In this 2007 addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (D.A. Carson, ed.), Paul Williamson (Lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew, Moore Theological College, Sydney) traces out Scripture’s covenant motif as it advances “God’s creative purpose of universal blessing.”
In chapter one, Williamson provides a survey of the role of covenant in Biblical scholarship through the past few centuries. The survey is very brief, but it is helpful toward placing his work in historical-theological perspective. He also traces out the role of the covenant concept and the meaning of the covenant terminology in Scripture. This again is brief, but it is succinct and helpfully lays the ground for the rest of the book. One point of particular emphasis here might be noted. After surveying the Biblical teaching regarding covenant he stresses that the solemn oath was a necessary part of covenant making (hence, his title) and that without such an oath there is no covenant, properly speaking. In the Biblical understanding, he argues, a covenant is “a solemn commitment, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an oath.” He describes the oath as a covenant’s “most basic element.” He makes his case well, and he draws on this observation to settle certain interpretive questions that arise later in the book.
Chapter two examines the covenant theme with regard to God’s universal purpose. Of leading significance here perhaps is Williamson’s evaluation and rejection of Federal Theology’s “covenant of works.” Such a pre-lapsarian “covenant,” he notes, is not mentioned in the Genesis account, its “promise of life” must be assumed, and it has never found unanimous consent even among Reformed theologians. The appeal to Hosea 6:7 is likewise plagued with difficulty and, has lacked consensus also. Additionally, Williamson points out, there is no “oath” as marks all other Biblical covenants. In short, Williamson finds no reliable exegetical warrant for supposing a “covenant of works” unless we would resort to (re)defining “covenant” more broadly than Scripture seems to do.
Chapters three through nine examine, in turn, the Noahic, Abrahamic, Old (Sinaitic), Davidic, and New covenants. In the course of this exposition Williamson establishes the role of each covenant in the unfolding of the divine purpose and program and demonstrates that the covenant motif is “a most important bonding agent in the cement that unites Scripture as a whole.”
Chapter three takes up the first introduction of the covenant theme in the covenant made with Noah. This covenant, Williamson shows, guarantees the preservation of the created order and of humanity, despite human rebellion and this in order to the eventual fulfillment of the divine purpose. Within this context, Williamson addresses the proposal of a “creation covenant” advanced by some covenantal theologians. Dumbrell has argued that the expression “my covenant” and the use of “establishing” (heqim) rather than “cutting” (karat) the covenant in Genesis 6:18 reflect an already-existing covenant which the covenant with Noah is given to perpetuate. Robertson argues that the mention of God’s “covenant with the day and with the night” in Jeremiah 33:20-26 (cf. Jer. 31:34-36) refers not to the Noahic covenant but to the supposed creation covenant also. Williamson determines that this proposed exegetical support is thin at best and flawed at certain critical points. Moreover, Williamson argues, while in Federalism God deals with humanity and creation itself only within the framework of a covenant, the Biblical order appears to be the reverse. Citing Waltke in support Williamson demonstrates that a covenant solemnizes and confirms a relationship “that is already in existence.” Creation, then, is not subsumed under covenant, but rather the covenant motif serves to advance God’s creative purpose of universal blessing — restoration of humanity and the entire created order. “The glue that binds all the biblical covenants together is God’s creative purpose of universal blessing. Each of the subsequent covenants simply takes us one step closer towards the realization of that divine goal.”
Chapter four is devoted to the covenant with Abraham and its promise of national blessing to Abraham and of international blessing through Abraham. Williamson notes that these two purposes, though distinct, are clearly related in that the promissory goal of the latter is dependent upon the former — perhaps better, that the former is intended as the means to the latter. God’s intent in blessing Abraham is to fulfill his larger purpose to bring blessing to the world. Put yet another way, “God’s plans for Israel were always subservient to his universal purpose, his plans for all the families of the earth.” Williamson’s attention to the details of the Genesis narrative at this point is insightful and helpful. And his tracing of the covenant theme through the lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, although very brief, is helpful toward a more informed reading of Genesis as a whole. One peculiarity arises here, however, in his argument that these two related purposes — the national and the international — reflect two distinct covenants. This may not persuade a majority of his readers. Perhaps the bilateral aspects of the covenant may be understood instead within the broader unilateral covenant; i.e., God will see to it that any conditions will be met.
Williamson refers to the Old or Sinaitic covenant (chapter five) as God’s national covenant with Israel and describes it as stipulating the responsibilities of that nation through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. He understands the ki phrase in Exodus 19:5 as reflecting this purpose: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.” “Thus understood, the goal of the Sinaitic covenant was the establishment of a special nation through which Yahweh could make himself known to all the families of the earth,” and the covenant stipulations reveal to Israel precisely how Israel would be that special nation. Williamson’s treatment of the covenant as bilateral and of the covenantal significance of the Sabbath and the tabernacle are precise and helpful toward a right understanding of this stage of redemptive history.
Williamson’s treatment of the Davidic covenant (chapter six) is especially helpful both in his recognition of the historical situation in which the covenant is made and in the connections he makes here with the Abrahamic covenant and the overall divine purpose. The relation of the dynastic oracle to the recent return of the ark to Jerusalem, thus establishing the Davidic kingship in the context of Yahweh’s kingship is rich with implications. And his tracing of the Davidic covenant through the later Biblical writings, especially the prophets and the Psalms, helpfully fills out the significance of this covenant and its note of anticipation that is brought finally to fulfillment in Christ.
The covenant theme and the divine purpose for universal blessing culminate of course in the New covenant, which Williams treats at length in chapters seven through nine. Here he examines, in turn, the announcement and anticipation of the new covenant in the prophets, the inauguration of the new covenant in the work of Christ, and the consummation of the new covenant in the eschaton. Williamson finds the “newness” of the new covenant in the new, redeemed community created by God’s saving acts. Unlike the Old covenant, in this New covenant God promises unilaterally to make his people a believing and faithful people who know him and serve him from the heart. The attending blessings of the covenant as anticipated in various passages throughout the prophets are surveyed throughout chapter seven. Chapter eight surveys the New Testament teaching, in the course of which Williamson includes a treatment of the New covenant in relation to “covenantal nomism” and the “new perspective” on Paul. Attention then is given to the question of the Church as the inheritor of this covenant made with Israel. Chapter nine is extremely brief, simply pointing us to the eschaton as the time of climactic fulfilment of the New covenant promises and of God’s eternal purpose.
Williamson finds in the covenant theme not necessarily Scripture’s unifying center but at least a unifying theme. He demonstrates this well and thereby enhances the reader’s understanding of the Bible story in large perspective, tracing out each next step in the advance of God’s creative purpose. A study such as Sealed With an Oath of course bristles with notorious points of continual debate, most of which Williamson touches only briefly at some point in the study. Questions such as the identity of “my law” in Jeremiah 31:33, the relation of Israel and the church, the future of ethnic Israel, the character of the Sinaitic covenant (whether works or grace), Federalism’s covenants of grace and works, and so on, will continue to be points of discussion and disagreement. But Williamson has provided an excellent service and a most helpful aid in the study of biblical covenants and, therefore, of the “big picture” of redemptive history. As Carson writes in the preface, “few will be the readers who will not learn a great deal” from this monograph. Certainly no study of the Biblical covenants would want to overlook this notable contribution.
Fred G. Zaspel