Part Seven

by A.E. Knoch

UNBELIEF is the basis of all covenants between man and God. This may not be apparent in most cases, but it will always be found that man wants a covenant because he does not fully trust God, though he has confidence in himself. Even Abram, the father of the faithful, exhibits this fleshly trait, and he does it immediately following such a display of faith that he was reckoned righteous (Gen.15:6). Because he believed God he had come to Canaan. He believed Him concerning his seed, that it should be as the stars of the heavens, so numerous. Up to this point his faith was not infirm, notwithstanding his own infirmity, and that of his wife (Rom.4:16-22). But, after years of waiting, his faith faltered, and he wanted assurances and a covenant to steady it. As a result he was given the covenant of the land. When he sought to fulfill the promise of the seed without Yahweh's help, he was given the covenant of Circumcision. These institutions are not ideal or permanent, but came in by the way, like the law, in order to expose human faithlessness and failure.

Why do men make covenants, compacts, contracts, bonds, treaties? Why should not a mere memorandum do just as well? Why not a promise? Is it not because we have learned to distrust one another? Among men it is considered the height of folly to make verbal agreements when much of value is involved. Even when the other party is honest and means well, there are many and various risks common to mortals which might hinder the fulfillment of an undertaking. In larger deals, each side even seeks to protect itself by disclaiming responsibility for all "acts of God," that is, such disturbances of nature as are beyond human control. But God does not need to secure Himself in this manner. All that He does is an "act of God." He needs no insurance against such. He can carry out any agreement without regard to any risk or contingency. Is it not an offense to demand from Him more than His mere word?

After Abram is pronounced just, Yahweh repeats His promise concerning the land and straightway Abram doubts and demands more than the bare word of his great Benefactor. Strictly speaking, it is no covenant when he is told. "I am Yahweh, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to tenant it" (Gen.15:7). It is just what it claims to be--a pure gift--for which Abram had paid nothing and done nothing except to accept it and move thither. How could he insult the great Giver by asking, "Whereby am I to know that I shall enjoy its tenancy?" Hitherto he had been satisfied with God's word. Now he wants more. This is wrong, very wrong. Yahweh's bond is no better than His word, and should never be called for. Among men it may be advisable to have a written agreement in important transactions, but it is better still to have no dealings with those who do not honor their word. It is not likely that such men will stand by their bond if they can legally evade it. Is it not an insult to ask God to act as if He were a fallible human, who might not be able to carry out his contract? Yet all literal covenants with Him must be of this nature, and are marred by human unbelief.

Whereby am I to know (Gen.15:8)? This is the seed of doubt from which all covenants have sprung. Knowing how unreliable and changeable the sons of Adam are, we seek to make matters safe by formal agreements, which appeal to the selfish interests of men, in order to insure the fulfillment of others' obligations. We lack faith in them, not necessarily in their honesty and probity, but in their ability to fulfill their promises. We learn this by sad experience, and it is well that we are disillusioned, for this is needed as a contrast to God's faithfulness and ability. But our innate depravity makes us treat the Deity as if He, also, were human and must be forced to fulfill His promises, even if we have no right or title to the gifts which He wishes to shower upon us.

Yahweh brought Abram forth from the land of the Chaldees to give him the land as an allotment. Practically, the best way to assure Abram of the immutability of His word was to confirm it by a covenant. In those days there seems to have been a regular procedure called "cutting" a covenant. The word cutting referred to the covenant victims, which were cut in two, as a rule, and laid on either side of a path, so that each one of the contracting parties could pass between them, as much as to say, "May I become like these victims if I do not fulfill my part of this covenant!" A covenant, like the law, drew down a curse on those who failed to fulfill its provisions. That is what made it binding. Hence it necessarily involved doubt. Otherwise it had no function. Men easily change their minds, especially if circumstances alter, and their interests demand it. But God does not vary, because His plans and purpose are all fixed and settled for all time. It is only as we doubt and drag Him down to the level of humanity that there is any need for a covenant on His part. On our part a covenant is still more useless, for how can we fulfill it?

In gracious condescension Yahweh agrees to give Abram a covenant, and bids him set the stage for the ceremony by preparing the animals according to the custom. But Yahweh uses the occasion to strengthen the faith of Abram and his descendants by revealing beforehand how his seed would fare before they took possession of the land, and even suggesting that there would be opposition from the forces of evil in the heavens. Abram takes the heifer and the goat and the ram, severs them, and lays the halves opposite each other. The two birds were probably laid likewise, but whole, so that he could walk between them. But nothing happens. Then the birds of prey, sensing the slaughter from afar, come to gorge themselves and thus defeat the covenant. May these not symbolize the spiritual forces of wickedness which seek to frustrate God's plans?

No doubt Abram was waiting to perform his part, as his descendants were when they received the law. He was ready to pass between the victims and assume his obligations in this covenant. But Yahweh hinders this. Although the sun had not set, a stupor and a great darkness falls on him, so that he is incapable of taking any part. This puts him in his true place. Despite his faith, he was still in darkness as to his own impotence and inability to keep any covenant which depended upon him. Yahweh gives him the land, and will not allow him to assume any obligations. Hence he is hindered from going through between the victims as though he had anything to do. And how could he? Much of this covenant is to be fulfilled while he is in his tomb. Instead, the symbols of Yahweh's presence, a smoking stove and a torch of fire, pass between the pieces and thus is contracted a one-sided covenant or promise, as it is called in later revelation. Abram is assured of the immutability of Yahweh's promise by investing it with all the solemnity of a covenant.

The covenant of the land has two sides, which seem to be almost universally misunderstood by the saints today. The land is promised "unconditionally" to those in Israel who have faith, not to the physical seed of Abraham, as such. Indeed, the prophets made it clear later on that those who do not trust in Yahweh would be driven out of the land. Today much is made of the promises to Israel, as though these gave the Jews a perfect title to the Holy Land. It would, indeed, be theirs today if they fulfilled the law, for that promised it to them. But, so long as they do not earn it by means of the law, or enjoy it as a gift of faith, they have no rights there whatever. In the future both of these conditions will be fulfilled, hence they will get the land, as such as believe and obey Yahweh, and they will be blessed in it. Till then they need not look to other nations to give it to them, or expect anything but trouble when they force their way into it.

To impress upon Abram the unchangeableness of the counsel of God in regard to his seed, a peculiar and powerful figure of speech is used, which we would do well to introduce into our language. The A.V. seeks to express it literally, "Know of a surety." The Hebrew is, "To know are you to be knowing." This, we submit, is quite as understandable as most figures, and the contexts in which it occurs would soon show its force. Abram's doubts are to be displaced by unquestionable knowledge. Were we in Abram's place we would probably have had a wrong notion of God's way of bringing about the fulfillment of the promise. I would have looked forward to a continuous increase of Abram's seed in the land, in the midst of plenty and pleasure, until it was all taken over. But I doubt if Israel would have appreciated it then. They would certainly not have appreciated the power of Yahweh as shown in their deliverance from Egyptian bondage.

God's fundamental method with man begins with evil and ends with good. First comes suffering and then glory. So it was with Israel before they entered the land, and, on a larger scale, before they finally enjoy it in the Kingdom. And so, indeed, it is with all mankind. The first three eons provide the experience of evil which leads up to the last two eons of blessing, and in a wider sense, the eons, of sin as a whole are preparatory for the perfection of the consummation. The seed of Abraham had a long, hard schooling during their sojourn in Egypt.

The remarkable answer to Abram's wish to know gives us the key to much of Yahweh's dealings with Israel. It shows us that covenants and signs, which are ostensibly given to foster faith, are really a refuge of unbelief, and do not create faith. The Jews request signs, the Greeks seek wisdom, yet we herald Christ crucified, Who is to Jews, indeed, a snare, and to the nations stupidity, yet to those who are called, Jews as well as Greeks, the power of God and the wisdom of God, seeing that the stupidity of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor.1:22-25). One of the greatest signs ever given was the deliverance of Israel out of Egypt. Surely, all who went through that experience should never doubt His word again. Yet almost all except the children were strewn along the wilderness because of unbelief! It should be of great profit to consider their experience in the light of later revelation.


The bondage in Egypt and the deliverance from it culminate in the covenant of Sinai, which is above all others, the covenant, that becomes the old covenant, and forms the background for the two new covenants, which are connected with the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision evangels. Abram thought, and I suppose everyone who is not especially enlightened through the later unfoldings in Paul's epistles, thinks likewise, that tangible and superhuman evidence strengthen faith. "Christianity" is supposed to be founded on "evidences," such as miracles and signs. Even among the most evangelical it is generally held that the conduct and testimonies of the saved are more potent than God's Word in producing converts. Faith is not dependent on sight. Great miracles do not produce that distrust of self nor that confidence in God that seems reasonable to expect. At first they may show great results, but they are not permanent.

As a preparation for their deliverance, Israel must taste the bitterness of bondage. Without this background they never would have appreciated the dealings of Yahweh on their behalf. He could not have made Himself known to them as their Saviour. There would have been no need for His marvels. Then the first lesson in the demonstration of their own insufficiency would have had little meaning. Before the covenant at Sinai He must pile up the evidence that the hearts of the people are set on the gratification of their souls and they are rebellious as soon as these are not satisfied. He must give them ample cause to have no confidence in themselves and every reason to trust Him. Only thus could be displayed the extreme depth of their folly in undertaking a covenant which brought them into a bondage worse than that of Egypt.

When has there ever been a more marvelous display of miraculous power than at the exodus of Israel from the land of Egypt? Moses' rod was changed into a serpent. His hand, thrust into his bosom, became leprous and then was restored by the same process (Ex.4:1-9). But this was eclipsed by the nine plagues. He turned the waters of Egypt into blood (Ex.7:19-25). He overwhelmed the land with frogs (8:1-15). Then the soil of the land becomes lice, and even the magicians acknowledged that it was the finger of God (8:16-19). Then came swarms of insects (8:20-32). The fifth plague was a pestilence on the cattle (9:1-7). It was followed by boils which attacked mankind as well (9:8-12). The seventh plague was a terrible hail (9:13-35). Then locusts devoured the crops (10:12-21). After this a disastrous darkness covered the land (10:21-29). And lastly God smote all the firstborn in Egypt (11:1-10).

These plagues were planned so as to demonstrate to the sons of Israel, to the Egyptians, and to all nations, that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is above all gods, the only true Deity. The gods of Egypt should have protected it from these inflictions, but they failed to do so. Pharaoh was too weak to bear such terrible judgments, and would have let Israel go after the first plague, but this did not suit God's purpose, so He encouraged his heart to hold out. Israel was very near, yet did not suffer at all from the heavy blows dealt against Egypt and its gods. This certainly should have strengthened their confidence in Yahweh. How could they ever distrust Him after all these marvels?

Once more they see the arm of Yahweh bared in their behalf when Pharaoh pursues them and corners them at the Red Sea. They face certain and total destruction, for the army of Egypt is behind them and the waters before them. How great was the miracle which opened a way through the sea for them and drowned all their enemies! Then, indeed, they sang and lauded the God of their salvation. Surely now they have come to have perfect confidence in Yahweh! If He could bring them out of Egypt, the greatest of all nations at that time, He could surely bring them into the land that He had promised!

Alas! How short was their rejoicing, how feeble the faith generated by the stupendous signs shown in Egypt! Only three days later they came to Marah, which means Bitter, and, as they could not drink the water, they murmured against Moses, and Yahweh showed him a tree to make the waters sweet (Ex.15:23-25). This was another proof of His power and provision, and should have ended all further unbelief. And, indeed, at Elim, where there was food and water, they did not complain. But when they went further, only six weeks away from the wonders of the exodus, they murmured more than before, and wished they had died in Egypt rather than to perish in the wilderness of hunger. Once more Yahweh bares His hand and gives them a daily demonstration of His competence to care for them in the gift of the manna (Ex.16). Surely this should satisfy them and cause them to rest in His ability! But no. Soon after, at Rephidim, they lacked water, and actually contended with Moses and tried Yahweh, as though they were their enemies.

Then came Amalek, one of their real enemies, and fought with Israel. Once more Yahweh demonstrated before their eyes how helpless they were without Him. No matter how well they fought, they could not conquer Amalek unless Moses held up his hands. By their own strength they could do nothing. Apart from His help they would be a prey of every nation on the way to Canaan. Moses could not even hold up his hands alone!

If signs and wonders or any manifestations of superhuman power could produce faith in God, then the Israelites should have had a superabundance of it. Instead, strange to say, these marvels seemed to generate self-confidence. We see the same in later revelation. Our Lord wrought many great signs and miracles, but how feeble was the response to them! And those who "believed," how unstable they were! The defect in this kind of "faith" seems to be that it is a subtle form of unbelief. When God speaks and we believe, that is faith. But if we do not believe His bare word and put our trust in outward manifestations which we can perceive with our senses, that is not faith, but perception. Such manifestations have no place in the present administration, for they are not faith. Moreover, when they do occur, they are often the work of evil spirits, deceiving the saints by pretending to be God's holy spirit. Let us lay no weight on tangible evidence which is offered to buttress God's Word. Israel, at the exodus, was given a surfeit of signs, yet they failed to create confidence in Yahweh or distrust in their own ability.

The many miracles and marvels should have prepared the people to refuse the so-called "old" covenant, which came through Moses at Sinai. Apart from Yahweh they could do nothing but murmur. How impossible it would be for them to keep any covenant, especially His holy law! But this seems to have utterly escaped them, as it has almost all of their descendants and many among the nations, to whom it was not even given. How sad to see them, full of faith in themselves, boldly enter the covenant and promise "All that Yahweh says we will do" (Ex.19:8).


After the failure of the old covenant, under which Israel could not hope for any future blessing, since they had forfeited all its promises by their inability to carry out its provisions, God will make with them a new "covenant" (Jer.31:32-34; Heb.8:8-12). This is emphatically not like the old one. In fact, if any lawyer or business man should examine its terms closely, he would say that is not a covenant or contract at all. In case of litigation it would be thrown out of court because there is no valuable consideration on one side at all. It is called a "covenant" merely because it replaces the former one.

In this new relationship of Yahweh to His earthly people, nothing is dependent upon them. It does not come into force until the eons of the eons begin, after God has fully demonstrated the futility of man and has visited the earth with His indignation and Israel with the bowls of His fury. There is no "we will" in it at all. It is all "I will." Instead of giving them a law which they cannot keep, He empowers them to fulfill it. Their ignorance He will replace with the knowledge of Himself. Instead of judging them continuously for their sin and lawlessness, as in the past, He will not recall them to mind. It is a fine figure when this is called a "covenant," but it certainly is not literal. Therefore it is not a covenant of unbelief.


The same figure is used by Paul in describing our relationship to God, because He contrasts it with the law of Sinai (2 Cor.3:6-11). It is like the new "Covenant" of Israel in this, that it is not dependent on us, but on God. Nevertheless it is utterly unlike Israel in the kingdom, who will still remain under the literal law, even though it is written on their hearts and apprehensions. Paul does not dispense a literal law, as Moses did, which led to transgression and death. He dispensed a spiritual "law," which gives life. Our spiritual "covenant," like that of Israel, is utterly one sided, for God alone will see that it is fulfilled.

Literally, in the glorious gospel of God's grace, there is no room for any covenant, for all is of God and nothing of us. If ought depended upon us, it would go from glory to gloom, as the first covenant did. But we, in spirit, are already in the new creation (2 Cor.5:17: Gal.6:15), beyond the regeneration in which Israel will enjoy their new "covenant," when there will be no more doom (Rev.22:3), and God's demonstration of human incapacity will be replaced by an exhibition of His ability to subdue all, through His Christ. So, in spirit, our "new covenant" is far more gracious and glorious even than that of Israel. May we never mar our enjoyment of it by unbelief! By His boundless grace He has made it impossible for us to break it, for His is the only signature to it!

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