And he was king in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together (Deut. 33:5).
The context of this verse is the blessing of Moses, the man of God, on the tribes of Israel right before his death (Deut. 33:1-29). In vv. 1-5 of the blessing we have an introductory statement where Moses describes the giving of the covenant law on Mount Sinai to the nation of Israel. The text quoted above indicates that the response of Israel to the giving of the law was to enter into a national covenant with the Lord, the initiator of the covenant.
In this article we will consider the teaching of Deuteronomy 33:5 and its application to nations today.
The National Covenant of Israel
The statement that “he was king in Jeshurun” is better rendered, “he became king in Jeshurun.” That is, when the “heads of the people” of the tribes of Israel pledged full obedience to the stipulations of the covenant law (Ex. 24:3-8) they acknowledged and received the Lord as king of Israel. In so doing Israel made a national covenant to serve God as His vassal. The significance of Israel’s national covenant can be seen in various ways.
First, the Hebrew term for “king” refers to the chief ruler, governor, or supreme magistrate of a people, and can be used in the context of a tribe, city-state, or nation. Now, the Scripture says that God is “the King of all the earth” (Ps. 47:7). Therefore, when we are told that God “became king in Jeshurun” (a poetic name for Israel), this does not mean that God became something that He was not formerly, but, rather, that Israel became something that it was not formerly—a nation in covenant with God by the explicit recognition of God as their King. In the Sinai covenant, Israel established the Lord as the chief governor and supreme magistrate of their nation, and became a covenanted nation because God became their King by their public oath of allegiance: “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).
Second, the national covenant at Sinai was a development of the covenant that God had made with Abraham. The Abrahamic covenant is the foundational covenant of “the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). All of the other biblical covenants either expand the original promises of the Abrahamic covenant or administer the terms of the Abrahamic covenant. The Sinai covenant is an administrative covenant in that it applies the covenant standard, “I am Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect” (Gen 17:1), and the covenant promise, “and I will bless thee” (Gen 12:2-3), to the circumstance of Israel as a nation. God’s purpose in sending the sons of Jacob into Egypt was to make them into a great nation. By the time of the Exodus this was fulfilled, and at Sinai the covenant of promise was applied beyond the confines of the family and tribal unit to Israel as a nation. Thus, Sinai was the embodiment of the covenant of God on a national level. It establishes the precedent of a national covenant where a people seek to live by the covenant standard of obedience to God’s law in anticipation of the covenant promise, “I will bless thee.”
An important part of the development of the covenant standard is revealed at Sinai. In this national covenant God reveals His moral law in general precepts (e.g., the Ten Commandments) and specific applications (e.g., the case laws). For the new circumstance of governing a nation, the moral law is specifically applied to the issues of civil government and criminal law. A national covenant requires the revelation of the standards that teach magistrates how to govern a nation in accord with the will of God.
Third, the covenant at Sinai was contracted by the whole people through their leaders who acted as their representatives. The text says that the Lord became Israel’s king “when the heads of the people” of the tribes of Israel “were gathered together.” The national covenant was secured when the leaders expressed the will of the people they represented in a public ceremony of covenant ratification (Ex. 24:1-11). Central to the covenant’s ratification in Israel was a solemn oath of obedience to God’s law. Their national covenant was not based on a general, private consensus that God is king, but upon a specific, public recognition of that fact by the people and their leaders.
National Covenants Today
The theology that underlies the text of Deuteronomy 33:5 needs to be applied to nations today. The national covenant of Israel serves as a model for nations in the New Covenant dispensation (cf. Deut. 4:5-8).
In saying this, we do not imply that all aspects of the Sinai covenant should be applied directly to nations as nations today. That is, we must be sensitive to the developments in God’s covenant of promise in the New Covenant dispensation. The “shadows” of the Old Covenant dispensation (e.g., Israel’s and the land of Palestine’s special status; the Levitical priesthood; the tabernacle with its services and sacrifices; the calendar of feasts and holy days) have passed away with the coming of Christ. The church is no longer connected to any one nation, but is an international fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ. The church is no longer bound to the nation of Israel for identity, support, or continuity, but is independent of all such national ties.
What we do mean, is that God is still dealing with men in terms of the unit that Scripture calls a nation, and that the people and rulers of the nations of the New Covenant era are called of God to repent of their rebellion and enter into a national covenant to serve and glorify Him as a nation. A national covenant today would differ in some respects from Israel’s covenant. However, a national covenant today, as in Israel, would be a solemn declaration that God is King of the nation, and that the people will obey God’s law in all spheres of life and in all matters of public policy, civil law, and civil government.
Why should we apply the theology of Israel’s national covenant to nations today?
First, God is still dealing with men in terms of nations. Ever since the tower of Babel when God divided men by tongues into nations, He has dealt with men in the context of the national unit. The establishment of specific nations by God was to frustrate the purpose of men to mount a rebellion against Him by means of a unitary state and social order. Since men remain the same today in their sinful nature, the need for the division of men according to nations continues.
The New Testament constantly speaks of nations, but no where is the call given for men to break down national borders and enter into a single world-wide, unitary nation-state. In fact, the mission of the church is given in terms of nations. As the church contemplates and then carries out the task of evangelism and discipleship it is to do so according to the social, political, and geographic unit of individual nations (Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 1:5; 16:26).
Throughout history, God has dealt with men according to nations. He has blessed or cursed in the context of nations; He has carried out His purposes in history through nations. This does not deny the fact that God has also worked with men as individuals, and in the smaller context of families, or individual towns and cities, but only emphasizes the centrality of the nation as a unit in the purposes of God.
Second, God is now extending His saving grace to all nations, calling them to repent and enter into covenant with Him through faith in Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul declares, the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed has come with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:8).
In the Old Testament era God chose to leave the nations in darkness and work through one nation in preparation for the fulfillment of His eternal purpose of redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, God revealed Himself to only one nation, and initiated His covenant with Israel alone.
But all this has changed with the coming of Christ. God is now removing the veil of darkness and is revealing Himself to all nations through the Gospel, calling upon all men everywhere to repent (Acts 14:16; 17:26, 30; Rom. 16:25-26). Paul sees his apostolic commission in terms of “obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name” (Rom. 1:5). Obedience to the faith among the inhabitants of a nation begins with individuals and families being converted and entering into covenant with God, and then follows with the establisment of churches. However, it must not be limited to that, for it means much more — it means that the nation become as Israel of old and enter into a national covenant of obedience to God and Christ.
This is an inescapable conclusion. If the vast majority of the citizens of a nation are converted to Christ, then all spheres of life in that nation will be greatly transformed. The end result would be Christian families, a thriving Christian church, and, yes, a Christian civil government! Christ came to redeem men in all their relations. Christ came to redeem nations, as nations.
Third, Christ is now King of the nations (Rev. 1:5; 19:16), and all peoples and their rulers are commanded to bow to Him as their sovereign Lord (Phil. 2:9-11; Ps. 2:1-10).
Psalm 2 is crucial for understanding the need for national covenants today. This prophetic psalm describes the nations and their rulers as seeking to cast off God’s kingship and the restraint of His law so that they can be a law unto themselves. The answer of God to this rebellion is the enthronement of His Son, Jesus Christ, and the grant of universal power and dominion to Him so that He might smash the rebels and bring all nations in submission to His reign. In view of the Son’s dominion, all rulers are counseled to submit to Christ by a covenantal oath whereby they publicly “kiss the Son.”
The New Testament dispensation is the age of fulfillment for Psalm 2. Christ, the Son of God, is now seated as King of the nations at the right hand of God the Father (Ps. 110:1-2; Acts 2:33; 13:33; Rev. 2:26-27; 12:5). Therefore, the call in Psalm 2 to the nations and their rulers to end their rebellion and put their trust in Christ must be applied today. So must the call for a public oath of loyalty and submission to Christ by a nation and its rulers. Such an oath is the essence of a national covenant.
Therefore, as God became king over Israel at Sinai when they recognized His sovereign authority over them, so all nations of the earth are called to repent and make God king over them by the recognition the supreme lordship of Christ. Each nation is called to covenant with God by a public oath of allegiance and inscribe its allegiance in its civil constitutions.
As Israel’s national covenant bound the people and their rulers to obey the law of God, so today in a national covenant with God a people bind themselves to obey the law of God. A national covenant should specify that all matters of public policy, ethics, and civil government will be determined by biblical law.
As Israel’s national covenant was contracted by the people through their rulers in a public ceremony of covenant ratification, so today a national covenant should be established by the same means, and the nation’s covenant with God should be written into the political constitutions that govern the nation.
The Scripture says “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12), i.e., blessed is the nation who stands in covenant with God and obeys His Word. Any nation that covenants to make the Lord their God will be blessed. This is as true today as it was when it was first written.
The concept of a national covenant is not a thing of the past, but is an ongoing aspect of God’s kingdom. A national covenant represents the culmination of God’s gracious dealing with a people. A national covenant is the solemn declaration of a redeemed people that God is their King and His Word is their law.
This article was originally published in The Christian Statesman, vol. 141, no. 3, May - June 1998.