Eschatological Problems VII: The Fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
The importance of the promise of God to David regarding his posterity and his throne has been frequently ignored in treatments of the field of eschatology. Those who deny the inspiration of the Scriptures are at no pains to weigh its significance. Those who are more serious in their attempts to ascertain the exact meaning of Scripture have too often been satisfied with the simple solution that these promises are fulfilled in Christ. It is the thesis of this discussion that the Davidic covenant deserves an important place in determining the purposes of God and that its exegesis confirms the doctrine of a future reign of Christ on earth.
Analysis of the Covenant
David had the godly ambition to build a temple to Jehovah. The incongruity of allowing the ark of God to remain in a temporary tent-like tabernacle while he himself lived in the luxury of a house of cedar seemed to call for the erection of a suitable permanent building to be the center of worship. To Nathan, the prophet, was revealed that God intended David to build something more enduring than any material edifice. David’s “house” was to be his posterity and through them his throne and his kingdom were to continue forever. The main features of the covenant are included in the following passage: “When thy days are fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, that shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men; but my loving kindness shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thy house and thy kingdom shall be made sure for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever” (2 Sam 7:12-16).
The provisions of the Davidic covenant include, then, the following items: (1) David is to have a child, yet to be born, who shall succeed him and establish his kingdom. (2) This son (Solomon) shall build the temple instead of David. (3) The throne of his kingdom shall be established forever. (4) The throne will not be taken away from him (Solomon) even though his sins justify chastisement. (5) David’s house, throne, and kingdom shall be established forever.
To Solomon, then, was promised a throne which would be established forever. To David was promised a posterity, a throne, and a kingdom established forever. The promise is clear that the throne passed on through Solomon to David’s posterity was never to be abolished. It is not clear whether the posterity of David should be through the line of Solomon. It will be shown later that this fine point in the prophecy was occasioned by the cutting off of the posterity of Solomon as far as the throne is concerned.
What do the major terms of the covenant mean? By David’s “house” it can hardly be doubted that reference is made to David’s posterity, his physical descendants. It is assured that they will never be slain in toto, nor displaced by another family entirely. The line of David will always be the royal line. By the term “throne” it is clear that no reference is made to a material throne, but rather to the dignity and power which was sovereign and supreme in David as king. The right to rule always belonged to David’s seed. By the term “kingdom” there is reference to David’s political kingdom over Israel. This kingdom was spiritual only in the sense that it was given to David by the anointing of God’s prophet. The kingdom was by its nature earthly, political, and limited to Israel. By the expression “for ever,” it is signified that the Davidic authority and Davidic kingdom or rule over Israel shall never be taken from David’s posterity. The right to rule will never be transferred to another family, and its arrangement is designed for eternal perpetuity. Whatever its changing form, temporary interruptions, or chastisements, the line of David will always have the right to rule over Israel and will, in fact, exercise this privilege. This then, in brief, is the covenant of God with David.
The covenant has many confirmations in the Old Testament. Specifically, Psalm 89 speaks repeatedly on this theme. “I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto David my servant: Thy seed will I establish for ever, and build up thy throne to all generations…. My loving-kindness will I keep for him for evermore; And my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, And his throne as the days of heaven. If his children forsake my law, And walk not in mine ordinances; If they break my statutes, And keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, And their iniquity with stripes. But my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, Nor suffer my faithfulness to fail. My covenant will I not break, Nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips. Once have I sworn by my holiness: I will not lie unto David: His seed shall endure for ever, And his throne as the sun before me. It shall be established for ever as the moon, and as the faithful witness in the sky” (Ps 89:3, 4, 28-37).
The Problem of Fulfillment
Among conservative theologians, the opinion is unanimous that Christ fulfills the Davidic Covenant. The evidence is clear from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. For anyone accepting the authenticity and inspiration of the Scriptures, the testimony of the angel to Mary is conclusive: “And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:31-33). The promise of David’s throne, David’s kingdom, and all that is involved is transferred by this prophecy to Jesus Christ, “The Son of David” (Matt 1:1). The line that began with David has its consummation and eternal fulfillment in Christ.
The problem of fulfillment does not consist in the question of whether Christ is the one who fulfills the promises, but rather on the issue of how Christ fulfills the covenant and when He fulfills it. Concerning this question, there have been two principal answers: (1) Christ fulfills the promise by His present session at the right hand of the Father in heaven; (2) Christ fulfills the promise by His return and righteous reign on earth during the millennium. Interpreters of Scripture have usually adopted an answer to the problem which fits their larger system of doctrine. Those who deny a millennium or who identify Israel and the church are apt to insist that Christ is fulfilling the covenant by His present session. Those who believe in a literal millennium and a reign of Christ on earth affirm the second answer. In this obvious contradiction between two systems of interpretation, there are certain issues which determine the outcome. These issues may be reduced for our purpose to the following: (1) Does the Davidic covenant require literal fulfillment? (2) Does the partial fulfillment already a matter of history permit a literal fulfillment? (3) Is the interpretation of this covenant in harmony with other covenant purposes of God? (4) What does the New Testament teach regarding the present and future reign of Christ?
Does the Davidic Covenant Require Literal Fulfillment?
If it were not for the difficulty of contradicting certain systems of interpretation of Scripture, it is doubtful whether anyone would have thought of interpreting the Davidic covenant as other than requiring a literal fulfillment. The arguments in favor of literal interpretation are so massive in their construction and so difficult to waive that they are more commonly ignored by those who do not want to believe in literal fulfillment than answered by argument. George N. H. Peters, in his monumental work, The Theocratic Kingdom, in Proposition 52, has listed no less than twenty-one arguments in favor of literal interpretation, not to include collateral material. His important arguments for literal interpretation may be summarized as follows: (1) the solemn character of the covenant which was confirmed by an oath; (2) a spiritual fulfillment would not be becoming to a solemn covenant. (3) Both David and Solomon apparently understood it to be literal (2 Sam 7:18-29; 2 Chron 6:14-16). (4) The language used, which is also used by the prophets, denotes a literal throne and kingdom. (5) The Jews plainly expected a literal fulfillment. (6) The throne and kingdom as a promise and inheritance belong to the humanity of Christ as the seed of David rather than belonging to His deity. (7) There is no ground for identifying David’s throne and the Father’s throne. (8) A symbolical interpretation of the covenant leaves its interpretation to man. (9) The literal fulfillment is requisite to the display of God’s government in the earth, necessary to the restoration and exaltation of the Jewish nation and deliverance of the earth from the curse. (10) Literal fulfillment is necessary to preserve the Divine unity of purpose.
Unless all of these weighty arguments be dismissed as utterly without foundation, it must be clear that there are good and important reasons for adopting a literal interpretation of the covenant promises. If a literal interpretation be adopted, the present session of Christ is not a fulfillment of the covenant, and it must be referred to the future. It is clear that at the present time Christ is not in any literal sense reigning over the kingdom of David. From the content and circumstances surrounding the Davidic covenant, it is evident that a literal fulfillment is anticipated.
Does the Historical Partial Fulfillment Permit a Literal Interpretation?
There are, however, obvious difficulties in interpreting the Davidic covenant in a literal way and expecting a literal fulfillment. The covenant was given almost three thousand years ago, and history has not contained any continuous development or continued authority of the political kingdom of David. A question may be raised whether history permits a literal fulfillment of the covenant. Does not the fact, viz., of Israel’s captivity, with the downfall of the kingdom of Israel argue against a literal fulfillment? Do not the centuries which have elapsed since the coming of Christ prove that no literal fulfillment is intended? These are pointed questions and one cannot argue about the facts which support them. If we believe that no word of God is broken, it is obvious that an interpretation which is not sustained by historic fulfillment is a wrong interpretation. The usual solution to this problem is that there is both a historical and a spiritual fulfillment. It is historical, in that a literal descendant of David was born—Christ; it is spiritual in that the kingdom perpetuated and the throne are not literally David’s but God’s.
Jamieson gives such a solution to the problem of the fulfillment of the covenant: “This promise, like that made to Abraham, has a twofold aspect,—one points to David’s natural posterity and temporal kingdom, the other to the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven. It respected the former only as types and pledges of the latter. Some, indeed, restrict this promise entirely to the Messiah, and deny that it was applicable to David’s natural descendants at all. The passages which seem to apply any part of it to these, refer, in their opinion, to another promise made unto David, which was of a temporal nature, and altogether distinct from this. But we have no account of any such promise in all the history. The truth is, this promise, like many others in the Old Testament, has a twofold sense—it takes in the type as well as the antitype; so that those who saw it accomplished in what respected David’s temporal house, had a proof that the Lord spoke by the prophet Nathan, and consequently a pledge that He would also in due time fulfill the spiritual part of it also. That it included David’s descendants, who by ordinary generation were to succeed him on the throne of Israel, is evident from David’s application of it to his son Solomon, in whom the temporal part of it had a partial accomplishment (1 Chr. xxii.6-11 ; xxviii.5-8 ). The Lord himself also applies it to Solomon, when He appeared in vision (2 Chr. viii.7-18 ). It contains a threatening against such of David’s children as should commit iniquity, which was verified on his royal posterity who succeeded him on the throne, whom the Lord punished for their transgressions, as the sacred history abundantly shows. It was to fulfill the temporal part of this promise that the Lord continued the house of David so long on the throne of Judah, notwithstanding all their frequent and aggravated rebellions against Him (1 Ki. xi.36 ; 2 Ki. viii.19 ; 2 Chr. xxi.7 ) ; and it was repeatedly appealed to by the Jewish Church when the judgments inflicted upon David’s temporal house and kingdom seemed to make it void. This promise as it represented David’s natural seed was conditional, so that the Lord at length deprived them of the kingdom; but He did not by that deprivation violate or nullify the covenant with His servant; for this was only what He threatened at the commencement of it to do in the event of their committing iniquity (1 Chr. xxviii.9 ). But how, then, was the promise made good, that David’s seed should sit on his throne forever? The spiritual and eternal part of the promise pointed to the Messiah, who was to come of the seed of David according to the flesh, and to be raised up from the dead to sit for ever on His heavenly throne. The promise as it respected the Messiah was absolute, and in Him had its full accomplishment.”1
The difficulty with the interpretation of fulfillment in part by temporal events and in part by spiritual is that it does not actually fulfill the covenant. It is true that Christ is the Son of David, and that this is literal descent, but it is without significance unless He also possesses the throne of His father David. Is it the meaning of the covenant that the kingdom of David and his authority over Israel should be transmuted into a general government of God over the world or over the saints? Is it not rather that the literal fulfillment of the reign over the house of Jacob and the throne of David is specifically singled out by the angel in the announcement of Mary (Luke 1:32-33)? If the transgressions of Israel resulted in the captivity and made impossible a literal fulfillment of all aspects of the covenant, is it not strange that the very elements which it is denied can be fulfilled literally should be reiterated in the New Testament? Is it not rather that God, foreseeing the temptation to lose hope in the promise, calls attention once more to its inviolate character? It must be clear to any candid interpreter that Mary would understand it to mean the fulfillment of the hope of Israel for an earthly and political kingdom. The revelation of the angel must be taken either as a confirmation of the covenant or a deliberate encouragement of a false interpretation of Scripture—which is unthinkable.
In the mind of God, it is evident that there is no contradiction in the literal interpretation of the covenant and the temporary enslavement of the Jewish nation in the captivity and under the dominion of Rome. In what sense, then, can we expect a literal fulfillment?
A clue can be taken in a significant accuracy in the covenant and its subsequent fulfillment. In proclaiming the covenant, the language of the prophet carefully distinguishes between the seed of David, Solomon, and the throne. David is assured that his seed will reign forever. Solomon is assured only that his throne will continue forever. In this fine point is an illustration of God’s intention. In the subsequent history of Israel, Solomon’s line is specifically cut off from the throne at the time of the captivity of Judah (Jer 22:30; 36:30 ). In the lineage of Christ found in Matthew and Luke, it is clear that Joseph descended through Solomon and the line which is cut off, while Mary descended from another son of David entirely, Nathan—by curious coincidence the same name as the prophet’s who gave the Davidic covenant, though undoubtedly two different individuals. Accordingly, while the legal lineage came to Christ through Joseph, his legal father and a descendant of Solomon and his heirs, the actual seed of David was transmitted through Nathan and Mary. This brings us to an important conclusion: the line which was to fulfill the promise of the eternal throne and eternal kingdom over Israel was preserved by God through a lineage which in fact did not sit on the throne at all, from Nathan down to Christ. It is, then, not necessary for the line to be unbroken as to actual conduct of the kingdom, but it is rather that the lineage, royal prerogative, and right to the throne be preserved and never lost, even in sin, captivity, and dispersion. It is not necessary, then, for continuous political government to be in effect, but it is necessary that the line be not lost.
All agree that the line is not lost. It came to its fulfillment in Christ. In the destruction of Jerusalem, the genealogies were destroyed and it would be impossible for Jews of to-day to trace their lineage back to the line of David. Accordingly, in the wisdom of God, the proof that Christ was of the line of David has been preserved, but at the same time the evidence has been destroyed for any future contenders for the honors. The Jews of to-day must admit that they could not positively identify the lineage of a Messiah if he did appear now. Only Christ has the evidence necessary, and the line is preserved with Him.
The partial fulfillment of the covenant, in that Christ is identified as the one through whom it will be fulfilled, instead of indicating a spiritual fulfillment rather lays the foundation for a literal fulfillment. The purpose of God is seen to be preserved in maintaining the line of David which has the right to rule. The postponement or delay in assuming political power in no wise invalidates the promise. The partial fulfillment in no wise hinders the literal fulfillment of all the covenant.
Is Literal Fulfillment in Harmony with Other Covenants?
The interpretation of the Davidic Covenant inevitably is colored by the construction placed on other covenants of Scripture. It is not within the province of this discussion to investigate all these covenants. If the premillennial viewpoint of Scripture be sustained by other arguments, however, it is clear that the Davidic covenant fits perfectly into the picture. It is the covenant ground for the earthly rule of Christ. All the promises regarding the nation Israel, the possession of the land, the millennial blessings in general, and the return of Christ to reign are in perfect harmony with a literal fulfillment of the covenant. The purpose of God in David is fulfilled in the reign of Christ. This has two aspects: His millennial reign and the continued rule of God in the new earth for eternity. The premillennial viewpoint provides a fully adequate literal fulfillment of the covenant.
Wilkinson has written a forceful summary of this point: “Nevertheless, facts are stubborn things. It is a fact that God has declared that Israel is not to cease from being a nation before Him for ever. It is a fact that the Jewish nation, still in unbelief, survivor of all others, alone retains its national identity…. It is a fact that the promise of a land (the territorial limits of which were defined) to the posterity of Abraham, as also the promise of a son of David’s own line to occupy David’s throne for ever, were unconditional promises, ratified by covenant and oath. It is a fact that the posterity of Abraham has never yet fully possessed and enjoyed the whole of the land so granted and that no son of David occupies David’s throne, nor can do so enduringly till Jesus returns to earth…. The O.T. promises are all as certain of fulfillment in their O.T. sense and meaning and purpose to Israel, as are the N.T. promises certain of fulfillment to the Church.”2
The literal fulfillment of the Davidic covenant is, then, in harmony with the larger covenant purpose of God. In fact, its plain intent and the nature of the promises are another confirmation of the premillennial interpretation of Scripture. It provides an interpretation fully honoring to God and His Word.
The New Testament Teaching on the Reign of Christ
Attention has already been called to the New Testament confirmation of the purpose of God to fulfill the Davidic Covenant literally (Luke 1:32, 33). The New Testament has in all fifty-nine references to David. It also has many references to the present session of Christ. A search of the New Testament reveals that there is not one reference connecting the present session of Christ with the Davidic throne. While this argument is, of course, not conclusive, it is almost incredible that in so many references to David and in so frequent reference to the present session of Christ on the Father’s throne there should be not one reference connecting the two in any authoritative way. The New Testament is totally lacking in positive teaching that the throne of the Father in Heaven is to be identified with the Davidic throne. The inference is plain that Christ is seated on the Father’s throne, but that this is not at all the same as being seated on the throne of David.
About the only reference which can be construed as having any connection with the identification of David’s kingdom reign and the present session of Christ is that found in Acts 15:14-17. After Paul’s testimony of wonders wrought among the Gentiles, James addressed the council in these words: “Symeon hath rehearsed how first God visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written, After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen; And I will build again the ruins thereof, And I will set it up: That the residue of men may seek after the Lord, And all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called” (Acts 15:14-17).
The problem of this passage resolves into these questions: (1) What is meant by the “tabernacle of David”? (2) When is the “tabernacle of David” to be rebuilt? The first question is settled by an examination of its source, Amos 9:11, and its context. The preceding chapters and the first part of chapter nine deal with God’s judgment upon Israel. It is summed in the two verses which immediately precede the quotation: “For, lo, I will command, and I will sift the house of Israel among all the nations, like as grain is sifted in a sieve, yet shall not the least kernel fall upon the earth. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, The evil shall not overtake nor meet us” (Amos 9:9, 10).
Immediately following this passage of judgment is the promise of blessing after the judgment, of which the verse quoted in Acts fifteen is the first: “In that day will I raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen, and close up the breaches thereof; and I will raise up its ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations that are called by my name, saith Jehovah that doeth this. Behold, the days come, saith Jehovah, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will bring back the captivity of my people Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their own land, and they shall no more be plucked up out of their land which I have given them, saith Jehovah thy God” (Amos 9:11-15).
The context of the passage deals, then, with Israel’s judgment. After this period, which is the period of Gentile opportunity, God will raise up the tabernacle of David, give Israel supremacy over Edom and the nations, bless their crops, regather Israel, restore their cities, and assure them that they will never again be dispersed. The entire passage confirms that the “tabernacle of David” is an expression referring to the whole nation of Israel, and that in contrast to the Gentile nations. By no possible stretch of the plain meaning of this passage can the “tabernacle of David” be made to be the equivalent of the New Testament church. The prophecy concerns the rebuilding of that which was fallen down. The “ruins” are to be rebuilt “as in the days of old.” The nature of the blessings are earthly, territorial, and national, and have nothing to do with a spiritual church to which none of these blessings have been promised.
What then is the meaning of the quotation of James? What relation does it have to the problem faced by the council at Jerusalem? The question considered by the council was one of Gentile participation in the church. It apparently was difficult for the apostles to adjust themselves to equality with Gentiles in the Gospel. The evident blessing of God upon the Gentiles, their salvation, and spiritual gifts were indisputable evidence that a change in approach to the Gentiles was necessary. They must face the fact that both Jew and Gentile were saved by grace in exactly the same manner. How was this to be reconciled with the promises of God to Israel? It is this which James answers.
He states, in effect, that it was God’s purpose to bless the Gentiles as well as Israel, but in their order. God was to visit the Gentiles first, “to take out of them a people for his name.” James goes on to say that this is entirely in keeping with the prophets, for they had stated that the period of Jewish blessing and triumph should be after the Gentile period: “After these things I will return, And I will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen.” Instead of identifying the period of Gentile conversion with the rebuilding of the tabernacle of David, it is carefully distinguished by the first (Gentile blessing), and after this, referring to Israel’s coming glory. The passage instead of identifying God’s purpose for the church and for the nation, Israel, established a specific time order. Israel’s blessing will not come until “I return,” apparently reference to the second coming of Christ. That it could not refer either to the Incarnation or to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost is evident in that neither are “return’s.” The passage under consideration constitutes, then, an important guide in determining the purpose of God. God will first conclude His work for the Gentiles in the period of Israel’s dispersion; then He will return to bring in the promised blessings for Israel. It is needless to say that this confirms the interpretation that Christ is not now on the throne of David bringing blessing to Israel as the prophets predicted, but He is rather on His Father’s throne waiting for the coming earthly kingdom and interceding for His own who form the church.
An examination of the evidence has brought us to the conclusion that the Davidic covenant demands a literal fulfillment, that the partial fulfillment in no wise hinders a complete future fulfillment and in fact requires it, that only a literal fulfillment is in harmony with the other covenant purposes of God, and that the New Testament is not only silent on any identification of the present position of Christ with the Davidic throne but specifically separates the present period of Gentile blessing from Israel’s future glory.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testament, unabridged edition, (Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, 1868), II, 295.
2 Samuel Hinds Wilkinson, The Israel Promises and Their Fulfilment (London: John Bale, Sons and Danielsson, Ltd., 1936), pp. 56-57.