Summary: Our God is a covenant-God, not a contract-God, and the covenant that He had made with us is based on His character and is embodied in an unconditional commitment. It is on the basis of His covenant with us, through the blood of Jesus Christ, that we as a
Introduction: Making Vows
Our passage, Psalm 132, is the longest of the Psalms of Ascent. While most of these 15 psalms are less than 10 verses long, and with some having as few as 3 verses, Psalm 132 has 18 verses. And on the surface it reads like the most complicated of the bunch. It’s the only one that mentions King David and events from Israel’s history with any detail—we hear of David swearing an oath, we hear of his bringing the ark back to Jerusalem, a story told more fully in 2 Samuel 6, and we hear his prayers and we hear the Lord’s answers to his prayers. So just what is this psalm about?
To simplify it, it appears to be about making vows and swearing oaths. We see in verse 2 that David “swore to the Lord and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob.” We see in verse 11 that “the Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back.” In fact, Psalm 132 can be easily divided into two sections: verses 1 – 10 and verses 11 – 18. In the first section we have David’s vow and his prayer to the Lord and in the second section we have the Lord’s oath and his answer to David’s prayer.
That David is making a vow to the Lord and that the Lord is swearing an oath to David in return says something about the nature of the relationship they share with one another: it is one that includes responsibilities, obligations, promises, and blessings. At the heart of this psalm is something that lies at the heart of our relationship to God and how God has chosen to relate to us: the idea of covenant. So in part that’s what Psalm 132 is about: covenant. It’s this notion of covenant that we’re going to focus on today.
Covenants and Contracts
Lots of people lump the idea of covenant in with the idea of contracts. They equate them. But in reality the two ideas, while related and similar, are still very different, especially when it comes to the kind of relationship they each envision. In a contract, the underlying principle is individualistic. You make a contract with someone else so that your life will benefit. In other words, you form a contract out of such questions like: how will this benefit me? How will this improve my life? How can I get out of this if I need to? Contracts have exit clauses. A contract can be broken. The kind of relationship envisioned in a contract is completely utilitarian. It’s based on my needs, and the other person is a means to an end.
No wonder seeing marriage as a contract is so disastrous. Can you imagine a marriage founded on the same kinds of questions and priorities as a business contract? What kind of relationship is envisioned when an engaged couple agree to a pre-nuptial contract? These days people approach marriage by thinking to themselves: “Well, we can try it out and see how it goes. And if it doesn’t work, that’s ok. There’s no risk. Let’s just make sure we settle how things will be divided up if we do get divorced.” If a couple enters a marriage with this attitude, how much hope can we possibly have for them?
A covenant is different. A covenant creates a new state of relationship. A covenant is about our willingness to enter fully into a relationship with someone else. It’s not self-centered; it’s other-centered. Like in our psalm, a covenant includes promises. We make vows. That’s why a marriage really ought to be seen as a covenant and not a contract. We don’t enter a marriage only for our own benefit; we’re also there for the other person. You might say that a contract is about convenience whereas a covenant is about commitment.
God of the Covenant
Covenants were widespread in the ancient world. It was a pact both parties agreed to honour. A covenant signifies a relationship based on commitment. It includes promises and obligations. It has the quality of reliability and durability. And the parties who covenanted together were equals.
When we look at the biblical understanding, much of this is the same. One scholar describes it in this way: “Covenant expresses a novel element of the religion of ancient Israel: the people are bound in relationship to the one God, Yahweh, who makes an exclusive claim upon their loyalty in worship and social life. They express God’s gracious commitment and faithfulness and thus establish a continuing relationship.” It was a common form of agreement culturally, but it was novel or unique to the religion of Israel. No other religion could claim a relationship with a god based on a covenant.