Robert Rayburn has some insightful comments on the Davidic Covenant that will be of great benefit to those who have been studying with us over the last several weeks as we’ve explored the covenant in our study of 2 Samuel. I’ve summarized the salient points of Rayburn’s comments on this important text.
Rayburn begins by giving an overall summary of the impact this chapter has on our understanding of the redemptive historical thrust of the Scriptures: “2 Samuel chapter 7 is one of the most important chapters in the OT and in the unfolding history of salvation. It lays the groundwork for a great deal of what is to come and, of course, for our understanding of the predictions of the coming of the Messiah and of the coming of the kingdom of God that litter the Psalms and Prophets and then are cited in reference to the Lord Jesus in the New Testament. The fact that the Messiah would be a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” or that he would be born in Bethlehem or that he would sit on David’s throne all hark back to the promise of God to David in this chapter. If you understand this chapter and can fit it into the Bible’s unfolding plan for salvation and for the history of the world, then you are a biblical theologian!”
Having laid out a basic framework for understanding the text he gives us two main thoughts to meditate on with regard to seeing the ‘big picture’ of the Davidic Covenant. Those thoughts are given below:
“I. First, there is the tension between the absolute and the relative, the unqualified and the qualified in this covenant.
If you read the commentaries, many of them will make a point of saying that, like other ancient near-eastern royalty grants, this covenant is unconditional. They will often claim that 2 Sam. 7 is in the form of an ancient royalty grant and that these were, characteristically, unconditional and absolute. This is often coupled with the view that the Abrahamic covenant was likewise unconditional, unlike the Mosaic covenant, that had conditions attached. That is, it didn’t make any difference what the person did with whom the covenant was made, it would be kept anyway. It didn’t make any difference what David did or his sons did, God would keep his promise anyway!
And, to be sure, here in 2 Sam. 7 no conditions are attached. God will do what he says no matter what, no matter what the king, the descendant of David does. Does he not even say in vv. 14-15 that one of David’s descendants might be a disobedient son, but still God will not remove his love from him? Well, that clearly is the way the text reads.
However, elsewhere there is another side.
1. First, you should know that it is by no means clear that ancient dynastic grants, treaties in which a sovereign bestows the rights of royalty and dynasty on another, were by nature unconditional. The evidence seems to suggest the contrary in fact. It is not clear that there is any such distinction between promissory and conditional treaties and it is certainly clear from biblical evidence that there is no such distinction made between God’s covenant with Abraham and his covenant with Israel at Sinai. Both have promises and both have conditions. “Walk before me and be perfect,” the Lord told Abraham. And later in Genesis, on several occasions, the Lord says that he brought his promises to pass for Abraham because Abraham had trusted and obeyed the Lord.
2. But, what is more important in the immediate context of 2 Sam. 7 is that elsewhere conditions are clearly assumed to have been attached to this covenant. For example, listen to what the Lord says to Solomon after David’s son had assumed the throne.
“As for you, if you walk before me in integrity of heart and uprightness, as David your father did, and do all I command and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father when I said, ‘You shall never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’ But, if you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my name.” [1 Kgs. 9:4-6]
In Psalm 132:11-12 we read:
“The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: ‘One of your own descendants I will place on your throne – if your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them, then their sons will sit on your throne for ever and ever.’ “
Generally, what much of biblical scholarship does with these texts is to assume that they were added later to explain why the Davidic line of kings disappeared after the exile. God’s promise wasn’t kept so theologians of the period figured that there must have been conditions attached and they weren’t met and, to protect God from a lie, they rewrote the Bible accordingly. That, plainly, is not an interpretative option for us! Bible writers are never found correcting other Bible writers; not in the inerrant Word of God!
However, in fact, this entire argument about an unconditional covenant being made conditional later is contrived. The fact is, this is a typical case of biblical merismus (a term taken from the Greek word meros or “part”), meaning that you have a part of the teaching here and a part of it there. In Genesis 17 God makes a covenant with Abraham and his seed to be Abraham’s God and the God of his children after him. But later, in chapter 18, we learn that Abraham had to nurture his children in faith and obedience or the promises of the covenant would not be fulfilled. That is typical of the way in which the Bible teaches its doctrine. In one place, for example, we are taught that whatever we ask for in prayer we shall receive. In other places we are taught that there are conditions attached to prevailing prayer. And, of course, given the fact that ancient near eastern peoples were quite used to treaties that bestowed eternal kingdom conditionally, they would naturally have supposed that there were conditions attached.
David himself understood that there were conditions attached to this covenant because we hear him saying to Solomon, as he bestows the kingdom on his son:
“I am about to go the way of all the earth… So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires. Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.'” [1 Kgs 2:2-4]
Now, that last sentence cannot be found in 2 Sam. 7! That “if your descendants watch how they live…” That is not anywhere in 2 Sam. 7. But, plainly, David thought that is what the Lord meant!
The Gospel in all its parts is laden with conditions. It is at the level of the individual believer, it is at the level of the king. Jesus himself came into the world he said to do the will of his Father in heaven. It was by doing that will that he delivered his people, fulfilled the covenant that God made with David, and gained the eternal rest for his people.
We are a people of grace. We preach salvation by grace. We believe that our salvation from first to last is a gift of God and the work of Jesus Christ for us and in us by his Spirit. Without him, as he taught us to say, we can do nothing….We do not hesitate to say, though it is very controversial to say it, that human beings left to themselves are such inveterate rebels against God that they would never believe in Jesus Christ and that they do only because the Spirit of God creates new life in them by a supernatural and sovereign work within them which the Bible calls the new birth or regeneration. But none of that means that we will be saved whether or not we believe and obey the Lord. There are conditions that must be met. Grace does not abolish conditions, it makes sure that they are met!
From our viewpoint, from the vantage point of man and earth, we will be saved and the kingdom will come insofar as and as a result of men and women believing in the Word of God and keeping his commandments. This covenant would be kept, God’s promise to David would be fulfilled, but, it was to be fulfilled through men who kept this covenant and loved and served the Lord. We have a window here on how salvation is taught and understood in the Word of God.
II. Second, we must observe the tension between the temporal and the eternal.
Now, if you read 2 Sam. 7 and nothing else, you would get the impression that from this point on, Israel would be ruled by faithful kings and God’s blessing would rest upon the nation. She would go from strength to strength until the eternal kingdom had been brought in. Of course, that did not happen. The fact is, this covenant with the house of David was fulfilled in the lives of some kings and not in the lives of others (or rather, its blessings fell on some kings and not on others because of the conditions being met or not), and, still today, is fulfilled in largely invisible ways, in seemingly fitful ways. Yet the entire Scripture teaches us to believe that one day this covenant will be fulfilled in ways visible to the entire world. The day has not yet come but is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus Christ is the King of Kings.
Dr. Waltke used to illustrate the history of this covenant with the image of the birthday cake. The candles on the cake represent the various kings of Israel’s history. Some are burning brightly, some are snuffed out because of their unfaithfulness. And, of course, one by one, even the good kings die and their candle burns out. Sometimes, such as when the baby Joash was spared from Athaliah’s plot to kill the royal offspring and was for some years the only descendant of David in Israel, but was in hiding, there is but one candle and it is but a flicker of light. And, then, after the exile, when there are no Davidic kings in Israel, no kings at all in fact, all the candles are out and only a trail of smoke still rises from those that were burning most recently. But there is still an unlit and larger candle in the center, hope of something yet to come. And when that candle was lit, at the appearing of Jesus Christ, it proved to be like one of those trick birthday candles, people try to blow it out but it repeatedly re-ignites and burns as brightly as before. And that candle still burns and after all these centuries shows no sign of burning out!
Clearly the Lord’s promise to David, his covenant with David’s house, did not mean that there would not be unbelieving and reprobate men who would follow David on to the throne of Israel. Clearly it did not mean that every single one of his descendants would be a faithful man and a faithful king. Nor did it mean that there would not be a four-hundred year period in which there were no descendant of David sitting on Israel’s throne. Faithless men can ruin the fortunes of a generation of Israel, just as disobedient and irresponsible parents can ruin the spiritual fortunes of a generation or even many generations of their family.
But, these ups and downs did not mean either that the covenant would not finally be kept, come wind, come weather. As God promised, the house of David would be established forever. And it has been and will be, through Jesus Christ, David’s greatest descendant and the eternal king who alone was fit for an eternal throne and eternal kingdom. But, even still, no one who reads the OT prophets and their predictions of the Davidic king coming and setting up his kingdom of peace is quite prepared for this 2,000 years of history since the Lord’s ascension, long periods in which the kingdom of the Lord Christ seems to be withering and retreating in the world, in which the progress of his kingdom is fitful and uncertain, in which the largest number of human beings in the world, still after all these ages, does not acknowledge him as Lord and Christ. The promise of the eternal kingdom is fulfilled in the way of the seed. The day will come, but only after many disappointments.
Let me remind you, it is around these twin foci – the conditional and the unconditional, the temporal and the eternal – that the great issues and questions of Christian theology have always swirled and swirl today. …It is the tension between sovereign grace, on the one hand, and the … offer of salvation to all who believe in Christ, on the other. It is the tensions between Christ’s full and complete atonement by which, as he himself says, he gives eternal life to his sheep, and, on the other, the real “if…then,” believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. … [T]hese are the parallel streams of biblical revelation. In one man is entirely passive – before the foundation of the world God loved his people; while we were yet enemies Christ died for us; unless a man be born again he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven – in the other he is entirely active – without faith it is impossible to please him; without holiness no one will see the Lord; unless you hold fast firmly to the end, you will not receive what has been promised. In the one God does all, in the other man must respond to God in faith, love, and obedience or he will not be saved. “You must be born again” is absolutely true, but it is not the Gospel. “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved” is the Good News, the Gospel. Both are true, but each represents a separate dimension of the biblical revelation of salvation.
Still today it is the different ways in which Christians account for these different streams of biblical teaching that so separate Christians from one another theologically. …Some swallow up covenant into election until there is hardly any real “if…then” left; hardly any real human accountability and responsibility left. Others swallow election into covenant until their teaching sounds suspiciously works-oriented to many ears, as if the “if…then”, the human faith and obedience are the ultimate explanation of salvation.
Everywhere in the Bible we have both, just as we have both here in 2 Sam. 7. They are not always taught in the same passage. That is so that the emphasis might fall in one place on one side and in another place on the other. That way we will surely hear both voices and cannot ignore one or the other and cannot mix them into a muddled mush. And we must hear both so that we can, in fact, live the Christian life as it must be lived.
We must live in complete dependence upon the Lord, without whom we can do nothing, believing that all of his promises will come true, no matter what the appearance may be at the moment; but we must live also answering the summons to faith and obedience that our Savior has issued to us in his Word, believing, as he taught us, that there will be no salvation for us, no share for us in the kingdom of God unless we trust and obey.
In all of this, God’s covenant with David rested upon the same terms and reflected the same spiritual reality as do all the covenants God made by which the history of salvation in Jesus Christ unfolded: Abraham, Moses, David, and the Lord Christ himself. God does it all, God gives it all, but we must, we absolutely must be faithful to him.”