By A.W. Pink
We have now arrived at a stage of our subject which we fear is not likely to be of much interest to many of our readers; yet we would ask them to kindly bear with us for the sake of those who are anxious to have a systematic exposition thereof. We write, therefore, for those who desire answers to such questions as the following: What was the precise nature of the covenant which God entered into with Israel at Sinai? Did it concern only their temporal welfare as a nation, or did it also set forth God's requirements for the individual's enjoyment of eternal blessings? Was a radical change now made in God's revelation to men and what He demanded of them? Was an entirely different "way of salvation" now introduced? Wherein is the Sinaitic covenant related to the others, particularly to the everlasting covenant of grace and to the Adamic covenant of works? Was it in harmony with the former, or a renewal of the latter? Was the Sinaitic covenant a simple or a mixed one: did it have only a "letter" significance pertaining to earthly things or a "spirit" as well, pertaining to heavenly things? What specific contribution did it make unto the progressive unfolding of the divine plan and purpose?
We deem it of great importance that a clear conception be obtained of the precise nature and meaning of that august transaction which took place at Sinai, when Jehovah proclaimed the Ten Commandments in the hearing of Israel. No one who has given any due attention thereto can fail to perceive that it marked a memorable epoch in the history of that people. But it was far more than that: it possessed a much deeper and broader significance''it was the beginning of a new era in the history of the human race, being a momentous step in that series of divine dispensations toward fallen mankind. Yet it must be frankly acknowledged that the subject is as difficult as it is important: the great diversity of opinion which prevails among the theologians and divines who have studied the subject is proof thereof. Yet this is no reason why we should despair of obtaining light thereon. Rather should it cause us to cry to God for help, and to prosecute our inquiry cautiously, humbly, and carefully.
What was the precise character of the transaction which Jehovah entered into with Israel at Sinai? That there was a bona fide covenant made on that occasion cannot be gainsaid. The term is actually used in Exodus 19:5: "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people." So again we read, "And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold, the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words" (Ex. 24:7, 8). Years after, when rehearsing God's dealings with Israel, Moses said, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb" (Deut. 5:2). Not only is the word covenant used, but the transactions at Sinai contained all the elements of a covenant: the contracting parties were the Lord God and Israel; the condition was, "If ye will obey my voice indeed"; the promise was, "Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6); the penalty was the curses of Deuteronomy 28:15, and so forth.
But what was the nature and design of that covenant? Did God mock His fallen creatures by formally renewing the (Adamic) covenant of works, which they had already broken, under the curse of which all by nature lay, and which He knew they could not keep for a single hour? Such a question answers itself. Or did God do with Israel then as He does with His people now: first redeem, and then put under law as a rule of life, a standard of conduct? But if that were the case, why enter into this formal "covenant"? Even Fairbairn virtually cuts the knot here by saying that the form of a covenant is of no consequence at all. But this covenant form at Sinai is the very thing which requires to be accounted for. Christians are not put under the law as a covenant, though they are as a rule. No help is to be obtained by dodging difficulties or by denying their existence; they must be fairly and prayerfully grappled with.
There is no doubt in my mind that many have been led astray when considering the typical teaching of Israel's history and the antitype in the experience of Christians, by failing to duly note the contrasts as well as the comparisons between them. It is true that God's deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt blessedly foreshadowed the redemption of His elect from sin and Satan; yet let it not be forgotten that the majority of those who were emancipated from Pharaoh's slavery perished in the wilderness, not being suffered to enter the promised land. Nor are we left to mere reasoning at this point: it is placed upon inspired record that "behold, the days come saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord" (Heb. 8:8, 9). Thus we have divine authority for saying that God's dealings with Israel at Sinai were not a parallel with His dealings with His people under the gospel, but a contrast!
Herman Witsius took the view that the Sinaitic compact was neither, formally, the covenant of grace nor the covenant of works, but a national covenant which presupposed them both, and that it promised "not only temporal blessings . . . but also spiritual and eternal." So far so good. But when he states (bk. 4, sec. 4, par. 43-45) that the condition of this covenant was "a sincere, though not, in every respect, a perfect obedience of His commands," we certainly cannot agree. Witsius held that the Sinaitic covenant differed from the covenant of works''which made no provision or allowance for the acceptance of a sincere though imperfect obedience; and that it differed from the covenant of grace, since it contained no promises of strength to enable Israel to render that obedience. Though plausible, his position is not only erroneous but highly dangerous. God never promised eternal life to men on the condition of an imperfect but sincere obedience''that would overthrow the whole argument of Romans and Galatians.
Thomas Bell (1814) in his heavy work on The Covenants insists that "the covenant of works was delivered from Sinai, yet as subservient to the Covenant of Grace." Such an accurate thinker was bound to feel the pressure of those difficulties which such a postulate involves, yet he took a strange way of getting out of them. Appealing to Deuteronomy 29:1, Bell argued that God made "two distinct covenants with Israel," and that "the one made in Moab was the Covenant of Grace," and that "the two covenants mentioned in Deuteronomy 29:1 are as opposite as the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of faith." We will not here attempt to show the unsatisfactoriness and untenability of such an inference; suffice it to say there is less warrant for it than to conclude that God made two totally distinct covenants with Abraham (in Genesis 15 and 17): the covenant at Moab was a renewal of the Sinaitic, as the ones made with Isaac and Jacob were of the original one with Abraham.
Quite a different idea has been advanced by those known as the Plymouth Brethren. Darby (who had quite a penchant for novelties) advanced the theory that at Sinai Israel made a fatal blunder, deliberately abandoning the ground of receiving all from God on the basis of pure grace, and in their stupidity and self-sufficiency agreeing henceforth to earn His favors. The idea is that when God rehearsed His merciful dealings with them (Ex. 19:4) and then added, "Now therefore if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people," that Israel was guilty of perverting His words, and evidenced their carnality and pride by saying, "All that the Lord hath spoken, we will do." Those are regarded as most disastrous words, leading to most disastrous results; for it is supposed that, from this time, God entirely changed His attitude toward them.
In his Synopsis, Darby concludes his remarks on Exodus 18 and opens 19 by saying, "But having thus terminated the course of grace the scene changes entirely. They do not keep the feast on the mount, whither God, as He had promised, had led them''had brought them, bearing them as on eagles 'wings, to Himself.' He proposes a condition to them: If they obeyed His voice, they should be His people. The people''instead of knowing themselves, and saying, 'We dare not, though bound to obey, place ourselves under such a condition, and risk our blessing, yea, make sure of losing it'''undertake to do all that the Lord has spoken. The blessing now took the form of dependence, like Adam's on the faithfulness of man as well as of God. . . . The people, however, are not permitted to approach God, who hid Himself in the darkness."
C. H. Mackintosh, in his comments on Exodus 19, says, "It [the scene presented at the end of 18] was but a brief moment of sunshine in which a very vivid picture of the kingdom was afforded; but the sunshine was speedily followed by the heavy clouds which gathered around that 'palpable mount,' where Israel, in a spirit of dark and senseless legality, abandoned His covenant of pure grace for man's covenant of works. Disastrous movement! A movement fraught with the most dismal results. Hitherto as we have seen no enemy could stand before Israel''no obstacle was suffered to interrupt their onward and victorious march. Pharaoh's hosts were overthrown, Amalek and his people were discomfitted with the edge of the sword; all was victory, because God was acting on behalf of His people in pursuance of His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
"In the opening verses of the chapter now before us, the Lord recapitulates His actions toward Israel in the following touching and beautiful language: see Ex. 29:3-6. Observe, it is 'My voice' and 'My covenant.' What was the utterance of that 'voice'? and what did that 'covenant' involve? Had Jehovah's voice made itself heard for the purpose of laying down the rules and regulations of a severe and unbending lawgiver? By no means. It had spoken to demand freedom for the captive, to provide a refuge from the sword of the destroyer, to make a way for the ransomed to pass over, to bring down bread from heaven, to draw forth water out of the flinty rock; such had been the gracious and intelligible utterance of Jehovah's 'voice' up to the moment at which 'Israel camped before the mount.'
"And as to His 'covenant,' it was one of unmingled grace. It proposed no condition, it made no demands, it put no yoke on the neck, no burden on the shoulder. When 'the God of glory appeared unto Abraham' in Ur of the Chaldees, He certainly did not address him in such words as thou shall do this, and thou shall not do that, ah, no; such language was not according to His heart. It suits Him far better to place 'a fair mitre' upon a sinner's head than to put a 'yoke upon his neck.' His word to Abraham was 'I will give.' The land of Canaan was not to be purchased by man's doings, but to be given by God's grace. Thus it stood; and in the opening of the Book of Exodus we see God coming down in grace to make good His promise to Abraham's seed. . . . However, Israel was not disposed to occupy this blessed position."
As so many have been misled by this teaching, we will digress for a moment and show how utterly un-Scriptural it is. It is a serious mistake to say that in the Abrahamic covenant God "proposed no conditions, and made no demands, it put no yoke on the neck." As we pointed out in our chapters thereon when studying the Abrahamic covenant, attention is not to be confined unto one or two particular passages; but the whole of God's dealings with that patriarch are to be taken into consideration. Did not God say to Abraham: "Walk before me, and be thou upright, and I will make a covenant between me and thee" (Gen. 17:1)? Did He not say: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that [in order that] the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Gen. 18:19)? Abraham had to "keep the way of the Lord," which is defined as "to do justice and judgment"''that is, to walk obediently, in subjection to God's revealed will''if he was to receive the fulfillment of the divine promises.
Again: did not the Lord expressly confirm His covenant to Abraham by oath in saying: "By myself have I sworn, with the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, That in blessing I will bless thee," and so forth (Gen. 22:16, 17). It is true, blessedly true, that God dealt with Abraham in pure grace; but it is equally true that He dealt with him as a responsible creature, as subject to the divine authority and placed him under law. At a later date, when Jehovah renewed the covenant to Isaac, He said: "I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed [the original covenant promise] because that Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen. 26:4, 5). That is clear enough; and nothing could be plainer that God introduced no change in His dealings with Abraham's descendants when He said to Israel at Sinai, "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people" (Ex. 19:5).
Equally clear is it from Scripture that the nation of Israel was itself under law before they reached Sinai: "If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you" (Ex. 15:26). Is it not strange to see men ignoring such plain passages? Lest the quibble be raised that the reference to God's "commandments and statutes" in that passage was prospective''that is, in view of the law which was shortly to be given them''note the following, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no" (Ex. 16:4). The meaning of this is explained in "tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord" (Ex. 16:23). Alas for their response: "There went out some of the people on the seventh day to gather" (v. 27). Now mark carefully God's complaint: "How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?" (Ex. 16:28). So the reference in 16:4 was not prospective, but retrospective: Israel was under law long before they reached Sinai!
But in further rebuttal of the strange theory mentioned above, we would ask, Was it not the Lord Himself who took the initiative in this so-called abandonment of the Abrahamic covenant? For it was He who sent Moses to the people with the words (Ex. 19:5) which manifestly sought to evoke an affirmative reply! Again, we ask, If their reply proceeded from carnal pride and self-sufficiency, if it displayed an intolerable arrogance and presumption, why did it call forth no formal rebuke? So far from the Lord being displeased with Israel's promise, He said to Moses: "Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee forever" (Ex. 19:9). Again: why, at the rehearsal of this transaction, did Moses say, "The Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken," and then breathed the wish, "O that there were such an heart in them, that would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever" (Deut. 5:28, 29).
How utterly excuseless and untenable is this theory (which has been accepted by many and echoed in the Scofield Bible) in the light of the plain facts of Holy Writ. Had Israel acted so madly and presumptuously, would the Lord have gone through all the formalities of a covenant transaction (Ex. 24:3-8)? Had the words uttered by Him, and responded to by the people, been based on impossible conditions on the one side and palpable lies on the other, a covenant would be unthinkable. Finally, let it be carefully observed that so far from God pronouncing a judgment upon Israel for their promise at Sinai, He declared that, on their performance of the same, they would be peculiarly honored and blessed (Ex. 23:27-29; Deut. 6:28).
In approaching the study of the Sinaitic covenant, several things need attending to. First, it is to be viewed in connection with all that had preceded it (particularly the earlier covenants), rather than regarded as an isolated transaction: only thus can its details be seen in their proper perspective. Second, it is to be pondered in relation to the eternal purpose of God, and the gradual and progressive unfolding thereof which He gave unto His people: there was something more in it than what is merely temporal and evanescent. Third, the full light of the later communications from God must not be read back into it; nevertheless, the direct references to the Mosaic dispensation in the New Testament are to be carefully weighed in connection therewith.
Let us start, then, by considering what had preceded the Sinaitic covenant. Confining ourselves to that which relates the closest to our present inquiry, let us remind ourselves that under the preceding covenant God had made it known that the promised Messiah and Redeemer should spring from the line of Abraham. Now, clearly, that necessitated several things. The existence of Abraham's descendants as a separate people became indispensable, so that Christ's descent could be undeniably traced and the leading promise of that covenant clearly verified. Moreover, the isolation of Abraham's descendants (Israel) from the heathen was equally essential for the preservation of the knowledge and worship of God in the earth, until the fullness of time should come and a higher dispensation succeed. In pursuance of this, to Israel were committed the living oracles, and amongst them the ordinances of divine worship were authoritatively established.
It was not until the large family of Jacob had developed (seventy-five souls: Acts 7:14) that the Abrahamic covenant, in its natural aspect, began to bud toward fulfillment. There was then a fair prospect of their progressive increase; yet considerable time would be required before they could attain that augmentation in numbers which would justify their political organization as a separate nation and put them into a condition to occupy the promised inheritance. In order for that, the providence of God gave them a temporary settlement in Egypt, which was greatly to their advantage. A season in the midst of the most learned nation of antiquity afforded the Israelites an opportunity of obtaining instruction in many important branches of knowledge, of which they took advantage, as their subsequent history shows; while the fact that "every shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians" (Gen. 46:34) kept the two nations apart religiously, so that to a considerable extent the Hebrews were preserved from idolatry. Later, the cruel bondage they experienced there made them glad to leave.
In Egypt, the descendants of Abraham had multiplied so extensively that by the time of the great Exodus there were probably at least two million souls. If, then, they were to be organized into a nation, and brought into proper subjection to God, it was necessary that He should make a full revelation of His will for them, giving them laws and precepts for the regulation of all phases of their corporate and individual lives; and, above all, prescribe the nature and requirements of the divine worship. This is what Jehovah graciously did at Sinai. There, God gave Israel a full declaration of His claims upon them and what He required of them, providing a "constitution" which had in view naught but their own good and the glorifying of His great name; the whole being ratified by a solemn covenant. This was a decided advance on all that had gone before, and marked another step forward in the unfolding of the divine plan.
But at this point we are faced with a formidable difficulty, namely, the remarkable diversity in the representation found in later Scripture respecting the tendency and bearing of the law on those who were subject to it. On the one hand, we find a class of passages which represent the law as coming expressly from Israel's redeemer, conveying a benign aspect and aiming at happy results. Moses extolled the condition of Israel as, on this very account, surpassing that of all other people: "For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?" (Deut. 4:7, 8). The same sentiment is echoed in various forms in the Psalms. "He showed his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; and as for his judgments, they have not known them" (Ps. 147:19, 20). "Great peace have they which love thy law, and nothing shall offend them" (Ps. 119:165).
But on the other hand, there is another class of passages which appear to point in the very opposite direction. In these the law is represented as a source of trouble and terror''a bondage from which it is true liberty to escape. "The law worketh wrath" (Rom. 4:15); "the strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor. 15:56). In 2 Corinthians 3:7, 9 the apostle speaks of the law as "the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones," and as "the ministration of condemnation." Again, he declares, "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse" (Gal. 3:10). "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law" (Gal. 5:1-3).
Now it is very obvious that such diverse and antagonistic representations could not have been given of the law in the same respect, or with the same regard, to its direct and primary aim. We are obliged to believe that both these representations are true, being alike found in the volume of inspiration. Thus it is clear that Scripture requires us to contemplate the law from more than one point of view, and with regard to different uses and applications of it. What those different viewpoints are, and what the varied uses and applications of the law, will be pointed out later on. For the present, we confine ourselves to a consideration of the place which the law holds in the Mosaic economy. This is surely the only logical order to follow, for it is the happier class of representation which are found in the Pentateuch, occupying the foreground; while the others come in afterward, and must be noticed by us subsequently.
"The national covenant with Israel was here (Ex. 19:5) meant; the charter upon which they were incorporated, as a people, under the government of Jehovah. It was an engagement of God, to give Israel possession of Canaan, and to protect them in it: to render the land fruitful, and the nation victorious and prosperous, and to perpetuate His oracles and ordinances among them; so long as they did not, as a people, reject His authority, apostatize to idolatry, and tolerate open wickedness. These things constitute a forfeiture of the covenant; as their national rejection of Christ did afterwards. True believers among them were personally dealt with according to the Covenant of Grace, even as true Christians now are; and unbelievers were under the Covenant of Works, and liable to condemnation by it, as at present: yet, the national covenant was not strictly either the one or the other, but had something in it of the nature of each.
"The national covenant did not refer to the final salvation of individuals: nor was it broken by the disobedience, or even idolatry, of any number of them, provided this was not sanctioned or tolerated by public authority. It was indeed a type of the covenant made with true believers in Christ Jesus, as were all the transactions with Israel; but, like other types, it 'had not the very image,' but only 'a shadow of good things to come.' When, therefore, as a nation, they had broken this covenant, the Lord declared that He would make 'a new covenant with Israel, putting His law,' not only in their hands, but 'in their inward parts'; and 'writing it,' not upon tables of stone, 'but in their hearts; forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more' (Jer. 31:32-34; Heb. 8:7-12; 10:16, 17). The Israelites were under a dispensation of mercy, and had outward privileges and great advantages in various ways for salvation: yet, like professing Christians, the most of them rested in these, and looked no further. The outward covenant was made with the Nation, entitling them to outward advantages, upon the condition of outward national obedience; and the covenant of Grace was ratified personally with true believers, and sealed and secured spiritual blessings to them, by producing a holy disposition of heart, and spiritual obedience to the Divine law. In case Israel kept the covenant, the Lord promised that they should be to Him 'a peculiar treasure.' 'All the earth' (Ex. 19:5) being the Lord's, He might have chosen any other people instead of Israel: and this implied that, as His choice of them was gratuitous, so if they rejected His covenant, He would reject them, and communicate their privileges to others; as indeed He hath done, since the introduction of the Christian dispensation" (Thomas Scott).
The above quotation contains the most lucid, comprehensive, and yet simple analysis of the Sinaitic covenant which we have met with in all our reading. It draws a clear line of distinction between God's dealings with Israel as a nation, and with individuals in it. It shows the correct position of the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works in relation to the Mosaic dispensation. All were born under the condemnation of their federal head (Adam), and while they continued unregenerate and in unbelief, were under the wrath of God; whereas God's elect, upon believing, were treated by Him then, as individuals, in precisely the same way as they are now. Scott brings out clearly the character, the scope, the design, and the limitation of the Sinaitic covenant: its character was a supplementary combination of law and mercy; its scope was national; its design was to regulate the temporal affairs of Israel under the divine government; its limitation was determined by Israel's obedience or disobedience. The typical nature of it''the hardest point to elucidate''is also allowed. We advise the interested student to reread the last four paragraphs.
Much confusion will be avoided and much help obtained if the Sinaitic economy be contemplated separately under its two leading aspects, namely, as a system of religion and government designed for the immediate use of the Jews during the continuance of that dispensation; and then as a scheme of preparation for another and better economy, by which it was to be superseded when its temporal purpose had been fulfilled. The first design and the immediate end of what God revealed through Moses was to instruct and order the life of Israel, now formed into a nation. The second and ultimate intention of God was to prepare the people, by a lengthy course of discipline, for the coming of Christ. The character of the Sinaitic covenant was, in itself, neither purely evangelical nor exclusively legal: divine wisdom devised a wondrous and blessed comingling of righteousness and grace, justice and mercy. The requirements of the high and unchanging holiness of God were clearly revealed; while His goodness, kindness, and long-suffering were also as definitely manifested. The moral and the ceremonial law, running together side by side, presented and maintained a perfect balance, which only the corruption of fallen human nature failed to reap the full advantage of.
The covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai required outward obedience to the letter of the law. It contained promises of national blessing if they, as a people, kept the law; and it also announced national calamities if they were disobedient. This is unmistakably clear from such a passage as the following: "Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee. Thou shalt be blessed above all people: there shall not be male or female barren among you, or among your cattle. And the Lord will take away from thee all sickness, and will put none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which thou knowest, upon thee; but will lay them upon all them that hate thee. And thou shalt consume all the people which the Lord thy God shall deliver thee" (Deut. 7:12-16).
In connection with the above passage notice, first, the definite reference made to God's "mercy," which proves that He did not deal with Israel on the bare ground of exacting and relentless law, as some have erroneously supposed. Second, observe the reference which the Lord here made unto His oath to their fathers, that is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; which shows that the Sinaitic covenant was based upon, and not divorced from, the Abrahamic''Israel's occupation of Canaan being the "letter" fulfillment of it. Third, if, as a nation, Israel rendered unto their God the obedience to which He was entitled as their King and Governor, then He would love and bless them''under the Christian economy there is no promise that He will love and bless any who live in defiance of His claims upon them! Fourth, the specific blessings here enumerated were all of a temporal and material kind. In other passages God threatened to bring upon them plagues and judgments (Deut. 28:15-65) for disobedience. The whole was a compact promising to Israel certain outward and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general outward obedience to His law.
The tenor of the covenant made with them was, "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5, 6). "Behold, I send an Angel before thee, to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee into the place which I have prepared. Beware of him, and obey his voice, provoke him not; for he will not pardon your transgressions: for my name is in him. But if thou shalt indeed obey his voice, and do all that I speak; then I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries" (Ex. 23:20-22). Nevertheless, a provision of mercy was made where true repentance for failure was evidenced: "If they shall confess their iniquity, and the iniquity of their fathers, with their trespass which they trespassed against me, and that also they have walked contrary unto me; and that I also have walked contrary unto them, and have brought them into the land of their enemies: if then their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their iniquity: Then will I remember my covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham. . . . These are the statutes and judgments and laws which the Lord made between him and the children of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses" (Lev. 26:40-42, 46).
The Sinaitic covenant in no way interfered with the divine administration of either the everlasting covenant of grace (toward the elect) nor the Adamic covenant of works (which all by nature lie under); it being in quite another region. Whether the individual Israelites were heirs of blessing under the former, or under the curse of the latter, in no wise hindered or affected Israel's being as a people under this national regime, which respected not inward and eternal blessings, but only outward and temporal interests. Nor did God in entering into this arrangement with Israel mock their impotency or tantalize them with vain hopes, any more than He does so now, when it still holds good that "righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to nations" (Prov. 14:34). Though it be true that Israel miserably failed to keep their national engagements and brought down upon themselves the penalties which God had threatened, nevertheless, the obedience which He required of them was not obviously and hopelessly impracticable: nay, there were bright periods in their history when it was fairly rendered, and the fruits of it were manifestly enjoyed by them.
Considered as a part of the gradual and progressive unfolding of God's eternal purpose, the Sinaitic transaction marked a decided step forward upon the Abrahamic covenant, while it was also a most suitable scheme of preparation for Christianity; considered separately by itself, the Sinaitic transaction was the giving of a system of government designed for the immediate use of the Jews. These two leading aspects must be kept distinct if hopeless confusion is to be avoided. It is of the second we continue to treat, namely the Sinaitic covenant as it pertained strictly to the nation of Israel. It announced certain outward and temporal blessings on the condition that Israel as a people remained in subjection to their divine King, while it threatened national curses and calamities if they rejected His scepter and flouted His laws. This supplies the key to the entire history of the Jews.
As an example and exemplification of what has just been said, take the following, "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 in unto the land, concerning the which I did sware to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it you for a heritage: I am the Lord" (Ex. 6:6-8). Now that passage has presented a formidable difficulty to those who have thoughtfully pondered it, for scarcely any of the adults whom God brought out of Egypt ever entered Canaan! How, then, is this to be explained?
Thus: first, that promise concerned Israel as a people, and did not by any means necessarily imply that all, or even any of that particular generation were to enter Canaan. The divine veracity was not sullied: forty years later the nation did obtain the promised inheritance. Second, other passages must be compared with it. In Exodus 6 no express condition was mentioned in connection with the promise, not even the believing of it. Yet, so far as that generation was concerned, this, as the sequel clearly shows, was implied; for if it had been an absolute, unconditional promise to that generation, it must have been performed, otherwise God had failed to make good His word. That the promise to that generation was suspended upon their faith is plain from Hebrews 3:18, 19. Third, therein we see the contrast: the fulfillment of every condition is secured for us in and by Christ.
The Sinaitic covenant, then, was a compact promising to Israel as a people certain material and national blessings on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His laws. But at this point it may be objected that God, who is infinitely holy and whose prerogative it is to search the heart, could never be satisfied with an outward and general obedience, which in the case of many would be hollow and insincere. The objection is pertinent and presents a real difficulty: how can we meet it? Very simply: this would be true of individuals as such, but not necessarily so where nations are concerned. And why not, it may be asked? For this reason: because nations as such have only a temporary existence; therefore they must be rewarded or punished in this present world, or not at all! This being so, the kind of obedience required from them is lower than from individuals, whose rewards and punishments shall be eternal.
But again it may be objected, Did not the Lord declare, "I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God" (Ex. 6:7)? Is there not something far more spiritual implied there than a national covenant, something in its terms which could not be exhausted by merely outward and temporal blessings? Once more we must insist upon drawing a broad line between what pertains to individuals and what is applicable to nations. This objection would be quite valid if that promise described the relation of God to the individual soul, but the case is quite different when we remember the relation in which God stands to a nation as such! To ascertain the exact purport and scope of the divine promises to Israel as a people we must take note of the actual engagements which we find He entered into with them as a nation. This is quite obvious, yet few theologians have followed it out consistently when dealing with what is now before us.
Let it next be pointed out that the view we have propounded above (and in the preceding chapter) of the nature and scope of the Sinaitic covenant, agrees fully with the statements made regarding it in the New Testament, the most important of which is found in Hebrews 8, where it is contrasted from the better and new covenant under which Christians are now living. At first view it may appear that the antithesis drawn between the two covenants in Hebrews 8 is so radical that it must be an opposition between the covenant of works made with Adam and the covenant of grace made with believers under the gospel; in fact, several able commentators so understand it. But this is quite a mistake, and one which carries serious implications, for error on one point affects, more or less, the whole of our theological thinking. A little reflection should quickly determine this matter.
In the first place, the people of God, even before the incarnation of Christ, were not under the broken covenant of works, with its inevitable curse, but enjoyed the blessings of the everlasting covenant which God had made with their surety before the foundation of the world. In the second place, such a view of the Sinaitic covenant (i.e., making it a repetition of the one entered into with Adam) would be in flat contradiction to what is said in the Epistle to the Galatians, where it is specifically declared that, whatever may have been God's purpose in the giving of the law, it was not meant to and could not annul the promises made to Abraham or supersede the previous method of salvation by faith which was revealed to that patriarch. But if we understand the apostle (and remember he was addressing Jews in the Hebrews Epistle) to be drawing a contrast between the national covenant made with their fathers at Sinai, and the far higher and better covenant into which Jews and Gentiles are brought by faith in Christ, then we get a satisfactory explanation of Hebrews 8 and one that brings it into complete harmony with Galatians 3.
Observe carefully what is said in Hebrews 8 to be the characteristic difference between the new and the old economies: "I will put my laws into their minds and write them in their hearts" (v. 10). No promise in any wise comparable to this was given at Sinai. But the absence of any assurance of the Spirit's internal and effectual operations was quite in keeping with the fact that the Mosaic economy required not so much an inward and spiritual, as an outward and natural obedience to the law, which for them had nothing higher than temporal sanctions. This is a fundamental principle which has not received the consideration to which it is entitled: it is vital to a clear understanding of the radical difference which obtains between Judaism and Christianity. Under the former God dealt with one nation only; now He is manifesting His grace to elect individuals scattered among all nations. Under the former He simply made known His requirements; in the latter He actually produces that which meets His requirements.
Galatians 3 shows plainly that the Sinaitic covenant was subsidiary to the promises given to Abraham concerning his Seed: "Wherefore then serveth the law [i.e., the entire legal economy]? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made" (v. 19). Thus it is clear that from the first the Mosaic economy was designed to be but temporary, to last only from the time of Israel's sojourn in the wilderness till Christ. It was needed because of their "transgressions." The children of Israel were so intractable and perverse, so prone to depart from God, that without such a divinely provided hedge, they would have lost their national identity, mixing themselves with the surrounding nations and becoming sunk in their idolatrous ways. The Holy Spirit was not then so largely given that, by the potent influences of His grace, such a disastrous issue would have been prevented. Therefore a temporary arrangement, such as Judaism provided, was essential to preserve a pure stock from which the promised Messiah should issue; and this end the Sinaitic covenant, with its promises and penalties, did effect!
But there was another and deeper reason for the legal economy. Though the Sinaitic compact was not identical with the covenant of works made with Adam, yet, in some respects, it closely resembled it: it was analogous to it, only on a lower plane. During the fifteen hundred years which elapsed between Sinai and Bethlehem, God carried out a practical demonstration with the two great divisions of the human race. The Gentiles were left to the light of nature: they were "suffered to walk in their own ways" (Acts 14:16; cf. 17:26-30), and this in order to supply an answer (for men) to the question, "Can fallen man, in the exercise of his own unaided reason and conscience find out God, and raise himself to a higher and better life?" One has only to consult the history of the great nations of that period''the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans''to see the hopelessness of such an attempt. Romans 1:21-31 gives the inspired comment thereon.
Running parallel with God's suffering all nations (the Gentiles) to walk in their own ways, was another experiment (speaking from the human side of things, for from the divine side "Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world": Acts 15:18), conducted on a smaller scale, yet quite as decisive in its outcome. The Jews were placed under a covenant of law to supply an answer to this further question, "Can fallen man, when placed in most favorable circumstances, win eternal life by any doings of his own? Can he, even when separated from the heathen, taken into outward covenant with God, supplied with a complete divine code for the regulation of his conduct, conquer indwelling sin and act so as to secure his acceptance with the thrice holy God?" The answer furnished by the history of Israel is an emphatic negative. The lesson supplied thereby for all succeeding generations of the human race is written in unmistakable language: If Israel failed under the national covenant of outward and general obedience, how impossible it is for any member of Adam's depraved offspring to render spiritual and perfect obedience!
In the spirit of it, the Sinaitic covenant contained the same moral law as the law of nature under which Adam was created and placed in Eden''the tenth commandment giving warning that something more than outward things were required by God. Yet only those who were divinely illumined could perceive this''it was not until the Holy Spirit applied that tenth commandment in power to the conscience of Saul of Tarsus that he first realized that he was an inward transgressor of the law (Rom. 7:7, etc.). The great bulk of the nation, blinded by their self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, turned the Sinaitic compact into the covenant of works, elevating the handmaid into the position of the married wife''as Abraham did with Hagar. Galatians 4 reveals that, while the Sinaitic covenant was regarded as subservient to the covenant of grace, it served important practical ends; but when Israel perversely elevated it to the place which the better covenant was designed to hold, it became a hindrance and the fruitful mother of bondage.
The grievous error into which so many of the Jews fell concerning the design of God in giving them His law has been perpetuated, though in a modified form, by some of our own theologians. This is due to their failure to properly recognize the condition of Israel at Sinai. But once we see what they already possessed, it rules out of court the idea of the law being intended to convey the same to them. When was it that they received from God His law? Not while they were still in the land of Pharaoh, nor while they were on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, but after they had been completely delivered from their taskmasters. It is clear then beyond contradiction, from the very time of its introduction, that the law was not given to Israel in order to deliver them from evil or as a procurer of blessing. It could not have for its design the delivering of them from death or the obtaining of God's favor, for such blessings were already theirs.
It is of great importance to keep distinctly in view what the law was never designed to effect. If we exalt it to a position which it was never meant to occupy, or expect benefits from it which it was never fitted to yield, then we shall not only err in our own reckonings, but deprive ourselves of any clear knowledge of the dispensation to which it belonged. It was in order to define the negative side of the law''what it was not intended to procure''that the apostle declared: "And this I say, the covenant, that was confirmed before of God concerning Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (Gal. 3:17, 18). This is decisive, yet perhaps a few words of explanation will enable the reader to more easily grasp its purport.
It was because the Jews had, for the most part, come to regard their obedience to the law as constituting their title to the inheritance, and because certain of the Judaizers were beginning to corrupt the Galatian converts with the leaven of their self-righteousness, that the apostle was here moved by the Spirit to check this evil, and to expose the basic error from which it proceeded. He presses upon them the Scriptural facts of the nature and design of Jehovah's covenant with Abraham, which he declares was "confirmed before of God concerning Christ." The covenant promise made to Abraham is said to be "concerning Christ," first, because it had preeminent regard to Him; and second, because it had in view the covenant of redemption which He was to establish. The particular point which the apostle now emphasized was, that the Abrahamic covenant expressly conferred on his posterity, as God's free gift, the inheritance of the land of Canaan''which entailed their deliverance from the land of bondage and their safe passage through the wilderness, which were necessary in order for them to enter and take possession thereof.
Thus the apostle made it unmistakably clear that Israel's title to Canaan could not possibly need to be reacquired by a law righteousness performed by them personally, for in such a case the law would revoke the covenant of promise, and thereby the latter revelation which God made at Sinai would overthrow the foundation of what He had laid in His promises to Abraham. That the Lord never meant for the law to interfere with the gifts and promises of the Abrahamic covenant is abundantly clear from what He said to Israel immediately before the law was formally announced from Sinai: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:4-6).
From the above quotation it will be seen that God addressed Israel as already standing in such a blessed relation to Him as evidenced for them an interest in His love and faithfulness. He appealed to the proofs which He had given of this, as being not only sufficient to set their hearts at rest, but also to encourage them to expect whatever might still be needed to complete their felicity. "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice": not because ye have obeyed it have I wrought so mightily for you: but these things have been done that ye might render me loving and loyal subjection. So too He prefaced the Ten Commandments with "I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:2). He rests His claims to their obedience on the grace that He had already bestowed upon them.
(For much in the early paragraphs of this chapter we are indebted to an able discussion of the character of the Sinaitic covenant by Robert Balfour, which appeared in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review of July 1877.)
When God established His covenant with Abraham He said to him, "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years. And also that nation, whom they shall serve will I judge; and afterwards shall they come out with great substance" (Gen. 15:13, 14). Accordingly, when the time approached for the execution of judgment on their oppressors, the servitude of Israel had reached its extreme point, and the bitterness of their bondage had awakened in their minds an earnest desire for deliverance. Their discipline was an essential part of their preparation for the benefits which God designed to bestow upon them. Contemporaneously with those events, Moses was raised up as the instrument of their deliverance, and was divinely qualified for the work assigned him.
Moses, acting under divine directions and by a series of remarkable judgments upon Egypt, extorted from Pharaoh a reluctant permission for their departure from his land, with all their possessions. Those judgments were designed not only to afford a practical confutation of the idolatry of the Egyptians and a retribution for their cruel oppression of God's people, but more particularly an open vindication of the supremacy of Jehovah in the sight of the surrounding nations, and at the same time to influence the hearts of the people themselves so as to induce a heartfelt acknowledgment of God, and a prompt and cheerful obedience to Him. Assuredly, no course could have been more fitted to accomplish those ends. The manifestations of divine power Israel had witnessed, the marked separation between them and the Egyptians''being preserved from the plagues which smote their oppressors and their miraculous escape from the judgment which overwhelmed the Egyptians at the Red Sea''were well suited to create deep and lasting effects upon them.
Those impressive events all indicated God's interposition for their deliverance in a manner to which it was impossible that even the blindest among them could have been insensible. They were well calculated to awaken a deep conviction of the divine presence in their midst in a special manner. Such manifestations of God's power, faithfulness, and grace on their behalf ought to have produced in them a ready compliance with every intimation of His holy will. He had dealt with them as He had dealt with no other people. How much they needed those object lessons, and how little they really benefited from them, their future conduct shows.
Their moral conditions the Lord well knew''their faintheartedness, their perversity, their unbelief. In order to more effectually prepare them for the immediate future, as well as of formally establishing that covenant by which He indicated the relation which He was graciously pleased to sustain toward them and the principles by which His future dealings with them would be regulated, He led them through the wilderness and brought them to Sinai. There the Lord granted a fresh manifestation of His glory: amidst thunderings and lightnings, flames and smoke, He delivered to them the Ten Words. The object of God in that solemn transaction was clearly intimated in the language He addressed to them immediately before (see Ex. 19:5, 6). But although the law of the Ten Commandments constituted the leading feature of the Sinaitic covenant and gave to the entire transaction its distinctive character, yet we must conclude that it was limited thereto.
It is true that God added no more to the Ten Commandments at that time, not because there was nothing more to be revealed, but because the people in terror entreated that Moses might be the medium of all further communications (Deut. 5:24-27). Accordingly we find the law itself was followed by a number of statutes (Ex. 21-23), which were in part explanatory of the great principles of the law and in part enjoining the ordinances for the regulation of their worship''which later received much enlargement. Both the basic law and the subsidiary statutes were immediately put on permanent record, and the whole sealed by "the book of the covenant" being read in the audience of the people and blood being sprinkled on them (Ex. 24:4-8). It was to that solemn ratification of this covenant which the apostle makes reference in Hebrews 9:18-20''it was substantially a repetition of the same significant ceremony which attended the establishment of the earlier covenants.
Thus it is clear that while the Ten Commandments was the most prominent and distinctive feature of the Sinaitic covenant, yet it embraced the entire body of the statutes and judgments which God gave Moses for the government of Israel, as well in their civil as in their religious capacity. They formed one code, in which the moral law and the ceremonial law were blended in a way peculiar to the special constitution under which the nation of Israel was placed. Speaking generally, the civil had a religious and the religious a civil aspect, in a sense found nowhere else. All the particulars of that code were not equally important: some things were vital to it, the violation of which involved the practical renunciation of the covenant; others were subordinate, enjoined because necessary as means of attaining the grand end in view. Yet were they all parts of the one covenant, demanding a prompt and sincere obedience.
In the above paragraphs we have purposely gone back to the beginnings of God's dealings with Israel as a nation, in order to show once more how unique was the Mosaic economy, that there was much connected with it which, in the very nature of the case, has no parallel under the present gospel order of things. The Sinaitic covenant was the foundation of that political constitution which the people of Israel enjoyed: in consequence thereof Jehovah sustained a special relation to them. He was not only the God of all the earth (Ex. 19:5), but, in a peculiar sense, the King and Legislator of Israel. Any attempt on their part to change the divinely instituted system of law, given for their government, was expressly forbidden: "Ye shall not add unto the words which I command you, neither shall ye diminish aught from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God" (Deut. 4:2). That code was complete in itself''that is, as considered in relation to the particular condition of that people for whose government it was intended.
"It is of great importance to the right interpretation of many passages in the O.T., that this particular be well understood and kept in view. Jehovah is very frequently represented as the Lord and God of all the ancient Israelites; even where it is manifest that the generality of them were considered as destitute of internal piety, and many of them as enormously wicked. How, then, could He be called their Lord and their God, in distinction from His relation to Gentiles (whose Creator, Benefactor, and Sovereign He was), except on the ground of the Sinai covenant? He was their Lord as being their Sovereign, whom, by a federal transaction they were bound to obey, in opposition to every political monarch who should at any time presume to govern them by laws of his own. He was their God, as the only Object of holy worship; and whom, by the same National covenant, they had solemnly engaged to serve according to His own rule, in opposition to every Pagan idol.
"But that National relation between Jehovah and Israel being long since dissolved, and the Jew having no prerogative above the Gentile; the nature of the Gospel economy and of the Messiah's kingdom absolutely forbids our supposing that either Jews or Gentiles are warranted to call the Universal Sovereign their Lord or their God, if they do not yield willing obedience to Him and perform spiritual worship. It is, therefore, either for want of understanding, or of considering the nature, aspect, and influence of the Sinai Constitution, that many persons dream of the New Covenant in great numbers of places where Moses and the Prophets had no thought of it, but had the Convention at Horeb directly in view. It is owing to the same ignorance, or inadvertency, that others argue from various passages in the O.T. for justification before God by their own obedience, and against the final perseverance of real saints.
"Again, as none but real Christians are the subjects of our Lord's kingdom, neither adults nor infants can be members of the Gospel Church in virtue of an external covenant or a relative holiness. A striking disparity this, between the Jewish and the Christian Church. A barely relative sanctity [that is, a sanctity accruing from belonging to the nation of God's choice, A.W.P.] supposes its possessors to be the people of God in a merely external sense; such an external people supposes an external covenant, or one that relates to exterior conduct and temporal blessings; and an external covenant supposes an external king. Now an external king is a political sovereign, but such is not our Lord Jesus Christ, nor yet the Divine Father.
"Under the Gospel Dispensation, these peculiarities have no existence. For Christ has not made an external covenant with any people. He is not the king of any particular nation. He dwells not in a temple made with hands. His throne is in the heavenly sanctuary, nor does He afford His visible presence in any place upon earth. The partition''wall between Jews and Gentiles has long been demolished: and, consequently, our divine Sovereign does not stand related to any people or to any person so as to confer a relative sanctity, or to produce an external holiness.
"The covenant made at Sinai having long been obsolete, all its peculiarities are vanished away: among which, relative sanctity [that is, being accounted externally holy, because belonging to the nation separated unto God, A.W.P.] made a conspicuous figure. That National Constitution being abolished, Jehovah's political sovereignty is at an end. The Covenant which is now in force, and the royal relation of our Lord to the Church, are entirely spiritual. All that external holiness of persons, of places, and of things, which existed under the old economy, is gone for ever; so that if the professors of Christianity do not possess a real, internal sanctity, they have none at all. The National confederation at Sinai is expressly contrasted in Holy Scripture with the new covenant (see Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 8:7-13), and though the latter manifestly provides for internal holiness, respecting all the covenantees, yet it says not a word about relative sanctity" (Abraham Booth, 1796).
Jehovah, then, was King in Israel: His authority was supreme. He gave them the land in which they dwelt; settled the conditions on which they held it; made known the laws they were required to obey; and raised up from time to time, as they were demanded, leaders and judges, who for a season exercised, under God, authority over them. This is what is signified by the term theocracy''a government administered, under certain limitations, directly by God Himself. Such a relation as Jehovah sustained toward Israel, condemning all idolatry and demanding their separation from other nations, largely regulated the legislation under which they were placed. So far as righteousness between man and man was concerned, there was of course much which admitted of a universal application, resting on common and unalterable principles of equity; but there were also many enactments which derived their peculiar complexion from the special circumstances of the nation. The most cursory examination of the Pentateuch suffices to show this.
The Books of Moses reveal the singular provisions made for a self-sustaining nation, carefully fenced around and protected from moral danger from without, so far as civil arrangements could effect this end. Encouragement was indeed given to such strangers as might, on the renunciation of idolatry, become converts to the faith of Israel and settle amongst them, though they were not permitted to have any share in the earthly inheritance; but all connection and ensnaring alliances with any people beyond their own confines were rigorously guarded against. The law of jubilee, which secured to each family a perpetual interest in the property belonging to it; the restrictions on marriage; the practical discouragement of commerce; the hindrances placed in the way of aggressive warfare''in the prohibition of cavalry, then the chief strength of armies: these were all of a restricted character and illustrated that special exclusiveness of Judaism.
The nature of God's immediate government of Israel involved a special providence as essential to its administration. It is true that eternal rewards and punishments were not employed for this purpose, because nations, as such, have no hereafter. In the judgment men will be dealt with not according to their corporate but in their individual capacity. Yet it must not be inferred that Israel had no knowledge of a future state, for they had; but that knowledge could not be formally employed to enforce their civil obedience. Social relations are an affair of this world, and the laws which regulate them must find their sanctions in considerations bearing on the mere interests of this present life. Accordingly, God, as the political head of Israel, by special and extraordinary providences, intimated His approval or displeasure as their conduct called for. Prosperity, peace, and an abundance of material things were the rewards of national obedience; wars, famines, and pestilences were the punishment of their sin. The whole history of the nation shows with what uniformity the course of this intimation was pursued toward them.
Such, then, was the nature and design of the constitution conferred upon Israel; yet it must be remembered that the great benefits it involved were not the fruit of the Sinaitic covenant. True, their continued enjoyment of them depended on their obedience to that covenant; but their original bestowment was the effect of the Abrahamic covenant. Of this fact they were definitely reminded by Moses: "The Lord did not set his heart upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people: for ye were the fewest of all people; but because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers" (Deut. 7:7, 8). In keeping therewith we find that when serious crises arose because of their sins, those who interceded before God in their behalf sought forgiveness on the ground of the promises made to Abraham (see Ex. 32:13; Deut. 9:27; 2 Kings 13:23).
By undeserved and sovereign grace the Israelites were chosen to be the people of God, and their obedience was not intended to purchase advantages and immunities not already possessed, but rather to preserve to them the possession of what God had already bestowed. This is what indicates the place which the moral law occupied in regard to the nation at large. It proceeded on the recognition of their existing relation to God: He had chosen, redeemed, and made them His people; and now it was their privilege and duty to live in subjection to Him. It set before them the character and conduct which that existing relation required from them, and on which its perpetuation, with all the advantages connected with it, depended. "And ye shall be holy unto me, for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine" (Lev. 20:26). At the same time it was the standard to which their political code was adjusted, so far as their circumstances allowed.
The place which the moral law occupied, the express terms in which love to God was enforced as its leading principle (Deut. 6:5), and the solemn circumstances under which it was given, were all fitted to teach the people that something more was required from them than a mechanical performance of duties''something in their heart and inward state, without which no service they were capable of performing could meet the approval of the Holy One. To suppose that a mere external conformity to the law was all that was expected from the people is to overlook the plainest statements and the most obvious facts recorded in the Old Testament. God required truth "in the inward parts" (Ps. 51:6), and scores of passages revealed the fact that nothing but a right state of heart toward Him could secure the service He commanded. Nothing but the blindness which sin occasioned could have made the Israelites insensible to this basic truth, otherwise the charges brought against them by Christ had been quite groundless and pointless; it had been meaningless for Him to denounce them for making clean the outside while they were full of corruption within.
The moral law (the Ten Commandments), which formed so prominent and distinctive a feature of the Sinaitic covenant, was accompanied by much which was of an evangelical nature. This consisted not so much in the announcement of what was absolutely new, as in giving greater fullness, precision, and significancy, to what had been already revealed. It is true that this was communicated largely through the medium of symbols; yet the instruction imparted by them was at once most impressive and adapted to the condition of Israel. While in Egypt, they were not in a situation which admitted of any extension of the means of worship. But now that they were about to take their place as an independent nation, in a country of their own, the time had arrived for the formal appointment of those institutions and ordinances which the regulation of their religious life required. Moreover, this was rendered the more needful from the prominence which the moral law was given in that economy.
Designed to be subservient to the great purposes of the previous covenant, it was requisite that the law should be counterbalanced by a more full and instructive disclosure of the grand truths which that covenant embraced, in order that the law might not override and neutralize them. We must always bear in mind that the Abrahamic covenant was in nowise superseded or placed in abeyance by the revelation given through Moses; it was still in unabated force. The law was, in reality, an "addition" to it and designed to more effectually secure its objects. It was therefore fitting that the grace and mercy made known to Abraham should receive such enlargement and illustration as might make the law not a hindrance, but the handmaid, to the believing reception of its truth. The grace of the Abrahamic covenant and the law of Moses had an important mutual relation. They threw light on one another, and in combination were designed to secure a common end.
It was, then, the Levitical institutions which supplied the enlarged instruction that the circumstances of the nation now rendered necessary. First and foremost were the directions given for the public manifestation of that fellowship and intercourse with God which it was the privilege of Israel to enjoy. A sanctuary was to be erected, the pattern of which was revealed to Moses in the mount, and the materials for which were to be supplied by the freewill offerings of the people''intimating that all must be regulated by the divine will, but that only a free and spontaneous worship from them was acceptable. The tabernacle was at once a pledge that God dwelt in their midst, and a visible means of enjoying that communion with Him to which He had graciously admitted them: it was a perpetual memorial of it, and a help to train them to those more spiritual apprehensions of the worship of God which the gospel alone has fully revealed and realized.
A priesthood was appointed, and one which presented a marked contrast from those which existed in other nations. Among the heathen, the priesthood was a distinct caste, a body of men standing apart from and even in antagonism to those for whom they officiated; and characterized by all the pride and tyrannical tendencies which caste distinctions engender. But the Hebrew priesthood belonged to all the people, representing them in their divine calling. One family alone, Aaron's, was permitted to enter the sacred precincts of the Lord's house and officiate for them. When the high priest entered the holy of holies he bore the names of all the tribes on his breastplate, and confessed all their transgressions. Thus the high honor of being permitted to draw nigh unto God was impressively taught the people, the sanctity of His house was emphasized, and the hindrance which sin imposed was borne testimony to.
An elaborate system of sacrifices was enjoined. These were not only incorporated with the institutions of worship, but were explanatory of their importance and design. They were appointed to expiate the guilt of offenses committed, with the express declaration that "the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls" (Lev. 17:11). A day was set apart annually for atonement to be formally made for the sins of the people (Lev. 16), and the elaborate services of it were so arranged as to concentrate therein, in the most impressive manner, the various lessons which the sacrifices inculcated. That those sacrifices could not, in themselves, take away sins, their frequent repetition indicated; and the fact that there were certain sins for which no sacrifices were provided, further showed their limitation. Nevertheless, they gave assurance that God was gracious, furnished a ground of hope, and supplied an inducement for them to unreservedly surrender themselves to their God, who was both righteous and merciful.
The special design of prolonging these chapters is to seek to help those who have been deceived by "dispensationalists," and others who have been misled by unwarrantable conclusions drawn from Old Testament premises. What has been pointed out above should make it evident that they are quite wrong who suppose that the Mosaic economy was a pure covenant of works which gave no hope to transgressors. God never made a promulgation of law to sinful men in order to keep them under mere law, without also setting before them the grace of the covenant of redemption, by which they might escape the wrath which the law denounced. The awful curse of Deuteronomy 27:26 must not be magnified to the exclusion of the wondrous blessing of Numbers 6:24-27. The justice of the moral law was tempered by the mercy of the ceremonial law, and the "severity" of the Sinaitic constitution was modified by the "goodness" of the Abrahamic covenant being still administered.
"The legal and evangelical dispensations have been but different dispensations of the same Covenant of Grace and of the blessings thereof. Though there is now a greater degree of light, consolation, and liberty, yet if Christians are now under a kingdom of grace where there is pardon upon repentance, the Lord's people under the Old Testament were (as to the reality and substance of things) also under a kingdom of grace" (James Fraser). "Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat and did all drink the same spiritual drink; for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:1-4). In the light of that passage as a whole, being "baptized unto Moses" can only mean that he is there set forth as the minister of grace, the typical savior who had led them out of Egypt.
The tabernacle, the priesthood, and the Levitical offerings were really an amplification and explanation of the grace revealed in the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. The place which the moral law held in the Mosaic economy and its relation to that grace is clearly defined in, "Wherefore, then, serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come" (Gal. 3:19). At Sinai God did not give the law as a message explaining how justification could be obtained by obedience thereto, for such obedience as it required was impossible to fallen man. In such a case, the law had not been "added" to the "promise," but would be in direct opposition to it. The previous verse makes it clear that if the law had been set up for such an end, it had completely disannulled the promise: "For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise" (v. 18).
So far, then, from the Mosaic economy canceling the Abrahamic promises, it was added thereto. Had that economy been one exclusively of works (as some of our moderns imagine), then the whole of Israel had been damned the first day it was instituted. Had it been a strict regime of law, untempered by mercy, then no pardon had been available (which flatly contradicts Lev. 26:40-46), and in such a case the Sinaitic covenant could not have been reckoned among Israel's blessings (Rom. 9:4). The word "added" in Galatians 3:19 proves that the dispensation of law was not established as a thing distinct by itself alone, but was an appendix to the grace of the Abrahamic covenant. In other words, the moral law and the ceremonial law which accompanied it were given with evangelical ends: to show sinners their need of Christ, and to indicate how He would meet that need.
Again: had the law been promulgated in divine wrath, with the object of its issuing in naught but death, then it had been in the hand of an executioner, and not as Galatians 3:19 states, "in the hand of a mediator," whose office is to effect reconciliation. This supplies the key to and explains that much disputed and little understood statement in the next verse, "Now a mediator is not of one, but God is one" (v. 20). "God is one" signifies that His purpose and design is the same in both the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants; in other words, the law was published with a gracious end in view. Therefore when the apostle proceeds to ask the definite question, "Is the law then against the promises of God" (i.e., does it clash with or annul the gracious revelation made to Abraham), the emphatic answer is, "God forbid" (v. 21).
In the preceding chapter we affirmed that the Sinaitic covenant was a compact promising the Israelites as a people certain material and national blessings, on the condition of their rendering to God a general obedience to His law. Let it now be pointed out that something higher was required to achieve individual communion with the Lord. This is clear from such a passage as, "Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to this neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor" (Ps. 15:1-3). No loose or mechanical compliance with the requirements of the law would suffice: God's glory is inseparably bound up with the interests of righteousness, and there can be no righteousness where the heart is divorced from Him.
In like manner we read again, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully: he shall receive the blessing from the Lord" (Ps. 24:3-5). Here was described the character of the true worshipers of God, as contra-distinguished from hypocrites. The ascending into the hill of the Lord, standing in his holy place, and abiding in his tabernacle is but figurative language to express spiritual access and spiritual fellowship with the Most High. It is striking to note that both of these searching passages were delivered at a time when the tabernacle service was about to be renewed (by Solomon) with increased splendor. Plainly they were designed as a warning to the people that whatever regard was paid to the solemnities of public worship, it could avail them nothing if there was not first practical righteousness in the offerer of it.
It is to be particularly observed that in the above passages it was not so much the righteousness of the law in general that the psalmist pressed for, as that establishing of the second table, because hypocrites and formalists have so many ways of counterfeiting the works of the first table. The same principle was pressed by the prophets again and again. "What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? Seeing thou hatest instruction, and castest my words behind thee. When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him, and hast been a partaker with adulterers. Thou givest thy mouth to evil, and thy tongue framest deceit. Thou sittest and speakest evil against thy brother; thou slanderest thine own mother's son" (Ps. 50:16-20). And yet in their blindness and self-complacency they had dared to talk of God's statutes and prate about His covenant. But no outward adherence to the worship of Jehovah could be accepted while the divine commands were trampled underfoot.
Isaiah was still more severe in his denunciations. He encountered those who feigned great respect for the temple, multiplying their offerings, treading the holy courts, keeping the feasts with much diligence, and making "many prayers." Yet he addressed them as the "rulers of Sodom" and as the "people of Gomorrah," and affirmed that their sacrifices and religious performances were nauseating to God, that His soul hated such pretensions, and that He would not hearken to their prayers because they oppressed the needy and ground down the fatherless and the widow (Isa. 1:10-17). There was no sincerity in their devotions: to pose as pious in the house of the Lord while iniquity filled their own dwellings was a grievous offense. Hence, he told them that their altar gifts were "lying offerings" (so "vain oblations" of v. 13 should be rendered), and that the whole of their worship was an abomination in the sight of the Holy One.
In like manner we hear Jeremiah saying, "Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbor; if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; then will I cause you to dwell in this place that I gave to your fathers forever and ever" (Jer. 7:2-8). Thus he exposed and condemned the blatant folly of those who trusted in the temple and its services for a blessing, when by their ungodliness and wicked works they had turned the temple into a resort of evil doers. Ezekiel too rebuked religious hypocrites, and showed how God could be satisfied with nothing less than that reality which was evidenced by practical righteousness between man and man (chaps. 18 and 33).
On the one hand, then, there was a godly remnant in Israel, who used the law "lawfully" (1 Tim. 1:8) by causing its spirituality and holiness to cast them back on the grace and promises of the Abrahamic covenant, turning to God as their redeemer and healer. It is in such passages as Psalm 119 we find their experience described. There was a realization of the excellence, the breadth, the height of the divine law; its suitability to man's condition; the blessedness of being conformed to its requirements; and the earnest longings of the pious heart after all that properly belongs to it. Those acknowledgments and aspirations are interspersed with confessions of backsliding, prayers for divine mercy and restoring grace, and fresh resolutions are formed in dependence upon divine aid to resist evil and strive after higher attainments in the righteousness which the law enjoins. In many other passages we find the consciousness of sin and moral weakness driving the soul to God for deliverance and help, especially in the appropriation of the gracious provision made in the sacrifices for expiation of guilt and restoration of peace to the troubled conscience.
On the other hand, there was a far greater number of the godless in Israel who made a wrong use of the law, perverting the design of the Sinaitic constitution, divorcing it from the Abrahamic covenant. These shut their eyes to the depths and spirituality of the law's requirements, for they were determined to attain unto a righteousness before God on a merely legal basis, and therefore they reduced the Decalogue to an outward performance of certain rules of conduct. This, of course, engendered a servile spirit, for where duties are not performed from high motives and grateful impulses, they necessarily become a burden and are discharged solely for the wages to be paid in return. Such a spirit actuated the scribes and Pharisees who were "hirelings" and not sons. Moreover, such a degradation of the law could only result in formality and hypocrisy. Finally, those who thus erred concerning the law's place and spirit could neither look rightly for the Messiah nor welcome Him when He appeared.
As we have seen, that which preeminently characterized the Mosaic dispensation was the prominent and dominant position accorded to the law. Not only was that dispensation formally inaugurated by Jehovah Himself proclaiming the Decalogue from Sinai''the Exodus from Egypt and the journey across the wilderness being but introductory thereto''but those Ten Words were given the place of supreme honor. The tables of stone upon which they had been inscribed were assigned to the tabernacle. Now the most sacred vessel in the tabernacle, and that which formed the very center of all the services connected with it, was the ark. It was the special symbol of the Lord's covenant presence and faithfulness, for upon its cover was the throne on which He sat as King in Israel. Yet that ark was made on purpose to house the two tables of the law, and was called "the ark of the covenant" simply because it contained the agreed upon articles of the covenant. Thus those Ten Words were plainly recognized as containing in themselves the sum and substance of that righteousness which the covenant strictly required.
The very position, then, which the two tables of stone occupied, intimated most plainly that the observance of the law was God's great end in the establishment of Judaism. The law, perfect in its character and perpetual in its obligation, formed the foundation of all the symbolical institutions of worship which were afterwards imposed. As the center of Judaism was the tabernacle, so the center of the tabernacle was the law; for the sacred ark, which was enshrined in the holy of holies, had been built specially for the housing of it. Thus the thoughtful worshiper could scarcely fail to perceive that obedience to the law was the preeminent reason for which the Levitical economy was appointed. Every strictly religious rite and institution ordained by God through Moses was intended as a means to enforce the principles and precepts of the law, or as remedies to provide against the evils which inevitably arose from its neglect and violation.
The real relation which existed between the ceremonial and the moral law has not been sufficiently recognized, and therefore we will now consider at more length the true design and spiritual purpose of the Levitical code. The Decalogue itself was the foundation of the tabernacle service, all its symbolical ceremonies pointing to it as their common ground and center. In other words, the ceremonial institutions were entirely subservient to the righteousness which the law required. Let it be remembered that it was not until after the Sinaitic covenant had been formally ratified that the ritual of the Levitical system was given. Thus its very place in the history denotes that the ceremonial law is to be regarded not as of primary, but only of secondary moment in the constitution of God's kingdom in Israel. God had called Israel to occupy a place of peculiar nearness to Himself; so He first made known to them the great principles of truth and righteousness which were to regulate their lives, and then that there should be a visible bond of fellowship, by placing in their midst a dwelling place for Himself; appointing everything in connection therewith in such a manner as to impress them with the character of their King and of what became them as His subjects.
Most strikingly was the subserviency of the ceremonial to the moral law signified in connection with the divine appointments concerning the tabernacle. All was to be ordered according to the pattern shown to Moses in the mount, while the people were to signify their readiness to submit to God's will by contributing the required materials (Ex. 25:2-9). Now the first thing to be made was not the framework (walls) of the tabernacle itself, nor that which belonged to the outer court, but instead the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:20-22), which was the repository of the Decalogue. The ark was given the precedence of everything else''altar, layer, lampstand, and table of shewbread. Thus it was plainly intimated that the ark was the most sacred piece of furniture pertaining to the house of God''the center from which all spiritual fellowship with the Lord was to proceed and derive its essential character. Thus an unmistakable link of connection between the ceremonial and the moral law, and the subordination of the one to the other, was impressed from the first on the very constitution of the tabernacle.
Now the chief lesson inculcated by the ceremonial law, proclaimed by numerous rites and ordinances, was that the holy and righteous have access to God's fellowship and blessing; whereas the unclean and wicked are excluded. But who constituted the one class, and who the other? Not simply those who observed, or refused to observe, the mere letter of the ceremonial law, but rather those who possessed in reality what was therein symbolized, and that was ascertained only in the light of God Himself. He had revealed His character in that law of moral duty which He took for the foundation of His throne and the center of His government in Israel. There the "line and plummet" of right and wrong, of holy and unholy in God's sight, was set up, and the Levitical code itself implied that very "line and plummet," and called men's attention to it by its manifold prescriptions concerning clean and unclean, defilement and purification.
The "divers washing" of the ceremonial law and its ever recurring atonements by blood pointed to existing impurities, but what many have failed to recognize is that those very impurities were such because at variance with the law of righteousness. "The Decalogue had pointed, by the predominantly negative form of its precepts, to the prevailing tendency in human nature to sin; and in like manner the Levitical code, by making everything that directly bore on generation and birth a source of uncleanness, perpetually reiterated in men's ears the lesson that corruption cleaved to them, that they were conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity. The very institution of a separate order for immediate approach to God, and performing, in behalf of the community, the most sacred offices of religion, was a visible sign of actual shortcomings and transgressions among the people: it was a standing testimony that they were not holy after the lofty pattern of holiness exhibited in the law of Jehovah's throne.
"The distinction, also, between clean and unclean in food, while it deprived them of nothing that was required either to gratify the taste or minister nourishment to the bodily life''granted them, indeed, what was best adapted for both''yet served as a daily monitor in respect to the spiritual dangers that encompassed them and of the necessity of exercising themselves to a careful choosing between one class of things and another; reminded them of a good that was to be followed and of an evil to be shunned. And then there is a whole series of defilements springing from contact with what is emphatically the wages of sin''death, or death's livid image, the leprosy, which, wherever it alighted, struck a fatal blight in the organism of nature and rendered it a certain prey to corruption: ''things, the very sight and touch of which, formed a call to humiliation, because carrying with them the mournful evidence, that, while sojourners with God, men still found themselves in the region of corruption and death" (The Revelation of Law in Scripture, by P. Fairbairn, 1869, to whom we are also indebted for other thoughts in this chapter).
In the light of what has been said above, it will be seen that "the law of carnal ordinances" contained most important instruction for the people''that is, not when considered by itself, but when regarded (according to its proper design) as an auxiliary to the Ten Commandments. But if the ceremonial law be isolated from them, and be regarded as possessing an independent use and value, then its message had flatly repudiated the truth; for in such case it had encouraged men to rely upon mere outward distinctions and rest in corporeal observances. But that had been contradictory rather than complementary of the Decalogue, for it throws all the emphasis upon the moral element, both in the divine character and the obedience which He requires from His people. Kept, however, in its proper place of subordination to the moral law, the Levitical code furnished most important instruction for Israel, keeping steadily before them the fact that sin brought defilement and shut out from fellowship with the Holy One.
That the Levitical ordinances had merely a subsidiary value, and that they derived all their importance from the connection in which they stood with the moral precepts of the law, is evident from other considerations. It is clearly demonstrated by the fact that when the special judgments of heaven were denounced against the covenant people, it never was for neglect of the ceremonial observances, but always for flagrant violations of the Ten Commandments. Let the reader carefully ponder the following passages in proof: Jeremiah 7:22-31; Ezekiel 8 and 18:1-3; Hosea 4:1-3; Amos 3:4-9; Micah 5 and 6. It is evident again from the fact that whenever the indispensable conditions of entrance to God's house and of abiding fellowship with Him are set forth, they are seen to be in conformity to the moral precepts, and not to the ceremonial observances (Ps. 15 and 24). Finally, it is evident from the fact that when the people exalted ceremonialism above practical obedience, the procedure was denounced as idolatry and the service rejected as a mockery (see 1 Sam. 15:22; Ps. 45:7; Isa. 1:2; Micah 6:8).
Having dwelt upon the relation which existed between the ceremonial and the moral law''the one being strictly subservient to the other, the one reiterating the testimony of the other concerning holiness and sin''let us now consider another and quite different aspect of it. The Decalogue itself proclaimed the righteous requirements of the Lord, and therefore it made no allowance for disobedience and no provision for the disobedient: all it did was to threaten condemnation, and the awful penalty it announced could inspire nought but terror. But with the Levitical code it was quite otherwise: there was a mediatorial priesthood, there were sacrifices for obtaining forgiveness, there were ordinances of cleansing; and the design of these was to secure restoration of fellowship with God for those whose sins excluded them from His holy presence. Thus, while these ordinances were far from making light of sin, for those who repented and humbled themselves, they mercifully procured reconciliation to the lawgiver.
It should, however, be carefully noted that God imposed very definite limits to the scope of the expiatory sacrifices. And necessarily so: had there been no restrictions, had the way been open, at all times, for any one and every one, to obtain remission and cleansing, then the Levitical code had granted a corrupt and fatal license; for in that case men could have gone on in a deliberate course of evil, assured that further sacrifices would expiate their guilt. Therefore we see divine holiness tempering divine mercy, by appointing sacrifices for the sins of ignorance only, or for those defilements which were contracted unwittingly or unavoidably; whereas for flagrant and willful transgressors of the Ten Commandments there remained nought but summary judgment. Thereby a gracious provision was made for what we may term sins of infirmity, while justice was meted out to the lawless and defiant.
The distinction to which we have just called attention, or the limitation made in the Levitical code for the obtaining of pardon, is clearly expressed in, "If any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the Lord, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously [with a high hand, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him" (Num. 15: 27-31).
But while there was this great difference between the ceremonial and the moral law''a merciful provision made for certain transgressors of it''yet we may clearly perceive how divine wisdom protected the Decalogue from dishonor, yea, by the very limitations of that provision upheld its righteous demands. "So that here, again, the Levitical code of ordinances leant on the fundamental law of the Decalogue, and did obeisance to its supreme authority. Only they who devoutly recognized this law, and in their conscience strove to walk according to its precepts, had any title to and interest in the provisions sanctioned for the blotting out of transgression. Then, as now, 'to walk in darkness' or persistently adhere to the practice of iniquity, was utterly incompatible with having fellowship with God''1 John 1:6" (P. Fairbairn).
Yet, let it be pointed out, on the other hand, that God is sovereign, high above all law, and by no means tied by the restrictions which He has placed on His creatures. This grand truth ever needs to be clearly and boldly proclaimed, never more so than in our day, when such low and dishonoring views of God so widely prevail. When Jehovah made known Himself to Moses He said, "The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" (Ex. 34:6, 7). That precious word was ever available to faith, as Numbers 14:17-20 and other passages blessedly show. True, even in this passage there is a solemn warning that justice will not forgo its claims, that obstinate rebels should meet their deserts. Yet that is given the second place, while grace occupies the foreground.
It was that which inspired relief in humble and penitent hearts: God is gracious. Thus, though at every point the Israelite was taught that sin is a most solemn and serious matter, and that neither the moral nor the ceremonial law made any provision of mercy where certain offenses were committed, yet that did not prevent the Lord dealing with them on a footing of pure grace. The revealed character of God opened a door of hope unto contrite souls, even when their case appeared utterly hopeless. A striking illustration of this is found in psalm 51. There we see David, after the commission of sins for which the law demanded the death penalty, and for which no Levitical sacrifice was of any avail (v. 16), acknowledging with a broken heart his heinous transgressions, casting himself on God's unconditional forgiveness (v. 1), and obtaining pardon from Him.
To give completeness to our present line of study, one other feature respecting the Levitical institutions requires to be noticed. Considered from one viewpoint the ceremonial oblations and ablutions were a real privilege of the Israelite, but from another they added to his obligations of duty''illustrating the fact that increased blessings always entail increased responsibility. The Levitical institutions were as truly legal enactments as were the Ten Commandments, and willful violators of them were as much subject to punishment as those who profaned the Sabbath or committed murder (see Lev. 7:20; 17:4, 14; Num. 9:13).
The reason why those who transgressed the Levitical ordinances were subject to judgment was because the ceremonial statutes were invested with the same authority as were those commandments which pertained strictly to the moral sphere, and therefore to set them at nought was to dishonor the divine Legislator Himself. Moreover, it was to despise the means which He had graciously appointed''the only available means''for having guilt remitted and defilement removed, and which therefore remained unforgiven, yea, aggravated, by the despite that was done to the riches of God's mercy. Therein we may perceive a clear foreshadowing of that which pertains to the gospel, but our consideration of that must be deferred.
The Sinaitic covenant needs to be studied from three independent viewpoints: (1) the relation which it sustains to the previous revelations which had been granted by God, being a marked advance thereon in the unfolding of His eternal purpose; (2) considered with regard to the peculiar relation in which it stood to the Jewish nation, furnishing as it did a unique constitution and a complete code for their guidance; (3) in its relation to the future, being admirably designed to pave the way for the advent of Christ and the dawn of Christianity. The first two of these have already engaged our attention; the third, which involves the most difficult aspects of our subject, we must now consider.
Until we had carefully contemplated the Mosaic economy as it related to the nation of Israel, their political and temporal welfare, we were not ready to view it in its wider and ultimate significance. God's first and immediate design in connection with the Sinaitic covenant was to furnish a "letter" fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham: to give him a numerous seed, to establish them in the land of Canaan, to preserve pure the stock from which the Messiah was to spring, to continue them there until Christ actually appeared in the flesh. Thus the Mosaic economy had served its purpose when the Son of God became incarnate. But, second, God's ultimate design under the Mosaic economy was to furnish a clear and full demonstration of the utter inability of fallen man, even under the most favorable conditions or circumstances, to meet His holy and righteous requirements; thereby making manifest the exceeding sinfulness of sin and the imperative need of an all-sufficient Savior.
From one standpoint it certainly appears that the Sinaitic covenant completely failed to achieve its object and that the whole of the Mosaic economy was a pathetic tragedy. In nowise did Israel as a nation conduct themselves as the beloved, called, and redeemed people of God. They rendered not to the moral law the obedience which it required, and the mercies of the ceremonial law they perverted to God's dishonor and their own spiritual undoing. Instead of the law leading sinners to Christ, "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). Yet there is no failure with the Most High, no breakdown in His plan, no thwarting of His imperial will. The very failure of Israel only served to subserve the divine purpose, for it demonstrated the imperative need of something superior to that which Judaism, as such, supplied, and reserved for Christ the honor of bringing in that which is perfect.
In seeking to ascertain wherein the Mosaic economy paved the way for the introduction of Christianity, we shall notice, first, the imperfection or inadequacy of the provision supplied by Judaism; and second, briefly consider the typification and foreshadowment it made of the better covenant yet to be established. Though the order of things which was instituted by the Sinaitic covenant was a great advance upon that which obtained under the Abrahamic''for it not only supplemented the covenant of promise (which pledged the divine faithfulness to bestow every needed blessing) by the covenant of law, which bound Israel to yield that dutiful obedience to which the Lord was entitled; but it also brought the natural seed of Abraham into a relation of corporate nearness to the God of Abraham, providing in the tabernacle a visible representation that He was in their midst''yet it belonged unto a state of comparative immaturity and the relative twilight of divine revelation.
That which outstandingly characterized Judaism was that it concerned the outward and objective, rather than the inward and subjective. The Decalogue was written not upon the hearts of Israel, but upon tables of stone. It was a lord over them, demanding implicit submission, a schoolmaster to instruct them, but it supplied (as such) no power to produce obedience and no influence to move the secret springs of the heart. The same feature marked the Levitical institutions: they too were formally addressed to them from without, and pertained only to bodily exercises. The whole was an external discipline, in keeping with "a worldly sanctuary." True, what the law required was love; yet law as such does not elicit love. Fear was what predominated''the dread of suffering the wrath of an offended God, which the penalties of His law threatened on every hand.
It is true that great relief was provided by the ceremonial law, for provision was there made for obtaining forgiveness. The means for effecting this was the sacrifices'' "the life''blood of an irrational creature, itself unconscious of sin, being accepted by God in His character of Redeemer for the life of the sinner. A mode of satisfaction no doubt in itself unsatisfactory, since there was no just correspondence between the merely sensuous life of an unthinking animal and the higher life of a rational and responsible being; in the strict reckoning of justice the one could form no adequate compensation for the other. But in this respect it was not singular; it was part of a scheme of things which bore throughout the marks of relative imperfection" (P. Fairbairn).
This same characteristic of relative imperfection appears on the tabernacle. A provisional arrangement was made whereby transgressors, otherwise excluded, might obtain the remission of their sins and enjoy again the privilege of fellowship with Jehovah; yet even here there was a conspicuous incompleteness, for though the reconciled were permitted to enter the outer court, yet they had no direct and personal access to the immediate presence chamber of the Lord. How far, far below the freedom of intercourse which all believers may now have with God, was the entrance of a few ministering priests into the courts of the tabernacle, with access to the holy of holies granted to one person alone, and to him only one day in the year! While the tabernacle itself, in dimensions but a hundred cubits by fifty cubits, and in materials composed of earthly and perishable things''how inadequate a representation of the dwelling place of Him who filleth heaven and earth!
The law exhibited the ineffable holiness of the divine character and bound Israel by covenant engagement to make that the standard after which they must seek to regulate all their conduct: "Ye shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lev. 9:2; cf. Ex. 19:6). But when it was enlightened and aroused by the lofty ideal of truth and duty thus presented before it, conscience would be but the more sensible of transgressions committed against the very righteousness required. The law is addressed to the conscience; and when once searched by it, men could not fail to perceive its extent and spirituality. Just in proportion as an Israelite's mind was honestly in exercise, he would come to understand that outward acts were far from being the only things which the law demanded, that it reached unto the thoughts and intents, affections and motives of the heart; he would find it, as the psalmist expressed it, "exceeding broad" (119:96). He might, indeed, have attempted to silence the deep and distressing sense of guilt thus awakened; but unless deceived, those attempts would have brought him no help.
The law, then, was far from inculcating or encouraging a spirit of self-righteousness. Instead of being a witness to which men could appeal in proof of their having met the requirements of God, it became an accuser, testifying against them of broken vows and violated obligations. Thereby it kept perpetually alive in the conscience a sense of guilt, and served to awaken in the hearts of those who really understood its spiritual meaning a feeling of utter helplessness and a sense of deep need. Goaded by the demands of a law which they were altogether incapable of fulfilling, their case must have seemed hopeless. Nor did the ordinances of the ceremonial law afford them any more than a very imperfect relief. To them it must have been apparent that "the blood of calves and of goats could not take away sins." A striking proof of this is furnished by the case of Isaiah; for upon beholding the manifested presence of Jehovah, he cried out, "Woe is me! for I am undone" (6:5) ''clear evidence that his conscience was more oppressed by a sense of sin than comforted by the blessing of forgiveness.
Such a case as Isaiah's makes it plain that where there was an exercised heart (and there were such in Israel at every stage of their history), the holy law of God had produced convictions much too deep for the provisions of the ceremonial law "to make him that did the service perfect as pertaining to the conscience" (Heb. 9:2). But more emphatic still is the testimony supplied by the Psalms, which, be it remembered, were used in the public service of God, being designed to express the sentiments of all sincere worshipers. Not only do those Psalms extol the manifold perfections of the law (see especially the 19th and the 119th), but they also record the piercing accusations which it wrought. "For mine iniquities are gone over mine head: as a heavy burden they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly: I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my groaning is not hid from thee" (Ps. 38:4-9). "For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me. Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me" (Ps. 40:12, 13).
Thus the divine law, by presenting a standard of perfect righteousness and by convicting men of their utter inability to meet its holy demands, prepared their minds for the coming Redeemer. This supplies the key to such passages as we have just quoted above. Awakened souls were made to feel iniquity cleaving to them like a girdle, and inward corruption like a deadly virus poisoning their very nature, breaking out continually in unholy tempers, defiling all they did or attempted, and thus destroying all hope of justification or acceptance with God on the ground of personal conformity to His requirements. Alive to the truth of an ineffably holy and infinitely perfect God, they were also alive to painful misgivings and fears of guilt; and hence their confessions of sin, sobs of penitence, and cries for mercy.
It was because the present deliverance furnished by the ceremonial law bore on it such marks of imperfection''the inadequacy of the blood of animals to atone for offenses so heinous, and the blessing secured being only a restored entrance to the outer court of the tabernacle''that it intimated a far better provision in the future; for nothing short of perfection could satisfy the One with whom they had to do. Because the Decalogue awakened a sense of guilt and alienation from the Lord which the ordinances of the ceremonial law could not perfectly remove, because wants and desires were aroused which could not then be more than partially satisfied, the Mosaic economy was well fitted to raise expectations in the bosom of the worshiper of some "better thing to come," disposing him to gladly receive the intimations of this which it was the part of prophecy to announce.
It was, then, the spiritual design of the law (in addition to its dispensational purpose''to restrain sin, etc.) to quicken conscience, to produce a deep sense of guilt, to slay the spirit of self-righteousness, to impart a pungent sense of personal helplessness, thereby moving exercised souls to look forward in faith and hope to the promised Savior. That this was the effect produced by the law in an elect remnant, we have seen; that it ought to have been produced in all, cannot be fairly questioned. Thus, the law materially contributed to the right understanding of the dispensation under which Israel was placed, and was also a wise and gracious means for disciplining their faith to look onward to the future for the proper fulfillment of what their carnal ordinances only shadowed in type, thereby confirming the expectations which their ritual encouraged but could not, in the nature of things, satisfy.
The only course open to the awakened and exercised in Israel was to cast themselves unreservedly on the free mercy of God, in the sure hope that the future would reveal the perfect remedy and ransom when the promised Seed should appear, as the intimations of their figurative worship led them to expect, and by which all the exigencies of their case would be met. "Thus the Lord schooled them, fenced their path on every side, led them by the hand, and guided them to expect from the distant future what the present could not supply. Its convictions pointed to the relief which the Gospel alone was destined to furnish; it shut them up to the exercise of faith in the coming Redeemer" (John Kelly).
It is scarcely necessary for us to point out that God's order in the dispensations (i.e., the Mosaic preceding the Christian and paving the way for it) is precisely the same as His order now in connection with each truly converted soul. It still remains true that "by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20), and the sinner must be searched and humbled by it before he will be brought heartily to rejoice in the message of the gospel. Not until the soul is conscious that it is under the law's sentence of death will it desire and appreciate the life that is to be found in Christ, and in Him alone''this the apostle Paul testified he found to be the case in his own experience (Rom. 7:7-10). The law is a perfect rule of righteousness; and when we measure ourselves by it, our innumerable shortcomings and sins are at once made apparent. When, then, an Israelite was quickened by the Spirit, he at once perceived the law's true character, became deeply sensible of his guilt, and longed for something higher and better than was then provided for his true consolation.
The same fundamental principle receives plain and striking exemplification on the opening pages of the New Testament. The way of the Redeemer was prepared by one who proclaimed with trumpet voice the law's righteousness, evoking the terrors of its threatenings: the ministry of John the Baptist must ever precede that of Christ. There will never be a genuine revival until we get back to this basic fact and act accordingly. The Lord Jesus Himself entered upon His blessed work of evangelization by unfolding the wise extent and deep spirituality of the law's requirements; for a large portion of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) was devoted to a clear and searching exposition of the law's righteousness, rescuing it from the false glosses of men and pressing its holy claims upon the multitudes. This is why that "sermon" is now so much hated by our moderns!
In the preceding chapter we sought to show how the inadequacy and imperfections of the Mosaic economy only served to pave the way for the introduction of Christianity. Such marks of imperfection were stamped on the very nature of the Levitical institutions; for they were, to a large extent, as the apostle termed them, "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:9). This was because it was then the comparative minority of the church, and the materials of a more spiritual economy did not exist. "The atonement was yet but prospective; the Holy Spirit did not operate as He does under the Gospel; and God's gracious designs as regards the redemption of our race (rather "of the elect") lay embedded and concealed in the obscure intimations that the Seed of the woman should bruise the Serpent's head and in the promises to Abraham. Nor were those defects perfectly remedied throughout the whole course of the dispensation. To the last the Jew walked in comparative darkness" (Litton's "Bampton" Lectures).
In the historical outworking of the economy, not only imperfection, but, as we all know, gross failure, characterized the entire history of Israel as a nation''ominously foreshadowed at the beginning, when Aaron lent himself to the awful idolatry of the golden calf at the very base of Sinai itself. In the vast majority, spirituality was so lacking and love to God beat so feebly in their hearts, that the requirements of the law were regarded as an oppressive yoke. Only too often, those who ought to have been the most exemplary in performing what was enjoined, and from their position in the commonwealth should have checked the practice of evil in others, were themselves the most forward in promoting it. Consequently, the predominating principle of the Mosaic economy''namely, the inseparable connection between obedience and blessing, transgression and punishment''was obscured, for souls which should have been "cut off" from the congregation as deliberate covenant breakers were allowed to retain their standing in the community and to enjoy its privileges.
It should be pointed out that this expression "that soul shall be cut off," which occurs so frequently in the Pentateuch, signifies something far more solemn and awful than does being "disfellowshipped from the church" today''such an explanation or definition on the part of not a few learned men is quite unpardonable. "That soul shall be cut off" refers primarily to God's act; for it occurs in connections and cases where those in human authority could not interfere, the violations of the law being secret ones (see Lev. 17:10; 18:29; 22:2). In fact, in a number of instances God expressly said, "I will cut off" (Lev. 20:3, 5, etc.). But where the act was open and the guilt known, God's decision was to be carried out by the community (as in Num. 15:30; Josh. 7:24-26). Yet even when Israel's judges or magistrates failed to enforce this, the guilty were cut off in God's judgment.
It was very largely through the failure of the responsible heads in Israel to execute the sentence of the law upon its open violators that the nation fell into such a low state, bringing down upon itself the providential judgments of Jehovah. Alas that history has repeated itself, for at no one point is the failure of Christendom more apparent than in the almost universal refusal of the so-called churches to enforce a Scriptural discipline upon its refractory members''sentiment and the fear of man have ousted a love of holiness and the fear of God. And just as surely, the consequence has been the same; though, in keeping with the more spiritual character of this dispensation, the divine judgments have assumed another form: error has supplanted truth, a company of godless worldlings occupy the pulpits, so that those who long for bread are now being mocked with a stone.
Had Israel been faithful to their covenant engagement at Sinai, had they as a nation striven in earnest, through the grace offered them in the Abrahamic covenant, to produce the fruits of that righteousness required by the Mosaic, then, as another has beautifully expressed it, "delighting in the Law of the Lord and meditating therein day and night, in their condition they should assuredly have been 'like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in his season, whose leaf doth not wither and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.'" Canaan would then, indeed, have verified the description of "a land flowing with milk and honey." But alas, the law was despised, discipline was neglected, self-will and self-pleasing was rampant; and consequently, famines, pestilences, and wars frequently became their portion.
Just in proportion as practical holiness disappeared from Israel's midst, so was there a withdrawal of God's blessing. Israel's history in Canaan never presented anything more than a most faulty display of that righteousness and prosperity which, like twin sisters, should have accompanied them all through their course. Yet again we would point out that Israel's failure by no means signified that the plan of the Almighty had been overthrown. So far from that, if the reader will turn to and glance at Deuteronomy 28 and 32 he will find that the Lord Himself predicted the future backslidings of the people, and from the beginning announced the sore afflictions which should come in consequence upon them. Thus, coincident with the birth of the covenant, intimations were given of its imperfect nature and temporal purpose: it was made clear that not through its provisions and agencies would come the ultimate good for Israel and mankind.
But it is high time that we now pointed out, second, wherein the types under the Mosaic economy prepared the way for the dawn of Christianity. A large field is here before us, but its ground has been covered so thoroughly by others that it is not necessary to do more than now call attention to its outstanding features. Ere doing so, let us again remind the reader that the Old Testament types were divinely designed to teach by way of contrast, as well as by comparison. The recognition of this important principle at once refutes the God insulting theory that the types were defective and often misleading. The reason for this should be obvious: the antitypes far excelled the types in value. God is ever jealous of the glory of His beloved Son, and to Him was reserved the honor of producing and bringing in that which is perfect.
First, let us notice the special and peculiar relation which Israel sustained to the Lord. They were His chosen people, and He was their God in a way that He was the God of no others. It was as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the children of promise, that God dealt with them from the beginning (see Ex. 2:24, 25; 6:5). It was in fulfillment of His holy promise to Abraham that "he brought forth his people with joy, his chosen with gladness" (Ps. 105:42, 43) from the cruel bondage of the land of Egypt. This basic fact must be steadily borne in mind when pondering all of God's subsequent dealings with them. Therein we find a perfect foreshadowment of God's dealings with His people today: each of them receives mercy on a covenant basis''the everlasting covenant made with Christ''and on the ground of it are they delivered from the power of Satan and translated into the kingdom of Christ.
Second, what we have just said above supplies the key to our right understanding of the typical significance of God's giving the Decalogue to Israel. The revelation of law at Sinai did not come forth in independence of what had preceded, as if it were to lay the foundation of something altogether new. It did not proceed from God considered simply as the Creator, exercising His prerogative to impose commands on the consciences of His creatures, which, with no other helps and endowments but those of mere nature, they were required with unfailing rectitude to fulfill. The history of Israel knows nothing of law in connection with promise and blessing. It was as the Redeemer of Israel that God announced the Ten Words, as being in a special sense "the Lord their God" (Ex. 20:2), proclaiming Himself therein to be the God of mercy as well as holiness (20:5, 6), and recognizing their title to the inheritance of Canaan as His own sovereign gift to them (20:12).
The law, then, was not given to Israel as a deliverer from evil, nor as the bestower of life. Its design was not to rescue from bondage, nor found a title to the favor and blessing of Jehovah, for all that was already Israel's (see Gal. 3:16-22). "So that grace here also took precedence of law, life of righteousness; and the covenant of law, assuming and rooting itself in the prior covenant of grace (the Abrahamic) only came to shut the heirs of promise up to that course of dutiful obedience toward God, and brotherly kindness toward each other, by which alone they could accomplish the higher ends of their calling. In form merely (viz., the Law now given as a covenant) was there anything new in this, not in principle. For what else was involved in the command given to Abraham . . . . 'I am the almighty God, walk before Me and be thou perfect' (Gen. 17:1)''a word which was comprehensive of all true service and righteous behavior.
"But an advance was made by the entrance of the Law over such preceding calls and appointments, and it was this: the obligation to rectitude of life resting upon the heirs of promise was now thrown into a categorical and imperative form, embracing the entire round of moral and religious duty; yet, not that they might by the observance of this work themselves into a blissful relation to God, but that, as already standing in such a relation, they might walk worthy of it, and become filled with the fruits of righteousness, which alone could either prove the reality of their interest in God, or fulfil the calling they had received from Him" (P. Fairbairn).
Therein we have a striking exemplification of the relation which the law sustains to the people of God in all dispensations, most blessedly so in this Christian era. In every dispensation God has first revealed Himself unto His people as the giver of life and blessing and then as the requirer of obedience to His commands. Their obedience, so far from entitling them to justification, can never be acceptably rendered until they are justified. All the blessings of Israel were purely and solely of grace, received through faith. And what is faith but the acceptance of heaven's gifts, or the trusting in the record wherein those gifts are promised. The order of experience in the life of every saint, as it is so clearly set forth in the Epistle to the Romans (summed up in 12:1), is first participation in the divine mercy, and then, issuing from it, a constraining obligation to run in the way of God's commandments.
How could it be otherwise? Surely it is not more obvious than that it is impossible for fallen and depraved creatures, already lying under the divine condemnation and wrath, to earn anything at God's hands, or even to perform good works acceptable in His sight, until they have become partakers of His sovereign grace. Can they, against the tide of inward corruption, against the power of Satan and the allurements of the world, and against God's judicial displeasure, recover themselves and set out on a journey heavenward, only requiring the aid of the Spirit to perfect their efforts? To suppose such an absurdity betrays an utter ignorance of God's character in reference to His dealings with the guilty. If He "spared not his own Son" (Rom. 8:32), how shall He refuse to smite thee, O sinner! But, blessed be His name, He can, for His Son's sake, bestow eternal life and everlasting blessing on the most unworthy; but He cannot stoop to bargain with criminals about their acquiring a title to it, through their own defective services.
Third, if the circumstances of God's placing Israel under the law typified the fact that it was not given to unredeemed sinners in order for them to procure the divine favor, on the other hand, it is equally clear that it exemplifies the fact that the redeemed are placed under the law. Otherwise, one of the most important of all the divine transactions of the past (Ex. 19) would have no direct bearing upon us today. The Christian needs the law. First, to subdue the spirit of self-righteousness. Nothing is more calculated to produce humility than a daily measuring of ourselves by the exalted standard of righteousness required by the law. As we recognize how far short we come of rendering what unremitting love demands, we shall be constantly driven out of self unto Christ. Second, to restrain the flesh and hold us back from lawlessness. Third, as a rule of life, setting before us continually that holiness of heart and conduct which, through the power of the Spirit, we should be ever striving to attain.
Should it be objected that the believer has perfect freedom, and must not be entangled again in the yoke of bondage, the answer is, Yes, he is "free to righteousness" (Rom. 6:18); he is free to act as a servant of Christ, and not as a lord over himself. Believers are not free to introduce what they please into the service of God, for He is a jealous God, and will not suffer His glory to be associated with the vain imaginations of men; they arc free to worship Him only in spirit and truth. "The freedom of the Spirit is a freedom only within the bounds of the Law" (P. Fairbairn). Subjection to the law is that which alone proves our title to the grace which is in Christ Jesus. None has any legitimate ground to conclude that he has savingly trusted in the Savior, unless he possesses a sincere desire and determination of heart to serve and glorify God. Faith is not a lawless sentiment, but a holy principle, its sure fruit being obedience. Love to God ever yields itself willingly to His requirements.
But let us now observe a conspicuous contrast in the type. At Sinai God said: "Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed [as enunciated in the Ten Words] , and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. . . . Yet shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5, 6). There was a contingency: Israel's entering into those blessings turned upon their fulfillment of the condition of obedience. But the terms of the "new covenant," under which Christians live, are quite otherwise. Here there is no contingency, but blessed certainty; for the condition of it was perfectly fulfilled by Christ. Hence God now says, "I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me" (Jer. 32:40); and, "I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments and do them" (Ezek. 36:27). Therein we may adore God for the antitype excelling the type: the if concerning Israel being displaced by His shall.
Yet in concluding our consideration of this branch of the subject, let us say very emphatically that the only ones who are entitled to draw comfort from those precious "shalls" of God, are they who correspond to the characters described in the immediate context. Jeremiah depicts them as those in whose hearts God puts His holy fear. If, then, the fear of God is not in me, if I do not stand in awe of His majesty and dread a despising of His authority, then I have no reason to conclude that I am numbered amongst those to whom the promises belong. Ezekiel describes those who "shall keep God's judgments and do them" as they from whom He takes away the stony heart and gives a heart of flesh. If, then, my heart is unresponsive to the divine voice and impenitent when I have disregarded it, then I am not one of the characters there delineated. Finally, God says of them, "I will put my laws into their minds and write them in their hearts" (Heb. 8:10). If, then, I do not "delight in the law of God after the inward man" and "serve the law of God" (Rom. 7:22, 25), then I have no part or lot in the better covenant.
Continuing our survey of the typical teachings of the Mosaic economy as they anticipated and prepared the way for the establishing of Christianity, we note, fourth, the corporate character of Israel. This was a distinct line in the typical picture, and a feature in marked advance of anything that had preceded. Under the previous covenants, God treated only with particular persons; and throughout the history associated therewith, everything was peculiarly individualistic. But at Sinai the Lord established a formal bond between Himself and the favored nation. It was then, for the first time, that we see the people of God in an organized condition. It is true that they were divided into twelve separate tribes; yet their union before God was most blessedly evidenced when the high priest, as the representative of the whole nation, ministered before Jehovah in the holy place with their names inscribed on his breastplate.
Israel in their national capacity was a people set apart from all others, and the degree in which they fulfilled the end of their separation foreshadowed the church of God, the true kingdom over which the Messiah presides. Vain indeed is the claim of any church or collection of churches, any party or "assemblies," that it or they are either the antitype or the "representation" of the true church, though this arrogant pretension is by no means confined to the Roman hierarchy. The purest churches on earth are but most imperfect shadows of that true kingdom wherein dwelleth righteousness. "The true antitype is 'the Church of the Firstborn, whose names are written in Heaven' (Heb. 12:23) ''that willing and chosen people, the spiritual seed of Abraham, of whom Christ is the Head, in whose character the Law will be perfectly transcribed, and who will be all righteous, not in profession merely, but in fact" (John Kelly).
That church will be revealed in its corporate character or collective capacity only when Christ comes the second time "without sin unto salvation," to conduct them to that inheritance which He hath prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Yet it is in the New Testament, in those Scriptures which more especially pertain to the Christian dispensation, that we find the clearest and fullest unfolding of the people of God in their corporate character. It is there that the body of Christ''the sum total of the elect, redeemed, regenerated people of God of all ages''is revealed as the object of His love and the reward of His sacrificial work. Though Christian churches are in nowise the antitype of the commonwealth of Israel, nor the prototype of the church in glory, yet in proportion as they are "Christian," they supply a continuous testimony to the practical separation of God's people from this present evil world.
Fifth, the representation given of the blessed truth of sanctification. Though justification and sanctification cannot be separated, yet they may be distinguished. That is to say, though these divine blessings always go together, so that those whom God justifies He also sanctifies, still they are capable of being considered singly. When this be essayed, then they should be taken up in the order wherein they are presented to us in the Epistle to the Romans: in chapters 4 and 5 the apostle expounds the doctrine of justification, in chapters 6 to 8 he treats the various aspects of sanctification. This same order is observable in connection with the covenants: under the Abrahamic, the blessed truth of justification received clear illustration (Gen. 15:6); under the Sinaitic, the equally blessed truth of sanctification was plainly demonstrated. The same order is also exemplified in Israel's own history: they had been redeemed from Egypt before the great transaction at Sinai took place.
Now in order really to practice true holiness there must be a deliverance from the power of Satan and the dominion of sin, for none are free to serve God in newness of spirit until they have been emancipated from the old bondage of depravity. Thus, the deliverance of Israel from the serfdom and slavery of Pharaoh laid the necessary foundation for them to enter the service of Jehovah. The grace which makes believers free from the dominion of sin supplies the strongest argument and motive imaginable to resist and mortify sin, and the greatest obligation to the practice of holiness. Most vividly was this adumbrated in Jehovah's dealings with the seed of Abraham, who had for so long groaned in the brick kilns of Egypt: the gracious deliverance from their merciless taskmasters placed them under deep obligations to render a grateful obedience to their Benefactor, which He accordingly emphasized in His preface to the Ten Commandments.
That which occurred at Sinai typified the sanctification of the church. The first words Jehovah addressed to Israel after they had reached the holy mount were, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself" (Ex. 19:4). Here was their relative or positional sanctification: Israel had not only been separated from the heathen, but they were taken into a place of nearness to the Lord Himself. Then followed, "Now therefore if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant . . . ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Next, Moses was bidden to "go unto the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes" (Ex. 19:10): here there was a prefiguration of practical sanctification. In giving to them the law, God provided Israel with the rule of holiness, the standard to which all conduct is to be conformed. Finally, in sprinkling the blood upon the people (Ex. 24:8) there was shadowed forth that which is declared in, "Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered without the gate" (Heb. 13:12).
Sixth, the teaching of the tabernacle and the ceremonial institutions. And here we must distinguish between God's immediate design in connection with them and their ultimate purpose. The significance of the tabernacle and its worship can only be rightly understood when we apprehend the place given to it in connection with the ceremonial law. And, as we have shown in a previous chapter, the ceremonial law can only be understood when we clearly perceive its subordination to the moral law. The ceremonial law was an auxiliary of the moral, and the Levitical institutions were, in their primary aspect, an exhibition (by means of symbolical rites) of the righteousness enjoined in the Decalogue, by which the heart might be brought into some conformity therewith. Only by a clear insight, then, into the prior revelation of the Decalogue and of the prominent place it was designed to hold in the Mosaic economy, are we prepared to approach and consider that which was merely supplementary thereto.
It is failure to observe what has just been pointed out which leads to regarding the tabernacle and its service as too exclusively typical, causing recent writers to seek therein an adumbration of the person and work of Christ as the only reason for the things belonging thereto. This is not only a mistake, but it ignores the key to sound interpretation, for only as we perceive the symbolical design of the Levitical institutions are we prepared to understand their typical purport. The more fully the ceremonial parts of the Mosaic legislation were fitted to accomplish their prime end of enforcing the requirements of the Decalogue''setting forth the personal holiness it demanded and supplying the means for the removal of unholy pollutions''the more must they have tended to fulfill their ultimate design: by producing convictions of sin and by testifying to the defilement which it produced, the heart was prepared for Christ!
The sanctuary is not only called "the tabernacle of the congregation" (Ex. 40:2, 32, etc.) or as the Hebrew more literally signifies "the tent of meeting," but also "the tabernacle of the testimony" (Ex. 38:21, etc.) or "the tent of witness" (Num. 17:17, 18). The "witness" there borne conspicuously and continually, had respect more immediately to the ineffable holiness of God, and then by necessary implication to the fearful sinfulness of His people. The tables of stone in the ark "testified" to the righteous demands of the former, while they also witnessed in a condemnatory manner unto the latter. Thus, the meeting which God's people were to have with Him in His habitation was not simply for fellowship, but it also bore a prominent respect unto sins on their part (against which the law was ever testifying) and the means provided for their restoration to His favor and blessing.
"By the Law is the knowledge of sin" and Israel's sense of their shortcomings would be in exact proportion to the insight they obtained of its true spiritual meaning and scope. The numerous restrictions and services of a bodily kind which were imposed by the Levitical statutes, speaking (symbolically) as they did of holiness and sin, must have produced deeper impressions of guilt in those who honestly listened to them. "The law entered that the offence might abound" (Rom. 5:20); for while the ceremonial statutes were bidding men to abstain from sin, they were at the same time multiplying the occasions of offense. They made things to be sins which were not so before, or in their own nature''as the prohibition from certain foods, the touching of a carcass, manufacturing the anointing oil for personal use, and so forth. Thus it increased the number of transgressions and the burden upon the conscience.
Two things were thus outstandingly taught the Israelites. First, the ineffable holiness of God and the exalted standard of purity up to which He required His people to measure. Second, their own utter sinfulness, continually failing at some point or other to meet the divine requirements. To the thoughtful mind it must have appeared that there was a struggle which was continually being waged between God's holiness and the sinfulness of His creatures. And what would be the immediate outcome? Why, the oftener they were oppressed by a sense of guilt, the oftener would they resort to the blood of atonement. Necessarily so, for until sin was remitted and defilement removed they could not enter the holy habitation and commune with the Lord. How strikingly all of this finds its counterpart in the experience of the Christian! The more he is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the more does he perceive his vileness and what a complete failure he is; and then the more is he made to appreciate the precious blood of Christ which "cleanseth from all sin."
Having viewed the tabernacle as "the tent of witness," a brief word now on it as "the tent of meeting." It was the place where God met with His people, and where they were permitted to draw nigh unto Him. This received its typical realization, first in Christ personally, when He "became flesh and tabernacled among us" (John 1:14), for in Him "dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). But second, it finds its realization in Christ mystical, for as the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ, so again He dwells in the church of true believers as His "fullness" (Eph. 1:23). The dwelling of God in the man Christ Jesus was not for Himself alone, but as the medium of intercourse between God and the church, and therefore is the church called "the house of God" (1 Tim. 3:15) or "his habitation through the Spirit" (Eph. 2:21, 22). Thus the grand truth symbolized of old in the tabernacle and temple receives its antitypical realization not in Christ apart, but in Christ as the head of His redeemed, for through Him they have access to the Father Himself.
Seventh, the significance of the promised land. Canaan was the type of heaven, and therefore the constitution appointed for those who were to occupy it was framed with a view of rendering the affairs of time an image of eternity. The representation was, of course, imperfect, as was everything connected with the Mosaic economy, and rendered the more so by the failure of the people. Nevertheless, there was a real and discernible likeness furnished of the true, and it had been far more so had Israel's history approximated more closely to the ideal. Canaan was (as heaven is) the inheritance and home of God's redeemed. It was there Jehovah had His abode. It was the place of life and blessing (the land of "milk and honey"), and therefore death was regarded as abnormal and treated as a pollution. The inheritance was inalienable or untransferable; for if an Israelite sold his land, it reverted back to him at the jubilee.
"Canaan stood to the eye of faith the type of heaven; and the character and condition of its inhabitants should have presented the image of what theirs shall be who have entered on the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The condition of such, we are well assured, shall be all blessedness and glory. The region of their inheritance shall be Immanuel's land, where the vicissitudes of evil and the pangs of suffering shall be alike unknown''where everything shall reflect the effulgent glory of its Divine Author, and streams of purest delight shall be ever flowing to satisfy the souls of the redeemed. But it is never to be forgotten that their condition shall be thus replenished with all that is attractive and good, because their character shall first have become perfect in holiness. No otherwise than as conformed to Christ's image can they share with Him in His inheritance" (P. Fairbairn). Hence, God's demand that Israel should be a holy and obedient people; and hence their banishment from Canaan when they apostatized.
In concluding this chapter let us pause and admire that wondrous comingling of justice and mercy, law and grace, holiness and leniency which was displayed throughout the Mosaic economy. This marvel of divine wisdom''for there is nothing that can be compared with it in all the productions of man''appears at almost every point. We see it in the "adding" of the Sinaitic covenant to the Abrahamic (Gal. 3:19); for whereas promises predominated in the one, precepts were more conspicuous in the other. We see it in God's delivering Israel from the bondage of Egypt and then taking them into His own service. We see it in the giving of the ceremonial law as a supplement to the moral. We see it in the fact that while the Levitical institutions were constantly emphasizing the purity which Jehovah required from His people, condemning all that was contrary thereto, yet means were provided for the promotion of the same and the removal of impurities. The whole is well summed up in "The law was given that grace might be sought; grace was given that the law might be fulfilled" (Augustine).
The entire ritual of the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), which manifested the ground on which Jehovah dwelt in the midst of His people''the maintenance of His honor and the removal of their guilt made it very evident that sin is a most solemn and serious matter, and that there was no hope for the guilty except on a footing of pure grace. Yet it just as clearly demonstrated the fact that sovereign mercy was exercised in a way that conserved the supremacy of the law. What else was the obvious meaning of Aaron's sprinkling the blood of atonement upon the very cover of the ark wherein were preserved the tables of stone (Lev. 16:14)? Each time Israel's high priest entered the holy of holies, the people were impressively taught that in the enjoyment of their national privileges their sinful condition was not lost sight of and that it was in no disregard of the law that they were so highly favored; for its just demands were satisfied by the blood of an innocent victim. Thus, the true object of all God's gracious conduct toward His people was to make them holy, delighting, after the inward man, in His law.
In bringing to a close these chapters on the Sinaitic covenant we propose to review the ground which has been covered, summarize the various aspects of truth which have been before us, and endeavor to further clarify one or two points which may not yet be quite clear to the interested reader. We began this study by asking a number of questions which we will now repeat and briefly answer.
"What was the precise nature of the covenant which God entered into with Israel at Sinai?" It was an arrangement or constitution which pertained to them as a nation, and was for the regulation of their religious, political, and social life. "Did it concern only their temporal welfare as a nation, or did it also set forth God's requirements for the individual's enjoyment of eternal blessings?" The latter; for the substance of the covenant was according to the unchanging principles on which God's throne is founded: none but those who are partakers of the divine holiness and are conformed to the divine righteousness can commune with God and dwell with Him forever. "Was a radical change now made in God's revelations to men and what He demanded of them?" No, for it had for its foundation the everlasting covenant of grace, while in substance it was a renewal of the Adamic covenant of works. Moreover, as we have shown, the Sinaitic transaction must not be considered as an isolated event, but as an appendage to the Abrahamic covenant, the ends of which it was designed to carry forward to their accomplishment.
In saying that the Mosaic economy was founded upon the everlasting covenant of grace, we mean that it was owing to the eternal compact which the three Persons of the Godhead had made with the Mediator, Christ Jesus, that the Lord dealt with Israel in pure grace when He delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and brought them unto Himself. When we say that in substance it was a renewal of the Adamic covenant of works, we mean that Israel was placed under the same law (in principle) as the federal head of the race was, and that as Adam's continued enjoyment of Eden was contingent upon his obedience. In saying that the Sinaitic constitution was an appendage to the Abrahamic covenant, we mean that it gathered up into itself the primordial and patriarchal institutions''the sabbath, sacrifices, circumcision''while it added a multitude of new ordinances which, though in themselves "weak and beggarly elements," were both instructive symbols and typical prefigurations of future spiritual blessings.
"Was an entirely different 'way of salvation' now introduced?" Most certainly not. Salvation has always been by grace through faith, never on the ground of works, but always producing good works. When Jude says that he proposed to write of "the common salvation" (v. 3), he signified that the saints of all ages have participated in the same salvation. The regenerated in Israel looked beyond the sign to the thing signified and saw in the shadow a figure of the substance, and obtained through Christ acceptance with God. Every aspect of the cardinal truth of justification is found in the Psalms just as it is set forth in the New Testament. First, the same confession of sin and depravity (Ps. 14:1). Second, the same acknowledgment of guilt and ill-desert (Ps. 40:12, 13). Third, the same fear of God's righteous judgment (Ps. 6:1). Fourth, the same sense of inevitable condemnation on the ground of God's law (Ps. 143:2). Fifth, the same cry for undeserved mercy (Ps. 51:1). Sixth, the same faith in God's revealed character as a just God and Savior (Ps. 25:8). Seventh, the same hope of mercy through redemption (Ps. 130:7). Eighth, the same pleading of God's name (Ps. 15:11). Ninth, the same trust in another righteousness than his own (Ps. 71:16; 84:9). Tenth, the same love for the Son (Ps. 2:12). Eleventh, the same joy and peace in believing (Ps. 89:15, 16). Twelfth, the same assurance in God's faithfulness to fulfill His promises (Ps. 89:1, 2). Let the reader carefully ponder these passages from the Psalms, and he will discover the gospel itself in all its essential elements.
"Wherein is the Sinaitic covenant related to the others, particularly to the everlasting covenant of grace and the Adamic covenant of works? ''was it in harmony with the former or a renewal of the latter?" These questions raise an issue which presents the chief difficulty to be elucidated. In seeking its solution, several vital and basic considerations must needs be steadily borne in mind, otherwise a one-sided view of it is bound to lead to an erroneous conclusion. Those important considerations include the relation which the Sinaitic compact bore to the Abrahamic covenant; the distinction which must be drawn between the relation that existed between Jehovah and the nation at large, and between Jehovah and the spiritual remnant in it; and the contribution which God designed the Mosaic economy should make toward paving the way for the advent of Christ and the establishment of Christianity.
Now the Holy Spirit has Himself graciously made known to us in Galatians 3 the relation which the Sinaitic covenant sustained to the Abrahamic. The latter did not, "cannot disannul" the former (v. 17), it was "added" thereto (v. 19), it is "not against" it (v. 21), it had a gracious design (vv. 23, 24). It was "added" not by way of amendment or alteration, not to discredit it, nor to be blended with it as water may be mixed with wine; no, it still remained subservient to the promises made to Abraham concerning his seed. And yet it was not set up by itself alone, but was brought in as a necessary appendix, which clearly proves that God gave Israel the law with an evangelical design and purpose.
"It was added because of transgressions," which probably has a double reference. First, because sin was then so rampant in the world, and Israel had acquired so many of the ways of the heathen during their long sojourn in Egypt, the law (both moral and ceremonial) was formally given at Sinai to serve as a restraint, and preserve a pure seed till the Messiah appeared. Second, in order to convict Israel of their guilt and convince them of the need of another righteousness than their own, thus preparing their hearts for Christ. If I preach the law to the unsaved, showing its spirituality and the breadth of its requirements, pressing upon them the justice of its demands, proving they are under its righteous condemnation, and all of this with the object of driving them out of themselves to Christ, then I make a right and legitimate service of the law. I "use it lawfully" (1 Tim. 1:8) and do not pit it against the gospel.
In the historical order and dispensational relation between the Abrahamic and Sinaitic covenants we see again that marvel of divine wisdom which conjoins such opposites as law and grace, justice and mercy, requirement and provision. The fact that the latter was "added" to the former, shows that the one was not set aside or ignored by the other, but was acknowledged in its unimpaired validity. Now under the Abrahamic covenant, as we saw when examining the same, there was a striking conjunction of grace and law, yet the former more largely predominated''as is evident from the frequent references to the "promises" (Gal. 3:7, 8, 16, 18, 21) and from the "preached before the gospel to Abraham" (Gal. 3:8); so too under the Mosaic economy grace and law were both exhibited, yet the latter was far more conspicuous''as is clear from the contrast drawn in "for the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ."
The Sinaitic covenant was supplementary and subsidiary to the Abrahamic, serving to promote both its natural and spiritual ends. Its object was not to convey, but to direct life. Its immediate design was to make clear to Abraham's seed how it behooved them to act toward God and toward each other, as a chosen generation, as the people of Jehovah. It made evident the character and conduct required from those who were partakers of the grace revealed in the promises. It made manifest the all-important principle that redemption carries in its bosom a conformity to the divine will, and that only when the soul really responds to the righteousness of heaven is the work of redemption completed. It trained the mind and stimulated the conscience of the regenerate unto a more enlightened apprehension of the mercy revealed, and which its instituted symbols served more fully to explain.
It was grace alone which delivered Israel from Egypt, but as God's acknowledged people they were going to occupy for their inheritance that land which the Lord claimed as more peculiarly His own. They must go there, then, as (typically, at least) partakers of His holiness, for thus alone could they either glorify His name or enjoy His blessings. Hence the holiness of Israel was the common end aimed at in all the Levitical institutions under which they were placed. Take, for example, the laver, at which the priests (under pain of death: Exodus 30:20, 21) were always required to wash their hands and feet before either serving at the altar or entering the tabernacle. That was symbolical of the inward purity which God required. The psalmist clearly intimates this, and shows he held it to be no less applicable to himself, when he says, "I will wash mine hands in innocency; so will I compass thine altar, O Lord" (26:6). That he spoke of no bodily ablution, but of the state of his heart and conduct, is evident from the whole tenor of the psalm.
By undeserved and sovereign goodness the Israelites were chosen to be the people of God, and their obedience to the law was never intended to purchase immunities or advantages not already theirs. Such an idea is preposterous. No, their obedience simply preserved to them the possession of what God had previously bestowed. The moral law made known the character and conduct which He required from His children (Deut. 14:1). That it revealed to them their shortcomings and convicted them of their depravity, only served to make the spiritually minded seek more earnestly fresh supplies of grace and be increasingly thankful for the provisions of mercy supplied for the removal of their sins and maintenance of fellowship with the Lord.
In requiring the guilty Israelite to lay his hand on the head of the sacrificial victim (Lev. 4:24), it was plainly taught that the worshiper could never approach God in any other character than that of a sinner, and by no other way than through the shedding of blood. On the annual Day of Atonement the people were required to "afflict their souls" (Lev. 16:29). The same principle is equally applicable under the new covenant era: the atonement of Christ becomes available to the sinner only as he approaches it with heartfelt convictions of sin, and with mingled sorrow and confidence disburdens himself of the whole accumulation of guilt at the foot of the cross. Repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ must grow and work together in the experience of the soul.
What has been said in the last eight paragraphs is all fairly obvious and simple, for it finds its exact counterpart in the New Testament. Everything connected with the earthly and temporal inheritance of Israel was so ordered as to plainly exhibit those principles by which God alone confers upon His people the tokens of His favor. God's ways with Israel on earth were designed to disclose the path to heaven. True obedience is possible only as the effect of sovereign grace in redemption. But grace reigns "through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21), and never at the expense of it; and therefore are the redeemed placed under the law as their rule of life. It is perfectly true that the gospel contains far higher examples of the morality enjoined in the law than any to be found in the Old Testament, and provides much more powerful motives for exercising the same; but that is a very different thing from maintaining that the morality itself is higher or essentially more perfect.
But the real problem confronts us when we consider the relation of the law to the great masses of the unregenerate in Israel. Manifestly it sustained an entirely different relation to them than it did to the spiritual remnant. They, as the fallen descendants of Adam, were born under the covenant of works (i.e., bound by its inexorable requirements), which they, in the person of their federal head, had broken; and therefore they lay under its curse. And the giving of the moral law at Sinai was well calculated to impress this solemn truth on them, showing that the only way of escape was by availing themselves of the provisions of mercy in the sacrifices''just as the only way for the sinner now to obtain deliverance from the law's condemnation is for him to flee to Christ. But the spiritual remnant, though under the law as a rule of life, participated in the mercy contained in the Abrahamic promises, for in all ages God has been administering the everlasting covenant of grace when dealing with His elect.
This twofold application of the law, as it related to the mass of the unregenerate and the remnant of the regenerate, was significantly intimated in the double giving of the law. The first time Moses received the tables of stone from the hands of the Lord (Ex. 32:15, 16), they were broken by him on the mount''symbolizing the fact that Israel lay under the condemnation of a broken law. But the second time Moses received the tables (Ex. 34:1), they were deposited in the ark and covered with the mercy-seat (Ex. 40:20), which was sprinkled by the atoning blood (Lev. 16:14) ''adumbrating the truth that saints are sheltered (in Christ) from its accusations and penalty. "The Law at Sinai was a covenant of works to all the carnal descendants of Abraham, but a rule of life to the spiritual. Thus, like the pillar of cloud, the law had both a bright and a dark side to it" (Thomas Bell, 1814, The Covenants).
The predication made by Thomas Bell and others that the covenant of works was renewed at Sinai, requires to be carefully qualified. Certainly God did not promulgate the law at Sinai with the same end and use as in Eden, so that it was strictly and solely a covenant of works; for the law was most surely given to Israel with a gracious design. It was in order to impress them with a sense of the holiness and justice of Him with whom they had to do, with the spirituality and breadth of the obedience which they owed to Him, and this, for the purpose of convicting them of the multitude and heinousness of their sins, of the utter impossibility of becoming righteous by their own efforts, or escaping from the divine wrath, except by availing themselves of the provisions of His mercy; thus shutting them up to Christ.
The double bearing of the Mosaic law upon the carnal in Israel, and then upon the spiritual seed, was mystically anticipated and adumbrated in the history of Abraham''the progenitor of the one and the spiritual father (pattern) of the other. Promise was made to Abraham that he should have a son, yet at first it was not so clearly revealed by whom the patriarch was to have issue. Sarah, ten years after the promise, counseled Abraham to go in to Hagar, that by her she might have children (Gen. 16:3). Thus, though by office only a servant, Hagar was (wrongfully) taken into her mistress's place. This prefigured the carnal Jews' perversion of the Sinaitic covenant, putting their trust in the subordinate precept instead of the original promise. Israel followed after righteousness, but did not obtain it, because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law (see Rom. 9:32, 33; 10:2, 3). They called Abraham their father (John 8:39), yet trusted in Moses (John 5:45). After all his efforts, the legalist can only bring forth an Ishmael''one rejected of God''and not as Isaac!
When Thomas Bell insisted that the Sinaitic covenant must be a renewal of the covenant of works (though subservient to the Abrahamic) because it was not the covenant of grace, and "there is no other," he failed to take into account the unique character of the Jewish theocracy. That it was unique is clear from this one fact alone, that all of Abraham's natural descendants were members of the theocracy, whereas only the regenerate belong to the body of Christ. The Sinaitic covenant formally and visibly manifested God's kingdom on earth, for His throne was so established over Israel that Jehovah became known as "King in Jeshurun" (Deut. 33:5), and in consequence thereof Israel became in a political sense "the people of God," and in that character He became "their God." We read of "the commonwealth (literally "polity") of Israel" (Eph. 2:12), by which we are to understand its whole civil, religious, and national fabric.
That commonwealth was purely a temporal and external one, being an economy "after the law of a carnal commandment" (Heb. 7:16). There was nothing spiritual, strictly speaking, about it. It had a spiritual meaning when looked at in its typical character; but taken in itself, it was merely temporal and earthly. God did not, by the terms of the Sinaitic constitution, undertake to write the law on their hearts, as He does now under the new covenant. As a kingdom or commonwealth, Israel was a theocracy; that is, God Himself directly ruled over them. He gave them a complete body of laws by which they were to regulate all their affairs, laws accompanied with promises and threatenings of a temporal kind. Under that constitution, Israel's continued occupation of Canaan and the enjoyment of their other privileges depended on obedience to their King.
Returning to the questions raised at the beginning of this section, "Was the Sinaitic covenant a simple or mixed one: did it have only a letter significance pertaining to earthly things, or a 'spirit' as well, pertaining to heavenly things?" This has just been answered in the last two paragraphs; a "letter" only when viewed strictly in connection with Israel as a nation; but a "spirit" also when considered typically of God's people in general. "What specific contribution did it make unto the progressive unfolding of the divine plan and purpose?" In addition to all that has been said on this point in previous chapters, we will now, in closing, answer by pointing out how that further details of the everlasting covenant which God made with Christ were therein strikingly adumbrated.
By making the Sinaitic covenant with the nation of Israel, the Church of Christ was there prefigured in its corporate character.
By treating through Moses in all his dealings with Israel, God signified that we receive all His blessings through "the mediator of the better covenant" (Heb. 8:6).
By first redeeming Israel from Egypt and then placing them under the law, God intimated that His grace reigns "through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21).
By taking upon Himself the office of king (Deut. 33:5), God showed that He requires implicit submission (obedience) from His people.
By setting up the tabernacle in Israel's midst, God revealed that place of nearness to Himself into which He has brought us.
By the various institutions of the ceremonial law, we learn that "without holiness no man shall see the Lord."
By bringing Israel into the land of Canaan, God supplied an image of our heavenly inheritance.