When the covenant breaks apart

Our basic relationship with God is defined not by a contract, but by a covenant. But there isn’t just one kind of covenant in the Bible though. Rather, which kind of covenant is used depends on the kind of relationship it’s used for.

There are covenants between equals. Covenants between a greater and a lesser. Covenants between two parties which are mediated by a third and greater party. And so on. For instance, there have been times when marriage was considered a covenant between a greater and a lesser, with the man being the greater and the woman being the lesser. More recently, marriage has been viewed as a covenant between equals. But the biblical conception is of marriage being a mediated covenant, established not by either husband or wife, but by God himself.

There are one-way covenants, like the covenant God makes with all of creation following the Flood. In this covenant, God the King makes a promise to all of creation that he will not destroy it by chaotic waters ever again. There is no reciprocation required by creation. Similarly, when Jonathan makes a covenant with David, it is also a greater-with-lesser covenant where the greater makes a one-way promise requiring no reciprocation (1 Sam. 18:3-4; 20:14-17). Interestingly, in that case, the covenant Jonathan makes turns their relationship upside down as he names David the greater, choosing the role of the lesser.

Our basic relationship with God is that of a king with his servants. He is the greater and we are the lesser. Both sides have obligations to one another. God promises salvation, protection, and love for us. And we promise faithful allegiance to him.

Psalm 25 is one of our great covenant psalms.

It begins with trust, the basic state of the covenant keeper. But it quickly shifts to talk of shame, the basic state of the covenant breaker. David proclaims his trust and asks that he not be shamed. And then he asks that those who are out to get him be shamed instead.

So, why does he make this request to not be shamed if he hasn’t done anything wrong? But that’s the problem. He has. In verses 7, 11, and 18, he acknowledges his sins, that he is a covenant breaker deserving of the consequences.

Now, the Hebrew term for making a covenant is literally cutting a covenant. That’s because covenants were established by the killing of an animal, cutting it in half, symbolizing what would happen to the covenant breaker. Usually, the cutting of the covenant was accompanied by a meal which would include meat and wine. The idea being that you were eating your own flesh and drinking your own blood if you would someday break the covenant.

In the meal of the New Covenant established by Jesus, he takes bread and cup and says they are his body and his blood which are broken for us. He himself is cut to establish our covenant with God. And the meal we eat isn’t our own flesh and blood, it’s his. He takes the place of both the covenant maker and the covenant breaker, even though he has shown the ultimate in covenant loyalty to God.

As theologian Karl Barth said, Jesus is God for man and man for God. He takes both sides of the covenant and repairs what has been broken in himself.

The key word in covenant language is “remember.” The Scriptures are littered with the word and it’s key to Psalm 25 and to Communion.

In Ps. 25:6-7, David asks three things: Remember your mercy and love; don’t remember my sins; and remember me through the lens of your love. He wants God to remember his covenant. But he doesn’t want God to remember his faulty allegiance in his covenant-breaking sin. (In the covenant meal of Communion, Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me” [see 1 Cor. 11:23-27].) David wants God to have a love-shaped memory, to have the love which established the covenant be not just the first word, but the last word on it as well.

The psalm is also filled with education language:

Show me your ways, Lord,
    teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me (vs. 4-5)

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.
He guides the humble in what is right
    and teaches them his way. (vs. 8-9)

He will instruct them in the ways they should choose. (v. 25)

In a biblical imagination, education isn’t for information. It’s for covenant formation. We have faulty memories and we need to be instructed in the ways of the covenant in order to maintain this most basic relationship with God.

This is why the covenant meal of Communion is supposed to be done frequently and why the final requirement of the Great Commission has a teaching/obedience focus: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20).

Psalm 25 is also divided up into personal petitions and answering choruses. The petitions all refer to God as “you” and the choruses refer to God as “he.” This petition-chorus pattern can be found in many other psalms.

Verses 1-7 are the initial prayer. They’re followed by the chorus of vs. 8-10, reminding us of the goodness of God, who instructs his people in the ways of covenant loyalty. Next is a single verse petition for forgiveness by the one who has departed from loyal allegiance (v. 11). It is followed by a second chorus (v. 12-14) which emphasizes the fear of the Lord, which has less to do with being afraid than with a trusting life of walking in God’s ways, according to the covenant. Next is another long petition (vs. 15-21), where there is another acknowledgement of covenant failure on David’s side, with a request for God to be faithful to his side nonetheless. And then the psalm ends with what feels like a tacked on final bit of chorus asking God to deliver Israel.

As tacked on as the final verse feels, it’s quite appropriate.

My covenant breaking is matched by that of God’s people as a whole. And my prayers for myself should be matched by prayers for all of God’s people. Even if it’s just a single sentence tacked on to the end of my prayers about myself and my situation, Psalm 25 pulls me out of my self-preoccupation and reminds me I’m not the only covenant breaker who needs God’s loving mercy. All of us do. The whole stumbling, bumbling church around the world needs God’s loving mercy, because we’re all broken covenant breakers.

We need Jesus to take on himself both side of the covenant, because we have not been able to maintain our side. That doesn’t mean we give up on our side. It means we need forgiveness for every time we break covenant, for every time we forget who we are, for every time we walk in shame instead of walking in trusting allegiance to our loving King.