Remembering a Forgotten Covenant
Covenant is a most important term for understanding and appreciating the message of the Bible in all its parts. Most of its uses are in the Old Testament, but it appears also in the New, referring not only to that earlier body of literature, but also to the new order which came with the coming of the Messiah, his life, death and resurrection.
In the ancient Near East, a covenant was a common way of making a binding, structured relationship between two parties. It expressed the commitment of each to the other in the light of specified terms, and it was often solemnly ratified by means of a sacrifice or an oath, or both. The covenants between Abraham and Abimelech, and David and Jonathan are examples of this (see Gen. 21:27 and I Sam. 18:3).
God also condescended to use this procedure, and he made covenants with people, laying down stipulations and promising blessings. Some see this pattern in God's self-revelation to Adam (and his descendants) before the Fall. Whether or not that is so, there can be no doubt that God made a covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18), with Abram (Gen. 15:18) with David (Psalm 89:3), with all Israel at Sinai (Exodus 19:5) and with all who from 'every kindred, tribe, tongue and nation' believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 22:20).
In the study of the Old Testament in the last half-century, an increasing amount of attention has been paid to covenants. But one covenant has not been highlighted. It is 'the covenant with Levi', to which the prophet Malachi twice refers (2:4,8). Why should that be so? Three possible reasons could account for this.
i) The Old Testament nowhere contains an account of this covenant actually being made. Instead, what we have are indications that one did exist (see Deut. 33:8-10, Neh. 13:29 and Jer. 33: 20-21).
ii) To judge from the references just given, the most probable occasions when this covenant with Levi was made were the Golden Calf and the Baal-Peor incidents recorded in Exodus 32 and Numbers 25. However, both of those are connected with the Sinaitic covenant which is so prominent in the Old Testament, not to mention the New.
iii) There is some uncertainty as to who Malachi meant by 'Levi'. As he does not mention the distinction which is made elsewhere in the Old Testament between the priests and the Levites, what he says about 'the covenant with Levi' leaves room for uncertainty as to whom he actually had in mind. Was it the tribe of Levi as a whole, or Aaron and his descendants, or merely one of them, namely Phinehas? A further complication is that Malachi directs to the priests as a whole part of what God had said to Phinehas, recorded in Numbers 25:12.
While granting that the 'covenant with Levi' has not been entirely by -passed but regarded as part of the Sinaitic covenant, the fact that Malachi makes much of it should count for something, because his ministry reviews the Old Testament and anticipates the New. Why did he isolate it for consideration? What did he have to say about it, and what might it have to say to us today? These matters are well worth investigating, and that is what we seek to do.
The Covenant with Levi
We have referred to the events recorded in Exodus 32 and Numbers 25 in connection with this covenant. The first occurred at the foot of Sinai soon after the deliverance from Egypt, and the other in the plains of Moab, just as Israel was about to enter into the Promised Land. While Exodus 32 is, in our view, more suitable as the occasion, when the covenant was made because it involved the whole tribe of Levi, it is most important to note that both passages record a rebellion against God which manifested itself in idolatry and immorality. The first was associated with the episode of the Golden Calf and the other with the Baal of Peor.
The covenant with Levi was therefore an engagement made by the Lord in desperate circumstances. On each occasion, the Sinaitic covenant which had constituted the tribes of Israel as the people of God was being under-mined and openly flouted by the defection of the priests. Consequently, the transfer to Levi of the responsibility to teach and apply covenant law was intended not only to reform the people but also to preserve the theocracy.
Malachi saw this declension in the wilderness after deliverance from Egypt as repeating itself among those who had returned from exile in Babylon. He therefore spoke of how the covenant with Levi had been violated (2:8). But the history of God's redemptive purpose was continuing, and so he predicted that God would validate the covenant once more (2:4). This is all very relevant to what has happened to the church and its ministry of late, and is happening in our own day.
Violating the Covenant with Levi
'Like people, like priest' is one of the several Bible expressions which have passed into common parlance. It was used by Hosea (4:9) to describe a state of affairs among the people of God which was the opposite of what should have been the case. The priests had been appointed to offer sacrifice, reach the law, and generally uphold the difference between holy and profane, clean and unclean (Lev. 10:10). It was therefore vital that they should be different from the people. 'Like people, like priest' was the epitome of a terrible decline in the whole community, and it meant a serious threat to the continuance of the covenant.
Malachi charges the priests with having 'corrupted the covenant of Levi' (2:8). He shows that they had encouraged gross effrontery to God in the matter of sacrificial worship (1:6-2:3) and had undermined the authority and impartiality of covenant law (2:8-9). Had they been faithful to their sacred duty, God's blessing of life and peace would have resulted for the people. As in the days of king Asa, Israel was 'without a teaching priest and without law' and so in her life was 'without the true God' (2 Chron. 15:3).
A striking parallel to all this is found in the church of the western world. Over the last two hundred years the truth has been progressively dismantled by those whose duty it was and is to maintain it, come what may. The Bible has been reduced to a book like any other, containing some important facts and useful insights, but no longer the inspired and inerrant word of God. Just as the absoluteness of revealed truth is now nonsense, so the transcendence of a triune Godhead is now an unnecessary notion. God is only immanent, personally present in every one and in every thing, and in any and every object of worship. Far from being immutable, he is in process of becoming more like what 'a god like us' ought to be, just as we are to become more like what human beings ought to be. Jesus shows us how to do that by his awareness of and dependence upon God, which we are to copy.
There is no need for regeneration and no need for atonement. Justification is a fiction and sanctification is moral improvement. Salvation is by means of works. Morality is living in love and not conforming to righteous demands. Fornication, adultery, and divorce are justified along with same-sex unions. Life, the life of the unborn and the terminally ill, is cheap. Partial--birth abortions are justified in terms of a woman's rights over her own body, and an assisted death by the name of human dignity. This is the only life that exists. There is no hell to shun, not even by the impenitent, and no heaven to strive for. The emphasis in the church is on the visual, not the verbal; the earthly, not the heavenly; the physical or the psychological, not the spiritual; on man, not God.
All this has been urged in terms of making Christianity easier to accept by the man in the street, the factory, or the university. In that respect it has failed most manifestly and miserably. All it has succeeded in doing is emptying churches, making Christianity an object of public ridicule and causing offence to God. Liberalism has been the high road to uselessness and irrelevance. 'Like a trampled spring and a polluted well, so is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked' (Prov. 25:26). A line should have been drawn in the sand; instead, territory has been conceded to the world, time and time again. 'Who is on the Lord's side?' (Exod.32: 26) is an urgent question for today.
Validating the Covenant with Levi
Malachi is a figure of major importance in the Old Testament in relation to the covenant. Just as Samuel related to Moses by maintaining the covenant which he had inaugurated when it was under threat, so Malachi related to Ezra, who had re-established the covenant after the return from exile in Babylon (Neh. 8:7). Malachi ministered between the two visits of Nehemiah to Jerusalem, at a time when the movement for reform seemed to stand still and there was even a danger of reverting to the sins which had caused the Exile. Having lamented the demise of the teaching priest, he took on his mantle, reviewing the past and evaluating his own times in the light of God's covenant demands.
But he was also given to predict (see 2:4) that God would validate the covenant with Levi which men had violated. He described its ministry in these words: 'The law of truth was in his mouth and injustice was not found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and equity and turned many from iniquity.'
Malachi saw the true Levite as one who spoke for God, walked with God and turned many to God and, in measure, he discharged that role himself. Those three aspects are rich seams of biblical teaching. The apostle John wrote about the truth, walking in truth and laboring for or with the truth (2 John 1-2; 3 John :8).
But it was not Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem that Malachi was looking for as a validation of the covenant, or even for a prophet like Elijah (4:5). He was looking for the coming of the greatest Levite, the messenger of the covenant (3:1) who would bring into existence purged and consecrated Levites, that is, gospel preachers (3:2).
The magnificent words which Malachi used therefore describe the Lord Jesus Christ and his servants who proclaim the truth of God. They are, perhaps, the most wonderful description in the Bible of the preacher of God's good news, even though they are found in the Old Testament. John Bunyan seemed to think so. In Interpreter's house, Christian was shown a portrait of a serious man who 'had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon his lips, the world was behind his back. [He] stood as if he pleaded with men and a crown of gold did hang over his head.'
Why did God validate in the fifth century BC what men had violated? Surely it was because the Messiah was to come, the first Christian millennium to dawn. Even with the visible church in appalling decline at that time, the Messiah had been announced and he himself had promised to come. And he did! The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, as God's faithful witness to the Jews, was proof that the covenant with Levi had been validated.
Equally, the raising up of a long line of preachers of that same truth in the two millennia of the church's history, and often against the background of the church's apostasy and the defection of her ministry, prove the same thing. This is the story of the last two hundred years or so, and there are men who uphold truth in a day of apostasy, ignorance and paganism. The covenant with Levi has not been destroyed. May we not therefore hope in God that the messenger of the covenant will come to his temple again? That was the assurance that the martyr Thomas (Little) Bilney was given in answer to his prayer that God would come to the assistance of the church. He rose from prayer with the exclamation: "A new time is beginning. The Christian assembly is about to be renewed… Someone is coming unto us, I see him, I hear him – it is Jesus Christ... He is the king, and it is He who will call the true ministers commissioned to evangelize His people."
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Originally Published in The Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 429, June 1999
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.