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The Substance of the Story: “I Will Be Your God”

The Bible is full of stories. Moses gives the Law, David beats Goliath, and Paul gets converted. Sure, there are songs and poems and visions and letters, but even those are situated amid the struggles and triumphs of a person or group of people. There is always drama and tension and action and resolution. There are very few standalone sound bites in the Bible.

In fact, none of these stories can truly stand alone. The Scriptures are not just full of stories – they present a unified Story.

These stories are interwoven, to be sure. But spaghetti is interwoven. A story needs to be more than that. A story needs structure. Some points must take prominence. There must be an overall pattern for the tapestry to present itself as a unified whole.

The authors of Kingdom Through Covenant have argued, quite persuasively, that the covenants between God and man provide not the major theme of Scripture, but the structure of its storyline.

“Before one argues for the overarching theme of Scripture,” they write, “one must first wrestle with the unfolding nature of the biblical covenants and their fulfillment and consummation in Christ.”[1]

If we want to know what the story is about, we should follow the covenants. But what do we find as we follow them? If the covenants provide the structure, what is the substance?

The central theme of the covenants is easily glossed over. Kingdom Through Covenant mentions it, but never expounds upon its meaning. It is what is often called the “Covenant Formula,”[2] and it shows up at every major reiteration of God’s purpose and promise.

So what is this Covenant Formula? It is this refrain of God to His chosen people: “I will be your God.”

It’s easily glossed over because it seems so obvious. To the contemporary, Western mind, this statement is basically a truism. To say “God” is to say, at least, “the Creator of all, higher than even the angels.” On this side of the progressive revelation of God in the Scriptures and centuries of Christendom, these basic characteristics are the assumed definition of “God,” even by those who don’t believe in Him.

With this mindset, for God to say He will be God is to say very little. There is obviously a personal relationship (“your God”), but beyond that, it means almost nothing.[3] What is the nature of the relationship? What is the significance of the relationship? What has shifted in the relationship? These questions are all left unanswered if one does not approach the Covenant Formula in its biblical-theological context.

To understand the Covenant Formula, we must think of the word “God” as more of a title than a name. There is a role attached, and responsibilities involved. If we want to understand what God means when He says, “I will be your God,” we must first ask, “What is a god?” The Bible is clear about their existence but equally clear that they are not equal to the Almighty: “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Ps 82:1).[4]

Simply put, a god is a created, sub-divine, angelic mediator. Its presence is a sign of divine judgment on humanity’s sin. We see this in the cherubim guarding the Garden with a flaming sword (Gen 3:24). We see this at the Tower of Babel, where prideful humanity is divided into nations and placed under the governance of these lesser beings (Gen 11:1-9; Deut 32:8).[5] This does not mean God approves of the actions of these gods, nor that the nations are right to worship them. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. It is God’s judgment on humanity to turn them over to such foolishness, “[f]or although they knew God, they did not honor him as God” (Rom 1:21).

So, how does this reframe the Covenant Formula for us? For God to claim a nation out of the nations and promise to be their ‘God’ is to reverse this judgment in some measure. It is to reconcile Himself to humans, removing the angelic mediators. It is to reveal Himself and promise His gracious presence.

This, of course, does not happen all at once, but in greater and greater measure as the story unfolds.

After the exile from Eden and the dispersion of the nations from Babel, God approaches Abraham to make His covenant, “to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen 17:7). Though Adam and Noah had some form of covenant relationship with God, the promise “to be God to you” is first used after the Babel event. If God is intentionally comparing Himself to the gods of the nations, this only makes sense!

In the Exodus, the Covenant Formula is connected to God’s revelation of His personal name YHWH, the LORD: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Ex 6:7). David later reflects on this promise and recognizes that the redemption from Egypt was a redemption from “a nation and its gods” (2 Sam 7:23). In the plagues of the Exodus, the LORD reveals His immeasurable greatness against those lesser gods, and, in His law-giving and covenant faithfulness, He reveals His immeasurable goodness compared to them.

David’s reflection comes in the wake of a variation of the Covenant Formula. God came to David and promised that one of his descendants would sit upon an everlasting throne, proclaiming: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Sam 7:14). David immediately connected this promise to the Covenant Formula: “And you established for yourself your people Israel to be your people forever. And you, O LORD, became their God” (2 Sam 7:24).

This brings a surprising development to the story: All the hopes of the covenant relationship would center on a Davidic King, the Messiah. Jeremiah recognizes this. His prophecy reiterates the Covenant Formula three times. The first two times, Israel’s idolatry is highlighted, and Jeremiah is told not to intercede for them (Jer 7, 11). The third time, however, the Covenant Formula is connected to the promise of a Messianic Mediator: “Their prince shall be one of themselves; their ruler shall come out from their midst; I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me, for who would dare of himself to approach me? declares the LORD. And you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 30:21, 22).

God had made the covenant promise, “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and this must come through the Messianic Mediator, about whom God said, “he shall be to me a son.” In the wake of Christ’s incarnate work, the apostolic witness affirms that He was this Messianic Mediator, the “offspring” through whom the promised presence had come (Gal 3:16). Every reference to Jesus as the “Christ,” the “Son of David,” or the “Son of God,” in fact, alludes to this earlier promise in some way.

And how was this all accomplished? The atoning death, victorious resurrection, and ongoing mediation of Jesus Christ on behalf of His covenant people and the one true God. The God who creates out of nothing is the one who “has shone in our hearts” and rescued us from Satan, “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4, 6).

God has promised to be God to His people, and through Jesus Christ, God has also become the Messianic Mediator of the covenant. By the indwelling Spirit of God, believers have become the beneficiaries of all these promises (2 Cor 6:16, 18), and when Christ returns, they will be fully realized: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God… The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son’” (Rev 21:3, 7).

If we want to understand the structure of the story, we have to follow the covenants. If we want to know the substance of the story, we have to understand the Covenant Formula. This is the story: God promises His presence, and He provides what He promises.

[1] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 12 (emphasis original).

[2] Kingdom Through Covenant, 270.

[3] Gentry and Wellum rightly note the relationality and importance of the Covenant Formula. Kingdom Through Covenant, 271.

[4] All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway), 2016.

[5] I am indebted to Michael Heiser for noting this connection between the Babel Event and the ‘gods’ in Moses’ Song in Deuteronomy 32. See Michael Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 113.

Travis Montgomery (@travisjmont) is a husband to Lauren, a staff member and student at Midwestern Seminary, a contributor at Exegetical Tools, and a child of God.

Travis Montgomery

Travis Montgomery (@travisjmont) is a husband to Lauren, a staff member and student at Midwestern Seminary, and a contributor at Exegetical Tools.

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