What is a covenant? What promises does God make in the covenants to which he is one of the parties?
Covenants were an important part of the cultural world in which the various books of the Bible were written. In the ancient world, covenants were an alliance-forming mechanism with legal, binding force, by means of which various groups, nations, or individuals forged solemn, and even family-like, bonds of loyalty with one another. 1 When promises are embedded in a covenantal format, they are sworn into effect with an oath and are therefore freighted with great weightiness and solemnity. To break a promise solemnly sworn into effect by the invocation of God’s name was (and still is) a serious offense in the eyes of God. In the Bible there are two different types of covenant into which God enters with a human party, both of which have their own particular features and formats: The suzerain-vassal covenant (in which the superior party imposes certain covenant terms on a vassal party), and the royal grant covenant (in which the superior party grants a gift or reward to a vassal/servant whose loyalty has been proven and demonstrated over time). According to the Bible, the “gospel,” or good news, is built on specific promises that God made through various covenants with people in the past. Some of these covenants are suzerain-vassal covenants, while others are royal grant covenants.
Since the promises of the biblical covenants are part of God’s one, overall plan to restore the creation, they are sometimes referred to simply as “the promise” (see, e.g., Rom. 4:13-14). In his covenants, God promised that he would: 1) faithfully and forever sustain the created order, causing the day and the night to come “at their appointed time” (Jer. 33:20, ESV); 2) issue a fatal blow, through Eve’s offspring, to the original deceiver of humanity, the serpent, and his offspring (Gen. 3:15); 3) bless Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their offspring, multiply them greatly, make them into a great nation and community of nations, give them the land of Israel as an everlasting possession, and bless all the nations through them (see, e.g., Gen. 12, 15, 17, 22, 26, 28, 35); 4) eventually overturn death through bodily resurrection, so as to allow Abraham himself and his righteous offspring to inherit the land promised to them (see, e.g., Gen. 15:8, 50:24-25; cf. Ezek. 37); 5) draw the people of Israel into a time of national repentance, purify their hearts, and gather them back to their land after a time of disciplinary exile among the nations (see, e.g., Lev. 26; Dt. 4, 28, 30); 6) raise up a king—a “Christ,” or “Messiah”—from King David’s line to sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 7; 1 Chr. 17), from where he would rule Israel and the nations in justice and righteousness forever (see, e.g., Is. 2, 9, 11, 42); 7) through the mission of his chosen Servant, enter into a new and everlasting covenant of peace with the people of Israel (see, e.g., Jer. 31; Ezek. 37) and the nations (Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8) through which they would be forgiven of their sins, enabled to obey God through the work of his Spirit on their hearts and minds, and qualified to inherit the things previously promised (see, e.g., Is. 42:5-9, 49:6-8, 52-53; Jer. 30-31; Ezek. 36-37).
1 See, e.g., Elmer B. Smick, “282 ברה,” ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 128; Scott Hahn, “Covenant,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).