The theology of the covenants is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I should preface this, since it’s on the internet, with the fact that I’m no theologian or authority. But I wanted to try to encapsulate what I find in Scripture on the subject, at the moment, about the reality that the Mosaic Covenant is broken.
To begin with: Jeremiah 11:10 and Ezekiel 44:7:
The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers. (Jeremiah 11:10 ESV)
You have broken my covenant, in addition to all your abominations. (Ezekiel 44:7 ESV)
This language is only used 1) in the later prophets, which was after profound and prolonged corporate idolatry on the part of Israel, 2) in Genesis 17:14 a person who has broken the covenant of circumcision is cast out from the people forever, and 3) in Isaiah 24:5 (yet unfulfilled) the whole world is punished and judged for breaking the “everlasting” covenant.
Nowhere is this language used as an invitation to restore the covenant, in other words.
Further, the punishment entailed by this covenant-breaking, and if it holds out hope for restoration:
“Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. What right has my beloved in my house, when she has done many vile deeds? Can even sacrificial flesh avert your doom? Can you then exult? The LORD once called you ‘a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit.’ But with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. The LORD of hosts, who planted you, has decreed disaster against you, because of the evil that the house of Israel and the house of Judah have done, provoking me to anger by making offerings to Baal.” (Jeremiah 11:14-17 ESV)
Key things here: God will not listen when they call, Israel has no right in His house, and even offering sacrifices will do no good. Jeremiah 12:7-8 says, “I have forsaken my house; I have abandoned my heritage; I have given the beloved of my soul into the hands of her enemies… I hate her.”
Lastly, the words of Malachi, the final prophet recognized by Israel:
Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. But you profane it…d
Stark words. God won’t accept your sacrifices, Israel, but His name will be great among the nations.
Malachi 2: “You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.”
Does it fit with the promise?
But God obviously does not go back on His word. So can the covenant really be broken? In Leviticus God promised He would do if Israel persisted in breaking the covenant. Among many horrible things (like cannibalism), we find these lines:
And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste. (Leviticus 26:30-33 ESV)
Here we have again, sacrifices and praise are worthless. Israel is to be scattered. This is the ultimate punishment for those who have broken the covenant. God is not listening.
There are many more places where it was prophesied what would happen if Israel broke the covenant, and even that the covenant would be broken, by prophets like Moses, Samuel, and Joshua. I am compiling them in a separate post here.
The Leviticus threat is followed with a beautiful promise:
“But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. But the land shall be abandoned by them and enjoy its Sabbaths while it lies desolate without them, and they shall make amends for their iniquity, because they spurned my rules and their soul abhorred my statutes. Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God. But I will for their sake remember the covenant with their forefathers, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God: I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 26:40-45 ESV)
So, when Israel repents in their hearts, God will remember His covenant with Abraham; but even while they are in punishment, He will remember the covenant with Moses (and so not destroy them utterly, but leave them in punishment and exile). The Mosaic covenant was a blessing and a curse. The Abrahamic covenant was a blessing and unilateral.
Similarly, in Malachi, we see the promise of John the Baptist and Christ himself (Malachi 3:1), but that coming “who can endure” (Mal 3:2) and new offerings are accepted, especially by the priests who accept the new covenant (notably Acts 6:7 accounts for a large group of priests converting). We understand these offerings in the context of the new covenant and Romans 12:1 as spiritual offerings, as indeed the remnant who accepted Christ as the Messiah (including Paul who wrote Romans) must have understood them.
In Jeremiah, too, there’s the promise of ultimate redemption, in words that echo so clear to us the Church:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34 ESV)
So here the Mosaic covenant is being explicitly replaced, the blessing-and-curse replaced with hearts with God’s law written on them, and all will know God, and God will forgive sin. This exact same pattern of redemption is shown in Ezekiel 36:16-37, where, not for the sake of Israel, but for God’s holy name—which Israel profaned among the nations in which they were scattered (Ezekiel 36:22-23):
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27 ESV)
The New Covenant
This is exactly what Christ accomplished by being the ultimate sacrifice once for all. He took the curse of the Law upon Himself (Galatians 3:13). And thus He fulfilled the Law. And then God made a New Covenant, and with it forgiveness for sins.
God’s goal was never the sacrifices:
In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. (Psalm 40:6 ESV)
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22 ESV)
And so “He does away with the first in order to establish the second, and by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:9-10).
The followers of the Mosaic Covenant have “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:3-4 ESV)
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-5 ESV)
This is the New Covenant, the law written on hearts instead of on stone. Now we can walk in the Spirit. The Mosaic Law itself could not make people walk in the Spirit, because it was external, not internal. But in the New Covenant, the law is written on our hearts and “although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Romans 8:10) And we can by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh.
The New Covenant is for Israel
“And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD. (Isaiah 59:20 ESV)
You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. (John 4:22 ESV)
God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. … at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace…. Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened. (Romans 11:2-7 ESV)
It’s confusing, coming out of a dispensationalist background, to make sense of the prophecies which refer to Israel, but I think Paul makes it clear. The New Covenant was with Israel, is with Israel, “true Israel” (Romans 9:6). And God called out a remnant of Israel to be that, the Israelites who accepted Christ and founded the church. The elect of Israel accepted the promises, in other words, and the rest were hardened (Romans 11:7), which remains (Romans 11:25) until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, which was prophesied in Jeremiah 12:16 that the Gentiles would be “built up with” Israel, and explained in Romans 11:17-24 how the Gentiles are grafted into the tree of Israel. We are not a new tree; “salvation is from the Jews.” The non-elect of Israel are blinded, but ultimately “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29) and so I think there is a future hope there, because “God has the power to graft them in again” “if they do not continue in their unbelief” (Romans 11:23).
So God foretold in Leviticus what would happen if Israel broke the covenant—a curse—and we see in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, among others, that coming to pass. But everywhere God also promised redemption and hope for repentance and restoration, and in Jeremiah He described what that would be: a New Covenant, explicitly not like the Mosaic Covenant. Then Jesus took the curse of the Law upon Himself for all, and in so doing, abrogated the Old Covenant and ushered in the promised New, and also fulfilled the Leviticus promise that the covenant with Abraham would be remembered, as it is answered in all whom God grafts into the tree (Romans 9:8).