The LORD concludes the allegory of Jerusalem with the announcement of a new covenant. Despite his beloved’s infidelities, despite the severity of his judgments, he replights himself to her—definitively, irrevocably, everlastingly.
Yea, thus says the LORD GOD: I will deal with you as you have done, who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant. Then you will remember your ways, and be ashamed when I take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I forgive you all that you have done, says the LORD GOD.” (Ezek 16:59-63)
During my time in seminary (late 70s), one book that made a distinct impression upon me was Covenant and Promise by John Bright. I think it was one of the first books assigned to us by our Old Testament professor, Fr Joseph Hunt. If I recall correctly (unfortunately I no longer own the title to confirm my memory), Bright asserts two forms of covenant (berith): unilateral and unconditional (pure promise), unilateral but conditional (provisory promise). The former is exemplified in the LORD‘s covenants with Abraham and David; the latter with Moses and the tribes of Israel. Bright claims that these two understandings of covenant came into conflict during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s contemporaries believed that God would never annul his covenant with David and therefore invariably protect Zion from catastrophic defeat (Jer 7). To everyone’s consternation, however, Jeremiah declared that Israel had in fact broken the unbreakable covenant, thereby bringing upon her the wrath of the LORD:
There is revolt among the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 10 They have turned back to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to hear my words; they have gone after other gods to serve them; the house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant which I made with their fathers. 11 Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing evil upon them which they cannot escape; though they cry to me, I will not listen to them. 12 Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they burn incense, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. 13 For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Ba′al. (Jer 11:9-13)
The prophesies given to Ezekiel also presuppose the conditionality of the Davidic covenant, evidenced by prophesied catastrophic punishments, including the departure of the LORD‘s glory from the temple, and the cutting of a future covenant.
We immediately note the new covenant’s unilateral character. The LORD is its sole agent and guarantor. It is not a transaction or contract, not a mutual agreement. As Robert Jenson observes: “A berith is one person’s unilateral self-commitment to another” (Ezekiel, p. 135). “Of course,” he goes on to say, “a covenant can, depending on maker and content, enable particular corresponding actions by the recipient or even obligate to them; thus it is that Israel can break—or try to break—the Lord’s covenant with her” (p. 135). Yet no conditions are stipulated for the new testament, though Israel’s obedience is no doubt presumed (Ezek 36:24-28). God will forgive her past iniquities and restore her to himself in a redeemed historical order—but now with Sodom and Samaria as her daughters. He will be faithful to his wife, will never abandon her, never divorce her:
The Lord has dealt and will deal with Jerusalem according to her faithlessness. Nevertheless, although she has rebelled against the marriage covenant he made with her—as the original allegory described it—he will “remember” her. That is, he will be bound by it, so that he cannot permanently cast her off. Indeed, a phrase suddenly appears that we would surely not have expected in this context: the Lord’s restoration of Jerusalem will establish an “everlasting covenant,” a berith olam (ברית עולם), with her. (p. 134)
The new covenant (or perhaps we should think of the renewal of the old) will be everlasting, thereby bespeaking YHWH’s absolute faithfulness to his people through history.
The Lord’s new-old covenant with Jerusalem will be “everlasting” (olam). We must be careful not to import into the word olam doctrines of abstract eternity that are alien to the Old Testament. The model “everlasting covenant” is the one that God makes with Abraham (Gen. 17:5–7); it is everlasting simply in that God’s self-commitment to Abraham’s offspring covers all future generations and contingencies. That is to say, the eternity of the covenant resides solely in the Lord’s unshakable faithfulness through his history with his people. Since in our allegory the covenant appears as the Lord’s marriage covenant with Jerusalem, the covenant’s being made eternal means simply that divorce is henceforth impossible: no matter how Jerusalem strays, the Lord will—and indeed must!—regard her as his wife. (p. 135)
Note the key promise: “I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezek 16:62). Jenson comments: “To know who is God, or that the God who addresses us is indeed יהוה and not another, is in itself salvation” (p. 136).