Generally speaking, a covenant is a promise between two or more parties to perform certain actions. The word can also be used as a verb as in “We covenant to work together on this project until it is finished.” A covenant is very similar to a promise.
The concept of covenant is significant in the Scriptures. In fact, the word testament is really another word for covenant. The Bible is comprised of two parts, the Old Covenant and the New Covenant (Old Testament and New Testament). Covenant was a well-known concept in ancient times, and covenants could be made between two equal parties or between a king and a subject. The king would promise certain protections, and the subject would promise loyalty to the king. A covenant might be conditional or unconditional.
The Old Testament is more than a history of Israel. It is really a history of the covenant in which God revealed, little by little, His character and His plans and purposes for mankind. Most Bible scholars recognize several major covenants in the Old Testament in which God promises to do something.
After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah that He would never again destroy the world by a flood, and He also gave some basic principles for humanity to live by (Genesis 8:20—9:17). Although humanity soon descended into rampant disobedience once again, the promise not to destroy the earth by another flood was unconditional.
God made a covenant with Abraham in which He promised, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1–3). This covenant was reiterated in Genesis 15 and 17. This was also an unconditional covenant.
God made a covenant with Israel regarding their use of the Promised Land (Exodus 19—24). The land had been given to Abraham’s descendants unconditionally; however, the use of the land by any specific generation of Israelites was conditional upon their obedience. As a result, at times they lived in the land but were oppressed and not able to enjoy the full benefits of it, as seen in the book of Judges. Later, the Israelites were exiled from the land due to their disobedience and idolatry. However, even though one generation was disobedient, God promised to bring a later generation back to the land (Isaiah 11:11–12). He kept His word, as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah.
God made a covenant with David that he would have a descendant who would sit on his throne forever (2 Samuel 7). This was an unconditional covenant, although the length of reign for any specific Davidic ruler could be limited by his disobedience. Solomon’s son Rehoboam lost a large part of the kingdom due to his foolish choices. This covenant is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Son of David.
In Jeremiah 31, God promised a New Covenant with Israel. Israel repeatedly violated the terms of all the previous covenants, but God promised this would be different because the hearts of the people would be changed so they would want to be faithful. This is fulfilled in the New Testament with the coming of Christ and the indwelling and empowering of the Holy Spirit, who gives the people of God the desire to obey Him. What was a surprise to some is that Gentiles were also included in this covenant.
The concept of covenant has been lost in modern society. Promises are broken when new circumstances arise. Contracts are broken, and one party simply says, “Sue me.” Marriage is supposed to be a covenant between a man and a woman for life, but divorce is commonplace today. Regardless of how unfaithful people may be, God will never be unfaithful to His covenant promises.