by R.B.C. Howell
PHILOLOGY OF THE COVENANTS
Meaning of their terms;
authorities; illustrations; expositions
as to the seed of Abraham; the conversion of the nations
to Christ; perpetual possession of Canaan; perpetuity of David?s throne.
"WHATSOEVER things were written aforetime, were written for our learning, that we through patience, and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope." But how can we have such patience, comfort and hope, unless we correctly understand and properly appreciate the scriptures? This remark is especially applicable in relation to the covenants now under consideration. Let us therefore look somewhat more carefully into the import of the language in which they are expressed. To these covenants all competent Biblical interpreters, of every class, agree in attributing a peculiar philology. Their promises were, in one sense, undoubtedly intended to be literally understood, and fulfilled. But their true legitimate import does not terminate here. No one who studies them, can fail to perceive that they convey a second and higher meaning, full of the deepest interest and importance. Examine the covenants themselves, and you will be struck with a phraseology inconsistent with the expectation of only a simple literal fulfillment. Study their various expositions by the prophets, and apostles, and you will at once learn that they received and interpreted them, as containing also a second and higher sense; a sense which indeed, pervades the substance of the whole kingdom of grace in Jesus Christ. This higher meaning of the covenants, it is our present purpose to establish, and ascertain, that by their teachings our faith may be invigorated and our hopes confirmed.
Let us in the prosecution of this design, refer, in the first place, to the teachings on this subject, of some of our most learned and mature divines. I might adduce readily, in support of the doctrine now announced, the testimony of many of the brightest names in the constellation of theological science. I shall however, satisfy myself with the evidence of two only, since "In the mouth of two witnesses every word shall be established." "That the covenant with Abraham," says Dr. Carson, "has a letter and a spirit, is not a theory formed to serve a purpose. It is consonant to every part of the Old Dispensation, and is the only sense that can harmonize it with the New Testament. The temple was the house of God, in the letter; believers are so in the spirit. To call any house the house of God, is as much below the sense which the same phrase has when it is applied to the church of Christ, as to call the nation of Israel the people of God, is below the sense which that phrase has when applied to the spiritual Israel. Besides, there are many things spoken about the house of God in the letter, in terms that can only fully suit the spirit. "I have surely," said Solomon, "built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide forever." The incongruity of supposing him, whom ?the heaven of heavens cannot contain,? to dwell in a house forever, as a settled habitation, is removed only by referring it to the spirit." "Christ?s body is the only temple of which this is fully true. God did not dwell in the temple built by Solomon forever." That temple ceased to exist twenty five centuries ago. "But in the spirit it is accomplished, in its utmost extent." In another place, the same distinguished writer observes : -"For the accomplishment of the grand purpose that all nations should be blessed in Abraham, he had three promises. First, a numerous posterity; which was fulfilled in the letter, to the nation of Israel. It was fulfilled in the spirit, by the divine constitution that makes all believers the children of Abraham." "The second was, that he would be a God to him, and his seed; which was fulfilled in the letter, by his protection of Israel in Egypt, his delivering them from bondage," and his subsequent dealings with that nation. "This promise is fulfilled in the spirit, by God?s being a God to all believers, and to them alone, in a higher sense than he ever was to Israel" as a nation. "The third promise was of the land of Canaan; fulfilled in the letter to Israel; and in the spirit fulfilled to the true Israel, in the heavenly inheritance," the possession of the Canaan above. "In accordance with this double sense of the covenant," "the typical ordinances, which exhibit the truths of the gospel in a figure, form one of the most conclusive evidences of Christianity, and present spiritual things to the mind, in so definite and striking a manner, that they add the greatest lustre to the doctrines of grace."
Dr. Macknight on this subject, is equally full and explicit. He says :- To understand the covenants in the whole of their meaning, it should be recollected that "in the early ages, the most approved method of communicating, and preserving knowledge, was by making sensible objects which were present, or not very distant in point of time, representations of things which are not the objects of sense, or which are future, but have some affinity to the things made use of to represent them. In this method of instruction, the character and actions of remarkable persons, and the ordinary events of life, were on some occasions, considered prefigurations of more distant persons and events, to which they had a resemblance. Of these facts we have in scripture numerous examples. Abraham, in respect of the faith, and obedience which he exercised, was a type of believers, of all nations." On this account he was declared "the father of all them that believe." "David, in his office, and kingdom, prefigured Christ, for which reason, by the latter prophets, Christ is called David." And further. "In scripture some future events are foretold in such a manner as to show, that they are themselves prefigurations, or predictions of other future events, still more remote. In such cases, when the first events came to pass, in the manner foretold, they were both a proof, and a pledge, that the more remote events, would take place in their season." According to these and kindred principles, are the covenants, and especially the covenants of the law, to be interpreted. "From what our Lord and his apostles have said of them, it appears that these covenants, besides their first meaning, which terminated in the literal persons and events spoken of, had a second and higher meaning, which was to be accomplished in persons and events more remote. Abraham?s natural descendants, were considered in the covenants, as types of his seed by faith." All his natural seed were necessarily circumcised; and so to make them such, all his spiritual seed must necessarily be regenerated by the Spirit of God. Isaac?s supernatural birth, by the power of God, represented Christ?s supernatural birth by the power of God. The land of Canaan promised to the natural seed as their inheritance, was an emblem of the heavenly Canaan, the inheritance of the seed by faith. In short, the temporal blessings promised in the covenants to the natural seed, had all an allegorical, or second meaning, being images of those better things which God intended to bestow upon Abraham?s seed by faith." Such then, is the true, and admitted philology of the covenants. Their language has "a letter and a spirit." They were fulfilled literally; but only perfectly fulfilled in their higher and spiritual meaning.
And now, in the second place, we apply ourselves to ascertain this meaning, in several particulars; and since throughout we have the guidance of the prophets and apostles, we may confidently rely upon being directed to the true scriptural conclusions.
One of the promises to Abraham in these covenants, was that his seed should be a countless multitude. "I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth, so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered;" "Look now towards heaven and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them; and he said unto him, so shalt thy seed be;" "In multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore." Was this promise, I ask, fully accomplished in the numbers of Abraham?s literal descendants? Their numbers were indeed, very great; but were they as multitudinous as from the language of the covenants you might be led to suppose they would be? You cannot but doubt. Your embarrassment however, is instantly relieved when you recollect that God counts for his seed, those who partake of the qualities of Abraham?s mind, as well as those who are related to him by fleshy descent, and that these promises were to be fulfilled not alone in their literal, but more especially in their second and higher import, which embraces both classes. "They are not," said Paul, in confirmation of this doctrine, "all Israel who are of Israel, neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children." "The children of the flesh, these are not the children of God." "The children of the promise are counted for the seed." "And if ye be Christ?s, then are ye Abraham?s seed, and heirs according to the promise" in the covenants. Our Lord expresses the sense of this spiritual relationship, when he says to the Jews, "If ye were Abraham?s children, ye would do the works of Abraham." That the promises in the covenants looked to evangelical blessings, and embraced in their higher import, Gentiles as well as Jews, Paul avers in another place, when he says :- "It is of faith, that it might be by grace, to the end that the promise might be sure to all the seed; not that only which is of the law, [Jewish] but that also [the Gentile] which is of the faith of Abraham." The covenants contemplated therefore, not his natural seed only, but also all of every age and country, who were, or ever would be, believers in our Lord Jesus Christ.
This understanding, of the promises before us, evidently, as is shown by their teaching, was received and acted upon by the prophets, no less firmly than by the apostles. They predicted the great multiplication of Abraham?s spiritual seed, under the figure of a great increase in his natural progeny. "Sing, O heavens," said Isaiah, "and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O ye mountains; for the Lord hath comforted his people and will have mercy upon his afflicted." "Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold! All these gather themselves together, and come to thee!" "Thy waste and desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now, be too narrow, by reason of the inhabitants." "The children thou shalt have after thou hast lost the other, shall say again in thine ears, The place is too strait far me. Give place to me that I may dwell. Then shalt thou say in thine heart," "These, where had they been? Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people; and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders; and kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord." Again. "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of their habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; for thou shalt break forth on the right hand, and on the left; and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles, and make the desolate cities to be inhabited." And again. "The dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first, he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali, and afterwards did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light. They that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful; Counselor; the Mighty God; the Everlasting Father; the Prince of Peace." In these and like terms do the prophets represent the conversion of the Gentiles to Christ, their adoption to augment the number of the seed of Abraham, and thus to accomplish the fulfillment of the promise in the covenants. No longer now, do you hesitate. You feel assured that the divine word is fully justified. And that the saved in Christ of all ages, the seed of Abraham in the higher sense, is really innumerable, John the apostle, bears most pleasing testimony. In anticipation, he beheld the redeemed, when their numbers were complete, and exclaimed, "Lo, a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands, and cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God, who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb; "forever and ever." Thus we see perfectly fulfilled, one of the promises of the covenants with Abraham.
Another of these promises guarantees to Abraham and Israel the perpetual possession of the land of Canaan :- " Unto thy seed will I give this land;" "I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it;" "I will give to thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession."
But how could Abraham and his seed possess forever, literally, the land of Canaan? In the sense intended, God assuredly gave them the land. Personally however, Abraham did not himself possess it; nor did his descendants, until after nearly five hundred years. At last they received it, and God protected them in its enjoyment for many ages. But did these events complete the fulfillment of the promise before us? Israel inherited Canaan for a season; they were then driven thence; many centuries have since passed, and they are to this day, wanderers among all nations. The promise is not literally fulfilled in all its extent, nor indeed can it, in the nature of things possibly be, in the present world; since to possess an earthly inheritance forever, men must live forever upon earth, and the things of this life must have no end. The promise evidently contemplated not alone a Canaan upon earth, but more especially a Canaan in heaven, an immortal spiritual life. The former he gave to Abraham?s natural seed; the latter he bestows upon his seed by faith; all those who believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. And so Abraham and all the early saints understood, and received these promises of the covenant. They took them not alone in their literal import, but also in their higher spiritual signification. Of this fact the apostles give direct testimony. "By faith," said Paul, "Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive as an inheritance obeyed, and went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles, with Isaac, and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off; and were persuaded of them, and embraced them; and confessed that they were strangers, and pilgrims in the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better, that is a heavenly country." Their faith was directed therefore, not exclusively to the earthly country, but also, and more especially to the "heavenly country," of which the earthly was but an emblem, and which clearly, they understood to be included in the promises of the covenants. The latter, and not the former, was to be, to all who had the faith of Abraham, "an everlasting possession."
But when, and how, were the promises, according to this meaning, to be fulfilled? Not certainly, in this life, nor fully until after the resurrection of the body, since previous to that event their realization was evidently impossible.
But were the promises in the covenants understood, in the sense now suggested, by Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and David, and the other saints of literal Israel? Was this one meaning at least, in which they embraced, and believed them? With reference to these inquiries our Lord himself, reasoning with the Sadducees, who denied the existence of separate spirits, and also the resurrection of the body, amply instructs us. He said, "Now that the dead are raised, even Moses showed at the bush, when he called the Lord, The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; for he is not the God of the dead, but of the living." The souls of these patriarchs were therefore, still living, though their bodies were dead; and the promises in the covenants taught them that their bodies would be raised from the dead, since in their higher spiritual import, they secured to them the enjoyment of the land of Canaan forever. If they were not to be raised from the dead to this end, how could the promises ever be fulfilled? And what was true of them, in these respects, was true of all others in similar circumstances. And further. That the Canaan in which they were to dwell after the resurrection, was to be not on earth, but in heaven, is plain from the preceding part of this same conversation of our Redeemer. He expressly calls the promised country, "that world," in contrast with the literal country, which he calls " this world:" - " The children of this world [literal Canaan] marry, and are given in marriage. But they who shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world [spiritual Canaan] and the resurrection from the dead [to prepare them for it] neither marry, nor are given in marriage. Neither can they die any more, for they are equal to the angels, and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection." That the covenants therefore, in their higher meaning, taught the resurrection of the dead, and the glorious realities of heaven, no one can question, since such was their construction by our Lord Jesus Christ himself. And still further. Because they did not understand the covenants in this sense, Messiah directly charges the Sadducees with culpable ignorance;- "Ye do err," said he, "not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God." Paul also gives us an exposition of these covenants, and in exact consonance with that which we have just seen, from our Lord Jesus Christ. In his defense before King Agrippa, he hesitated not to say, and in the presence of the Jewish chiefs :- " I stand, and am judged, for the hope of the promise made unto our fathers, unto which promise our twelve tribes, instantly serving God, day and night, hope to come." But to what promise made to the fathers, and which when Paul spoke, remained to the twelve tribes unfulfilled, did they hope to come? Paul himself thus explains:- "Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you [King Agrippa] that God should raise the dead?" And in another place, when before Felix, he said :- " I confess unto thee, that after the way that they [the unbelieving Jews] call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things that are written in the law, and in the prophets, and have hope towards God, which they themselves also allow, that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust." But where is the promise to the fathers, of the resurrection from the dead, written in the Law of Moses? It is written no where, unless it be in these covenants, nor even here, except in the sense in which they have now been explained. God will raise up from the dead, all the spiritual seed of Abraham, and give them for an everlasting possession, that Canaan above, of which the Canaan on earth was the appointed emblem.
The children spiritually, of Abraham, are found alike, among both Jews and Gentiles, and to them all, are made the promises of the covenants; not to them and to their seed, as they were to Abraham; but to them as the seed of Abraham; nor to them literally, as to his natural descendants; but to them spiritually in their second, and higher meaning. The conversion of the Gentiles, gave to all the lovers of Christ, unbounded joy. The Jews have long resisted the grace of God, but the fullness of the time will ultimately come, and they too shall be converted. This great event is predicted by the prophets, under the figure of the restoration of Israel from a long captivity, to the scenes of their own native home. For example :- " Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O [Messiah] Arm of the Lord." "Art thou not it [He] that hath dried the sea; the waters of the great deep; that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away." And when thus converted, the delight that Israel will experience in Zion - not literal Zion, but the Church of the Redeemer - are depicted under the emblems of rebuilding and adorning their cities and enjoying the fruits of their own land. "They shall build,? say the prophets, "their old wastes; they shall raise up the former desolation; and they shall repair the waste cities, the desolation of many generations." "In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up his ruins; and I will build it, as in the days of old." In other words, I will cause Israel to receive Christ, whom they have so long rejected. "And they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; and they shall make gardens, and eat the fruit of them." Their joy as Christians shall be complete.
The covenants in their full import, further teach the future glory of the sanctified in Jesus Christ our Lord.
These all, are spiritually, "Abraham?s seed, and" therefore, "heirs according to the promise" in the covenants. Their immortality, and eternal life, are held forth, by both prophets and apostles, under the emblems of renovated heavens, and earth, the habitation of restored and beautified Jerusalem, and of the fertile and ornamented land of Canaan. "Behold," said God, by the prophet, "I create a new heavens, and a new earth, and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind." "Be ye glad, and rejoice forever, in that which I create. For behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in my people. And the voice of weeping shall no more be heard in her, nor the voice of crying." What shall we understand by all this? The new heavens, and earth, so excellent that the former are no more even remembered; and the new Jerusalem, in which God himself will rejoice with his people, and in which never more shall be any pain or sorrow? Isaiah speaks of them as if they were here upon earth. John the apostle, repeats the prophecy, and declares that it then, that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be, in all holy conversation, and godliness, looking for, and hastening unto the coming of the day of God?" "Nevertheless, we according to his promise, [in the prophets] look for new heavens, and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent, that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless."
The same philology, I will further at present, only remark, must also be applied in its interpretation to the covenant as repeated to David. To him God said, and the declaration was frequently repeated:- "Thy seed will I establish forever; and build up thy throne to all generations." He did indeed literally establish David?s seed, but not forever; and literally built up David?s throne, but not to all generations. The terms of the covenant must be accomplished. In their literal import they have unquestionably failed. It remains only therefore, for us to expect them in their second and higher meaning. And they are accordingly, gloriously fulfilled in the person, and reign of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; "whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and whose dominion is forever and ever." "David?s kingdom," says the distinguished Robert Hall, "was renewed and improved into higher glories, in the person of Jesus Christ, the true, spiritual, substantial David; of whose kingdom (it cannot reasonably be doubted by any) that of David himself was a type. The empire of Christ was the sequel, and continuation of that which had originated in the son of Jesse; and hence the Saviour is so often styled ?The son of David.? The angel at his nativity announced him as ?He who should be great,? who should sit upon the throne of his father David, and of whose kingdom there should be no end." Already in a previous chapter, I have spoken of this covenant somewhat at length. I have referred to it here again, only to show that its promises are of such a nature that their perfect fulfillment is impracticable, except in their higher sense, and in which they bring prominently before us, the everlasting kingdom, and perpetual dominion of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Thus we have seen as briefly as possible, the philology of the covenants, in the progress of our investigation of which, we have shown that while they must be understood in their plain literal sense, they have palpably also, a second and higher meaning, which to comprehend them truly, you must study, and understand; this meaning we have traced, explained, and illustrated, as contained in the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in the covenants of the law, all of which guarantied to Abraham, an innumerable seed, and perpetual possession and enjoyment of the land of Canaan; and we have seen how these promises were, and are yet to be fulfilled, in the conversion of all nations, in the happiness of men upon earth, in the resurrection of the body, and in the everlasting glory in heaven of all the sanctified; and we have also seen how the covenant as repeated to David, is consummated in Jesus Christ our Lord, "In whom we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace." "Of him, and through him, are all things; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen."
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