Covenants in Scripture

Examining the Old and New Covenants

and how they apply to us today

In spite of Jesus' warning about "new wine in old wine skins" there are some popular teachings which attempt to fit Old Covenant ideas into New Covenant practice, in spite of us having "a far better covenant with God, based on better promises." (Hebrews 8:6b)

Here we examine covenants and promises, to give you a tool to see what applies and what does not.

Introduction - Types of Covenant


A covenant is a very solemn or serious agreement between two or more parties, people or groups.

A covenant in Scripture is directional in aim: either it is horizontal, between men or women with each other, or vertical, between God and man (where the word “man” represents mankind, including men, women and children).

A covenant is directional in scope: either one-way, where one party agrees to do something for the other no matter what happens, without setting any terms or conditions; or two-way, where both parties agree on a course of action which requires input from one party in order to receive action from the other party.

A one-way covenant can be or is also called an unconditional covenant because there are no conditions set or announced which need to be met or fulfilled for the covenant to continue or be completed. Another term used is unilateral.

A typical one-way, unconditional covenant was announced to Noah: Never again (under no circumstances) would God flood the earth to destroy all mankind. Note that before He announced this covenant God gave Noah certain commands and instructions, but these were in no way conditional for the fulfillment of the covenant. See Genesis 9.

A two-way covenant will have, as well as its agreed or determined blessing, a performance clause which can limit, annul (cancel) or reverse the blessing or the covenant itself, based on what one or both parties do under the terms of the covenant.

A two-way covenant is also called a conditional covenant because it is based on terms or conditions which must be met for it or the agreed blessing to continue. Another term used is bilateral.

A typical indicator of a two-way, conditional covenant is the inclusion of the word “if.”

A typical two-way, conditional covenant is found in Malachi 3, where God says, “If you bring all the tithes (money, goods, time) into the storehouse so that there is enough there, I will pour out an even larger blessing upon you so that you have more than enough.”

Further Examples of Covenants

In 1 Samuel 18 we read of a covenant between Jonathan, the king’s son, and David, the king designate. At that stage it does not seem likely that Jonathan knew that David had been anointed king, something (becoming king) that was a very long way off in the future.

Out of love, honour and as a prophetic act the significance of which was not known to him at that time, Jonathan “cut” a one-way covenant of relationship with David, who seemingly at that time had nothing to offer back apart from honour, respect and affection.

Jonathan, on the other hand, as the king’s son, cut himself off from royal privilege and passed over his garments and his weapons of warfare, effectively placing himself in the hands and at the mercy of his new friend.

In chapter 20 when things were looking bad for him, David asked Jonathan to “deal kindly with your servant for you have brought me into a covenant of the Lord with you.” Verse 8

Then, in anticipation of conflict between David and King Saul, his father, Jonathan made a covenant with David and his family after him to always protect Jonathan’s life and that of his descendants. He added an unusual caveat that God would require even David’s enemies to honour this covenant.

“And Jonathan caused David to swear again, by his love for him, for Jonathan loved him as he loved his own life.” Verse 17

In neither case was there a condition, or a penalty. Both covenants were one-way, unconditional, horizontal covenants of relationship but not between equals(at the time they were made, at least).

Marriage Vows

If we take a traditional marriage vow, where each party says something to the effect of: “I promise to love you and be faithful to you all the days of my life, no matter what happens,” what do we have?

We don’t have a two-way covenant, because there are no conditions. We have two one-way, unconditional, horizontal covenants between equals.

Psalm 91

This well-known psalm is full of equally-well-known promises, which are all conditional. Most people know, “A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Verse 7. Those promises, however, rely for fulfillment on some actions from us.

This psalm is unusual in that it has three characters or players, as if it is meant to be acted out.

The psalm begins with the Preamble which is given by a Narrator: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall remain stable and fixed under the shadow of the Almighty.” Verse 1

Where is that secret place of safety and stability, where God will protect no matter what?

Verse 2 provides the answer as it introduces the second player in this story, the Hero, perhaps a soldier, based on the language used in the middle verses. Verse 2 is spoken in the first person by someone who knows what it is like to be in that safe place, and how to get there.

“I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, on Him I lean and in Him I trust.” Verse 2. The Hero is not speaking to God, he is speaking about God to others. It’s not a psalm of worship, directed to the King, it’s a song of praise all about Him.

Verses 3 to 8 show the benefits of this two-way covenant of relationship, and are spoken by the Narrator.

Verses 9 and 10 again demonstrate the two-way, conditional blessings of this covenant, which hinge around the response of God to the action of the Hero in verse 2 in telling others about Him.

“Because you have made...the Most High your dwelling place...there shall no evil befall you.”

Finally God speaks in verses 14 to 16, confirming the aim and purpose of the covenant.

“Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him…”