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Book 4 - Chapter 11: Of the Blessings of the Old Testament - by Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

Check out these works on Covenant Theology.

Herman Witsius (1636-1708)

Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.

This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.

Chapter XI: Of the Blessings of the Old Testament

I. As the Old Testament is nothing but the covenant of grace, as it was dispensed before Christ came in the flesh, it is necessary that all the blessings or good things, which were promised by the covenant of grace, as such, have likewise a place in the Old Testament. But the benefits of the covenant of grace are eternal salvation, and whatever has a necessary connexion therewith; such as, regeneration, vocation by the word and Spirit of grace, faith, justification, spiritual peace, adoption, and, in a word, all the particulars explained in the preceding book. Though most of these are much more eminent under the New Testament, yet all of them, as to their substance, were conferred even under the Old, as is evident from the nature of the thing, and from what we have proved before. We shall only treat of the good things peculiar to the Old Testament, especially under the Mosaic dispensation.

II. And they are five. 1st, The election of the Israelites for a peculiar people. 2dly, The inheritance of the land of Canaan. 3dly, The familiar demonstration and inhabitation of the divine majesty. 4thly, The shadowing forth of divine mysteries, and daily sealing them by a religion of ceremonies. 5thly, An almost uninterrupted succession of inspired prophets.

III. It was certainly a great benefit, that God should choose the people of Israel above all other nations of the world, to have communion with himself in a most sted-fast covenant. God himself declares this in these words, Deut. 7:6: “For thou art a holy people unto Jehovah thy God. Jehovah thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.” In consequence of this election, it was: 1st, That Israel was called, “the first-born son of God,” Exod. 4:22. That is, above all other people whose souls the same God had made, and to whom he gave life and breath and all things; a singular people, his only beloved, lord of all the rest, having a double portion of the blessing, an inheritance, not only earthly, but also spiritual. 2dly, That they should be the peculiar property of God, his treasure, περιυσία and as it were, his royal riches, which he boasts of in the world and glories in, עם סגולה, as his segullah, concerning the emphasis of which word, see what we have said Book III. c. xii. §. 7, and c. xiii. § 19. 3dly, That they might glory in God as in their portion. For when God took them for a people to himself, he at the same time gave them a right to call him their God, and to have him for their portion; as these things are joined together, Deut. 26:17, 18: “Thou hast avouched Jehovah this day to be thy God; and Jehovah hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people,” Jer. 10:16: “The portion of Jacob is the former of all things; and Israel is the rod of his inheritance.” 4thly, That they should have a right to expect the Messiah from the midst of them, as one of their brethren, Deut. 18:15, 18.

IV. In these things certainly great was the “advantage of the Jew, and much the profit of circumcision, much, I say, every way,” Rom. 3:1, 2. Hence the apostle, Rom. 9:4, 5, in strong terms amplifies that advantage of the Jews: “Who are Israelites, to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God and the promises: whose are the Fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came.”

Yet none of these things, nay, not all of them together, if we only consider the external confederation, was sufficient to them for salvation: “For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel; neither because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children,” Rom. 9:6, 7. Very many of them, notwithstanding they were the children of the kingdom, were cast out, Matt. 8:12. Yet in this election of the whole body of the people to the communion of a very close but yet external covenant, there was a certain type of those who were actually chosen to grace and glory; and the godly among the Israelites, besides these outward prerogatives, enjoyed the saving favour of God, and the privilege of the mystical covenant in and by them.

V. The Second benefit or privilege of the Old Testament was the land of Canaan. This God had promised to Abraham and his seed, Gen. 12:7, Gen. 13:15, and 15:7; nay, and assigned it to them by oath, Gen. 26:3, 4, Exod. 33:1, Ezek. 20:6. This promise, confirmed by oath, God calls ברית, a covenant, διαθηκη, a testament, that is, the last and irrevocable disposal of his will. Gen. 15:18, “In that same day Jehovah made a covenant with Abraham, saying, unto thy seed have I given this land. And because, in consequence of that Testament the seed of Abraham was to possess that land, it is therefore called their inheritance, Lam. 5:2. Heb. 11:8.

VI. But we are by no means to understand this as if that typical inheritance made up the whole inheritance of the Old Testament, or that we are to give such a continual definition of the Old Testament, as if it was only the will of giving the land of Canaan. Much less are we to say, that they who deny this, either admit no Old Testament at all, or confound it with the New. For the Old Testament, as I have several times repeated, is nothing but the very testament of grace, as proposed under the veil of types, which were afterwards to be abrogated. But heaven and salvation, and God himself are the inheritance of the children of God, by the testament or covenant of grace; and as that testament is invariable, the substance of the inheritance cannot be one thing under the old, and another under the new economy of the same testament. The difference of the economies consists in this, that the same inheritance is held forth different ways; in the New Testament clearly and without any veil; in the old, wrapt up in types and earthly pledges; among which, after the covenant was made with Abraham, the typical inheritance of the land of Canaan was the most eminent. In the Old Testament it was conjoined with bondage; in the New, with liberty; to which the inheritance of the Gentiles is likewise added.

VII. That this inheritance was typical, both reason declares, and the Scripture attests. For as the whole habitable world cannot be the happiness of the soul, and is subject to vanity by reason of sin, there is no country considered in itself of such value as to deserve to be called the inheritance of the people of God. And certainly, God’s covenant people have something more to expect from him than what even the wicked may possess. Nor is there so vast a difference between Syria, Egypt, and Canaan, if we consider only the fertility and pleasantness of countries, as that the possession of the Israelites, unless something higher was implied, should be so much commended as to be the envy of all other nations. In fine, if their happiness consisted in the fields which they possessed, what became of those pious persons, who, at the risk of this life, and this earthly inheritance, willingly laid down their lives for the love of their God? And what was the reason why Moses, just on the confines of death, expressed so great a desire after that land, at least to see it with his eyes, Deut. 3:25, but because he eagerly wanted some way or other to taste that pledge of heaven which he was debarred from entering into.

VIII. But scripture also very plainly declares the same thing. When the ungrateful Israelites had, by their murmurings, provoked God, he sware in his wrath, “as truly as I live, they shall not see the land, which I sware unto their Fathers,” Numb. 14:21, 23. It is thus expressed, Psa. 95:11, “Unto whom I sware in my wrath, that they should not enter into my rest.” Which Paul, Heb. 4:1–11, refers to the kingdom of the Messiah, and to the spiritual and heavenly rest purchased by Christ; intimating, that the quiet possession of the land of Canaan, into which Jesus, or Joshua the son of Nun, introduced the children of those rebels, was a type of the spiritual rest, purchased for the elect by Jesus the Son of God, and of Mary.

IX. The analogy or similitude consists in the following particulars: 1st, The land of Canaan was eminent for its situation, pleasantness, fertility, and for the excellent fruits of the earth, above very many other countries of the world, whence it is so often called “a goodly land, a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase used even by poets, as well Greek as Latin; “the pleasant land,” Psa. 106:24, Zech. 7:14; and in a word, “the glory of all lands,” Ezek. 20:15; where the inhabitants “were made to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock, and butter of kine, and the pure blood of the grape,” Deut. 32:13, 14. It therefore represented the delightful pleasantness and abundant plenty of the spiritual blessings in the kingdom of Christ, both of grace and of glory; concerning which Jeremiah prophesied, chap. 31:12: “Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion and shall flow together to the goodness of Jehovah, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock, and of the herd; and their soul shall be as a watered garden, and they shall not sorrow any more at all:” compare Joel 3:18.

X. 2dly, The land of Canaan was, in a peculiar manner, Jehovah’s land, Hos. 9:3, where himself intended to dwell, Psa. 83:12. Whence it is called “the place where Jehovah had made for himself to dwell in,” Exod. 15:17; “and his holy habitation,” ver. 13. But it is called so not only because God was a temple in that land and to display some peculiar symbols of his presence, but also because in that land he was to send his Son to them, and to anoint him in the midst of them, both king and Lord, by pouring out his Holy Spirit. The Israelites, therefore, in their land, which in a peculiar manner was the land of God, had a pledge of the revelation of the Messiah in the midst of them. That שביכה, σκήνωσις, inhabitation of God in Canaan was a symbol of what John describes, Rev. 21:3, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell (tabernacle) with them.” And in the last place, Jerusalem, which was the throne of glory in the land of Canaan, Jer. 3:17, was a pledge of heaven, which is “the habitation of the holiness and glory of God,” Isa. 63:15.

XI. 3dly, The land of Canaan was given to Israel in virtue of the testament of grace, not for any merit or worth of theirs, but by the mere favour of God; Deut. 7:7, 8, “Not because ye were more in number than any people, but because Jehovah loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers, hath Jehovah brought you out with a mighty hand;” compare Deut. 4:37, 38, Ezek. 16:60, and Ezek. 36:32. Thus also the inheritance of heaven comes to believers from the most free grace of God alone, and the most free testament of God the Father and of Christ, Luke 12:32, Eph. 2:8. But yet Israel was to travel through a large and great wilderness, and to conflict with the Canaanites in various and severe battles before they could enter upon the possession of the promised land. They also, to whom a full right to heaven is freely given through the grace of Christ, are to walk in that narrow way beset with briars and thorns, and to fight valiantly against the enemies of their salvation, and take the kingdom of heaven by violence.

XII. Lastly, though Moses indeed brought Israel out of Egypt, yet he could not bring them into the promised land: that office was reserved for Joshua; and certainly, when the law is subservient to the covenant of grace, it tends to drive the elect out of themselves by making them acknowledge their vileness and misery; nevertheless it is by Jesus only that we are introduced into a state of grace. Moses is to begin the work and prepare the soul, and lead the people round through the wilderness; but it is the office of Jesus to put the last hand to the work, to say, “It is finished,” and procure true rest to the souls of his people, Matt. 11:28.

XIII. The third blessing of the Old Testament is the familiar and clear demonstration or display of the Divine majesty; such as was made in the appearances of angels, when they declared the will of God; nay, of God himself, when he presented himself to the view of the patriarchs and prophets under a visible appearance. But that glorious epiphany or manifestation of God before the assembly of the whole people, when he came to give his law and to establish his covenant, is of all others the most remarkable. This prerogative of Israel was indeed so great, that no people on earth ever enjoyed any thing like it. Deut. 4:32, 33: “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee since the day that God created man upon the earth; and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether has been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live?” There were likewise the conspicuous symbols of the divine presence in the pillar of cloud and fire, in the sacred and heavenly fire, in the cloud of the sanctuary, and many other things of a similar nature; wherefore God is said “to have had his fire in Zion, and his furnace in Jerusalem,” Isa. 31:9. Which visible symbols of the divine familiarity gradually ceased upon the manifestation of Christ in the flesh, of which they were appointed to be types and figures.

XIV. The fourth blessing of the Old Testament consisted in the ceremonies and in the daily use of them. I own, that in a certain respect the ceremonies were a grievous yoke, and belonged to the faults or defects of that Testament; but there was likewise a remarkable representation of Christ in them, and of the grace that was to be obtained by him. And because God was pleased in those times to set his mysteries before them in riddles, parables and figures, it was the extraordinary happiness of Israel that they had continually before their eyes these pictures of the divine goodness, and of a Saviour to come, while other nations were left to themselves. And the rather, as the elect were instructed by the patriarchs and the prophets, and by those who had been taught by them in their mystical signification, according to the measure of those times. And in them they had not only a prefiguration, but also a confirming seal of the coming of the Messiah, to whom they all led as by the hand, and without whom they had been a ludicrous farce, and unworthy of God, 1 Pet. 1:10–12.

XV. And for this reason it is, that the scripture so often mentions this thing, as a great blessing granted to the Israelites. Psal. 147:19, 20: “He showed his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel: he hath not dealt so with any nation.” Isa. 42:21: “Jehovah is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake,” that is, for his truth and goodness, he will נדיל תורה ויאדיד, magnify (him by) the law and make it (him) honourable. Hos. 8:12: “I have written to him רבי תורתי, the great things of my law.” Which is not only, nay, I may venture to say, not principally to be understood of the moral or even the forensic or judicial law; but chiefly of the doctrine of grace, which was prefigured by the ceremonial law. For the principles of the moral law, implanted in man at his creation, still remain in the conscience of men, though no new revelation had been superadded, and for the safety of bodies politic many things have been happily devised by wise men. But as to the mysteries of the ceremonial law, these were the peculiar privilege of the people of God; and on account of them the Israelites looked on themselves as having the preeminence above all other nations.

XVI. For the same reason the godly assisted at those ceremonies with so much delight and cheerfulness of soul, and on the contrary accounted it the greatest part of their unhappiness, if at any time they were banished from their country, and forced to live at a distance from these holy things, for it was their continual prayer that they might be allowed to live in the house of God for ever: see Psal. 23:6, Psa. 27:4, 42:2, 5, 84:2, 3, 89:15. As without all doubt they learned from these ceremonies their uncleanness and guilt, which tended to the saving humiliation of their soul; so in them also they beheld the expiation of guilt and the sanctification from sin, the absolution or purging of the conscience. True that was only typical by the ceremonies, but it was true and spiritual through him who was prefigured by them.

XVII. Which things being so, those persons seem too much to depreciate those salutary institutions of God, who scarcely ever consider them but as an unsupportable burden, and a hand-writing contrary to them, and as the penalty of breach of covenant; and insist, that what God declares, Ezek. 20:25, is to be applied to them, namely, that he gave Israel statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live. But the celebrated Dr John a Marck, who was formerly my intimate colleague, has vindicated this passage in such a manner as entirely to supersede any defence of mine. We acknowledge that there was something in the ceremonies which was both grievous, and testified their imperfection, and that the expiation of sin was not yet perfected; but of these things we shall speak in their place. But at the same time we insist that they had a reference to the Gospel, and were a picture of Christ and his benefits, and seals of grace; neither are we to think that they were effects of his wrath in such a manner against Israel, as if they were not given as tokens of a singular favour to that people. The Jews themselves really were, and at this day are still sensible of this; for though they acknowledge they cannot find out the reason for these ceremonies, yet they affirm that a more secret wisdom is contained in them than they can perceive. To this purpose Abarbanel in Legen. fol. 197, col. 2, writes concerning them: “Lo! the principal intention in them is to be as a book of sublime wisdom and divine doctrine, which students in the law may contemplate till they perfect their souls by those apprehensions and notions.”

XVIII. The fifth and last blessing of the Old Testament is an almost uninterrupted succession of inspired men, by whom the church in those days, instructed in all their doubts, were without any hazard of being deceived. For in the first ages the Patriarchs might be consulted, to whom God immediately revealed himself, and who, in a state of such longevity, were generally many at a time, or at least were almost contemporary with one another. After them succeeded Moses. He was followed by a long succession of prophets, even to the time of the Babylonish captivity, if we except some very few and short intervals, such as are mentioned, 1 Sam. 3:1, and 2 Chron. 15:3. Under the Babylonish captivity flourished Ezekiel and Daniel; after this last came Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi, not to say any thing now of Nehemiah and Ezra. And after the Holy Spirit ceased to dictate things to be written for the canon of the church of Israel, yet even to the coming of Christ, he ceased not to move, in an extraordinary manner, the minds of some by his divine inspiration, as is evident in Simeon, in Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, and in Anna the prophetess. But under the New Testament, after the canon of Scripture was completed by the apostolic writings, those prophetic illuminations or impulses gradually expired.

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