[Bible references in this post are from the New Revised Standard Version]
One of the clues that the so-called old covenant follows a fairly standard ancient covenant format is that ancient covenants usually have what the experts refer to as a “document clause.” This is a statement that specifies how often and when the parties are supposed to read the covenant documents. The following quote from the end of the book of Deuteronomy does exactly that.
Deut. 31: 9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 Moses commanded them: “Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people—men, women, and children, as well as the aliens residing in your towns—so that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, 13 and so that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”
Several things are interesting or unusual about the above “document clause.” As one example, normally only a nation’s king would need to read it at the specified times. In this case, not only all men and women are to hear it read to them, but so are resident aliens and even children. Everyone is to be exposed to the law of God in that nation.
Another interesting thing about this clause is that it occurs during the Feast of Tabernacles (or booths) each seventh year – the year of land Sabbath and release from debts. Israelites and resident aliens were to be reminded of the privileges and responsibilities of living in God’s Promised Land at the time of debt-release, when it mattered most.
This reading of the law was intended to produce an effect on the hearers. They were to learn to fear God and diligently observe that law as a result of hearing it.
Their time in the Promised Land was to start on the right foot by reminding Israel of this law, starting the clock running for their seven-year cycle.
Josh. 8:30 Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, 31 just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, “an altar of unhewn stones, on which no iron tool has been used”; and they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord, and sacrificed offerings of well-being. 32 And there, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua wrote on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written. 33 All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel. 34 And afterward he read all the words of the law, blessings and curses, according to all that is written in the book of the law. 35 There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them.
2 Chronicles 2-7 chronicles another important event that occurred during the Feast of Tabernacles. The timing of the events is indicated in the following passage:
2 Chr. 5:2-5 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the people of Israel, in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. 3 And all the Israelites assembled before the king at the festival that is in the seventh month. 4 And all the elders of Israel came, and the Levites carried the ark. 5 So they brought up the ark, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up.
As the brand-new Temple is being dedicated God himself makes an appearance, just to let everyone know that he approves of his new home.
2 Chr. 5:11-14 11 Now when the priests came out of the holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves, without regard to their divisions), 12 all the levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kindred, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with one hundred twenty priests who were trumpeters. 13 It was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, 14 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.
2 Chr. 7:1, 1 When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
8-10 8 At that time Solomon held the festival for seven days, and all Israel with him, a very great congregation, from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt. 9 On the eighth day they held a solemn assembly; for they had observed the dedication of the altar seven days and the festival seven days. 10 On the twenty-third day of the seventh month he sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel.
Even with all the hoopla and worship at the Temple something seems to have been missing. Generations later, after a 70-year exile from the land, a small remnant had returned to resume worshipping in the land (though still under foreign domination.) Upon looking through the law, they discovered a few things that they needed to do.
Neh. 8:14 And they found it written in the law, which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the people of Israel should live in booths during the festival of the seventh month, 15 and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem as follows, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” 16 So the people went out and brought them, and made booths for themselves, each on the roofs of their houses, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. 17 And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. 18 And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.
It would seem that even Solomon’s Feast of Tabernacles was not as spiritually uplifting as the one in Nehemiah’s time. What was missing? We can’t be absolutely sure, but my guess would be something not mentioned in 2 Chr. 5-7 – a reading of the law.
After the reading of the law, something amazing happened. Something that resulted in an extra meeting to conduct necessary spiritual repairs. Hearing the ancestral law helped them realize that their relationship with God needed to be healed with a strong dose of repentance and obedience.
Neh. 9:1 Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. 2 Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. 3 They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God.
They somehow knew that God wants more than professions of obedience. In addition to repentance, he looks for what John the Baptist called “fruit worthy of repentance.” This involves a change in how one lives. Professions of obedience must lead to actual obedience, or they are worthless to God.
A similar story from earlier in Israel’s history demonstrates a similar effect from reading the law. A rare righteous king decides to follow God and repair the Temple. As workmen clear the rubble they make an astonishing discovery and report it to the high priest, who then approaches the king’s personal secretary.
2 Ki. 22:8 The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 9 Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord.” 10 Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “The priest Hilkiah has given me a book.” Shaphan then read it aloud to the king. 11 When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. 12 Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king’s servant Asaiah, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” 14 So the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam, Achbor, Shaphan, and Asaiah went to the prophetess Huldah the wife of Shallum son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe; she resided in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter, where they consulted her. 15 She declared to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, I will indeed bring disaster on this place and on its inhabitants—all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But as to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place, and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, says the Lord. 20 Therefore, I will gather you to your ancestors, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace; your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring on this place.” They took the message back to the king.
King Josiah’s reaction saved an entire nation for the duration of his lifetime. (Unfortunately for the nation he met a self-inflicted untimely end, but that is a story for another day.)
Another component of ancient covenants is called the “historical prologue.” In that part of the document is the story of how the current relationship between the parties came to that point. The book of Deuteronomy (which means “repeat of the law” in Greek) has a very extensive review of the history of the people of Israel, from Abraham to the exodus from Egypt and the 40 years in the wilderness.
Even the Ten Commandments has a historical prologue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
In preaching about Jesus’ new covenant in Acts 2, Peter’s sermon includes a history of how Jesus fulfils both prophecy and the provisions for redemption in the law. The reaction to it is interesting: an intense need to know what to do about it. When Peter replies that repentance and baptism are necessary, they quickly are moved to become Christians.
The writings of the New Testament function in the same way for Christians and for those who are being called to follow Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day” (John 6:44). On the other hand, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1:1-2).
If reading the words of Moses and the ancient prophets was intended to bring people back to God, how much more should reading the recorded words of God’s own Son.
Of course, modern Christians can sometimes forget that the Old Testament was the only Bible available to the first generation of Christians. The words of the original disciples served as a witness to how Jesus fulfilled the promises of Moses and the Prophets. Eventually some of those disciples and their helpers wrote histories and letters about Jesus and the early Christian heroes. It is those writings, of course, that make up what we now call the New Testament.
Within those writings we can see how that first generation of Christians saw and related to Jesus. They also provide glimpses of how they interpreted the writings of the Law and the Prophets. This is why reading and understanding the entire Bible is important. If you miss the Old Testament, you miss a lot of context.
Of course, missing the New Testament is a sure way to miss the whole story of how a down-and-out nation of Israel begins to be redeemed in a way that also includes the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed by Abraham’s “seed.”
As we were singing the closing hymns of our service a passage in Isaiah 11 came to mind (though I could not remember chapter and verse at the time). It connects with the reading of the law during the Feast of Tabernacles. Speaking of a time of universal peace and abundance, the passage speaks of the earth being “filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the seas.”
The reading of the law to Israelite and Gentile residents at the festival points ahead to a time when everyone will know the Lord.