”

      No, I think you’re right. The abrahamic covenant was with Abraham only. It did include an expectation / promise / responsibility for Abraham and his descendants to become a blessing to the world (which they pretty much failed at – the next step Abraham took brought a plague on Egypt…), but it was still a promise to Abraham, which much later was fulfilled through Christ, and his followers (ahem, some of the time, unfortunately.)

  3. kpharri says:

    Thanks for the follow-up, Ruedi.

    I should also note that I made an error in the last sentence of my previous comment. It should read “the speaker *seldom* states explicitly…”

    • RuediG says:

      Gee, and I thought we agreed. 😦
      I guess it would take a more careful statistical analysis than I’m ready to engage in right now to document how “seldom” or “often” it is clear from the context what type of law the speaker is referring to. I sense that it’s usually clear, but obviously you disagree.

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