It’s interesting to me how we (and I definitely include myself) often read scripture. One concept can easily override another. For example, I recall a conversation in which someone was claiming that no human being was ever righteous. I brought up Job, who is described as righteous in Job 1. “Oh, but that is only as he was seen through the righteousness of Christ,” I was told. Of course, Job 1 isn’t speaking of the righteousness of Christ, and in fact the entire book would be very silly with that change. Job is concerned that he has been punished, but that nothing he has done deserves these results.
This post is a follow-up to Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last, and you should read that post first.
It’s funny that I begin this post with an illustration from Job, because Job provides a counterpoint to the theology I’m looking at. Jeremiah 18, which I cited in the previous post, talks about how if God is sending disaster, and the recipients of the disaster repent, God will repent of that disaster. One implication that might be drawn is that good deeds result in blessing, and bad deeds result in curses. One need look no further than Deuteronomy 28 to find this theology made explicit, and it is repeatedly hammered in through the various books of the Deuteronomic history.
But what I’m more interested in here is the interactive nature of the texts, the way in which people’s actions are woven in with God’s will with the implication that you can change the future. Even if God has said things will go one way, that might be changed through human action.
In theology we tend to reconcile the differences in some way. God might only appear to react to the actions of humans, but he actually knows precisely what is coming and he does precisely what he planned. It may be considered blasphemous to suggest otherwise. But open theism and process theology both suggest that God is more interactive than traditional theology holds, though to different degrees and in different ways.
My interest here is in the way we read the biblical text, and the way that we understand prophecy and its fulfilment. I’ll get to the covenants shortly.
Imagine a father who tells his children that he will take them all to the movies in the evening. Now think about the father’s mental processes. Did he suddenly realize that in the fixed future he would have taken his children to the movies, and thus he informed them of this information he had received (or divined, perhaps)? Or did he decide at this moment that he wanted to take his children to the movies, and that he would, in fact, do so this very evening?
Given that this human father does not know the future, such as to see himself taking future action, we’ll have to assume the latter. He makes a decision in the present, and he announces it to his children by saying, “I’m going to take you to the movies.” At the point at which he makes that statement it’s true. Being an optimistic sort, this particular father doesn’t think of all the possible reasons he might not make it or might change his mind. He just says he’s going.
Let’s imagine now that the children, having heard of their good fortune, decide that nothing else matters. They fail to do their chores. They ignore their mother. The fail to put away their toys. They say unfortunate things. In fact, they generally make life miserable for their parents.
Now the father says, “Because you have been misbehaving, we are not going to the movies any more.” Does this make his earlier statement a lie? It was true (at least in intent) when he said it, but it does not actually take place.
My suggestion is that prophecies are more like this father’s statement than they are like scenes which one might see in a crystal ball. (If crystal balls worked, which they don’t!) When God says “Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days,” he doesn’t mean that he has observed the future and seen that this happens, but rather that he intends, in 40 days, to destroy Nineveh. That’s clearly the way the Ninevites understand it. It’s the way Jonah is afraid it’s going to work.
I’m not certain how much difference there is between these two ways of thinking when it is God making the promises or predictions. It makes a great deal of difference in the way we think about what God has to say.
Now we come to covenant, and I’d like to call our attention to Jeremiah 31:31-34:
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (NRSV)
(Note: I would use “lawful lord” rather than “husband” in this passage, but that gets beyond the scope of this blog post.)
There are a few things to notice about this passage. First, the covenant came with promises (or are they predictions?). Does this make a difference? There are conditions. It is by violating these conditions that the covenant is broken. Once broken, the covenant is not in effect.
Then comes the unheard of grace—a new covenant. It’s not a restoration of an old covenant. That one has been broken, and as we learned in Psalm 89, no matter what we do we cannot make the promises “have been” fulfilled, because they weren’t. David’s throne was removed. There was no one sitting on it. No amount of restoration years later can make what did not happen happen. Instead, there’s a new covenant. God is now on plan B, unless it’s plan C or D and we didn’t realize it. But at least it’s not plan A.
And this is where Christians can go off the rail, especially considering how much this passage is used in the book of Hebrews. The easy Christian solution is to assume that the new covenant that God created is a covenant with the church. And I believe that God does indeed have a new covenant with the church.
But having a covenant with his people the church does not really fulfil the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34, because there he says that a day is coming when he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That precludes one set of ideas, specifically that the church replaces Israel, and that Israel as such is no longer a player.
But on the other hand we have the view that everything said in the old covenant, the one that was broken, must still be fulfilled. That is not, in my view, scripturally justified. In fact, that is to make the same mistake as those Jeremiah mentioned (7:1-20) who kept repeating: “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” God calls attention immediately to Shiloh which had once been the seat of God’s tabernacle, but which had not done so well.
So it’s now plan B, or perhaps plan C. (Shiloh?) How do we know the form that God’s blessing will take? Perhaps no eye has seen it nor any ear heard it, nor has it entered into any human heart (1 Cor. 2:9).