by R.B.C. Howell
THE COVENANTS OF THE LAW.
Design of these covenants;
covenant of the land of Canaan; of
circumcision; of Sinai; history of the Hebrews; prophecy.
The covenant considered in the last chapter, determined, as we saw, that the Saviour provided in the covenant of redemption, and announced to our first parents in Eden, should be of "the seed of Abraham;" and that the scene of his actions upon earth, should be in the land of Canaan. But when is he to appear among men? Many a century is yet to pass ere his actual advent. By what means, it has been asked, shall it, when he does come, be known with positive certainty, that he is the very Christ promised? Indubitable testimony for the establishment of his claims must surround him. Otherwise how can men believe in the Son of God? Faith is a primary condition of salvation. This is true of all classes; of the Jews no less emphatically than of the Gentiles. Nor in all that pertains to sanctification and eternal life, is he less the Christ of the one, than of the other. Upon the Hebrews Jehovah conferred peculiar honor. To their custody was committed "the oracles of God;" theirs "were the fathers; and of them, as concerning the flesh, Christ came." In all other respects however, they possessed no special advantages. In Messiah "all the families of the earth" were to be blessed. Therefore "all the families of the earth" were equally, and alike interested in whatever measures might be found necessary to elicit, and confirm their faith in Christ. To gain this end, the plan adopted by Jehovah was perfect, and is presented to us mainly in the three collateral covenants now to be considered, and which we have called "The covenants of the law," together with the history of Israel, and the predictions of the prophets. Of them truly may we say, as John did of his Gospel, "These [things] are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name." Let us refer to them separately and consecutively.
The first of these collateral covenants, in time, if not in importance, gave to Abraham a specified country, and made his family a distinct and separate nation.
"The word of the Lord came unto Abram," while he dwelt in Mamre, "saying: Fear not Abram, I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward." And God "brought Abraham forth abroad, and said: Look now towards heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them. And he said unto him: So shall thy seed be. And he believed the Lord, and it was counted to him for righteousness. And he said unto him, I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur; of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit. And Abram said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? And God said unto him: Take me a heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle dove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another but the birds he divided not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and lo, a horror of great darkness fell upon him! And God said unto Abram, know surely that thy seed shall he a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them," of that land, "and they shall afflict them, four hundred years! And also that nation whom they shall serve, will I judge. And afterwards shall they come out with great substance." And "they shall come hither again." "And it came to pass when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp, that passed between the pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: Unto thy seed will I give this land, from the river of Egypt, unto the great river, the river Euphrates."
Promises of the land of Canaan, had frequently before been made. They were indeed (so important was the separate national existence of Israel to the end proposed, regarded,) included in the previous "covenant of God in Christ," and also, as we shall see, in the subsequent covenant of circumcision. But here we have the distinct and formal covenant itself, pledging the land to Abram, and his posterity forever. The reasons of this importance you must yourself perceive, upon a moment?s reflection. A Saviour is promised. He is to spring from this family. "In the fullness of the time" he will come. But nearly two thousand years are yet to transpire before he appears. Meanwhile what changes may not occur among men, and even among nations! What family mingling as is common with other families, could hope so long to survive, and preserve its distinct character? Are there any families now upon earth, who have so maintained themselves, and can confidently trace back their lineage for twenty centuries? Such a result may, without divine interposition, be in the ordinary course of things, safely pronounced impossible. Yet this much, at least, the family of Abraham must be able to do, since upon it is, to a great extent suspended, the faith of all nations. Without it, how can the true Messiah he certainly recognized? How can false Christs be detected and exposed? Of his claims, when he comes, it will not be conclusive that he shall manifest extraordinary wisdom. This did Solomon. It will not be enough that he shall perform miracles, since Moses and the prophets did the same. Will he heal the sick, and even raise the dead? Elisha did both. It must be known beyond doubt, that he is precisely of the descent promised; otherwise the proofs are forever vitally defective. He must be the son of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, and of the house of David. No obscurity must rest upon these facts. On these accounts (and they are infinitely wise, and benevolent) this covenant was inaugurated. The family of Abraham was separated from all others, and made a distinct nation. A specified territory was prescribed, where they were to remain under the divine government, and protection. In that land they were to reside, a peculiar, and an isolated people, until Christ should come and establish his claims, and, by one offering perfect forever all them that are sanctified."
The second of these collateral covenants was also made with Abraham, and is known as "the covenant of circumcision."
It looked, unquestionably, to the same end with the covenant which promised to him the land of Canaan. They were auxiliaries of each other. Their design was to certify the fulfilment of "the promise of God in Christ to Abraham." That covenant separated Israel as a nation, from every other people. This distinguished them as individuals, from all other men. Thus they were more perfectly isolated, and the certainty of the proofs, by which Messiah?s claims were to be established, augmented mud simplified. The covenant of circumcision was made with Abraham when he was ninety-nine years old; eighteen years after the covenant of the land, and twenty-four years after "the covenant of promise in Christ." Its synopsis is as follows:- "I will establish my covenant between me and thee, and thy seed after thee, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. And God saith unto Abraham: Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou and thy seed after thee, in their generations. This is my covenant which ye shall keep between me and you, and thy seed after thee; every man child among you shall be circumcised." "And my covenant shall be in your flesh, for an everlasting covenant." "And the uncircumcised man child shall be cut off from his people."
This covenant, which as we said, also includes the grant of the land of Canaan, enjoins the worship and service of God only; it commands circumcision; and it excludes from that family every one who shall be found uncircumcised. Its general bearing in relation to all the Hebrew institutions, is explained by Paul, who says:- "I testify again, to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law." This rite was at once received by Abraham; was administered in his family; and was ever afterwards observed by his descendants, until the object which it proposed, had been effectually secured. Christ came; its design was accomplished; the covenant, as all the others of like temporary character, ceased to exist. The gospel now reigns; under which "He is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men, but of God." "If ye be circumcised," said Paul to the primitive Christians, "Christ shall profit you nothing." For "whosoever of you shall" seek "to be justified by the law" of Moses, to which circumcision pledges your obedience, to you "Christ has become of no effect." We understand better the plan of salvation. "Through the Spirit," we "wait for the hope of righteousness by faith," in Christ, for the confirmation of which faith, circumcision was instituted. "Jesus Christ" having now come, "and redeemed us by his blood," "neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love." It is ours to consider the facts in proof of the Messiahship, laid before us, in the practical operation of this covenant, and to "believe in our Lord Jesus Christ."
The third and last of these collateral covenants, is known as the covenant of Sinai.
This covenant gave to the people of Israel their peculiar national government. It was made not with Abraham but appropriately "with the fathers, when God took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt." During several generations, the family of Abraham was far from being prolific. But irrespective of this fact, many years must necessarily pass before they could be sufficiently numerous, or otherwise in a condition, to take possession of the promised land. In the providence of God, they were removed into Egypt. For a season they were honored for the sake of Joseph. Ere long, however, jealousies arose; they were oppressed, and soon after enslaved; and all those events were literally realized, which were revealed to Abraham, in the covenant of the land of Canaan. His seed were strangers in a land that was not theirs; they served the people of that land; and they afflicted them four hundred years. Why did God - the inquiry naturally arises - permit his people to be so long, thus overwhelmed with misery, and suffering? Two infinitely wise, and benevolent reasons at once present themselves to the mind. Their social position as slaves in Egypt, was immeasurably important, since they were thus preserved; and thus only could they have been preserved effectually; from so inter-mingling with the people of the land, or becoming so attached to the soil, or so scattering apart from each other, as to frustrate the purposes of God in making them a nation. When, therefore, the command came for their removal, they were ready to depart. This was the first reason. The second had respect to their multiplication. To a rapid increase of numbers, servile relations, and habits, all observation and experience prove, are, of all others, the most favorable. Their oppression was, therefore, essential to their prosperity, their deliverance, and the fulfilment of "the covenant of promise in Christ."
The time came when they were to go forth from "the house of bondage," and "become a great nation." Their numbers had increased until now besides their old men, and women, and children, they counted six hundred thousand warriors! They were therefore, ready, and with the blessing of God fully able, whatever obstacles might oppose them, to take possession of the promised land. At the divine command, under the guidance of Moses, and amidst miracles, wonders, and manifest exhibitions of the power, and direction of God, they quitted Egypt, and took their way towards Canaan. As they passed through the wilderness of Arabia, they received this covenant, which organized them as a nation, "at the holy Mount." In synopsis it was written upon "two tables of stone," which Paul calls, "The tables of the covenant;" but in its enlarged form, and with its various rites, and ordinances, it extends through Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. God said, speaking from Sinai, to all the people, "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then shall ye be a peculiar people unto me, above all people." And the people answered: "All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do." This covenant is more especially called "The law;" not so much because of any peculiar moral principles it promulgates, since these, as we have seen, are the same with those of every other covenant, and must necessarily pervade all God?s dispensations, being the inevitable emanations of his own holy nature, as because it constituted the national government, which was at the same time the religion of the Hebrew people.
You cannot but observe in this covenant, the same obvious purpose which characterized both the others, to keep Israel separate from all other nations, until the coming of Christ. This object was guarded by numerous and most stringent enactments. For example: "Thou shalt not," was the language of one of the laws, "make marriages with them. Thy daughter shalt thou not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son." All their social, as well as their domestic intercourse, was so regulated that an Israelite might not, in any sense, be connected as an equal, with a Gentile, of whatever class. On this subject Peter said, addressing his Christian brethren, "Ye know that it is an unlawful thing, for a man that is a Jew to keep company with, or come unto one of another nation." In what appeared to them to be a violation of this covenant?for as yet the Christians seemed not to understand that in the coming of Christ its purposes were consummated, and that it bad passed away?this apostle preached the gospel in the house of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion. The disciples instantly, upon learning this fact, upbraided and contended with him, saying: "Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them." The fundamental laws of Israel made all uncircumcised people "unclean" to them. They were not permitted to be socially in the same house with Gentiles, to be companions of such, nor even to eat at the same table with them. All such intercourse was a religious pollution, and a moral degradation. Thus did the covenant of Sinai concur with the other two, in keeping Israel apart from all other nations, until "the covenant of promise in Christ," to Abraham should be fulfilled.
We have now examined "the covenants of the law," and seen their nature, and especially the grand purpose of them all. I have said that this purpose was still further aided, by the inspired history contained in the word of God.
This history is for the most part, recorded in the books of Moses, and Joshua, the Judges, and Ruth, Samuel, and the Kings, the Chronicles, and Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Prophets. Often in its perusal, have you perhaps, earnestly desired more of detail. But detail would have rendered the Bible inconveniently voluminous, and was besides unnecessary to the purpose contemplated, which demanded so much only, as that when Messiah should come, the means of establishing his claims should be perfect. That part of inspired history, however, which is most important to this end, is contained in the genealogies with which the whole Bible so much abounds. These genealogies had previously been scrupulously observed, but they were subsequently enjoined, and regulated by the law of Moses, which is identical with the covenant of Sinai. A learned Jewish Rabbi, of the last age, who afterwards became a christian, and a minister, writing of the testimony for the Messiahship of Christ, drawn from the genealogies, remarks:- "I cannot proceed without observing, and admiring the wonderful provision which was made for this purpose, in the law of Moses. Our nation [Israel] was not only divided into several tribes, but each tribe into several families. And as every tribe had a distinct inheritance, which obliged them to keep genealogies of their several families, so to make them more exact, and punctual in this record, no alteration of inheritance was allowed, for longer than the year of Jubilee, which returned every fifty years. And then every one that could clear his pedigree, and make out his right to the inheritance of his ancestors, was to be reinstated in the possession of it. This made it every one?s interest to preserve his genealogy. But what still further contributed to this end, and made them the more careful in the matter, was the law of lineal retreats. By this law, upon failure of an heir in any family, the next of kin was to be heir at law. Thus was every tribe incited not only to take care of its own genealogy, but of that also of the several families of its kindred, that by knowing the several degrees of proximity of their blood, they might be able at any time, upon failure of an heir, to make out their title to the inheritance of their fathers. This was the method to be taken throughout their generations, so that when the fullness of the time should come for Messiah to appear, he might by this means easily, and certainly, prove his lineal descent, from the seed of Abraham, from the tribe of Judah, and from the family of David." How often do thoughtless readers of the Bible, look upon these catalogues as useless impediments, if not positive defects. At most, they inspire them with no special interest. In the light of these facts, however, you perceive that they are really chains of pearls, and to every christian of priceless worth. They are, therefore, recorded at great length, in both the Old and the New Testament, and their freedom from error is vouched by their inspiration. As evincive of the Messiahship of Jesus, they are introduced into two of the gospels. Their testimony is direct and most conclusive. And it is also worthy of remark, that Matthew who writes for the Jews, extends his catalogue back only, as far as Abraham, the father of Israel, to whom the second promise of Messiah was made; but that Luke, who writes for the Gentiles, carries his to Adam, the primeval father of mankind, to whom was given the original pledge of a Deliverer from sin. Such was the design of the history, and the genealogies, contained in the divine oracles. They were auxiliaries to "the covenants of the law," to identify and designate the Saviour of men.
One other form of testimony previously provided, demands in this connection, a moment of our attention. The Redeemer himself refers to it when he says, "All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the Prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me." These together, embrace the whole of the Old Testament, and it is in every part full of Christ. I may not here, descend to particulars. Well do you know how minutely the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, describe the person, and work of our Lord Jesus Christ; his miracles, his teaching; his persecutions, his betrayal, his sufferings, his death, his burial, his resurrection, his ascension, and his glorious intercession at the right hand of the Father on high; not "one jot, nor one tittle" of which has failed; all has been fulfilled. They have received their accomplishment in Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Is it a question of infinite importance to the faith of all nations, by what means Messiah when he comes, shall be known with positive certainty, to be the very Christ promised in the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob, with Judah, and with David? We have now seen how those means were provided, by divine wisdom, and goodness. The result proposed was perfectly secured by the operation of "the covenants of the law;" which are the covenant that gave to Israel a prescribed territory, and made them a separate nation; the covenant of circumcision, by which they were distinguished personally, from all other men; and the covenant of Sinai, which gave them a national government; and by the auxiliaries of these covenants, which are the history, and genealogy of the people of God; and the delineations of Christ, in the Law of Moses, in the Prophets, and in the Psalms. The forms, ordinances, and rites enjoined in these covenants, were obligatory upon the Hebrews only. Moral principles, I have said, were the same in every dispensation of God. In all these covenants they were identical with each other, and with those of the law under which man was originally created, and to bring us back to which, is the great design of the gospel of Christ. Truth, justice, and purity, are of eternal obligation, and have ever been, and must ever be, binding alike upon all men. Not so the ceremonies of the covenants, which gave outward character to the religion of the Mosaic economy, except in so far as sacrifices, and the Sabbath were involved, which were enjoined in Eden, and belonged to mankind. The forms, ordinances, and rites peculiar to Israel, belonged alone to Israel, and their observance by Gentiles was not obedience to God, because they were not commanded by God. Gentiles were, we have seen, as much interested in the certification of Messiah as was Israel; but he was to spring not from them, but from Israel; therefore, until his appearing, Israel must be distinguished from all other men. "The fullness of the time" at length came, and Messiah appeared. By all these, and many other "infallible proofs," Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated his claims to be received as "The seed of the woman;" "the Son of Abraham;" the promised "Shiloh;" "the offspring of David;" "the King of Israel," "Immanuel, God with us." He is the Messiah.
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