A New Covenant

The days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah.--Jeremiah 31:31

David Rice

It is this text from which all discussion of a "new covenant" ultimately derives, for this is the only Old Testament text containing the term. The several New Testament references to "new covenant" or "new testament" are all drawn from this one. ("Testament" and "covenant," wherever they appear in the New Testament, are always translations of the Greek word diatheke except Hebrews 8:6,7,13 and 9:1,18 where the word is absent in the Greek but implied by the context.)

However there are other references in Jeremiah which mean the same thing. Jeremiah 32:40 repeats the thought but uses the term "everlasting covenant" (so Paul used the same term in Hebrews 13:20). In Jeremiah 33:14 the prophet affirms "the days come, saith the Lord, that I will perform that good thing which I have promised unto the house of Israel and to the house of Judah"--clearly meaning the same event, but without repeating the word "covenant." Jeremiah 31:1 says, "At the same time, saith the Lord, will I be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people" (cf. Jeremiah 31:33; 32:38); these words and their subject flow from chapter 30. Evidently, therefore, Jeremiah chapters 30 through 33 are a broad context speaking about the same time and event with different expressions. The full content of these four chapters are helpful in discerning all that the holy spirit intends regarding the fulfillment.

That the promises, blessings and guarantees of these chapters pertain directly to Israel is apparent from the entire context, and the fulfillment should therefore be anticipated with respect to the Israelites.

A Blessing for Israel Still Impending

Israel has already received much blessing at the hand of the Lord. By his providence they have been recovered from every land of their wandering and made an independent state again, in their own land and with their own capital "even in Jerusalem" (Zechariah 12:6). But as Ezekiel 37 depicts the matter, Israel today, as a body reconstituted, is yet without the breath of faith which will enliven them through the experience of the four winds (Ezekiel 37:9). In this episode God will appear to Israel as their deliverer. Then "I will bring you into the bond of the covenant" (Ezekiel 20:37)--not their old covenant which produced death, but a new covenant as specified in Jeremiah 31:31.

This covenant bond between God and Israel, under the leadership of the Ancient Worthies, will produce three benefits as mentioned by Jeremiah.

(1) "After those days [of Israel's infidelity and its consequences], saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people." Rather than a set of commandments on tables of stone, rather than details and particulars inscribed on the book treasured in the ark of the covenant, God will implant the principles of godliness in their hearts, just as Adam at his creation had an impress within, an intuitive sense, of what was right and good in order to regulate his conduct. But with Israel this writing on the heart, when complete, will be more thorough than with Adam because the knowledge of sin will, by contrast, deepen their appreciation for what is right.

They will have an advantage in this direction if through the present life they have respected the old Law because those ordinances contain within them the essence of godliness. The law was "holy, and just, and good" (Romans 7:12), and designed to lead Israel to the perfect one, our Lord Jesus, who fulfilled not only the letter but the wonderful spirit of that Law. The spirit of the old ordinances was so much the spirit of justice, goodness and brotherly conduct, that Jesus summed them up in the words of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:19, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might," and "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37-40).

(2) There will be full instruction about God, so that "they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord." Israel's history under the old covenant was speckled with periods of idolatry, but under this new covenant it will never be so. The entire nation will recognize Jehovah as the one true God, without ambiguity.

(3) There will be full and complete forgiveness of sins. "I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more" (Jeremiah 31:34). As Paul points out, "where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin" (Hebrews 10:18). Sin actually atoned for requires no further expiation. For this same reason the animal sacrifices of old will not be renewed, having been replaced once for all by the realities.

What of the Gentiles?

These are wonderful blessings. With the Law of God implanted in the heart, the knowledge of God in the minds of all, and sins removed, the curse will be lifted and everlasting life will be available. It is a wonderful prospect for Israel. But what of the Gentiles? Not a word is spoken here of them, but other prophecies do include them.

"Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment [even] to the Gentiles . . . I the Lord . . . give thee for a covenant of the people [one who will arrange, secure, produce this covenant for them], for a light of the Gentiles, to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house."--Isaiah 42:1,6,7

Evidently God's covenant with Israel will benefit Gentiles also, and the mechanism is apparent from the arrangement of the Old Covenant. Those who appreciated the God of Israel then could proselyte to the Jewish arrangement, worship Jehovah, and become obedient to the terms of the covenant. So in the kingdom. All will be able to enter this arrangement by receiving God and his son Jesus with mind and heart, and complying with the terms of obedience. "Ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you" (Zechariah 8:23).

A Compatible But Perplexing Text

In his epistle to the Romans Paul addresses the question of the future of Israel in light of the fact that most of Israel failed to receive Messiah at the first advent. He concludes that "the election hath obtained" the chief favor, the spiritual calling, "and the rest were blinded . . . that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in," after which the blinded ones will be recovered (Romans 11:7,25). After all, as concerns God's elect choice, "they are beloved for the fathers' sakes" (verse 28).

As evidence for his conclusion Paul quotes Isaiah 59:20,21 and Isaiah 27:9, but he does not cite either reference except to say "it is written." When he quotes them, he does not distinguish nor separate them in any apparent way. He writes: "There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them [end of the first quote], when I shall take away their sins [end of the second quote]" (Romans 11:26,27). The two texts are run together almost as though they were one or as if the last expression was simply Paul's comment. The matter is further confusing to an English reader because Paul used the (Greek) Septuagint version as his source, which in Isaiah 27:9 differs somewhat from the Hebrew.

With this lack of clarity it may seem to an English reader of Romans 11 that Paul is saying he will make a covenant with Israel when he takes away their sins--especially since Jeremiah 31:31-34 says something similar. But this is not Paul's point. If it were, it would be more exact to say he will take away their sins when he makes his covenant with them, rather than the reverse.

The word "covenant" in this case refers not to the covenant of Jeremiah 31:31, but to God's promise with Israel made in Isaiah 59:21: "As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord [now follows that covenant promise]: My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever." This covenant was a promise God made to Israel more than 2500 years ago, whereas the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:31 on behalf of Israel is still some years ahead.

Another Subtle Distinction

Yet another subtle distinction is involved with the covenant promised in Ezekiel 16. The context is the kingdom because the resurrection of Sodom, Samaria and Judah is specifically referred to in Ezekiel 16:53-55. God says at that time Judah will be ashamed when they compare their sins with those of Sodom and Samaria, but "Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant. Then thou shalt remember thy ways, and be ashamed . . . And I will establish my covenant with thee, and thou shalt know that I am the Lord" (Ezekiel 16:60-62).

Since this is a covenant with Judah in the kingdom--and Jeremiah 31:31 speaks of a covenant with Judah in the kingdom--it is natural to equate the two covenants. But there is a vital distinction. In Jeremiah 31 the covenant is made with Israel and Judah--the combined nation restored--but in Ezekiel the covenant is made with Judah only. The ten-tribe kingdom of Israel, referred to by its capital city Samaria, is one of "thy sisters . . . and I will give them unto thee for daughters" to be nurtured by Judah (Ezekiel 16:61,62,46,55).

It is probably a different perspective regarding God's covenant. Jeremiah regards the matter from the perspective that Israel will be reunited as one entity, including fragments from all 12 tribes. But from another perspective Judah will play a particular role in blessing the others. Indeed, since the return of Israel from Babylonian captivity, Judah has been the dominant tribe; the others have been blessed to the extent they attached themselves to the hopes of the Messiah promised through Judah. Even the name generally used for Israelites today--the Jews--reflects this priority.

This is an example of the flexibility of the Scriptures, considering an issue from slightly different perspectives, to give a fuller view of the matter--something like representing the church as one candlestick with seven branches in the tabernacle, but seven separate candlesticks in Revelation 1:20. It is like showing in Revelation 12 that Papacy secured its position after "the great dragon was cast out" of heaven with great warfare, but expressing in the very next chapter that "the dragon gave [Papacy] his power, and his seat, and great authority" (Revelation 12:9; 13:2)--two diametrically different perspectives, but both containing a point of truth from a different viewpoint. (Compare Luke 9:50 with Luke 11:23 for an even more extreme example.)

One lesson we can infer from this difference of perspective (in Jeremiah 31 as compared to Ezekiel 16) is that the covenant God will enact with Israel is not like the old covenant in this respect--it is not to be an arrangement of details, contracted in a literal way--for that would not allow for the flexibility indicated. The new arrangement is to be one of principles, inculcating the spirit of the Law in the heart, the removal of sin, and the worship of Jehovah and his son Jesus "in spirit and in truth."

A Grand Type of Establishing the Covenant

In volume 4 of Studies in the Scriptures, chapter 16, "The Establishment of the Kingdom, and How it Will Manifest Itself," pages 630 and 631, there is a discussion of the institution of the Law Covenant on Mount Sinai and how it applies to the institution of its replacement, Jeremiah's New Covenant in the kingdom. As there was a great shaking and a trumpet blast then, so in the period introducing the new age and its arrangements there is a great shaking, the "time of trouble," and also the "trump of God," the "last trump," the trumpet of the "seventh angel." All of these scriptural terms relate to the present. As Moses came down from the mount with two tablets of the law and a face beaming with glory so that for practical necessity he had to veil himself to the people, so Christ head and body will figuratively descend from heaven with the law of God to be ministered to and through Israel, but they will be veiled behind the Ancient Worthies who will be the outward representatives of that kingdom.

This picture appeals to us as one intended by the holy spirit, and the ancillary details are supportive of this application. As respects the "veil" representing the flesh (in this case the Ancient Worthies), Song of Solomon 5:7 provides another example (in this case the flesh of the Great Company being put aside as they pass from the scene).

The descent of Moses on the occasion under review was the second time the tablets had been presented, after a second period of 40 days in the mount. The first time Moses had found the people in riot, and dashed the tablets in pieces at the foot of the mount, seeming to show how the Law Covenant was broken through the disobedience of the Jews at the end of the Jewish Age (the first 40 days). Moses ascended the mount again. The succeeding 40 days pictures the Gospel Age during which God's Law is inscribed on the hearts of the saints so that they become living repositories of the Law to be ministered at the second advent.

If this is a correct application, then we can gain a second insight into the flexibility of Scripture by noting that another application of the same episode, quite distinct, is given in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18. There Paul draws a lesson pertaining to his day rather than ours, when the Jews reading the Law of Moses had a figurative "vail . . . upon their heart" preventing them from noticing the diminishing glory of the Law, just as the Israelites seeing the veil over Moses' face could not discern the gradual diminishing of glory occurring behind his veil. (Compare 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 with Exodus 34:29-35 in the NASB version.)

It is well known that prophecies from the Old Testament sometimes have an application at the first advent and another application at the second advent. Psalms 2 and Malachi 4 are two familiar examples. Is it possible that Scriptural pictures such as the one discussed here also have more than one meaning? It seems so. The manna in the wilderness might be another example.

The New Covenant--An Addition to the Abrahamic Covenant

In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar as allegorical of "two covenants" (verse 24), by which he evidently intends the Abrahamic and the Mosaic, which he discussed earlier (Galatians 3:16,17). These apply to the two ages at issue in Paul's day, the Gospel Age and the Jewish Age. Hagar represents the Law which brought forth Israel (Ishmael), and Sarah represents the Covenant with Abraham which brings forth the promised seed, Christ and the Church (Isaac). (Compare Galatians 3:16,29,28-31).

Hagar was never a full wife; she was an addition as it were, for the purpose of bringing forth a child which was highly blessed but was nevertheless not the seed of promise. So the Law was not a replacement for the original Abrahamic Covenant, represented by Sarah, Abraham's full wife, but was merely an addition which brought forth fleshly Israel, who is highly blessed, but nevertheless not the seed of promise.

The Law had an ennobling influence in proportion to the endeavors of the people to observe it, as far as it was within their ability to do so (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). It also served at least two other practical purposes: it demonstrated by its standard the shortcomings of those under it (thus identifying sin, see Galatians 3:19), and at the same time pointed to Jesus as free from transgression.

But the Law could never cure the blight of sin. "If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law"--but no law could do this (Galatians 3:21). There needed to be a savior, a redeemer, a rescuer. That was Jesus, our redeemer and priest, and in the latter capacity we will join him to assist the world in the kingdom. But now a new arrangement, not the particulars of the old, but a new program to effect the deliverance of the race, will be of great advantage in securing the promised blessing of "all the families of the earth." Thus the new covenant is "an arrangement whereby the Abrahamic Covenant will be fulfilled as relates to Israel and to all" (see Reprints, page 5909). It is "a measure for carrying out the blessings purposed in the Abrahamic Covenant" (see Reprints, page 5226).

As such it is also like the Law Covenant it replaces, an addition to the Abrahamic, a "rider" if you will, to effect the benefits Jeremiah stipulates, and thereby effect the blessings promised to Abraham.


Since Sarah and Hagar are allegorical of covenants, a reasonable inquiry is raised concerning Abraham's other wife, Keturah. Paul neither affirms nor denies that she was typical, but the details of the Old Testament narrative give some evidence that she was.

For example, Genesis 24:63-67 closes the account of Isaac receiving his bride Rebecca with a notice of the death of Sarah, as though to say the marriage of Christ and his bride comes in connection with the end of the Sarah covenant. Yet the Abrahamic Covenant does not terminate there. It must also include the blessing of "all the families of the earth" in the kingdom.

Just at this point in the narrative the text says, "Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah." It seems reasonable to suppose that this next full wife represents the remainder of the Abrahamic Covenant.

This means Sarah represented but a portion of the Abrahamic Covenant--the spiritual part--and Keturah represented the remainder--the earthly part. Both are mothers; both show the nurturing function of God's Covenant with Abraham in bringing to life and maturity first the spiritual class, then the earthly.

Technically neither Sarah nor Keturah is the covenant of Jeremiah 31:31. Rather they represent the two parts of the covenant blessings promised to Abraham, the spiritual and the earthly. The Law Covenant was added for its purpose; its replacement, the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31, is added for its purpose--a supplementary arrangement to actually effect the blessings promised.

A Long Discussed Question

There are several other references to the New Covenant in the New Testament. As one reads the references in the book of Hebrews, for example, one gathers the impression that Paul is applying Jeremiah's passage to the age then opening; 2 Corinthians 3:3 compared to Jeremiah 31:33 strengthens this appearance. Yet the Jeremiah passage itself seems to fit in the kingdom; Jeremiah 31:33 compared to Revelation 21:7 strengthens this thought.

Three answers have been proposed. (1) Though the New Testament references seem to fit in the Gospel Age, closer inspection shows otherwise. (2) Though Jeremiah 31 seems to fit in the kingdom, closer inspection shows it to apply to the elect among Israel who received Messiah long ago. (3) Jeremiah 31, like several other Old Testament prophecies, is flexible, so that through the spirit the words of the prophet fit both circumstances. This latter conclusion is reasonable; we note the blessings Jeremiah stipulates are such as are common to the needs in both ages--instilling God's law in the heart, full instruction about God, and release from sin.

Since we receive these benefits now, we have the exceptional privilege of laying down our justified lives in sacrifice with the Lord for the prospect of sharing his glory beyond. If faithful unto death, we shall have the blessed privilege of extending the blessings of God's covenant to and through Israel to all the groaning creation.