Eschatological Problems VI: The Fulfillment Of The Abrahamic Covenant
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
One of the outstanding covenants of the Scriptures is the covenant of God with Abraham. Its provisions not only condition the immediate life and blessing of Abraham himself but they constitute the key to the subsequent history of Israel and God’s purpose in relation to the saints. From the standpoint of eschatology, the Abrahamic covenant is important for many reasons, but it is crucial in its evidence regarding God’s purpose for Israel. It is the purpose of the present article to inquire particularly into the contribution of this covenant in relation to unfulfilled prophecy. To this end, a brief consideration must be given to such portions of the covenant as have already been fulfilled.
Analysis of the Covenant
The provisions of the Abrahamic covenant are outlined in their main factors in Genesis 12:2, 3, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse: and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” As many writers have indicated, this covenant includes seven provisions: (1) the promise of a great nation through Abraham; (2) personal blessing on Abraham; (3) the name of Abraham shall be great; (4) Abraham is to be a blessing to others; (5) blessing will rest on those blessing Abraham; (6) a curse will rest on those who curse Abraham; (7) all nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham.
Four things stand out in the original covenant: (1) the national promises given to Israel; (2) the personal promises given to Abraham; (3) the principle of blessing or cursing upon nations other than Israel based on their attitude toward Abraham and his seed; (4) the promise of universal blessing through Abraham, fulfilled through Christ.
The Abrahamic covenant was subject to enlargement and increased detail in subsequent revelations of Scripture. In Genesis 13:14-17, Abraham is promised title to “all the land which thou seest,” “forever,” and the promise concerning his seed is amplified in that he is promised seed comparable in number to the dust of the earth. In Genesis 15:1-7, the line of the seed is designated as through Abraham rather than Eliezer, his servant, and the promise of the land is reiterated. In Genesis 17:1-18, further important provisions are made: (1) The covenant is solemnly confirmed. (2) Abram is given the name Abraham as a symbol of the promise that he will be the father of many nations, i.e., nations other than the nation which will inherit the land. (3) Kings are promised to the seed of Abraham. (4) “All the land of Canaan” is given to the seed of Abraham for “an everlasting possession.” (5) A personal and special relationship is set up between God and the seed of Abraham in which God promises to “be their God.”
The Abrahamic covenant is not only inclusive of many of the main features of God’s program for the ages, but it is the ground for many future covenants. The covenant in respect to the land is enlarged in the Palestinian covenant (Deut 28:1-30:20 ) to which there are many collateral references and doctrines. The covenant in respect to the future kings to issue from Abraham is given a specific turn in the promises to David in the Davidic covenant, concerning his kingdom and seed. The covenant in respect to the nation Israel as a whole is the subject of many prophecies of Scripture of which a notable illustration is Jeremiah 31:36, 37. The covenant in respect to spiritual blessings on the seed of Abraham and “all the families of the earth” is the theme of the prophets who picture not only blessing on the Gentiles through Christ but the regathering and blessing upon the nation Israel (cf. Jer 31:31-37). The ground of all these covenants is the Abrahamic, and for this reason the principles illustrated in its fulfillment and the content of its revelation constitute one of the important determining factors of all prophecy. It is safe to say that all systems of prophetic interpretation especially as regarding unfulfilled prophecy are determined in their main features by their attitude toward the Abrahamic covenant.
Historic Fulfillment of the Covenant
Before turning to unfulfilled aspects of the Abrahamic covenant, it is necessary to turn briefly to the lines of fulfillment determined by history. After all, the best answer to the problem of prophetic interpretation is God’s own answer in fulfilling prophecies. It has been often noted that God’s method is literal fulfillment. The seemingly impossible and unnatural events prophesied have too often been fulfilled exactly as the Word of God had indicated, to the confusion of sceptics and minimizers of revelation. The modern attempt to date books of prophetic content after the events which they prophesy is too obviously an admission of the force of fulfilled prophecy in determining the principles by which unfulfilled prophecy should be interpreted.
The Abrahamic covenant has been obviously fulfilled in part. A great nation, Israel, has come into being and has been wonderfully preserved through centuries of dispersion. Other nations have sprung from Abraham in addition to Israel. Great personal blessing attended Abraham as the Scriptures clearly indicate. The name of Abraham is revered by Jew, Christian, and Arab. As Dr. Jamieson has stated: “Although not renowned in science or arts, in civil or military affairs, Abram has been distinguished by higher honours and a more extensive fame than any mere man ever was,—revered by the Jews as the founder of their nation, looked up to by the Christians as ‘the father of the faithful,’ honoured by the Arabians as their progenitor; and whatever of true religion is to be found in Islamism is traceable to the precepts and example of Abraham.”1 other words, God has declared an unalterable purpose to accomplish certain ends. There may be delays, postponements, chastisements, and blessings apart from these promises, but the ultimate purpose of God will be fulfilled only by the accomplishment of the promises. Dr. C. Fred Lincoln has written this concise summary: “All of Israel’s covenants are called eternal except the Mosaic covenant which is declared to be temporal, i.e., it was to continue only until the coming of the Promised Seed. For this detail see as follows: (1) The Abrahamic Covenant is called ‘eternal’ in Genesis 17:7, 13, 19; 1 Chronicles 16:17; Psalm 105:10; (2) The Palestinian Covenant is called ‘eternal’ in Ezekiel 16:60; (3) The Davidic Covenant is called ‘eternal’ in 2 Samuel 23:5; Isaiah 55:3; and Ezekiel 37:25; and (4) The New Covenant is called ‘eternal’ in Isaiah 24:5; 61:8 ; Jeremiah 32:40; 50:5 and Hebrews 13:20.”2
The fact that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional is not only based upon the express statement that it is eternal, but the language and character of the circumstances support this conclusion. The original promises were given to Abraham without any conditions whatever. The covenant was confirmed by subsequent reiteration and enlargement. It was ratified by an oath of God (Gen 15:7-21), solemnized by the recognized method of confirming an oath (cf. Gen 15:18). It was given a visible symbol in the rite of circumcision (Gen 17:9-14). It was confirmed by the birth of Isaac, by the reiterated promises given to Isaac (Gen 17:19) and to Jacob (Gen 28:12, 13). Its unalterable character is revealed in that portions of the covenant have been fulfilled through the centuries in disregard of human unworthiness. In the apostasy of Jeremiah’s day, he was nevertheless given the message to Israel, “Thus saith Jehovah, which giveth the sun for a light by day, and the ordinances of the moon and of the stars for a light by night, which stirreth up the sea, so that the waves thereof roar; Jehovah of hosts is his name: If these ordinances depart from before me, saith Jehovah, then the seed of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before me forever. Thus saith Jehovah: If heaven above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out beneath, then will I also cast off all the seed of Israel for all that they have done, saith Jehovah” (Jer 31:35-37).
If God had intended to convey the impression that the covenant was eternal and unalterable, He could not have used more express and specific language. It is stated that His promises stand in spite of Israel’s sins, and that they are unaltered by them. His promise is declared to be immutable: “Wherein God, being minded to show more abundantly unto the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, interposed with an oath: that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we may have strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb 6:17, 18; cf. 6:13-16 ).
The Fulfillment of the Promises
The fulfillment of the promises hinges upon two important considerations: (1) Israel’s continuance as a nation; (2) Israel’s possession of the land. It is admitted by most conservative expositors of the Scriptures, regardless of eschatological viewpoint, that Israel became a great nation, that God blessed Abraham and made his name great, that those who have befriended Israel have been blessed and those who have persecuted Israel have been cursed. It is also conceded that through Abraham all the families of the earth have been blessed in the redemption provided in Christ. Some have taken the position, however, that Israel’s promises are now forfeited because of their sin and unbelief and that the spiritual aspects of the Abrahamic covenant are fulfilled in the church.
The evidence against the church’s appropriation of promises given to Israel has already been considered in a previous article. The church does not have right or title to promises given expressly to Israel. It may be conceded that some of the promises given to Abraham are intended to extend to the church. The individuals in the church enter into the promises of blessing given to those in Christ and to this extent are the spiritual children of Abraham. This is expressly stated in Scripture: “Know therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham” (Gal 3:7). The basis for this statement in Galatians, however, is not on any promise given to Israel—and this is very significant. The passage continues: “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then they that are of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham” (Gal 3:7-9). In other words, the portion of the covenant specifically given to Israel is not transferred to the church. Only the portion of the covenant dealing with universal blessing such as extended beyond Israel is applicable to the church.
If the church does not fulfill the covenant in regard to Israel, it must follow that God will fulfill it for Israel. This is borne out by the very nature of the promises. The promise which God gave to Abraham and his seed regarding title to the land is very specific. It is not contained in the original statement of the Abrahamic covenant, but this is all the more significant, for the promises about the land are given as a confirmation of the promises concerning the seed of Abraham as a great nation.
It has already been shown that the promises concerning the land, as well as the other promises, are unconditional. They are not to be forfeited by disobedience. A problem arises at this point, however. Do the provisions of the Palestinian covenant (Deut 28:1-30:20 ) abrogate the covenant of God with Abraham? Clearly they do not both by the nature of the covenant and by the precedence of the Abrahamic covenant. The Palestinian covenant did not deal with the right to title of the land but the right to enjoyment of it by any generation. They were solemnly warned that disobedience would result in dispersions fact of history, but it is clear that this dispersion is not the final dealing of God in respect to the land. It is made very clear that the dispersion is a temporary dealing of God. The dispersions of Israel and God’s disciplinary judgments in no wise alter the unconditional title to the land which is given to Abraham’s seed.
The title given to Abraham’s seed is included in the solemn passage in which God confirms His promises by an oath (Gen 15:8-21). The boundaries of the land are here given specific description: “In that day Jehovah made a covenant with Abram saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite, and the Kenizzite, and the Kadmonite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Rephaim, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Girgashite, and the Jebusite” (Gen 15:18-21).
The description of the land by no means is indefinite. By no stretching of boundaries or spiritual interpretation can these boundaries mean other than a tremendous stretch of territory which Israel has never possessed, even in the glorious days of Solomon. Certainly such a specific promise is not fulfilled by the Christian church and could be fulfilled by Israel only. The honest expositor of Scripture is faced with the problem of either admitting that this promise is subject to future fulfillment or that it will never be fulfilled. If it is not fulfilled, it is an attack upon the faithfulness of God to His promises. If it is fulfilled in the future, it involves the continuance of the nation Israel. This is, in fact, its chief significance. The promise of the land is given as a confirmation of Israel’s continuance as a nation rather than vice versa.
The promises of God do not need to be sustained, but God has mercifully given many other indications to confirm His purposes for Israel. The continuance of Israel as a nation is given specific attention in Scripture. Jeremiah 31:31-37, previously mentioned, is a powerful statement of this. God has declared the continuance of the sun and the moon as symbols of the continuance of Israel. As long as the sun continues to shine in the day and the moon and the stars in the night Israel will continue as a nation. The earth is not left without a witness on this important point at any moment. While God gave only the rainbow which appears occasionally as a sign of His promise not to bring another universal flood, He chose the sun, moon, and stars as His continuous reminder of His faithfulness to His promises to Israel as a nation. Lest anyone should consider these signs as too temporary, He has added that the new heavens and the new earth shall continue the testimony of His perpetuation of Israel (Isa 66:22). When the present order of the heavens is interrupted, God has already announced that the eternal order will continue it.
All the prophecies in Scripture, and they are abundant, dealing with Israel’s future are evidence in themselves for Israel’s preservation as a nation. Some are particularly vital, however. Among them is the prophecy of Israel’s future regathering. This fact is stated so often and so explicitly and so unconditionally that it is difficult to understand why it has been overlooked (Deut 30:3; Isa 11:11, 12; 27:12, 13 ; 35:10 ; 49:8-16 ; Jer 23:1-8; 30:8-11 ; 31:8-14 ; etc.). It is true that a partial return to the land was realized in the return of the pilgrims of Ezra and Nehemiah, but the language of the prophets in no wise is fulfilled by this return. In Isaiah and Jeremiah the return of Israel is connected with the glorious and visible kingdom of Christ on earth and associated with the time of the fulfillment of the New Covenant with Israel. It is declared to be a time of triumph of Israel over all her persecutors, and it is revealed to be a time when the whole world will give honor to Israel. Such has never been the case, and if Scripture is to be fulfilled, Israel’s regathering is yet future.
A remarkable fact of contemporary history is found in the return of thousands of Israelites to Palestine since the first world war. While this is not the fulfillment of the promise, it certainly is an omen of God’s continued regard for His covenants. If Israel is yet to return to Palestine and occupy the land given to them in the Abrahamic covenant, it is also a proof for their continuance as a nation.
The principles discovered in this brief examination of the Abrahamic covenant in its past and future fulfillment may be summed in their evidence for a future for Israel as a nation, for a future fulfillment of their possession of the land, and of their future enjoyment of the fullness of blessing which God promised Abraham’s seed. Other features of Israel’s hope will be considered in later articles.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments (Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, 1868), I,129.
2 The Covenants (unpublished dissertation presented to the Dallas Theological Seminary Faculty, 1942), p. 181.