The two-fold covenantal relationship in the prophets: with Israel, for the nations

We have seen that the covenants with Abraham envisaged two distinct but related goals: nationhood for Abraham’s seed, followed by blessing for the world. The eighth-century prophets use the word “covenant” sparingly, but when they do this two-fold structure is also evident. The prophets never promise that the nations will be included in Israel’s covenants. Instead, they promise something else: that the special covenant with Israel will have benefits for the nations, without the nations being included in Israel’s covenants. In other words, “covenant” in the prophets is used to refer to Israel’s distinct role in relation to the world. “Covenant” is not a catch-all term to describe “salvific relationship with God”. This is consistent with use of the word “covenant” in the rest of the Bible, as we have seen and will see.

Except for Isaiah 40–66, the eighth century prophets tend not to refer explicitly to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, even though their message seems to be premised on its existence (e.g. Hos 6:7, 8:1).[1] However, with the exile of national Israel, the prophets begin to refocus on God’s international purposes and look beyond the exile to the “last days”. Here the two-fold covenantal structure of God’s relationship with Israel (nationhood followed by international blessing) re-emerges in a familiar yet also strikingly new form.

Isaiah chapter 40ff speaks about Israel’s restoration, but the ultimate grounds of the restoration is God’s sovereignty as creator and judge (40:27–28)—Israel’s restoration as God’s “people” is both for the sake of God’s special relationship with her (e.g. Isa 43:1–7) and for the sake of the whole world being set to rights, idolatry judged, and “justice” being established in the nations (chapter 41). Historical Israel had not lived up to its calling—it had sinned, and so Israel as a geopolitical entity was blotted out (43:22–28). However, the hope for the nation of Israel and for the other nations comes through an enigmatic “servant” figure. He is given by God as “a covenant [for the] people, a light [for the] nations” (לִבְרִית עָם לְאוֹר גּוֹיִם, Isa 42:6). The two-fold structure of the Abrahamic covenants is evident here: the covenant with the one people will mean blessing and light for all nations.

The servant thus embodies the covenant and perpetuates it for the true “Israel”, who are to recognize that the covenant with whatever Israel may be on view in this context has its point of final reference in its wider application to the nations.[2]

In Isaiah 49:3, the servant is identified with Israel. Yet it is not the “Israel” that was originally called “Israel” (48:1), i.e. geopolitical Israel. The old geopolitical Israel has failed to obey God’s commands, forfeiting any claim to be heirs of the Abrahamic covenant (48:17–18). This new “Servant Israel” is one who will bring national Israel back to God. He will also fulfil the covenant of international blessing by being a “light to the nations”, bringing salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6). Although he will be despised and abhorred by the nation (49:7), God will make him “a covenant for the people”; one who will fulfil the Abrahamic covenant of land (Isa 49:8, cf. Gen 15). Here again we see the twofold structure of the Abrahamic covenants: the servant will fulfil the covenant of land (49:8) so that the promise of international blessing will come about (49:6).

However, there is no indication in Isaiah that the vast mass of saved and worshipping Gentiles are to be “included” in the covenant, or to “enter” the covenant.[3] They don’t need to be! The servant figure is depicted as the one who fulfils the covenants, who brings God’s purposes of nationhood and international blessing to completion. In Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the Servant becomes a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the people. The outcome of the Servant’s sacrifice is that the covenantal promises associated with Noah, Abraham, Israel and David are fulfilled (Isa 54–55).[4]

Nevertheless, the new “Israel” has a further covenantal role to play in bringing about international blessing. Every individual member of Israel without exception is unrighteous, and must repent and trust in the LORD’s redeemer (Isa 56–59, esp. 59:16–21, cf. Rom 3:10–18). Once Israel is redeemed from this universal depravity, God makes an “everlasting covenant” of ministry with them (Isa 59:20, Isa 61:8). Israel and her seed will be God’s Spirit-empowered mouthpiece (Isa 59:20–21). Nations and kings will come to their light (Isa 60:2, cf. Gen 17:6). They will be a nation of priests, receiving the wealth of the nations as their payment (Isa 60:3–22; 61:6, 8, cf. Exod 19:5). These covenantal promises are ratified by a solemn oath (Isa 62:8–9). Israel’s “priestly” role, however, is now entirely declaratory. The reconstituted Israel does not bring salvation by teaching the law or by providing atonement, but by evangelism (Isa 61:1). Hence “[t]heir seed will be known in the nations and their descendants in the midst of the peoples; all who see them shall recognise that they are seed that YHWH has blessed” (Isa 61:9). Israel has a glorious ministry to the nations that exceeds the glory of Moses’ mediatorial ministry: Israel is “clothed with the garments of salvation” (Isa 61:10–11); they are a “crown of beauty in the hand of [their] God” (Isa 62:2–3). This is in stark contrast to the mediatorial ministry of Moses, who was clothed with a veil to hide God’s glory from the sinful people (Exod 34:33–35).

The nations, then, are called, not to “get in” to the covenant as if they, too, could bring about international blessing, but rather to partake in the blessing that has already been won by the servant’s fulfilment of the covenants, proclaimed by the Spirit-enabled covenant ministers. The nations are to be ruled by Israel’s king (Isa 55:4) and drawn to Israel’s glory (60:1–4). This international blessing is spoken of in the grandest cosmic terms in Isaiah 65–66. There will be a “new heavens and a new earth” in which a new Jerusalem is the centre of a new creation (65:17–25). This new Jerusalem is a woman who brings forth children (66:8), the glory of the nations flows to her (66:12) and God’s glorious name is proclaimed among the nations (66:19). The result is that all flesh will come and worship before the LORD in the new Jerusalem (66:23).

Jeremiah, too, looks forward to an eschatological covenant with Israel with international implications. The book of Jeremiah as a whole is set in the context of international blessing and judgment (1:5, 3:14–18).[5] Jeremiah censures the people for breaking Yahweh’s sworn covenant with their fathers (Jer 11:2–10).[6] In chapters 1–20 Judah has lost her distinction from the nations, standing with the nations under God’s judgment (9:25–26, 18:5–12).[7] Israel is no longer a kingdom of priests or a holy nation (Exod 19:6). The question of how God will bring about international blessing through Abraham’s seed is answered, however, by the new covenant that God will make “after those days” (Jer 31:31–34). God promises here that he will once again write his law on Israel’s hearts (cf. Deut 30:11–14); that he will once again be their God and they his people (cf. Deut 29:13); that knowledge of God will be universal amongst his people; and that he will forgive their sins. International blessing is implicitly linked to the hope of the restored Israel (Jer 31:10).[8] The associated covenants of kingship and ministry also continue (Jer 33:20–22). Once again, however, it would be misleading to speak of the nations being “included” in the covenant.[9] What the Gentiles receive in Jeremiah is not “inclusion” in the covenant, but all the blessings of salvation and forgiveness (via repentance) that flow to them because God has fulfilled his covenant with Israel.

Ezekiel, too, looks forward to a time when God’s covenant with Israel will be renewed, resulting in international blessing. The re-establishment of national unity (Ezek 37:15–22), obedience (Ezek 37:23) and kingship (Ezek 37:24) leads to a “covenant of peace” with Israel which (like Genesis 15) involves land, numerous descendants and Israel’s designation as “God’s people” (Ezek 37:25–27). This leads to knowledge of Yahweh in the nations (Ezek 37:28), first through judgment (Ezek 38–39) and then (more implicitly) in glorious blessing (Ezek 47:8–12, cf. Rev 22:1–2).

Hence the two-fold covenantal structure of God’s relationship with Israel is affirmed, not collapsed, by the prophets. The new covenants that the prophets look forward to are new “elected relationships of obligation under oath” between God and a reconstituted Israel, in which Israel’s obedience to specific obligations will result in blessing for all the nations. Isaiah, in particular, spells out Servant Israel’s obligations in detail: suffering sacrifice (e.g. Isa 49:7–8) and gospel proclamation (e.g. Isa 59:21).

[1] Nicholson, God and his People, 115.

[2] Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 193.

[3] There are, admittedly, proselytes and eunuchs (“outcasts of Israel”, Isa 56:8a) who will gain full access to the Sinai covenant in its historical form (Isa 56:1–8). Luke seems to see this fulfilled in the cleansed Samaritan lepers (Luke 17:11–19) and the temple-worshipping Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:27–40). But this inclusion of physical outcasts into the historical structures of national Israel, while significant, is only the historical precursor to a greater event: the blessing of the Gentiles apart from the historical structures of Israel (Acts 10–11, cf. Isa 56:8b).

[4] Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation, 194–96.

[5] Andrew G. Shead, “The New Covenant and Pauline Hermeneutics”, in The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission (ed. Peter Bolt & Mark Thompson; Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 33–49 (34).

[6] Weinfeld, TDOT 2:277.

[7] Shead, “New Covenant”, 35.

[8] Shead, “New Covenant”, 43.

[9] Pace Shead, “New Covenant”, 42–43.