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Sermon No: 61-Covenants



Speaker: Gavin Paynter

Language: ENGLISH

Date: 1 January 2000


Sermon synopsis: A CONTRACT OR COVENANT HAS ALWAYS BEEN A CRUCIAL PART OF GOD'S RELATIONSHIP WITH HIS PEOPLE. This is a study of the different covenants found in the Bible, culminating with the greatest covenant - 'The New Testament'.
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  1. Definition

DEFINITION: A formal agreement, a contract1

SYNONYMS: Contract, deal, pact, agreement, treaty, alliance, pledge, constitution, testament or will.

A covenant, in contract law, is a legally enforceable agreement between two or more persons to do or to refrain from doing a certain act, or specifying that a given state of facts does or does not exist.2

A modern legally binding contract between people could be described as follows:

  • There must be at least 2 parties.

  • Both parties must voluntarily agree to enter into the contract (no duress).

  • The contract might have all terms stipulated by one party (e.g. hire purchase) or could have terms negotiated by both parties (e.g. business partnership).

  • There might be conditions (about either promised action and/or non-action) attached to one or both parties (e.g. inter-country alliance treaty) or it may be unconditional (e.g. last will or testament).

  • A contract with conditions attached might require mediation by a third party.

  • If either party breaches the agreement by not adhering to the stipulated conditions, the other party is automatically released from their obligations, and the contract becomes null and void. There may be a penalty clause to penalise the offending party.

  • The conditions of the contract can only be legally changed by consent of both parties, or by the existence of a more recent contract, which supersedes the previous one.

  • The contract must be signed by both parties and countersigned by witnesses to make it legally binding.

Typical commonplace contracts are marriage, business partnerships, sale of property, insurance policies, hire-purchase agreements, rental or lease contracts, inter-country treaties etc.


Covenant is a legal concept often used in the Bible as a metaphor to describe the relationship between God and humankind… The idea of a covenant between God and humankind lies at the heart of the Bible. This idea explains the selection of the word testament, a synonym for covenant, in naming the two parts of the Bible.3

God always honours his covenants, unlike people who often make covenant vows and then dishonour them. The marriage covenant where people swear “until death us do part” with God as a witness, and then lightly disregard this is but one example.

Malachi 2:13-16 Another thing you do: You flood the LORD's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, "Why?" It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. "I hate divorce," says the LORD God of Israel, "…

  1. Types of covenants

    1. Equals and non-equals

In ancient times, a covenant was a treaty between two parties. There were two kinds of covenants: a voluntary agreement between equals (as with David and Jonathan - 1 Samuel 18:3) and treaties of loyalty between a great king and a lesser king (his vassal). In the Bible, covenants between God and his people are always of the second type. God always dictates the terms of His covenants, which assert His sovereignty and kingship, and the people's obligation of faith and obedience.4

The Hebrew for covenant is “berîth”.

In the OT5 berîth identifies three different types of legal relationships.

  • A two-sided covenant between human parties, both of which voluntarily accept the terms of the agreement… God however never "enters in" to such a covenant of equality with men.

  • A one-sided disposition imposed by a superior party (Ezekiel 17:13-14) 6. God the Lord thus “commands" a berîth which man, the servant, is to "obey" (Joshua 23:16).

  • God’s self-imposed obligation, for the reconciliation of sinners to himself (Deuteronomy 7:6-8, Psalm 89:3-4) 7

Not only the Hebrew, but also the Greek, emphasises that God’s covenants are not an agreement between equals. The Septuagint (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament by 72 Hebrew scholars before the time of Christ, is useful in ascertaining the equivalent Greek terms for the Old Testament Hebrew. In its translation of the Hebrew berîth, more light is thrown in this regard:

The LXX avoided the usual Greek term for covenant, synthêke (Meaning a thing mutually "put together"), as unsuitable for the action of the sovereign God and substituted diathêke (a thing, literally, "put through"), the primary meaning of which is "a disposition of property by a will." 8

We are familiar in modern times with contracts where we are not able to negotiate conditions but are obliged to accept what the initiating party has stipulated (e.g. a rental agreement). Our extent of negotiation is in accepting or rejecting the terms altogether, but not in modifying them.

Likewise, the covenants between God and man do not have the conditions negotiated by both parties. God stipulates the conditions for men, but in his love, also imposes conditions on himself, albeit not due to pressure or bargaining by men (e.g. the Abrahamic covenant). Man’s freedom of choice allows for acceptance or rejection of the contract, but not for variation of God’s stipulated terms.

Joshua 23:16 If you violate the covenant of the LORD your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, the LORD's anger will burn against you, and you will quickly perish from the good land he has given you.9

    1. Major types of Covenants

In the ancient Near East there were 3 main types of covenants; the Covenant of Parity, a Royal Grant and the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant.

Commitments made in these covenants were accompanied by self-maledictory oaths (made orally, ceremonially, or both). The gods were called upon to witness the covenants and implement the curses of the oaths if the covenants were violated. 10

      1. Parity

Parity: A covenant between equals, binding them to mutual friendship or at least to mutual respect for each other’s spheres and interests, Participants called each other “brothers”.11

This was the type of covenant entered into by Abraham and Abimelech, Jacob and Laban, and David and Jonathan.

      1. Royal Grant

Royal grant (unconditional): A king’s grant of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant for faithful or exceptional service. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s heirs benefited from it only as they continued their father’s loyalty and service. 12

There were different kinds of covenants in the biblical world, however, just as there are different kinds of contracts today. One type of ancient covenant that serves as a model for certain biblical passages is the royal grant. In this type of covenant, a king or other person in authority rewards a loyal subject by granting him an office, land, exemption from taxes, or the like. It is typical of such covenants that only the superior party binds himself; conditions are not imposed on the inferior party. Such covenants are also referred to as covenants of promise or unconditional covenants. The covenants God made with NOAH (Genesis 9:8-17), ABRAHAM (Genesis 15:18), and DAVID (2 Samuel 7; 23:5) fit this pattern. In each of these cases, it is God alone who binds himself by a solemn oath to keep the covenant.13

      1. Suzerain-Vassal

Suzerain-Vassal (conditional):A covenant regulating a relationship between a great king and one of his subject kings. The great king claimed absolute right of sovereignty, demanded total loyalty and service (the vassal must "love" his suzerain) and pledged protection of the subject’s realm and dynasty, conditional on the vassal's faithfulness and loyalty to him. The vassal pledged absolute loyalty to his suzerain - whatever service his suzerain demanded - an exclusive reliance on the suzerain's protection. Participants called each other "lord" and "servant", or "father" and “son”. 14

The Mosaic covenant (Exodus 19-24; Deuteronomy; Joshua 24) seems to have been modelled on another type of ancient covenant, the political treaty between a powerful king and his weaker vassal. Following the standard form of such treaties, God, the suzerain, reminds Israel, the vassal, how God has saved it, and Israel in response accepts the covenant stipulations. Israel is promised a blessing for obedience and a curse for breaking the covenant.15

All covenants between God and man before the New Covenant are either of the Royal Grant or Suzerain-Vassal type, or both.

      1. Testament or will

Jesus Christ added another model, that of a last will and testament. At the Last Supper, he interpreted his own life and death as the perfect covenant (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). 16

Table :Types of covenants






Adam & Eve


Royal Grant

All mankind


Royal Grant / Suzerain-Vassal

Noah, his descendants and every living thing on earth


Royal Grant / Suzerain-Vassal