God of the Covenant
But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.
In the middle of the verses covered by our last study a term was introduced that is so important in biblical theology that we must pause to look at it. It is the term covenant. It occurs here for the first time in the Bible. After this it is used frequently. In all, it is found 253 times in the Old Testament and twenty times in the New Testament. Many of these references are to the ark of the covenant that stood at the heart of Israel’s worship. Other texts speak of specific covenants established by God with such persons as Abraham, Moses, and David. Our text speaks of God’s covenant with Noah: “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you.”
What is a covenant? A covenant is a promise. It has been defined more elaborately, of course—and rightly so. The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge defines it as “a promise suspended upon a condition, and attached to disobedience a certain penalty.” O. Palmer Robertson calls it “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”2 These definitions are right, but basically a covenant is a promise of God to people with whom he is dealing in a special way.
When we say that Genesis 6:18 is the first verse in the Bible to contain the word “covenant” we do not mean thereby that it is the first place in the Bible where the idea of a covenant occurs. Charles Hodge, whom we have just mentioned (like many Reformed theologians before and after him), finds the essential doctrines of salvation in a contrast between two main covenants, entitled the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. In this system the covenant of works is seen to have been established by God with Adam, the conditions being that if Adam obeyed God in the matter of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thus continued in holiness, he would continue to enjoy that life that flows from God’s favor. But if he disobeyed by eating of the tree and thus lost that holiness, he would die. This covenant was established with Adam on behalf of all his descendants with the result that, when Adam exploited his option by sinning, the punishment of death passed not merely to him but to the entire human race.
In contrast to this covenant, Hodge and other Reformed theologians speak of a covenant of grace being established by God the Father with the Lord Jesus Christ according to which, on condition of Christ’s perfect obedience both in life and unto death, God would save an innumerable company from among Adam’s fallen family. Hodge distinguishes a covenant of redemption, established between the Father and the Son, and a covenant of grace, established between God and his people; but these are essentially part of one thing. The real contrast is between the covenant of works, through which no one will be saved and in accordance with which all are rather condemned, and the covenant of grace, through which those who are united to Christ are delivered.
In Robertson’s treatment the matter is more carefully subdivided. He distinguishes between an initial covenant of creation and a subsequent covenant of redemption, the essential distinction Hodge makes in his discussion of the covenants of works and grace. But Robertson further subdivides the covenant of redemption into specific covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ. These are called covenants of commencement, preservation, promise, law, kingdom, and consummation respectively.
Whatever way we treat the covenants, the point is clear. God is not introducing a new way of dealing with people at this point of the Genesis account but is merely making explicit what has already been implicit in his dealings with Adam and the other antediluvian figures. In particular, God had already revealed the basic ingredient of the new covenant of redemption (or grace), for in his judgment on the serpent he had promised a deliverer to come: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). The patriarchs of this period, including Noah, lived by faith in that promise. So when God now establishes a further, explicit covenant with Noah, we are to understand it as an elaboration of principles that had already been revealed.
Promise to Preserve
The promise of God to Noah is of quite broad extent and will be considered more fully when we get to the later passages that deal with it. This is the first; but there are four blocks of material in all (the latter three run together): Genesis 6:18; 8:20–22; 9:1–7; and 9:8–17. The later passages deal with God’s promise never again to curse the ground for man’s sin, the institution of capital punishment, and the specific reiteration of the covenant made with Noah and his family in which the sign of the covenant, the rainbow, is given. This last passage is really the fulfillment of the promise in our text: “Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: ‘I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that was with you—the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you—every living creature on earth. I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ ”
Since this is the first explicit mention of a covenant in Scripture we should expect to find the essential features of God’s covenants made clear. This is exactly what we do find. There are several elements.
The first important feature of the covenants established by God is precisely that: they are established by God and not by man. This means—to use the technical word—that they are unilateral. Each of the covenants has the nature of an agreement; we must recognize this. But we must also recognize that they are not established in the way similar agreements might be reached between human beings. If people enter into an agreement to sell and buy a house, for example, the parties involved first have to sit down and agree to the terms. How much will be paid for the house? What will the payment cover—fixtures? appliances? carpeting? drapes? When will the house be available? When must the money be paid? Since both parties must agree to the answers to those and similar questions, in deciding these matters a certain amount of bargaining may take place. There can be trade-offs, compromises. Or the agreement can fall through. This is true of nearly any human agreement. But at this point the covenants established by God are quite different. God does not bargain. He does not compromise on terms. On the contrary, he merely announces what those terms are. This is what we mean when we say that the covenants of God are unilateral.
What were the terms of the covenant established with Noah? Essentially there were two. First, God established the means by which those who were to be saved from the flood should be saved, namely, the ark. Second, God determined who should be saved by that means, namely, Noah and his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives—eight persons. Noah did not debate these arrangements. He was not given the opportunity to do so.
The world does not like this kind of dealing, of course. The world is opposed to God’s will, and the establishing of his will in this way seems to it to be arbitrary, autocratic, and insufferable. This is not the way God’s people view the unilateral nature of God’s promises. They rejoice, knowing that if God makes the terms, then the terms will be perfect. If we get into the action, we are certain to mess things up. Again, when God establishes a covenant, it is never to discourage us but to encourage us to do good works. In Noah’s case, the promises of God were an incentive for him to keep working during the many long years the ark was being built.
Calvin, who undoubtedly sympathized with Noah in this respect due to his own long years of turmoil and service on behalf of the Reformation, wrote of the value of such promises: “Since the construction of the ark was very difficult, and innumerable obstacles might perpetually arise to break off the work when begun, God confirms his servant by a superadded promise. Thus was Noah encouraged to obey God. … Let us therefore know, that the promises of God alone, are they which quicken us, and inspire each of our members with vigor to yield obedience to God: but that without these promises, we not only lie torpid in indolence, but are almost lifeless, so that neither hands nor feet can do their duty. And hence, as often as we become languid, or more remiss than we ought to be, in good works, let the promises of God recur to us, to correct our tardiness.”
The second feature of God’s covenants is that they are eternal. That is, God does not begin to do something in one way and then suddenly change his mind and begin to do something else or do it in a different way. He knows his plan from the beginning, announces it clearly, and then does exactly what he has promised. This aspect of the covenant is particularly emphasized in Noah’s case. It is emphasized in regard to God’s promise never again to curse the ground and destroy its creatures: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22). It is emphasized by the giving of the rainbow as a sign: “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth” (Gen. 9:12–16).
I am impressed at this point with how different God’s promises are from human promises. We say, “An honest man’s word is as good as his bond,” but we know either that this is not true or that no one living is truly honest. People do break promises. When the Roman author Syrus Pubilius wrote, “Never promise more than you can perform,” he was recognizing that people often do promise more than they perform and that their promises are therefore often quite worthless. George Chapman said, “Promise is most given when the least is said.” Thomas Fuller observed, “A man apt to promise is apt to forget.” William Hazlitt said cynically, “Some persons make promises for the pleasure of breaking them.”
How different is God! At the time of the dedication of the Jewish temple, King Solomon blessed the people, saying, “Praise be to the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses” (1 Kings 8:56). We say, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ. And so through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 1:20).
This leads us to note that there are indeed many biblical promises, each of which is in a sense God’s covenant with those who believe these promises and act on them. There are promises for every circumstance of life.
When I first went to France during my high school years I stayed in the home of a lovely French woman who told a story from her youth. She had been led to Christ by Donald Grey Barnhouse during his early ministry in France and through her friendship with him was introduced to what the Barnhouse family called a promise box. It was a small box containing about two hundred tiny rolls of paper on which promises from the Bible had been written. The Barnhouses used to take one out whenever they needed a special word of comfort. This appealed to their young French friend. So she made a promise box herself, writing out all these same promises in French.
The time came when World War II swept over the European continent and France was particularly affected. The people struggled to live. At times, particularly toward the end of the war, food ran short, and the time came when this woman had no food for her family except a mass of potato peelings from a restaurant. Her children were emaciated. They were crying for food. She was desperate. In this tragic moment she remembered the promise box and turned to it, praying, “Lord, O Lord, I have such great need. Is there a promise here that is really for me? Show me, O Lord, what promise I can have in this time of famine, nakedness, peril and sword.” She was crying by this time, and as she reached for the promise box, blinded by tears, she accidentally knocked it over and all the promises came showering down upon her, into her lap and tumbling to the floor. Not a promise was left in the box. She knew in a moment of great joy that the promises of God were beyond counting, that they were all for her and that they were indeed “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ Jesus.
The final important feature of God’s covenants is that they are established by grace. That is, there is nothing in us to merit them—nothing in Adam, nothing in Noah or Abraham or Moses or David. The only merit anywhere is the merit of Christ, and it is on the basis of his work alone that the benefits of the covenants become ours. It is good that this is the case. If the covenant depended on our works or performance, we would be certain to fail and lose the benefits.
A New Covenant
We must say at this point that there are covenants in the Old Testament, like that made by God with Adam, which are conditional and therefore depend on the obedience of men and women for their fulfillment. The great covenant of Deuteronomy is an example. It was given to the people for the experiencing of God’s blessing in the Promised Land. If they obeyed the Lord and carefully followed all his commands, the result would be peace, prosperity, and blessing. If they disobeyed, there would be judgment (Deuteronomy 27–29). The people did disobey, as we know, and the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities were the result. These covenants showed that it was necessary for the promise of salvation to be on a different footing and prepared the way for the new covenant—the culmination of all the covenants—in Jesus Christ. Jeremiah expressed the need for the new covenant clearly.
“The time is coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant
I made with their forefathers
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.
“This is the covenant I will make with
the house of Israel
after that time,” declares the Lord.
“I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,”
declares the Lord.
“For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”
The author of Hebrews says that this covenant has been established with us through the work of Christ (Heb. 8:1–13; 10:1–18).
And so have all covenants! So has the covenant with Noah. That is why Peter can write as he does in his first letter, saying enigmatically, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:18–22). Peter means that we are saved by our identification with Jesus Christ, just as Noah and his family were saved by being in the ark during the time of the great flood.
This is the only way of salvation for anyone, and we must stand there or fail to stand. Edward Mote’s great hymn puts it well.
His oath, his covenant, his blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
 Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: an expositional commentary (pp. 333–339). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.