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Biblically, what comprises a covenant? According to Thomas R. Schreiner, “The substance of the covenant was a pledge to be faithful to covenant obligations”[1]. Thus, both the covenant Maker (God, the Sovereign Lord) and the covenant recipients (vassals) have obligations to fulfill. The first obligation of the recipient consists of identifying himself or herself with the Lord of the covenant by displaying attributes that demonstrate that they belong to Him as His people. The Apostle Paul referred to the six Israelite covenants when he identified the Israelites as those “to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises” (Rom 9:4, bold emphasis added). The following chart identifies five key elements with regard to each of these six covenants:


Note that all five elements appear in relationship to the original covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant. God unilaterally and unconditionally proclaimed the terms or stipulations for each of the covenants since He is the sovereign Lord and King. “But,” someone might ask, “what is a covenant?” In the Biblical context a covenant consists of God’s declaration regarding His relationship to and plan for His chosen people. Specifically, God reveals—by means of the contents of the Israelite covenants—how He intends to full His kingdom and redemption programs on earth and in history. His programs’ purposes are fivefold: (1) to reveal Himself, (2) to glorify Himself, (3) to conform His people to His kingdom program, (4) to redeem mankind from sin, and (5) to restore His fallen creation.

In regard to the conditionality of the Biblical covenants, even the Abrahamic Covenant includes a condition—obedience. Abraham had to leave Ur of the Chaldeans. Such conditionality does not mean that God will not fulfill His covenant. He will never fail to fulfill His covenants—their ultimate fulfillment is never in jeopardy. The real issue has to do with whom or with which generation He will fulfill His covenants.

An added theological aspect of the Biblical covenants involves their theocentricity (being centered and focused on God). As we study Scripture, each covenant can justifiably be associated with a particular attribute of God’s character. Although some Divine attributes might fit with more than one covenant, the following list presents an association of a Divine attribute with each covenant. The list does not preclude the potential of other Divine attributes having a secondary association or even a tertiary association with a covenant.

  1. Abrahamic Covenant: God is good (or kind), the source of all blessing (Ex. 1:20; 18:9; cf. Gen. 15:13–16).
  2. Mosaic Covenant: God is righteous and the source of all righteous laws, judgments, statutes and decrees (Deut. 4:8; 32:4; Ps. 119:137–138).
  3. Priestly Covenant: God is holy and calls His people to holiness through the activities involved in sacrifice and priesthood (Num. 25:10–13; Ezek. 48:11).
  4. Deuteronomic Covenant: God is faithful to fulfill His promises, of which the land promise attains prominence for Israel (Jer. 32:41; cf. 2 Cor. 1:18–20).
  5. Davidic Covenant: God is sovereign and intends through the greater “Son of David” to fulfill the Creator’s original intent regarding man as vice-regent over the earth and its creatures (Ps. 2:4–9; 8:6; 22:28; 72:8–11; 110:2; cf. Gen. 1:26, 28).
  6. New Covenant: God is forgiving (or merciful). His final covenant focuses on this significant aspect of His redemption program (Jer. 31:34; Eph. 4:32; cf. Ps. 32:1–2; Matt. 9:2–6; Luke 24:46–47).

Thus, the Biblical covenants reveal a wealth of instruction about the actions and attributes of God, the covenant Maker. Too often theologians overlook the theocentric nature of the Israelite covenants because their studies of the covenants focus on such aspects as prophetic fulfillment and the identification of the recipients. Proper attention must be given to God’s attributes because He calls upon His covenant people to live under each covenant by reflecting His character. Displaying the communicable attributes of God in their behavior identifies them as His people and Him as their God (“I will walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” [Lev. 26:12]). Indeed, it would behoove us to consider a person’s identification with the Sovereign Lord as the primary covenant obligation—to live in the world as those who stand out distinctly as belonging to Him.

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Dr. William D. Barrick served as professor of Old Testament and director of Th.D. studies at The Master’s Seminary from 1997 to 2015. He remains active in ministry as a theologian and a linguistics expert whose service, writings and translations have spanned numerous nations and languages. He is also the Old Testament editor of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary from Logos Bible Software. We are most grateful to include him as a contributing author to Dispensational Publishing House.

Copyright © 2016 by Dr. William D. Barrick. Used by permission of the author.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®.
Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), p. 217.