The Covenant of Sinai, as this expression indicates, is the covenant that the Lord instituted with His people at Sinai. There is no agreement as what this covenant was as to its character, whether a covenant of works, a contract between God and Israel with conditional promises, or a covenant of grace. The question is then, what was this covenant as to its character. Then there is also the question, who did this covenant include, only the Israel according to the election or both the reprobated and the elect Israel? Finally there is also the question, why in the epistle to the Hebrews is this covenant called the first covenant, and why does the inspired writer say of this covenant that it waxed old and vanished away. And why did it wax old and vanish away? And what does it mean that it waxed old and vanished away?
These are the questions for which I ask your attention and with which I wish to be occupied with you for a while. I have arranged my material under the following four points: The covenant of Sinai: 1) Its character; 2) Its promises; 3) Its members; 4) Its being called the first covenant and why.
I. The covenant of Sinai as to its character. The fact that Israel could not merit with God, was creature, moving, living and having his being in God, and therefore less than nothing in comparison with God must, to my mind, exclude the idea that the covenant of Sinai was a covenant of works, a sort of contract between God and Israel. There is no room for argument here. The point is undebatable, it seems to me. For a covenant in the sense of a contract is only possible between man and man, but never between man and God. For over against God, man has nothing to say. His sole obligation and duty with respect to God is to hear and obey. And his obedience is God’s gift in him. And when he disobeys, it is because God sovereignly hardens him. How can there then be such a thing as a covenant, in the sense of a contract between God and His creature. This cannot be. For if the covenant is a contract, the two parties to the contract do have the right to speak up to each other. They deliberate together. They bargain together, and if successfully, they reach an agreement as to what the articles of the covenant are to be. And this agreement is the covenant. But certainly God was not bargaining with Israel there at Sinai. He did not ask Israel, if he would agree to be His people, but He let it be known that Israel was His people and that settled the matter for Israel. And. He did not submit His law to Israel for approbation, but He came to him with His “thou shalt” and that again settled the matter for Israel. And, as we shall see, He did not pivot the fulfillment of His promises to Israel on Israel’s willingness to obey Him, but despite Israel’s apostasy, He entered with him into the rest of Canaan in fulfillment of His promise.
This shuts us up to the view that the covenant of Sinai was a covenant of grace. That the covenant of Sinai was a covenant of grace is clear from the transactions there at Sinai reported in the book of Exodus (Exodus 20-23). The people of Israel were encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses was with the Lord in the Mount, Here the Lord was communicating to him the ten commandments and some additional legislation. This was followed by the promise of the Lord that He would send His angel to lead His people on their journey to Canaan and that He would surely drive out the Canaanites before them. Thereupon Moses left the presence of the Lord and returned to the people. He wrote down all the words of the Lord and called the writing “the book of the covenant.” The following morning he rose up early, and builded an altar and erected twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel. As Aaron and his sons had not yet been appointed to the priesthood, Moses sent young men, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the Lord. Then he took half of the blood and sprinkled it upon the altar. Taking the “book of the covenant” he read it in the audience of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has said we will do and be obedient.” Then Moses took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.”
The thing to observe here is that the covenant of Sinai was confirmed in blood, in the final instance the blood of Christ. The law of this covenant called for the sacrifices by blood by which the sins of the people were covered before the face of God—covered, that is cancelled, obliterated (symbolically). This shows that the covenant of Sinai was, must have been, a covenant of grace, the very covenant first revealed in paradise immediately after the fall and later instituted with Noah and Abraham. But one will say, The law entered in there at Sinai, the law, “Thou shalt keep all my statutes and my ordinances, which if man doeth he shall live by or in them,” that is, live by the deeds of the law, and further, “Cursed is every one that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” Thus speaks the law. And the law was added to the promise. This, one will say, shuts us up to the view that the covenant of Sinai was a covenant of works with conditional threats and promises. “If thou keepest me, thou shalt live by me. If thou transgresseth me, cursed art thou.” Thus threatens and promises the law. Let me tender my reply. In the first place, the “if” clause, “which, if a man doeth,” is not a condition, but the idea is that keeping the law and life go hand in hand, and likewise transgression of the law and death. We see it in Adam our common parent who had left God’s hand a sinless man, and who therefore how long we know not, was living by the law, commandment. As long as he continued obedient to the law, he lived. Disobeying the command, he died. Second, we must consider God’s purpose in bringing in the law. His purpose was not to place His chosen people under the necessity of keeping the law in order that He might destroy them for transgressing the law, which they did, seeing that they were dead in sin. Only if that had been true, could it be said that the covenant He established with them there at Sinai was a covenant of works. His purpose was to put them under the necessity of keeping the law indeed but only that they might be brought under the conviction of sin and that, as so convicted, they might be driven into the arms of Christ by the curses of the law. No more, than we, did the saints of the Old covenant imagine that they were living by the deeds of the law. They were hiding themselves in Christ, and they knew that it was by His mercies alone that they lived. The law entered in four hundred years after, but, in the words of Paul, it did not disannul the covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the covenant of grace. It means that, despite the entering in of the law, the covenant of grace abided. It abided there at Sinai. (see Gal. 3:17).
We were delivered from the law by Christ who fulfilled all its requirements, doing so, according to the Hebrews, as the mediator of the covenant. The only question is whether the covenant of Sinai was that covenant that abided. It was, must have been, seeing that it, too, was confirmed in blood.
II. That this is so, is also clear from what was the promise of this covenant (my second point). The promise as it first came to God’s afflicted people in Egypt is contained in Ex. 3:7, 8, “And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry, by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Hevites, and the Jebusites.” And again in the same vein in Ex. 6:6-8, “Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord.”
This was the promise of the covenant of Sinai. It was the very promise that the Lord had given to the fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it was unconditional. Had it been conditional, had it hinged for its fulfillment on Israel’s willingness, to keep the covenant, it would never have been realized. For Israel was a stiff-necked people. But God continued faithful to His promise. When, shortly after, the people there at Sinai made them gods of gold, the Lord forgave them, and despite their great sin vowed that “Behold, I make a covenant: before all thy people I will do wonders, such as have not been clone in all the earth, nor in any nation: and all the people among which thou art shall see the work of the Lord: for it is a terrible thing that I will do with thee. Observe that which I command thee this day: behold, I drive out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perrizite, and the Hevite, and the Jebusite.”
III. And this brings us to the question: Whom did the covenant of Sinai include? To whom was the, promise of the earthly Canaan given? Also to the Israel according to reprobation, or to the Israel according to the election only? According to one view the promise of the covenant of Sinai was also unto the reprobated Israel, and this Israel, too was included in this covenant. And then it is concluded that, seeing that the earthly Canaan was a prophetic type of the heavenly, the promise of the heavenly kingdom—the promise of Christ and all His benefits—is likewise given to all the baptized, soul for soul. However, the view that the promise of the earthly Canaan was given also to the Israel according to, the reprobation and that thus also this Israel was included in the covenant of Sinai can be proved wrong. True it is that the earthly Canaan was a type of the heavenly. In the covenant of Sinai all was type: the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt, the ten plagues, the passage through the Red Sea, and later through the Jordan, Israel’s warfare with the Canaanites, and the conquest of Canaan, the sacrifices by blood and the priesthood, etc. All was type of the realities of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. What this means is; that in promising His people there at Sinai the earthly, the Lord was at once promising them the heavenly. Thus in saying to Israel, “I will bring you unto the land concerning which I swear to give it unto Abraham, and I will give it to you for a heritage,” He was at once promising them that “I will bring you, my people unto the heavenly land, concerning which I swear to give it unto Abraham, that is, unto Christ, and I will give it to you for a heritage.” Seeing that the earthly was a type of the heavenly, God could not be promising His people the earthly without at once promising the heavenly. So in saying to His people there at Sinai, “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” and by implication, “I will bring you into the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham.” What the Lord on that occasion was, in the final instance, saying to His people is this: “I am the Lord thy God, the God of thy salvation, which have brought thee out of the house of thy spiritual bondage, the bondage of sin and of the devil, and I will give thee rest, the rest of the heavenly.
Let us consider that Abraham was expecting a heavenly country. And his expectation was well grounded. It was grounded on the promise of God to him that he would give him the heavenly. Yet, if we examine the promises of God as they came to Abraham, we discover that not once did the Lord say to him in just these words, “I will give you the heavenly,” but always, “I will give to you and to your seed this land where thou art a stranger the earthly Canaan.” This is the only promise that Abraham ever received as to the form of words. That Abraham was nevertheless expecting the heavenly can only be because the earthly was a type of the heavenly, so that in promising him the earthly the Lord was at once promising him the heavenly. And Abraham had understanding of this as taught by the Spirit of Christ. And so, too, God’s people in general.
This, it seems to me, proves conclusively that the covenant of Sinai was indeed a covenant of grace, the very covenant that God gave to Abraham. For the promises also of this covenant were in the final instance promises of the heavenly and not of the earthly.
And therefore the promises of the covenant of Sinai were given, could have been given, only to the Israel according to the election of grace, and the covenant of Sinai included, could have included, only the elect Israel. For the promise of this covenant, the unconditional promise of the heavenly in the final instance, was for the elect only.
That the promise of Canaan was given only to the elect, is strictly according to the teachings of Paul in his epistle to the Galatians, where the statement occurs, “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to thy seeds as of many, but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”
It is true, of course, that also reprobated Israelites entered Canaan, and that they multiplied in Canaan until their number far exceeded the number of true worshipper of God, the remnant according to the election, Christ’s little flock. But it can be shown that it is just as true that the reprobated Israel had no right to Canaan and were out of place in the holy land. First to be considered is the generation of Jews whose carcasses fell in the wilderness. They are described (see Hebrews 3:9-19) as men that hardened their hearts, tempted God, proved Him and saw His works forty years. Wherefore “I was grieved with that generation, and said, They do always err in their heart; and they have not known my ways. So I sware in my wrath, They shall not enter into my rest.” They could not enter. The supreme reason was the oath of God. The secondary reason was their unbelief (see verses 18, 19). The conclusion is warranted that they were reprobated. Canaan was not for them.
Next to be considered is that all gross sinners in Israel, such as murderers, adulterers, blasphemers, worshippers of strange gods, had to be put to death. The law demanded that this class of persons be extirpated. They were corrupting the land. God’s country was not meant for them. But, as could be expected, despite this demand of the law, the carnal seed in Israel was permitted to live and the result was that eventually the land would be filled with their abominations. As often as this happened the Lord would take away from Israel the land either by withholding the seasonal rains and then there would be no harvest, or by selling land and people into the hand of their enemies to be spoiled and plundered of them. And finally, when the measure of iniquity was filled up, the Israel of the ten tribes was uprooted from the land and scattered among the nations never to return, and Judah was exiled to Babylon. And after the seventy years only a remnant returned. It all goes to show that Canaan was not for the wicked, that it had not been given by promise to the reprobated Israel. Canaan was God’s country, the land of the living, type of the new earth. The reprobated had no more right to it than they have to heaven. They were as out of place in the earthly Canaan as they would be in heaven. The covenant did not include them. We must break off here to complete this exposition in a following article.