Covenant in Context
A. David and Moses
The drama in the Gospels turns on a single question: Is Jesus the long awaited Messiah, the son of David come to restore the everlasting monarchy promised by God to David?
Underlying this drama - which continues through the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and even into the final chapters of Revelation - are centuries of rival interpretations of the Scriptures.
In the Bible and in religious writing outside the Bible, we can see that there were sharply competing expectations about who the Messiah was to be, the "signs" that would accompany his coming, and the shape of the kingdom he would establish.
Through a close reading of the New Testament and key Old Testament passages, we will look at this clash of expectations. We will explore the biblical testimony in context, comparing it with the extra-biblical literature of the period, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and various intratestamental writings. We will see how the proclamation and work of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, reflects and reacts to the messianic hopes of his contemporaries.
This study has implications for questions that modern scholars have long debated - How did Jesus understand His mission and work? What were the historical reasons for his condemnation and death on the Cross?
This study also addresses an imbalance in the scholarly and pastoral study of the New Testament. Researchers have tended to focus on the importance and influence of Moses and the covenant at Sinai on the shape of the New Testament. By contrast there has been a relative scholarly neglect of the Davidic covenant.
However, it could be argued that the figure of David and his kingdom is more central - not only to the New Testament - but to the direction and meaning of the Old Testament.
David is generally acknowledged as a defining figure in the Psalms, with more than 70 psalms attributed to him. What is not widely recognized is his prominence throughout the Old Testament.
Indeed, while the name Moses occurs a little over 720 times, David is mentioned almost 1,020 times. David’s career is the subject of 42 chapters, or nearly 30 percent of what scholars call the "Deuteronomistic History" (Joshua-2 Kings).
In the Chronicles, a review of Israel’s history from a "Priestly" perspective, the percentage is the same.
David is mentioned 37 times in the prophets, Moses only seven times. And as we will focus on in our next lesson, the eschatological hopes of the prophets are frequently concerned with the return of a Davidic king and the restoration of his capital, Zion. The prophets say nothing about the return of Moses and a restoration of Sinai.
David’s imprint will be especially felt when we consider key Old Testament concepts and institutions that become central in the New Testament - the Temple, Zion, the “Son of God,” and the “Anointed One” (Messiah).
B. For the Sake of Abraham
We will see, however, that the Law of Moses and the sacrificial system are critical to the understanding and legitimacy of David’s kingdom. But before we can consider the specific character of David’s kingdom, we need to begin with some background.
God’s covenant with David comes as the last in a sequence of covenants found in the Old Testament. These covenants - with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David - form the narrative structure of the Old Testament.
(For a thorough review of these covenants and their significance, see our on-line class, Covenant Love: An Introduction to the Biblical Worldview).
The background to the covenant with David, and indeed the entire story of Israel, is God’s three-part promise to Abraham - to give him and his descendants their own land, to make them a great and blessed nation, and to make the children of Abraham the source of divine blessing for all the families of the earth (see Genesis 12:1-4).
Each of these promises was "upgraded" to a covenant by God (see Genesis 15; Genesis 17:4-8; 22:15-18).
It was for the sake of this covenant with Abraham that the Israelites were brought out of Egypt (see Exodus 2:24; 6:5). And it was for the sake of this covenant with Abraham that David’s kingdom is established.
In Nathan’s oracle, God repeats three times that He is making this covenant with David for "for My people Israel" (see 2 Samuel 7:8,10,11). This recalls the language God used to explain His actions in liberating Abraham’s children from Egypt (see Exodus 3:7,10; Leviticus 26:12).
Later, in the psalmist’s reflections, the Davidic monarch is seen fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham: "In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed, all the nations" (see Psalm 72:17; compare Genesis 12:3; 22:18).
The Rise of David
A. Israel in the Era Before Kings
The idea of the monarchy is sown throughout the Old Testament. In one of his promises to Abraham, God tells him: "Kings shall stem from you" (see Genesis 17:6).
In his deathbed blessing upon his sons, Israel says that nations will pay homage to Judah and that "the scepter shall never depart from" him (see Genesis 49:9-12). The line of Judah becomes the royal line from which David and Solomon stem (see 2 Samuel 8:1-14; 1 Kings 4:20-21).
Nevertheless, when the Bible is read canonically – that is, as a single book with a certain unity of content, edited for use in the worship and reflection of the Christian community – we see tension and ambivalence about the idea of a monarchy for God’s people.
We see this ambivalence already in Deuteronomy. There, Moses reluctantly predicts the people will desire a king. He even writes legislation to govern the king’s conduct and policies (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
On the one hand, the moral and political chaos of the pre-monarchial period is attributed to Israel’s lack of a king - "in those days there was no king in Israel - everyone did what he thought best" (see Judges 17:6; 18:1; 21:25).
But there is also a strong sense in the Old Testament that an earthly monarch contradicts God’s sovereignty over Israel (see Deuteronomy 33:5; Judges 8:22-23).
These tensions come to a head in the people’s request for a king in the time of Samuel.
In seeking a king "as the other nations have," the people are seen as rejecting the kingship of God (see 1 Samuel 8:7; 12:12,17,19-20).
Though their ends are earthly - the people want a king to fight battles and conquer territories for them - God consents to their request and "uses" it to fulfill His own covenant plan for Israel and the world.
He gives Israel a king "for the sake of His own great name" because He has made Israel "His people" (see 1 Samuel 12:19).
B. Restoring the Ark
The ideal of Israel’s monarchy was articulated at that point in the Scripture. The king is to be an earthly manifestation of God’s rule over the world, to obey God’s commands and to worship Him alone - in remembrance of His covenant and the great things He has done in making Israel His special possession.
David, especially as portrayed in the early days of his reign, is presented as the ideal king.
His capital at Jerusalem is both the "the city of David" (see 2 Samuel 5:7,9) and at the same time seat of the "kingdom of the Lord" (see 2 Chronicles 13:8), and "the throne of the Lord" (see 1 Chronicles 28:5).
David’s first act as king is to restore the Ark of the Covenant, the defining symbol of God’s election of Israel and the site of His real and living presence among the people during the wilderness period (see Exodus 25:8-22; Joshua 3:8-11).
The Ark contained signs of God’s covenant with Moses (see Hebrews 9:4) - the tablets of the 10 commandments (see Exodus 40:22), Aaron’s priestly staff (see Numbers 17:25) and some of the manna upon which the Israelites fed in the desert (see Exodus 16:32-33).
The Ark became crucial to the identity and character of David’s new priestly kingdom. David’s great concern for the Ark is central to the early drama of his reign, and the installation of the Ark in the Temple built by David’s son, Solomon, marks the high point of the history told in the books of Chronicles.
The Ark’s restoration to Jerusalem is depicted as a noble and grand religious pilgrimage. It is preceded by David’s mandate for the ritual purification of the Levites (see 1 Chronicles 15:11), who alone are permitted to touch the Ark under the Mosaic law that David reinstitutes (see Deuteronomy 10:8; 1 Chronicles 15:2).
The procession to the tent pitched by David is a joyous religious feast, complete with liturgical dancing and songs of exultation and much rejoicing, led by David and the priests (see 1 Chronicles 15:1-16:3; 2 Sam. 6:11-19).
David is garbed in priestly robes of fine linen and wears a priest’s ephod (see Judges 8:28; 1 Samuel 14:3; 21:9; 22:18; 23:9). As the Ark is installed, David leads the priests in offering holocausts and peace offerings. Then he blesses the people in the name of the Lord and shares bread, meat and cake with every Israelite.
What we witness here is Israel’s king performing high priestly acts - leading worship, offering sacrifices, imparting the Lord’s blessings.
David’s actions reestablish the presence of God among the people (see 1 Chronicles 23:25). To ensure the purity of Israel’s worship in God’s presence, he restores the Mosaic liturgical code, making the descendants of Aaron to be "officers of the holy place and officers of the divine presence" (see 1 Chronicles 24:3,5,19).
He also, reestablishes the Levitical priests "to minister before the Ark of the Lord - to celebrate, thank and praise the Lord, the God of Israel" every morning and evening, and also on feast days (see 1 Chronicles 16:4; 23:25-32).
At the culmination of his monarchy, David, like Moses, is given a divine "pattern" or "plan" for the Temple that will house the Ark of His covenant permanently (see 1 Chronicles 28:19; Exodus 25:9).
The Temple is built as a replica of a Lord’s heavenly throne and temple (see Psalm 11:4). As Jerusalem is not only a political capital, but also a spiritual and moral one, the Temple is both a religious sanctuary and the palace of the divine dominion - the seat from which Israel’s king rules as the son of God over all the nations (see Psalm 2).
C. The Oracle of Nathan
Only after the Ark is established, does God renew His covenant with Israel through an oracle delivered by the prophet, Nathan (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16; 1 Chronicles 17:7-14)
Nathan’s original oracle does not include the word "covenant." But David describes it as an "eternal covenant" (see 2 Samuel 23:5) and this "covenant" is celebrated in the Psalms (see Psalm 89:4-29; 132:12).
God’s promises in Nathan oracle - the themes of divine sonship, temple building, and everlasting dynasty - will resound throughout the remainder of the Old Testament and, as we will see, converge in the Gospel of Jesus.
Let us look in detail at the divine promises that Nathan delivers:
First, he tells David that "the Lord will establish a house for you." In biblical terms, "house" means royal dynasty. This means that David’s kingdom will be a dynasty, one that endures for generations.
Next God promises that David’s son will assume his throne: "I will raise up your heir…and make his kingdom firm." The "firmness" of his kingdom is another indicator that the kingdom will remain.
David’s son will also, according to the promise, "build a house for My name." In other words, David’s son will build a temple as a permanent home for God’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant.
Of this royal son of David, God further promises: "I will be a Father to him and he shall be a son to Me." This is the language of "covenant-adoption." The son of David will be adopted as God’s own son. This marks the first time in Scripture that the idea of divine sonship is applied to one individual. While God had referred to Israel as His first-born son, no one as yet in the Bible has been called, in effect, a "son of God."
God’s promise is unconditional, according to Nathan. The royal son is expected to keep God’s Law and will be punished for transgressions against the Law. But God will never disown David’s heir or dissolve his kingdom. Nathan conveys this message: "If he does wrong, I will correct him…with human chastisements, but I will not withdraw my favor from him."
Finally, God states the conclusion that all of these promises point to: "Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever." This means that David’s dynasty will never end; there will always be an heir of David seated upon his throne.
The Shape of the Davidic Monarchy
A. Eight Elements of the Kingdom
God’s covenant with David is initially and partially fulfilled with the birth of Solomon. Solomon is the "son" who builds the Lord a house or temple.
And while we see the outlines of the godly kingdom begin under David - especially with the organization of the Levites and the worship before the Ark - it is only under Solomon that the kingdom reaches full bloom.
Based on the promises of Nathan, the reflections on the Davidic covenant found in the Psalms and the prophets, and the organization of the kingdom under Solomon, we can eight characteristics of the Davidic monarchy:
• First, the Davidic monarchy was founded upon a divine covenant. No other human kingdom in the Old Testament can boast of such a privilege.
• The Davidic monarch was the Son of God. Solomon’s is a monarchy ruled over by God’s son (see Psalm 2:7), who is both a priest and a king (see Psalm 110:1,4). The identity of the monarch as God’s son implies this priestly prerogative. The king is to be a priestly mediator between the human and divine. At the right hand of the king is his mother, the Queen, who intercedes for the people with the king and is a trusted adviser to the king (see 1 Kings 3:19-20; Proverbs 31).
• The Davidic monarch was the "Christ," i.e. the "Messiah" or "Anointed One." The anointed status of the Davidic king was so integral to his identity that he is frequently referred to simply as "the anointed one" or "the Lord’s anointed."
• The Davidic monarchy was inextricably bound to Jerusalem, particularly Mt. Zion, which was the personal possession of David and his heirs (see 2 Samuel 5:9), and would have had no significant role in Israelite history had not David made it his capital (see Joshua 15:63; Judges 1:21; 19:10–12; 2 Samuel 5:6–12).
• The Davidic monarchy was inextricably bound to the temple. The building of the temple was central to the terms of the Davidic covenant from the very beginning, as can be seen from the wordplay on "house" ("temple" or "dynasty") in 2 Samuel 7:11–13. Even after its destruction, the prophets remained firm in their conviction that God would restore His temple to its former glory as an international place of worship.
• The Davidic monarch ruled over all twelve tribes. It was only under David and Solomon, that both Judah and all the northern tribes were united as one kingdom and freed from foreign oppression (see 2 Samuel 5:1–5; 1 Kings 4:1–19). For this reason the prophets associate the reunification of the northern tribes of Israel ("Ephraim") and the southern tribes of Judah with the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.
• The Davidic monarch ruled over an international empire. David and Solomon ruled not only over Israel but also the surrounding nations. The psalms theologically justify and celebrate this state of affairs, and the prophets envision its restoration. The Kingdom, with its capital in Zion, Jerusalem, will become the mother of all nations, "one and all born in her" (see Psalm 87:5), all made sons and daughters of God in a worldwide family.
• The Davidic monarchy was to be everlasting. One of the most prevalent emphases in the Psalms and Deuteronomic history is that the Davidic dynasty will be eternal (see 2 Samuel 7:16; 23:5; Psalm 89:35–36). Not only the dynasty but the lifespan of the reigning monarch himself was described as everlasting (see Psalm 21:4; 72:5, 110:4).
B. Unconditional Promises, Divided Kingdom
In the lessons ahead, we will see how these elements of the Davidic kingdom and the promises to David will be decisive for understanding the debates in the Gospels.
But these debates take place against a historical backdrop - that the Davidic kingdom was divided shortly after Solomon’s reign, and later destroyed.
As presented in Scripture, Solomon’s sin had led to the destruction of the kingdom. He overtaxed the Israelite tribes to finance great building projects and to build up a huge army (see 1 Kings 9; 12:3); he took many foreign wives and concubines and "his wives turned his heart…to strange gods" (see 1 Kings 11:1-3).
When Solomon died, his son Rehoboam refused the re-negotiate Solomon’s tax policies and the tribes rebelled. Ten of the twelve tribes, led by Jeroboam, split-off and established a Northern Kingdom, leaving Rehoboam to reign over two tiny tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the South.
Eventually, both houses of the divided kingdom were captured and led into exile. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722 B.C., overrun by the Assyrians (see 2 Kings 17:7-18). In 597, Babylon overran Jerusalem, shattering the Southern Kingdom (see 2 Kings 24:3-4).
Even when the people were restored from exile, centuries continued to pass without any sign of the great Davidic king that God had promised. At the time when Jesus was born, there was no kingdom to speak of, no Davidic heir in the wings.
But the intervening centuries had produced a body of prophecy and reflection on the meaning and fulfillment of God’s covenant with David. That literature - both biblical and extra-biblical - will be the subject of our next lesson.
• How could it be argued that David and his kingdom are more important for understanding the Old Testament than Moses and the Sinai covenant?
• In what ways might the Old Testament’s attitude toward monarchy be characterized as ambivalent, prior to the Davidic kingdom?
• Explain the significance of the Ark of the Covenant for the kingdom of David.
• What were the promises made to David in Nathan’s oracles.
• Name and explain the elements of the Davidic monarchy.